And then there was one: a letter to a friend
‘There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.’
T.S. Eliot, East Coker, Four Quartets
And then there was one.
Ever since I heard you had left us last week, I keep coming back to that photo. We two — and Lawrence — sitting on a park bench in Toledo, just before the big storm came. Each of us nonchalant, a hint of a scowl or two, but almost indifferent to the camera.
Only you head on to the lens, perhaps because the fourth in our party, the love of your life, was behind it. ‘Why are you taking this?’ you appear to be asking, shoulders slumped resignedly. I’m glad she did.
Long ago I cut the photo to fit into the glass of an old wooden frame where it has sat, ragged edged, these past three decades. I have lost count of the number of shelves and mantles that frame has graced.
Quite a journey it has been on too. Four house moves — and a few sojourns along the way. But always that scene, that face — your gaze — has been there, staring out at me, and anyone else who stopped awhile to peer into the past.
I took the photo out of its frame when I heard you were ill. I wanted to make a copy. It was only then that I realised how faded it had become. Old memories do that don’t they? And yet they remain a part of us too. We take people with us. And I took you.
Lawrence died first, of course, in 1995. But you knew that — you came to the funeral. I don’t remember every encounter that day. But I remember you and Pauline calling round as we waited for the hearse to arrive. Your concerned embrace in the narrow hallway of our Victorian house, his coffin in the dining room just the other side of the wall.
And then there was one.
Ever since I heard you were away, I keep coming back to another, earlier, scene. A different trio. We two and our dear departed friend, Gina. No photo, just moving images in my mind’s eye.
A living room sized club on a side street in Lancaster one winter’s night in 1981. We had gone in search of a midweek thrill. And we found that place. Adam Ant’s newly released Prince Charming on the turntable and us three in high jinks. Was anyone else even there at all?
Such an improbable quest. Thrills were a scarce enough thing on a Saturday night back then. But as Neil’s song goes:
‘We were never being boring. We had too much time to find for ourselves.’
And then the moment which I have carried with me ever since. As we sat outside awhile — I’m not sure why — you leaned over and told me you loved me. It was an answer to a question I would never have dared ask. Perhaps you thought I needed to know.
I knew it wasn’t romantic love. And even though an unspoken part of me wished that it was, I had already been around the block enough to know falling for straight boys was a fool’s errand. But your words offered reassurance of something more precious still. Steadfast friendship. And so it proved to be.
Brave talk it was back then too — for straight boys to tell gay boys they loved them. David Annwn’s poem, Afterword, comes to mind:
‘Our crossed lives crossed and once,
Unguardedly, we came away.’
Bravo for that — and for you. Back to the song:
‘We were never holding back or worried that time would come to an end.’
But now it has. And in no time at all.
AIDS took Lawrence far too soon. And so many more back then, before their time.
And then this — in the shotgun alley of our sixth decade — fucking cancer lurking around every corner. If we are supposed to be living longer, why are you and Gina, and all the others, gone already? Why?
All the things we didn’t say or do. All the years in between those days and now — our friendship suspended in time as we got on with the business of living our lives the way folk do.
Yet what a life you lived. ‘What a lovely family,’ Allan said as we sat downcast in the car after we visited you this summer. Lovely indeed. What an achievement. And then a tear or two fought back as he turned the ignition and we headed for home.
I would see you just one more time. But I loved you too. I hope you know.