Lonely tragedy after long life of quiet kindness

I ALMOST missed it. It had been a long day, and I could easily have scrolled past the notice on my Facebook feed.

The name though, and the fact it had been posted by Greater Glasgow police, caught my attention.

‘Death of Robin Rey, Glasgow,’ it read. ‘We are appealing for the assistance of the public in tracing relatives of a 91 year old male who recently died in the Hillhead area of Glasgow.

‘He was found dead within his home on the 25th November.’

I scanned down. No suspicious circumstances. Few leads regarding family.

‘Little information is known,’ it said.

But I knew.

I lived upstairs from Robin for 16 years. I was 18 when I moved in; noisy, wide-eyed, away from home for the first time and determined to make the most of it all.

Robin meanwhile, was in his sixties. He lived alone and was retired. On paper we had absolutely nothing in common, and his heart must have sunk when he saw me trooping up the front steps with my enormous stereo and giggling friends.

But six weeks after I moved in, I got a cat. When I mentioned it in passing on the stairs one day he asked if he could come and visit her.

‘Wow wee!’ he said, leaning down to pat her and doing a little Bruce Forsyth-style dance. ‘She’s a beauty.’

Our mutual love of cats became an ice-breaker and slowly, as the years went by and I graduated from lazy student to overworked newspaper reporter, something akin to a friendship built up between us.

He’d knock on my door of an evening, full of fizzing energy and some crazy scheme for the close that involved a complicated re-paint, or an inexplicable relocation of the outdoor bins. There was an ongoing saga involving a leak in the bathroom which came not from me but the flat above mine, and on occasion we joined forces to try and get it fixed.

He had no discernible family. I think that’s how he fell into the role of cat sitter. Christmas after Christmas I went home to my parents, while Robin stayed in Glasgow alone and looked after my cat. He was so reliable that in 16 years I never once had to put her into a cattery.

He never asked for anything in return but I always brought him gifts — chocolate, cheese (I never did figure out if he was a drinker) — and in turn he’d bring little treats up for the cat, or the occasional toy mouse.

He was, I suppose, what you would describe as a loner, although everyone in our little corner of Hillhead seemed to know who he was.

He was small and lithe with the build of a jockey, and incredibly fit. In 1997 he was featured in a documentary about the Arlington Baths, a Victorian swimming club near Charing Cross, filmed swinging gracefully from a set of trapeze rings above the pool, travelling from one end and back again like an acrobat.

For weeks afterwards he was the talk of the town but he brushed it off, as though most 69 year old men spent their Tuesday evenings leaping through the air like gazelles.

He was eccentric in a very British way. Moody and bad tempered one day, genial and chatty the next. He allowed me into his flat just once, to show me the water damage from the aforementioned leak, and I couldn’t help but notice the piles of newspapers that spiralled up almost to the ceiling. It had no central heating, and sometimes in winter he would answer the door wearing gloves and a hat.

It occurs to me now that he may have come up to my flat over those long Christmases not just to feed the cat, but to get warm.

I read the notice again. The word ‘found’ nagged at me. By whom? How long had he been there?

I moved away from that flat eight years ago. When I told Robin I was going he seemed hurt. His manner became brusque whenever we bumped into each other and in turn, I too was hurt when he didn’t come out to say goodbye on the day the removal van arrived.

I didn’t understand it then, but I think I do now. A little part of his world was being disrupted. He would have been well into his eighties then, with few people in his life. Turned out, I was one of them.

I called the police and told them what I knew. The PC was grateful, but couldn’t give me any more details.

What would happen, I asked, if no one came forward? There would be an environmental funeral, he explained. No service, no flowers, no cars, no death notice. Simply a minute’s silence at a nearby Crematorium.

One minute. For a life spanning 91 years it seemed a paltry amount.

If you don’t trace anyone, I told him, I’d like to go. He promised he’d let me know.

I hung up the phone and texted a few old friends, who remembered Robin almost as well as I did.

‘He was a big part of our lives in a small way,’ one wrote. ‘Does that make sense?’

It did. I thought about the past, and the people we leave there, and how they continue to exert an influence in our lives long after they’ve departed. Robin taught me what it means to be a neighbour, and that a little bit of kindness goes a long way. Now, as I stared again at the police notice, I thought about how important it is to look out for each other, to check in on the elderly people we know, to be as good a neighbour as Robin was to me, all those years ago.

The policeman did call back. A relative had been traced. I’m glad. I hope he gets the send-off he deserves.

Farewell, Robin. Go gently. And thank you for everything.

This article was first published in the Scottish Daily Mail on 7 December 2019

Writer. Editor. Ochberg Fellow.