MY strongest memory of my grandfather from childhood took place on a winter’s day in 1985.
It was one of those days where the sky looks bruised with the weight of snow yet to fall, and the carpet underfoot lies so thick that your boots creak when you walk.
Granda had taken me for a walk, as was customary on Sundays, when he’d spend the afternoon entertaining me before sitting down to a family dinner.
This particular day, our walk involved him towing me and an assortment of my Barbies on a bright blue sledge to the small park at the end of our road. The snow was deeper there, and Granda began cantering around the grass, making me squeal as the sledge hurtled over bumps.
Eventually, inevitably, I fell off, but he didn’t realise and continued his rapid pace around the park while I lay upended in the snow, laughing too much at the sight of him to be able to make myself heard.
As I write this, more memories of Granda are flooding back, and they always involve fun. A born joker, he was notorious during his 30-year career with Newcastle City Police (now Northumbria Police) for having his fellow officers in stitches most of the time.
He wasn’t just famous for being funny, however. On the night of July 24, 1955, he arrived in Amble Grove, Sandyford to find a fire blazing in a flat where a family-of-four were trapped upstairs.
Running to the back of the property, he smashed a fanlight to gain entry and managed to open the back door before being overcome with smoke. He returned to the blazing building several more times in an attempt to reach the trapped occupants, and only gave up when his police uniform had caught alight and breathing was impossible.
Sadly, four people were killed in the fire after both Granda and the fire brigade were unable to reach them in time. However, Granda’s gallantry was commended by the Newcastle coroner, who said at the inquest in August of ’55: “I would like to congratulate PC Stephen for what he did that night, at great personal risk to himself.
“I do commend his conduct, and I hope that what I say will be brought to the notice of the Chief Constable.”
It was, and aged 33 Constable Frederick Stephen was decorated for bravery. It wasn’t to be the only time he’d make the news: a few years later, he once again risked his own life to scramble up on to a roof to rescue a terrified cat.
He became a desk sergeant in ’57 and was based for the last 20 years of his police career at Newcastle West End police station, which was located opposite the old General Hospital.
He was well-loved in the community, where he also lived with his wife Doris and two children, Freddy (my father) and Brenda. At the time, the West End was just beginning to blossom into the multicultural community it is today, and Granda spent time learning Urdu after his promotion so that he could communicate better with the people who needed his help.
This, then, was the sort of man he was: hardworking, thoughtful and dedicated to his work and especially to his family. He took to being a grandfather like a duck to water, and after I was born in 1979 became the person responsible for me always being covered in chocolate in family photos, as every Sunday he’d bring me a Terry’s chocolate orange.
My grandmother died very suddenly, aged just 57, in 1983. It was a shock and heartbreak from which Granda never fully recovered. He and Doris had been married for 37 years, and were as much in love when she died as they had been in 1946.
After her death, Granda spent a lot of time in Canada, where his daughter Brenda had emigrated and was raising her own young family. He became very close to my cousin Stephanie, and my happiest childhood memories are of hot Canadian summers engaged in silly games with Granda and Steph.
He was a profoundly daft man: he used to invent words, loved wearing my 80s-tastic Glitter wig just to entertain me, and was second to none at monster impersonations.
Helping others, whether in his role in the police force or as a family man, was also very important to him. During our summer holidays in Canada, he struggled with jet lag and would rise before dawn and creep into the laundry room to do my aunt’s ironing. He firmly believed there was nothing on the earth that couldn’t be fixed with a liberal application of black gaffer tape (a trait which earned him the nickname Torchy, after the 1950s TV character Torchy the Battery Boy).
He loved food; he often proclaimed himself to be “clamming”, despite having stuffed himself at a recent meal, and as such proved very useful to a fussy eater like me as he could be relied on to surreptitiously hoover up all suspicious items on my plate.
I can’t remember anything he disliked eating, except for the salty porridge he’d been forced to sample while stationed in Scotland on National Service with the military police during the war. That, he rarely shut up about!
My grandfather died peacefully in hospital in the early hours of September 12, 2012, aged 90. My dad and aunt were with him, holding his hands; I’d left the hospital about an hour before but rushed back when my dad called me to say his condition was deteriorating. Sadly I was too late, but the kind staff in Ward 24 of North Tyneside General Hospital allowed me to spend some time with him afterwards to say my goodbyes.
At his funeral, which took place at Newcastle’s West Road Cemetery on September 20, my cousin Stephanie and I read The Thin Blue Line, a beautiful and moving poem written by Kimberley A. Erb, a police dispatcher.
In it, she speaks of the “line made of those who choose to follow a calling many do not hear and still more do not comprehend”. These are the verses we chose it for:
“And when one leaves this line, they leave a legacy, but the line does not break for the remaining must still protect.
“There may be emptiness, a loss, or sadness but never a hole, not in this line.”
Fred was laid to rest in a family plot with his beloved Doris, whose gravestone he’d had engraved in 1983 with the words “Till we meet again”.
For me, the emotions of the last few weeks remain very raw, but I’m honoured to be the granddaughter of such a brave and caring man.
A loving grandparent-grandchild relationship can be so rewarding for both parties.
My own close relationships with my grandparents have enriched my life so much, and I’m now seeing the joy my two-year-old son brings to my parents. My son’s second birthday came the day after Granda died; my dad wrote in his card: “I hope I can be as good a Granda as your mummy had.”
I feel very lucky to have had Fred Stephen in my life until the age of 33, when so many of my friends lost their grandparents as children.
I’ll always think of him on Sunday afternoons, grinning into the wind as we flew my kite high over Battle Hill, after which he’d usually have to carry the kite, my tricycle and me home again.
I miss you, Granda.