Saturday, September 25, 2010

Derek's Last Chance

If you are new to this blog, click here, here, here, here, here and here to understand the background to this post.

1986 appears to have been a watershed year for Derek. It begins on a positive note, with Brenda's cantankerous mother finally dispatched to an old people's home. Derek and Brenda had waited for this moment for years, but in spite of this the spark of passion doesn't appear to have been reignited and the procession of migraines, aches and mysterious viruses continue unabated:

'My whole system creaks and groans; aches fill me; my head faintly throbs. Yet I have been out for an hour digging the garden. I had company: a blackbird. He was obviously in search of worms in the soil I was turning over, but though he came close, he had not the courage to stay close so that he might have had a whole feast. Men are like that.

I have felt somewhat wild today, have spent much of my time making foolish remarks and generally annoying people. I think my chemical imbalance has something to do with it, for while making a fool of myself, I KNEW that I was, but seemed unable to calm my inward turbulence.'

In fairness, Derek has many worries. Now in their mid-50s, Derek and Brenda are struggling to live on his salary as a local government officer. The diaries contain several letters from Derek's bank, including this rather chatty one, which was written in response to a lengthy epistle from Derek:

'Dear Mr -,

I thank you for your letter of the 12 August and would commiserate with you insomuch as NALGO have seen fit to turn down your rise of 6% and that indeed others of your union appear to wish for a sum which must surely in this day and age be unobtainable. I feel I ought not to continue in this vein as I feel that bankers like publicans should not get involved in discussing politics or religion with their customers. Unfortunately although you have stated you have got that point out of your hair, it is something which I find I cannot as most of mine has disappeared over the last 15 years or so!

Turning now to the mundane matter of banking and its relationship to your account, it would appear that were I to mark the overdraft limit on your account of £400, the present limit, for a period of three months, it would give you time to gather the harvest and review your finances.'

Derek does his best to live frugally, selling books and turning his garden into a mini-allotment, but the sums still don't add up. Under normal circustances, Brenda might have been able to get a full-time job, but she has a son to look after:

And this innocuous drawing becomes heartbreakingly poignant once you realise that the son was 24 years old when he drew this.

But it is not all doom and gloom. In the spring, Derek and Brenda have an idyllic break in Dartmoor with their son:

'We drove on over the moors, delighting in their austere grandeur. We would have liked to climb up a tor or two, but had run out of energy. Anyway, once we got to Ashburton, our strength came back and I was able to spend a happy hour in the bookshop there, acquainting myself fully with the stock.

We had expected to meet much traffic on the motorway, but found it almost deserted. Brenda suggested that the fear of radiation fallout was keeping people indoors. Anyway, we were able to maintain a steady speed all the way home, which meant that we got in an hour earlier than we expected.

It is good to be back with books about me and music. And space as well. And it is good to have just the three of us.'

The fallout was, of course, from Chernobyl:

'Radiation fear is strong in the land, but since there is little we can do in a practical way beyond consuming iodine tablets, I take little congnizance of the fear. The leaves on the trees are still as bright as they appear; the birds still sing; the traffic thunders by; and all this shall pass. On the coach travelling to work yesterday morning I was struck by the thought that the Saints shall "inherit" the earth, which implies that it will have to be cleaned and cleared and made anew before the Owner shall give it to them.'

Around this time, a glimmer of hope appears, when Derek's boss anounces his retirement. Having worked closely with Mr Sumpter for many years, Derek is the natural candidate to replace him. Perhaps this is the answer to Derek's prayers.

Full of hope, Derek submits his application and, a few weeks later, is invited for an interview:

'Well, I had my interview for Mr Sumpter's post this morning. It was scheduled for an hour and lasted for one hour and three quarters. There were four other contenders: a man from Lancashire, a man from Gloucester and a man from Rochdale. I was first through the door; and since half past eleven this morning have been waiting for a sign, the motion of a hand, a small telephone call that will announce "Yea" or "Nay". And the longer the silence lasts, the more sure I am that the post is not to be mine.

I have torment of mind and desolation of heart, for promotion is one thing, and the feeling of worthlessness if it does not come is something else.

We are having a year of disappointments. Our debts hang round our necks like albatrosses; and I am most strongly aware of having been passed over when it comes to assisting with the history of the church in this land. If only one was sure that heaven draws closer.'

Two days later, Derek learns that he has not been appointed as Mr Sumpter's replacement:

'Well, all my worst fears have come true. So sure was I that Mr Sumpter's post would not be mine, that I tossed and turned upon my bed all Wednesday night. When I got to work, no sign came, so I phoned Bob Sanders and after a brief hesitation, he told me that the man from Lancashire had got the job. I knew it would be him. The Spirit of the Lord whispered to my spirit most powerfully, the first time his name was mentioned, that he would take the job.

Bob said that all the interviews were good, but the panel felt that he had the most to offer when it came to solving the problems rife at the office. This implies that they felt that I was part of the problem; and perhaps I am. For my defence of Mr Sumpter has not gone well with the Insprectorate.

When I told Mr Sumpter of the decision, he turned haggard and grey. I thought he would weep; he was certainly extremely angry and he cried out "They do not know you! They do not know you!" He feels that his bad management is to blame and that by putting me in a position where I felt obliged to defend him, he shattered my chances. But I do not feel this is true. I feel the Lord has something else in mind.'

I can't help feeling that Derek's feelings about Mr Sumpter are more ambivalent than he suggests in this extract. But perhaps it is also tempting to blame his failure on the positive virtues of his loyalty to Mr Sumpter, rather than dwell on any personal shortcomings?

'I have received sympathy from many of the staff. As one put it, "Better the devil we know..!". Anne Snagge was particularly upset, as was Shirley James. Kind of them.

The pain was great on Thursday. I was in torment, feeling again the terrible worthlessness, the feeling of the last chance gone. Hell it was, and just as keen. But I have got my second wind now; and we eat and have a roof over our heads; we have great friends. And I am still quite the best off of the Saints in the ward. And the Lord stands by me. The test is his.

Brenda has been much tried by this blow. She is desperately worried by our debts and the fact that they are overtaking our income.'

A few months later, Mr Sumpter officially retires and Derek attends his retirement party:

'The food was excellent. Breaded chicken legs; pizza; pate; nuts; and a cake made by Mr Sumpter's wife in the form of a crossword puzzle. The icing was excellent, but the cake itself was rather dry for my taste.

As for the entertainment, Shirley and I did several short "telephone calls" demonstrative of the variations of John's surname. I wrote the script and it seemed to be a howling success, as were the two poems I had written for the occasion.

I then made a few remarks, and we presented a set of binoculars to Mr Sumpter, the pack of Mintoes from Callard and Bowser (a total surprise to him), and a large bottle of champagne. A pot of South African violets was given to his wife.

Wine flowed freely, but Mr Sumpter had bought me a large bottle of pure grape juice, and I was surprised at the number of other people keen to try it. Shirley James had never had Shloer before. How sheltered can you be?

I was at home just before half-past-seven to an empty house. I fed the bunnies and gave one of them a half-hour run up and down the hall. The other was asleep in its bed so I did not disturb him.'

Derek is now 56 and as he wrote earlier, feels that his "last chance" to advance his career has gone and in a sense, he is right. A few years later he will seek early retirement on the grounds of ill health.

With no immediate hope of paying off their growing overdraft, Derek and Brenda sit down one Friday evening and decide to sell the house. From Derek's writings, it is clear that he loves his home, particularly his library, with its books and classical records. This must have been a very hard decision to make.

But then suddenly, out of the blue, everything changes:

Brenda has been awarded an Invalid Care Allowance in keeping with the recent decision of the European Court of Appeal. This is an allowance made to women who are prevented from working by the need to look after a handicapped member of their family. The allowance has been back-dated to December 1984, so Brenda has been sent a cheque for £2391.75. This now enables us to pay off our overdraft; and for Brenda to put a large sum in her building society book. What a blessing! She promptly went out and bought some trousers and a pair of black shoes.'

The year ends with Derek and his family watching a video of "Back to the Future":

'A good plot, plenty of laughs, and sharp dialogue. But the old problem reared its head again: pointless, grating blasphemy. Why will these producers do it. Another film ruined.'


Martin said...

Well, at least Derek got a break with the Invalid Care Allowance.

He does like the the west country, doesn't he? St Enodoc and Dartmoor. Fascinating stuff.

Helen Brocklebank said...

His stoicism makes it all the more heartbreaking. Poor Derek. You edit the various chapters of his life so wonderfully well - he's so ordinary, yet so compelling. Such pathos in the picture drawn by his son. Thank God for the invalid care allowance.

To cheer myself up, i've had to go and read this again

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the link - wonderful!

I'm sorry that Derek's becoming so depressing. It all seemed so amusing at the beginning - a rather absurd figure with delusions of grandeur that were undermined by malapropisms and Pooterish prose.

But then I got to know Derek and grew to respect him for his courage and humanity in the face of adversity. He was a very extraordinary ordinary man.

Thank you Mrs Trefusis for acknowledging the editing process. The actual diaries are a huge, unwieldy mess containing thousands of pages, most of which are very mundane entries about the daily workings of the local Mormon church.

Derek's "confessional" writing often appears as a brief coda to normal entries and searching for them is like panning for gold. But eventually it's possible to construct a narrative.

As you both say, thank God for the Invalid Care Allowance. I hope that the Government's reform of the benefits culture won't be so heavy-handed that it penalises people like Derek and Brenda.

Rob said...

Fascinating - a real insight into the lives of others.

The Parrot said...

That line about Shloer just made me choke on my breakfast.

Poker Star said...

@His stoicism makes it all the more heartbreaking:

this kind of philosophy is for very strong characters

"In life's poker game, the optimist sees the pessimist's night and raises him the sunrise." My website: Freerolle

Foxesatdawn said...

"Shirley James had never had Shloer before. How sheltered can you be?" Derek holds a bright candle to Alan Bennett.

I'm curious about the blackbird comment: in what way are men like that do you think?

Steerforth said...

Yes, lines like "The icing was excellent, but the cake itself was rather dry for my taste" are pure Alan Bennett.

Someone once accused me of making the whole thing up - I was flattered, as it would take a considerable talent to create Derek (which sadly I don't have).

I was also intrigued by the blackbird comment, which is why I included this otherwise dull anecdote. It's the combination of platitudes and disarming candour that makes Derek so addictive. You never know what's coming next.

Sam Jordison said...

That was emotional reading! Thank goodness Derek's wife got that allowance. I'm astonished by how involved I feel with Derek at this stage. Like you say, it was easy (and fun!) to laugh at him at first, but the more I get to know him the more I also have to respect him. What a shame he didn't get that promotion! What a shame he had to realise that he was probably 'part of the problem'.

Anonymous said...

Have you thought of making these entries into a sort of Alan Bennett-ish monologue? I can only imagine how funny/poignant any number of amazing British actors could be.


Steerforth said...

I hadn't, but passages like this would probably translate very well to the stage:

"I set my lip on fire the other morning. And on Sunday night I had a dream. I became acquainted with an attractive woman with curly hair, but undefined facial features. I was much tempted by her and took her back to a basement with rusty radiators..."

Resolute Reader said...

Occasionally, as others have suggested before on your "Derek" entries, I've thought how wonderful a book it would make.

But actually, I realise that there would be too many people who read it for the laughs, rather than for the achingly sad poignancy.

I was quite moved by this entry. Thanks for it.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Actually I think the unintentional humour adds to the poignancy. Not unlike an Alan Bennett character. The humour does not necessarily make someone less real, but more. I agree with Cristiane that what you have edited so far would make a wonderful monologue for the right actor (though no one immediately springs to mind. Paul Rhys perhaps?)

I am so glad Derek was rescued from having to sell their house, though sad for him that this didn't come about in the way he might have wished. And I love him for loving his pet bunnies!

Scary that the 1980s seem so recent, yet he is presumably no longer with us. I do hope there was a heaven waiting for this lovely man who tried so hard to be good all his life.

Anonymous said...

These excerpts from Derek's diary make me inexpressibly sad. I remember you said earlier that he wanted to be a writer. Perhaps he didn't have the opportunity, or perhaps he didn't have the talent or the stick-to-it-iveness. But he does have a certain gift. "Hell it was, and just as keen," he says when passed over for promotion. Such a heartbreaking and powerful statement of his plight -- a conjunction of words which I will probably never forget.
Thank you for sharing his story with us.
Canadian Chickadee

James A-S said...

Thank you for introducing me to Derek.
His writing is always poignant and moving even though at the beginning part of me (the deeply unpleasant part) wanted to punch him.
He is a remarkable man.
I am imagining Mr Sumpter's surprise at receiving the pack of Mintoes and I am thrilled about the Invalid Care Allowance, and Brenda's new trousers.

Kay Sexton said...

I'm finding my reactions to Derek very surprising - if I'd met him in real life, I'd have found him boring, pompous and somewhat deranged, but here, with some of his inner dialogue laid out on the screen, he becomes a man of pathos, dignity and courage in the face of really difficult circumstances.

As others have said, it takes real skill to edit diaries in such a fashion as to reveal the facets of a personality - thank you for making such an effort for Derek and for all of us who are sharing his life. I shall always remember the crossword puzzle cake!

Steerforth said...

You're absolutely right. I'm sure I would have thought that Derek was a bit of a prat if I'd met him briefly, so there's a lesson for all of us.