My aunt let me know yesterday that my cousin John Edwards has died. This isn’t terribly unusual, she’s the one who always lets me know people have died. I was sad but not shocked, the way he lived he wasn’t likely to make old bones.
What’s unusual is that he died in July and she only just found out. He was my first cousin once removed, son of my grandfather’s sister, my Auntie Doris, and therefore my aunt’s first cousin. She found out he was dead because her Christmas card was returned by his solicitor. So nobody in our family knew he was dead, because if they had known they’d have told my aunt. When his brother, my cousin Derek, died last year, everybody told everybody and everybody dutifully trooped off to the funeral. We’re Welsh, dammit, we have big funerals full of hwyl and talk about the person who is dead and connect again with the living. But not for John, who must have been buried without any of our family present. Auntie Doris, who was so much for family, and funerals, and connections, would have been really upset. She’s been dead since 1976.
My cousin John was a black sheep. Not the black sheep, our family has a lot of black sheep, but definitely one of them. He was born sometime during the War, he must have been conceived on one of his father’s leaves, because his father died in the Normandy landings. He and Derek grew up with their mother and their grandmother in the little house belonging to my great-grandmother, where my grandfather was earlier born and later died.
John got into trouble in the fifties, he couldn’t get a job, he became a forger, was caught and went to prison. His printing press was in the gully room of that house. Auntie Doris had the room bricked up, and my grandfather and I uncovered it after her death. She claimed she had it bricked up because she’d been having a seance downstairs at which the devil had appeared. She’d chased the devil upstairs with a prayerbook, as you would, and slammed the door of the gully room on him. She thought the bricks were a good idea though. My grandfather never believed this. The amazing thing is that everyone else did. Throughout my childhood, I hated to go upstairs in that house, I tiptoed past that blocked door, terrified of the devil. When we took the bricks down, I was trembling. The printing press, with its fascinating little cards and lead type and long dried inks, was both a disappointment and a revelation.
John came out of prison before I was born. He came out with some computer skills, on whatever early heavy iron had just been invented then, and went to London. At some point he made a printout of a horse with ones and zeros on green and white striped paper, which had pride of place on the kitchen wall in Auntie Doris’s kitchen, between Salem and The Light of the World.
John also became an alcoholic. He used to come home for Christmas every year of my childhood, and every year he would drink and drink and at some point get maudlin drunk, and at some other point do something ridiculous when drunk. One year he came around to our house (five minutes walk from Auntie Doris’s house) on one of the days between Boxing Day and New Year to ask my aunt, in a whisper he didn’t want my grandfather to hear, to drive him to a pub near Brecon where he’d left his car. He hadn’t been fit to drive, so he’d sensibly got a lift home. The only snag was he couldn’t remember exactly which pub near Brecon it was where he’d left the car…
He had a lovely laugh, I can remember it clearly, booming out, full of infectious cheer. I’d hear it from rooms away and know that Cousin John had arrived. He was charming and amusing, life and soul of any party, and he’d flirt with everyone, with his mother, with my grandmother and my aunt and anyone else who was around. He drank too much. He got married quite late to another alcoholic called Jean. They drank together and tried to quit drinking together, and drank together again, still coming down to Aberdare at Christmas even after Auntie Doris had died. They’d be wonderful companions for the first part of a meal, John especially, telling wonderful stories, and then they’d get too drunk and start to quarrel. Jean died a few years ago. She used to match John drink for drink. They stopped coming for Christmas when there was nowhere to go, we sold the house after my grandfather died.
My grandfather was the youngest of seven children who survived to adulthood. They’re all dead now, Auntie Flo was the last of them. I may have miscalculated, but I believe John had twelve living first cousins, and as for second cousins and first cousins once removed that would go into the hundreds. In our family we gather for funerals, whether we want to or not, dragging down from all over the country because it’s what we do. We sing “Calon lan”. Death is a part of life.
My cousin John Edwards has been dead since July, and none of the family knew. He died alone and nobody knew who to tell, and that’s wrong, for my family. How many funerals cousin John must have been to, in black, and sung loudly and laughed his big open laugh and then got drunk. He must have expected that one day he would end with the same send off. I wouldn’t have made it to the funeral anyway, not from here, but that would have been OK because my aunt would have put my name on her flowers and her card, “and Jo”. It’s not much, but it would have been enough.
And Jo, Cousin John, and Jo cared enough to remember you and to feel the world an emptier place without you.