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Sonia Healey and Ashleigh Taylor.
Life

'I'm Holding a Funeral Refund Party' – The People Who Had a Good 2020

This year will go down in history for all the wrong reasons, but amid the chaos are some very happy stories.
December 28, 2020, 9:00am

The year 2020 will go down in history for all the wrong reasons. On a macro level, it has been absolute dogshit, but if you zoom in and look around, you’ll usually find a silver lining. For all the chaos, devastation and loss this year has brought, there are also stories of joy; lives saved, babies born, unfulfilling jobs left.

Here, we speak to individuals and families in England whose lives have changed in 2020 – for the better.

Sonia Healey and Ashleigh Taylor: in 2019 Ash’s mum Sonia was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer and given 12 months to live. This year, she turned it all around.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Ashleigh (left) and Sonia (right) in their garden.

VICE: What was going on in your lives before 2020?
Sonia: I’d been poorly for about nine months prior to finding out that I had cancer. In July of 2019, I was rushed to hospital thinking it was something to do with my gallbladder or gall stones, and was told in the night that I had cancer cells. They did a few tests and treatments on me before they found out it was stage four bowel cancer.

Ashleigh: I'm the youngest of three. There wasn't really a conversation, but more of an expectation, that I was living the closest to mum so I should come care for her. Although, when I think about it, I couldn't have let anyone else look after her.

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Sonia: I was told that the cancer was in too difficult a place to operate on, and that it had spread to too many of my organs. So instead I had the chemo, which my body just won't tolerate.

Ashleigh: I was mum's official carer at one point, but the pay for a carer is ridiculous. It's like £60 a week, and it's not like a carer that comes and goes – you're there 24 hours a day, and not really sleeping.

Sonia: Ashleigh was great, though. She knew I was ill before I did. I was then told that it was terminal, and that I'd have 12 months to live.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Ashleigh and Sonia in their garden.

What happened next?
Ashleigh: After some complications and a stay in Christie’s [an NHS cancer treatment centre in Manchester], they sent her home and literally just said they would make her as comfortable as possible.

Sonia: I’d said “no more” to the chemo, and went back to see the doctor in August, where he said, “I'm really surprised you even made this one.” I asked if we could go on holiday and he said, “Yes, but whatever you do, stay in Europe, as you can't get insured.” I've always loved holidays, and I wanted to go somewhere proper special. We saw one in Santorini, but that was booked up, another in Croatia, but that was booked up. And then this one in Mexico just kept flashing up…

Ashleigh: The Mexico in Europe [laughs]. This was pre-COVID, so we could still travel further away.

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Sonia: It was the best thing I ever did. The food! The hotel was in the top 100 hotels in the world. We knew we were going somewhere special. It gave me the biggest boost ever. It gave me my appetite back and my zest for life. I came home and went back to doing a few hours at work. I went to see my specialist, and he said he had a friend who thought he could operate.

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Ashleigh: He was floored, though, wasn't he? He was like, “You shouldn't be getting better, it doesn't make sense.”

Sonia: But yeah, as you see now, I'm here – alive and kicking!

Ashleigh: She literally said to me when we got back from our holiday that she felt like she'd left the cancer in Mexico.

Sonia: I haven't got a partner, I've only got my children, and I didn't want them to go through what I went through with my mum and dad – it's not nice – so I organised my funeral myself. I put it all into place, but now people laugh because I'm trying to get a refund!

Ashleigh: What an absurd but amazing thing to have to do.

Sonia: We're thinking of having a funeral refund party with the money.

How important has it been having Ashleigh around throughout it all?
Sonia: She’s been my absolute rock. I did it for my mum, and it was a privilege, but you don't wish it on anybody. She has been everything – not just looking after me, but giving me the kick up the bum I needed when I was feeling too ill.

Emily D'Andrea and Gareth Breeze, whose careers both took a turn for the better.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Emily and Gareth in front of one of Emily's window designs.

VICE: Gareth, what were you doing before 2020?
Gareth: I was working away at my day job and then coming home to work on my game, The Shame of Life. It's a card game where a series of bizarre and revealing questions are drawn by a member of a group. The card is then discussed, and the group votes on who’s given the best or most ridiculous answer.

The project was funded on Kickstarter in eight hours, which was amazing, and launched to the public in December, 2019. It hit the ground running, but sales really took off in 2020. There are no pieces other than the cards, so people can easily play it on video calls – we had no idea it would be global health crisis-proof.

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Emily: People were telling us through reviews that it’d helped them have fun during lockdown.

Gareth: Seeing that response was really heartwarming.

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Emily, what were you doing before this year?
Emily: I worked as a graphic designer in high schools as my day job, but had started doing some work on the side for businesses I knew. My brother works in a fishmongers in Didsbury, and they needed a Christmas window doing. Word got out around Didsbury, and my window work built up slowly around this community. I thought it was going to be a hobby, something nice to do.

How did things change this year?
Emily: It started to become apparent that I was busier in the evenings than I was in my day job. Gaz convinced me it would be a good idea to go freelance. He made a spreadsheet and calculated that I could earn more money than in my day job. There wasn't anywhere for me to progress within the schools, and I’d gotten to a point where I wanted to do something new.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Emily and Gareth.

It feels so nice now, to be earning my own money with Lobster House Studios. It's not really sunk in yet – I've been freelance for six weeks now, and have been busy since the start. I feel really lucky.

Gareth: With the success of Emily's business and the game it feels like we're living the same life as before but better, because we get to spend more time together.

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What’s one of the questions in The Shame of Life?
Gareth: What is your biggest fear, and what would you do to make it immediately un-scary?
Emily: Slugs. Roll them in glitter.

Sunny Daheley: did a huge amount of work in his community during the first lockdown, which earned him an MBE.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Sunny Daheley at his DIGISANGAT office.

VICE: How did you feel when lockdown was first announced?
Sunny: The weekend before, I’d gotten together with my cousins, and we all said that this may be the last time we'd see each other for a few months. One of the family businesses is a chauffeuring company, and that died overnight when lockdown came into effect, so my team kept positive and thought of ideas to engage the community. We’ve always had a YouTube and social media presence, but we thought, ‘Let's switch it up.’

What did you do?
We came up with the platform DIGISANGAT. When you go to the Gurdwara (Sikh Building of Worship) and sit together, that's called a Sangat. The Sangat meditate, pray and eat food together. It's basically another word for community, but in a much tighter sense. The whole idea was to do the same thing but from your own homes. We have a prayer called the Sukhmani Sahib, which we started broadcasting on Facebook and Youtube.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Sunny Daheley at his DIGISANGAT office.

Then, one of our friend's aunts passed away due to COVID. Sikh funerals are usually big gatherings – it could be a few hundred – and they couldn't do that due to the restrictions, so a friend asked if we could do something online. I got in touch with one of my local priests and said we’d go live with an online prayer. About 150 people tuned in. From there on, we organised quite a few more, with some lockdown birthday celebrations too.

In the Sikh Religion, our Holy Scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, contains the Mool Mantar. When recited continuously, it can help you mentally and physically, and has been known to restore natural peace. It takes around 40 seconds to complete one reading. For the betterment of all mankind during the pandemic, we believe that the more scriptures we read and recited, the more benefit this can have. We set an initial target of 250,000, which was met in a couple of days. The target was increased to 10 million, and eventually finished on over 11 million.

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Follow Sunny on Twitter: @SunnyDaheley

Dave and Emma Pritchard: reorganised their wedding last minute so they could have it before the second lockdown, and found out that Emma is pregnant.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Dave and Emma outside their home in Cheshire.

VICE: You had a big wedding planned for November. What happened when the restrictions first came into place?
Dave: It was maybe July or August when it started to sink in that we wouldn't be able to go ahead as planned. When the restrictions came in, we were happy with the changes. They limited us to 30 people, but the food and the location and everything was exactly the same. The only difference was less people. Then, about two weeks before, the second lockdown was announced. We had to re-plan our wedding in two days so that we could get married the day before further restrictions came in.

Emma: We didn't have much time to think. The announcement that we were entering a second lockdown came in on a Saturday.

Dave: Then everything was closed on the Sunday, so we couldn't rearrange anything then. We didn't get everything confirmed until the Monday night/Tuesday morning, and then we got married on the Wednesday.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Dave and Emma inside their home in Cheshire.

Emma: It was really strange, though; the last minute wedding was much shorter than we'd planned. It was from 12PM until 5PM. We were planning on staying over, but obviously lockdown kicked in at midnight so we couldn't. We just came home and chilled out on the sofa.

Are you happy you had the wedding as you did?
Dave: We really are. We didn't want that big of a wedding, anyway. When family get involved – godparents you didn't know you had, family friends and things like that – you have to invite loads of people so no one gets offended. We only wanted 50 people initially, and we ended up with 11.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti: began a full-time career in comedy. She made it to the semi-finals of a stand up competition and now writes on comedy shows for Radio 4.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Suchandrika revisits The Bill Murray.

VICE: What were you up to before the pandemic?
Suchandrika: In January of 2020, I discovered I was funny. I’ve been a freelance journalist and podcaster since April, 2018, and before that I was working at The Daily Mirror. I was made redundant – third time in eight years, standard. This time I got my laptop and some money, which was good.

Later in 2019, I looked for a comedy course. I finally saw the one at The Bill Murray in Angel, which lasts six weeks with a comedian called Ben Targét, who is brilliant. I signed up and got a place in January, 2020, thinking this would be a cool little hobby. I had no expectations.

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What happened then?
I did the course, loved it, and then there was a show at the end, here at The Bill Murray. Thankfully it was filmed, because the video of it has changed my life a bit.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Suchandrika revisits The Bill Murray comedy club.

How did it feel when you came offstage? Did you know this is what you wanted to do full time?
Yeah! I then saw this Funny Women competition. I think Katherine Ryan won it a few years back, and Sara Pascoe, too – lots of women who have done incredibly well in comedy. I submitted the video from my end of course show and, a couple of months later, I discovered I'd gotten through to the semi-finals. There were 16 of us, and eight went through to the finals, but they named us all as ones to watch, which is a very powerful thing to receive.

What are you doing now?
I've ended up doing some writing for Radio 4 comedy shows – The News Quiz and The Now Show. I was working on The Now Show last week and that was mostly sketch stuff. I didn't expect any of our sketches to get through, because it's Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis, who've been doing this since the 80s, but it was nice to hear phrases or things we talked about in the writers’ room go through. I'm excited to see where it all goes next year. I've been surprised to be paid for comedy at all this year!

Suchandrika is currently a finalist in the British Comedy Guide's stand up competition. Follow her on Twitter: @SuchandrikaC.

Holly and Leah Fenton-Newins had a baby, Eryn, in January. Lockdown meant Holly was able to spend 17 weeks at home with Leah and their daughter, instead of the standard two weeks paternity leave.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Leah, Holly and Eryn in the garden at their family home.

VICE: What was your life like before lockdown?
Holly: Last year, Leah got pregnant. Being a same-sex couple, it's a bit longwinded compared to opposite sex couples.

Leah: And a bit more expensive!

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Holly: We had IVF, but we decided to egg share, so we had Eryn using my eggs, and Leah carried her. I donated eggs at the same time, so who knows, there might be a sibling out there we're not aware of.

Leah: We couldn't have done it without a donation, so Holly decided to pay it forward.

Holly: We went to the London Women's clinic, who were recommended by friends of ours. Lots of needles and lies to our families about why we couldn't drink later, and Leah got pregnant on the 1st of May.

Was it a stressful process to go through?
Holly: We were really lucky that it worked first time. That's not very common. Obviously most people go to clinics because they have an issue with their fertility, whereas our issue was being a same-sex couple, so we just needed a bit of a helping hand. There were times when it took its toll, though – I struggled with the needle aspect to start with.

Leah: Holly had to inject hormones, because we wanted to do a fresh transfer, so Holly's eggs had to be ready at the same time as my womb. They give you these hormones to grow the eggs so they can be the healthiest they can be. Then, once you were ready, you had to go in every three days, was it?

Holly: It was every two days, and I work with my family, with my dad as my boss. So telling him I had to leave work for these mysterious appointments was tricky. He said afterwards that he was concerned something was really wrong with me. It was stressful keeping it from our families!

Christopher Bethell 2020

Leah, Holly and Eryn in the garden at their family home.

What was it like when you found out you were pregnant?
Leah: The day we bought the pregnancy test – and we bought one of the really expensive ones – we did it, and we were waiting for the results, then the doorbell went and it was Holly's mum, dad and uncle. We were like, “Okay, let's wrap it up in a towel and go down.'“ And they were here for hours.

Holly: It was so awkward, we were thinking, ‘Please can you just leave!’

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Leah: As soon as they left we ran upstairs, unwrapped the towel and it said “error”. We'd left it too long!

Holly: We had to do it all over again. But it was amazing when we got the result. We weren't expecting for it to work the first time.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Leah, Holly and Eryn in the garden at their family home.

When was Eryn born?
Holly: She was due on the 17th of January, so we went into the hospital then. We were in hospital for a week and she was born on the 23rd of January. It was quite a long labour – they both got sepsis, and Leah was rushed for an emergency caesarean after having been in labour for 24 hours.

This is when the first COVID news starts coming in. I went to sit outside the operating theatre while they got everything prepared, and I thought I'd get my phone out to screenshot all the headlines so we have something to look back on. They're all like, “World War Flu”, “UK on killer virus alert”. There was one that made me laugh, though – The Daily Star went with “Two fat ladies killed by snowflakes” [a story about traditional Bingo catchphrases being changed to “make the game appeal to the ‘woke’ generation”].

How has it been having a baby in the year of the pandemic?
Holly: I only had two weeks of paternity leave – it’s weird they still call it that, since I'm a mother – but because of lockdown that two weeks turned into 17 weeks. To be able to spend that time with Leah as a new mum was incredible. We got to learn to be a family together.

Emily Hunt: crowdfunded the rescue of four dogs from an overcrowded shelter in Lebanon. She’s now raising money to rescue more dogs and a cat, and has started her own brand of ethical dog chew toys.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Emily Hunt with rescue dog Sasha (left), Boogie (middle), who she rescued from Lebanon, and her own rescue dog Ella (right).

VICE: What were you doing before the pandemic?
Emily: My time was split pretty evenly between gearing up to launch my dog brand, Mongrel London, fundraising for and coordinating the rescue of Lebanese street dogs and maintaining my “influencer life”, which I use as a little extra source of income. My life was pretty put together… those were the days!

How did the first lockdown affect you?
I had to move home for a little while, could no longer visit Lebanon, and bringing dogs over became almost impossible. Mongrel London's launch was completely paused and my “influencing” life more or less dried up entirely. Thankfully, I was still able to bring three of my amazing Lebanese rescues over, and that's my main priority out of everything I do.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Emily Hunt with rescue dog Boogie.

What did you do from there?
Thankfully, there's still a lot that myself and my rescue partner can do while the rest of the world shuts down, so we spent these months deciding on our next six rescues and beginning the fundraising. Under normal circumstances, we'd have wanted to go out to Lebanon to visit the shelters and decide the most desperate cases that need our help, but six really heartbreaking cases landed in our laps via contacts we have in Lebanon, who got in touch with us directly asking for our help.

Christopher Bethell 2020

Emily Hunt with rescue dogs Boogie and Ella.

What are you doing now?
Mongrel London has officially launched, so I'm spending most of my time on that now, which sounds cliche but is honestly a dream come true. When COVID hit, I never thought the day would come! Most importantly, we're around half-way through our fundraising target for our next “batch” of rescues, and we're at the stage where we're coordinating the dogs' vaccinations, paperwork and so-on to get them ready for their journey to the UK.

If you'd like to support Emily's current fundraiser you can find it here. Find her on Instagram: @emily_hunt

@christopherbethell