Tag Archives: bereavement

I’m Backing Leeds United (To MISS OUT on Promotion) – by Rob Atkinson

Fancy a flutter?

Yesterday was just one of those bad days at the office, that curious and frustrating Leeds United mixture of dominance and fallibility that so often gifts three points to inferior yet hard and determined opponents. That’s nine defeats this season now and, as one of the commentators remarked during the match at Cardiff, United have arguably been the better side in all nine. Whatever is behind this phenomenon, it’s the kind of thing to induce the collywobbles in even the most unflappable Whites fan, along with the predictable epilogue of clueless moaners having a field day on Twatter and Farcebook. All in all, it was a day to forget, but that’s easier said than done.

And yet, after reading one particular tweet, I was inspired to take my own steps with the aim of either staving off disaster on a cosmic level, or of assuring myself a little fiscal compensation if the worst should come to the worst. In short, I had a punt at 12/1 against on Leeds United failing to go up. I’d set aside £50 so that I could be treated to a new LUFC top in sparkling Adidas for my birthday – but instead, I lumped it all on the worst case scenario, and that breaks a lifetime non-gambling record, as I’d never previously had so much as a flutter on the National.

I have to say, it’s immediately made feel better, having been in a foul mood straight after the final whistle in Wales. I had expected to be able to take defeat philosophically, thanks to the efforts of Brentford and Birmingham at Fulham and West Brom respectively. But I was gutted, given the dominant nature of our performance, to see Leeds sustain two self-inflicted and fatal wounds. It was just such a poxy way to lose, and such a poxy team and club to lose against. Anyway, whatever the pros and cons, or swings and roundabouts, I was down in the dumps until this tweet inspired me to lump on Leeds missing promotion. As I’m a perennial loser in games of chance, I’m pretty sure I’ve just made United’s elevation to the Promised Land a stone cold certainty. As a stereotypical Yorkshireman, I could never normally have imagined being so eager to lose £50, with that slight dread of winning £600. But I do feel I’ve got the bases covered now, and I’ll be happy to miss out on a new LUFC shirt, if it means being back where we belong.

I’m not trying to induce anyone to start gambling here. It’ll be a cold day in hell, or at least a dry day in Manchester, before I repeat the exercise. I’m just glad I’ve done it this once, as it’s lifted my mood considerably. And I have high expectations of an outcome worth a lot more than 600 lousy quid.

Incidentally, I should mention at this point that I’ve not felt moved to write here since my brother and fellow lifelong United fan Graham died suddenly and unexpectedly in April. I’m really not quite sure why that is; maybe beside our Gray’s death and this whole lockdown thing, football suddenly seemed pretty small beer. But it’s back now, and so am I – and this is my first chance to say thank you for all the kind and sympathetic messages I received after I wrote my brotherly tribute two months back. They were all much appreciated and greatly helpful.

Marching On Together

Death of a Leeds United Fan II – by Rob Atkinson

Younger brother Graham (left) with yours truly in happier times

Five years ago, I found myself in the unhappy position of having to pen a tribute to my Dad, a lifelong Leeds United fan, after he passed away due to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease a few months short of his 88th birthday. I remember that writing the article helped me come to terms with the fact that Dad really had gone from us; even though he’d been ill for a long time, I found it hard to comprehend that I’d never see him again, and it didn’t really sink in until a few months later, long after his funeral. I’m just not very good, I suppose, at accepting finalities.

This failing on my part to acknowledge or accept ultimate loss has been brought home to me again this last week or so, with the news that my brother Graham had died suddenly, over the weekend before last, at the age of only 56. Gray was actually two years younger than me and, although his health had been poor since a major illness about fifteen years back, he’d seemed to have made a recovery of sorts. Certainly the last thing any of us expected was to hear that he’d passed away, and again, I’m struggling to get my head around it. This feeling of disbelief is hardly helped by the fact that, like many brothers, we weren’t particularly close for long periods, and our disagreements and quarrels were many. Sibling rivalry, fraternal friction, call it what you will there was usually some strife. So, this sense of sudden loss is tinged with regret and a certain amount of guilt too – as if the death of a younger brother wasn’t bad enough already. The last year or so of his life was one of those extended mutual stand-off times, something I’ll clearly never be able to put right. It is what it is, sadly. Our Gray could be an awkward bugger at times – but, then again, so can I.

One thing that Gray and I always had in common was Leeds United; despite being two years younger, he started going to Elland Road a good few years before I did, and was privileged to see Don Revie’s Super Leeds in action, whereas I had to make do initially with Armfield’s Aces in 1975. And, as we all know, it was all downhill from there until Sergeant Wilko turned up 13 years later. But over those first few seasons of my fanaticism, Gray and I shared many trips to see the Whites play, especially at home games, when we’d board the old Ponte supporters bus on Horsefair in town and set off, more in hope than expectation. On one memorable occasion, I leaned too heavily on the emergency exit at the back of the bus as we pulled into the Elland Road car park, and fell out. I was left sprawling in the dust as my brother and his mates wet themselves laughing at my humiliation. It was a story he recounted with evident relish and amusement as best man at my wedding years later. He also mentioned the frequent occasions we’d return home after some dire defeat, to be met by our Dad with his doom-laden verdict of “Never again”. Dad had had enough of Leeds United by the eighties – I don’t think he’d ever really forgiven them for selling John Charles – and he assumed that we’d have had enough too, after each successive disappointment. I’d like to think that they’re continuing that argument somewhere right now, Dad and Gray, perhaps over some heavenly pint in the company of a few lost heroes.

Gray didn’t die as a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, it was his existing health problems that caught up with him. Still, lockdown has its effect on everything these days and, sadly, Graham’s funeral next Tuesday at Pontefract Crematorium will be a severely restricted affair, limited to ten mourners in the building itself. But funerals are mainly for those left behind, and the priority on the day for my remaining brother Mike and myself will be to support our Mum, who’s 83, as well as Gray’s two sons Stuart and Matthew, and of course his partner Julie. The idea is that, as and when this virus situation eases and we regain at least a measure of freedom, we’ll be able to organise something whereby Gray’s life can be celebrated properly, with a few drinks being sunk and a few hoary old anecdotes retold, as he’d most certainly have wanted.

Clearly, in the context of this blog, one particularly bitter regret is that Gray will never get to see Leeds United back in the top flight. I have a feeling that the achievement of promotion would have enabled us both to overcome our recent differences and disagreements, to mark the return of the club we’ve both loved for decades now, finally back to where they belong. It’s a milestone we’d doubtless have marked in a suitably drunken manner, which after all is how most reconciliations occur. That’s just a futile dream now, but still I hope that the club will be able to get over the line somehow, despite this awful bug and what it’s done to us all. It’s just such a shame that, when it does happen, Gray won’t see it.

It was my Dad and Graham who flew the flag for Leeds United in our family, long before I got hooked, so it’s somehow fitting that they’re now reunited as the club’s on the verge of a new era. It lends a new level of meaning for me to “Marching On Together”, and I shall definitely be raising a glass to them both when that glorious day finally arrives.

RIP Graham Atkinson.  10th August 1963 – 19th April 2020  MOT WAFLL WACCOE LUFC

Tory Press To Use “Miliband’s a Leeds Fan” Smear Tactics??   –   by Rob Atkinson

Miliband - the dirtiest smear yet...

Ed Miliband’s a Leeds United fan – the dirtiest tabloid smear yet…

As the General Election draws closer, and the various tax-dodgers, fox-hunters and perverts who form the natural band of Tory supporters start to gibber quietly with barely-restrained panic, the brainless yet powerful moguls behind the country’s filthiest gutter rags are casting about for more dirty tricks to use against the Great White Hope of the Labour Party, Edward Samuel Miliband.

Great White Hope?? I hear you expostulate, outraged in your righteous anger. Isn’t that a bit – well – racist?? No, not at all – not in this context. Definitely not. Ed, you see, is a Leeds United fan – a true White – as well as the person adjudged this morning by the Financial Times as having an 82% chance of being the next Prime Minister. So May the 8th, or a few coalition negotiating days after that, could see our new leader giving the old Leeds salute on the doorstep of Number 10. It’s a thought to conjure with, right enough.

Meanwhile, the gutter press are unlikely to miss a trick in their quest to find any nasty little fact or fiction with which to smear the unflappable Ed – something they seem ever more desperately eager to do, despite the line being peddled not so long back that Miliband was a figure of fun and unelectable, so why bother. The Tories and their poodles in the Press are suddenly very much bothered and more than a little rattled and threatened – they need something salacious, scandalous or just plain unpopular to sling at the man who threatens to oust current incumbent David Camoron from his unelected tenure in Downing Street.

And what, in the dim and undemanding public mind, could be more disgusting or repellent than a chap being outed as a Leeds fan? We’re still the club they love to hate – still the name that pillocks such as Jimmy Greaves and various other has-beens can barely bring themselves to spit out with all the venom at their command. Unpopular doesn’t really begin to describe it. Leeds United, as an institution, is marginally less palatable for Joe and Jill Public than a slug sandwich.

And yet, so far, the Daily Heil and its bottom-feeding brethren at the sewer end of Fleet Street have failed to make capital of this. Instead, they’re concentrating on other, seemingly less damaging issues. Not all that damaging to Miliband, anyway. Today, it’s a peculiar non-story about the Labour leader’s love-life prior to his thirteen-year relationship with barrister Justine Thornton, his wife since 2010 and the mother of his two children Daniel and Samuel. It’s a shocker that, isn’t it? 45 year old man had relationships before he met his wife. A heinous crime.

Really, it’s just too laughable for words – and resounding testimony to just how worried the Tory press has become of late. The Daily Heil, by the way, is owned by Jonathan Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere – who, interestingly, is a non-dom – a category of tax avoiders who have been much in the news this past day or so. The fact that the gloves are now coming off may not be entirely unrelated to this issue.

So it is laughable – except for the people incidentally involved in the revelations about Miliband’s pre-current relationship history. One of those people just happens to be a woman who was recently bereaved of her husband and is therefore currently going through a very dark and lonely time indeed. She’ll need all the sympathy and support she can get right now – but there she is, on the front page of Viscount Rothermere‘s toilet roll of a so-called newspaper, being shamefully exploited because Jonathan Harmsworth doesn’t want a Labour government interfering with his opportunist taxation arrangements. Pass the sick bag, do. The reference in this article to Ed Miliband and his impeccable choice of football club is intentionally light-hearted – but really, I’d rather they used that, for all the good it would do them –  instead of intruding so callously on the grief of a woman whose only “crime” is once to have been involved with the man who will probably be our next Prime Minister.

I want Ed Miliband to be the next Prime Minister. We all should really – we’re all Leeds, aren’t we, after all? And yet I’m aware that, in the demographic of Leeds United support, that ain’t necessarily so. There are plenty of you out there who, for reasons I just can’t begin to fathom (unless you really are slavish believers of tabloid tripe), intend to do all they can to vote this incompetent and corrupt shower back into the power they should never have had their hands on in the first place. Which, I feel, is a shame.

But if I can do my bit, through Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything, to highlight some of the nasty-minded, shamefully-motivated tricks that are currently being played by the rich and powerful to protect their own vested interests – then this article will not have been in vain. If it results in just one or two people thinking for themselves, instead of believing what they’re being fed by self-interested and greedy owners and editors, then all of the pixels and fonts thus invested will have been worthwhile; indeed, cheap at the price. Especially if that all ends up with a tick going in what I firmly believe to be the right box on May 7th.

Ed for PM! Let’s have a Leeds fan in Number Ten, not least because it will further annoy and discomfit all of those rabid Whites-haters around the country and the world. For all the right reasons, of which there are many – and even some of the less serious and more light-hearted ones –


Death of a Leeds United Fan – by Rob Atkinson

Kenneth Atkinson 7.7.1927 - 27.2.2015 Taken on my parents' wedding  day

Kenneth Atkinson 7th July 1927 – 27th February 2015
Taken on my parents’ wedding day, 1959

My Dad died in the early hours of this morning. He’d been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for the very last part of his life, and there’s that inescapable feeling that this loss is just final confirmation of what has been a gradual departure over the last few years. It’s still a shock, though – and, blogs being blogs, this is where I have to say how I feel – and make my last farewell.

Dad was a ridiculously handsome man who failed utterly to pass those fortunate genes on to me, bequeathing instead a fanatical love for Leeds United Football Club. He was Mr. LUFC to me, John Charles’ greatest fan and a dedicated match-goer through the Don Revie glory years – when I was just a small child with no interest in the game. I wondered back then what all the fuss was about, to be honest – but when he finally relented and took me to my first ever match, that was it. I was hooked for life, and the many misfortunes of the Whites, together with their sadly few triumphs, have been mine too over the past forty years. Thanks, Dad. It was somewhat of a poisoned chalice you passed on to me, but I wouldn’t be without it.

Kenneth Atkinson was much, much more than just a football fan, of course. He was at various times a National Service soldier, a fine and well-loved teacher, a wonderful gardener, a DIY God, a Bing Crosby and Gracie Fields fan who was also much addicted to military and brass band music – and of course he was a son, a brother, a father and a grandfather. He was never happier than when he was in his garden or his garage, pottering about and making things beautiful. Those last three words would be a fine epitaph for anyone, I feel.

He was a Tory too, my Dad – but that wasn’t his fault. He’d caught it off his Ma and it came down a long line of impecunious smallholders, so I never held it against him. It gave us something else to argue about when the football was just too depressing for words. He liked to display the remnants of his language skills, as well, having won prizes for them in the early forties at the Kings School, Pontefract. I once went for a job at a frozen foods head office, and he left me a note, mixed French and Latin: “Courage, mon brave, à bas les peurs. Bonne chance. Per ardua ad Fish Fingers!” His was a unique and not completely accessible sense of humour. As he got older, he’d laugh helplessly at any jokes we told him – but in years gone by, only his own witticisms really tickled him. Then, when he’d said something he thought incredibly funny, he’d sit there, tears rolling down his cheeks, throbbing with silent, painful mirth until we were all in tucks just at the sight of him. It makes me smile now, just to think of it.

As Dad got older, the Alzheimer’s condition took an ever firmer grip on him. And yet, quite late in his life, he was active and nimble of mind. He loved to tell and write about his early memories of Pontefract, his home for all the 87 years of his life, and the place from which he set off on his travels to all four corners of the earth. I published on here a piece he wrote about his childhood in Old Church in Ponte, and this shows he had a tale or two to tell – and told them well. Really, the first thing that convinced me he was losing his grip on reality was an increasing sympathy for Man U and “Fergie”, as he referred to a man I can never bring myself to acknowledge. But that probably says more about my extreme prejudice than it does about my Dad’s state of mind.

I’ve never been very good at goodbyes, but this one has been coming for a while. I’ll remember him for the things he loved – the football, the garden, his immaculate tool shed. And the people, too – his wife, my Mum, who he was crazy about for well over fifty years, his parents when they were around, we three lads, his brother and sisters, two of whom went before him, and of course his three grandchildren. I was always proud that his only grand-daughter – my daughter Kate – was born on his 66th birthday; surely the best present he ever got. I’ll leave the actual goodbye to a quote from her, earlier today:

When I think of being little, I always think of sitting with my Grandad in his beautiful garden. I can’t imagine my next birthday, because it’ll be the first in my life that isn’t his birthday too. I’ll miss his huge hands and I’ll miss his terrible French and I’ll miss his stories about teaching and travelling. Goodbye Grandad. I love you forever, and I hope you’re back in your garden now.

As someone who always raised his own flowers, I’m sure he’d not wish them now. But if anyone is moved to make a small donation to the Alzheimer’s Society, then that would be a blessing and very much appreciated.

RIP, Dad. I hope Leeds can do the decent thing and wallop Watford for you. Say hi to Don and Billy and Gary and John Charles for me, won’t you.

And last of all – à bientôt, Papa xx

Memory Match No. 11: Nottm Forest 0, Leeds Utd 4 29.11.2011

Jonny Howson celebrates at the City Ground

Jonny Howson celebrates at the City Ground

Whatever some people may think of Leeds United fans – and who cares, after all, because we all know what fine, upstanding chaps we are – they certainly know the ideal form when it comes to paying full and emotional tribute to a hero lost long before his time.

In the universe of all things Leeds, the news of Gary Speed’s tragic and untimely death came as a JFK moment: you just know that, years later, you’ll recall exactly where you were when you heard the awful, mind-numbing announcement that such a recent Legend in White was dead, and apparently by his own hand.

The images are certainly clear and sharp over a year down the line: the sea of floral tributes around the foot of Billy Bremner’s statue; the crowds that gathered in silent, respectful tribute; the sight of that fine professional Bryn Law, struggling to contain his tears as he reported from Elland Road on the death of his friend, the female anchor in the studio clearly moved to tears herself as she witnessed his distress.  It was a tragic time of shock and grief.

In retrospect, it is clear that the next opponents for Leeds United in their undistinguished Championship campaign were on an absolute hiding to nothing.  Team and fans alike, emerging from that initial shock into a reluctant acceptance, were determined to pay the finest possible tribute to a fallen hero.  Speedo was, after all, a true legend from the most recent era of real legends, a veteran of the Leeds United renaissance of the late eighties and early nineties.  We had previously mourned our dead of that earlier generation of greats; The Don was gone and so was King Billy, neither having lived to grow old.  But the death of Speed was that much more of a shock; that much more distressing for his relative youth, for his contemporary appeal to a younger breed of Leeds support who had not witnessed Revie’s greats, and for the awful circumstances which had compelled a young man with seemingly everything going for him to take his own life.

The thousands of Leeds fans who descended upon the City Ground that November night may well have been pondering the state of mind that leads to such an awfully final act.  They were certainly determined to pay characteristically raucous tribute: this would be no solemn wake, but a vibrant celebration of all that Gary Speed meant to the Barmy Army of Leeds United’s travelling support. The match itself was necessarily a footnote to the real agenda of the evening.  Forest were pitiful in their ineptitude – a team that would later travel to Elland Road and score seven had nothing to offer in the face of United’s determination to mark the first match after Gary Speed’s death with a thumping victory.  The home team seemed out of the running from the start; it was as if they knew, in the face of the emotional momentum behind the Leeds team and fans, that they had no chance at all – and they meekly accepted their fate.

Before kick-off, there had been the now traditional minute’s applause – such a preferable option to the old-style minute’s silence with its potential to be disrupted by a few shandy-slewed idiots.  In the 11th minute, a tribute to Speed’s occupation of the number 11 white shirt, the 4000-strong Leeds United army behind one goal erupted into a chant of his name, a chant that was intended to be maintained for that poignant number of 11 minutes.  The tribute was interrupted for the best of reasons as Robert Snodgrass fired United into a 20th minute lead, a left foot shot into the bottom corner very much in the style of the man himself.  On the stroke of half time, Jonny Howson doubled the lead with an even better strike, the ball sitting up for him to belt a dipping right-footed effort past a helpless Lee Camp.  2-0 at the interval, and the home side had done little to suggest that it had any intention of detracting from the tributes of Leeds fans and players alike.

In the second half the pattern continued unchanged.  Forest remained awful, the home section of support seemed to expect nothing better and Leeds strolled to two further goals towards a comprehensive victory.  First just four minutes into the second half Luciano Becchio met a left wing cross at the near post to glance a fine header across Camp into the far corner.  Then in the 66th minute, the messiest of fourth goals.  The Forest defence conspired in its own destruction, parting like the Red Sea to lay on a clear chance for Howson to score his second, only for the over-worked and under-protected Camp to first save the effort, and then scramble after the loose ball.  His heroics were to no avail however as Adam Clayton picked up on the rebound to find a yard of space and fire into the empty net.

One thing that stands out in the writing of this article is the fact that, in the relatively short time since Forest were humbled, all four of the United scorers that night have left the club.  It’s a rather depressing thought, but they were certainly all Leeds all the way that night, and delighted to be able to help the Whites fans celebrate the life of one of their heroes with their own loud and proud tributes, and with a thumping victory to boot.  Forest’s only real contribution to the evening came late on when the frustrated and already-booked Andy Reid earned himself a second yellow with an agricultural challenge on Aidy White.  “Can we play you every week?” roared the United fans, a sentiment that would not survive the return game at Elland Road – and they would be glad too that it’s not every week they have cause to mark the passing of a United great at such a tragically young age, and in such awful circumstances.

 Gary Andrew Speed MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) Leeds United 1988 – 1996, 2nd Division Championship Winner, First Division Championship Winner, Charity Shield Winner. 



 Next:  Memory Match No. 12:  Real Madrid 3, Leeds United 2.  The late, great Don Revie always longed for his legendary Leeds United side to be pitched against the biggest legends of them all, and to draw CF Real Madrid in European competition.  Sadly, it never happened in The Don’s lifetime, but when a slightly less vintage era of Leeds finally appeared in the amazing Estadio Santiago Bernebeu, they were not disgraced – indeed, I rather think that Sir Don would have been proud.

When Winifred Died

(Inspired by my Mum’s poem of the same name, which is reproduced with her kind permission below this article)

june11Sometimes, a seemingly normal day can turn suddenly significant, and mark a change in your life.

On June the 11th 1986, I went along to the poky offices of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Moorthorpe, between South Elmsall and South Kirkby in West Yorkshire, for my regular stint as a volunteer adviser. At the age of 24, I had two abortive stabs at Higher Education behind me, I’d gained a rather sketchy qualification in computer programming, and I’d worked as a hospital gardener and as an assistant school caretaker. The bright young lad from Ponte was off to an indifferent start to what has turned out an indifferent career. But I was still optimistic back then, and I assumed I’d serve a breezy apprenticeship in advice work, and then a CAB of my own would just drop into my lap, and I’d be set. CAB Manager somewhere, they’d promised; inspirational motivator and trainer of volunteers, solver of multifarious problems and crusading campaigner on burning social policy issues, that’d be me. Rob Atkinson: success.

That it didn’t quite work out that way is incidental to this tale, but such was the backdrop to this particular sunny morning. It was a watershed in my life for quite another reason though; for on that unsuspecting June day, my Nana Cawthorne died. She was not the first grandparent I’d lost – I’d already run out of Grandads. Nan’s husband, Walter Michael, had died relatively young in the early 70’s when I was a skinny rabbit of 10 or 11. He’d been an object of terrified fascination for me, prone to loud bellows, snapping his leather belt suddenly and shatteringly, rattling his false teeth at me with no warning, and holding forth stridently about his health problems, the ones that eventually got him (they stuck a tube up my arse, the buggers, and drained about two pints of blood out, two bloody pints!) When he died, my Mum was deeply upset, as you might expect, and we kids dashed upstairs in tears when we heard. For myself back then, I wasn’t quite sure how I felt, but it seemed polite to join in the weeping. I think I was too young to appreciate what a character Grandad Cawthorne was – he’d been a Regimental Sergeant-Major in the Army, and was a bit of a lad all round – so my main impression of him was his larger than life scariness. Years later, I wished I’d have known him when I was older and could have better appreciated him as a bloke, but at the time I felt more sympathy for my Mum than any real sense of loss myself.

My other Grandad – my Dad’s dad – had been a vaguely gentle sort of man, a pillar of his local Working Men’s Club and much given to pulling a wooden trolley behind him as he wandered around his neighbourhood. He’d bring it home laden with various bits and pieces which he’d then stash in his shed, hoping they’d be useful at some unspecified future date. He also used to draw busy farmyard scenes in blue biro, and I remember watching these take shape and being impressed in a one-step-removed sort of way – I was really more of a reader, myself. Harold Atkinson died in my mid-teens, his passing eased and attended by my Mum, dutiful daughter-in-law, through the wee small hours of a summer night. We boys were left at home, and my brother Gray and I got up really early, still unaware of Grandad A’s demise. We went for a walk down to the Rookeries to watch the sun rise – because we could – and nicked a pint of milk from someone’s doorstep on the way back, to make Angel Delight for breakfast. When I heard I was now Grandad-less, I once again felt a weird and slightly guilty sense of detachment – a feeling that this didn’t really involve me. They told me my Nana Atkinson’s reaction had been to say “Oh dear, who’s going to run my errands now?” which did evoke a regretful feeling that this wasn’t much of an epitaph.

So, two grandparents down, and I was starting to wonder if I had any finer feelings to hurt. I’d been more upset so far at the passing of various small pet rodents, than these actual bereavements where I’d lost close relatives who’d embellished all my childhood occasions. It seemed strange, and a bit worrying. I think I pondered over whether I was some sort of emotional black hole.

But my Nana Cawthorne was different. She’d always been my special ally in family squabbles, and we used to swap books and share our opinions. She’d sit me down in front of her chair when she came to visit, and tell me stories of her days as a young girl “in service”, as they called it – when she worked as a lowly maid in some rich house. She was from the south, and her accent was music to my ears – she’d talk away gently, knitting all the while, and I was mesmerised by the flow of her narrative, punctuated with knitting-needle clicks and the odd chesty cough – she was a compulsive smoker until her last days. Many, many afternoons passed happily by like this, and yet I can’t now, for the life of me, recall any of the tales she told. I think perhaps it was the tone of her voice, calm and soothing, with a gentle southern burr that delighted me. I just know I was always happy when she was around, content to sit on the rug before her bony knees, looking up occasionally at the thin face behind the flickering knitting-needles, with its folds of skin and rheumy eyes, the wispy cloud of grey hair. Yes, I certainly loved my Nana Cawthorne.

In the normal run of life, though, I saw less of her as I got older, and of course I was away from home for a couple of years, discovering that I was not cut out for academic life. Then there were various brushes with the world of work, and I was seduced by the twin Sirens of beer and amateur theatre which, between them, pretty much accounted for my social life in my young adulthood. There was football, too, and I was either playing it for a lot of the early 80’s, or rampaging around the country following Leeds United in a more or less well-behaved way. All this time Nan grew older and steadily more crotchety, so I heard. It felt natural that I saw less of extended family now I was busy with friends in different spheres, and it became an infrequent treat for me to see my Nan and catch up. After I’d stopped gardening and computing and caretaking, I drifted into voluntary work of various types as a reaction against the rigidity of the Thatcher government, always doing something connected to helping people in dire situations. As with most types of volunteering, the money was non-existent, but the satisfaction was great, and there were evidently prospects. I landed up in the Citizens Advice Bureau in my Nan’s village, so I’d see more of her into the bargain. Good move.

Nan had recently accompanied Mum and Dad on a camping holiday – I think it was shortly after she’d had to have a spell in a Residential Care Home because my aunt and uncle, with whom she was living, had been away. She hated the Home – and made no bones about the fact. She’d also been prevailed upon to stop smoking, because of the state of her lungs, and her generally frail condition. I still think that these two unavoidable factors were the beginning of the end for my Nan.

The camping holiday itself was not an unqualified success, as Nan was in a wheelchair by now, and needed a great deal of looking after. I think she also harboured a lingering resentment over her time in the Home – “that place” – and was not disposed, on that account, to be all sweetness and light. Whatever the whys and wherefores, it seems that all was not harmony, and my Mum was weary and disillusioned when they got home. The last time I saw my Nan properly – in an able-to-chat, compos mentis sort of way – was when she came to our house just as I was ready to go out somewhere. As she was getting through the front door, I was heading down the hallway, and I gave her a quick kiss and asked if she’d enjoyed the camping break.
“Not really, Rob,” she said. “It was all a bit too much.” I distinctly remember thinking this was a little ungrateful after all my parents’ efforts, and I brushed it off as I departed, saying, oh well, never mind, see you soon. How I’ve regretted that, ever since.

The next time I saw her was on that pleasant June day which proved to be Nan’s last. After getting to the CAB to start my advice session, I got a phone call from Mum, who was at my aunt’s house in the village – she told me that Nan was very ill, and I’d better get up there to say goodbye. In a bit of a daze, yet with a sense of occasion, I asked the manager, Joan – a very dear friend – if she’d come with me. And off we went to say a last goodbye to my lovely Nan, and again I had that unsettling worry over just how I was feeling.

When we got to the house, we were ushered straight up to Nan’s room, and there she was, in bed and virtually breathing her last. I looked down at her, and immediately felt the sting of tears in my eyes as I realised a big part of my life was about to slip over the edge into eternity. She was quite far gone, just about beyond the power of speech, but as I bent over her she opened her eyes slowly, and almost smiled. “Hello, Nan”, I whispered. Her eyes had closed again, and when I looked at Mum, she just shook her head slowly and sadly. Thinking there was not a great deal I could do, and wary of getting in the way of Mum and my aunts who were also gathered around in the small room, I edged towards the door, whispering to Joan that we might as well get back to the Bureau. “See you later, Nan”, I called softly. Her eyes didn’t open this time, but again there was almost a smile, and now she breathed a barely audible “Goodbye, Rob.”

My thoughts were tinged with slight embarrassment as I made my way downstairs, because I’d nearly cried in front of everyone, and that doesn’t sit easily at twenty-four. Suddenly though, I was aware of the most delightful, wonderful fragrance, really heady and overpowering, but absolutely beautiful. I turned to my aunt and smiled, “Blimey, Mags, that air-freshener’s gorgeous!” She gave me a puzzled smile back, but said nothing. Joan and I drove back to the CAB in that silence that you can have quite comfortably between good friends, and I got on with my day as best I could.

Later, in the afternoon, I got another phone call, from my Auntie Mags this time, telling me that Nan had passed away. No doubts now over how I felt, but neither the urge nor the need for showy tears. I just cuddled the hollow sense of loss, and thought back to that last time I’d seen her coming through the front door at our house. As I have many times since, I wished I could go back to that day and have a final good old chat with her, the way we’d done so many times before. It was my first real taste of the dry ashes of bereavement. I headed back to Mags’ house, alone this time I think. The time for goodbyes had been and gone, but I could hug my Mum and talk to everyone who’d been there as Nan faded out of this life. And I could see my Nan at peace. She looked, to me, almost unrecognisable. Her face had smoothed out completely, all the wrinkles and folds that a long hard life had written over her features had been relaxed away by death. She looked even smaller than she actually was, and very, very still. It was the first time I’d seen someone dead, and I was duly impressed by the sheer, awesome finality of it.

The following morning, I was back at the CAB, and Joan gave me a hug and asked if I was alright. I was fine, I said, and I was happy to be back at work, happy that my Nan was out of a life that had become onerous to her and happy that my Mum was preoccupied with sweet memories, rather than their occasional tiffs and fallings-out. Joan smiled, and then she asked me if I remembered the previous day, and going down the stairs after Nan had said goodbye. “You could smell flowers, or something just as nice, couldn’t you?” she said. I nodded my head; it was a vivid memory – I’d never known a scent like it. Joan smiled again, a little sadly. “Your aunt couldn’t smell anything you know, Rob, and neither could I. The hairs on the back of my neck stood right up when you said you could smell it. It’s supposed to be a sign that someone close to you is near to dying, but that they’re going on somewhere wonderful.”

It’s 27 years now, since my Nana Cawthorne died. From that day to this, it’s as close as I’ve ever been to a supernatural experience, and I’m still not quite sure I believe it – though it’s an experience that you can see has been shared by others, as a Google search will readily confirm. I can’t deny that I definitely did smell that overpoweringly beautiful scent, and that it took me aback – enough for me to remark upon it. I’ve known nothing like it, before or since. And I’m assured that it was an experience confined to me alone, undetected by anyone else. Was it my Nana saying goodbye, as she had in so many words just a minute before? Did she know that she was leaving us, and was she certain that she was heading off in glory to somewhere better? I just don’t know, but I like to think so.

What I am certain of is that my lovely Nan was at peace that day, and that she would have smiled that old familiar smile at me if she’d been able to – she tried, twice, but it was beyond her. That she somehow gathered the strength to say “Goodbye, Rob” is something amazing that I’ll always be grateful for. And I’d love to think that she’s somewhere beautiful right now, and that maybe I’ll see her again one day. These are things I just can’t make up my mind over – but being with Winifred the day she died has taken away from me any horror or fear of death itself. A gentler passing you could not have witnessed; I know this, even though I wasn’t there at the moment she left us.

Nan had it sorted, in the end. She always was of an independent spirit, and she seemed contented enough, that last day. She was ready, she’d had enough, and she went. Whatever the ins and outs of supernatural signs, and wherever she ended up, if anywhere, I honestly don’t think anyone could ask for more or better than Nan’s final moments, when their tide finally runs out.

Winifred’s still with me, too. Whenever I smell flowers on a warm summer’s day, I smile – and think of my Nan.


Winifred Margaret Laura Cawthorne

“When Winifred Died”

by Lesley Atkinson

On June the Eleventh, Winifred died

We sisters two, sat by her side

This is our mother, she’s dying we sighed

Our brother was waiting, our children were too

The cotton-wool clouds in the sky so blue

Were taking on shapes which blocked our view

Of eternity

Sometimes she was wicked, sometimes she was wise

Thinly-veined eyelids hid summer-blue eyes

She’s going, we said

She’s gone! we cried

The mother who tricked us so often, so sweetly

Had gone within seconds, and gone so completely!

We opened the window, her spirit rose free

Into the waiting sycamore tree

The sisters, the brother, the children all cried

The world lost a witch, when Winifred died


Thanks again, Mum xxx