The date was August 15, 2020.
Some readers here will already know the significance of that date to me. It is the first date I look for each year, when the new holiday entitlement is made available. August 15 is the date I go to Dukinfield Crematorium to commemorate the death of my father, from cancer, when I was 14.
There was no need for holidays this year as the 15th fell on a Saturday, when I do not work. But that lent an extra emotion to the day. Not only was this the big Anniversary, fifty years since that day, but it had been a Saturday too in 1970. And in the days leading up to the Anniversary, the weather had done an almost perfect job of replicating the sun and rain of those terrible days to Saturday.
I was already in a heightened state of tension, because of the pandemic. I’ve worried, for months now, about whether in August I would be free to observe this Anniversary in perhaps its most important year. Would I be able to leave the flat? Would I be able to catch the bus? Would the Crem be opened or would I have to stand by the gate and project the words I would find to say from there? Many times I have confessed my worries, telling people that if it was the forty-ninth, or the fifty-first, it wouldn’t matter so much. But it was the fiftieth, a half-century. And it mattered immensely.
Perhaps it was that which set me up for the days that preceded Saturday. I was conscious of more than just the day itself, but the memories of the days that led up to it, that horrible last week when, on top of everything else, Dad – who was at home – contracted pneumonia as well.
I am not going to list the things that happened. These are private. But they were more vivid in my head than at any time I could remember. The first part of the week is lost, but from Wednesday onwards, things fell back into my mind with terrible force.
Thursday was horrible. I was completely unprepared for the flood of flashbacks that overtook me once I settled in to work. It was immediately obvious that if the more pointed memories of Friday were to affect me as badly – for Friday was the last day I saw my Dad alive – I would be completely incapable of working.
Getting the day off was difficult. I now work for a team with a very small pool of advisers and special arrangements have to be made for leave. I was turned down but had my leave forced through by my line manager. As for Thursday, my mind dealt with the issue by simply shutting itself off. As calls came through and I needed to respond to these, it opened enough for the technical knowledge and experience. Otherwise, it was as if my mind was now shielded by a lead bunker, impervious to x-ray or other radiation.
By that means I got to 9.00pm and the bus home. It is not yet the middle of August but already sundown has ridden back so far that I walked down my street in the dark. I logged in to the internet, to e-mails and comments on my blog, but I chose not to reply, to go off-grid for a few days, until this time was over.
Friday was like Thursday, in that the lead shield was still operating. I remained mindless all day, lowering the barrier only once, deliberately, to relive that moment of my last few words with Dad, the undeliverable promise to come and see him in the Hospital when he was only being taken back in to die in the most comfort they could provide for him. Then back to deliberately obliterating all the rest of that day.
And Saturday. I was awake early enough to open my consciousness to the moment that I was always told was the last, and then, freshly-shaved even though this was the weekend, off on the bus, a 203, then a 330, followed by the long, slow walk up the hill under a blazing sun equal to that of fifty years ago.
Not until the final bend in the winding road that leads to the Crematorium gates could I see that these were open, though the room in which the Book of Remembrance is kept is now only open for inspection on weekdays. I know what it says, but reading it anew is still a part of this ritual.
An elderly couple were leaving as I walked towards Plot C. The hills loomed up around us, looking strangely higher than I had ever seen them before. It seemed as if I was the only person in the entire Crematorium. My ritual is to talk about the last year, about where I am and who I am, all the things he never knew about me, but I was incapable of that. The sense of loss and hurt that is inescapable on this day was overwhelming and I could barely speak at all. In part it was an intensity I conjured for myself in focussing upon the fifty years, the gulf that was unimaginable to the boy I was, and which is still in some measure impossible to understand for the man I am. All the things that have happened in fifty years, the accumulation of life. And still…
That day, in 1970, I was due to go to a football match at Droylsden with a mate. I didn’t want to go, but my mother insisted, identifying correctly that Dad would have wanted me to do normal things, and to enjoy myself, and more than that, that I needed to take my mind off things for an afternoon. There’s a certain, personal, irony that such a thing would, for the first time ever, be impossible, given the recent news about Droylsden suspending all football, probably never to return.
So it was back down the hill, and buses home, via Tesco’s and some food shopping, to the lead shield and the radio silence for the rest of the day. Sunday became the day of going back to normal. Though I think of my Dad, and his absence, often, these concentration of these feelings will not arise again until August 15, 2021, and I can hope to be free of the flashbacks and the stream of memories of those final days. And I can go back to talking to people in an ordinary fashion, both here and in real life. Apologies for my silence.