The Death March, for Ken Hay

From the life of Ken Hay

By Fran Brown

“Herewith, as promised, my story – but don’t expect anything heroic. I am no hero, nor was I ever.”

Sure, Ken had never slain a dragon, defeated a troll or rescued a damsel in distress, but he had the courage to keep going, and to me that is heroic. I met him a few years ago after a poetry reading during a Remembrance Day luncheon. He said it was like I was there – in the war. After shaking hands with everyone in the room, we sat down to eat.

Ken sat on my left and he told the table these fantastical stories of a time I have never, and will never, see. They were the kind of stories one reads in a book, and yet here sat a man not fantastical; He was real and his stories were real too, and I listened like a giddy child in circle time. I passed my grandfather the butter, only to be scolded by the man next to him for interrupting, followed by another scolding from my grandfather. I apologised and returned to Ken, who was now in stitches of laughter. I met up with him again for the full story.

Ken was born in Bamford Road, Barking. On the 23rd January 1945 he began his one thousand mile Death March to Freedom from Zabrze in Poland, through Czechoslovakia, to Bavaria in Germany. Now you have an idea of how far he travelled to let me tell you his story.

Ken’s platoon was sent to take out a believed disabled self- propelled gun being used as an observational post three fields away through no-man’s-land. One by one, they ascended the ladder into the belfry of the farmhouse where the Platoon Commander, Lt. Cottle, had laid out their route and task. As they looked over, a cornfield ran away south from the farmhouse and at the end was a gap just wide enough to take vehicles through. They would be going at night, and were told to leave all nonessentials.

They spread out wide and moved up the cornfield, and as luck would have it, Bill, Ken’s brother, appeared on his right, giving the hedge a thumbs down. In his naivety, Ken misunderstood what that meant, and pressed on. Cpl. Hay made the suggestion that they abort the mission. The order was made. Bill, however, pointed out how it wasn’t going to be that easy; they were now behind enemy lines and he believed the hedge through which they had come was actually manned. The Germans had let them in, and would not be so accommodating on the way out. Bill’s plan was to split the platoon in half. He would take one half, and the Lt. would take the other. Bill’s team would attempt to go through the hedge and Lt. Cottle’s would spread out and provide covering fire. Once through, Bill’s team would do the same.

The Platoon did as they were told and turned their rifles to the hedge that now threated their freedom. Bill had Grimes, the son of a cartoonist who had spent some time in Germany. He called out to the hedge, “B kompanie” (B company). It was not a password but they had hoped it would do something. But alas, hope was short lived, and instead the Germans began firing on the Platoon with machine guns. Bullets littered the air in both directions as they fired back. Their rifles were pathetic in response. Grenades were thrown out and Ken felt their warmth caress his check as they exploded somewhere nearby.

Trapped and under fire, Ken could see balls of red light flying towards him. He knew immediately what they were, they whistled over his head and he prayed that if one were to hit him let it be sooner rather than later. Bill came running back and dived next to Ken. “Follow me” he said, trying to keep his promise to their mother. By the time Ken had processed what was said, it was too late, Bill had disappeared. And so ended Ken’s battle experience. In the end, having entered with thirty men, sixteen made it home, five were captured, and nine were killed.

Bill took part in the Divisions first big battle on the Hill, where he was wounded and evacuated back to England. A piece of landmine or shrapnel entered him through his right buttock. They had to open his stomach to remove it. Their parents were given a travel warrant to come and see Bill. When the visitors were let in, Bill sat awaiting a show of maternal affection, but his mother’s first words were “where’s Kenny?” Poor Bill, Ken said, after telling that story to me.

They were captured by the 12th SS Panzer division Hitlerjuend. The Feldwebel (sergeant) stood Ken to attention, and Ken held his chin up, pushing his shoulders back. The sergeant put his toecaps to Ken’s and stood to attention himself. Around the Feldwebel’s belt hung a small revolver – was this how Ken was going to die, not with a bang, not with a whistle, but with a click? He raised his right hand and placed it on top of his own cap, brought it across to reach Ken’s nose and, turning to the Corporal said “Achtzehn Jahre!” (Eighteen years). He had no idea what he had done to Ken that day, and he never would. They fed the platoon with a thick broth, some meat and brown bread thrown in. The Corporal was given permission to hand out English cigarettes to them as well. Later on, they were given a second helping.

After Erwin Rommel had finished his interrogations they were handed over to the German military. They crammed them onto carriages. The Germans slid the doors open and forced sixty large men and a dustbin in each section of the train. They spent six-and-a-half days pissing and shitting into a bin that often overflowed and covered the men in their own faeces. Each morning the train would stop and three men from each car was forced to dig a hole and bury the contents of the bin and the train would set off again. Thirsty and desperate, they forced cardboard into the grate to collect the rainfall. Everyone in Ken’s car contracted dysentery.

One morning, some days later, The Red Cross interrupted the emptying ritual and asked that the Germans write P.O.W atop their trains so as to discourage an attack. The Germans said “if you want it, you do it.” And a flood of villagers came running down carrying buckets and ladders. Some of the men climbed on to the roof and painted while the women fed every man a cup of milk and bread.

Ken was forced to work the Polish mines, and one Christmas Eve a prisoner began singing ‘Stille Nacht’. The German guard stood and spoke to him.

“Tommy, das ist gute musik” (Tommy, that is good music)

“Ja, is gute musik” (Yes is good music)

“Tommy, das is Deutsche musik” (Tommy, it is German music?)

And with that, the room erupted into ‘Silent Night’, in both English and German. The German motioned to a prisoner to sit, and produced a sandwich. They ate together and told stories of where they lived. Ken was that prisoner. Around Christmas-time they were visited by an African doctor who announced that a ‘political camp’ south of them had fallen victim to an outbreak of typhus. This political camp was Auschwitz. Anne Frank… I said, and Ken slowly nodded, looking sad. He told me she was transferred, but probably contracted Typhus there.

January twenty third. So began the Death March. On this long march they were fed rotten bread and hot water. On the odd occasion, when they passed a village or made camp on a farm, some of the people there would throw bread at the POWs. In return the Germans would fire at them. Ken had no sense of time anymore. He knew he had been travelling on foot for many, many weeks, since they took the back roads and often walked back on themselves.

Ken watched the bustle of the market as they marched through. It reminded him of a time before this, when he and his father would go shopping to feed his family of eight. He limped on. He missed his mother and his siblings. His old life screamed at him. His knee ground in on itself with every step he took until he decided he could not take another, and collapsed in the snow. Had he have been left, he would have frozen to death.

Ted and Jimmy, Ken’s friends on his horrific journey, slowly and carefully edged away from the group, going back to find Ken curled up in the snow. They pulled him to his feet and put one of his arms around each of their shoulders, carrying him along. Ted talked about how he missed fish and chips, and Jimmy talked about how lovely strawberry shortcake with waffles and maple syrup used to be. Ken woke up, and with a new found determination he insisted they let him walk himself.

The last thing he said to me when we were talking was that it had become fashionable to ascribe all the bad things to the Nazis, but that he will never subscribe to this view. “I met very few Nazis; the people who humiliated us, and visibly took delight in doing so, were ordinary Germans. The Nazis I met were sympathetic.”

What Happened After?

            Before Ken left for the war he told his girlfriend, Doris, that he might not come back, and that he couldn’t bear the thought of her waiting for him, so they went their separate ways. On 26th February 1949, Doris and Ken said their vows in St Thomas More Church. As a non-Catholic, Doris had to sign the usual undertaking not to interfere with the practice of Ken’s religion, and to raise their children Catholics. “No one could have outshone her in this.”

Ken often worked late in the evening or attended meetings of one sort or another, so he hardly saw their two sons, Christopher and Jeremy. In the weekday evenings and only briefly at breakfast, their time together was mostly confined to weekends. Doris often warned him he would regret it, and he eventually did, because before he knew it the boys were all grown up and he had missed it.

It fell to Doris to teach the boys their night prayers and ensure they said them, to get them to school, and to get them ready for Mass on a Sunday. “I couldn’t remember her going to her own service once we were married but over the years she came to Mass with us and then with me after the boys married and moved away.”

And despite all the years Ken and Doris spent together, his deepest memories of her were of sitting by their bedside, holding hands and praying together, and giving her Holy Communion each day.

Doris died of cancer just twelve days short of their sixty-second wedding anniversary. “And I am left riddled with the guilt of having left her on her own so often whilst I was out doing things I wanted to do, or out of a sense of duty. I do not pray for Doris, but for her to intercede me.” As Ken looked back on her life he remembered how easily she made friends because of her kind nature. “I do not believe she sinned for she did not know how to – I could have told her if she’d asked.” Ken didn’t need to, she had already lined herself up with the Saints as she was diagnosed on August 24th 2010 – the feast of St Bartholomew, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Ken and Doris sat in the small consultants room, the man behind the desk diagnosing her with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And with agonising sorrow, Ken looked at her as she said “Oh well, I’ve had a good life”.

“Doris died on Valentine’s Day and all I could do was watch her go. Rest in Peace my love – I pray we’ll meet again.”

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Pothole, by Fran Brown

I remember the day vividly, and of course I would, as my whole life shifted trajectory. I collapsed into freefall, and all I could do was wait until I found the bottom again. I woke up at six forty-five to leave by seven – any later and I would have been an hour late due to traffic. I brushed my teeth and dressed in my uniform; black trousers with green pinstripes, a dark green jumper and a black blazer. Six fifty-five I rode my bike to school. Maybe if I never learned how to ride a bike, I wouldn’t have been there. I came to the top of the alley way on the hill between the church and local school. I’d seen the postman standing on one side of his bike, and I wanted to try it. I unmounted, pushed it slightly and stood on one peddle. I hit the brakes before I reached the bottom; the bike skidded over the leaves just stopping at the kerb.

It was one fifteen. We were dismissed from our English class a full two hours early because Mrs Wilkinson felt ill. I learnt later that her husband suffered severe depression and in fact, she had gone to tend to him. Maybe if he just cheered up a little bit, I wouldn’t have been there. I unchained my bicycle. Usually, I would have to stare at the swarms of students cascading over each other just to leave through the gate that was only wide enough for one person. Today it was clear. Maybe if I had some friends, we would have stayed a little longer, and I would have missed the whole event. I unbuttoned my blazer and stuffed it into my bag before mounting my bike and riding off.

I took my eyes off the road for just a second and before I knew it, I was over the handle bars and on my arse. I picked myself up, mostly intact; my pride suffered the most. I was glad it wasn’t worse. (Un)fortunately, there was no one around to see. I pulled my bike to the kerb and saw the pothole. It was long and oddly shaped. I must have ridden past it a thousand times and hadn’t noticed it getting bigger. Did I make it that big? The tyre had jammed, the bikes brakes had ripped off, and the frame had warped. I couldn’t ride it anymore, so I shoved my headphones in and started pushing it up the street. How could such a simple thing cause so much damage?

The street was long and narrow. On every house hung streams of Christmas lights. Some flashed while others looped through the different colours. In one garden was a huge train driven by a Father Christmas. Next to it were several reindeer covered in white lights, some grazing and others standing alert. I stared at it wondering what Christmas meant to this house. Chunks of blue coloured plastic and metal danced past, just missing me as they skidded onward. The motorbike followed. It bounced up the street sparking as it twisted in circles, parts falling off as it went by. I couldn’t hear him screaming over the sound of my headphones. And I’m glad I couldn’t because when I turned around, he was lying there wearing no motorbike gear or a helmet. Flesh hung off his forearms and face, and his mouth was agape. He gripped his cheek, pushing the torn flesh back onto itself. I could feel my stomach turning. The heat rushed from my fingers as they became clammy and pale. I just stood there staring at the carnage in front of me. My eyes traced the scene; his front tyre was wedged in the pothole, the same one I had fallen victim to. ‘There is nothing left of you/ I can see it in your eyes’ screamed my headphones. The music abruptly stopped as I yanked them out of my ears.

I saw the metal embedded in his thigh. “The femoral artery,” I thought. His fingers traced it blindly before he grabbed it with both hands tightly. Move, move, move! I kept telling myself. I am fifteen, and I don’t know what to do. I needed to scream, to say something, to call for someone else, someone who knew what to do. My body felt as heavy as stone. I couldn’t hear anything, just an endless ringing in my ears. I could see his cheekbone, and I could see his arm bone, and I could see what would happen next. I couldn’t stop him. That was someone’s brother, son, grandson and all I could do was stand there as he screamed for me. Move, move, move! My limbs were stiff and alien to me, but I forced myself to run to him, I had to there was no one else, there was only me and I couldn’t leave him there. It was like floating; it wasn’t real; this wasn’t real. Music still blared from my headphones ‘You suffer/ I live to fight and die another day.’ How could I forget?

He pulled the metal from his leg, and I winced. I was ten seconds too late, and now I had to watch. Blood poured out of his leg pooling quickly beneath him. I grabbed his leg with both hands as tight as my weak arms could manage and he howled. His blood spurted, covering me from head to toe. I could feel it dripping down my face. It didn’t feel as I expected. It was thick and sticky, and when it dried, it made my skin stiff. I wiped the tears smearing the blood like paint. The human body has about twelve pints of blood in it, and I could have sworn I was drowning in about sixty of them.

I took his belt off and tied it above the wound. I pulled it as tight as my arms could manage. It barely slowed the bleeding, but I had to try, I had to do something. He kept lifting his head to see what had happened, and I kept pushing him away until he lacked the strength to lift himself anymore. I knew if he saw it his heart rate would increase and he would die faster. ‘Does anyone care/ is anybody there?’ I looked around and still there was no one. “Help… me… someone… anyone… please…” My voice was lost in my tears and blew away in the wind.

“Am I dying?” he chocked his voice was flat and weak. I looked him in the eyes. What do you say to someone who is about to die? I took a deep breath and choking back my tears, and I replied: “You’re going to be okay.” I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I kept eye contact, stroking his hair and smiling; God, did I smile. I made myself look at what I had done until his eyes dimmed and his pale face turned away from me. ‘God sing for the hopeless/ I’m the one you left behind.’

It takes about two minutes for someone to lose enough blood that they die. He took a deep, laboured breath and exhaled. ‘Holding on too tight/ Breathe the breath of life.’ There’s something different about a person’s last breath. It is so distinctive. The way it seems to bounce up and down as they wrestle to inhale, and then it’s as if their soul leaves with the exhale; it’s pushed further than any breath ever was before. It sounds like struggling, if struggling were a sound. His body went limp. I don’t remember if I called an ambulance or if someone in the houses nearby did, but they arrived moments too late. It was like presenting something at school; you pause for a second, but it feels like a lifetime has passed. I paused. I had no cue cards, and I had done no revision, so I had no clue. At the realisation of his death I stopped crying, and shock absorbed me. I began beating his chest whispering the song ‘stayin’ alive’ because that’s what my Nan said you had to do to bring someone back to life. Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies…

I kept forgetting what I was doing, but I kept doing it because it felt important. I could see my sweat dripping out of my hair like rain when the paramedics arrived. They started doing their thing, and their mouths were moving, they were talking to me, but all I could hear was silence. I was pulled away and wrapped into a silver blanket and given an oxygen mask. “Are you hurt?” one asked. “Is any of this blood yours?” Would I have known if it was? All blood is red, and I was so preoccupied and full of adrenaline I wouldn’t have felt a thing. Did he feel it all, did it fade away in the end? And I wonder, should I have been honest? Should I have said that he was going to die and that it was my fault for not reacting fast enough? Did he already know? Do you think he forgives me for lying, for being so pathetic?

My mum picked me up from the hospital. We didn’t talk about it, we just drove home, and I went to bed. She fixed the bike, and when I thought I was ready for school again, I was awake at six forty-five, brushing my teeth and getting ready. But when I saw my bike I vomited in the roses and walked the two hours instead. I remembered the skin hanging off his face, and I remembered the gallons of blood I drowned in. I couldn’t sleep, it played over and over in my dreams. It haunted me at the dinner table, plagued me in the class room. ‘I will remember how you screamed/ I can’t afford to care/ I can’t afford to care.’

I entered the room. It was large and full of rows upon rows of desks each with an AQA English paper. I searched for my number, 276. That’s all I was, a number. I sat at my desk and filled out the details, and we began. I don’t remember the questions, just that I got stuck and I felt my heart race and my stomach somersault. I could feel my shirt soaking through. I had to write a story, but my mind was clouded. I wrote ‘He died in the end. He died in the end.’ My sweat dropped onto the page, and I pulled myself back. I thought it was blood pouring out of me and then panic – raw, blind panic. I threw my paper to the floor and walked out. Who was this broken shell I had to sit inside? ‘I can feel it crawl beneath my skin/ Dear Agony/ Just let go of me.’

My English teacher followed. “Frankie, Frankie!” She demanded I stop. Before I knew it, she grabbed my arm. “What’s the matter? You could have done that.” I lifted my face. We were the same height then, maybe about five foot seven. Her hair was long, and jet black. Her age was reflected in the flecks of grey you could barely see, weaved into each strand. I expected her to be angry with me, but when our eyes met, hers filled with the same sadness mine did. The light shone off her blue eyes. “He died…” I whispered “he was there and then he wasn’t and I didn’t do anything.” She took me off to her office, sat me down and handed me a book.

“I know what happened. I’m sorry you had to see that. If you don’t want to talk about it, this book might really help.” I never said a word and she handed me a book. It was called Looking for Alaska by John Green. The first part of the novel is about a group of teenagers – it was ordinary – it was life, same as mine. Half way through Alaska gets drunk and drives to her boyfriend, but she dies in a horrific car accident. The rest of the novel was about how each of them coped with what had happened. I remember it said “When adults say, Teenagers think they are invincible with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.” This felt so true to me. I had never thought about death before, and I can bet that boy didn’t either. He was there because he didn’t think he could be irreparably broken and for that, he paid the biggest price of all. In another world, in another universe, it could have been me. Maybe one day I make that mistake, or maybe I don’t look both ways before crossing, or maybe I trip and fall down the stairs. My next door neighbour died like that. You can die putting your trousers on, you trip and hit your head and that’s it. How fragile we must be to die in such a mundane way. So, look after yourself. Put that seatbelt on, wear that helmet, have fun, but look after yourself.

Up until that point death was a distant concept. You could see it on the television, in video games and in a book, but it was always taken as unlikely, and at the very least you could start the game over again and not die. I learnt very early you can’t do that with life. When I think about it, nothing prepared me for this. We can’t all play the hero, some are tried and tested, and I just couldn’t square up.

Jambo, by Stevie Kilgour

London, November 2016.

Allow me to show you the kind of situation that I felt really mattered in my life when I was a young adult. Looking back I now realise how insignificant that and many similar situations were. They were mere inconveniences and in the grand scheme of things – they really didn’t matter. Decide for yourself. This is an email I started to write to a multi-national fast food chain:

Leeds, July 2008

DEAR KFC CUSTOMER SERVICES

I recently purchased a Variety Meal from your Burley, Leeds branch. I was shocked to find when I got home that I was two pieces of chicken short. Yes, there were Hot Wings, chips and one piece of chicken. But I was short two pieces. I mean how hard can it be to put chicken into a box? I know it isn’t hard because I worked at KFC in Bedford while at college and I managed to successfully put pieces of chicken into various boxes and buckets for three years with relative ease and few mistakes –

It was at this point in my life that I felt I was so busy and important – living in a big northern city and touring the country with a band that I didn’t feel I had time to be robbed by a fast food chain. Anyway, the email got worse –

I am so disappointed that I don’t think I will return to the branch unless I receive a gesture of goodwill, or money off future orders. This is not the high standard of customer service I expect –

Awful, I know. Clearly, I wasn’t too busy and could somehow find time to type a pointless email to KFC. You’ll be relieved to know that I didn’t send the email.

Day 1, Mombasa, January 2010.

The flight to Mombasa was uncomfortable at best and my average sized legs were still too long for the space between seats. The hot air stank of weak coffee, processed meat heated in tiny airplane microwaves and the over flow of toilets. Every bump in turbulence unsettled the tanks deep in the planes bowels – disturbing smells and sending them up to the passengers.

“Not long to go,” I kept telling myself.

As the plane touched down in Mombasa the bright East African sun cut through the cabin. Stepping out onto the steps to place my feet on African tarmac – the heat wrapped itself around my face like a hot towel. Suffocating. No tall buildings here even the terminal building is just a shack. The security is minimal and hardly any passport control.

“The flight was nine hours! Nine hours and I’m sure the tail fin was held on with electrical tape,” I can barely hear her over the crackling phone line. I am relieved there is only an hour’s difference between Leeds and Mombasa – however the communication may be a problem. I have the feeling the thirty second call has probably cost me an arm and a leg.

“Calm down. You’re there now enjoy your holiday and relax,” she says.

“I just wish I was there too,”

“I wish you could have come,” I say. “This place is boring as shit already. No Wi-Fi.”

My first thoughts are for a Starbucks, and I’d even settle for a Café Nero I’m that desperate for a good coffee. But this is Kenya and I’m I have seen Kenyan coffee by Nescafe on all the supermarket shelves. Plus, I’m sure Kenco is Kenyan.

“Welcome to Mombasa,” says a large Kenyan official.

Making my way out of the tiny airport which is no bigger than an East London bus stop. I’m greeted by a chicken, a goat and several taxi drivers. I wonder what I am doing here.

“Mzungu! Mzungu! Come. Taxi,” I hear a man shout in broken English. “Nice cap. One thousand shillings and cap. I take you Mombasa shops,” the driver says.

I scramble about for a printed email which outlines the location of my hotel.

“Shanzu. I need to go to Shanzu,” I tell the driver.

The heat is boiling the rubber on the soles of my shoes. The black plastic straps of the rucksack burning through to my torso. The taxi driver beckons me to a tuk-tuk; a three-wheeled vehicle. One front seat with handle bars and two seats in the back. Each of these vehicles is brightly coloured to appeal to all tourists. This one has American rapper; 50 Cent emblazoned on the side.

I climb inside and place the bag down. The taxi driver starts up the two-stroke engine and glances back in the rear-view mirror.

The landscape is vast, sand and sun but no water in sight. Humid and hot. Flared shirts and shorts are the fashion. I didn’t factor in what might be needed as soon as I stepped off the plane. This isn’t Paris, New York or Manchester. The hotel isn’t five minutes away and the choice of hooded top and jeans was not a sensible choice. The fabrics stick to the skin and hydration is becoming an issue. Locals shout as we pass, “Mzungu!”

“What are they shouting?” I ask,

“They are shouting ‘white person’, we call you Mzungu. It is not bad.”

The driver asks, “You like diamonds?”

“What do you mean?”

The driver turns to me taking his eyes off the road. “You have a diamond on your neck. You like diamonds? I can show you diamonds. How much you want to buy for?”

I reach to touch the diamond tattoo on my neck.

“Oh no. It’s just a tattoo. I don’t want diamonds. I’m too poor,” I laugh nervously.

The driver turns back to the road and lights a cigarette, not speaking another word the whole journey.

All I can think is about how I want a long bath and a boxset to watch in an air-conditioned room with a cold beer.

Day 6, Shanzu, January 2010

They take your word here – there is no getting out of a deal with a verbal contract. If you promise to return tomorrow and buy a cup of tea – then you had better return and buy two cups. The young man who works on the grounds of the hotel has offered to show me his father’s shop. Philip spots me across the dusty road and shouts,

“Commissioner Steve! Prime Minister Steve!” I am face to face with Philip ‘The Christian’ – as he likes to be known. Today he has his brother with him and they are full of questions about London. They still don’t understand I live three hundred and fifty miles from London. I should know better than to think they judge any distance with difficulty – they would walk hours from their coastal villages through safari to the Tanzanian border for school supplies. I am ushered into the father’s shop. Which is just a small hut covered in vine leaves and surrounded by sandbags. The cardboard door closes behind me – but there is no need to feel trapped.

“Just like Woolworths,” The father says.

I have no idea how he knows about Woolworths and I feel it would be wrong to mention their decline back home. I smile and look to the ceiling which is covered in a large fishing net. It feels like at any minute the net will drop and I will be caught and displayed as an object for sale. My imagination running away with me – I know that isn’t the case.

There is no such thing as browsing in the shop – you will leave with several useless items which no doubt I wills struggle to get back to the UK. I may have only been here a short while but I have already learned that you never walk out of the shop without an item. Philip, with a huge smile on his face ushers me around the ten-foot squared shop and insists I touch all the items for sale. The first thing he thrusts into my hand is 13inch Masai warrior club, carved from wood – I have no idea which kind. It weighs the same as a cricket bat and is quarter the size. The ended is bulbous with a sharp spike in the middle. It resembles a large stick with a breast on the end. Philip smiles at me – showing all his teeth.

“Tit stick!” he smiles, raising his hands to his chest as if to grab imaginary breasts.

Taking the stick from my hand he shows me how he would hit someone in the head with it. His brother is the willing victim in this example. My empty hand is not empty for long as a large meat cleaver with homemade rope handle is placed in it.

It is not long since the election violence here in Kenya – many people were killed and the footage I have seen shows many people being chased with weapons like this one. I look down at the dried red, roped handle and notice the red doesn’t look like paint. I look up at Philip with what I assume he sees as a disgusted face – I offer the knife back to him. His smile fades and his eyes open wide.

Day 10, Mombasa, January 2010

My third visit in ten days to Mombasa for supplies. The route has become easier with the help of local knowledge and the use of Philip and his motorbike. The scrambler off-road bike he has makes the journey a lot quicker than in the tuk-tuk. I am left to my own devices again whilst Philip visits his friends in the city. They sit on walls and smoke while ogling girls. I make my way into a café where I ask for a coffee and chunk of Ugali to eat. The café owner an old man in his seventies – is in an apron and asks me to take a seat. He spends the next hour with me at my table, talking about England – where he has family there, and the future for Kenya. He keeps refilling my cup as soon as the bottom appears through the liquid. The coffee is good. He explains how he is forced to hand over protection money to local gangsters and how his business has suffered through the lack of tourists because of the election violence.

“When the British were here we had more. We felt part of something bigger. Now we are forgotten,” says the old man.

There is sadness in his voice as he explains that there is nowhere for the kids to go. That drugs are a problem here and he often see them pickpocket not only tourists but also locals. “Glue,” he says. “They sniff glue and their eyes are red like the devil.”

He tells me his name is Jomo. I tell him my name is Stevie. We shake hands and he asks that I come and say goodbye before I fly back to England in four days. I agree.

Mombasa is a bustling city with main roads that wouldn’t look out of place in any UK city. The pollution is an issue when you are here, but the locals have more pressing things to get on with. I walk down a small alley way and inhale a stench. There is no immediate source of the smell but it gets stronger the further I make my way down the alley. The smell of remnants from a fire fill the air. Burning rubber, urine and faeces, rotten food and animal flesh. There is a man on top of a pile of rubbish – the smell is coming from the mountain in the middle of the alley. I approach slowly but the man in the pile shouts, “No! Go!”

I stand and take a second to look. I reach for my camera. I manage to take a photo before the man swings around and jumps out of the mound. He races towards me,

“Mzungu, go! Now,” he shouts at me.

“Sorry,” I say. I begin to walk away.

“Go away Englishman,” He ushers me away. I begin to walk away.

My final stop is back to the meeting point by the petrol station where I will wait for Philip to pick me up so we can head back to Shanzu. I make my way across the street where I feel a hand on my shoulder – I turn to see three young men each of them no older than twenty-three years old.

“You got some nice things, American,” they say.

“I’m not American, I’m from London,” I reply. It’s at this point I hope whatever special relationship Britain has with Kenya may help me.

“You are a long way from home. You want some tea, Englishman?”

“No, I’m fine thanks. I’m just waiting for my friend,” I tell them.

One of them begins to tug at my backpack – pulling it from my shoulders. Another man starts emptying my pockets,

“Give us money Mzungu or we cut your hands,” one of them says.

As they almost free the backpack from my shoulders I am pulled away from the group by an elderly man. He shouts at the younger men in Swahili and pushes one of them away.

“Englishman,” one of the men calls and makes a slit throat motion as he walks away.

I am ushered through a restaurant where I am told I can wait for my friend. I am taken to the roof and given a Coca Cola. The man who helped me introduces himself as Elim. I thank him and take some time out on the roof overlooking the main street. I watch for Philip on his motorbike.

 

Day 13, Shanzu, January 2010

The conversation I had with Jomo is still fresh on my mind as my two week stay comes to an end. I fly home tomorrow and I can’t help but think about how he and many others remember British rule here. For all the progress and great things that have happened since Kenya’s independence – they feel forgotten. Jomo and others I have met seem sad at the plight of the younger generation, and my run in with many of them seems to be a standard approach here to tourists. While Jomo and Elim enjoy the tourism as it brings in money – there are many others who seem to just want to steal it while creating a bad name for the independent Kenya. The election violence hasn’t helped either.

I make my way to the main corner in the village to buy tea when I see two small children across the path. They look lost and lonely. A young boy in a red shirt approaches me as another is standing by a broken gate. The young boy in the red shirt comes over and reaches out to touch my hand. Holding my hand, I look at his eyes and see they are bloodshot red. He stares at me for what feels like a lifetime but in fact was just a few seconds,

“Hello. What’s your name?” I ask. No reply from the child as he looks up at me. He holds out his other hand gesturing for some money – a gesture I had seen hundreds of times every day while I have been here. I look over at the young girl stood by the broken gate – she is holding a small plastic bottle. She holds it to her nose and inhales. The young boy lets go of my hand and runs back across the road. He stops, turns and looks back at me. At that moment, I decide to cancel my flight the next day.

Day 14, Mombasa, January 2010

I returned to the café in Mombasa courtesy of Philip and his motorbike. I pay a visit to Jomo. I enter the small café and the windchime on the door grabs Jomo’s attention as he pokes his head from the back of the café.

“You came to say goodbye. Let me get you some coffee,”

He shows me to a table and takes my bag to keep it safe behind the counter. Jomo comes over and wishes me a safe journey and how he wants me to come back and see him one day.

“I’m not going, I’m staying longer,” I tell him.

His eyes widen and he grabs me by the shoulders kissing the top of my head.

“You’re staying. I’m so happy. You are a Kenyan now,”

“I want to stay and help, Jomo, I don’t want to go home yet,” I tell him.

Day 15, Shanzu, January 2010

I am introduced to Aliziz who invites me to Shanzu Orphans Home. The next two weeks is spent helping the children of the village to read and write.

You know what, I don’t miss Starbucks anymore.

Coffey of Cork, for Chris Coffey

From the life of Chris Coffey

By Stevie Kilgour

Name – Chris Coffey

Age – 76

Born – Cork, Republic of Ireland

Lives – Hackney, London.

Occupation – Retired Stonemason.

A dull November night in Hackney, East London and Chris walks slowly and aided by an old walking stick to his regular table with a familiar comfortable chair and a reliable newspaper. “One red ale, please.” he asks in a strong Southern Irish accent. He doesn’t look up from obstacles in front of him. Table – sturdy. Chair – soft and pulled out enough for him to get on to. His walking stick is hooked on the edge of the table. A pint of red ale from the local Truman’s brewery is put in front of him as he takes his seat. He places a £5 note and a tissue on the table. He pushes the money to the barman and slowly unwraps several small biscuits he has brought from home. He arranges the contents of the table; paper dead centre. Ale to his left in a short reach. The candle on the table is moved as far from him as possible. He places the tissues on his left – takes a bite of one of the biscuits and puts it back in the tissue. He looks up and smiles,

“S, s, s, s, so, so what’s his name? The darts player. Phil Taylor. He got beat by the bald guy.”

We begin to talk.

Chris lived by the docks in Cork which was a hive of merchant ships, coal and oat ships. There was also a Ford Motors plant which when it closed offered its Cork employees a choice of redundancy or relocated jobs in Dagenham, England. Industry was leaving Cork.  Like all Irish school children, he left school at 14 and went straight into work. He worked as a delivery cyclist for a chemist – delivering medicines to local schools and elderly homes.

In Ireland, young men would be paid a ‘schoolboy wage’ from 14 to 16 years old. At the age of 16 they would be paid a full time adult wage. Chris was promised a job with full pay when he turned 16 years old – this promise was never delivered and he was forced to leave his job. He took the opportunity to visit England, London whenever possible as he had an older brother who lived in Shepherd’s Bush. His brother visited Cork and Chris went to London with his brother as he was out of work. Chris grew homesick and made several visits between London and Cork over the next year till he could decide where his future was.

Chris paid another visit to Ilford and met his future wife – a woman from Cork. Chris soon married and with his new wife at the age of 22. His wife and child made various moves between Cork and London over the years and Chris eventually settled back in London which was the final move him and his family would make. His wife also became homesick and moved back to Cork with the child – Chris stayed in London to work. He lived in various locations working as a stonemason working on Regents Canal in East London.

2016 sees Chris at the age of 76 years old and regular customers in a local bar called the Sebright Arms – a pub he has frequented for a decade. Today he sits and shares stories of trying to get over Tower Bridge as it began to raise up. He talks of being conned as a youngster in Edgware Road by a man he trusted. He is cared for in his Hackney flat. He enjoys televised sports and a recent bout of ill health has raised some concerns and made his life uncomfortable at times. He sees his son on a regular basis – who now lives in East London also. Chris still walks the short journey to the pub from his flat. He is respected and known in the local community by people of all backgrounds – something rare in London especially. Although old fashioned in his demeanour, Chris has respect for all people. He has never returned to Ireland and still does not own a passport.

“I’ll tell you what Steve. You, know, you know, what’s its name? Err. “

Like most of the conversation I struggle to know how to help – I have no ideas where he is going with this. I feel the need to blurt out a random name of someone we both may know. Or even to say a place name in Ireland.

“Err, what’s it called.” Chris gestures with his hand two arms in the air

“Tower Bridge” he says.

“Well, I tell you what. I was going to work across to err, South London and I ran through the barrier and I tell you what. I had a few drinks and the bridge was opening up to let a big fecking ship though.”

I listen on wide eyed and shocked – Chris begins to laugh. Clearly enjoying the shock on my face.

“I tell you what, I was running and it was getting harder and harder to run. It was steep. And I was struggling.”

Taking another sip from my pint of ale and adjusting the voice recorder for the climax of the story. Chris leans over the table.

“I got so close to the top it was so steep but I could see the gap and suddenly my feet left the surface and you know what?”

Chris is smiling.

“And, and, and you know what?! It was a police officer picking me up by my collar and walking me back down.” Chris begins to laugh as I breathe a sigh of relief, but I’m not sure what I was expecting from his story.

“Wow! When was that?” I ask

“1972.” Chris replies instantly almost like he was remembering a birthday, wedding or special occasion.

“1972! You are lucky. Nowadays they would have shot you dead. They’d think you was a terrorist.”

Chris sips from his ale.

“Speaking of terrorists.” He says

He rolls up his sleeve to reveal an Irish flag with the words ‘Óglaigh na hÉireann’ tattooed around the top. Being familiar with Irish Republican Army tattoos and the culture from my own family – I can’t read Gaelic.

“What’s that translate as?” I ask.

“Soldiers of Ireland.” He says.

“Does that have something to do with you being in England?” I laugh nervously.

Chris remains silent. He sips from his ale again and looks up at the big screen in the corner.

“Van Gerwin. That’s who beat Phil Taylor” he says.

I think back to our earlier conversation about Darts.

“All the years I have been coming here to this pub and all the jobs I have had and places and people I have known in London – I loved all of it. But I do miss Ireland now, more than ever.”

London Calling, by Rebecca Hawkins: Brentwood School, 17 years old

Congratulations to Rebecca for this wonderful, eloquent piece on London. The CityLife team and UEL are absolutely thrilled that she is the winner of this years inaugural CityLife Prize for Fiction by Young Writers.


There had been an accident on Fenchurch Street. A cyclist lay on her side on the tarmac, back arched, legs splayed out as if in mid run, blind eyes turned to the sky. The red bicycle lay just behind her, the two wheels like two malformed wings. She could be a bird in flight if not for the trickle of blood pooling around one ear. Now she was a bird pressed and preserved, a curiosity of Natural History. Arad, standing unnoticed on the street corner, had seen it all: the collision, the graceful flight through the air, the impact of flesh on tarmac. Traffic swirled around the cyclist like a cyclone. Police cars and ambulances with flashing lights and screeching sirens whirled past Arad as he stood watching.

London had claimed one for its own.

Now that she was dead he felt empty, like a deflated balloon. He shuffled a little closer, past the officials with their high vis jackets and loud, brusque voices. Nobody noticed him or tried to stop him. If he kept moving, nobody ever did. He cut an odd figure. Untrimmed beard burst out from beneath his tattered woolly hat, three coats added bulk where there was none. He was sure he wouldn’t recognise himself if he looked in the mirror. All the fat had drained off his cheeks and his eyes were sunken, like the bases of candles melted to wax. But nobody noticed him as he edged closer. Their eyes slid over him like they would any other piss stain on a subway wall.

He was a part of London too, the London behind the shiny, red gloss. The London of dark alleyways, broken bottles and tower blocks.

Something close to guilt curdled in his stomach. It wasn’t right, this woman being labelled up and packaged off like this. A few metres away, the paramedics were dispassionately unfolding a black body bag. They would zip her up and cart her off and nobody would blink, not in London where seconds were dearer than gold. But Arad had nothing but time. He tugged off his hat and held it awkwardly in front of him, fumbling with the unraveling tassel with chapped fingers and black nails. He would pay his respects, even if the rest of London had no time to spare. In the end, there would be nothing he could do but shuffle along with them, try to keep warm, but it didn’t sit right letting this woman pass on unnoticed. Though he reckoned she never bet on a homeless man being the one to mourn her death.

Homeless. The word sat oddly on his tongue, not quite fitting to the shape of his mouth. He did not think of himself as homeless, though the only home he had now was London, the whole expanse of it: suburb and city and river. In his mind, he was still himself – still Arad, an English teacher from Hounslow. Yet he had blinked and the world had seemed to shift around him. The walls had dropped away from his tiny rented apartment and London had swallowed him.

London had swallowed this woman too.

Men and women in dark suits rushed past, faces set into grim lines, steel eyes fixed firmly on the horizon. Many of them didn’t notice the woman lying on the floor, about to be shipped away. Many of them saw the high vis jackets and the ambulance and chose not to notice. Arad gave one final nod at the woman, murmured a quick prayer to Allah, and turned to shuffle on.

He almost crashed into a man charging past. Dressed in the same black suit, grey tie, shined shoes, he was the clone of everyone else on the street apart from Arad. Surprise sparked in his eyes as he momentarily registered what had got in his way, but then his eyes dulled, rolled away from Arad to the dead woman on the ground. The man, businessman or banker, balding with sagging chin and inflating belly, peered over at her. He frowned in mild distaste. There was nothing in his eyes, not pity, not even relief that it was her instead of him. Nothing except annoyance that his journey had been interrupted. The man shoved his way past, his briefcase smashing into Arad’s stomach and knocking the air out of him. Stunned, Arad watched the pale white head bobbing up and down, borne away by the flow of the street.

Arad stared after him. The rest of the world seemed to blur and distort, leaving just that man with his immaculately pressed suit and leather briefcase, marching on with his nose in the air so he didn’t have to see reality around him. He saw only a whitewashed world. Arad’s nostrils flared. His fists curled into claws, bitten black nails carved into the flesh of his palms. Arad hated him. He hated his single mindedness, his fat, his arrogant stride. He hated that imperious expression. He hated that man like he had never hated anyone before. That man, businessman or banker, strode around London as if he owned it but he didn’t know what the city really was. Arad had been a part of the streets for six months now, and he knew the truth. He started pacing after him, limbs charged with energy, empty stomach forgotten. London streamed past in a blur of grey, streaks of red – a cacophony of noise and chaos.

Behind the towering skyscrapers, through the thick coat of smog, the clouds were turning the shade of gangrene. Tendrils of black snaked their way up from the horizon and spread across the sky. The sickly, pulsing light made war paint of the black circles under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He elbowed his way into the evening crowd, eyes fixed on the man’s balding skull. He sucked in air, tasted smoke and sweat on his tongue. One shoe was losing its sole; it flapped aimlessly against the floor, but he ignored it and pressed on.

People slid out of his way. They did not notice him, they never did. They only noticed him when it was time for him to stop and pray and face east. Then he would be tapped on the shoulder by a policeman, or spat at, or kicked. But now their eyes followed the neon lights of London as if hypnotised. Never consciously recognizing him, they nevertheless parted seamlessly for his approach. Maybe it was his smell – six months of grime and decay – carving out his path, maybe it was his ragged coat. Maybe it was his eyes. The dull sheen had been replaced by a ferocious, glittering intensity.

Slightly ahead, the man ducked down into a tube station. Arad curved after him, slithering down into the underground with the other commuters, sliding unnoticed through the faulty ticket barriers. He passed by buskers strumming guitars and beggars with silver tins. Arad had tried to beg too before his tin got stolen in the night, too hungry to be proud. Nobody had given him anything. He knew why. He knew what they said about people like him. He would spend the money on drugs or alcohol, or maybe he didn’t need the money at all. Maybe he was secretly rich, just like them. Arad had said the same things to his English classes once. Now he glanced down at the beggars lining the white tiled tunnels. Their tattered hats and dented tins were empty too and their eyes followed him blankly, recognising him as one of their own.

When he looked up again, the man had disappeared. He slammed to a halt at the intersection, glancing frantically down the different tunnels, nose tilted to the air as if trying to catch the scent. Panic beat a thundering ostinato in his chest. But there was nothing, the balding white head had disappeared, lost in the relentless crowd. His whole body started to shake. There was too much adrenaline inside him, too much raw need. He had no weapons; with his hands and his hatred he had no use for them. He only needed that man, businessman or banker, with his starched shirt and ironed suit and flabby jowls. He needed to show him what London really was.

He glimpsed a flash of white down the left-hand passageway. He lunged forwards, the rapid ostinato still echoing through his skull, and charged onto the platform. There he was – Arad had him – waddling further down towards the tunnel’s gaping maw. Arad exhaled slowly. A dark shadow, he padded forwards, slinking after the squat, ugly figure. The ground beneath him was starting to shake; he felt the vibrations throbbing up his spine and tingling in his fingertips. A beating pulse echoed from the tunnel, getting louder and louder; light flickered and flashed, raking over the waiting crowd. Wind pummeled Arad’s skin, whipping his hair back from his forehead, and then the train emerged in a fanfare of screeching steel.

One carriage up from Arad, the man dutifully waited for the flood of disembarking passengers to drain away. But just before he ducked inside, he paused, one foot on the platform, the other inside the door. Arad, mirroring him, halted. The man turned slightly and nervous, bloodshot eyes – weasel eyes – roved across the platform. For a second, the man saw him. He saw his dark reflection, the shadow stalking him through subterranean rivers. His eyes widened. Then he turned and heaved himself up onto the train, and Arad did the same.

Arad watched his quarry’s shifting, swaying image through the carriage door as the train rattled through the darkness. Every few seconds, the man threw tentative glances over his shoulder. He was scared, thought Arad. For the first time in his fat rich life, he was scared. Arad’s lips jerked upwards, a spasm of glee that twisted half his face. For the first time since he’d lost his job, he was having an impact.

The man clambered off the train three stops later, and Arad followed, keeping a few steps behind. In perfect imitation, he clattered up the steps after him towards the open air, stepping over the sprawled legs of a passed out drunk at the top of the stairs. They resurfaced on the corner of a residential street, into an onslaught of ice cold rain. Tall, narrow houses with immaculate gravel pathways fringed the opposite side of the road; a fence of steel spears lined the other. The night had turned the shrubbery beyond to wilderness. Ahead of him, the man picked up his pace. Already the rain had plastered his remaining hair to his skull, soaking through his fine suit. The beat of it upon the earth worked in counterpoint with the pounding inside Arad’s own head.

The man threw a glance back at him and for a moment Arad glimpsed the fear on his face, but then he tucked his head down and ploughed on, working his legs even faster. Arad strode after him. He wasn’t tired. He barely felt the rain striking against his cheeks.

He was so close. He upped his pace, drew nearer, barely containing his excitement when the man noticed and scurried ahead again. He was so close – he only had to reach out and his fingers could grasp around the man’s collar, yank him backwards. But still he pushed on, relentless, driving the man forward. He would show him. He would. He extended his arm, and his fingertips brushed against a tweed clad shoulder.

The man twisted and darted to his right, into the road. Arad faltered, losing his balance and stumbling. The man was halfway over to the other side.

He heard it before he saw it. The roaring engine, howling of the horn, wail of tyres skidding against tarmac. Then the onslaught of crimson. The lone figure suddenly stricken paralysed before it.

It took Arad less than a second to realise the collision would be fatal. London was going to claim another for its own and Arad had delivered the man right into its hands. A sacred offering.

His eyes widened. The man, businessman or banker, husband or father, was going to die.

Arad ran forwards, arms outstretched, to save him.

Smile, for Pam Moore

From the life of Pam Moore

By Suzanne Wilson

A pretty young girl of eighteen stepped out of the front door of her family home in Bedford, clutching a small suitcase, and jumped into a taxi. Pam was escaping, ready to answer her calling to become a nurse. The taxi was only taking her half a mile up the road, and it would still take her family three days to find her, having moved into the local nurses home, but she felt free. Free from the pressure that was put on her by her family to enter into an arranged marriage, free from the cultural confusion that came from being from an Indian family in 1970’s England. She was living in a world full of dark prejudices, reflected on both sides of the community. This strong woman had had enough; she was going to make her own decisions from now on. She was going to date the handsome white boy that she would later marry, less than a year after meeting him; become a nurse; and care for people – help them to see the beauty in life. Nothing would stop her. She now tells her nieces and nephews who are entering into mixed-race marriages, “You should thank your auntie for the ability to do this! She set the trend for this, she was a pioneer; you just did not do that in the seventies!”

Born in India, and moved to the UK aged nine, she had always found it difficult to make the transition from her English identity at school to her Indian identity at home, where she tried to remain true to the traditional values that her family held. One thing was for certain, she did not want to marry someone she had no feelings for, and she didn’t want to end up running a corner shop. Marrying a white guy at the time was certainly not the done thing, but this was a woman who didn’t care about convention; she did what she knew was right. Even if, on meeting her mother-in-law, she heard, “…oh, well, she’s… pretty! A lot darker than I thought she’d be but… pretty! She’s got very white teeth!”

It would be her work in the burns unit in Chelmsford that would bring back thoughts of her own cultural upbringing. Previously having only seen Chelmsford as a white, middle class area, the introduction of the burns unit brought in a far more multicultural demographic. It was the attempted honour killings that hit her the hardest. It isn’t something that anyone could imagine would still be happening in today’s world. There was a woman who, according to her family, had just ‘spontaneously combusted’, but unaware that our nursing hero could understand how they told her to “Just die,” in Punjabi. She clocked straight away what was going on and alerted the appropriate people. Unfortunately, the woman died, and she never found out if action was taken against the offending family. However, a part of her knew that it could have just have easily been her teenage self that had ‘spontaneously combusted’. She knows that, in some sense, the people who do these terrible things feel that they are doing the right thing; these actions are coming from a place of supposed love. They were restoring honour to the family and the victim’s memory.  She did have to seek trauma therapy for her work on burns unit, which just wasn’t provided back then, but she won in her fight to achieve this and she got it, to help her cope with the effects of the job. Trauma counselling was not available to nurses at the time, so, in a way, she set another trend.

A more bittersweet experience from working in the burns unit came from a young man suffering with ninety percent burns covering his body, following a motorbike accident. He was an intelligent chap, but had been silly enough to neglect wearing his leathers that day. After three months of caring for him and his family, his body went into multi organ failure. She was devastated but knew that the kindest thing would be to let him go in peace. After informing the mother, one last request was made. During his care, she, as his nurse had been the only one who could make him smile, and so she was asked by the mother to do so one last time. She still thinks about the young man and his family fondly. She is still in touch with two of her burns patients who sought her out. She was a stand-in mother to them when the birth mothers were too exhausted, and one of the those mothers reminded her just the other day of how Pam shooed her away because she was so ill from tiredness and worry. They laugh about it now. Back then there were enough nurses and support and funding for the service to be a personal, caring service. However, if the government continues to decimate the NHS, the general population will be worse off than they are already.

Working as a nurse for the NHS opened Pam’s eyes to a lot. There is a very active bullying culture within the NHS, which is ironic for people in a profession that is supposed to be caring for others. One of the things that really bothered her was that in working in an NHS-run hospital is that everything is scheduled and time based, and staff are not allowed to go the extra mile, which is something she has always prided herself in being able to do. This was particularly evident in a case where she was caring for a three month old baby that was dying. The parents couldn’t face seeing their child in that state and she had five other babies to care for at the time. All she wanted was to hold that baby, and show it some affection, but she wasn’t allowed. The three month-old died that night. She handed in her notice the next day. She doesn’t want to be associated with bad practice, and at this point in her life, from years of experience and growth, she knows that if she doesn’t like what is going on, she can change it.

Joining the team of the Richard House Children’s Hospice in early 2016, the contrasts between the NHS and Richard House became very clear, and having only been with the organisation for a short while, she has already made quite an impression. The families at the hospice become her families too; she uses her outgoing and bubbly personality to lift the spirits of both the kids in her care, and their parents. Just a little bit of help can make all the difference, even if it’s just the parents getting a few minutes to themselves to have a cup of tea and relax. The relationship that is built with the families is something special and not easy to let go of. And to her, the best part of the job is being able to make the kids smile, and it is the intimacy and caring environment of Richard House that allows this. There is something about the hospice that has her totally magnetised. Richard House has a sense of family not only with the patients but with the staff as well. Once, when the weather was particularly bad and their cook got stuck in the Dartford Tunnel, pizza was ordered in for everyone and they had a quiz day, which was really helped the staff to get to know one another.

“Live for today.” That’s her motto. Pam doesn’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and that’s okay. (Well, she knows she has her gym class, because it has to be booked in advance.) If the weather is good, everyone should head out somewhere; if not, that’s all right, she can find something else to do. All she wants is to be a good person and help others, something which she would prove over and over again.

She doesn’t see the people in her care as just patients or guests, but as an extension of her family, and she feels proud in knowing that her family extends all over the country.

She always remembers her patients, but has taught herself not to let the feelings and connections she has with her patients consume her. There have been a few occasions where the connection to a particular patient has been so strong that she has been able to feel when something has gone wrong, or even sense that they have passed away. This is when she realised that she needed to disconnect from that aspect. She has learnt how to care for herself, as she is just as important and loved as any of her patients. Travel is one of her passions and each old church she visits, a candle is lit for the people she has cared for, past and present. It is strange how something as small as a candle can create such a bright glow that touches every corner of the room. Much like how every smile of hers touches the patients she cares for.

Forty years on and that glow has never left her. She carries with her a smile which brings hope to everyone she meets.

Hope, for John Roden

From the life of John Roden

By Samuel Hardy

Hope: a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.
: John’s granddaughter’s name.

***

The East End. The sixties. A small boy can walk around his street in Shoreditch and be assured that his neighbors will watch out for him, that the postman on his daily route will lead him back when he’s too far from home. The children run around and jump and laugh and play until night comes and they’re called in. Families can chat with friends and move around with unlocked doors because the people around them are trusted. They come together, a community ready to help one another in times of trouble or hardship or simply because one can, and a small boy is filled with pride for this small slice of earth he lives on without needing to truly grasp the reasons why.

In this moment, it just is.

On his trips to the market, he stands and watches a man at the stall, waiting for his mother to get what she needs and come back. There’s no need for her to rush in a panic, fearing that her child will disappear once her back is turned. He is calm and the man at the stall is fascinating, working in a section of the city that the same people frequent regularly. They know one another. Children know to stay still and wait. Parents know to leave when fights break out. In this section of the city, their community watches out for one another, keeping fear away. The children are ushered away in school; whispers of the Kray twins outside are being denied by teachers, but the police have come to ensure that they stay away from the gates. Still they believe that their shelter remains intact.

Until, at sixteen, he comes close to death. A friend is ill, they say, and he’s being cared for in the hospice not too far away.

When they go in there, John, they don’t come back out.

His shelter is shattered. It comes between the age of boy and man, when his time of school and being guided is over and he must make it on his own. But he is still young and the loss of a friend breaks apart the feeling of security that came with his home. Priorities are shifting, people more out for themselves than for helping each other, and slowly snipping away their assurance that their neighbors are looking out for them. A friend is in a hospice; no one talks about it. Disability and illness are hushed words and a hospice is a place to die; they’re cast aside, kept away from chatter in the street.

He goes on with his life; working across London, settling down with his wife, and watching the East End he grew up in grow and change into something he no longer recognizes. But he is the generation that cannot talk about difficulties above a whisper, if they can’t avoid it at all, and he has no need to change that.

Until, at fifty-six, his granddaughter is born and those difficult words become a part of his life.

It’s a metabolic disease, detected earlier than doctors usually do. She is beautiful, always smiling, and in need of help and care. He becomes her guardian, is thrown back into a world of nappy changes and scheduled feeds and caring for an infant. It’s a brand new experience; once a working father, now a retired grandfather, he has the time to care for his baby girl and relearn what it means to be a parent. But there are still treatments to look at, help to turn to, a place that can be there for them.

Richard House Children’s Hospice.

When they go in there, John, they don’t come back out.

That can’t be true…

He remembers, a long time ago, the friend who was sent to a hospice to be cared for until he died. He remembers the whispers people had about death, their need to stay away from the topics of disability and illness. He remembers his generation, who still stay away when his granddaughter is near. But Richard House does not conform to the stories of isolation and death that people had heard about hospices, and now their lack of understanding has become fuel to fight the stigma. The hospice staff, who look after the rest of the family as well as the children, are warm and supportive. He brings his granddaughter in for her treatments and he takes her home, he sits with other men on ‘Dad’s Night’ and they share their struggles in a setting that allows them to end the night a little lighter than before, with people who understand. Years of ideas and harsh words have been reevaluated, his perspective of a once daunting place changed to accommodate the reality he faces every day.

Life is a learning curve; it never stops.

The East End. Now. A small boy is now a grown man, with a wife, two children, and a grandchild of his own. He cannot walk around his street and be assured that his neighbors will truly watch out for him and doors are locked tight wherever the neighbors go. His sense of community has faded and, once or twice, the pride that once just was is turned to shame when he remembers how things used to be.

But he has Hope.