I’ve got something of a chequered history with death: lying in bed counting out my heart beats and wondering how many more will come my way. It’s a lifetime obsession – the single source of my insomnia, something I’ve suffered with, on and off, since I was nine years old. Because of near misses, mainly.
I am thinking in this way because of the sudden death of DN (a man whose African name was the first I managed to pronounce properly.) I found out he’d died on Facebook. Please God that my passing is not announced in this way, with ‘friends’ (including me in this case) writing RIP as if the world itself would end without its intervention. I’m in Cornwall when I discover DN’s death, and then another cliche pops from my (admittedly quite drunk by this stage) mouth, “I’m blessed, I say…” Blessed in what way, I want to ask myself? But I’m too far gone to manage it.
In the voracious way of social media death, you read everything. Or at least I would have if I hadn’t been in Cornwall, a place where smart phones aren’t so clever after all. What I did read was this ‘DN 1966-2017 (with a broken heart…) – I read this by chance. By sheer fluke of being somewhere with wifi. By chance. Like death. The post had 170 likes by this stage, so I am late to it. Many of my ‘friends’ have got there before me: loving, sad face, like. It’s true: our grief is heartfelt, sad-faced. DN was a very, very good man.
Later, I begin to calculate when I met him. 25 years before when I went to Commonword and Cultureword’s dodgy Newton Street Offices, grey and unkempt, like something out of a 30s detective novel. We were not ‘good’ friends, in fact beyond Facebook we were not friends at all these days, but I’d met him at Commonword and he’d always been lovely, supportive, strong. My memory says he did finance, but it may be making this up. I was , briefly, in effect his boss, because I was, briefly, on the board of Commonword. I went to a number of groups, running the gamut of women in various states of disrepair. Things those women wrote made me realise how minimal the collateral damage I’d suffered was up to that point in life though I had not got away Scot free. I was just chipped like the bonnet of a car that spends too long on the motorway, but they had bumpers falling off, dents in doors, rust under the surface, a blue boot where a red one should have been, bits missing. I discovered something else there too: I was funny. Until I read that first poem at women’s write, I had no idea at all. It was meant to be serious, describing my mother’s sunburnt skin like a thick, pork sausage but I liked how other people’s laughing made me feel.
DN was, as I say, a very good man. Kind, decent, hard-working, a man of principle, a Green party activist (and a future mayoral candidate of Greater Manchester.) And he was dead at 50. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear, and raised a glass. And I meant it too. I felt like another light had gone out, another great soul with much left to accomplish, gone. Too young. Too, too young.
And it left me counting out heartbeats again as if I could calculate just how many beats remained and work out what I could accomplish in the time left. In the time left. Imagine knowing the day of departure in advance and being able to do nothing about it? The dreadful inevitability of it. It would focus the mind, or send you mad or maybe both.
My mother used to say of me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral, you will,” which wasn’t true – but handy if you had been given a departure date. I’d be early, I expect, looking at my watch and pacing the carpet thinking where the bloody hell is everyone? Before realising, in a nightmare scenario, that no bugger was left! It was like that for my step-Grandfather Ernie – 93. Just two neighbours, and family sitting shoulder to shoulder in a freezing cold church, and Aunt J from the other side who never knowingly missed a free sandwich. Everyone else was dead.
So, you look around at your friends – real and virtual and you try to work out who’ll be next, who’s got the death mask on, who’s unlucky, who’s got the tinge of grey around the eyes, who’s ready for the chop? And you can’t decide. And then, inevitably, I drift back to DN and wonder how someone so vital, so real, so committed could have come and gone.
It’s not like he’s the first of my friends to go before their time, either. There was CM too who died pushing his child up a hill in a pram, died before he’d hit the ground – the day before Prince William married Kate what’s her name, a public holiday and then, such an outpouring of pain for such a brilliant man who meant to change the world, and would have done it given a bit more chance. That word again. 54 he was, 54. Nothing in today’s money.
The church was rammed for his funeral because we were all still alive and the eulogy so profoundly sad that the only way to survive it was to put on a brave face and not move it either left or right.
Two things I recall, a slightly over-smiley colleague of his who made me feel uneasy, who I was later persuaded to employ (against my better judgement, wisely as it turns out – never trust someone who smiles so fully when all about are numb with so much pain they can barely raise an eyebrow) and his young partner, smoking outside the wake, strangely located and dislocated at the same time.
And the recollections that haunt you: further fragments. Him, laughing heartily at the card attached to our door, “Do not meddle in the affairs of cats, for they are subtle and will piss on your computer.” (Elmo Gethin), and then later, kneeling in the back conservatory, worried about the rescue chickens who looked oven-ready.
I often think of him and his decency and ambition and his belief in a better future: his passion and advocacy. Instead, like DN, it ended all too soon, and his plans atrophied then died with him. “He wanted to be your close friend,” his partner later told me – but what’s the good of that information after the event?
Because death always rings with things you could or should have said, or might or should have done or moments when the path could have taken a different route. It was ever thus: hence my chequered history. My complex chequered history with the great leveller and the measuring out of heart beats.