Friday, September 28, 2007


On the way to school, Alex and I discuss our favourite stories. As we enter his building, a classmate is wrestling a bag and coat onto a peg. Alex sorts himself out as I stand back by the door. Classmate's mum and Alex’ teacher, Mrs Morrison, are having a chat. Laughingly, Mrs M comments 'Well, you know me blah blah blah', followed by further laughter. It’s all very friendly and informal, she seems nice. They end their talk and Mrs M shoots me a friendly smile as she ruffles Alex’ hair.

Shane: (doing ‘zesty’) Hi there.
Mrs M: Hi-.
Shane: Alex was asking this morning -
Mrs M: Mm-hm.
Shane: - whether he might be able to bring one of his stories in for you to read to the whole class - but I said that he should first -
Mrs M: Oh yes, that would be good.
Shane: Ah, but wait! I said he should ask you.
Mrs M: Oh. Long, is it?
Shane: Well, it's not so much that, but you see, I wrote the story for him last year - when I was living away from here, and it's got some, er, unusual terms in it -
Mrs M: (conspiratorially) Oh! Maybe we could just skim over them?
Shane: Hmm - terms like 'cat-fart' (Alex smiles).
Mrs M: (amused) (shrieks) Oh! (conspiratorially) You should bring it in Alex - but if I can't read it on the day, then maybe another day.
Alex: Yeah.
Shane: Great - there'd be no rush or anything.
Mrs M: Yes, bring it in.
Shane: Great, thank you. (To Alex) You have a good day.

And he was gone.

From this, there were learning points:-

1. Mrs M learns that Alex’ home is bookish, possibly even writerly - good thing.
2. Mrs M infers (wrongly) that I was (‘living away’) in prison last year (NB/ I was looking especially rough this morning) - bad thing.
3. Alex assumes that it's ok to use terms such as 'cat-fart' with Mrs M – (on the day of a school inspection) - very bad thing... though quietly amusing too.

No doubt, this is the sort of encounter that Mrs M has many times each term, with other children’s mums, dads and Shanes*.

* The generic term that we have adopted for additional parent-figures. This amuses Alex – good thing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I will update the mon oncle story in late October.

With a very short run-up, the ego took flight. But then...

Shane: (thinking ‘Johnny Cash’) Look - we've been playing shadows, (shows camera phone) Alex took this picture of me. Remind you of anyone?

Emma: (takes a look) Spock?

So, not Johnny Cash then.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Emma watched me as I opened the envelope and began to read. One minute later, having made sense of the information before me, I spoke, 'It's so... it's so horribly predic-'. I could speak no more.

Just over two weeks ago, I established that my Dad's missing brother - last seen in the north east of England around 1980 - had died 260 miles south, in Islington (North London) in 1985. From this, I sought the death certificate.

One week ago, I acquired details of the missing brother's burial location - a public grave, also in Islington.

Today, a copy of the death certificate arrived.

Mindful of my decision to share this information with my Dad, I'm experiencing massively mixed emotions at present.

In the past couple of hours I've dismissed the deceased as an arsehole, I've felt for the deceased as a rootless lost soul, I've wondered about the conflicting addresses (both flats) that were recorded as his 'place of death' and his 'usual address'. Who was the occupant of his place of death, and what - if any - was their relationship. But most of all, the thing that sits with me is the recorded 'place of birth' of my late uncle - surely only a casual acquaintance or a workmate would have suggested 'Newcastle' - the Geordie lilt is perceived in those from far beyond Tyneside.

Looking ahead, I can see that this amateur investigation, this domestic sleuthing, can go on for as long as I want it to go on - I'm wondering about the exact contents of coroners' reports and the likelihood of my gaining access to police archives. But despite that, and really most fundamentally, I'm wondering whether the death certificate should mark the end of this matter... something that started out as a truly naive pursuit of answers to questions that my Dad had sat on for almost thirty years, but to which I had been unwilling to let go.

Next month, for my own benefit, I will visit London.
UPDATE: At Emma's suggestion, I've just shared all of this recently acquired information with my sister. She is single-mindedly against the idea of sharing any of it with Dad... 'I just don't see what good it could do'. When I mentioned that I would want to know if I were Dad, she commented 'The thing is... you're not Dad'. Discuss.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


My Dad and my sister visited to collect a car. Prior to their quickly returning north, Emma and I took them out to a spit and sawdust kind of pub for lunch – it seemed the right thing to do.

Just as Dad was finishing off his gammon:

Shane: Y’ know I was rootling about on the computer – looking for Thomas Wexford.
Dad: (coolly) Mm.
Shane: Can you remember exactly when you last saw him?
Dad: (unfazed) Oh, bloody hell, that would have been a while ago – he’ll be 47 now.
Shane: (thinking 'present living tense') Do you remember, though, when it was that you last saw him?
Dad: (trying hard) Er…
Shane: You see, I remember – (lying) though it might just be a fragment of my imagination - us bumping into him near the town hall in Castle Market – I’m fairly sure it was just you and me – but I must have been really young.
Dad: (puzzling) …
Shane: No?
Dad: I don’t know.
Shane: Was I born when you last saw him?
Dad: Yeah.
Shane: What about Roy (my brother)?
Dad: (thinking) Hmm-, I can’t remember.
Shane: (thinking ‘fucking alcohol dulling the senses’) Mm, ok.
Dad: He worked on the sites.
Shane: Building sites?
Dad: Mm – he went all over with that.
Shane: Right. Did you know where he was living?
Dad: Apart from Colliery Hill (their former family home), I didn’t.
Shane: (thinking ‘But how could you not’) Mm.
Dad: He was into that heavy rock stuff, y’ know – the music. There was a big gang of them that went round together.
Shane: (Glad to note the social element) Right. (pause) Any girlfriends?
Dad: Er-
Shane: Or boyfriends?
Dad: No.
Shane: Do you think Len (Dad’s older brother) knows anything about where he might have gone?
Dad: No.
Shane: Mm. Do you remember when you realised that Tom was gone?
Dad: Er-
Shane: Cos obviously there wasn’t like mobile phones and stuff, so was it like he just wasn’t in touch for a very long time, or did he say that he was going away, or –
Dad: (distantly) I can’t remember, t’ be honest with y’ – I think he just went.
Shane: Mm.

I let it go. Soon after, Dad went to the loo. I looked at my sister (Amy) - very much in the dark.

Shane: Y’ know, this search for Thomas Wexford – the fact that it’s clearly so long since he (Dad) had anything to do with him –
Amy: He could be dead!
Shane: Well that’s what I'm beginning to wonder – that’s why I’m not being all upbeat and excitable about looking for him – the fact that he’d just disappear for nearly 30 years without even a chance trace of him – I definitely think it’s possible that he might be dead.
Amy: Bloody hell.
Shane: (spotting Dad) He’s coming back.
Dad: (to Amy) You ready to go?
Amy: Aye.

Emma looked at me, gave me a quiet sad raised eyebrow and a shrug and confirmed that we needed to go too.

Half an hour later, with Dad and sister gone, we were en route to a friend’s house. Emma returned to the lunch-time conversation.

Emma: You were a bit full-on. (pause) I just froze, I thought ‘Be still, give nothing away’.
Shane: He seemed ok, though he clearly doesn’t know what happened to Thomas – I’m sure of that now – did you hear the ‘He’ll be 47 now’?
Emma: Mm. (pause) I suppose it could have been a building site accident or something like that.
Shane: Mm.

Though not inappropriate, it still seemed like an odd statement for her to be making with an upbeat tone of voice.

I will leave it until Thursday before making further enquiries about the yet to be delivered death certificate of Thomas Wexford.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Still awaiting a copy of the missing uncle’s death certificate, in anticipation of the most likely next step, I sought location information regarding a grave.

From: Shane Wexford
Sent: 11 September 2007 08:02:18

Subject: Q re grave location

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am trying to locate the grave of an uncle of mine - 'Thomas Wexford' (born 30th May 1960) who had his death registered in May 1985 in Islington. Without having an exact date of burial (but presuming it to be around May 1985), would your service be able to help with this search?

With best wishes,

Shane Wexford


And only five hours later:

From: Williams, Peter
Sent: 11 September 2007 13:03:21
To: Shane Wexford
Subject: Re locating a grave

Hi Shane,

Thank you for your email regarding the grave location of the late Thomas Wexford, I can confirm that he is buried in Grave No 25192 Section CZZ. This is a public grave which means there are other unrelated people buried in this grave. The section CZZ is located on the junction of Joint Road and Strawberry Vale Brook. I am attaching a map for your convenience.

Kind regards,


Peter Williams
Memorial Administration Officer
Environment & Regeneration
Islington Council
Islington and Camden Cemetery Services
High Road, East Finchley.

London N2 9AG
Tel: 020 8883 1230

Fax: 020 8883 2784

Emma: (tentativey) It sounds like he might not have had anyone.
Shane: Yeah.
Emma: It's important that you find out as much information as you can before you share this with your Dad.
Shane: Yeah.

This weekend, I will see my Dad - very briefly - on Saturday morning. There will be no mention of any of this.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


A tentative, awkward reunion – my Dad and his younger brother – face-to-face for the first time in three decades, with me as facilitator. Dad would be Dad, his brother would be pleasingly unremarkable – ‘normal’, you might say. I would keep my emotions in check up to the point of noticing a wateriness in Dad’s eyes.

Many months ago, I twice outlined an interest in locating my father’s missing brother - the youngest of three brothers/sons, whose parents had both died young.

My Dad’s last contact with his younger brother was almost 30 years ago - a chance encounter on the street of a busy north east market town. Already to me (as a very young child), Dad’s younger brother had something of a mythical quality about him – he was the owner of a guitar that was kept in our family home, yet up to the point of that chance encounter, I’d never met him. Back then, I did not query why this was so. Later, I learned of an unspecified falling out between Dad’s older and younger brothers. This dispute was said to have led to a vanishing act – suddenly, the whole family were off-radar to the younger man. To this day, my mother – ‘Mam’ – is discernibly unimpressed whenever the younger brother is referred to – the gist being that my Dad fell foul of his siblings’ inability to sort out their differences.

Over the past two and a half years, my searches for the missing brother have borne a few red herrings – the website designer, the diver, the sports man and the bird-watcher, but they have not yielded any concrete information related to the missing brother. At least, that was the case until the evening of Sunday 2nd September.

Having spent the weekend in the north east, relaxing with my family and talking to a friend who has developed some expertise around public records, I turned to a commercial online database that I had previously, hurriedly dismissed. On this occasion, however, weary from a long drive and yet mindful of new possibilities, I located a clear record that has undeniably shifted this journey into a different place.

Specifically, my quest has led me to Islington, in north London. And in particular, to Volume Number 13, Page Number 1493, Reference Number 585 of an archive labelled ‘Death Certificates’. A man of the same rare and exact name and - crucially - date of birth as my Dad’s younger brother had his death, at age 25, recorded by the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, in May 1985. Thus, these investigations have become a search for the particularities of a very sad story. As I write this, I feel an emptiness that has lingered since Sunday evening. I am thinking of my Dad, who after many years of silence on the subject appeared to have had his interest in his brother genuinely spiked by my tentative amateurish enquiries. Soon, I will have a copy of the record that corresponds with Reference 13-1493-585. This must precede any possible disclosure of my findings to Dad.

Whilst this feels like a journey that is now leaping forward, something nags at me. I ask myself, is it possible that both my Dad and his older brother are really unaware of what happened to their younger brother, or might I have stumbled upon a family taboo that was too unthinkable to discuss with a nine year old boy back in 1985.

Turning off the laptop, a romantic notion evaporates.

For information and advice on how to locate a missing person (UK):-

Missing People - formerly The National Missing Persons Helpline - free on-line message-posting service - 8 reputable support organisations
Salvation Army Family Tracing Service - support in restoring family relationships

Sunday, September 02, 2007


With a culinary experiment simmering in the background, I wirelessly read sundry news items whilst listening again to a radio play called ‘Leaves of the Dead’. Taking a break from her latest spell of thesis-writing, Emma stepped into the kitchen.

Emma: (inhales) Mm, somethings smells…
Shane: (looks up) Is that a pause or a full-stop?
Emma: Something smells… - it was a pause - gingery?
Shane: Mm, possibly too gingery. I’m intuiting - cooking by gist and by whim and by jove I may have darned well over-gingered the god-damn lentilly spinachy stewy… thing.
Emma: Stew?
Shane: Quite. How’s work?
Emma: It’s shit, but I can console myself with the thought that…
Shane: The thought that?
Emma: …actually, there’s no consoling to be found here – it’s not going well – it’s shit.
Shane: Would some stew help?
Emma: (reaching into cupboard) After an emergency Curly Wurly it might. What are you doing?
Shane: I’m reading about Amy Winehouse and about her husband’ and her families’ media interventions regarding their drug issues and so on.
Emma: Yeah, I heard about that, it sounded quite scary. ‘If one of them dies of an overdose the other one might kill their self’ seemed to be the in-laws’ point.
Shane: Mm. I was just wondering why I thought that this story was especially sad.
Emma: ‘Especially’?
Shane: Well, in the past couple of weeks I’ve crossed paths with proper archetypal junkies on three or four occasions – when me and Alex went into the pharmacist’s after the bike fall, at that massive Tesco when I was picking up the camping food and in those public toilets outside of the Bank of Scotland.
Emma: What’s your point?
Shane: Despite all of those, I definitely felt something more about the Amy Winehouse story – a hugely talented singer, who we can assume is fairly wealthy –
Emma: Monetarily.
Shane: Yeah – and who’s probably got people swarming all over her trying to do the right thing.
Emma: Mm, maybe.
Shane: So how come I didn’t feel as ‘heart sinky’ about those other people?
Emma: (thinks) You didn’t feel as much for them?
Shane: Kind of – I certainly thought ‘I’m glad I’m not you’, but why did I not feel sad as such – I think I took it, or them, to be just part and parcel of the city now – now that is sad. And shit.
Emma: (thinks) Mm. Maybe you didn’t think they had as much to live for, maybe you don’t value their lives as much as you do Amy Winehouse’s?
Shane: Fucking hell – controversial!
Emma: True?
Shane: (hesitantly) I imagine that for a lot of the locals – the not rich and not famous people - that kicking whatever their habits are would be just one of a shitload of problems that they’d have to be dealing with. So, I’m guessing that by default I’m assuming that Winehouse has got more going for her – that she doesn’t, for example, have to face the extreme poverty and possibly even loneliness that I associate with people like The Pharmacy Couple, Tesco Woman or Toilets Man… without my actually knowing her, or them.
Emma: Mm. Without getting close to understanding who any of those people are, I think it’s hard to start talking about what people really have going for them. I mean, if someone has got something going for them but they don’t see it that way – or they see it as bringing a whole load of unwanted pressure – then sometimes you - or they’ve - just got to step back, re-evaluate, start again… nice theory, but how practicable?
Shane: Was that your thesis talking?
Emma: No – if my thesis was talking it would be saying ‘blaaahhhhhhh blah blaahhh blah blah blah blah blaaaaaahhhhhhhhh’. You’ve got to remember as well, all of these people do have some degree of agency – if some of them simply did want to, y’ know, kill their self or something, then maybe we just have to accept that.
Shane: Mm. That’s how it was at the Samaritans – a self-determination thing, we called it Principle 3 – the deal was that as none of us would ever have to walk in the shoes of the callers, so we shouldn’t be telling them what to do and how or whether to live.
Emma: Mm. Did you ever have to just listen to someone as they were…
Shane: No. There were other situations where people… had recently ‘not been good to themselves’, but none of them expressed an active and immediate desire to die.
Emma: Do you ever think of going back?
Shane: (pause) No.
Emma: (smiling) Lazing on a sunny afternoon?
Shane: (relieved at the lightness of touch) Mm. Do you think Amy Winehouse would like some stew?
Emma: I think she probably would – though I think there was some mention of an eating disorder too, so maybe only a small portion – or a sick bucket.
Shane: That’s very thoughtful.
Emma: Thanks.

I will not send any stew to Amy Winehouse. It would deteriorate or spill in the post.