The tragedy of lost promise

Trevor Hughes’s collection of poems serves to honour his son who threw himself from the Humber Bridge, and shed light on the impact of suicide on those left behind

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On 1 December 2000, Peter Hughes, a former British youth chess champion, debut novelist and much loved son and brother cycled to the Humber Bridge in East Yorkshire, leaned his bike against the railings and jumped into the water below. He was 25 years old.

His suicide wasn’t entirely unexpected. Following years in and out of the mental health system, struggling to cope with the voices, fears and delusions that tormented him, Peter had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Still, for those he left behind, in particular his father and main carer Trevor Hughes, the reality was brutal. He recalls coming home to find a police car outside the house, knowing at once why they were there; and then having to go down to the morgue to identify his son’s body.

“The bridge became an awful symbol. The irony is we used to go and see it being built.”

“Like anybody in this situation, you always know this might happen,” says Hughes whose collection of poems, Belongings, reflects on his experience. “A bit of you is kind of prepared. Nonetheless when it happened, it was complete blackness. It was just horror. You realise that someone has suffered so much they can’t bear anything anymore. A bit of me is accepting this. It’s almost like release for him, release for me. But at the same time it’s complete devastation.”

Now retired to eastern France, Hughes was an English teacher in Hull at the time and the support he received from colleagues and pupils – and from his second wife Anne – was vital. But, with the death unreported in the local press and Hughes determined that Peter shouldn’t just become ‘another statistic’, a desire grew to create a more fitting memorial for his son.

Poetry had been a passion for Hughes since his childhood in Liverpool and he harboured ambitions to produce his own collection one day. When Peter took his own life, he knew he had to write about it – but the intense grief left him creatively blocked.

“There was only one thing on my mind. But I couldn’t do it. It was just too painful,” he says of writing about Peter’s suicide. “Eventually I thought: I’ll scribble some lines and maybe one day something will come of it.”

Trevor Hughes with his poetry collection which charts his relationship with his son Peter
Trevor Hughes with his poetry collection which charts his relationship with his son Peter (main image)

Over many years scraps of verse came together and, helped by a creative writing course, Hughes was finally able shape his poems into a collection. The result is a remarkable book tracing the arc of their relationship from Peter’s childhood to his tragic early death and its aftermath.

Hughes was determined not to create a mawkish tribute – and Belongings certainly isn’t that. Taking its name from the incident soon after Peter’s death when Hughes went to the police station to collect his son’s few possessions, it documents their shared life episode by episode in unflinching detail.

“I had to pick some significant moments in my life with him,” says Hughes. “The first is when he’s born and I’m holding him in my arms, thinking, this is amazing, wonderful – what a responsibility.”

But this sense of childhood innocence, captured in the poem Whirligig, darkens all too soon. Writing on the Wall shows how the exam stress that bedevils many teenagers took a particular toll on Peter. “This is someone who’s struggling,” says Hughes. “One of the things he’s doing is writing little notes on the wall in front of him. I’m thinking: this is strange. Maybe it helps him revise. In retrospect, I can see that’s a classic sign of schizophrenia. I didn’t know what I was dealing with.”

Belongings returns again and again to feelings of impotence and ignorance as Hughes tries to map out a voyage over perilous, uncharted waters in which he increasingly finds himself out of his depth. It also sheds light on the strange, parallel realities of the mental health system. Promising therapies come to a dead end when Peter is forced to make the transition from youth to adult care. Then the wrong drugs are prescribed, with catastrophic consequences for Peter’s self-belief and confidence. Going to See My Son in Ward Six, describes how the father starts to feel blamed, with its damning refrain: “He was alright until you came”. But there are lighter moments too – meetings for Sunday lunch or a game of miniature golf at the seaside – when illness briefly loosens its grip.

The collection also considers the tragedy of lost promise. Peter had been a childhood chess prodigy, winning the British U16 championships in Eastbourne in 1991. The ‘solutions to problems/strategies for success’ of a school tournament recounted in Chess stand in stark contrast to the insecurities that would follow.

As he matured, Peter’s intellectual curiosity turned towards literature. “He liked reading but he didn’t do a lot. Then, he changed very suddenly. He read Catcher in the Rye and said that’s a fabulous book. He started reading voraciously. And suddenly he got this idea that he had to have his story known.”

In Holderness and Caravan in Winter, we find him camping out in the sticks, ‘scribbling feverishly’ as he pours his energies and enthusiasm into a humorous fictionalised account of his experiences.

But Peter’s novel Closing Time would only ever see print posthumously. The ‘fierce black bird’ of schizophrenia returns and the Humber Bridge, a looming presence throughout the collection, makes its final, tragic appearance: ‘a vicious snare for fragile souls’.

“It’s true that bridges can connect,” says Hughes. “Bridge for the Living [written by Philip Larkin to celebrate the opening of the Humber Bridge in 1981] is a great poem. But the same situation has an innocent and a tortured side. For Pete and for me, the bridge became an awful symbol. The cruel irony is that we used to go and see it being built and [later] he’s thinking more and more about jumping off it.”

More than 200 incidents of people jumping or falling from the Humber Bridge have been recorded over the years and it would be understandable if Hughes wanted no more to do with the place. But following a meeting with Humber Bridge chief executive Kevin Moore, he is considering taking part in a heritage event planned for 2019, acknowledging this dark but undeniable aspect of the bridge’s story. If the event goes ahead, it will be the latest in a series of public readings given by Hughes since Belongings was launched in Hull in 2017.

“I’m getting lovely reactions from all sorts of people,” he says. “[The poems] trigger off memories of things in their own families. So many have got direct experience or know people who have similar problems.

“It’s like any illness. You need support. You need understanding. Sometimes it might be good to be in the community, sometimes you need a refuge. Sometimes you need medication, sometimes you need to talk to somebody who can really help you,” says Hughes adding that although there’s no closure, the weight around his neck has lifted a bit. “It helps that I’m living abroad. I’m near to my daughter in Germany and my grandchild, so I’m going through a different stage in my life.”

Although Belongings ends with a catharsis of sorts, it makes no easy attempt to tie up the loose ends, trusting readers and listeners to make their own connections between the poems.

By the end of the collection there is a sense of self-acceptance of Hughes’s parental role in Peter’s life and the fact
some things are out of your control. “All you can do is love and support them,” he says. “You can be there for them and it’s precious to have that relationship. That’s essentially what it comes down to. I wrote these poems out of love.”

Belongings is published by Kingston Press and is available from all Hull libraries, price £5. All proceeds to MIND. To order a copy from outside Hull please email for further details

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