It was the long hot summer of 1976. Her house-mates had gone down to Cornwall for the week; Jean remained alone in London. With temperatures on the Archway streets outside topping 90°F, she turned on the central heating and closed all the windows. Composing herself on her bed, she drank a glass of strychnine and lay back to await the agony.
When they returned from Cornwall the first thing to hit them on opening the front door was a wall of searing heat, immediately followed by a pungent, unfamiliar smell, and then a growing awareness of a strange noise coming from upstairs, just like the low drone of a swarm of flies. There was no note.
The knock at my bedroom door came at 6 the following morning. “The police want to talk to you,” said Catherine, “they’re downstairs, there’s three of them including a policewoman, what’s going on?” I was a shift-working bus conductor at the time (routes 12, 88 and 105, Shepherd’s Bush shed), so was still bleary-eyed and semi-conscious when I got downstairs to be told abruptly and with zero empathy: “Your wife’s dead. What do you know about it?”
We had separated six months previously and should never have got married in the first place. She was a crazy Jewish American Princess from Chicago, five years older than me, always wearing wild flowing capes with nothing on underneath and quite capable of smashing up a restaurant if something displeased her; I was a sarky, self-deluded, Welsh low-achiever. She liked my intensity and irreverence; I liked her sophistication and deviance. On no more grounds than one fairly decent shag, we decided to get married. The warning signs were already there at Kensington Registry Office when we set each other off into fits of uncontrollable giggles during the marriage ceremony. We were two dysfunctional oddballs playing “husband and wife”; within six months the fun was over and we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. But, as we all get to discover eventually, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
I phoned her mother in Chicago. “Bury her,” she snapped before hanging up. I was next-of-kin but couldn’t afford a funeral, so had to go cap-in-hand to The Board of Deputies of British Jews for help. Until then I didn’t know that the Jewish faith a) views suicide as the supreme crime, and b) requires the body to be buried before any decomposition sets in. The Elders thoroughly disapproved of Jean’s methods and my slack nonchalance, not to mention our joint poverty. “You’ve got £20 in your Post Office account, we’ll have that, she’ll be buried tomorrow,” growled the severe man with the straggly beard and the skullcap in what would have been an offensive anti-semitic sub-Fagin parody – had he not been for real.
To get to Waltham Abbey Jewish Cemetery you take a stopping train to Cambridge from Liverpool Street. “Which platform for Waltham Abbey?” I asked the bloke on the ticket barrier. He seemed to point to a train just about to leave. I jumped on, the cheap spray of flowers I clutched already wilting. Only when the train shot past my stop at 80mph did I realise I’d boarded the non-stopping service. And thus I missed Jean’s funeral (leaving the gravedigger and the BDBJ officials as the sole mourners) – but I did get to see Cambridge, city of dreaming spires, or is that Oxford? There would not be another Mrs Mortimer.
I was never going to make you happy, babe. Let this overdue online obituary now suffice. Jean Chernila (1949-1976) joins the infinite digital soup, forever Googleable until the end of time.
It’s a hard life, harder than is ever acknowledged. There’s nothing wrong with having an exit strategy, a Plan Z. I like to think I don’t possess a suicidal bone in my body, but still I’ve sketched escape routes in my mind – just in case Despair ever does triumph over Hope. Only the other day I noticed that some kids have opened a gap in the railings along Cumnock Place giving access to the mainline railway…I defend my right and everyone else’s to make that decision, to take that final, no-turning-back step towards self-determination and, at last, at long last, peace.