And so I find myself doing this again. To pay tribute first and foremost, but also I suppose to get it off my chest because it is another shocking , unfathomable loss for those who knew him.
On Sunday we lost Martin. I’d known Martin since we were about 13 years old, some 25 years. We met through playing wheelchair basketball. I’m not going to lie and say we were best friends. My policy of never answering my phone to anyone made life very difficult in that regard. He lived quite a long way away, but we had enough text and Facebook communication to make sure we met up fairly regularly long after we had both given up on active sport.
Imagine my shock then as I idly logged on to Facebook from my phone on Sunday night to see pictures of him plastered all over the place, accompanied by messages of condolence. On Saturday afternoon I wrote a typically glib status from my anti-Man United repertoire about Gary Neville crying. Martin ‘liked’ that status. So he was alive and well then, yet just 24 hours later his picture was all over my timeline along with RIP’s and tributes. I can’t even find the right words to describe that. I’d need all day to study the thesaurus. It was just completely unbelievable. At times like that you wonder about whether social media is such a good thing. Before Facebook I might have got a phone call from a mutual friend to break this to me gently. Now you get an instant, sharp shock shared by hundreds. All of them mean well. I even posted the news myself so that any of my friends who knew him would be aware. In the old days you would have had to ring around which is a difficult thing to do with news like that. But Facebook is just not a very subtle, gentle way of letting people know that the worst has happened.
I don’t know how it happened. All I know is that he was found in his flat by his sister. Can you imagine that? My thoughts are with her especially at the moment because that must have been an indescribably horrific experience. The only clue I have about how all of this might have come about is that I know Martin was due to go into hospital for surgery this weekend. He was vague about it because I think it was quite personal, but what was clear is that he was frightened. Which was not like him. He’d been in and out of hospital a lot, and sometimes even pestered them to run more tests if he didn’t feel quite right, all the while being assured that he didn’t have this or he didn’t have that. If he was genuinely afraid then it suggests something was seriously amiss, although at this point I just don’t know. There could be any number of other reasons for his death and I would not like to speculate too much.
So let’s focus on his life. If I’m looking for a Martin anecdote I should look no further than his relationship with my beloved St Helens RLFC. I managed somehow to get him into Saints even though he was a scouser and a couple of games he attended will live long in the memory. The first was at Wembley in 1997 when we won the Challenge Cup for the second consecutive year against the Bradford Bulls. At the old Wembley wheelchair users were led to their seats through the gate underneath the steps and the royal box. As we made the journey he caught sight of Shola Ama, a much forgotten singer who had a couple of hits in the 90’s and who was due to perform before the kick-off. Or maybe at half-time. Either way, all I remember is Martin freewheeling after her and loudly (and drunkenly) making one or two impolite requests.
Yet the crowning glory of his Saints-watching career was at Knowsley Road one Good Friday for a traditional Saints-Wigan derby. Martin, Paul and myself had been drinking heavily all day and when the time came for him to get his train back to Seaforth he was in no fit state. The story goes that he was refused permission to get on a train and so attempted to push back home down the East Lancashire Road. Unfortunately if not surprisingly he then at some point was struck by a car and landed himself in hospital. The doctors told him he had been lucky to escape with only minor injuries and it wasn’t until a few weeks later that the blundering quacks managed to figure out that he had in fact broken his arm. Sadly, this experience put Martin off travelling to St Helens for matches, or at least from travelling back in a state of intoxication so we didn’t share too many games together after that. Yet he remained a Saint nonetheless, travelling down to a pub near to where I live in 2006 to join Emma and I for Saints’ Grand Final win over Hull FC. It remains the last Grand Final we have won. The last time I visited his flat he had a framed shirt on the wall belonging to former Saints star James Graham. I have no idea how he blagged his way into getting hold of that but I’m guessing it involved the same fearlessness that he’d used to get a bit closer to Shola Ama at Wembley.
Until his health started to concern him Martin always worked as hard as he played. While I was still pissing my benefit away on lager and waiting around pointlessly for another weekend to begin, Martin was earning his crust at Merseytravel. In a climate in which so many people shy away from work with their dodgy backs you have to have a great deal of respect for that. He was generous with it, always inviting the boys round for the weekend and helping you out if you were short of a few quid while he was, at that stage, a little more flush. Paul and I used to spend a lot of time with him and it wasn’t all plain sailing all of the time. Like all of us he could sometimes be hard work. If he had drunk too much it was difficult to get him home whether Shola Ama was around or not, but then you could say the same about any of us. I remember one memorable occasion in another friend’s flat when a half naked Martin decided to climb on top of Paul who responded by hitting him with a teapot.
It seems somehow unjust to look back on those times now and realise that I am the only one of the three of us still around. It’s hard to get your head around. How many more people will we lose? Will I last the pace? You can’t help but wonder about your own mortality when you lose people of a similar age with similar disabilities, albeit in the knowledge that everyone is different and some people just get dealt a shitty hand.
Martin certainly has had that, ultimately. But I’ll never forget him or the stupid things we did and I just hope others remember him as the generous, fun-loving, loyal pain in the arse that I knew. That's loyal, not royal.