The last few days have been unbearably tough.
A week ago I was in Jersey visiting family and friends. I’m a lucky man – I’ve lived to the age of 38 with three grandparents still going strong. Formidable, amazing, special people them all. Popa – my Mum’s Dad – died when I was 16. The other three just kept going. Must’ve been the sea air.
But age is catching up with them, Grandad in particular who’d been suffering with lung cancer for two years. So instead of going out for lunch as normally we would when we’re over from Southampton, we instead decided to take some beers and a lemon drizzle cake over to Nanny and Grandad’s house. Ok so it wasn’t haute cuisine. But it was a nice, neat collection of a few of our favourite things.
Grandad isn’t a big drinker. In his younger days he loved a drop, like the time he got drunk at Longueville Manor – one of Jersey’s most prestigious hotels – and proceeded to drive his car across the hotel’s immaculate front lawn. Nowadays, a small ‘beer-de-France’ as he called them – irrespective of whether the beer was indeed French or not – was more than enough.
So off we went to their cottage in St Brelade, for what would be a lovely, but emotional, afternoon.
Gramps was always immaculately dressed. Always wore a shirt, usually accompanied by a tie or a cravat. His black slicked-back hair had long since been replaced by shorter, whiter, thinner follicles. On the day we visited, he was still in his pyjamas. He wasn’t well.
But he turned it on for us, that day. His mood jovial, despite sounding frail and upset on the phone hours earlier. When we entered their pretty little pink cottage, always warm, cosy and with family photos hanging on every wall, I was greeted with a Huelin handshake – a tickle of my palm from Gramps’ index finger.
We talked about all sorts, including rather beautifully, Nanny and Grandad’s wedding day. I’ll share this little story with you:
On 16th February 1950, Barbara Amy married Leslie Lewis Huelin at St Martins Methodist Church, before heading on to Maison Gorey for afternoon tea. From there they headed back to ‘Eastleigh’, Nanny’s family home in St Martin, where the ladies prepared an evening spread. The boys meanwhile, including Grandad, Uncle Ernie and Uncle Lys, headed to the local – the Royal St Martins – for a ‘wet reception’. In other words, they had a few beers.
Days later the happy couple headed to London on their honeymoon, where the buildings were still battered from the Blitz years earlier. Getting there was a 12-hour mission; nine hours on the overnight ferry before a two-hour train ride. It’s a 45-minute flight now. When they got there, the love-birds took in a show at the London Palladium, eating fish and chips on the way back to their hotel on Edgware Road. Loves young dream.
The story over, Gramps then turned to Liam, my son, and started a conversation with him in Jèrriais – a local Jersey dialect which bears more than a passing resemblance to French. When I was a kid, Grandad used to speak Jèrriais to me all the time, using inflections in his voice to ask questions, knowing I had no idea what he was on about. I’d respond ‘oui’ or ‘non’, hoping I was providing a plausible answer. Invariably I’d be wrong, prompting Grandad to repeat what I’d said with almost stunned outrage.
‘NON?!’ He’d boom. Not really – he was only joking. Now it was Liam who was the butt of Grandad’s gentle joke, and he looked as bemused as I’d done 30 years earlier.
It felt like deja vu, and took me right back to my childhood in Jersey, so much of which was spent at Nanny and Grandad’s house, then a giant granite building in Grouville with hundreds of rooms, or so it seemed through my tiny eyes…
Grandad was a barber and he used to work from home. Everyone knew Les Huelin; his customers included my old headmaster, Mr Livingstone, my friend Emma’s dad, and the founder of Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell – or ‘Gerry’ as Gramps used to call him.
Gramps did his apprenticeship during the Second World War, when Jersey was occupied by the Germans. The German Soldiers’ were his customers. He made hair gel out of seaweed – or Vraic as it’s called in Jersey – which he’d scoop up off the beach and boil in a big pot. It was as strong as Brylcreem, Gramps assured me.
Twice a week my sister Lian and I would go to their house after school, while Mum and Dad were working. Our escapades with Nanny and Grandad included making plum jam and, on one occasion, hacking our way through gauze bushes a the nearby Royal Jersey Golf Course, on the lookout for golf balls. You could sell them for 50p a pop in the golf shop, so it was a no-brainer.
On Saturdays, Gramps would take me out for a cycle ride, all the way around Jersey’s south coast to St Aubin. Off we’d race, over Le Hocq hill and down the cycle track alongside Victoria Avenue, my little legs pedalling as fast as they’d go, just to keep up with this Adonis in front of me. Gramps’ pedalling was effortless, almost nonchalant. A steady cadence that never got too fast for me, but that challenged me constantly.
If ever there was a metaphor for Gramps’ approach to life, that was it; do your best. Or better still, do even better.
When we slept over, I’d cycle with Gramps to the chip shop in Gorey to get our dinner. Lian would order burger AND scampi – I mean seriously, who has two mains from the chippy?! The food would be followed by a pulsating game of Pit, the marketplace card game. Nanny would always be left with the Bear card, thus losing 20 points. Every single time.
In recent years, trips to Nanny and Grandad’s house would always involve a trip down memory lane like this, recalling more recent trips to Southampton when Nanny and Grandad came to visit me, Maria and our kids. There was a trip to the gorgeous little port of Lymington, a pub lunch in Hamble where Liam seemed to be giving the waitress the eye, and games of football and cricket in the garden, which saw four generations of Huelins playing together. Moments to treasure.
In cricket Gramps kept wicket, despite his deteriorating eyesight due to a degenerative macular disease which couldn’t be cured. His sight would get progressively worse in the years ahead. At the end he was virtually blind.
It was a lovely afternoon recalling old times. But there was also a sense of sorrow in the room. Grandad was nearing the end, and we all knew it – him included. You could see it in his eyes, and hear it in his faltering voice.
As night drew in, the unimaginable was coming into focus; it was time to say goodbye. An hour later we were due to return to Southampton, and it was unlikely we would ever see Grandad again alive. As we got up to leave, what followed was horrendous but beautiful and tender, a moment I will treasure forever.
I hugged Grandad tight, sobbing into his shoulder, and him into mine.
‘I will never forget you Gramps, I love you so much.’
‘I love you too, Tommy. I will never forget you either.’
We held each other for a while. I never wanted to let go. But eventually we did. Then, already, it was time to leave.
The things I’ve learnt from Grandad, the laughs we’ve shared. And now the tears we’ve cried; both together and apart.
As we headed for the door, trying desperately not to explode into tears once more, Grandad shouted ‘À bétôt,’ – ‘goodbye’ in Jèrriais – from his armchair, his voice raspier and quieter than ever before.
‘À bétôt,’ we called back, even Liam and Ella. A few hours earlier my kids had never even heard of Jèrriais. Now they were speaking it. That’s Grandad for you.
I won’t burden you with the details of what came next. But suffice to say a week after that glorious, devastating afternoon, Grandad had passed away. Peacefully. A kiss from his beloved wife of 68, nearly 69 years, Barbara, the last thing he would ever feel.
Grandad – the man I will spend the rest of my life striving to be half as good as. The man I loved so completely, so truly. Who made me smile whenever I saw him, and who I will never, ever forget.
Your legacy will live forever, Gramps. Through your three amazing sons, five perfect grandchildren (me included, just saying), and nine incredible great children.
I’m-a-say, that’s a fact.