Saturday, December 22, 2007

Up North

It is quite possible to find something awful and beautiful at the same time, to feel love and joy and some terrible, irredeemable loss all rolled up into one tiny ball. Thursday was like that, an exhausting, endurance test of a day that shone with life and connection and even some smiles.

The funeral was a good funeral, a fitting farewell to my friend, not glossing over the loss, not remaining stuck in its black tar. Flowers were wound into the pale wicker of his coffin and candles were lit, a round was sung, and the words here I walk in beauty/beauty is around me/above and below me would have been enough to break through even the most closed of hearts.

But the disbelief at the situation was palpable. Not only myself, but, it felt everyone in the room could not believe that the young man in the photo on our programmes, with his sweet smile and his floppy fringe, was the same man lying before us in a wicker box.

I don't think we ever come to terms with the mystery and pain of someone disappearing forever. But this, so sudden, so senseless somehow, is hard to take. There is something so appalling about seeing a father struggling to speak about his son, who now lies before him, cold as stone. No father should ever have to do this. It feels like an anomaly in the nature of things. But one thing I am learning as I grow older is that senseless things happen to people who don't deserve them all the time, and that it isn't personal, it might be unfair, but our universe wasn't, isn't and never will be a fair universe. It is as it is.

But I can still feel angry about this. I still open my eyes wide and perplexed as I try to make sense of how my friend's life ended so suddenly, when he was so happy, and had so much to live for, so much left to experience and to give. And how my own story of him, and with him, has suddenly ended. I won't be taking up the strands of our friendship and marvelling at the next port where it will be stopping. This is it. This is that final port. The final stop happened when I hugged him on a chilly beach, a blue sky above us some weeks ago. If I thought we might be coming together again to be there at yet another significant time in our lives, I never thought it was to be at his own death, and that I was to be there, waving him off to somewhere I shall not be able to follow. Not now. Not yet.

Funerals are profound things, everyone so raw, so honest, so real. Death makes the best (and the worst) come out in people. It makes people speak truths they would never otherwise say, it makes them open to things they might usually brush over and dismiss. In that way, they can feel like the most real, and therefore, nourishing places to be in, devoid of the usual bullshit. And they can be poetic and beautiful and awe-inspiring.

But one thing I often experience at funerals is the ridiculous way that profundity and mundanity sit side by side. People utter the most profound words, and the sight of a coffin bearing someone you love inside it is enough food for contemplation to last a lifetime.

Yet, for me, there is also this edge of knowing that life in all its mundanity is carrying on. And a certain black humour can arise in me. People fluff up lines, taxis don't arrive and there is always that moment when the pallbearers lift the coffin high into the air when I feel a certain hysterical laughter rising in my throat. It is the uneasiness on their faces that makes this feeling well up in me, and the terrible possibility of what could happen should their hands slip. Funerals contain drama; they act out some mighty cosmic drama that is going on, unacknowledged, around us every moment in our lives. And they also include all the fragility and ridiculousness of it as well.

We spent a couple of nights in Manchester, the five-hour drive seeming too much to contemplate straight after such a day. So, following chilli and cake at the Manchester Buddhist Centre, I wobbled out into the town centre with Bob, like a homing pigeon, heading straight for Afflecks' Palace. Realising the toll that the day had taken on my system, I stood at the top of the building, trying to catch my breath, realising I needed to sit down somewhere calm and not try and follow the footsteps of my past, my days of living in Manchester, right there and then.

We went and had brandy hot chocolate in the Night and Day cafe, a huge, eight foot painting of Ian Curtis on the back wall. Oh Manchester. I was there for seven years, and so many significant things happened to me during that time, one of them being that I met David, and we began both our friendship and our life as Buddhists there. After our drinks, and feeling much more grounded, Bob and I ventured out onto Oldham Street, and spent the next couple of hours trawling the streets we both knew so well (he also lived in Manchester for years), past Dry Bar and Eastern Bloc Records, to Piccadilly, where they'd installed an outdoor ice skating rink.

Manchester's so upmarket these days. It smacks of money in a way that it never used to. Who'd have thought that the IRA obliterating the entire city centre would precipitate such a major transformation of the city. I remember walking as near to the exclusion zones as was allowed, months after the bomb, and staring in awe at the bare skeleton of the city's shops, a ghostly feeling following me through the streets. Now it's all Harvey Nics and art galleries.

Though I'm glad it has been rejuvenated, I can't help feeling that it has lost some of its soul. We wandered all the way down Cross Street, past Albert Square and its huge inflatable Santa, its German Christmas Market, and down past the Peveril of The Peak pub. And what do you know; The Hacienda is now a swanky block of exclusive, trendy, metal fronted apartments, with its own underground car park full of flashy sports cars. Businessmen rest their rich and conservative heads in what was one of the most decadent, ground breaking and influential nightclubs that's ever opened its doors. Oh, the fucking irony.

After staying with some very welcoming and lovely Buddhists in Salford, with the frost wiped from the car windows and some porridge in my belly, we drove home. Back in my flat in Brighton, I am still left wondering what my relationship to the North is, and where my dear friend has gone.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


It has been a queer and blustery week. The wind and rain have been relentless, ferociously banging on my window, demanding to be let in. I've stolen precious moments of my days snatching at my copy of Wuthering Heights, wrapped up in the book's bleak pages while the storms raged outside, happy and content amid the ravages of Emily Bronte's violent narrative.

Then on Thursday I received some shocking news about a friend of mine. He had been taken into hospital with an infection and was in a critical condition. As the evening passed into the next day, I finally discovered the harsh truth of what had happened - from a sore shoulder all week they had discovered an abcess and the abcess had burst, then blood poisoning. He was in a bad way until Friday morning, and then I got the news on Saturday that he had died. I've been wrapped up in sadness and shock ever since, unable to make any sense of what's just happened.

I've just been standing in my hallway, in fact, looking up towards what you might call heaven, talking to my friend. But as I was standing there, I suddenly came to and realised that actually, heaven isn't up there, just above the sky, and that I was in fact simply staring right up at the leaky hole in my ceiling where a load of dirty water poured through onto my carpet during this morning's storm. I felt silly then, for trying to talk to my friend through a leaky hole in my ceiling, as though he might hear me.

This feeling of silliness has stayed with me. I really don't know where my friend has gone. All I know is that he has gone. Suddenly, shockingly, tragically. And I can't seem to help this crazy reflexive movement in my mind that keeps telling me he is just up there, either in in some white and clean realm looking down on me, or else, kind of whirling through space, making his way towards another life; revisiting the places of his last.

These feelings seem so naive; so child-like and simplisitic, as though I'm desperately trying to map out some unmappable territory, give some kind of clear and sign-posted geography to that which is utterly mind-blowing, devastating and bewildering. I want to know the way to Heaven, or that there is a course through the Bardo, because otherwise, I'm just baffled. Baffled and lost.

But the truth is, it's unlikely that he's just hovering around in the ether watching me go to the toilet and clipping my toenails, waiting for me to strike up a conversation with him. Or that he's in psychic connection with me, floating about the stars. I know I don't want to let him go; I don't want to conceive of him disappearing entirely into thin air. I want at least a trace of him. Somewhere. Keep him alive for my own heart's sake. There are moments when I can feel he is so alive, in the tissue and blood of my own heart, in this heart that beats as his does not. But then, that passes, and I am left in an empty cosmos again.

I can't reduce this life to ash and cinder though, to an equation of atoms and molecules, brain and blood cells. The rubble of life is blessed by something incomprehensible to us all. But, oh, it is all too much to try and put into words, and if I were to even try to begin to talk about God, it would be no easy answer either; it would throw up as many questions as I seek to answer.

My lovely friend had everything to live for; he was healthy, he was happy. He had a family. There was no tragedy brooding in his veins, waiting to leap. He was clever, and he was my age. I was going to go up North and stay with him soon, rekindle the warm embers of our relationship, now that we are older, now that our lives have changed in so many ways, and yet still with all those same characteristics and the same relationship as when we first met, almost ten years ago. He was there in my life in some of the most significant times in my life, and some of my most difficult, as I think, I was in his.

Following the last time I saw him, several weeks ago, I believed he was coming back into my life again, after a break of three years. The storyline in my head said we'd soon be back, continuing the next phase of our friendship, and I was fascinated to see what might unfurl. If I did move up North, he'd be there again, in the middle of another massively significant life-change for me. But he's gone now, absolutely gone, without a trace, utterly removed from this world and from my life forever; the story-line has been ripped from me and try and try as I might, I don't understand how.

So I'm going to carry on talking to David through the hole in my ceiling. Maybe he hears me, maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's there, maybe he isn't. But I'll keep talking and I'll keep him in my dreams and in my prayers, in my meditation and in my writing. In my footstep on the pavement. In the letters that he sent me. In the memory of him on the beach with his daughter, flushed and happier than I've ever seen him. He is ever present, in this way. But once my door is closed and the lights are down, my own sadness reveals the truth of his absence, and from that, there is no escaping.