Seismograf · leon clowes: Secrets Keep Us Sick but Pop Music Brings Us Closer
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SECRETS: The Last Five Days Of Sandra

‘No, he is absolutely not my father. He’s not even my stepfather. It’s complicated. He’s mybrother-in-law really. It’s just that his wife is my birthmother, but I was adopted by herparents, so I grew up with her as my sister. There is no way on earth that Peter brought meup. However, for the purposes of this, yes, he is my father. I should like to make it quite clearthough that Peter’s done no fathering of me.’ Is what I wanted to say to the nurse but did not. It made me shudder that anyone would think for one moment that Peter had any role whatsoever in rearing me. But at the hospital, theyhad to believe I was close family. I was. I was Sandra’s first-born son. You don’t get much closer than that. I’d only a few daysbefore met their neighbour Sweaty Sammy (I think he was on legal highs) and his openingwords to me were ‘They’ve been like parents to me, Peter and Sandra. I didn’t know therewas a another son.’ Well fuck you very much, that’s really handy at your deathbed, Sandra. Imean, I only grew up seven miles away in Staffordshire and begrudgingly visited and calledyou every week for most of the forty-three years of my life. After what I’d found out that morning, I’m not surprised I was never mentioned. ______________________________________________________________________________

‘Peter!’ Sandra is rasping, straining as she tries to lift up from the hospital bed. She can barely make out the name. Only I can hear it. ‘Peter…’ I know what she’s talking about. It’s 6.30am and Brendan and I had rushed Peter into hospital after I’d got a call from the ward. I’d contacted the others who got there too. Aunty Ann and Uncle David. Glenis had come. Nosey Linda too. (Of course she had.) ‘It’s Peter’ With all of us in the room, it’s only me she’s looking at. It was only me she was looking at all of yesterday too, on the first day of her last five days. She had no voice then though with the aftershock of the stroke. But from the look in her eyes, I knew then she was going to say it. ‘Peter!’ She barely has a voice now. It’s a painful struggle for her to speak. This time her husband Peter beside her hears. He leans towards her, anxious, clasps her hands: ‘I’m here, Sandra. I’m here.’ She’s not looking at him though, it’s me. I know she’s not talking about him. This Peter, the one sat next to her in the room. Her eyes are knives. I look at the others: ‘Sandra and I need some time. Can you wait outside?’ They shuffle out of the ward – Peter, Brendan, Glenis, Nosey Linda, Aunty Ann and Uncle David. Aunty Ann is glaring at me as she leaves. She knows what this is about. Did she hear Sandra ask for Peter? I check to make sure they are out of earshot. I sit on the bed my face and her face directly up close, narrowing my eyes. The rest of her reamins this twisted rope, a jerking half body that has maybe a few hours left, thirty years ravaged by MS, a plastic bag of skin and bones. ‘I know who you are talking about. You mean Uncle Peter, don’t you? Peter Scragg.’ She looks set to detonate, she is fear. She nods. Our eyes are locked. ‘Peter, wasn’t it? He’s the one that did it. You’re telling me who it is.’ ‘He raped me.. raped me.’ She’s shaking again. She looks so scared. ‘Peter, it was Peter.’ ‘I know. We knew. We worked it out, me and Brendan, about six months ago, from a photograph. I have the same nose.’ ‘Peter, he raped me.’ ‘I’m sorry he did that. Thank you for telling me.’ The sheer extremity of the situation, and for this, the big Eastenders reveal. This, the thing that I’d had to wait forty three years to be told. All I could say was sorry and thank you. It was that bland and mundane. She finally told me, Sandra finally once and for all said it. And that was it. I heard the words. It was over, it was beginning. It meant everything possible and nothing whatsoever. Half of me, none of me. All of me. ______________________________________________________________________________

It had taken long that night to calm Sandra – and Peter. They were beyond exhausted, fraught, running on empty, jittering. But calm them Brendan and I did. Finally, in the side room ward Sandra was sleeping again and Peter was now too, leant over her bedside. Brendan and I looked at each other. We picked up two pillows. ‘Quick, now’s our chance, you take him, and I’ll take her. Over their faces. Finish them off.’ We both raised our pillows and advanced with stealth towards them until we had to stop, shaking so much with silent laughter that nearly ruptured into roaring hysteria from fatigue and tension. I knew Chris The Gold Digger was coming over to visit. I had texted her to say how she’d be welcome and that it had taken a while for Sandra to sleep so she might want to enter quietly so as not to disturb them. Not much to ask I innocently thought, dying woman and all, but by god, didn’t that come back on me. An hour later, Chris arrived, threw open the side ward door and right on cue one of her GBH convicted sons called her mobile phone as she arrived in Sandra’s room. The carnival had begun resplendent in a fat-roll stretched polyester bumble bee top. ‘Hiiii San how you doing!!!! The party is here - time for some fun !!!!’ Quarter past ten in a terminal hospital ward and the clattering of lucky charms were to either to wake the nearly dead or pretty much finish her off. Probably the latter. In a split second I realised how I’d royally fucked The Gold Digger off. Just who the fuck was this snooty queer from London telling her how to behave? Her territorial attack was a proper trash flash blast. They’d never mentioned this ‘other’ son to Chris, but sure as hell I was not going to get in her way. She had her eye on Peter as her fifth husband, the next one to loot and bury. I mean it’s not like they’d ever left the house and spent any of that disability allowance. She had her eye on the prize when she’d been going over to help out Peter with the ironing over the last few years. Conceding defeat, I retreated to the pub with Brendan.


I was 43 before I knew half of me I was 43 before I knew what I was to be I was 43 before I knew what made me Finding out what I did at 43 was very nearly the end and very much the start of me ______________________________________________________________________________

I felt sick inside The night spider caught the fly And he took me to his parlour Where he fumbled me Tussled me Made me feel real dirty He made a false entry Oh yes I felt sick inside The time I watched this memory revived And put on view put on sale Out for consumption Out for corruption The fly that was sucked dry And the spider that loved, lost and thrived I felt sick inside The day I heard the spider died I felt sick inside This morning I’m told I should die Deserved to suffer Deserve the strain Something I’d not wished again And as you climbed into bed I felt sick instead And as you laid by my side I felt sick inside And as you kissed my breast I felt sick instead As you touched my thigh I felt sick inside As you forced your way inside I felt sick inside ______________________________________________________________________________

The very last time I took an alcoholic drink was Lion’s Gate: 8th of the 8th month of 2021. Or thereabouts. It was Red Stripe. Easier to carry a can from the Vauxhall Tavern as I walked along the river. I’d not picked any guys up to take home that night. First I heard him, it was the sound of a portable radio that was beside him sat on the bench opposite the Millennium Eye. It was near 6am and light by then. I was drawn to him. Sat on another bench nearby. I don't know how we got talking. Don’t recall him talking to me as such, he was just … talking. He knew I was there and he didn’t stop talking and he was talking to me even though he wasn’t looking at me. I got closer. Sat next to him. Told him my name. He gave me a cigarette. He told me he was schizophrenic. I told him my father was too. That I never really knew my father, only met him once in a mental hospital when my grandparents took me in to visit. I was a young boy, I was told he was my great uncle. Which he was of course as well. I told him that this Peter had raped his niece and that is how I came to be. He didn’t stop talking. He talked a lot about radio stations and I asked him to turn off the radio. He did. He still continued talking. He’d got into trouble with young girls. They’d set him up, he said. Led him on, they had. Got him into trouble. They knew what they were doing, he said. He was homeless now. He told me he was bisexual. I finished the second cigarette he gave me. I admitted I wanted to take him home but I knew I shouldn’t. He asked me to kiss him on the cheek. I did. I got up to leave. As I walked back towards Hungerford Bridge he let out a big deep painful cry: ‘Leon! Please help me!’ It was then I realised this man had been channeling my father Peter. ______________________________________________________________________________

On the very last day of Sandra, we had a plan. Brendan and I.

It had been four days now that she’d been nil by mouth on the Liverpool Care Pathway. She’d spent the six weeks before in hospital after Peter had dropped her in her wheelchair, him unable to cope with the physical demands of caring for his wife after 33 years. Her disability had been increasing due to multiple sclerosis.

I’d seen her laid flat out in a ward weeks before, she was crying as she has been in pain for over an hour and needed to be moved in her bed by the nurses but was unable to get their attention as there was also an old lady with dementia on the ward who was constantly needing attention.

So there she was, my birth mother, being ignored again. Forgotten. Hidden. In pain.

But on this last and final day of Sandra, I needed to say to her that it was ok, and it was time for her to go.

Until the day before the last day of Sandra, I didn’t know that that was what people did. My friend Lindsay and Sandra’s neighbour Sheila had gently told me that sometimes, when people are clinging onto life, they need permission to let go, and take that step into the unknown.

I knew I couldn’t do this in front of Peter, her husband. He was unable to accept, no matter that we had been told, that there was nothing more that medicine, the NHS, the doctors, the nurses, nothing more they could do.

So Brendan took Peter for a coffee that Sunday morning. We told him he needed a break from being at Sandra’s bedside.

A nurse came into the side ward where Sandra had been moved in anticipation of her dying. The telly was on, she couldn’t speak any more. I worried she’d lost her voice after she’d desperately gulped some ice cream yesterday evening when we were watching ‘The X Factor’ with her friend Glen. That must have been her last sensation of joy.

On the telly was a 1970s film, no idea what it was, but Frances De La Tour was in it. I told Sandra and the nurse how I got told how I look like the actress, but I think Sandra really is the spitting image. The nurse agreed. It was hard to tell what Sandra was registering by then. The nurse left the room.

I combed Sandra’s hair and dabbed moisture on her lips with a damp tissue. She faced me, mute.

I said to Sandra she mustn’t worry about Peter, that I would look after him. That he would be ok. That he would miss her terribly but that it was time to go, she need not hang on any more, the pain would be over.

She stared expressionless, motionless, not blinking. Words mean nothing and everything. Soon after, Peter and Brendan came back into the room.


Here am in dreams

With a snake on my back

A python slowly crawling

Down through my shirt

I hear you calling


I see you crawling

Oh here I am in dreams

In the bottom of the pool

Snake slowly rising through the murky stream

I try to call out, fall out

I, I … try to breathe

Oh here I am in nightmare land

Lying wide awake

I hardly dare move for the bite of the snakes

All around on the floor the snake is

Snake is calling

Here I am in wakefulness and

Sit afraid of moving

Frightened that the snake will wind and see me moving

Drop me the ladder quick

I want out of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out

Of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out

Of this snakepit

Drop me the ladder quick, I want out

Of this snakepit



What must it have been like, stuck in that wheelchair? Sandra had the highest marks in NorthStaffordshire for her 11+ but she never got to take her O Levels. Too ashamed after givingbirth at 14.

Sandra was a sociable creature, too. That woman who used to come round most weekdayafternoons and smoke four Consulates in a row as she’d told her husband she’d given up thefags years before. Sandra loved the chat.

They did less and less as they got older. Sandra and Peter had become more withdrawn,more isolated. The reasons not to do anything became entrenched, so they didn’t see, or do, pretty much anything at all. They just smoked Superkings and watched channel Dave. Sittingat that DFS kitchen table for hours of QI reruns put me off watching the telly forever.

They never used the front room with the windows.

Image by Patrick Young, courtesy of Britten Pears Arts

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