Martyn McLaughlin: kindness of strangers grants Inverclyde pensioner's dying wish

It was three days after Christmas when Sammy Cochrane died, a time of the year marked by his neighbours with aplomb. The row of pebbledashed houses gave up their masonry to plastic Santas and twinkling lights. Even the hedgerows of the front gardens, strewn with decorations, announced the festive period with fanfare. It should have been a cheering scene. Perhaps it was before. But the fire lent it a certain melancholy.

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
Picture: PA

By the time the alarm was raised, the blaze had already spread through the ground floor of Sammy’s mid-terrace home on Berwick Road in Greenock’s Larkfield area. James Murray, who stayed next door, was the first on the scene, crawling on his hands and knees into the living room where he found his elderly neighbour. He grabbed him by his belt and pulled him back the way he came, making it out just in time. Thirty seconds later, fire had snarled its way around the frame of the front door.

Sammy was taken to Inverclyde Royal Hospital before being transferred to Glasgow Royal Infirmary. It was too late. The burns and smoke inhalation proved too severe. The next day, he died in hospital. He was 72 years old.

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No-one has mourned Sammy Cochrane. No-one has had the chance. Nearly three months after the fire, his body has remained in Glasgow, held at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital’s mortuary. He left the world a widower with no close family who might give the necessary consent to send him on his final journey.

For a while, it looked as if his belated farewell would be a matter of procedure; an early morning service, paid for by the state, conducted by a minister before an empty church. It would be a goodbye of sorts, though not the kind anyone would wish for.

But then, how do you write a eulogy for Sammy Cochrane? Though he lived in his modest home for more than a quarter of a century, no-one in his street considered themselves to be a close acquaintance. It is a hard place, Larkfield. My own father grew up there and was glad to escape its grinding poverty. But its deprivation is not to blame for Sammy’s isolation.

James knew him in passing for the past 16 years. For the majority of that time, theirs was the kind of relationship most of us have with our neighbours; a quiet civility, expressed through a friendly morning hello or a nod of the head over the garden fence. Neighbourliness is an exceptional virtue. Rarer still is genuine intimacy.

In recent years, however, James felt an obligation to keep a closer eye on Sammy, especially after the death of his wife. He lost his beloved Margaret twice; first to dementia and then one January day two years ago when she slipped away peacefully in her hospital bed. Sammy attended her funeral at Inverkip cemetery. That day was the start of the end. Without his companion, he seemed to go downhill.

“I used to go round in the morning with bacon rolls, or if we made a steak pie we’d give him a plate in,” James recalled. “But now and again he would break down and said he missed his wife.”

Sammy’s story would probably have ended there, one of the 459 Scots given a public health service – the Sunday name for what was once bluntly known as a pauper’s funeral – every year. Such are the bleak facts of death and, sometimes, life.

Thankfully, there is an uplifting epilogue to Sammy’s tale in the form of Jimmy Stevenson. He didn’t know Sammy, but from speaking to people in the Inverclyde town, learned of his fate. There and then, Jimmy resolved to make sure Sammy’s death would not go unmarked.

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“He told his neighbours that he wanted to be buried with his wife in Inverkip,” Jimmy explained. “This was the man’s last wish.”

As he discovered more about Sammy’s life, fragments emerged of a decent, caring man. Jimmy found receipts showing how he had paid for the funeral costs of other relatives. A stranger’s compassion soon blossomed into something else – the desire to reciprocate those acts of kindness. Last Wednesday, Jimmy started to raise money in the hope of reuniting Sammy with Margaret. He wasn’t sure if anyone would listen, but to his surprise, his appeal for others to help mourn a man they did not know struck a chord.

Hundreds of individuals, the vast majority of them anonymous donors, have pledged what they can, with the Greenock Telegraph newspaper helping to promote the fundraising drive. In the space of a week, more than £3,200 has been raised, with local businesses stepping in. The Horseshoe Bar, a welcoming town-centre howff frequented by Sammy, has offered to assist with a small reception, while John Paul Flynn, a caterer, has also come forward with help.

“I’m very surprised at the response we’ve had,” Jimmy said. “Inverclyde does have a reputation for being poor but there’s a lot of generous people out there.”

The farewell to the familiar stranger on Berwick Road is in sight. This Friday, Sammy will be laid to rest beside Margaret, in line with his last wishes. In time, it is hoped enough money will be raised to erect a headstone by his grave. For James, who helped pull Sammy from the fire that night, the public response has been gratifying.

“He should be allowed to have some dignity and brought back to where he wants to be,” he said. “He was my neighbour… a nice old guy.”

It was three days after Christmas when Sammy Cochrane died. But in Inverclyde, spring is the season of goodwill.