“You seem to know what this is all about. I think I’ll stick with you.”
I turned to the blonde lady sitting next to me.
These were the first words she ever spoke to me on a course for (almost) voluntary work. She smiled, winked and gave me a nudge. I always thought I was the gregarious one.
“Well, as long as you behave,” I replied, hoping to reflect her flirtatiousness.
She continued to smile, leaning on my shoulder.
“Well, I’ve had it, then,” she laughed.
I laughed too.
“Rob,” I said, offering my hand.
“No – I’m Sue!” she exclaimed, taking my hand and lightly shaking it.
That’s how our friendship started.
It was a couple of years later that we actually started to work as a team, teaching out in the community. By this time, I was trying out lots of ideas to engage families – young children and parents participating in fun activities together. I was aware that Sue was a really experienced teacher and specialised in SEN (special educational needs). I was a rather maverick family tutor. By maverick, I mean totally disorganised, rather impulsive and crap at paperwork. What would this incredibly talented, knowledgeable educationalist make of it all? Surely all my crazy ideas would be reined in.
I showed Sue what I had planned. A healthy eating course called ‘Yummies for Tummies’: Making chef’s hats, cooking bread, making children eat weird fruit, cream cracker eating contests… I waited for the inevitable criticism and professional dissection as to how I was breaking every health and safety rule in the book.
Sue took a few minutes to look through the plans before staring at me. Her eyes lit up.
“I love it!” she said, then frowned.
“What about the paperwork?” she asked in a low voice.
Here it comes, I thought.
“Well of course, we have to get them to complete enrolment forms, release papers, then there are the partnership agreements…”
“Oh I hate all that old bullshit, don’t you?” she interjected.
Maybe this partnership could work, I thought.
And it did. “Yummies for Tummies” was a great success, adults and children alike loved it. Nobody was burnt, choked, skewered or killed, just thoroughly entertained and engaged.
I wrote another family programme, all around making your own monopoly game. Sue and I spent hours making sets of monopoly money which had the faces of participating children printed in the middle of it. All the time we were together, we talked about what we were up to; Sue had two teenage daughters and a husband called Paul. She would keep me updated with the latest news about boyfriends and job opportunities and their school/college careers. It certainly helped a few years later when Miss Katherine reached the same age.
I wrote more family programmes for us to work on: The Amazing Travelling Family Space Circus, The Eggs Factor, Toxic Dinner Ladies, each one of them enthusiastically received by Sue.
What’s more, Sue was always there as I cajoled, leapt about, sang, danced and generally blundered my way through the sessions. Everybody loved her, not just the kids, who she seemed to have a magical relationship with. She was always calm, but assertive, supportive and encouraging. The only time I can remember her being slightly flustered was when we were with a particularly boisterous party of traveller mums and kids in an upstairs room of a community centre on the outskirts of town. The noise they made would equal that of a jumbo jet taking off – the room would be a flurry of paper, glue, ballpoint pens, coca cola bottles, crisp packets, biscuits, teacups and handbags. Like boiling water molecules, the children, aged 6 to 17 years old and their mums would career around the tables, bumping off each other, shouting and occasionally slapping a kid around the head. The sessions finished at 8pm, when they all jammed themselves into a minibus and made off back to their camp.
As we watched them go one night, Sue sat in her car, her blonde bob tousled, window open, leaning on her arm. She looked at me; I imagine that I looked equally dishevelled.
“It’s like herding cats,” she sighed. I nodded.
“Tell you what Rob, let’s take a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course, run away to Portugal together and open a windsurfing school,” she suggested.
“Sounds great to me,” I said, grinning.
As our team grew, circumstances changed and we didn’t work together as much as a team. Some of Sue’s learners would show up in my courses, extolling her virtues, telling me how lovely she was. I would often fool them into thinking she was my ex-wife, an extension of an old joke we had. Young kids often assume that a male and female working together must be married.
“Are you married?” a small innocent would ask us during a family session.
“Oh yes,” Sue would always reply, “but I’m in charge.”
Then came the day I had to observe one of Sue’s sessions, a trip to the local city zoo. I arrived to find Sue in a small hut, washing carrots, whilst an eager parent peeled them with an oversized knife. Several chickens had found their way into the hut and were scratching around on the floor with a couple of crawling babies.
Sue saw me, stopped cleaning carrots and gave me a big hug.
“Look everybody, it’s Rob!” she said loudly.
“Hello Rob!” they all called, waving at me, including the lady with the big knife.
It was at this point a small child waddled into the hut carrying a large cockerel. At least this explained the presence of so many poultry visitors. Sue ruffled the small boy’s hair.
“Put him down, Derek, before he scratches you,” she said firmly. Derek obliged.
The party moved outside, where Derek continued to cuddle fowls and Sue tried to shoo a goat off the picnic table we were going to eat from.
The table was full of healthy fresh fruit and vegetables.
“Come on, tuck in!” she demanded and lots of families who would never normally dream of putting any form of fresh vegetable in their mouth devoured it all and enjoyed it, compelled by their love for Sue.
“How did the health and safety observation go?” I was asked on returning to the office…
Sue continued to push the boundaries, taking chickens into the classroom. Before long, she was christened ‘Chicken Sue’ by Lesley, another tutor. Her courses, unlike the rest of us, didn’t appear to have a distinct finishing date. If she was enjoying herself, she would add on a few weeks, which made it nigh on impossible if you were responsible for coordinating courses, or in other words, if you were me. So Sue’s courses were secretly called ‘Sue’s Elastic Courses’ and she told me when she’d be free.
Then one day, Sue came in to drop some stuff off and told me she had breast cancer. I must have looked rather blankly at her, because she waved her hand in front of my face and said, “It’s alright, they’ll treat it, cheer up, silly bugger.”
So for what seemed ages, we never saw Sue as she dealt with her illness. The news we did get was promising; she was reacting positively to chemotherapy and the signs were good. Eventually, one Tuesday, Sue gave me a call to say she was in town and could I make it for lunch?
She came into our offices and was greeted warmly by everybody.
“Oh, Sue,” said one colleague, “your hair looks lovely!”
A genuinely kind compliment from a genuinely kind colleague, but such was Sue’s sense of humour, she couldn’t help herself. Placing her hand on top of her head, she rotated her wig through 180 degrees, smiling as she did it, the familiar dimples still in evidence.
At the restaurant, she realised she’d left her purse in her car and despite my assertion that it was a pleasure to buy her lunch, she was mortified. We talked about her girls, Rosie and Laura, both married by now, grandchild on the way. She was one more visit away from being officially told she was in remission.
“It’s Paul though, he’s all skin and bone, he won’t eat a lot,” she explained.
A short time later we discovered that Paul had been diagnosed with cancer; within a few months, he died. The whole wicked irony of the situation was hard to bear.
But Sue seemed strong; she had her one hundred year old mother to look after, lots of interests and friends to keep her busy.
But the cancer returned and Sue had to undergo brain surgery. I visited her shortly afterwards and we had lunch together once more. She talked about her lovely daughters and their partners, her grandchildren, how she couldn’t drive for a year, what we could do for dyslexic children, how to save the countryside, how to stop the Tories.
As we parted, I wished her a quick recovery.
“You’ll need to be well enough to take the TEFL course,” I suggested.
“We may have to wait a little longer,” she said, “I don’t think I could travel to Portugal and I’d be crap on a windsurfer.”
Sue passed away, late last year. I’d started training for The Brighton Marathon, where I was running to raise money for Cancer Research. I decided to dedicate my race not only to my parents, who both died from this terrible disease, but especially to Sue, who had helped so many people. Her friends, people I didn’t know, donated hundreds of pounds to my attempt, an indication of the wonderfully kind and generous people Sue knew.
One thing I do know. Sue would have just collected the money and given it anonymously to Cancer Research, rather than be a megalomaniac like me and run a marathon, because Sue genuinely did things for the benefit of others, never expecting any praise or admiration.
So, next Sunday, I’ll set off from Preston Park in Brighton to run further than I’ve ever run before, thinking of Chicken Sue.