More Death

It’s been another traumatic couple of weeks.

Several years ago I had a call. This guy sounded pretty arrogant and unnecessarily assertive. But he was just down the road, and I could help, plus it was a business I hadn’t been to before. And, he was calling me on personal recommendation. So I had no choice. Not that I ever say no to work that’s within my comfort zone. Anyway, I went to meet him – the proprietor of a small shop selling pies, etc – and I sorted his problem. He was the same in person, but I was my usual polite and charming self that people who know me professionally always compliment me on (personally, I’m a real misery)…

A few months passed, and a call again, this time for a new computer. That escalated quickly. A week or so later, new computer is delivered, I set it all up, and he asks me about problems he’s having with his business. As a digital child – a marvel to elderly folk like him (he was mid 60s) – I have all the answers, and soon I am his go-to guru. Within months, we are setting up digitised bookkeeping (making his bookkeeper redundant, technology is harsh), I am advising him on auto-enrolment for pensions, we’re doing the payroll, and he’s learning how to enter the information himself.

It takes a year or more, but we establish a rapport. I know from experience that he comes across to most – and me at first – as a miserable so-and-so. But it is a defensive screen. He is a hard-nosed businessman, and doesn’t let anyone come near unless he knows they’re not trying to take the piss. Then he is generous and amusing. Always ready to share stories of his past, always passing on bits of information, sometimes good, sometimes not so good (his sexism no longer fit for the modern era). But if you were fair to him, he would be fair to you. He knew he took my time, and insisted on setting up a regular series of payments, regardless of how much of it he used, so that he knew he was always paying me. I think he did better out of it than I did, but I was happy for the regular income, in a business which is very ad hoc.

Eventually I would say we become friends. I knew a lot about his life, and his ways, so I think he had no choice to keep a friend close. But he would always ask how I was doing in business, and offered finance if I had any good ideas (I never have in my entire life, sadly) – because he could afford it, and he liked a challenge. He could be annoying, and by Christ trying to help people with problems on their phone or tablet whilst also speaking to them on the phone is bloody hard, but he was always unfailingly grateful. I was usually happy the call was over, but I was his connection to the world outside of his little one, on his boat, away from everyone. Even his daughters (and the less said about his estranged wife the better).

Two years ago it was clear his business was in a decline. Selling food freshly made on the high street is tough, when the competition from the major players is fierce. You need a niche. He didn’t have one. The store was old and tired, and desperately needed an overhaul to make it look light and modern. He had long passed retirement age. It was time to enjoy it.

He shut the shop down, and decided that was it. He was to spend his days on his boat, sipping (or glugging) red wine, watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, daytime TV, and enjoying the sunshine when it rarely appeared. He’d worked almost all his life for himself, and had a decent pension, a decent bank balance, regular rental income and three properties collectively worth over £2m, thanks to that wonderful thing bestowed on all of his generation: massive property price inflation/great timing/luck.

The empty shop was a thorn in his side, but he would pop up and down from his boat (60 miles away) to check up on it. Otherwise, he left it to me. I was given a key, and asked to sell off bits where good offers came up. I became his caretaker. He kept on paying me, despite not really needing me any more. But he insisted it was only fair for keeping an eye on things, and forwarding letters. I agreed to keep an eye on his e-mail too, as he had a habit of sometimes missing things, or he would want me to cast an eye over one he’d written to his property managing agents, etc. It was simple, and kept us in touch, staying friends. It was nice to hear from him every now and then. We usually spoke at least once a week.

Over the years he tried to get rid of the shop. The list of timewasters was as long as your arm, including some real stains on humanity. But two years later, it was still empty. He had finally lost patience with selling off stuff, but in the end it was a good deal. He paid to get rid of the remaining unsold junk, and the shop became barren and unoccupied. Old and useless. In desperate need of attention.

Then out of the blue a new offer. Lower than he would like, but it was time to get rid of it. This was in the era BC (Before Covid). It all went on hold. It was extraordinary bad luck, again. He cursed it, and wondered whether he would ever get rid of it.

Then – good news – the government said all retail premises could have free business rates for 2020-21. Crackerjack! £600 a month no longer in the toilet. Surely the shop would be gone by March 2021?

Two weeks ago I noticed, after a few days, that he didn’t seem to have read any e-mails. Bizarrely, I think the last one he read was about Covid 19. But he hadn’t read one earlier from his agent? A bit odd, I thought. I tried to call him on the Thursday. There were thus four days of unread e-mails. I got no answer, but it was ringing. I tried again. I sent a text and said I would call again the following day.

I did. Ringing again, but no answer. I was worried. Still no e-mails being read. I then saw an e-mail from his daughter, saying they hadn’t heard from him, and is he OK? Now I was alarmed, so I decided to share what I knew with her. She – 100 miles away – sent someone local to check.

On the Saturday morning she asked me to call. I thought that that must be bad, but it can’t be too bad, otherwise surely she would have not replied at all? I rang, my heart racing.

He had been found unconscious and clearly very unwell on his boat. It wasn’t clear what had happened, but they didn’t suspect Covid. He was in a bad way, and they had taken him to ICU on a ventilator, with suspected sepsis.

I was sad. And worried. Why did I wait so long? I should have raised the alarm on Thursday, when there was no reply. I had his daughter’s e-mail anyway. But it didn’t matter, I thought. At least he has been found, he’s still alive, and now can recover. And when he comes round, he’ll know that I saved him! His paying for me to monitor his e-mails saved him…

The days passed. No improvement. Days turned to nearly two weeks. His daughter e-mailed to say she was worried, but at least he was now stable. He was getting good care and they were keeping positive. Still, they had no real idea how it could have happened. A fall? Too drunk one day and stumbled and hurt himself and couldn’t get to the phone? The perils of self-isolation, something he did Covid or not.

Yesterday, whilst enjoying my bank holiday Friday doing work (ha!) – I had an e-mail. He had died. He was just too far gone to fight it. I was ready for bad news, but it was still a real sadness. He didn’t deserve to die in such an unfair and undignified way. He had barely enjoyed anything of his retirement. And still the pang of worry that had I said something on the Thursday – well, who knows either way?

He is another sad loss this year. I will miss his chats, his sense of humour, his useful advice, and just generally having some social contact outside of my usual ways. He taught me quite a lot, and, though his ways were dated, and his knowledge not quite so relevant any more, he was, and is, what happens to most of us on a personal level. It’s a cautionary tale to me, of spending too long working, and not enough enjoying the fruits of my labour. Of how we all end up past our expiry date, saying how things were better in our day, and imploring the next generation to listen to our advice, but lamenting them not doing so. They could learn so much!

I feel so sorry for his family, as I know that he wanted to take care of them directly, and wanted to do so during his life, but now can’t, and won’t live to see the benefits he was going to bring to them. There will be bickering between the estranged wife – who will probably automatically get all of his jointly held properties – and the daughters. He wanted the money to go to them, so they could pass it on to the grandchildren. But now his wife will have it all. Sure, she could still share it, but he basically wanted her to have no more…

He had been planning on updating his will, which is probably about 25 years old from what I understand. He never got round to it, due to time and penny-pinching. Another cautionary tale.

I’m upset that he will no longer look out for me, either. It was nice to know he was there, sending me money in return for help. I had a sense he wanted to take care of me once everything in the shop was sorted, in recognition for going beyond the call of duty on many occasions. Shovelling pigeon shit out of a gully was worth more than my retainer. Many times over.

As you age, life becomes a procession of deaths of all the people you knew and cared about. I fear I have reached that point.

RIP Mr [redacted]. You will be missed.