Chapter One: A Matter of Life and Death
By 1970, the doctors called Audrey a walking miracle. She called herself one of “God’s little works in progress.” Born in Liverpool, England, a decade before World War Two demolished half the city, she was always a pretty, petite girl, with black, wavy hair. Although Liverpool was a blue–collar working city, her family enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle, and Audrey was the apple of her father’s eye.
At the outbreak of the war, she refused to join the thousands of women and children who were evacuated to the countryside. Instead, her father dug an air-raid shelter at the end of their small garden. Because of its strategic importance to the war effort, Liverpool was the most heavily bombed city aside from London. Every night from September 1940 through the final German blitz in January 1942, the family huddled in their damp shelter as the world above them shuddered.
Among the four thousand lives lost were some of Audrey’s neighbors. Her home, however, survived two direct hits from incendiary bombs. The family escaped physical injury, but her mother’s nerves were shattered. While her father continued his risky engineering work at the port, Audrey took over the running of the household.
On a sunny day in 1943, when life was returning to normal, death fell from the sky in the shape of a V-2 bomb. These weapons were the first unmanned combat-ballistic missile developed, and were aimed primarily at London and Antwerp. Weather conditions conspired to push an errant rocket north, and beyond England’s defense systems. When it ran out of fuel, it began to drop silently.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed six o’clock. As usual, Audrey made a mug of fresh tea, and hurried to the garden gate to greet her father as he returned from work. When he rounded the corner at the end of their street, he waved and smiled at his daughter. Audrey held out the tea mug. Then he was gone.
Well-meaning friends and relatives wanted to put Audrey and her brother into care, and the mother into a rest home. Audrey fought them all to keep their family together. With no income coming into the household, a younger brother to look after, and a mother who had withdrawn from the world, she left school at thirteen-years old. She made money by scrubbing the steps of the wealthy. Her bubbly personality, and the cheeky sense of humor she inherited from her father, endeared her to the customers. Soon she was trusted to do their laundry and housework. At sixteen she took a job in a factory.
After several years, with her mother recovering, and the war behind them, Audrey was promoted to a supervisory role. She had enough income to start a savings account, and plucked up the courage to go to a bank. In a time when a bank manager was as revered as a doctor in the community, this took nerves for a young woman.
Observing her discomfort, a young bank-teller came to her aid, completed the paperwork, and helped her open an account. Chatting nervously, Audrey realized they had been at school together before the war. She agreed to meet him for afternoon tea the following weekend. Two years later they married.
The bank-teller, Harry, was a restless man. Having completed his conscripted service in the Royal Air Force, he found it difficult to adjust to a regular, working schedule. He left the bank, and tried his hand at several businesses. Friends and relatives criticized the couple. There was a post-war recession in the country. Work was hard to find, and in the views of others, Harry had turned his back on job security. People thought they had lost their senses, and were not shy to say so.
While the criticism angered Harry, Audrey ignored it in the same way she had ignored those who told her a thirteen year-old girl could not keep a family together. Literally barefoot and pregnant, she was at Harry’s side as they sold fruit and vegetables from a market stall. The business started well, but they expanded too quickly, renting a larger stall, and purchasing a bigger van. When the operation failed, Harry, a reasonable handyman, turned to making coffee tables and ottomans for wholesale trade, and Audrey learned how to wield a drill.
By 1962, they had three hungry children to feed, and the debts were piling up. An eviction notice arrived. They rented a shop next to a railway crossing, and lived in the three rooms above. The shop was named after the three children, but it was in a poor part of town where the locals could not afford Harry’s furniture. More debts came due, and another eviction notice arrived.
They bundled their three children and all their belongings into an old truck, and escaped the city. This only increased the volume of criticism the young couple received from everyone they knew, especially their parents. When the children questioned why everyone was angry with Dad, Audrey brushed it aside. “They just envy our freedom,” she told them. “Life is an adventure. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
The truck coughed and spluttered through the countryside until it choked to a stop in a small village, deep in the Welsh countryside. Locals pointed out a vacant but derelict farmhouse. Hardly daring to believe their luck in finding tenants, the owners accepted a meager monthly rent.
Built in 1601, it had the original boulder walls and black slate floors. Windows were cracked. The roof needed serious repair. A breeze howled through rotted window frames, and coated everything with ancient plaster dust. Ever the optimist, Audrey told her family they had found a bargain. She set everyone to work turning it into a home, and somehow managed to feed the family from pots hung over a wood fire.
To leave the confines of an inner city for the open space of the countryside was like entering the pages of The Chronicles of Narnia for the children. Harry found a regular job as a meat-truck driver. Audrey made fast friends in the village. Life for the family was on the up, but the criticism in letters or over the phone never let up.
Having lived in Liverpool her whole life, Audrey thrived in the clean air and open countryside. A lover of animals, she had soon filled the farmhouse with stray lambs, rabbits, cats, and two old donkeys who wandered up the lane one day. With wild berries, herbs, and elderflowers in abundance, the larder was stocked with homemade jellies and chutneys. The children ate apples and plums off the trees, and became adept at growing vegetables.
In the winter of 1969, while having a stand up wash in icy water, Audrey found “a few lumps and bumps.” After a period of hospital visits, the family doctor warned Audrey she had advanced breast cancer, and less than six months to live.
In those days the pronouncements of a doctor were like voodoo curses. If he said you were going to die, people accepted it. Mention of the nearest cancer hospital brought sharp intakes of breath. “She’ll go in upright and come out horizontal,” was the general sentiment of the villagers. The word cancer was only muttered under the breath, and many of the isolated villagers feared it was contagious. When they saw Audrey walking down a lane, people changed direction, and the ignorant pointed. No one wanted to befriend a woman with a death sentence.
The main cause of these habitual reactions was unprecedented media coverage of cancer deaths in the 1960s. People who had worked in the shipyards had been exposed to asbestos for decades. In Liverpool, everyone knew someone who had died of lung cancer. Smoking was still fashionable, and now stars of stage and screen were making mournful headlines. Adding drama to the fear, stories of children fighting leukemia, previously absent from the news, started to feature prominently in the national press.
Audrey and Harry agreed to keep the news secret from the children. Unable to handle the burden, Harry told his oldest child, a daughter, and admonished her to keep it to herself. Within an hour she told the older of her two brothers, and that night he whispered it to the youngest.
A dark cloud descended over the previously happy household, but Audrey refused to accept that she only had a few months to live. She considered it not as a threat to her own existence, but to that of her three children. What stronger power exists than that of a mother protecting her young?
She told anyone who cared to listen that nothing was going to stop her living long enough to see all three of her children grow up, and safely leave her nest. She refused to match the gloomy expressions around her. She berated relatives for their lack of fighting spirit. She walked to the village shop every day until the locals stopped treating her like a leper. She even refused to let the Reverend include her name in prayers at Sunday Service. She refused to react the way other people expected her to.
Seeing the frightened faces of her children, she called a family meeting. She told them, “No one tells me when to die. I decide that, and I alone. I am not leaving until I am good and ready. If any of you try using this as an excuse to skip homework, or feel sorry for yourselves, you’ll have me to answer to.” Seeing such steely determination, no one dared argue.
One day, the middle child spied her through a half closed door when she was alone in the kitchen. She grimaced in pain, dropped a dish she was washing, and rubbed her chest. Sighing, she looked out of the small window up to a grey sky. As if admonishing a naughty child, she wagged her finger at the clouds. “If you think I’m leaving now to come see you when they’re not even grown, you’ve got another think coming! I am not done here yet. When I am ready to leave, I will let you know. Until then I have work to do.”
Audrey confounded the medical experts when she made a rapid recovery from a mastectomy operation, followed by several courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The hospital staff liked her because she always had a smile and a joke to offer. She was genuinely interested in them. She knew all about their love lives, their families, and their birthdays.
Despite having a worse prognosis than many of the people around her, she encouraged other patients to be positive; “What if we are going to die?” she would ask, “At least enjoy those candies your visitor brought in. No one on their death bed was ever heard to mutter that they were glad they left that last chocolate in the box!”
When she lost her hair as a side effect of the chemotherapy, she had everyone in the hospital try on the wigs that were offered. When even the stiffest of the oncologists completed his ward round with blonde pigtails dangling down his back, the place was in uproar. When Audrey’s natural hair returned it was completely grey, and she cried for the first and only time.
She saw some of the other patients did not get many visitors, and the hospital food was limited. At home, the kitchen was turned into a bakery, and the children were taught all the necessary skills. She taught them to cook, and supervised as they took turns to make the Sunday roast dinner for the family. Subtly, while providing better food for the lonelier patients, Audrey had ensured her children could take care of themselves. Perhaps because they were enjoying the cookies she always handed out in the outpatient clinic, the doctor’s extended her life sentence to three years.
Just as things were improving, she suffered another form of cancer, and it was like receiving a second death sentence, even while the first was being served. More operations and treatments prodded at her spirit, and different doctors confirmed that she really did only have a few months left to live. She told them they had it wrong the first time, and this would be no different.
At the same time, Harry lost his job. Work was scarce, and after a few months of trying to find alternatives, he gave up looking altogether. With welfare support limited, Audrey found a part-time position, serving behind the counter of a busy delicatessen in the nearest town. The money was not great, but she was able to bring home leftover meats, pate, bread, and cheese for the family. She developed a network of relationships with other shopkeepers, and enjoyed interacting with customers. She said it gave her something to take her mind off herself.
The country was in a deep recession, and the government had slowed production down by enforcing a three-day working week for manufacturing. Everyone endured rolling electric blackouts in the winter of 1974. For Audrey’s family, this was not an issue. Their utilities were often severed due to non-payment, so they had learned to cook just as well on an open fire. With the food network Audrey had established in town for leftover cuts from the butcher’s shop, and expired food items from the bakers, the family ate better than most. Despite her illness and circumstances, she let nothing get in the way of caring for her children.
The cancer spread to the bones in her spine and femurs. When she could not get a ride into town, she walked the five miles to and from work every day. It was a tough walk for a fit person, but it was a test of endurance for a woman using a stick to disguise a limp.
Despite the pain, she enjoyed being with nature. Whenever school was out, one or more of her children would keep her company.
As her movement deteriorated, some customers could be rude when she took a long time to complete their order in the shop. She would throw out a joke like, “I should take less gin with my cornflakes in the morning,” and not let anyone’s bad manners make her focus on the disability.
She built up a loyal clientele at the shop, and business was never better for the owners, who were now regular visitors to the farmhouse. After school, her children would visit the shop, and help out with chores. In many ways, the shop became an extension of home…only warmer!
The doctors gave up predicting her demise. When they told her how ill she was supposed to feel, she would shush them with a wave of her hand. It became like a game. Whenever someone told her something bad, or tried to show empathy, she developed the knack of deflecting it with a joke. Then she would reach for a better thought, as if being positive deleted the negativity of others.
In 1978, Audrey’s daughter joined the police force, fell in love with a colleague, and married within a year. Just nineteen, the newlyweds found jobs and a home just a short drive away from the family so they could visit easily. The youngest child joined the Royal Air Force. After finishing basic training, he took a position which allowed him to be home every weekend.
The middle son joined the Royal Navy College. Audrey was intensely proud because working-class children rarely qualified for the officer training. One day she asked God for an extra favor. She had agreed to stay alive long enough to see her children flee the nest safely, which technically they had all done. Now she decided she wanted to see her son graduate as an officer.
In 1980 and 1981, Audrey needed several more courses of chemotherapy, and two operations to repair her deteriorating bones. The pain medicine turned her physical features into those of an elderly woman, but her spirit and sense of humor were untouched.
Despite the discomfort of a three-hundred mile trip in a vehicle that was falling to bits, Harry and Audrey traveled to their son’s graduation. The Queen Mother was guest of honor. With her legs invaded by cancer, Audrey still managed a perfect curtsey. Audrey knew now she could leave in peace, but she had one more task to complete.
The newly minted naval officer took compassionate leave to return home with his parents. Audrey was failing, and needed weekly trips to the hospital for pain medicine and chemotherapy. He took his turn taking her for the treatments.
At the hospital, they were met by Audrey’s favorite nurse. The son watched as they greeted each other with bear hugs, and exchanged jokes. For the son, it was love at first sight.
Audrey died before their wedding ceremony. She insisted on dying at home in the derelict farmhouse she had come to love. A bed was moved downstairs to the lounge, and the family took turns living in the one room during her last days.
Sitting next to her on the bed, the naval officer held her hand as she drifted in and out of consciousness. He felt her grip tighten. She opened her eyes, and seemed alert for the first time in days. She smiled over to the window. The age and pain washed away from her features, and she let out a small cry. It was not one of pain, but more like that of a little girl in delight.
“Dad!” She shouted. Expecting to see his father entering the room, the son looked up. No one was there. Audrey gestured to the window. “Son, this is my father, your Granddad William. You have never met before, but he knows all about you. Say hello.” The son waved at the air. “He says I still owe him a fresh mug of tea.” They were her last coherent words. She passed away peacefully the following morning.
The farmhouse was in a village of less than one hundred residents, but over two hundred people attended Audrey’s funeral in May 1982. The twelfth-century church had never been as full. The family recognized the villagers, and some of their friends, but over half the congregation were strangers to them.
Among the attendees were some of Audrey’s childhood friends from Liverpool. As there had never been any mention of it in her letters, most were under the impression that her illness had been sudden. Several customers from the shop she worked at were there; including two stars of the hit TV comedy The Liver Birds, and John Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia. Audrey had mentioned their names in passing, but the family just thought it a coincidence.
At the back of the church sat Mr. Garrad. He was a hard man whom everyone in the village gave a wide birth. His wife had committed suicide many years before, and he raised his three boys on his own. An intensely private man, no one knew much about the family. Fighting to control his emotions, he confessed to Audrey’s family that for years she had secretly given him food and clothes for the boys, and often sneaked down to his house to help with cooking or housework when he was forced to work late. Afterward, he placed fresh wildflowers on her grave every week.
A girl the same age as Audrey’s daughter was inconsolable. She explained how her mentally ill father refused to allow “just a girl” to wear anything but rags to school. She was teased so mercilessly that she played truant. Audrey had secretly taken her daughter’s spare set of clothes once a week to the delicatessen where she worked. There she had arranged for the girl to change from the rags before and after school. Now a grown woman, she added, “I owe your mother everything!”
Audrey’s body is buried on the brow of a hill at the edge of the graveyard, from where there is an unobstructed view across the fields to the farmhouse.
Although Audrey was never rich monetarily, she achieved something far more important in her life. In my personal and business life, I have met few people who so perfectly understood the power of controlling their mentality. If this kind of control can put off death for fourteen years, imagine what else it can do.