hoopoes

Every once in a while, Ray and I would take the short trek up the High Street and visit his local, The Three Kings. It’s up a little rise, one of the Isle’s gentle undulations, and it takes about three minutes to walk there at a healthy need-a-pint pace, and in we’d go, and depending on the weather sit by the fire or park ourselves outside on a bench. And he’d get the first round, and I’d get the second. And we’d talk nonsense for forty minutes; and then we’d toddle back. It was a simple ritual, but one I always cherished.

Ray had no reason to give me the time of day, but he did. Anyone else in his situation could have quite understandably wished to have never had anything to do with me ever again. A sorry excuse for a man who walked out on his daughter shouldn’t have been afforded the privilege of his company.

I didn’t deserve his friendship, but Ray wasn’t like anyone else, and over the last few years he helped me realise I wasn’t a lost cause. Without him I’m not sure I would have had the inspiration to reconnect and repair the things I had so stupidly snapped. Or to even attempt it. He was an amazing man, generous of heart and filled with warmth and conviviality. He had spirit, and great good will and more importantly – and for me, crucially – he had forgiveness. I will never forget that, I’ll always treasure it. He was softly-spoken, considered, happy to spend time with you in silence as well as chatter. Ray didn’t have anything to prove. He just got on with you, with no fuss or artifice.

Ray was a helper. A fixer-upper, a plumber, a sparks, a shelf-putter-upper, a gardener, a leveller, a digger, and a mucker-inner. Whenever we had a problem he’d turn up, bag of tools in hand and be ready to pitch in. He just wanted to help out. I’ve often walked into a kitchen or a bathroom to find his legs or his rear end sticking out from under a cupboard or a cabinet. And oddly, he was always finished with about 40 minutes to go until lunch and a they’ll-be-open-across-the-road look sparkling in his eye.

Wordsworth said that the “best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and of love” were the most important. If that’s true (and it is) then Ray’s time here was crammed with the best of life. He loved his family and his friends and quietly got on with it. He just got on with it. Expecting nothing, but always giving and helping and providing. I loved him very much.

As Ray’s illness began to take hold our trips to the pub took a little longer. We sat inside more. His second pint became a half. We still talked nonsense and laughed at the same jokes and silliness we saw in everyday life, but things were slowing down. When he was very poorly we talked about going up the road once again. Did we both know we wouldn’t be able to? I think we did.

Two days before he died I sat in his house and listened to a clock ticking. I don’t have ticking clocks, and in the empty rooms of the house it echoed like a giant’s footstep. Ray slept fitfully in his room; everyone else, his platoon of gentle attendants, had asked for an hour’s leave. I took his Collins Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe off the shelf, it’s the old grey edition, the one with a Woodpecker on the spine. It’s a well-read and much-loved thing, battered and repaired with tape. It has been all over Europe with him. In the margins and indices he had written notes and lists of the birds he’d seen on family holidays. I open it up at random, and there: Hoopoes. Written during some distant before-we-knew-each-other trip. He’d promised me Hoopoes one year when we went to France, but they never appeared. It became a joke. I smiled and cried, and in the other room he coughed and moaned.

Today I went for a drink with Robin and we talked about his Dad and did an all ’round appalling job of comforting each other, crying into our beer, both of us wishing the other was Ray.

As we talked it came out that the plan is for his ashes to be placed on the gentle hillside that runs down to the fen and overlooks the distant splendour of Ely cathedral. He walked along that path, loved that view. I’ve stood with him there, looking across the flats and agreeing what a fantastic place it is. Unsurprisingly, the path on which you stand to see it eventually runs back to the pub. As I drove home today, tears stinging my eyes, I screeched to a halt, turned the car around and went back to that spot, the view across to the cathedral. I parked up and walked to the spot where we’d been and said a few words for him.

Cheers, Ray. We all miss you.

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