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.