11th November 2014
A bit of a coincidence today. Each member of our team at work takes it in turns to give a “safety tool box talk” and today fell to me. On Remembrance Day. Being a Brit, this is our one day of remembrance, but my topic for my talk was not so much about fallen war heroes or those who have given their lives defending their country. My thought for the day was about families.
You see me and my kids are secretly film stars. We might not be gracing a silver screen near you (just yet), but around here, our faces might become a bit more familiar within my work community. As a safety conscious employer, the organisation I work for has gone nearly as far as it can in terms of safety mechanisms and procedures. But the bit it’s not been so good at is capturing the hearts and minds of the workforce. We know we need to do things a certain way – because the rules say so, but do we actually care? So, they came up with a plan to use families. They needed volunteers. And hey presto! As quick as a flash, I’d signed me and mine up for the limelight. The Boy Wonder was keen if he could re-enact someone getting an electric shock. He’d got his shock-shudder very well rehearsed within 20 minutes of me mentioning it. His sisters, on the other hand, only used the information to perfect their teenage scowls and “we’re not doing it” hard stares. So my workmates got a preview of our acting debut today.
But that wasn’t the full story I wanted to tell. Because, there is a family I remember and today seemed like an appropriate day to unwrap my memories that I keep well tucked away most of the time.
So, the story starts with Tom. He’d been an apprentice at a place I used to work. I didn’t know Tom well, but I knew his trade wasn’t his passion. He was living at home with his dad, life revolved around music and mates, and work allowed him to keep collecting guitars. He had a bit of a collection! Because his one true passion was his music, and as this clip demonstrates, he’d got quite a talent.
We met once; we were in a meeting together shortly after I started working in the same area he was in. My memories of that are pretty hazy. But a week later he was dead. Killed in a work’s accident.
So, I never had the chance to know Tom, but I did get to know Paul, his dad. And my memories of meeting Paul, Tom’s mum Laura and his sister Lois are still very clear to me.
I had to go with the police to break the news. In all the confusion, there was no police vehicle and so it was decided we’d take my car. The drive was about 50km, and it was the SLOWEST I have ever driven in my life. My foot is pretty well acquainted with the accelerator pedal under normal circumstances, but on this day, be it because there was a COPPER IN MY CAR, or the shear dread of having to deliver the news, I don’t know. But I could not push past 60mph on the motorway.
My next memory is of watching in some sort of sick surreal slow-mo the impact the news had. It literally knocked a man sideways. I remember him walking in, the initial confusion at being called out of the workshop, the dawning horror at seeing a uniformed police officer waiting in his workplace and the gleam of hope in his eye that it was only going to be bad, but not that news. Only it was.
I remember sitting on the sofa you see in the video clip. I had to go and talk to the family about all the business end of “death in service”: final salary, pension. All so meaningless at that point in time. I remember Tom’s sister darting in and out of the kitchen. It seemed to me that she looked at me with loathing. Loathing for what I represented, maybe. Or maybe it was pain that I misconstrued. I wouldn’t blame her for hating me. But that was probably the most shocking thing of all. The dignity of that family. None of them ever remonstrated with me, got angry, shouted. They were simply gracious. They showed me Tom’s guitar collection; shared plans for the fund they wanted to start in Tom’s memory. Something to make some sense, some good come out of something that made no sense and was so utterly tragic.
And I remember talking to Paul on the phone. Over the ensuing period we chatted on the phone fairly regularly. I don’t know what we talked about most of the time. But there are 2 conversations that I can’t forget. The first was the inevitable; the question I had been dreading all along: how did he die and was he in pain? The questions every parent that loses a child needs answered, and the ones I felt so inadequately qualified to answer. My words could be no salve.
The other was remarkable only because of its poignancy. I was still at work one evening. My office had become a bit of a hive during working hours, so to get things done, it was easier to wait for the office block to quieten down. So, I was still skulking behind my desk. And Paul had phoned my mobile, and I don’t know what I’d said, but he suddenly stopped and asked “where are you?” and I told him I was still at work. And I can still hear his voice now telling me to go home because I had a family who needed me more than work did. And how can you fail to heed the words of a man who knows that as an absolute certainty? Well, Paul, I’m half a world away now, but I still take that advice and I thank you for it. They were the best things anyone ever said to me.
And so today, at 11am UK time, I remember Tom.