|L-R: Me, my brothers Dave and Steve. The monkey is not a sibling.|
One Saturday in October 1979 I went home for the weekend from university in
Leicester. I’d only just started there, but I was a late entrant and needed to go home for the rest of my belongings. I‘d joined Leicester late in the day because I‘d been kicked out of a different university during the Summer (more of which some other time), and the process of finding another college that would take me on and getting the funding from the Local Education Authority (no tuition fees or student loans in those days) had meant I’d gone there in a bit of a rush.
I’d spent the Friday night with my girlfriend in
Birmingham and so I had a bit of a spring in my step as I emerged from railway station. I was surprised to see my parents outside waiting for me; I hadn’t told them what time my train was due but I suppose they’d found out from the girl’s parents. Anyway, they looked very upset and came straight to the point. My oldest brother Steve had that day been killed in a motorcycle accident. There were no other vehicles involved; he’d come off on a bend on a country road just outside the town. He was 24 years old. Shrewsbury
I’d heard about people going into shock, but I’d never experienced anything quite like it. I was literally numb. I had no bodily sensation whatsoever and could barely talk until we got home. The next few days were all a bit hazy. My mother went from denial and disbelief through to an unfounded suspicion that he may have done it on purpose, before a police officer helped her accept that it really had been an accident. He told her something about the accelerator cable on Steve’s motorbike not shutting off. I have no idea if that was true; I rather suspect he made it up out of kindness to a distraught woman. I had a strange reaction too – a vivid dream that first night in which Steve came into my room and told me “It’s OK, I’m not really dead”, which I suppose was just my subconscious hoping against hope.
Over the next few days a succession of friends and neighbours came making their condolences. They were all so upset, we seemed to spend our time comforting them and not the other way around. The local newspaper sent a very embarrassed journalist to get a few words. “Welfare Chief’s Son In Fatal Accident” was the headline, my father being Director of Social Services at the time.
Every evening my parents visited Steve at the undertakers (by coincidence a firm owned by his girlfriend’s grandfather). They always asked me to go along, but I always refused. I wasn’t frightened of seeing a dead body, but I was frightened of seeing him. I was scared that if I saw him dead in a coffin, that one image would erase every other memory of him. To this day I can not be sure I made the right decision, but if it was wrong I have forgiven myself. I was 19 and not in the clearest frame of mind.
Somehow through all this my parents managed to organise a funeral, not much helped by me making stupid jokes about having tickets to keep out the gatecrashers, but I suppose it made them smile for the first time in days.
The funeral took place at the crematorium. The place was packed; far more friends than family, which was a reflection of Steve’s popularity I suppose. I don’t recall very much about the service other than struggling to keep it together for my parents’ sake as much as my own. My mother inscribed a wreath with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’: “We are such stuff as dream are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep”. Afterwards it was back to the house and an afternoon spent passing round the sausage rolls and making endless pots of tea.
I find it hard to remember a great deal about Steve now, mostly just random memories; I can’t even recall exactly what his voice sounded like. I felt guilty for a few years about that, as if I’d betrayed him, but not any longer; I think it must be quite normal not to remember every little detail about someone you haven’t seen or spoken to in over 3 decades. So for me his passing has become easier with time, and to a lesser extent for my parents too I think.
Steve was 24 years old to my 19. I’m now 50, yet in my mind he’s still my big brother. I don’t sanctify his memory like my mother still does. In truth he did a lot of stupid things, getting involved with drugs and joy riding and so on. Indeed the post mortem revealed he was marginally over the alcohol limit when he died (“Fatal Crash Rider Had Been Drinking”). But to me he was always decent and kind, and I loved him.
|Steve on holiday in France, August 1979|
"And all the friends lay down the flowers
Sit on the banks and drink for hours
Talk of the way they saw him last
Local boy in the photograph."