babies · Death · Family · parenting · Raising children

Zebra Finch not Zebra Fish: a dedication to Jeff 

I’m quite sure that most people have a best friend. I am lucky enough to have a few close friends (and being born in the 80s means that most of them have the same name, it would appear that most people either picked ‘Sarah’ or ‘Laura’ for their female offspring and hoped that no-one else would have done the same) but my absolute best friend is actually more like my sister. The term ‘friend’ seems far too casual to adequately describe how close we are.

Sarah and I have often said we have the same type of psychic link usually associated with twins; the ability to know just when the other one needs us, or is ill or upset. Countless times one of us will pick up the phone a Nano-second before receiving a text or phone call from the other one. A text message reading ‘Are you in?’ to most people would read just that; ‘are you in?’ but to us it means ‘something has happened’ ‘I’ve fucked up massively’ or on three occasions in our lives ‘I’m pregnant’. We grew up living directly across the road from each other and having organised to go out together, go shopping or out for lunch we would walk out of our houses at the exact same time, wearing the exact same outfit. It’s a link that can’t be forced or imagined or put down to coincidence; it’s real and defies any real explanation.


There are times in our lives when this link between us is worrying. When Sarah was having her baby girl, Evie, I was in work. I’d felt ‘off’ all day and not the usual ‘oh my bestie is having a baby, I’m so excited’ kind of off. It was ‘my bestie is having a baby and I know something is very wrong’ kind of ‘off’, to the point where I had to cancel a meeting because I was having contraction-type pains and throwing my guts up in the ladies’ loos at the exact same time Sarah was having an emergency C-Section and throwing her guts up on the operating table.

When I was in the throes of labour with Little Panda, Sarah should have been fast asleep ahead of a full fourteen hours of work; instead she – not knowing I was in labour – was awake, looking at her phone waiting for it to buzz with a text message. Which it did and she was in my bedroom, bollocking me for leaving it so late and ordering me out of the house, within two minutes.

Its this closeness and absolute linking of hearts and souls that leads me to feel every ounce of pain she feels right now, after the sudden passing of her hero; her daddy.

Jeff was a giant. A great, gentle, lumbering, giant of a man with the kindest eyes, a wicked smile and a knee that small children just wanted to sit on.

Growing up, the five of us (Sarah, her brother, Paul,me and my two brothers) were a real gang, a 90s Famous Five who did little mystery solving but a lot of mischief making. There was the venture into perfume making, or to be more accurate, ‘stealing flowers from people’s gardens, mixing them with water and selling this back to the neighbours’. There were three people who had the best flower gardens in our street; Alan at the end, my mum and Jeff. After an hour or two of sneaking around with buckets and pockets crammed with rose petals, Jeff came out, stood at the front door and waited. And waited.  

“What the bloody ‘ell are you lot doing with my bloody roses?”

And that was the end of the perfume making. Shame really, Eau de Bryn was set to be a classic fragrance.

Jeff had a shed. Its still there, in the back garden. I think now its probably got things like deck chairs and watering cans in, but back in the day it had Zebra Fish in it. Actually no, I stand corrected, they were Zebra Finches. Those are something completely different.  

To this day I still don’t know why he kept Zebra Finches but I do remember the first time I saw them. Paul invited me in to play. After the mums having a brief conversation about what time to send me home, I was given a quick lecture about being good in someone else’s house (I was only five at the time, playing in someone else’s house was a new thing for me) Paul and I set about playing marbles. Jeff came into the living room and asked us if we wanted to help feed the Zebra Finches. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you two want to come and feed the birds?”

“errrmmm?” Quickly prodding Paul in the ribs because he was slightly deaf and couldn’t always hear when he was being spoken to. I actually thought Jeff wanted us to stand outside and throw bread for the sparrows…this didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.


“Do you want to feed my Zebra Finches?”

“Yeah! Come on!” Paul leapt up and off we went. At this point I thought I must have misheard Jeff the first time because I was pretty sure he’d just said ‘Zebra Fish’. Who on earth would keep fish in the shed?

Off we went. “What’s a Zebra Fish?”

“A Zebra Fish? A stripy fish that lives in the sea? I don’t know.”

Jeff opened the shed door and we were met with a cacophony of noise. Shrill tweets and dull chirps filled the air along with the smell of sawdust and bird seed. Even now, I only have to think the words ‘Zebra fish’ and I can still smell that woody, earthy smell. I have absolutely no idea why Jeff kept birds in his shed but there they were. Hundreds of them. Ok, maybe not hundreds, probably only about 15 or so but they made enough noise for there to be hundreds of them. I called them ‘Zebra Fish’ for years.

The inhabitants of that shed were not always so tropical. When I was about 13 years old, a mouse and thirteen thousand of his closest relatives moved in there for the winter. We’d seen a few zipping around the garden and Jeff decided to tackle the problem head on. Sarah and I watched from the conservatory window as Jeff, armed with a slightly broken cricket bat, waged war on Monty Mouse and his family. Out came the sun loungers; WHACK! Mice leapt from the stuffing and ran for cover under the shed. There were a few casualties, one very large specimen was held up by the tail at the window for us to see. I’m sure that a revenge attack was planned as a while later; Jeff and my dad moved the radiator in Sarah’s room and found a couple of flat, slightly cooked mice behind it.

One memory that has always stuck with me was the day we were allowed to empty the giant Bell’s Whisky bottle that had stood in the dining room for years. I actually have no idea where one acquires a giant Bell’s Whisky bottle but they seemed to be a staple piece of equipment in every household in the late 80s and early 90s. Obviously there was no actual whisky in it. If that were the case I’m not sure that this memory would be quite as clear. No, it was full of spare change. Every so often, us kids would study it closely, drawling pencil lines on it to gauge how much more money had been put in and predict when it might be full to the top so we could empty it.

One Sunday, during the summer holidays it was absolutely pelting down with rain. Sarah and I were bored. We’d played with her Polly Pockets, we’d cleaned the brass ornaments on the fire place and we’d cleaned out the gerbils and made them a maze in their tank by digging out some sawdust tunnels. Jeff was sick of the sight of us moping around.

“Right, clear that table, we’ll do the whisky bottle.”


We were there for a good couple of hours, counting and piling and bagging spare change. Our hands were dirty and smelled like copper and all around us were piles of coins, some legal tender, some not. There was a bowl full of foreign coins, a small pile of notes and bags upon bags of change. I don’t remember the final amount but I do remember Jeff counting out five pound coins each for us, which coincided with the end of the rain. Sarah and I walked down to Bryn to ChemiWines, the local chemist, which also sold sweets, magazines, make up and gifts, to spend our earnings.

Fast forward a few years and Jeff was still the same, just older. He loved spending time with children. He was such a calm and collected man that no child would even think to run wild or throw a tantrum in his presence; they’d just sit and share the space with him. My own son, Little Monkey was a big fan of Jeff’s. He had been a big part of Monkey’s life since he was born and for about a year, they spent most Mondays together. Sarah would have Monkey on a Monday for me while I was at work and, being retired and always enjoying a day out, Jeff would go with them on their adventures. A memory of Monkey’s he likes to repeat is the time they went to the aquarium together; “Uncle Jeff took me to see the fish once, he likes fish.” Monkey could barely speak and wasn’t much older than a year when they went but it has cemented itself in his mind as ‘the best day ever.’  

Telling Monkey that Uncle Jeff had gone to heaven was hard. So, so hard. We cuddled up on the couch and watched Stick Man with hot chocolate under a blanket. As it finished I told him that Uncle Jeff wasn’t going to come home from the hospital. He took the news the way any four year old would take the news; factually and with an innocent curiosity.

“Oh. That’s sad. I won’t get to see him anymore. Auntie Chick and Auntie Chris will be oh so sad too. It will be ok though; he can do some gardening in heaven and look after that dog of his. He will be able to walk better too. And I will go to Auntie Chris’ house and feed the fish in the pond; that will make her feel better. I’m good at looking after fish, Uncle Jeff said so.”

I think that just about sums it up.


This blog is dedicated to Jeff, his family, his friends and everyone who loved him.