Not Billy

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When I first arrived in Manchester, I lived in a shared house with two gay men.  One, the owner, Dennis, was a likeable oddball – with interesting habits.  His bedroom was stacked high with newspapers with a single pathway left clear for him to reach the bed.  I only knew this because I sneaked a look when he was out doing his regular late night shopping on a Thursday evening where he invariably bought expensive coffee (“Smell it,” he’d say, shoving it under my nose.  “It’s coffee,” I’d say, smiling. He did the same routine with fresh baked bread.  “It’s not ordinary bread, it’s a quality product.”  Over the week it would grow mouldy.)  I never socialised with Dennis – he kept very odd hours, and wasn’t a party animal.  He looked like a member of the Sylvanian Family. We rubbed along together and fell out only once when he disapproved of me putting one of his glass tumblers over a cockroach in the kitchen.  I thought this a reasonable response.

The other man was Little Chris – a lovely gay man who hailed from Brighton and struggled with his weight: ballooning and dieting by turns.  I have an abiding memory of Chris walking up and down the living room, with the phone extension trailing behind him, speaking.  Chris loved to talk.  He absolutely loved to talk.  He also loved comics and Dungeons and Dragons, things that still remain something of a mystery to me.  In a very short time, he had surrounded himself with a group of lovely friends.  Those I can remember were Alan, Norman, Big Chris and Billy. I never met Big Chris, but I did get to meet the rest on numerous memorable occasions.

The most memorable was in Dennis’ house (although Dennis was not present – he was the antithesis of Billy) playing Host House to Murder.  This was the first time I met Billy.  I’d heard about him, and his madness from Little Chris, and although this had gone some way to prepare me, the evening surpassed my expectations.

Host House to Murder is a box set game that is the basis for a murder mystery party, each person taking on a designated role and, we played that night.  The set up of the game is that everyone can be guilty through each of the rounds, and the participants’ role is to try to work out whodunnit it? by asking sharp, insightful, thoughtful questions.

Not Billy.

He arrived (along with Norman who had a rather lovely beard) dressed as a woman.  I forget which role specifically, and it hardly mattered.  Billy asked only one question all evening… Little Chris bravely battled to keep the game on track, reading out each of the clues, and instructions but Billy would not deviate from his interrogation technique.  Whoever it was, and whatever they had done, he only asked, “did they shag?” or as a variation, “did you shag?”

The evening descended into repeated hysteria, the anticipation of the question building in each round, against the delightful earnestness of Little Chris trying to keep the whole shebang on track.  The evening ended with a big reveal and I learnt plenty in the process: firstly that most gay men look better in frocks than I could ever hope to and that secondly, hanging out with these guys was definitely a way to blow away the blues of the working week.

As time passed I gathered more and more stories about Billy and the vividness of his life – the bobbing down to the communal bin in his stilettos, his very cool dancing, his collection of sex toys (that Little Chris was instructed to remove in the event of his death), his zest for life, his wit and general bonkersness…

But this was 1991 and the world was not a kind place for gay men. This was the year that  Freddie Mercury died (I remember driving to the centre of Buxton and reading every single news item I could find about his death). We volunteered to be part of something called the Village Charity, shocked that this disease could be taking young men from us, wanting to do our bit.

I don’t remember when we found out that Billy was HIV positive, but I know that it was something that he wasn’t going to let get in the way of his party lifestyle.  And he didn’t.

Big Chris apparently was HIV+ too, but he took the advice of health professionals and reigned himself in.

Not Billy.

By this time, Big Chris and Billy were no longer together, and Billy met Steve. It fell to Steve to look after him as his health deteriorated.

The last time I saw Billy alive was in the least glamorous place on earth. Sainsbury’s.  I attempted to keep my face still and not give away what I felt but Billy had shrunk – his face tight like leather across his bones, and I knew that he was not long for the world.  He was wearing his death mask.

And it was not Billy.

He did not say outrageous things.  He did not raise a laugh with some piece of wit or wisdom.  He did not have anything much to say at all.  He spoke about his medication, the difficulties he faced with his frail body and how he couldn’t make it behave in a way he expected, in a way he wanted. Steve was shrill beside him: the kindest of men but not clever or funny or naughty, a caring, decent man. I said goodbye to Billy and I knew it would be the last time.  He had been reduced – and he was dying.

We got word that Billy had requested that we did not wear black for his funeral – so we dressed in bright colours to honour this final wish.  We were the only ones who did, most wore black.  Some of those men: Alan and Norman and Chris had been to funeral after funeral, losing friends on a monthly basis. There was a kind of strange resignation in the air: a sense of hideous inevitability. That was what Aids did to the gay community: it ripped out some of its finest souls, each one lost before their time.

And there was  a kind of tension in the air as he was laid to rest: something between the family and Steve, something between Steve and Billy’s former life.  Something not said. A hollow, empty space he’d left behind that no-one could fill.

Never Born

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Yes, characterised by death. That’s the truth.

Because who I should have been was never born: conceived in my mother’s mind, and carried for 9 months under the moniker Stephen Richard.  I’m quite pleased – it’s not as classy a name as the female one I ended up with (named for the house as it goes, because they didn’t have any ideas/imagination/inspiration – thankfully not Hazeldene or Aysgarth.)

She was so sure I was male.  So VERY sure even though the sex of a baby is determined at the very moment of conception so I was always a girl.  Always. But my mother told everyone she was having a boy, and every single person confirmed this endlessly because how she was carrying her baby it must have been of the male persuasion. She made so many plans, thought long and hard about how the bedrooms would be arranged, where he would go and what he would learn and she was wrong.  I have often thought – without the remotest sense of self-pity that being third was something like a blessing.  Neither first boy or first girl, and left to get on with it; the best of propositions.

I have never felt like a boy – whatever complex messages my mother’s conviction sent to that tiny frog-like specimen in her belly: I have never been confused about my gender. She, however, has worried about it often.  I remember the battle that I had to get Meccano for my birthday – and after I’d worn her down I was disappointed to find a plastic version when what I wanted was metal, the same as my brother.  She often said she thought that buying a single ‘boy’s toy’ had somehow had a very large impact on how I turned out. Gay.

Did I pick up some subliminal messages about power and ambition? Some secondhand benefits of being nearly a boy? Because as she would say, you could have been. Really easily. (But then, couldn’t we all have been?) I could have also been a fibroid: she had her periods for the first 4 months of the pregnancy and that’s what the doctors thought I might be.

I don’t know about that – but I do often wonder where Stephen Richard would have ended up compared to me.  What advantages would he have had against those I’ve managed to muster? What he have turned out somehow further down the line, being more successful, endowed somehow with male privilege?

Better looking?

Stephen Richard doesn’t exist.  He was just a name in the end: not the one who got away.

I am not who I have never been.

Falling

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Standing on the 20th floor of a block of flats in Hulme, I could see the broad sweep of Manchester. It was dark and the lights threw enticing patterns across the the city.  Momentarily, I was overcome by an urge to throw myself off.  I was experiencing what psychologists call ‘high-place’ phenomenon.  The building seemed  to sway, pulling me off the edge and I drew myself quickly back inside; that sense of not feeling safe – it’s instinct to pull away.  Otherwise, hundreds of people would throw themselves off buildings every day (now the image of falling bodies is etched into our collective consciousness after 9/11 but this happened pre-2001)  but I interpreted my  experience as a suicidal thought.  A micro end-it-all moment. Then, I imagined drifting gently to the ground, saw myself half flying then falling fast: fast, too fast.  So I drew myself further into the flat, back to its glow and comfort.  This wasn’t me: I’m not that sort, I’m the sort who wobbles but doesn’t fall down.

M and I talked into the dead of night.  Laughed about the last time we’d met and I was waiting outside for my lift home and a woman had walked past with a machete swearing she’d kill the bastard if she found him.  That was Hulme.  Another incident, M said, just the day before: a young man chased by the police had run to the top of edge of one set of flats, and unwilling to hand himself in, had jumped to his death.  His mind wasn’t right, she said. He fell, and never got up again. (Years later I found out this was a boy I’d taught: one of those boys prematurely tall.  He was spoilt, ruined my mother would have said. Difficult to like. His parents, never somehow learning the lesson that less is more, bought him a sporty car – he crashed it and messed up his head.  Wasn’t himself: never really found his way home again.  Lived from hand to mouth until finding himself on that roof with, as he saw it, all his choices gone: the end of the line and his impulse to escape all that was left.  He’d always been the kind of boy who was never in the wrong and all he had was instinct.  There, afraid, tearful, gone.)

The flat smelt reassuringly sweet, incense burning in all rooms.  It was such a cool flat M kept – treasures from all manner of sources carefully and tastefully left about the place. There was a picture of her as a  child on the wall: wearing a pair of dungarees, super cute and other carefully thought through things.  Just things. She laughed madly about this and that.  We talked of partners, hopes, their pain, things we planned to do…the life we meant to lead. She marrying P – maybe – me trying to work my way through.

Our time together was girls’ nights: us two.  But we talked of him: his creativity, the danger of his brilliant mind, his kindness.  His desire to get it right.  His pain.  His perfection and his sadness at never quite managing it. She loved him. P defined her, she said, made her world real, whole.

I only met him once.

I don’t remember how I got the news.  In the world before proper mobile phone use, I don’t know by what means it came to me.  Did we speak on the phone?  Did she walk round?  Did someone else tell me?

The details have gone.

Those were the days when we still wanted to be a separate self – perhaps behaved like singles when we were out.  We drank too much, we smoked in days when smoking was still allowed.  We made each other laugh.

He filled his car with petrol, one afternoon a few days after M and my night out.  He drove at some pace. He drove from his flat in Manchester down the motorway, speeding all the way to his home village.  A journey of 7 hours took 4. Later, they could track his path on the overhead cameras on the motorway.  How he hadn’t crashed and taken someone with him, no-one knew.

She told me all this: wild-eyed – the wonder of it, and the pain like a tooth hole left in the mouth, impossible to leave alone.  Impossible not to worry at it with the tongue but causing instant pain.

He found a field near his parents’ house.  All planned.  He drove right into the heart of it not caring if he’d ever get his car out. He wouldn’t.

He attached a tube from the exhaust to the window and with what remained of the petrol, just enough, started the car engine and fell asleep never to wake again.  Nothing spontaneous about his death.  Nothing instinctive or what Freud called a death wish: all carefully planned.

“He was just a bit down,” she said with all her pain exposed. I saw her soul – her life in the raw. She kept going over all the ground.  Was there something she could do? Should have done? Could she have changed his mind?  Over and over she told her part – how she felt to blame.  Went through all the steps, over and over: sitting on the floor by my back door, smoking, in the pub – in the newly decorated rooms of her flat. All the stages.  If she’d have been in to answer the phone the day before.  If she’d said the right words. If she had not insisted on him going to the doctors…

“And now,” she said, “His parents won’t let me near.” Though they did eventually relent but the damage was done.  Pain on pain. Separated by space – of being close but not close enough.

She blamed the medication: before he’d taken it he was down and, she thought, it gave him just enough motivation to kill himself.

She was wrong.  He was already falling.  Falling.

He would have done it anyway.

His life had everything you might want.  The funniest girl on the block, talent, success.

But it wasn’t enough to save him.

And there were never enough times for me to say, ‘It wasn’t your fault M.  There was nothing you could do?’

In the years that followed she made massive life changes.   Found love.  Got pregnant.  Bought a house. Grew apart from me. Our friendship fell through.

The last time I saw her, she was three cars away.  I took massive risks to reach her.  Over took.  Ran a light.  Beeped.  Followed her into the hospital car park where she was attending ante-natal clinic for her second child. We hugged. Said hello. Said goodbye. That sense of feeling close, and far away: near the edge and the temptation to jump rolled over me. That sense of not feeling safe – we pulled away.  Smiled. Waved.

All our chances gone, I never saw her again.

 

 

 

War Effort

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So cast your mind back.  It’s Hull, sometime in 1940s war time Britain.   Much of the city was tormented by bombs.  More than 1,000 hours were spent under alert during raids across the war period with at least 1,200 people killed. So it was normal for the air raid sirens to swear into the night, and families to pour into shelters and hope, against hope, that all would still be standing when they flicked into day time hours.  The air was thick with smoke from the falling masonry and debris.

Out of this, emerged a man I never met but who has cast a regular shadow over who I am and what I’ve become.  My paternal grandfather.  I have never even seen a picture of him, although I imagine him like my father: tall and willowy with film-star, slicked back hair dark but not black. A sort of Lincolnshire Rhett Butler.  A man with swagger and swash-buckling style (although the reality might have been somewhat different.) I am shaped by his absence because when folk die young they leave a kind of residue, a sort of promise of what they might have done: instead of fading away, or being subject to a shocking reduction as age weighs down even the most brilliant of souls. It seems you become what you’re not anymore unless you’re lucky and you’ve money and even then, even then, you cannot defeat aging’s relentless march – you cannot persuade fragility to bi-pass.   If you die young, you die with what you could have become still open to speculation, as though life continues in some alternative universe.

My grandfather Arthur then, a yellow belly*, was a man destined not to go to the war – something he struggled to live with.  I imagine him taking unnecessary risks: staying above ground longer than he should have done, skipping between strikes his face lit up by the bomber’s lights, or buying that extra pale ale in the pub.  He wanted, I suppose to be like most men of that generation, to ‘fight for his country.’ (Even in my generation when the Falklands war began, all the boys in the sixth form common room at Sydney Smith High School said they’d go to war in a heart beat.  Every single boy.  And all the girls were shocked, looked at them aghast saying, “What for?  You’d fight in a completely pointless war for Thatcher?” A row of ardent female pacifist against a battalion of Adidas Samba trainered boys with arms folded petulantly as if we’d somehow questioned the size of their manhood. Who were these boys we’d thought we knew?  Who were they?)

So Arthur was no different. He wore a different uniform, one of overalls: marginally above the reserves but only just,  and nowhere near the heights of the soldier.  He was ashamed at having to stay behind in a reserved occupation, he did not want to be rigging ships. It didn’t seem like much when he’d wanted to fight like all his mates.

Fast-forward 90 plus years and I’m sitting in my neighbour’s house and he’s telling me how he’s built six boats in his time, one taking six whole years, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for six years to build and rig: an echo of my grandfather Arthur, a man  who influenced the main things (over-working, for example, over-working until it killed him, so they said) and I’m drinking my fifth pint of home brew worrying that I might regret it in the morning.

When I was 10 I realised what the lack of a father had done to my dad (he was 6 when Arthur died).  My mother had threatened us with dad on his return from work: my sister had been caught shop-lifting and my mother was smart enough to know that if she had been up to no good, the chances were I had too. So began one of the longest days of my life – off school ill with a mother refusing to speak to me for company except to warn me at hourly intervals of the pain that my father would inflict with his belt, on his return.  My sister arrived home at 4, all her cockiness gone (my mother had rung her at school knowing as a prefect my sister would answer the phone, and told her much the same as she’d told me: his belt would mark us for life and we would never be sticky-fingered again.)

My sister and I re-distributed food on our plates at tea time then went up to the bedroom to await our fate.  When dad came home, he came upstairs.  Then, the three of us entered into a kind of secret pact.  He tried, he really did, to raise his belt, his hand, his temper but he really couldn’t so without any words spoken we, all three of us crying, pretended that he had done the deed.  Somehow, in losing his father young, he didn’t know how to be that kind of dad and he became the kind who made it up as he went along. And the brutal but perfectly normal kind of working class man of that time who beat his kids for bad stuff didn’t exist inside my dad, who’d been brought up (and spoiled) by women.

And Arthur – for years I just knew that he died in the war.  I imagined torpedoes, or bombs, heroism, laying his life down for another man.  Instead, somehow or other, it emerged he’d died of untreated stomach ulcers, popped and bleeding: the pain of his non-combat role made manifest.  And that legacy breathes fire into us all too: the tension held in the stomach, the never stopping, the driving onwards when the sensible option is to stop, take a breather and survive.  Not Arthur and not his antecedents.

My replacement grandfather, Ernie came much later when my dad was in his teens.  Ernie was something of a catch it seems.  Or so my Guide Captain told me, when he’d rocked up at my Queen’s Guide celebrations in his late 70s and she’d taken me to one side and said, “Do you know that man?” her eyes strangely wide with something close to wonder. “I know him,” I said, “He’s my granddad.”

And then, in a sort of girlish breath (she was almost 60) she said, “He used to chase all the girls over the beds” which sounded more suggestive than it was, but still bad enough – Ernie had spent his working life as floor manager at Hammond’s departmental store.  “No-one would get in a lift with him,” she said, darkly and then laughed – the kind of laugh I knew meant it was only half true and though Ernie was a Lothario, he was fun if you wanted flirtation (odd he ended up with my grandmother, who was oddly buttoned down.)

The old bugger always had a twinkle in his eye, and mischief on his mind. “Aye,” he said, one time when I asked him about Arthur, “That fella was a pirate on the wild seas.  That’s where you get your name from.”

And every single part of me wanted to believe it was true.

*a yellow-belly is someone from Lincolnshire

Adam

img_3070I am not taken to crying at Facebook as a general rule, but for the second time in a week I find myself weeping at a post.  What’s the chances?

Quite high, as it turns out.

When I was 22, I began my very short teaching career.  For reasons I can’t remember now, except for some vague notion of being close to London, and as far away from my family as possible (the next step in my reinvention process, I suppose: I AM BRAVE I AM STRONG I AM NOT WHO YOU THINK I AM) I had taken a job in Basildon, Essex.  I am not one for saying disparaging things about this or other new towns but they are pretty soulless sorts of places.  I loved the people but the truth is if you’ve seen one roundabout, you’ve seen them all – and I pretty much did see them all.

The school I worked in is no longer there – Barstaple School, and when I arrived, so too did 26 other new staff.  That’s a turnover in a secondary school that tells you everything you need to know about it – it had its rum folk and not everyone could hack it.  One older teacher, on day one, regaled us with tales of how she’d gained respect by beating children up.  This was meant to impress us – it did not – but it is also true that within weeks as a new teacher you are driven to the extremes of your tolerance and to thoughts of violence that shock you.

There was a generous gesture on the part of my Head of Department (I taught English: badly as it happens – I still shiver when I remember the apostrophe lesson I taught!) that I did not need to take a year 11 class.  Excellent idea, except this meant that I was free when everyone else was delivering their year 11 class, meaning that whenever a teacher was absent during those sessions, I covered them.  It was a baptism of fire.  I felt that if I managed to herd them into the same room, and mostly stopped them shoving implements into one another’s orifices, I was doing well.  If I could corral a handful to their desks, all the better.  If someone actually wrote something, this was akin to a miracle.

Besides, what I lost in Year 11s, I gained in Year 10s – particularly last two periods on a Friday.  Goodness, whose idea was that?  As I walked to the classroom, I would hear them swopping football chants: Millwall! Millwall! Tottenham! Chelsea! Chelsea!  My heart sank as I walked to the room: and I spent much of my time trying to ensure that a) they didn’t kill each other and b) I didn’t kill them.

But over time, I grew to love that group.  They brought me cream eggs that had fallen off the back of a lorry, other offers of knock-off goods, homework in tattered books and tales of all sorts.  They made me laugh, particularly when a couple of them hid in the store cupboard to ‘surprise’ me as a joke until I started ranting about how they would amount to nothing as a group and then they were too afraid to jump out!  I knew there was something afoot when the rest of the class listened earnestly.  They never did that. I laughed heartily until tears rolled down my face when they finally sheepishly appeared…

At the back of the class sat the two Claires.  One Claire was a big built girl who was a wonderful character often telling me how best to control the group and offering me very sound advice on how to deal with the psychopathic boy in the corner (the only funny thing he ever did was hang a chair from the ceiling struts.  “You’ve a poltergeist, Miss,” he said, as the chair hung there, he was dead eyed and smirk-free.)  The other Claire was a bit colourless, and before the year was out, got pregnant.  At 14.

Relatively early in my tenure, my sister gave birth to a little boy: Adam, three months prematurely.  I told character Claire this, and in addition to her teaching tips, she would also ask on a daily basis how he was.  “Not great,” I’d say, “I’ve bought him a ted with the words ‘tough ted’ on its vest.”

“He’ll be alright, Miss,” she said, “They can work miracles now.”

Adam had been born with fluid retained all along his stomach like a giant bubble.  At half term, I travelled to Hull to see him.  He was hooked up to beeping machines and in a room with the a strange blue hue.  This was 28 years ago.

Each week, Claire would ask me about his progress, never forgetting one day to the next, and 3 months later, I was pleased to tell her that he was going home by then effectively full term with the fluid all gone.  My sister was full of hope and excitement. It was all she wanted.

And then it went wrong.  One day, on January 10th, he stopped breathing whilst she was feeding him.  The ambulance arrived but Adam died in her arms on the way to the hospital. My sister received no help with this, no support, no suggestion of someone to talk to, or someone to help, or a pathway through.  She went home to organise his funeral.  It took three men to hold her up that day.

Of course, Claire asked me how Adam was and I told her, upset I suppose though I don’t remember now.  What I do remember is her somehow conveying this message to everyone else in the room, and that impossible group of bonkers kids all behaved impeccably for two hours whilst we were trapped in that room together.  I loved them for that, and continued to care desperately about their prospects for the rest of the time I held that bit of their future in my hands.

So, from day to day of course, I hardly think about Adam though: it’s a fact, something that happened that explains everything and nothing which I find myself sharing sometimes.  Every single day my sister thinks of him.  She had 8 children since then, but always there is that place within her that belongs to Adam and Adam alone.  I cannot imagine this pain and I don’t want to.  I don’t even remember the key dates: when he was born, when he died; these are engraved on the inside of her eyes.

Today, then, I went briefly onto Facebook and this is what I saw.  My sister’s status:

I give you this one thought to keep –
I am with you still – I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the sweet uplifting rush,
of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not think of me as gone –
I am with you still in each new dawn.
28 long years my darling boy.

It turns out that it didn’t work going so far away.  I am not brave.  I am not strong.

Not today anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Memories

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.

What are the chances…

It started with a chance.  It always does.  A 25% chance on certain days in a month, but more likely on the others only a 15% chance of conception.  Not great odds – an 85% chance, in other words, of it never happening at all.  And yet it did.

I was conceived.

I was conceived as the sprouts bubbled on the hob, each with a neat and tiny cross on the stem.  Nothing  left to chance there. Conceived as the turkey bustled and bubbled and caroused the oven in a beautiful song of Christmas cheer and possibility. Roast potatoes crackled, carrots chopped and ready.

I’m not sure how they had the time.  A baby lay in a cot, restless and colicky whilst a toddler, almost 3, counted his building bricks and organised them in rainbow order; a very precocious toddler.

What are the chances?

The odds were against it and yet they made their choices.  They did.

Whoever would want three children under three? Perhaps ale had been consumed, or a whiskey and ginger or two.  Perhaps the senses were dulled sufficiently to not think of the consequences but not to stop that moment of passing passion.  That’s often the best way. Too much thought can pull up the drawbridge of excitement, turn up the collar and send individuals their separate ways.

They ate their lunch in great excitement. Warmed the Cow and Gate and fed the baby, added the teat to the bottle of Ale they often joked about in later life, and let the baby have a moment to ease her way.  She slept soundly in any case.  The toddler – bored of colours – had been bathed in the sink and put to bed. And a calm settled over the place.