A Couple of Dear Old Dead Shags

Death visited recently.

I say visited, because death is like the arrival of the absence of someone. 

Suddenly, they are everywhere; so many things shimmer with their memory, so many words echo with their absence. 

You don’t have to ‘believe’ in anything to know that somebody recently departed can be very present in your life. 

My good friend and grandfather Harry Shaggas, departed recently. Save for the few months I was travelling last year, I saw and talked to him almost every single day. Is it any wonder I can still hear his cheeky chuckle, or, “Hello, shag!” 

It was a friend’s birthday meal the evening of the day he passed, and I was torn whether to go or not, my partner being ready and my friends expecting my company. 

Grandshag told me, bluntly, that I should go and put on a jacket and take my girl out.

I put on one of his shirts, resisted wearing his red tie with little blue ducks on it, donned a yellow jacket, and took his advice. 

That bluntness, that sanguinity, I respected in him, and treasure in old, wise folk. Blessed are we who have wise old folk who can impart this to us. 

Despite his shaky legs, Grandshag was walking well into his mid-eighties, shuffling his old-man-shoes along to the steady beat of his walking stick. He would walk with his friends and family all around the Petils, the lanes, the greenhouses, the lovely cottages, waving and pontificating as he went. Every house, corner, tree, even drain, had a story behind it. 

Grandshag would always pass the little quarry there, into the middle of which his moorhen would wade and wait for him, hearing the old man’s walking stick approaching, knowing there was some stale bread a-coming.

I had an adoptive Great-Grandmother, Velta, who lived until her 90th year, also sharp as a whip right up until her passing. She had that glorious old-human bluntness, and wide perspective on life, what’s important and what’s not, and she bore her woes and her wit shamelessly. 

Velta would sit at the window on the second floor of her house, gazing over the street outside, always there, ready with a wave. On that window ledge she would crumble bits of bread for the birds, frustrating her daughter, who was more worried about bird poo. Still, she would sit on her perch and crumble her precious bits of bread. 

The last time I saw her, Velta was sat up on her deathbed, aching, tired, tired of life. 

She glanced out the window of the hospital and said, “Maybe it would be easier if I threw myself in that pond.” As with everything she said, there was humour laced with truth – or was it truth laced with humour? 

Velta picked up a sausage she was supposed to be eating. After offering it to me and her great-granddaughter, she smirked, shaking it suggestively. “Do you know what this looks like?” 

When I left the room, I stole one last look at her. She was already looking at me, and with old, wise, tired eyes, she made the slightest of smirks, and blinked at me warmly, not a word said.

She was a knitter, and each year would knit socks and gloves and scarves for the family, until her arthritis got the better of her. 

The next and last time I saw her – her body, I mean – was at the funeral. Velta lay in the casket in repose, and by her hands lay the unfinished glove she had been knitting me. 

Soon after, I am in Herm walking to my tent. Oblique rays of buttery sunshine are splashed across the field. Swifts dart past me, flying and turning at sharp angles, racing and playing, rejoicing in their flight and freedom. Whether it was in my mind, in the moment, or in those birds, Velta was present then. 

Harry Shaggas lived in his own hovel right up until his passing, which I would often pick him up from or simply visit if he wasn’t confident on his tired old legs. 

After something of a fall, and the ambulance popping round, it was clear the old dog needed to go to hospital. The paramedic and I lifted him up onto the collapsable chair, and he was wrapped up in a blanket and strapped in. 

He was wheeled out of his hovel, chatting away, happy as pie, taking the mick out of the paramedic’s steering. As they lifted him into the ambulance, I said, “I’ll see you shortly Harry Shaggas.”

“See ya later, shag,” Grandshag said with a chuckle, chirpily and willingly oblivious to the situation.

The French paramedic started chuckling himself. “I love ‘ow you speak wiz each ozer!”

A couple of days after, still quite drunk, I phoned Grandshag upon waking. 

“Ahem… Carey speaking,” he answers, gruffly.

“Harry fucking Shaggas!” I holler.

“Hehehe! Hello, shag!” He replies.

Cue a quarter-hour conversation about everything and anything and nothing. Characteristically, he huffs about the fuss that’s being made over him, and the litany of unbidden phone calls he has now received – never one for fuss or sympathy. 

Once he was released from quarantine within the hospital, I could go and visit him. 

I bought a mutual favourite of ours, Spike Milligan, for the visit. Grandshag is on his way out, clearly. Reading The Bible According to Spike Milligan almost sees him off, as he laughs with laboured gasps at the not-so-biblical verses, especially the one about Abraham’s progeny begetting hither and thither – under every bush, they were begetting. 

I hold Harry Shaggas’ hand throughout the visit. Though his eyes are closed for most of this visit, he squeezes my hand tightly. 

“Do you want me to bring anything next time? A different book?” I ask him, getting up to leave.

“Maybe something to smoke?” I add, cheekily.

Laid back, in repose, without opening his eyes, he smiles, and says gently, in almost a whisper, “Just yourself.” 

I would have those two words tattooed into my skin if they weren’t already indelibly imprinted on my soul. 

Before being picked up by the paramedics at his hovel, Harry Shaggas wasn’t at his best, having suffered this fall.

I rocked up through the door, exclaiming, “Harry fucking Shaggas, what are you doing down there? Are you not even going to get up and offer me something to drink?!” He chuckles, wincing, and tells me to go and make my bloody own cuppa tea. 

After making him some tea, which he drinks happily through a straw, I ask him with some of his own characteristic bluntness, what he would like us to do with him when he carks it. 

“I don’t want a bloody funeral,” he insists, and tells Mum and I he wants a cremation. 

After our joking protests at the cost of a cremation, I ask, “Where do you want your ashes scattered?”

Harry Shag says, “With my moorhen.”

I bob by myself in the sea off Bordeaux pier days after he passes back into the ether.

The impossible majesty of a new day announces itself with the sun rising over Herm. 

A flock of ducks flies by, beating and quacking, in perfect V formation. 

He is gone, but he is present. 

He is free.

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