The Shock

The shock hit me on a Saturday morning. The first telegram from my sister told me that our brother, Colin was seriously ill. The second was received a short time later. Colin had taken his own life by putting his head in the gas oven. Looking back I am touched by her thoughtfulness in giving me this dreadful news gently.

All that week, before this happened, I had been in the depth of misery but that morning I rose relieved and happy. Why? In retrospect I think it must have been the same moment that he died. I had had premonitions before, but never as severe as this one. I would like to think that he was at peace at last.

My-two-year-old son Quentin was sitting on my lap when the second telegram arrived. I had never cried so hard in my life. Tears cascaded. They took me over. My magic camera brings back to me in an instant the full vision and pain of that time. I can clearly see Quentin stroking my arm, his eyes fixed on my face. “Funny Mummy. Funny Mummy” he said. I had no idea of what was going on in his head. Neither Bob nor Robin were visible to me in that moment of shock.

After a while I calmed down and began to think rationally, I knew that I must go back to England. I knew Mary had had a hard time with both our mother and our brother who had gone to live with her in her small rented house. I knew they were both irresponsible, especially where money was concerned, and she had a demanding job as an infant teacher. Colin had left the navy and told her he was trying to get a job. Mary did not tell me how difficult things really were. I am sure she was trying not to worry me. But she was my little sister and I knew her well enough to know for certain that she would not be able to cope on her own with such a calamity. I was right.

I told Bob I must return to England at once. He was very reluctant to let me go, but he did. We had a good maid, Argenida, who was very capable and loving with the children. I told both boys that I had to go away but I would come back soon. I intended to stay for two weeks only. In the event the problem was much greater than I had anticipated.

The journey back was horrific. No jet ‘planes then. The first one went to Canada and the second to London Airport. Halfway across the Atlantic one of the four engines failed. We had to turn round and go back. Everyone was very calm but inside they were probably as scared as I was. I knew that we should probably be alright but I also knew that once one engine has gone there is also the possibility that the rest will. I had read about such a disaster only a few months before. Whatever would my family do if I died? I began to get very angry with my brother for causing all this distress.

However, I got back to England safely and was met at the airport by a friend of my sister, one of the few people who had a car of his own at that time. When we arrived at Harlow in the evening. Mary and Mother were naturally very glad to see me. Mary told me the story of Colin’s death in detail. Apparently, when he first came back home, out of the navy, he seemed to be happy. Mary introduced him to her friends and he was invited to parties with her. She soon discovered that he was a heavy drinker and when he was in that state his behaviour was aggressive. It wasn’t long before no-one invited him any more.

He went off on his bicycle to London most week-days under the pretext that he was looking for a job. He was doing nothing of the sort. He told Mary he would find a job in the Post-Office. After a while it was clear that this was not true.

On the last day of November there was a special party for Halloween. Colin stayed in the house with Mother and Mary went to the party. Next morning she was fast asleep in bed, having come back late. Mother was the first one up. As she went to the kitchen door she couldn’t open it. She must have guessed something bad had happened. She let out a loud shriek that woke Mary up. She ran downstairs and pushed the door with all her might. It had been taped all round the other side. The kitchen was full of gas.

She did everything right. Colin was lying with his head in the oven. First she opened all the windows, then she rang for an ambulance. The men arrived very quickly, carried him out of the kitchen away from the gas and began to try to resuscitate him. They worked hard. After a while some colour came back into his cheeks. Mary felt a moment of relief; but it was no good. He died. They sent for the doctor to sign the certificate of death, then they took him away.

It was two days before I arrived. At first Mary was upset but in control of herself. Mother was her usual self. The doctor came the next day and put me in the picture. He gave her a prescription mostly to help her to sleep. Mother needed nothing.

The next day Mary began to talk to me. She was no longer herself. She told me that Colin had gone to another place. She said a priest had come to see her and told her this. He quoted from the Bible: “In my kingdom there are many mansions”. Mary interpreted it to mean that Colin was still alive somewhere. Mary did not go to church, but mother did. Because of that he called to see her. What presumption! I was very angry with him for being such a fool. I sent him away when he called again and told him never to come back.

Mary was not herself for a while. Her voice was different and she seemed to be in another world. The common name for this is a nervous breakdown. No-one fully understands it. A good psychoanalist friend told me that it can happen to anyone when things get too much for them and they cannot cope. In many cases, those who recover come out stronger than before and it rarely happens again. We all have our limits. He said it was an escape mechanism that we go into to give us relief from extreme suffering and time to get back to normal. At that time all I knew was that my sister needed my support to stay with her as she slowly got better. Even more important, she needed to get rid of the burden of our mother. I knew I must somehow separate them. I had help from Mary’s friends and from the kind man who was in charge of finding rented flats for people in the community. A lot of work had to be done before I could go home. I finally went back in late January when I knew she was well enough to look after herself in a flat of her own and Mother had another some distance away.