It had begun five nights earlier. Jean: therefore someone had died. “I just thought you should know,” she said. Written down. the words are innocent enough, but how much more was conveyed in that phrase, “I just thought you should know.” Her tone, perfunctory and indifferent, the pause she left for my reponse, the utter clarity that she was performing an unpleasant and slightly unsavoury duty, completing a list of minor tasks at the end of a list.
“How did he die? “ I asked.
“In hospital. He has been ill for some years now.” She knew I knew that very well. She was accusing me. “Liver failure.”
“And the funeral?” I asked, matching her bureaucratic stacatto.
“ Wednesday morning in his church. You aren’t expected to come. I just thought you should know he has passed away. The funeral will be a quiet affair, attended by the few who cared for him and showed concern during his final years.”
The vicious bitch.
“I’ll be there,” I said. I got the details and hung up.
I stayed in a guest house edging the park where Johnny and I used to go most times we met. After dinner I watched a bit of television. I was scoured inside with resentment and tangles of angry memories, and couldn’t concentrate. A cold sense of injustice blew through me. I lay in bed, exhausted and unable to sleep except in torn and gusty intervals. I got up early, weary and seething.
The morning was covered by a scudding canopy of bruised clouds sliding over a flat sky. Breakfast broke even my surface calm and I complained bitterly about the warm sour milk they’d left out. I paid my bill without a word then walked over to the park.
Grey drizzle drove me to the shelter of the café. I ordered a cup of tea. Sitting there, particular memories took shape and emerged from the cold fire inside me.
Most times I’d seen Johnny, a couple of times a month, we’d come to the park. Three cups of tea, five or six cigarettes, usually a bacon roll for him. Unsatisfying, largely silent, myself longing for the two hours to be over, he flat and depressed. Occasional walks, Johnny seeing nothing then ending them with a need to sit down and smoke or go home.
But in my scheme of things I saw the long road ahead, expected setbacks, and determined that our outings would lead, step by step, to helping him get better. Very rarely he would laugh as I recalled our childhood adventures : I considered such flashes of pleasure as beams of light piercing his darkness.
Four years ago, Joan and her wretched crew got hold of him. They began visiting the nursing home with homemade scones and thin religious pamphlets. Their christian love had long entailed their seeing me as wicked and degenerate, and I had been banished most of my adult life to a desert place they had created. Though I was damned, Johnny was to be saved and returned to the light, and this salvation entailed my being cast into oblivion. I was no longer to visit him, no longer permitted to infect him with my demonic stain.
I argued fiercely like only a man on a mission can argue. But they oozed their unctuous ways into the psychiatrist’s and thence the nursing home’s absurdly named care plan. I was barred from seeing him again. Three years ago I left the city and came north.
My friend Bob Bracewell’s wife is a Community Psychiatric Nurse. She had no official contact with Johnny but heard things through the grapevine. He had gone downhill fast, had started drinking heavily again, was found repeatedly passed out in the park. When his care plan was modified to prevent his leaving the nursing home he paid the cleaner or one of the care assistants to bring him a litre of vodka every couple of days.
His circle of christian relations delivered him up to the professional care of the nursing home. They prayed for him intensely, however, and such is the power of prayer that distance is no barrier. When he was in a coma during the last couple of weeks of his life, they sat around his bed and gave thanks to the lord who was taking him home.
I walked through the park then along the dull concrete pavements of memory junk. The church was cold and shadowed at the bend on Pear Tree Road. Inside the stone porch, colder and more shadowy, a group of my relatives grimly noted me. The coffin was in front of the altar where it had been all night. We walked into the gloomy darkness, a bunch of ten or so taking a pew at the front, a few staff and residents from the nursing home ten rows behind, and I sat at the back. Lugubrious organ music from a loudspeaker crawled through the dirty light, shrouding the small congregation.
Only now, looking at the box that contained Johnny, did I think of his life. Only dead did some glimmer of his having been a living person whisper to me. A faint echo of sorrow for the dead man, for friendship and the decaying of love may have lightly touched me.
The organ music stopped. There were a few coughs. Someone passing outside laughed. From a side door at the altar a man entered and those at the front stood. I remained sitting, a spectator.
He was dressed in ordinary clothes. They call him a minister or a pastor. He was a small balding man totally aware of his power. His nasal voice seemed a perfect match for the dying smell of damp hymn books and cold stone. I hardly listened, longing for it to be over. I was more aware of his rat-like head darting around the near empty church as if it were full of eyes. He would fix his own eyes on those invisible faces but never once fixed on mine.
After a wartery warbling of some hymn or other, he mumbled through some formulaic eulogy to Johnny then read with passion from his block of bible:
And he said “It is done! I am the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
To anyone who is thirsty I will give the right to drink from the spring of water
of life without paying for it. Whoever wins this victory will receive from me: I will
be his God and he will be my son.
There was a pause, and I thought the thing was almost done. But then the ratman moved forward into the aisle to complete the reading. He fixed me with a piercing glower:
But cowards, traitors, perverts, murderers, the immoral, those who practise magic, those who worship idols, and all liars – the place for them is the lake burning with fire and sulphur, which
is the second death.*
As I walked the short distance to the door I felt ten pairs of eyes burning hatred into my back.
I walked into wind and rain with release. It was over, all of it. I walked along the high ridge of Nelson Road towards town. To my right the streets descended towards Kings Avenue where Johnny and I spent a few years touring the Black clubs and the warrens of bedsits and flats that housed the children of various revolutions.
Ahead of me was the looming bulk of the cathedral, to me nothing but a heap of sandstone that enclosed a worthless emptiness. Rain slanted in from the river to my left. I threw a sodden book I had in my pocket into the bin outside the police station, sheltered there a while in the overhang at the Mount Carmel side. Down past the glistening pavement I knew was Bradford Street. Grandfather Beale raised eleven children there and then the children they had. Johnny was one of them.
Grandad had come down from Dumfries in 1912 looking for work. He found it in the shipyards across the river, smashed his leg while rivetting, then cycled the eleven miles to his job as a storeman each day with one leg rigid and sticking out. He dropped dead buying seeds in Woolworths. The children and grandchildren dissolved into council estates around the city. The river keeps running to the sea. Johnny is dead and I have gone back to Scotland.
To my left and right as I neared the cathedral, tributaries of streets broken and derelict where my girlfriends lived. Johnny never had a girlfriend. Whatever I am now is built on ruins. My foundations are crumbling. Even what is newly decorated in me is like a watercolour picture left out in the rain, the colours of the days leaking into each other on soaked paper. There would be a train in an hour. Seeking shelter, for the first time in my life I entered the cathedral.
I didn’t stay long. I remember it as a hollow, a great empty hollow, echoing with voices, and the shuffling of feet. Tourists and guys in cassocks walking like pairs of scissors, like stockbrokers. A shop, a café, an art exhibition. Leaflets, brochures, books, information boards. A man came up to me and said he was a guide and did I have any questions. I asked him where the nearest exit was.
I sat drinking coffee in the station under its cavernous glass roof. I was tired, my feelings had burned out. Mildly bored, I watched the rushing streams of people flowing into or against each other. I bought another book to read on the train from a W.H.Smith, browsed a few dull tourist leaflets and brochures, checked the departure board and got on the train.
As it slid through the green slimed walls of the tunnel, I thought with no enthusiasm of what awaited me at my destination. The train emerged from the tunnel into grey twilight and as it gathered speed I realised that there was nothing at the terminus. Nothing at all.
* Revelations 21, 5 – 8