As usual we had been invited up to Scotland to my younger son and family between Christmas and New Year, but before we went Paul was feeling a little under the weather, so I urged him to go and see the doctor. This was always like a red rag to a bull and I was chastised for nagging. He had several medical books and was always self-diagnosing and I have to admit, he was usually right. He thought he might be starting with slight angina, but insisted any visit to the doctor could wait until after the holiday. My next step was to say I would phone the family, tell them he was unwell and cancel the visit. He would hear none of it and we set off on the long journey on Thursday the 28th December. He seemed fine on the way, but the following day on a walk into the village he complained of shortness of breath. My son was with us and, in a whisper, I asked if he would go and get the car, which he did. Paul was not happy about this, but accepted the lift back to the house where all of us tried to persuade him to go and see a doctor. He flatly refused!
Next day, Saturday, we drove home. Sunday was New Years Eve and I was surprised when Paul brought me a cup of tea to bed in the morning, as I am the morning person and usually provided the early morning tea. His Sunday morning ritual was to walk down to the Co-op for his Sunday Times, but I went for it that morning. As usual he read it from cover to cover, each section discarded across the floor. We like to eat our main meal at lunchtime and I cooked a healthy meal of salmon with various vegetables, which he demolished heartily and so I thought he really must be feeling better – although I started on the washing up, which he usually did. He came through and asked me what I was doing and told me to go and sit down and insisted he was quite well. I went back to work on a CD cover I was doing for a local choir and when he had finished the dishes he went back to his newspaper.
The day progressed like any other Sunday and at midnight we wished each other a Happy New Year, but very soon after that his condition changed. The phone rang and it was our friend and neighbour, Adrienne, with New Year greetings. I quickly told her Paul wasn’t well and she told me to contact her if we needed any help. Paul said he thought he should go to the hospital and went upstairs to pack a few things. I said I would do that for him but went to phone for an ambulance first. Before I could pick up the phone, it rang. It was our friend, Dorothea, but I had to cut her short (regretting that at Paul’s request I had cancelled her and her husband’s usual New Year’s Eve visit, as she was a nurse). I phoned for an ambulance, told the operator what was happening and was still speaking to him when I heard a crash from the bedroom and ran back to find Paul on the floor in an awkward kneeling position. I ran to tell the operator who asked if Paul was breathing.
In a panic I dashed back to Paul and knew I must start CPR ASAP, but I couldn’t lift him onto his back as he was wedged between the bed, bedside cabinet and the wardrobe. I saw that he had banged his head on a Victorian tile that was on the cabinet and didn’t know how much damage he had done internally and if he was unconscious from hitting his head in the fall, so didn’t want to be too rough with him. I needed practical help, so rushed back to the operator and told him I would dash to my friend and neighbour four doors away.
I flew out of the house in my slippers, losing one in a puddle on the way. I knocked on Adrienne’s door and banged on her window, but she and her Spanish friend, Luis, must have been out in the conservatory at the back so didn’t hear me. I ran back home, collecting my sodden slipper on the way. Remembering where I had put my mobile phone, I grabbed my bag as I ran back up the stairs to report to the operator. I phoned Adrienne on my mobile and she and Luis came round. Time was ticking away as I tried to explain to our Spanish friend what was needed. Luis and I are so short compared to Paul and lifting him over his size 11 feet took every bit of our strength (there was no room to drag him sideways).
Adrienne was now talking to the operator and shouting instructions to us. Luis was bewildered at my orders on chest compression; it was a nightmare race against time and it seemed like an eternity until the paramedics arrived. New Years Eve is not a good time to need an ambulance! Even on the way to the hospital the equipment was against us, as the oxygen pump kept popping off and the paramedic had to hold it by hand, whilst trying chest compression. I could see he was getting exhausted and offered to help, but he told me to remain seated. Reaching as far as the safety belt would allow, I held Paul’s hand, feeling for any signs of life whilst trying to ignore the ominous flat line and warning sound of the monitor.
At the hospital I waited outside A & E until a doctor came, tipped his head to one side and said those immortal words, ‘so sorry, we did everything we could…’
It all gets a bit blurred from there onward. I needed to let Paul’s elder son and his family know; they were in Australia, visiting relatives and at some point staying with my cousins, so they might have contact details for them, but I didn’t have their number in my mobile. I didn’t want to phone my son in Scotland as being Hogmanay, he would assume it was revellers wishing them well and I couldn’t bear to tell him the awful truth, as he was especially close to Paul – and he would find it very hard, having just spent a few days with him. It was morning in Hong Kong but I had hardly any credit on my mobile, so couldn’t use it to phone my other son.
I found a payphone out in the foyer and four or five pounds in my purse. I had to make the coins count and say everything that needed to be said, quickly and concisely. My Chinese daughter-in-law answered, my son wasn’t there. I had to speak clearly, so told her what had happened and she must ask my son to contact the Australian cousins, so they could pass on the message to Paul’s son. My money ran out.
An inebriated teenager who was standing nearby had obviously been listening to the one-sided conversation and he reached out his hand to me and said, ‘sorry for your loss.’ It was somehow terribly touching. Minutes later my mobile rang and it was my son and I only vaguely remember him asking if I had phoned his brother and me saying no – I didn’t want to disturb them.
By this time I was able to go in and sit with Paul. I lay my head upon his chest and wrapped his big heavy arms around me (as they so often were) and stayed there, caressing his lifeless body, running my fingers into the crevices of his deep-set eyes. At some point Adrienne came to join me and sat at the other side of the bed and we talked to him until a nurse came and said they needed the bed and they would have to move him.
He was transferred to a small room and there we waited until the police had been to interview me, but it was several hours before a very apologetic policeman came. I can’t quite remember when, but I got a message from my son in Scotland; he was packed and just leaving and hoped to be with me in three and a half hours. His brother had phoned him from Hong Kong. Adrienne was very supportive; she took me home and waited with me until he arrived.
Paul’s obituary in The Independent by Simon Fenwick.
There is no good time to lose the one you love, but this time of year is particularly bad. The relentless avalanche of Christmas Cards descends onto the doormat and with great trepidation I pick them up and open them. Very occasionally there is a thoughtful message inside, but mainly it is a hearty greeting beseeching me to have the best Christmas ever and an even more fabulous New Year! I am reduced to a sobbing wreck at each one.
As we entered December this year, approaching the 10th anniversary of Paul’s death, I started suffering from palpitations – and with his reluctance at seeing a doctor imprinted on my mind, I thought perhaps I should go and visit my GP. He arranged for me to have an ECG – and, as my heart appears to be okay, the conclusion is that stress was the cause of the pounding in my chest, so this time of year is making me physically ill – as well as emotionally. Christmas just reminds me that exactly a week later I witnessed the death of my soul mate and mentor – the man I loved truly madly deeply.
I hold on to every bit of Paul’s existence. I touch and kiss the cardboard tube where I keep his ashes every time I leave the house and each time I arrive home – and when I go to bed or need solace. When I die I would like my ashes to be mixed with his and scattered at our favourite places.
The ashes stand at the side of my bed and before I bought a sofa bed, sleeping arrangements were difficult when my family of five arrived from Hong Kong and so my granddaughter slept with me for the duration of their stay. Of course she went off to bed before me and when she was about 11 she said, ‘you know, when I can’t get to sleep, I talk to Paul.’ So perhaps it’s not as macabre as one might think.
Even now, 10 years on, I rejoice if I find a piece of paper he has scribbled on, his inimitable and perhaps unintelligible handwriting, invariably with a little doodle alongside. I ache for him and for what I have lost and I am not the only one to suffer grief in this way – it is all around us and I have friends in exactly the same position, but I do know this time of year makes it worse for them – even if they are spending it with their family. They have to pretend to be happy, to put on their actors mask and let the show go on – and for that they deserve an Oscar, because it is very, very hard and if you have not experienced it, then you really don’t know…