Thomas Hardy got it wrong

And then one sunny day...     Image courtesy of HancockMcDonald at eltpics
August 2016. Twelve years since I lost two close friends. I wasn’t actually careless enough to lose them, but language works that way. They went, were taken, shuffled off, kicked the proverbial, passed. Their numbers came up. They expired. I can wander from the poetic-romantic end of the linguistic spectrum to the brutal but it is what it is. Their life ended. They died.

And twelve years later, in a year when Death has edged closer to me but (touch wood) had second thoughts, both these friends suddenly came to mind. While cooking curry. I’d rather not ponder the reasons for the association: both these friends and Death itself, while stirring two versions of ‘leftover curry’ – meat and meat-free. Yeah, but hey, Thomas Hardy was wrong. Death doesn’t creep up dressed in a cowl, bearing a scythe. Death doesn’t slide in through cracks in the door in the middle of a cold grey, winter’s day, while branches are weighed down and crack under the burden of icicles and melancholy; it doesn’t cause you to consider, as you stand solemnly, the ashen colourlessness of frosty leaves lying by a pond that cold winter’s day. It comes to you – and your thoughts - as you add spinach to your Pataks-and-cauliflower in the middle of August when it’s 35ºC out, and you still have to water your bougainvillea which is looking a bit peaky but ‘grey’ is hardly the right word. And Death can come in ways as different as my two friends. But like my two friends, at the end of the day, it’s the same.

Anthony was the first to go. He went on St John’s Day, the Midsummer Night of Shakespeare’s dream. 2004. If we’d thought about it, we knew it was coming. But of course we didn’t think about it – he was 36, so why should we? He’d had a tumour removed, one that was benign in some senses, but had caused his heart to race for so long it had used up a large number of its quota of beats. It was the heart of an eighty-year-old man, he’d been told. Somehow that had meant ‘take care’ or ‘don’t eat doughnuts’, ‘calm down and stop working like a thing possessed’ to us. The fact that eighty-year-old men don’t tend to live that long hadn’t really sunk in. He’d carried on laughing and working madly and drinking pints down-in-one and being Anthony but less stressfully. He was, anyway, a wonderfully colourful person who could down those pints with rugby player pals while comparing not-yet-fashionable-except-amongst-navy-military-and generally-sea-faring-folk tattoos on his upper arms one minute (Woah the lads, you should’ve seen their faces…..), and the next minute stand on the table singing Liza Minelli songs (what good is sitting alone in your room?), crowing ‘oo’er missus’ and discussing his friends’ silicone implant after-care. Some days and with some people, he was all pink and frosting, while with others he was D-I-Y and stainless steel. He played the piano and keyboards (and counted Marc Almond and Andy Bell amongst those who had benefitted from that particular talent – if you don’t know who they are, Google them and adjust your mental image accordingly), was his marvellous mother’s best friend, could probably tackle an All Black at least during a friendly, taught (and was loved by) many a happy English language student, was my fellow fan of our friend Leslie’s soups (I have to admit, we made a merry-but-odd, all singing, all dancing trio) and despite seeming as English as Elton and a Bakewell tart, was half Spanish (his surname being a popular brand of toasted sunflower seeds) but born in what is now part of Morocco. He could be mean (to mean people), mad, wonderful, theatrical, very nervy, generous, hilarious, obsessive (particularly when in love or lust), fantastic company, he could make you feel like he was your duvet when you felt down, enveloping you in caring, affection and unexpected warmth, he could drive you crazy, he was a natural. I remember him coming to visit me in Seville (in the 10 months I was there before he died, he visited twice) and I took him to visit a close friend of mine. It transpired that they had worked in the same place at the same time and had friends in common, and they spent hours and hours reminiscing. They hadn’t met before and I must admit I felt jealous, envious and happy all at the same time – I had nothing to contribute to the conversation and felt invisible, and, hey peeps, who likes to feel like that? – but I was also over the moon that two people I loved could just spontaneously ignite that depth of conversation. I still smile remembering it.

Anthony was a king and queen, and went way too soon. He felt ill at work, went home for a siesta, never woke up. A heart attack at 36. When our soup-friend, our third musketeer, Leslie phoned me at work to tell me, I didn’t understand at first, and then I did. My colleagues thought I was having an epileptic fit. The water they brought me flew out of the glass and down my front, rather than down my throat. I have never felt like that before or since, not even when my mother went. It wasn’t worse with Anthony, no, but it was so unexpected. And he was such a character. And so, so dearly missed. My pink sequined lager lout on adrenalin.

Here comes the sun....   Image by James Taylor at eltpics
A month after Anthony went, it was Enrique’s turn. They couldn’t have been more dissimilar, yet they were alike in various ways. At first sight, Enrique was the antithesis of Anthony and his effusion. Enrique spoke quietly, if at all, and was not an immediate lover of people. Before answering a question, he’d lower his head, consider whether you were worth his words, then raise an eyebrow and squint at you from under it. Not everyone got the words. He was small, and somehow grey, blue and white, sharp-edged sodalite to Anthony’s marshmallow. He loved photography, framing and family, and was discreet at all times. He took time to warm to you and kept his circle close – though ultimately not small. He was slow but sharp, thorough, efficient, respected by everyone who worked with him, and, as a great connoisseur of local eateries and drinkeries way beyond the level of ‘which bar sells the best two-pint mugs of beer’, was a great person to include in your social life. Along with three other friends – Silvia, Cristóbal and Ricardo – he was the perfect ‘conversation and dinner’ companion. Although it took a while to be allowed into his confidence, once there, he proved to be – like Anthony – a perpetual supply of unexpected generosity. Not unexpected because it was him, but because most people wouldn’t do the things he did. Small but important things. I remember I was due to give one of my first conference sessions, and was going to risk using pre-prepared transparencies – I’d only ever used an OHP and hand-written transparencies before. This was around 2001, so I’m not THAT much of a Luddite. For some reason Enrique found out – maybe we’d been talking about it at breakfast in the factory canteen where the five of us often had our coffee – and he colour-photocopied all my slides onto transparencies for me, giving advice on colour, layout, font-size and so on. That sounds like nothing nowadays, but then, and in the Canaries, it was huge. As cutting edge as a high-tech machete. He helped me with photography, he got hold of a stack of boxes when I moved, he even helped me choose my car. There was something about Enrique – like Anthony – that when you knew him, you loved him, you were genuinely happy that he had such a happy family life and marriage, because it was what you wanted for a friend like that.

At the end of August 2004, while fishing with his son-in-law, Enrique was swallowed by the Atlantic. The waves smacked into his son-in-law first and carried him away and Enrique tried to save him. Neither of them survived. The grandchild that he'd just met at the time will have recently turned twelve. Enrique was in his forties, and it was no way to go. Too early and no way to go. But death is what it is. No cowls or faceless skulls. Either your sell-by date comes into effect or somehow you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. There’s no romance, no poetry. If you get some kind of warning, you start to clear up, you write a will, make sure your debts are paid (if you’re that kind of person), you ensure that everyone you love will have what they need (and a bit more), you may even prepare a ‘nice surprise’ for them for afterwards. But no, Mr Hardy, you don’t go around writing ‘oh woe is me’ poetry or trying to leave your mark. Your Blackstar isn’t just a legacy for your fans, a donation to Art and History, a symbol of your perpetual capacity for creation and creativity, your V-sign to death – it’s a financial plan for your loved ones, insurance, inheritance, the mortgage paid, the school fees. It’s about them, not about you.

Death comes when it comes, when randomness or past excesses demand. It isn’t romantic or poetic or even vaguely melancholic, Thomas Hardy was wrong. It isn’t the end either – it lasts, oh, at least twelve years. It comes when you’re at work, during your siesta, when you’re washing your face in the morning, when you’re enjoying the last days of your summer holiday fishing with family. It comes when it’s 35ºC outside, when the sun is shining, while the ice cream melts. It comes when you’re making curry. And sometimes, just sometimes, it comes – and it pisses off again. 

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