A Knight’s Tale (41: My Awful Night)

Vivien and I were married at St Lawrence’s Church, Sidcup on 8th June 1963.

We began our married life in my parents’ house at 18 Bernard Gardens, Wimbledon.  

This was where she proudly brought Michael home and we lived for a few more months until we bought 49 Ashcombe Road, Wimbledon for £2,500 (no noughts missing). 

In Ashcombe Road we did our own decorating and I transformed a rubble heap into a reasonable back garden mostly laid to lawn for our little boy to play in. 

As a recent toddler he helped me push a roller over the turfs we had laid. 

This was not to be our home for long.  In September 1965 I went out one evening  window shopping for a present for Vivien’s 23rd. birthday which was to be in a couple of weeks time.  Forty five minutes later I returned home to find her dead on the floor of the sitting room.  In less than an hour I had become a single parent.

Years later I was queueing for soap in Floris in Jermyn  Street when the young man ahead of me was offered products from Duchy Originals.  “I don’t want any of that stuff.  It goes to charities like unmarried mothers doesn’t it”, was his response.  I leaned forward and said: “I’ve been a single parent as it happens.” “I’m bringing mine up on my own”, said the shop assistant.  He was gone.

Now I must return to my awful night.  Deep in shock I collected Michael from his bed, where, thankfully he had been sleeping; gathered him up in his blankets; and carried him up the road to Bernard Gardens.  My mother took us in and eventually put us both to bed.  In my case that was not to lead to sleep for another three days, when I had stopped crying.  Dad came home a little after our arrival.  I can still hear his teardrop hitting my bedding.  I will be forever grateful to the gentleman, doctor, official of some sort; I have no idea;I was past taking it in, who visited me the next morning to tell me that death had been instant and Vivien would have known nothing of it.  My wife had died in an epileptic fit.  I had always known that she could possibly have an accident, but never dreamt that the condition could produce a fatal collapse.  To this day I don’t know whether he said it was her heart or her lungs that had failed.

Returning from the funeral I was to find a Health Visitor on the doorstep.  She had not visited before but was making a check up call following Michael’s birth.  He was now fourteen months old.  She fled and never came again.

Michael and I were to stay at Bernard Gardens for the next three years.  Until he was three Mum cared for him alongside my brother Joseph, just three years older.  When Michael was considered old enough he attended a day nursery, where he met his lifelong friend Edward Blakely, and he and I moved to a studio flat at the top of the house which had just been vacated by the Egan family.  I could be sole carer with the advantage of family below who babysat when I went out.  I was able to continue working, collect him from nursery at the end of the day, and, I thought, cook us a meal. 

On the evening I began my new routine, never having cooked before, I decided we’d have spaghetti bolognese.  I cooked up some mince in a saucepan.  No herbs, no spices, no onions, no carrots, no tomatoes, just mince.  Hopefully I used some sort of cooking oil, but I wouldn’t be sure.  I boiled the spaghetti until it was soggy and served up.  I don’t remember whether either of us ate any of it, but I do remember thinking, after I’d tucked Michael up in bed and turned to face the washing up at 9.30 p.m.: “Blow this, he gets a meal at the nursery, I’m going to the caff at midday”, I told myself.

I had, by now, realised I could never stay in an office job. All I needed was a direction. How I found that direction is a further story.


  1. Oh my, Derrick! Thank goodness for family. And people who have never been single parents should damn well keep their mouths shut. And maybe work on their empathy?

  2. This was such a heartbreaking chapter, a bolt from the blue, sudden and fatal. Your courage and perseverance in the face of the fortitude have been admirable. Understandably, the incident had a defining influence on your life.

  3. Derrick, this story is not new to me, but it still hits very hard. Your telling of it is brilliant. I cannot fathom the loss – for you and for your baby boy. Hugs to you. xo

  4. Hi Derrick, a great tragedy for you and Michael to have endured. My biological father died of a massive heart attack in front of my mother when I was three months old. I often think about how awful that must have been for her. My younger son is also Michael.

  5. This is so tragic and heartbreaking! It must still be painful to remember. I can relate to it as my husband died of a massive heart attack while on a tour (myocardial infarction). He returned home in a coffin. He was just 39.

  6. I remember that story, and that is a beautiful photo of Vivien and baby Michael. The ones of you and Michael as toddler are precious, too. Thoughts and prayers are with you.

  7. I remember you shared some of this before…hearing it, now, in even greater detail it is even sadder.
    🙁 Such a shocking, scary, tragic part of your life. I so admire how you handled everything…especially being both a Mum and a Dad to little Michael. <3
    I admire your Mum and Dad for being there to help in such great ways. <3
    The sweet photo of Vivien and Michael brings even more tears to my eyes. We can see the love, joy, and pride in her face!
    <3 <3 <3
    PS…yes, if those snarky people knew the details of why some moms and some dads are single parents, I'd hope they would be more understanding.

  8. No matter that I knew this story from the past, it never ceases to hurt. You have gone so much deeper in the retelling than before. It never gets any happier, but there is some sort of comfort in recounting. At least, that was my experience. Kind of finding a place to put the loss.
    I hope this does not come across strangled in the typing, rather than in person, but I think for those of the judgmental society of the 1960s, there was a world of moral difference between an unmarried mother and widower. But good on you for putting him in his place. And, of course, he did not know the details of your circumstance.

    1. Thanks very much, Gwen. You are quite right on both counts – as I would expect. There is no problem with your wording. Incidentally, it took me quite a while to suppress the urge to explain that I was a widower, not the assumed divorcee.

  9. I am sorry for your loss. It must have been such a difficult time for you and your little one. You were both fortunate to have your family help you through it all. This must have been difficult to write with your Mum so recently passed. 💞

  10. Oh Derrick, how very sad this story is. I can’t believe the crass remark that shopper made. You never know what someone’s background story is, especially if you’ve not had that experience yourself.

  11. Dear Derrick, you’ve written beautifully about your shocking and tragic loss. I’m sorry for your profound loss, and for Michael, too, to lose his Mum before he could truly know her. Thank you for sharing your story.

  12. I’ve read this several times, searching for just the ‘right’ words with which to respond. Of course such words don’t exist, but you certainly found some right words to describe this terrible experience. I’m so glad you had a supportive family around you, and an ability to adapt — in time — to such a devastating loss.

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