August 24th, 2001. To start with it was a morning like any other, I’d dragged myself out of bed and was unenthusiastically contemplating breakfast before another day of staring blankly into a computer screen in a bland office. However, my weekday morning indifference was to be interrupted by a vibrating mobile phone on my bedside table, making me wonder; who on earth is calling me at this time of day? As I flipped open the phone, there was the name ‘Dad’ on the screen, which was odd for two reasons; he was normally at work by now, and if they ever wanted anything it would usually be mum who rang, as dad and I never really see eye to eye. Casually intrigued, I pressed the answer button and said: “Hiya, what’s up?”
A trembling voice that almost sounded like dad, but not as I’d ever heard him before simply replied: “help”. Now, at that time, Dad’s car – a mk2 Vauxhall Cavalier – was notoriously shit, leading me to instantly assume that he had just dropped mum off at work and that the unreliable Vauxhall shit-box had broken down (again) leaving him stranded somewhere on the A47 between Norwich and Brundall. My short-lived assumptions were about to be stopped in their tracks like a car running into the side of a bridge by the next few words that would leave my dad’s mouth: “Your mum’s dead”.
My response, which still haunts me to this day was: “OK, I’ll just finish my breakfast and I’ll be right over”. A shock like that and the way a person reacts to it can be simply baffling.
Susan (Sue) Lane was a Tuckswood Girl born in 1955 and she grew up on Fountains Road on the southern fringes of the then fairly new estate, built during the post-war housing boom. She went to the nearby Hewett School where she performed well as a student and shortly after leaving her full-time education she was introduced by her cousin (as pen pals) to a chap he had befriended in the same regiment as him in the British Army, a young Glaswegian chap named John. After exchanging letters, they instantly hit it off and by November of 1974 they were married at St Paul’s Church in Tuckswood. The day of their marriage was the only the third time they’d actually met in person! As a result of this whirlwind romance I entered this mortal realm in 1976 as an army baby, born in Tidworth Military Hospital. For some reason and even though the Maternity Block had recently been refurbished the hospital closed 5 months later in March 1977. Perhaps it was something I’d said?
My dad’s role in the army meant that for the first couple of years my mum and I were to never really settle anywhere for too long, moving from Hampshire to Celle in Germany and then finally back to Norwich, when in 1979 Dad left his full time role in the army. He’d joined the Army to get himself out of the gang-riddled council estates of Glasgow and he had no intentions of going back up there, giving my mum the chance to move back to her home turf here in Norwich, and to begin a more settled life for their new family. Unable to secure a council house in the familiar surroundings of Tuckswood, they eventually opted for a house that had just become available on both Drayton Road and Galley Hill, on the very fringes of the Mile Cross Estate.
After moving here to our new family home in Mile Cross, this is where some of my earliest memories begin to get a little clearer. I have very vague, young memories of coming back to Norwich on that day that have no doubt been slightly muddled over the course of time, but I do remember a Ferry ride, a Train journey and Nan’s bright Orange Datsun waiting for us in the evening at what must have been Thorpe Station. I also have some extra jumbled memories of my first evening in our new Drayton Road home, bizarrely of the upstairs landing where my brain is convinced that I’d spent my first evening, although Dad assures me they hadn’t just left me on the landing all night.
Another early memory from this era is that Mum and Dad’s garden seemed very large and steep as it was on the side of Galley Hill, but what we didn’t immediately realise was that it stretched all the way up to the top of Galley Hill (as in the road) as the top half of the garden was completely buried under a recently-felled tree that must have been massive enough to hide about another 50 feet of extra outdoor space. I also have some very early memories (I must have been four or five) of being a late-joiner to the first year of Dowson School on Valpy Avenue, starting in one of the classrooms next to the dining hall that backed on to houses on either Parr Road or Valpy Avenue and of a tall, slender and very gentle teacher who I think was either Mrs Davis or Miss Davies.
My memories of growing up in that Mile Cross home are mixed; there were good times and there were tough times, getting particularly tough in the mid 1980’s when both mum and dad were briefly unemployed. I say briefly but to me it felt like an eternity, especially when there were no fifty pence pieces left that were used to power the Gas, Electricity and even the TV set. My kids think I’m mad when I tell them our TV had a box on the back that took coins to operate it. They also recall in horror at the thought of going three or four days without gas or electricity. I might as well be telling them that I used to live in the dark ages, if you’ll excuse the accidental pun.
Thankfully, my parents took this opportunity to study and open up new career paths, my dad using the spare time to train to become a carpenter at the Education Centre on Mile Cross Road and my mum working towards a career as a Marine Specialist in the Insurance world. After those brief, dark days of the 1980’s, things were slowly beginning to look up for them.
It was a few years after I’d moved out and mum and dad were working hard, playing hard and generally getting on with their lives and their careers when I received that fateful call from dad, described in the opening paragraph of this piece. It seems that this life had taken its toll on mum and that her heart just gave up on her. On the morning of the 24th August 2001, she suffered a massive heart attack, collapsing to the kitchen floor and killing her instantly. She was just 46 years of age
Back in my city centre maisonette, I hung up on dad and went downstairs to blankly look at the crumpets I’d put in the toaster. Suddenly it must have dawned on me what dad had actually just said to me over the phone. It was the strangest delay my brain had ever encountered and It must have taken my frazzled grey matter a good two minutes to process the information it had just been presented with. It must have been like trying to squeeze a Labrador into a cat carrier and as my brain finally managed to catch up with my new and awful reality, I suddenly wondered; what the f*ck was I doing looking at a f*cking toaster?
After coming to my senses as best as I could, I jumped into my car and got myself around to mum and dad’s house as fast as I could, so that I could try to come to terms with what had just happened. When I got there I was greeted with an Ambulance and a Police Car parked on the verge outside their house, my family home, and to this day that image haunts the very corners of my brain whenever I spot an ambulance outside a house. I entered the house via the open kitchen door and was confronted with the image of a completely broken-looking dad being comforted by a sorry-looking policeman. The next few weeks were an insane blur of confused emotions spun to a 1000rpm in a tumble-dryer, but I do vaguely remember calling the family to break the terrible news to them. One thing I never want to do again is to ring somebody up and tell them that their child has just passed away, which is even stranger thing to deal with when you’re telling your own nan about the death your own mum. Just doing that once is enough to smash in a fragile mind for good. I also had to ring up work and tell them that I wouldn’t be in for a while and that mum was never coming back. I can still remember the cries of one of mum’s colleagues on the other end of the phone and me trying to comfort whoever the poor lady was who was unfortunate enough to pick up mum’s desk phone to receive my tragic news. She was very popular with her colleagues, some of who were her best friends that had only recently celebrated her 15 year long service awards with her. August the 24th, 2001 was a Friday and one thing is for sure, August Bank Holiday Weekends have never been the same since. Most people love that long summer weekend, but for me it brings back those dark days of 2001.
As the weeks passed since mum had left us, I decided it was time to try and return myself to some sort of normality and get myself back to work (I worked in the same building as mum) and I have to admit that it was real a struggle. It was the last place I’d seen mum alive as we regularly passed each other in the corridor, on top of that her colleagues and friends obviously found it very awkward with how to deal with my return to the office. This awkwardness was about to have take a back seat for a while as we were all about to be in for another shock. Not just us in the office, but the whole world.
I returned to work on the second week of September, and after a day or two a set of events were about to take place in the crisp, blue skies over New York that would change the world as we knew it, forever. My line manager had only recently ended a phone call to one of our colleagues in the World Trade Centre, where during that conversation he had commented – boasted even – about the beautifully clear autumnal morning they were enjoying there over in New York, when the first of two passenger planes slammed into the World Trade Centre, right into the floors where the company we worked for had one of their New York offices. Over 300 of our colleagues were killed there and then and thousands more deaths were to come in the following events as they unfolded. In the ensuing panic as more planes were flown at American buildings, it was decided that we needed to evacuate our own offices here in sleepy Norwich, just to be careful. It was another day I (or anyone else for that matter) will forget. It was a lot for anybody to take in but made strangely easier for me to comprehend due to the numbness of grief that I was already contending with. 2001 was a strange year and one I still struggle to comprehend over two decades later. When I see the footage of the papers filling the air of the New York Streets, floating down from that gaping hole made by that first plane as it ploughed into the first Tower senselessly killing all those innocent people, I can’t help but know that some of that paperwork would have been produced by me, right here in Norwich and sent over to New York via courier. To see it raining down on the unsuspecting people of New York is something that haunts me to this day.
In her all-too-short life, mum did manage to leave a number of legacies. One in particular was that has caused me, somewhat belatedly, to empty my cluttered mind by writing all these blog entries as the Mile Cross Man. In showing me the remains of Hellesdon Station and the remains of the dismantled railway bridge at Norwich City Station (by Dolphin Bridge) back when I was a child in the 1980’s, she’d managed to plant an acorn of inquisitiveness in my young mind, the shoots of which that didn’t really start to emerge fully until some time after her untimely death. I began to become completely engrossed in the mostly-silent history that surrounded me here where I sit, especially the history of the estate on which I grew up and the nearby, dismantled railway line. That little acorn has grown into a mighty Oak Tree that now blocks out quite a lot of light inside my tiny brain and helps me to cope with the confusing and painful late summer of 2001, over two decades later. One of those coping mechanisms is to write this very blog.
After the shock of mum’s death my dad and I realised that life was often too short and needlessly cruel and we made a vow to put our petty squabbles (and they were petty) behind us and try and get along with one another from then on. For over twenty years now we’ve met up one evening every single week. This father and son who were once so needlessly distant from one another are well and truly best of friends and it’s all down to mum’s words of warning to dad many years back: “He’ll grow up hating you if you don’t sort it out”. We often recall those words over a pint, smile and then raise a glass to mum.
I realise this is a very personal and almost selfish addition to this blog, but I’ve written it purely for myself; a way to grieve, a means to cope and hopefully a way to continue to heal. It’s really bad to bury those feelings for so long, so it really is beneficial for our mental health to try and let them out, even in the form of text. We’re lucky to now be living in an era where we can admit to ourselves and others that we’re struggling and that it’s ok to admit occasionally that we’re not always ok. It’s ok to not be ok.
I’m sure mum would be chuffed to know she’d inspired me to write as much as I have since starting this blog and that I will turn it all into a book when I get the chance to do so.
When I finish that book it will be for her.
Thanks for reading,