This post is dedicated to Jonathan, who died in his sleep last Friday night.
For friends not absent
How old was Melville? someone asked.
That past tense told me everything.
This is the way a life ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with an overheard casual question.
I remember you coming into our Christmas party with Trekker
You sat at my table and we weren’t able to make much
You were very much there last night and not only with those at the meeting who remembered you by name.
And he shouted:
And one guy stood up and said:
That man was Melville, he said.
And I thought: You did. And it did.
I remember my friend Jock, who took pity on you and took you in and
We’re all difficult sods to live with or to love, but perhaps
People spoke about your good humour, drunk or sober, the things
As you did, Melville, even though there came one time too many when you weren’t safe in these rooms, but out there, where death came stalking.
Sitting there, clutching my grief to myself, my first meeting in
I think of Ellen, who gave me some of her poems and then took an
I still come across them in my many piles of paper and I shall
I have changed the names of everyone mentioned here, because
But to me these people can never be anonymous, and though
And, yes, our weakness.
Because that is where our real strength lies.
January 25, 2000
The colour of mourning
Yellow is the colour of mourning in China, I’m told, but here in Bradford we dress in black and put on long faces, sitting on hard pews remembering the man the priest refers to all the time as our brother Melville.
It’s amazing how many have made it here to church this Tuesday afternoon.
There’s the usual crowd from all the meetings he used to come to, sitting sober and solemn in their Sunday best such as it is;
And on the opposite side a couple of his drinking buddies;
They call him Bobcat but he doesn’t act at all wild, though some shift uneasily in their seats when he participates rather too audibly for their comfort as the spirit moves him.
It is not the holy spirit that makes him so emotional, of course.
He injects a note of reality into the proceedings, for all his indiscipline; this, after all, is why we here:
It would be good, I think, if one of us had been asked to testify on what he meant to us, for it’s clear that this priest knew him hardly at all, except as someone who’d knock on the back door to cadge the price of a pint.
I brought the poem I wrote when I heard he had died, not really expecting there’d be a place in the service for me to read it, but hoping all the time, I could give it to someone who might identify with it.
In the end I hand it to Ben when I drive him to the cemetery.
He looks over the first page cursorily.
“That’s good, that is,” he says eventually, and rolls it to put in his pocket.
“Hand it on to anyone you like,” I say.
“I will,” he says, and I believe him.
But Bobcat is the only one who really seems to know what it means to have a friend taken to the grave by booze because he’s living there now, right in the battlezone.
It is so unfair.
Melville hadn’t taken a drink for a day at least, and this is what killed him:
The security guard found him lying across the door of his room in the hostel and called the paramedics, but when they got there he was past saving.
If he’d gone out drinking that night, or if he’d accepted the help available all round him, or had kept up his meetings, we might not be here, mourning a young man of 46 who had so much more to live for, who gave us so much to love for.
But then it’s idle worrying about “if only” or “what if” or even “why”.
He’s gone to a better place, we tell ourselves, and I believe it’s true.
Outside the church, the congregation flows around Bobcat like he was some kind of industrial effluent with a bad smell.
Somehow, he gets himself a few miles away to the graveside.
He shouts at an embarrassed section of mourners at the graveside:
Determined they should understand, he repeats it:
Not knowing how to respond to his very real pain, trying out words in my head that might help him to avoid following in Melville’s footsteps, and failing to find anything that wouldn’t be an insult to his humanity, instead I hold out my hand in silent friendship.
His grip is amazingly strong.
And then he taps me for a quid.
I smile and shake my head and he looks at me back, straight in the eye, seemingly with no malice.
How was it? someone asks me when I have driven away.
“How was it?”
I can hardly say.
But I take off my dark clothes and wrap a yellow silk tie around my neck in recollection of the sunshine Melville brought into my life.
Mourning ends; life goes on.
There’s a meeting at my church where I think they may be discussing Section 28,
But before I go to preach a gospel of love of all the myriad shades and colours of human personality our world is blessed with, I try to write these few, inadequate words, hoping there’ll be time to read them later to a group of people who never knew him, when I arrive close to the end of the writers’ group.
And try to let the memory of his laughter dry up the tears I haven’t got round to crying yet.
February 2-8, 2000
Song: Drinking up the sunshine, and drinking down the moon
Tossing down the whisky
Supping the red wine
Living on the cakes and ale
Having a good time
Dancing while the fiddler plays
Another drunken tune:
I’ve been drinking up the sunshine
And drinking down the moon.
When I was a young shaver
Some 14 years or so
A sniff of the barmaid’s apron
Would get me on the go.
I tried to hold my liquor
To hold it like a man
To drink the day into the night
Every time I can.
I’ve danced upon the tables, boys,
I gazed upon the stars
Lying where I’ve fallen
In the gutters by the bars.
I’ve fallen for the beauties,
Been enchanted by the crack
And I’ve felt the world go round and round
As I lay upon my back.
I’ve slept upon the last train home
And gone right down the line
I’ve fought with total strangers
And with many a friend of mine.
I’ve been the greatest lover
Fell asleep upon the job –
I’ve looked into the mirror
And I saw a drunken slob.
I destroyed the very things I loved,
Smashed my darling in the face
Like a rat upon the treadmill
I had left the human race
Till someone one day said to me,
It really made me think:
My life could be worth living
If I never took a drink.
Can sup and walk away
But the pint that drives me crazy
Is the first one of the day.
I jump on to the carousel,
I become a legless loon:
Drinking up the sunshine
And drinking down the moon.
The times are getting better
As I see the days go past
They’re better seeing clearer
Than the bottom of a glass.
One day is all I need to live
Right in the here and now.
Each dawn’s a new adventure
Tomorrow take a bow!
Never mind the whisky
You can keep the wine
Life without the cakes and ale
Is having a good time.
Dancing while the fiddler plays
And I can hear the tune.
I am living in the sunshine
And sleeping with the moon.