Thanks for Everything, But He’s Gone

Colin Barnfather_2The Agony of Waiting for Bad News

The last four days have been unique in my experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have never had a relative go missing. And then my uncle, Colin Barnfather went missing up in the Scottish Highlands. He’s been found, but he’s not coming back.

My Mum and her husband have been up there for the last few days with the Fort William police and the Mountain Rescue teams, scouring the huge and beautiful wilderness. They found him today. It seems he fell from a ridge and likely died on impact. That was at least five days ago, so he’s been dead since before we thought he was missing.

And what have I been doing in this time? There was almost nothing I could do. The most useful thing I’ve done is share a picture and some words. I guess that’s a lot more than we could have done fifteen years ago. I’m very grateful to all our friends, family (and complete strangers) who have passed on his details through this vast extended network we now have. Lots of people have also sent their best wishes, which is very touching.

I only had one uncle, and he was an enigmatic, funny, interesting guy. I find it hard to say at what point he became a major feature in my life. He’s a quiet man, with a ridiculous loud laugh that always instantly pinpointed his location in a room for me.

When I was much younger, probably as far back as I can remember, Colin was a quiet smiling dark presence and a moustache. Ah the moustache! He was probably the first person I’d seen or knew who had a moustache. I do recall being fascinated and possibly slightly scared of it. In my memory he seems so tall, but in fact he ended up being somewhat shorter than me. My god but he stood up straight. I don’t think I’ve known many people who were fitter, despite being twenty years older than me I was frequently shamed by our relative fitness. But then I do have twenty years to catch up and get fit (this is not going to happen).

I don’t think he really knew what to do with us when we were very little (my brother, sister and I), other than be there at family occasions, smile and sometimes be slightly gruff. I find myself the same with my nieces. In very many ways Colin is the family member I considered myself to be most like: I don’t look a lot like my Dad or my Mum, or very much like Colin for that matter. But we both have rather nice eyebrows – and a moustache. So that made sense. He often seemed a quiet, introverted person, which was certainly something I could associate with in my teens.

What drew us together I think, was fantasy and SF. He got me onto the Discworld novels. By then I was already well saturated in SF, but Pratchett shifted the relationship to one of ritual and tradition. For years I’d get the next hardback Discworld novel for birthday or Christmas (not always from Col), and if not that then some other relentlessly awesome SF or fantasy. Eventually I was able to take great pleasure in returning the favour, seeking out newer, weirder and sometimes better SF and fantasy for both Colin and my Mum. It became one of those things we talked about. SF does seem to run down both sides of our family, which is an immensely satisfying legacy to drown the generation in.

I’m not certain when our relationship shifted beyond that of biannual gift giving. I think it must have been around when my Nanna died, leaving Colin and my Mum alone. I don’t think either of them ever really got over that.

I just had a flashback to being at Nanna’s house when she lived on Lawn Avenue in Allestree. I was fascinated by the room that Colin used to have there – I should mention that our family are terrifying hoarders, I mean really awful at throwing things away (it’s possible that my siblings have partially evaded this curse / gift) – and his old room still had intriguing things like a globe of the moon and odd little cars and a duvet that felt enormous.

Anyway, it must have been around then that we found a certain kinship in humour and attitude to life. That is to say, somewhat cynical, often sarcastic (and often hugely unpopular). I think that’s why both Marilyn and I got on with Colin so well – we made each other laugh. We also seemed to naturally slide into the pen for the darker sheep of the family side (which I was happy to take from my brother, once he turned all respectable). For reasons that were unclear to any of us, people felt they should just leave their kids with us at events. It might have been because we all gravitated towards the toys and colouring pencils, but a trio of people less likely to look after your kids would be hard to find.

He became a much more regular facet of my life when we started doing monthly improv comedy shows in Nottingham. To both of our surprises he was there virtually every month. It is immensely satisfying to make your family laugh, and his distinctive laugh made me laugh too whenever I heard it. It’s also been very personally rewarding to have that support. I hadn’t realised until a few days ago just for how long and how deeply embedded Colin had become in that monthly event – not just for me and Marilyn, but for the rest of the gang. From the chaotic days at the Art Org where we’d do the show and then have to break down the set, with Colin always helping and chatting, to the new days at Glee where we can go straight to the bar and get an hour or so of conversation and socialising. He’s been a proper fixture, and all the messages of support and comments from our mutual friends have been wonderfully uplifting.

Colin and me, doing what we did most of the time that we were together.
Colin and me, doing what we did most of the time that we were together.

At times I worried that he was lonely – he was a single man living on his own (with heaps of stuff), and it sounded like a lonely life. Except it wasn’t – there wasn’t just us looking forwards to seeing him, there was everybody else he saw at work and in his insane fitness regime. It’s sad, but these past few days have put me in touch with so many people who loved Col just as much as I did and saw him even more often. I’m delighted (entirely the wrong word, but I don’t know what to use instead) to find that he affected so many people, made so many people happy with his cheerful, determined personality, that he was loved so widely for being exactly the person I loved.

There are a great many people who will miss my uncle. I will miss Colin. He was like the big brother I never had. Thanks Colin, for being yourself – that’s I liked about you. That has always been inspirational to me – you can fit in without giving up anything you hold dear; something worth knowing.

While I’m sad that he died alone, far away from everyone it is exactly the sort of place he loved – alone, far away from everyone. So it’s hard for me to feel too bad about his dying there. If he could have chosen to, he would have come back, so that he could go out and off on his own another time. In this case, he couldn’t choose otherwise and I feel as if he would have accepted that, in his fall and known it was a beautiful place to die.

The place where they recovered Colin's body yesterday.
The place where they recovered Colin’s body yesterday.

For Others 

That said… if you are going to go out walking alone, or even with others – leave a note. Tell people where you’re going. I’m so grateful to the people who helped to find my uncle, from the Fort William police to the Lochhaber Mountain Rescue team who recovered his body, to the RAF and navy helicopter crews who dropped teams in the wild. Finding Colin a few days earlier wouldn’t have made any difference, but it might to someone else.