I went to see you this week. On Thursday in fact. I hadn’t intended to when I woke up that morning but 12 hours later I was stood in front of our old front door in Stoke Newington. The house looked as sturdy as ever. They built them to last in the Victorian housing boom of the 1870s. And I’m pleased to say it looks as though it’s been in good hands. The curtains were drawn but that stained glass in the front door which drew us in all those years ago was glistening in the early evening darkness.
I didn’t knock because it’s nearly 22 years since we were there. But it still seemed the best place to go and see you. I could have gone to the City of London cemetery. I know that’s where we laid you to rest. There’s still a space for me there too – two for one was a bargain. But aside from the fact that it was too far to run from where I was staying in Spitalfields, I have to confess I’ve never been to the grave much. Partly because I’ve just never felt you were there and partly because I’m in Edinburgh now anyway. And so the obvious place to go and find you on Thursday was the house we shared.
I’ll be honest. I ran there on a bit of a whim. But it was a response to something that had taken hold earlier in the day. My first meeting had been with a clinician at the Tavistock. As we were parting company I asked him where he lived. ‘Oh’, he said, ‘the people’s republic of Stokey.’ And in a flash, I was there. And you were there too.
I returned to the business of the day and off to another meeting. I guess it was a thoughtful one for everyone even though they were bustling about as Londoners always do. Terror had visited their streets the day before. In the heart of Westminster too. And the city’s existential garb was being worn inside out. But of course you won’t know about all that stuff, will you? You left us six years before 9/11.
Sometime in the late afternoon, I pitched up at my final meeting of the day near St Pauls. I had half an hour to spare so I went for a stroll. You’d been at the back of my mind since the Stokey moment that morning. But then you popped to the front again as I found myself standing at the entrance of St Mary Le Bow. You remember that vegetarian café in the crypt we used to go in the late 80s? It’s still there. More permanent than pop up now it appeared.
I didn’t go down there but I did step into the church. I knelt a while and thought about you. And us. And the joyful moments we spent in the crypt and places like that all those years ago. I lit a candle for you too and wrote a message for Intercessions the day after. Then I turned on my heels to head off to my meeting and left your star shining brightly in the calm.
As fate would have it I was meeting a fellow blogger. We’d not met before and so we slipped into a conversation about how we’d started blogging and some of the stuff we’d written. I mentioned a piece I’d written about you a couple of years ago. It was actually about death and how we’re still learning to talk about it properly. But I wrote it 20 years to the day after you left us. So, of course, it was really about you. In fact, some people thought it was more than that. A piece to you. A kind of a love letter.
When I left my new found blogger friend an hour later you were right in my head again. Sitting on my shoulder. Tugging away at my thoughts. And by the time I set out on my evening run, going to see you felt like the obvious thing to do. It was just seven miles and back to our old house so that fitted nicely with my plans. I’d be able to see you, get back and showered, and I’d be ready in time to head out for dinner.
Of course, I knew I’d want to pause for a quick chat with you when I got to the house. What I wasn’t prepared for was how much I’d be reminded of you on the way. So much so that I haven’t got time to say all of it here. But some things are definitely worth a mention. I passed the Mildmay Mission hospital and I was reminded of the time we watched BBC Sports Personality of the year together there in 1993. It sounds trivial, doesn’t it? But we were having such a bloody awful time; your failing health and my fall from grace in the midst of it all. We snatched an hour or two of normality. How precious that was.
A mile or so later and I was at Hackney Town Hall in Mare Street. I’d passed the house we looked at on London Fields and wondered what might have happened if we’d bought that one instead. You’ll remember the Town Hall of course. All those Labour Party meetings you came back from exasperated. You won’t know the council got its act together in the end. It’s a shame you couldn’t have seen that. Mind you the Party’s right back where it was.
Neither will you know what happened at the Town Hall the day after you left us in 1995. And it’s just as well. Exasperation would have been the least of it. I went there to register your death. Can you believe, it took pretty much the whole day to do that? I’ll fill you in on the detail another time. But let’s just call it catastrophic system failure. I think the highlight has to have been queuing next to people registering the birth of their children for hours on end. Insensitivity doesn’t really cover it. Your local authority time and motion skills could certainly have been put to good use.
After that, I wended my way beside my old flat on Sandringham Road, the one I had when we first met. Before I knew it I was running along Shacklewell Lane where old Lew Lessen’s barber’s shop used to be. That you will remember I’m sure. Lew was unforgettable. He’s long gone now. Did you know he first opened that shop in 1932, more than 50 years before we started going there?
No wonder he had all those stories to tell. Football with you, politics with me and a bit of crossover. And of course, Gertie would come down with a jam sandwich for him in the middle of a haircut which prolonged the occasion. Somehow we never minded, did we? They were such characters, it was a privilege. A great haircut and cheap as chips to boot. He certainly knew how to use a wet razor.
By then it was dark as I sped up Rectory Road. I was almost there. Less than a mile and I’d be back at the house. I knew it was only going to be the briefest of hellos. But it would be worth it. Just before I got there I paused to take a look at Tim’s old house on the corner of Northwold Road. It was looking quite run down. What a shame after all that work he did to restore it.
And of course, I couldn’t help but recall that dreadful night when he died there. What a star you were that day. You knew you didn’t have too long yourself but you cooked a meal and kept us all right as we tried to make sense of what had happened in our midst.
I was nearly there now. Just passed the church on the corner where we said goodbye to you, and there I was at the bottom of Durlston Road, our road. As I reached the house, someone I didn’t recognise emerged from next door. Perhaps unsurprisingly our neighbours from those days seem to have moved on. We glanced at each other. My eyes full of knowing, his friendly enough but full of strangerliness. He wasn’t to know why I was there.
I loitered for just a short while. Long enough to make it worthwhile but not so long as to start curtains twitching. It’s not that it would have been hard to explain. But the moment wasn’t about anyone else. Just us. And even though it really was fleeting, it was so good to be there. All those thoughts from earlier in the day and on the run fell into place.
This is going to sound unbearably sentimental. And I know you hated that. But we made a home there. We didn’t have much time, just eight short years in the place. It was against the odds too. And yet we did. We lived a life there together. Each other’s significant other. You’d hardly believe this I’m sure but had it been now, we could have married. I know you eschewed all that tradition and I did too back then. But it’s extraordinary nonetheless. All that campaigning we did really came to something. I thought you’d like to know.
Twenty-two years is a long time. So much you don’t know. But do you remember that self-improvement course I always used to say life with you was like? Well, I think it sort of paid off in the end. I found love again too. I know you wanted me to do that. It took a while and I made a bit of a hash of it on the way. I broke some hearts and my own. But who said life or any of us was perfect? Not you.
I can’t put this letter in the post any more than I could knock on the door. But you should know you’re always here. Somewhere in the space between remembering and forgetting, your presence still lingers. Death is pretty final in its own earthly way. But it’s not the end. You made far too much of an impression for that.
Originally published at www.chriscreegan.com on March 25, 2017.