The Last Goodbye

Usually, when I sit down to write, the words come flying out. They are busy, and jostling, impatient to get to their destination. It’s rare that I am lost for words.

Now, I am a little lost.

But I have to write this down because it needs words. I want the words to remember it, for a starter. I want to look back when I am old and cry and smile. I want words as tribute, because all good human beings must have their tribute. I want words for connection: the words that touch other hearts and let us all know that we are not alone.

These words are not coming easily. They know they have a big job to do and they are uncertain. 

So I ask myself, as I always do when my fingers are faltering over the keyboard, ‘What do you really want to say?’ And I know the answer. I want to say that the beginning and the end of it is love; that love is all that matters; and that I find myself uncertain what to do when I find that love, sometimes, is not enough.

What do I really want to say? What happened? What is this story? It is that a good man died and love, in the end, couldn’t save him. 

He had so much of it. He had so much love because he gave so much love. He opened his big heart, his wide smile, to everyone. He was ridiculously generous – of spirit, mostly, but of material things too. And with time: he would always take the time. 

He’d never let his friends drift out of touch, no matter how busy we all were, how separated by geography. He’d make it a point to ring up, just for a chat, and he’d stay on the telephone for forty minutes, reminding us all why we loved him and why he loved us and why we all loved each other. (He and I had a mass of friends in common, and he liked to talk about the others, with gentle humour and deep fondness. He did connect us; that was one of the things he did. As one of the friends said at his memorial service, ‘He brought us together.’)

Here is my perfect story to tell you what a lovely man he was. It’s perfect because it’s such a small story. It’s not an epic: there will be no camels or string section; Orence will not come shimmering out of the desert; the Bolivian army will not man the ramparts. It’s the smallest kind of human story and it says everything about love, and about elegance.

In later years, I used to see him in Scotland. His wife had roots in Perthshire and they had a ravishing little cottage there with a beautiful garden and a view over the gentle green hills. I’d drive through Glenshee to see them and their boys and it become a cherished reunion – almost every summer and often at Christmas too, when everything would get extra Scottish and I would find myself lost in blizzards and driving from pole to pole as the Braemar road disappeared before my eyes.

It was a magnificent drive but not an alarming drive. Except for the very last bit. The track that led to their house was a bit gnarly, and sometimes confusing. (I had once taken a wrong turn and found myself embarrassingly stuck in a boggy field.) It had a moment when it ran along a drop, with a bit of a camber, and this did not play well with my fear of heights.

And one day, without making a fuss, my friend suggested that I park the car down in the little hamlet at the foot of the track and he would come and collect me.

I had tried not to make a fuss about how much I hated driving that last couple of miles, but he had seen it and he fixed it, without in any way humiliating me or mocking me. 

So then it became our joyful tradition. I’d ring him when I was ten minutes out and he’d get in his motor and appear, just as I was parking up in my special place. (We found a very special place, obviously.) He would get out of the car and we would hug each other with so much love and laughter and then there would be a hello to the dogs and a short discussion about where they would go (‘They can chase the car,’ I’d always say, thinking that they would love the run and sleep well afterwards) and finally the gentlemanly hefting of the bags from one boot to another. 

Then I would hop into the passenger seat and start talking at a hundred miles an hour because it was always too long since I’d seen him and there was always so much to say. 

Oh, I loved those drives. I loved having our own ten minutes together at the start of every visit. I loved that he made me feel safe, and that he knew I had been frightened and he didn’t think any less of me for that. I loved that he had noticed and offered his help, without having to be asked. I loved that he made this funny tradition of ours seem like something he enjoyed, almost as if I was doing him a favour rather than the other way round.

That was him, and that was the essence of the man, and that’s why I call him a good man, because that, to me, is the finest mark of goodness.

Not long after he died, when we were still in the shock of it all, I had to go to somewhere else in Perthshire. I have absolutely no memory of where it was. (The shock was so strong that it was like a forcefield, and anything from that time that I did not write down is completely lost to my memory. The grief wiped it all out, I think.)

Anyway, I was going to this unremembered place, and this is the part I do recall – I suddenly realised that I would be going smash past the turning to my old friend’s house. I’d hit the bridge and the post office, the moment when I’d ring him up and say, ‘Ten minutes out’ and know he would open the deer gates and get in his car and come for me.

My mind was so addled then that I hadn’t factored this in and I spent the winding miles through the great Glenshee trying to prepare my mind. But nothing could prepare me for that, and I rounded the corner and dropped down the dip in the road and saw those familiar landmarks, which once made my heart beat faster and caused an involuntary smile come to my face, and I broke into those noisy, messy sobs of childhood, the ones that come right up from your gut and hurt your body on their way out of you. They are the tears that you cry when you really, really want someone back and you know that they will never be there again.

That was all a long time ago. I can drive that drive now, and keep my composure, just about. I’ve been back to that house, and hugged his wife and his sons and talked about him and laughed about him and cried about him. I’ve driven the track on my own, because my kind guide wasn’t there any more.

In those early weeks, the old friends all rang each other up, over and over, and saw each other through. He brought us together in death as he had in life.

The grief softened, as even the worst griefs do. It lost its jagged edges, those serrated curves that feel as if they might tear you apart. I thought that the coronavirus would be a blessing in this instance, because the memorial would have to be put off and we would all have more time to recover ourselves.

The grief did what grief does: it found its place. It doesn’t go away, but it stops smashing at you half the day. I put my friend in the sky, which would have made him laugh because he was not a ‘Hello, sky’ kind of person at all, but I rode for him every day after he died, up into the hills, and I kept lifting my head up to say goodbye and seeing the Scottish sky and so it was there that I put him. (My mum got the evening star; Dad has a Japanese cherry in my garden; my stepfather is in a granite steading by my back door, and my little bay mare lives in a huge and ancient horse chestnut. There they all are, close by me, so I can say goodnight to them and good morning and sometimes just, ‘Oh, there you are’.) 

I thought I’d dealt with it pretty well. It’s one of the great lessons of life, learning what to do with loss. Learning what to do with broken hearts. (You have to glue them back together, with binder twine and love and hope and three wheels, because even if you’ve only got three wheels on your wagon, you can keep rolling along.)

And then it was time to go south, at last, for the last goodbye, and for the week before I left I kept crying. I hadn’t, it seemed, dealt with it nearly as well as I had hoped. The pain rose up like a sea after a heavy storm. The old disbelief was back. He can’t really be gone. Not he. He was so full of life. He was the one who lit up a room. He was the one who was loved by more people than you could count. 

I left five hours before dawn, driving the silent, black roads like I used to when I was young. It was one-thirty in the morning and it felt like I was the only person awake. By noon I was deep in the folding beauty that is Shropshire. (One day, I think, I shall stop in Shropshire, and feel its beauty as a solid, known thing, not just a passing through thing.) And then, at last, it was time for the familiar landmarks and the known places of the south – that was where my mum lived for ten years, and that was where my friend Sophie and I used to turn off to her parents’ house when we were at Oxford, and that was where I used to take a shortcut to go back to Lambourn, to go up on the downs and watch the horses and to visit my father’s grave.

There at last were the cousins and the welcome and the love: the fruit trees which I remember from saplings and the old dog I remember as a puppy and the old mares whom I watched when they were mere fillies. We made supper, comfort food, and we talked about it and did not talk about it, delicately aware of how finely balanced we all were, of how there were wounds that must not be touched.

The next day we saw the wife and the sons – and there is a part of me that wants to give you their names and their pack drill, to paint you a picture of their staunchness and uprightness and sheer, blazing courage – but that is not my story to tell. I write about everything, and ever since this happened I had to give it words, but I had to step around their privacy, their dignity, their emotions. That is not mine to tell. The point is that we were reunited and I felt a passionate gratitude that I had come. (There was a moment when I thought I would not be able to. But one of the dearest of the old friends intervened, and I’ll be grateful to her for that always.)

And then there was the next day, and off we all went, to the chapel with its soaring ceilings and its lists of the dead. (I kept staring at Herbert Leaf, Physicist, and even though I gazed at his name through half of the service I can’t remember his dates. Late nineteenth century, I think. I think he was a great Victorian, Mr Leaf.) 

There were the stretched, stoic faces, everyone very pale. The stiff upper lip only lasted so long. Mine went with the opening bars of Fauré. I had brought extra tissues, and I distributed them to young cousins to left and right. Opposite me, I saw men who really are quite old-school, who did not get the modern memo about doing emotion, openly crying. 

Of course we were crying, because he should have been with us for another thirty years. We were crying because his boys stood up in front of three hundred people and looked down the nave as if they were looking down a gun barrel and said, with steady conviction, how much they loved their father. We were crying because their mum watched them, sitting very still in her pew, keeping an astonishing composure. We cried because his greatest friends stood up and read poetry and spoke words of remembrance. We cried because there is a stupid fucking disease which nobody knows enough about, which steals good men, and women too, which makes the pain in the head so unbearable that they will do anything to stop it.

I’ve known suicide all my life. My cousin did it, with a hose and a car exhaust, when I was in my early twenties. I work with veterans who have tried it or thought about it, one way or another. It’s not a taboo word, in my house; it’s not one of those subjects that cannot speak its name. I even understand its horrible logic. I never felt angry with my friend, not for a single moment, although I know that is a common reaction after a suicide. I understood that this gentlest of men would never have caused pain unless his own was so bad that he had no choice. That was the disease part. That is what depression can do. I knew that he had to make it stop, and I had to learn to accept that. That’s why I put him in the sky, because he’s free up there, and at peace, and the pain can’t get him.

So, I’m not afraid of it: I can look it in the eye. I can talk about it and comprehend it. But it does add an extra layer to the grief. There is always the If Only. It’s not the thought that we could have saved him, any of us, because we all know it’s much more complicated than that. It’s just a kind of wistful melange of there might have been this, or he could have found that, or something or the other. There might have been something.

But there wasn’t, and that’s why I looked round at those sad, stretched faces, many of whom I’d known since I was a teenager, one or two from a child, and felt the devastating blow that comes when you know love is not enough.

It should be enough and it can be enough and I hope that it mostly might be enough, but there are cases when it fails. There was so much love in that high, vaulted space. And it was good love too. Not cheap, fly-by-night love; not gimcrack here-today-gone-tomorrow love; not love that values the flashy and the meretricious. It was proper, founded, drive-you-up-the-scary-track love. It was love that meant something, which had nothing to do with beauty or riches or status. It was old friend love. It was you made me laugh so much I cried love. It was the love that just wants a person to be their absolute self. 

And the people who had it were good people. Some of them were exceptionally clever. Some were hugely enterprising. Some understood the abstruse and some built businesses and some almost certainly did things under cover. But none of them could change what happened, even with all their skills. 

That’s why it was so very sad. All that love, all those people who would have done anything, and it still wasn’t enough.

But here is the thing that love does: it does not die. No, not for a single second. The love I have for my dear, dear friend grows and spreads in me. I feel it now, in my chest, rising up to my shoulders, filling my ribcage. Death does not take that. The memories and the gratitude and the hundred comical little things – those don’t die. I see him in his boys, as alive as any living thing. I hear him in all of our stories, the ones we won’t forget. He is in the hills and the stones and on the road through the glen. He’ll be with me today, when I watch the Arc, because he adored a great thoroughbred. He will always be at the post office, when I cross that Perthshire bridge. He will go on driving me up the stony track, for always and forever. 

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