Where to start, a bit tricky really, but hey ho here goes.
John was my brother. The story that I am going to tell you is also the reason why I have not been able to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) for over a year.
“Why am I writing this?”, I ask myself. Well, maybe because there is nothing else I can do.
John was the eldest of three brothers. I am the youngest, or as my parents used to annoyingly call me when I was little, “Bab”.
After a hard beginning, growing up in Lowestoft, being evacuated to the midlands in 1939 and finally joining in the war in 1942, missing any opportunity for a good education, Dad brought up his three sons with a rod of iron. He didn’t know any other way. Boys (and wives) had to be kept in hand. That was the way of his world. He had an almost obsession for schoolwork and education. I later began to realise that this obsession came from his lack of education. He was an intelligent man and easily capable of a university education, but life had handed some bitter blows which meant his time had passed. He therefore wasn’t going to let that happen to his boys.
John took the brunt of the strict discipline. He achieved his degree and went on to study for his PhD in chemistry. Possibly due to his strict upbringing, or due to his gentle nature, or even a bit of both, John was a quiet, conflict shy, almost timid gentleman.
He had a love of the mountains and countryside, and walking in the hills was a keen pastime. During the later part of his studies, he met a girl, who shared his love of the outdoors, and they were often seen hiking together. Sadly for John, this relationship came to an end, but they remained good friends for the rest of his life.
On the rebound from this relationship, John met an attractive, lively woman, who was recently divorced. She was a school teacher of languages, primarily French, and it wasn’t long before their relationship became more than casual.
John had also recently gone through a very difficult time at university. Having achieved a 2.1 BSc in Chemistry and a subsequent MSc, while preparing his final thesis for his PhD he ran out of steam. I guess today we would say he had a breakdown. It all became too much for him, and he never did complete it. It became necessary to get a job.
He took a position as a pollution chemist with Severn Trent Water and stayed with them until his retirement at the age of 50. Shortly after joining Severn Trent he and Jane also married. It was a great wedding, full of optimism for their future. They made a handsome couple.
Our Dad had his reservations though. He was one of the old school who believed that marriage was for life, ’till death do us part’. Jane was divorced, which went hard against his values, especially as the story was that she had “ditched her man”. I remember tactfully talking to him at the time, trying to explain that the times had moved on a bit since his days. Well, at least he didn’t spoil the wedding with his opinions.
So, with a new job, new wife, good health and incomes, all went quite well for a number of years. They were never able to have children and decided to put their earned wealth into a second house in France and extremely good lifestyle in terms of social life, cuisine and investments. Soon, they were planning an early retirement together at the age of 50, possibly permanently living in France.
As the years progressed Jane’s dominant character, together with John’s quite, almost timid nature, meant that the balance between them became distorted. John took on Jane’s lifestyle of parties, many friends, expensive food, wine and clothes, never appearing to be truly comfortable with any of it. At the same time his real passions of hiking, mountains and the outdoors, took an ever receding back seat, until, by the time John was 40, it was completely behind him.
Around this time John’s hair began to turn grey, which was a complete no no as far as Jane was concerned. On her insistence John let her colour his hair a dark black. At first it looked quite natural, and I had hardly noticed, until some years later when I used to make fun of his ‘wig’ as it looked so unnatural.
As time went by I began to feel concerned for John. When we visited, it was often quite embarrassing to see the domination, but as I discussed with my wife at the time, it was really none of our business. John would be scolded in front of us for opening the wrong wine for each course, for example. he would just apologise and meekly trot into the cellar for what he was told.
The hair colouring escalated to removal of all body hair. John explained to me when he was older that he was not allowed to have any body hair as Jane didn’t like it. She would remove it herself.
After a failed senior management position due to the pressure of people management, John found a niche as a water pollution research specialist and was eventually seconded to Belgium to help them with their environmental pollution projects. He travelled Monday to Friday to Belgium, spending only weekends at home in the UK or France, with his wife. Putting distance between them seemed to do their marriage good. John was able to concentrate of his academic work, while Jane was able to live her social life during the week.
John’s long term ambition to retire at 50 never waned. Despite enjoying the work in Belgium, which in any case was always intended to be time limited, he retired as planned on his 50th birthday. Jane was a year younger, and decided to carry on working for that year.
At the age of 51, before Jane had finished working, John began to have strange feelings in his hands and arm muscles. I had noticed for some years that his handshake had no strength, and put that down to his lack of confidence. As I mentioned, I had been concerned about this for some time. After medical checks, John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
John . naturally took the news quite badly, especially as with his scientific mind, it wasn’t long before he had studied all the ins and outs and knew quite well what the future symptoms and development prognosis would be. Jane reacted very differently. Rather than go through with the long planned early retirement together, she now had a different prospect before her, of a future looking after an ever more dependent invalid. She therefore didn’t retire and threw herself into her work even more than previously. John began to spend more and more evenings alone, let alone the days.
Those earlier years with the disease were somewhat bearable because John picked up his passion of walking. He could still walk long distances, albeit ever more ungainly. He would go to their house in France on occasions to oversee maintenance work and take care of the garden, being joined by Jane during holiday times. However, as his illness progressed, he became more and more phlegmatic and would often not be able to fulfil Jane’s demands on his time. He was expected to take care of the home, even when his symptoms were becoming worse.
Eventually Jane announced that she was leaving John. She was simply not prepared to look after him in her old age and wanted to get more from life. At the time our family did not make negative judgments, as this was a personal situation, between them only. Only our father was quick to say “I told you so”. They never spoke again, after the announcement.
And so she left him. Or at least she didn’t leave him. Until they could sell the house, which was to take years, she continued living in the same home, but in a different bedroom. When she entertained guests, John would be sent to his room. By this time he was so under her control, that he simply nodded and did as he was told.
By the time Jane actually moved out, John was over 60 and suffering from considerably advanced symptoms. His medication was playing havoc with his body, causing various cramps and worst of all, hallucinations. He was having daily sessions of hallucinations, seeing faces in any large plain surface, such as a wall, ceiling or curtain. On selling the house they bought two separate flats with the proceeds. John’s was in Tamworth town centre, near to the shops and facilities. Jane’s was an old Victorian apartment further out of town.
As time went by mine and my family’s opinions changed towards Jane. She had treated him very badly during the years when she continued to live in the same house. Only a huge domination effect could have allowed such a situation to go on for so long. I discussed with John, on a number of occasions, and he always said that he still loved Jane and felt rather sorry for her because in the future be thinks she will regret her actions. However his loving attitude did gradually change over time.
In 2015 our parents both died. It was a very intense time as they were both admitted to hospital on the same day. They were both 90 and after, two months our mother died in hospital. Her organs simply gave up on her. Our Dad took the news very badly of course, after 67 years of marriage. As he had said for many years, “When Mum goes, I go too, but not before.”
He was completely true to his word. As soon as he understood that Mum had gone, he closed his eyes, refused to speak, eat or drink, and although the doctors said he was medically in very good shape, he died within three weeks. I had only respect for his courage and determination to do what he had always said he would, especially knowing that life would have been so difficult alone.
Naturally John couldn’t help during these few difficult months, and it took a great toll on all of us emotionally to deal with their passing, the funerals and closing down of the family home, which was the same house that they bought in 1948. It was a very stressful time, but also a time where our far flung family got to see each other again, to exchange stories and generally be together. This was especially true of us three brothers. We had never been especially close, each going his own way in life, but during these few months had many evenings together.
It was during this time that John explained to me that his will stated that all of his possessions would go to Jane, and he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with it. He said that after having treated him so badly, and now living very well on his large pension, he was planning to change his will. He wanted to leave it to Parkinson’s research, which pleased me greatly for two reasons. Firstly, our parents had understandably grown to hate the woman that had deserted their son and had left him his share in their will, hoping that she would never get any of it. Secondly, by leaving everything to Parkinson’s would mean that she would end up much worse off.
I came back to Spain, where I live, in June 2015, convinced that John would be writing a new will and thinking seriously how I could help him get through the next few years with his illness.
In December 2015 I called John to wish him a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. It was just before Christmas and I asked him what his plans were. His reply shocked me. He said,” I don’t expect to see anyone again this year, Jim. Jane says that she has no time to visit, as she is with friends.”
I asked him to come to us in Spain, but realised that it was already a little too close for him to arrange. I almost insisted that he come and spend some time with us after Christmas. He sounded open to the idea and said he would be in touch.
I heard nothing until mid March. One day I received a very strange email from John, asking if he could come over and how long he would be allowed to stay for. I say ‘strange’ because I couldn’t understand why my own brother would ask how long he could stay, after I had already told him to come for as long as he wants.
We agreed dates and he was to fly on 28th April 2016. He disappeared on the evening of his 66th birthday on 20th April, one week before he was due to arrive.