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Thursday 1 February 2024

Brendan and the Shared House

New Month Old Post: first posted 3rd February, 2019. (Not that old, but few current followers will have seen it).

Ghana 1970s aerogram with additional stamp

I always assumed we would see each other again one day. We would go to the pub and get pissed and laugh about the people and the good times in the shared houses in Leeds. But it was not to be.

We would remember Ron, the guy who never stopped talking, notorious for ‘ronopolising’ the conversation with his mind-numbing ‘ronologues’ which always began “Did I tell you about the time I …”, and if you had ever been somewhere, done something or seen something, he had always been somewhere, done something or seen something better. He used to leave his towel draped over the hot water cylinder in the bathroom and it stank. He never washed it. You would think a hospital bacteriology technician would have been worried about bugs.

And Pete, who gassed the place out with the peculiar aromatic smell of Holland House pipe tobacco. He smoked even when it was his turn to cook, speckling the plates with ash. He once accidentally tipped the thing over my food and instead of being sorry just laughed and got on with his own unconcerned. Anyone would think he owned the place. Actually, he did. He was always asking “Can I trouble you gentlemen for some rent please?”

Then there was Nick, who could swear like only someone from the back streets of Manchester could, and Larry who made himself dainty little jellies and custards every Monday and lined them up uncovered on the kitchen table for several days (we had no fridge). And Roger, the Ph.D. student with his clever cryptic comebacks, and Paul with the outrageous ginger beard and silly Lancashire accent. And Gavin who was so well organised you had to make an appointment three weeks in advance just to ask him something. And Dave, the Geordie, who did an animated rendition of The Lampton Worm, and was on holiday when the electoral register form came, so we put his middle name down as Aloysius.

And who could forget ‘Pervy Pete’, the television rent collector, who came each month to empty the coin box, greeted us “hello mensies”, and lingered uninvited to take an unseemly interest in which bedrooms we slept? That television always ran out of money right in the middle of Monty Python or just before a punchline in Jokers Wild.

The others came and went, but Brendan and I stayed longest. We were from ordinary Yorkshire backgrounds, shared the same sense of humour and had under-achieved our ‘A’ Levels. Brendan was the liveliest among us, and the best looking. In his long Afghan coat, with his smooth young face and long centrally-parted hair, the kids in the street called him “that lad who looks like David Cassidy.” He made us laugh with his silly puns and deliberate misunderstandings. He could play guitar better than me and instantly put chords to almost any song at all. He could throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it the right way round in his mouth. He had an impossibly beautiful girl friend who was training to be a doctor.

We were both desperate to escape our mundane jobs, me from an accountants’ office and Brendan from a veterinary laboratory, and did so around the same time in 1977, me to university and Brendan on Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). He dreamed of some idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat naked in the twilight, and was dismayed to be sent to sub-Saharan Africa, to an isolated rural village in Northern Ghana called Pong-Tamale, around 400 miles from the coast. It was not even much of a change of job: he went to run a laboratory in a veterinary college.

Pong-Tamale in 2010 (click to play)
In those days, people still wrote letters, and I looked forward to his aerograms dropping through the letterbox with their exotic stamps and tales of distant Africa. Things were not easy. It was oppressively hot. He suffered tropical ailments and diseases. They were short of supplies and equipment. He asked to be sent books as there was little to read and no television, not that they always had electricity to run one.

Yet, after an initial term of eighteen months, he decided to stay. He found a salaried post for three years with the Overseas Development Ministry in the city of Kumasi, about two hundred and fifty miles to the south. Then, after a year back in England, he found a post at Mtwara in Tanzania, and then another at Morogoro. It sounded like a television wildlife documentary: horses, Land Rovers, lions, zebras, and trekking in the Ngorongoro highlands.

I saw him a couple of times over these years during his brief visits home. He was now married with children, and I was busy with my life too. Letters became less frequent. He suggested I visit them in East Africa but it was never the right time.

Then we lost touch. We both moved within a short space of time and I no longer had his address. Due to a downturn in the property market, we rented out my wife’s house where we had been living, and it was ten years before we finally sold it. In emptying it we came across various papers stuffed at the back of a cupboard by tenants, including a ten year old unopened letter from Brendan.

Replying after ten years seemed pointless. Perhaps I should have tried to find him, but didn’t. Did I fear the collision of past and present? We had surely both moved on.

But, it was already too late, as I distressingly discovered yet another decade later. Out of pure curiosity, I typed his distinctive name into a genealogy web site and was shaken to find a record of his death in 2001. It took more time to find what had happened. They had returned permanently to England in the nineteen-nineties, and Brendan had died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 49. He had been living less than ten miles away. All that time ago, and I had no idea.

We’ll never have that drink now.

25 comments:

  1. What a sad ending Tasker. I often think about old friends and what happened to them..?

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    1. It was an awful shock as he was only 49 - only half a life.

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  2. I always wonder where old clubmates, flatmates and landlords went..

    A few have reconnected..some you wish hadn't!..some it's just touch base and good to know you're still ok and carry on on separate paths.
    But sometimes it is frustrating...when you find you've been so near...

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    1. I suspect I still might not have know about this friend had I not typed his name into Ancestry. I only heard the full story by a chance.

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  3. So sad that you and Brendan never reconnected, and that he died so young. But that's how life plays out, doesn't it.

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    1. I sure that most of us would discover similar things if everyone we had ever known was easily traceable.

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  4. So sad. We should always seize the moment but rarely do.

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    1. His letter was not the only thing stuffed at the back of the cupboard. The tenants were not the most well organised people.

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  5. Another case of "What if...?"
    I also regret missed opportunities to reconnect with my 'best' friend from my grammar school days. It was only recently that I discovered that she had died from breast cancer in her 40s.

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    1. That is exactly the same kind of finding. An awful shock when we naturally assume they are still live and well somewhere.

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  6. How tragic that you never met up with Brendan again. He would have had such tales to tell about his experiences in Africa. I also did VSO but my service was indeed upon an "idyllic tropical paradise where nubile young girls danced to the drum-beat" though never "naked in the twilight" because religion got there long before me.

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    1. Did you join them? I imagine a Prince Charles sort of scene.

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    2. Yes. I learnt some of the traditional Polynesian dances. Men danced separately from women. It was never about couples dancing together.

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  7. It just wasn't meant to be. For whatever reasons, if people aren't proactive about meeting up, there must a reason beyond, 'Tomorrow. I'll get around to it'. Time drags on and then it can be too late.

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    1. I doubt I could have found him. The tenants hiding the letter were the culprits. But, yes, I would have been apprehensive about the collision of my past and present lives. I'm not sure what my wife would have thought of him.

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  8. Oh...how sad! But what strikes me is that surely, Brendan had a vague idea of where you were. It is too bad he did not reach out to you.

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    1. He would have assumed I was no longer at the address I had not replied from, and would have had no idea I was back in Yorkshire. He usually did get in touch on his trips back to the UK.

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  9. As you say, you both moved on with your lives, and obviously there was not enough desire to reconnect - or even just curiosity - from both of you to act upon it.
    To this day I find it sad that, while my husband was alive and living here with me in Ludwigsburg, none of his family ever came visiting; instead, we traveled to Yorkshire every summer to see them.
    When Steve died, all of a sudden it was possible to arrange a visit: Both his sisters and his eldest niece came over for the funeral service. They have returned in 2018 to help celebrate my 50th birthday, bringing along the younger two nieces and the nephew. It was great to have them here, but I often wonder - were they not curious or interested in how their little brother lived here? Or was it just a case of "we'll do that some time" - and then it was too late?

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    1. And I imagine he would have enjoyed showing them where he lived in Germany. I wonder if this kind of procrastination is common.
      My dad was always pleased he had made the effort to visit Germany to see his sister at Rhinedalen. He liked to tell a story about when he was in the countryside on his own and someone stopped to ask directions in German.

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  10. Yes. Life was different then. I too have aerogram letters in my past from far away places.

    I really enjoyed reading this account of Brendan with his smooth young face and long centrally parted hair - you write so well that he could have been one of my friends. I feel like I know him…


    There’s always a sadness when a really close friend dies. And I’m at the age where this is happening a lot, but Brendan was so young when he died.
    Thank you for this wonderful post.

    Sue

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    1. Thank you for the positive and encouraging reaction. I think it is the fact he was only 49 that shocked me most. When you are in your 70s it no longer surprises. I wish we could go on for ever, but unfortunately that is not how things are.

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  11. I'm sure that we can all relate to that in one case or many.

    That reminds me....I have a letter to write.

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    1. Sadly, it's how things are, no matter how much we try to pretend not.

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  12. That is sad about Brendan. I often wonder about friends I knew at uni and how they fared/whether they are still alive. I guess on the law of averages, some of them aren't.

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    1. I know that quite a number of my school contemporaries are no longer with us, but there are probably just as many at least that I don't know about.

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