What are you supposed to feel when someone you don’t particularly like has died?
What are you supposed to feel when someone you perhaps actively disliked dies in a suicide pact with his wife?
In a bored moment I was Googling the names of ex-colleagues when I discovered this article about my first boss, Ernest Lewis, with whom I worked for four and a half years in the Works & Buildings Department of Southampton University.
Unable to contemplate a life apart from his wife who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, he wrapped the pair of them in a blanket and they drank liquid morphine after typing a carefully worded note and leaving a message for their daughter to call the next day.
I’d like to say he was my mentor, guide and friend but actually he was a rather peevish piece of work – mysoginistic, homophobic, pedantic, Scots and completely humourless and every afternoon at exactly ten minutes to five he lit up a foul-smelling pipe: if he was an example of anything, it was what I didn’t want to grow up to be.
What surprises me is that someone I’d thought of as so mediocre should do something so dramatic to end his life, although the typewritten note and the time-delay message to the daughter have a ring of pedestrian detail that is accurate. And I have a sneaking admiration for how he was able to score two fatal doses of morphine.
If you had to draw a picture of the suburban middle-class man, it would have been Ernest – never Ernie - in his tweed jackets, bicycle clips and whipcord trousers in shades of dun, lovat and fawn rotated by the seasons and I’m fairly sure purchased by mail order from an advert in a ‘respectable’ newspaper.
His middle-middle tastes extended to his Austin Metro Vanden Plas, lifelong membership of the Conservative Party (both he and the wife were tub-thumping Tories, he on the county council, she on the city one) and his protective description of his home as a detached bungalow ‘in one-sixth of an acre’. In Hampshire, where acreages are measured in thousands, this struck me as particularly hopeless.
Somewhat laughably for a small-time Thatcherite politician, he kept in the filing cabinet in our office a bottle of sherry once given to my female predecessor at Christmas by a furniture salesman and exhibited as an ‘awful warning’ against corruption in public service as though by accepting such a cheap gift, one could be influenced in the placing of University purchase orders.
Back in the carbon-paper seventies the hierarchies of our office life were beyond Dickensian, Ernest believed in the perfect order of ‘one man, one girrrrl’ rolling the R’s in his lowland Scots accent as if to emphasise the repetitious misogyny of his attitude to secretaries.
When I opted to do my own typing rather than wait for work to be returned, it was seen as some kind of failure on my part, rather than an increase in efficiency. We had a bit of a run-in once with a rather bluestocking Warden of one of the Halls of Residence, whom he described as ‘perpetual spinster, too ugly even to make a lesbian’ … in a way, reacting against these outrageous attitudes helped to frame my burgeoning liberal opinions and rebellious sexuality. When I came out, and decamped to London for a boyfriend and a job paying three times what I’d earned at the University, he was too bitter to come to my leaving party.
Sad man. Sad life. But sad death, too.