In which The Author attends a funeral or three
This week, my brother will be going to three funerals in two days.
I will only be able to attend one of them – but it still means that between us, we’ve lost five people in as many weeks. Death stalks the streets of Aberdare and it seems that nobody is safe from his malignant glare. There was even a false alarm when a rumour started that Huw the tramp had been found dead – but reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. I’m glad to hear it. Not everyone was. They’re cold-hearted bastards.
First, the father of some schoolmates – an old friend of my father’s, and latterly a friend of mine – passed away just before Xmas. No sooner had I learned the arrangements for his funeral, than my mother told me that an old acquaintance from various pubs around town had been buried the day before.
Peter died after what used to be called ‘a short illness’ on 16 January, just two months after he first visited his GP to complain about a pain in his leg. By this time, cancer had spread through his body to such an extent that only palliative care was available. Nine weeks from check-up to check-out – yes, that’s a fucking short illness all right!
Last week, another old friend named Dean collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was younger than me, and had a young child. It’s his funeral on Tuesday.
The other funeral that day is that of Billy’s father, who passed away while Billy was on holiday in Poland. I never met ‘Tâd Bill’, as the boys called him, although Billy often told me that I should have called around to his house. He was a railway fanatic, and had a huge collection of memorabilia. I would have loved to have seen it, and chatted to him about the heyday of the GWR. Now I never will.
Trying to get hold of Paul E., one of the old gang, to let him know about Tâd Bill’s funeral has been a challenge, to say the least. He was last seen in Cardiff several months ago. Since then, given his track record, he’s probably been ‘asked to leave’ his rented accommodation at least once. His last-known mobile number is dead. He could be dead as well, for all we know.
Paul is one of the most intelligent and inventive people I’ve ever met. He’s also one of the most unreliable fuck-ups who’ve ever walked the earth. If Delboy had been born in Wales, rather than in Peckham, he would have looked like Paul. Tall, athletic, handsome, with a resounding voice and a confidence which sometimes bordered on the arrogant, Paul has been a good friend for nearly twenty years. Unfortunately, as in Peter’s case, his liking for alcohol has conspired to fuck his life up. We’ve got pissed together on more occasions than either of us can remember, but somehow I managed to hold things together, while he let them slide.
We’d only known each other for a short time when he managed to lose his job in Sony in Bridgend; an all-dayer in the Carpenters resulted in his deciding not to turn up to work. Up to this stage, everything had seemed to be going well for him. He had a very attractive girlfriend, his own place, a well-paid job; he had an idea to get a band together with some mates – it was all happening for him.
Ten years later everything had changed. He was sofa-surfing through a succession of friends’ places, pausing only long enough for them to get fed up with him before moving on, leaving chaos in his wake. I’ve always said that we should put his name forward for Big Brother – it’s the only house he hasn’t been evicted from yet.
He moved from Aberdare to share a house with an equally fucked-up girl in Swansea, then to a caravan in Carmarthen, then to the Philippines for a while. His father was working out there, and Paul went there to look for work. When he was there he hooked up with a saloon girl, and they got engaged. He used to send money out to her every so often. I spoke to her on the phone once. She wasn’t a figment of his imagination. They’re still engaged, as far as anyone knows.
When he returned to Aberdare, he drove taxis for a while, sober for once, but usually fairly stoned instead. A couple of years ago he got a job shifting gear for bands. He was making a good living and doing something he enjoyed. He roadied for the Who and Roger Waters, amongst others. I saw him last on my birthday in 2007. We had a drink together in Kitty Flynn’s, in the lunchtime. My brother saw him back last summer; he’d moved to Grangetown, and was working on a building site. I emailed Liz, a mutual friend of ours, tonight. I hope she’s got his number so I can let him know about Tuesday. I don’t hold out much hope. He could be anywhere by now.
Peter lived the same lifestyle for years. He was a qualified painter and decorator, a very well-educated man, but his fondness for the booze caused him to wander from job to job, place to place, partner to partner, without any long-term stability. Mother and I cleared his bedsit today. We brought out two bags of clothes – mostly shirts bought from charity shops – and shoes, a handful of books, some shaving stuff and toiletries, umpteen packets of cigarette papers, a tiny pocket radio, a heap of loose change, and a stack of letters from the Department of Work and Pensions. It wasn’t much to show for fifty-nine years on the planet.
Peter wasn’t even sure if he and his wife were still married. He’d left that part of his life behind. He has a daughter somewhere, apparently. We don’t know anything about her – if she’ll be coming to his funeral on Wednesday, or whether she even knows that her father’s passed away.
I’m sitting at home typing this at just after midnight. In less than seven hours I have to get up for work. Not a hobble on a building site somewhere, sneaking out of the house before daylight in case one of the neighbours spots me and grasses me up to the DWP.
I’m talking about actual paid work, with tax and National Insurance, and a monthly train ticket of £90+ to buy in the morning. It pays my mortgage and my council tax and my utility bills and my food and my clothes, and leaves me a bit over to buy DVDs and books.
I could so easily have gone down the route that Peter and Paul decided to follow. Instead, I bought my own place, and I stick in a job that I don’t entirely hate so that I can hang onto it. I can go to bed in a few minutes’ time, knowing that the bed is mine, the house is mine (in a sense), this computer is mine and isn’t used by a bunch of strangers in a library or a cybercafe somewhere, the food in my fridge and the razor in the bathroom are mine.
I can have my meals when I like and take a bath when I like. I don’t have to make polite conversation with the bunch of fuck-ups I’ve ended up sharing a house with, or watching crap on the TV or listening to other people’s music until stupid o’clock. My thousand-plus books and my four hundred-plus records and my CDs and my DVDs are safe behind a locked door with only one set of keys. It’s going to take a lot more than two trips in a Ford Ka to clear out my stuff when I finally check out of this life.
Paul’s off the grid. If Liz hasn’t got his number, we won’t be able to get hold of him at all before Tuesday. He’ll miss Tâd Bill’s funeral. I couldn’t live like that. I like to be connected. I use my phone and my mobile and Facebook to keep in touch with people. I’ve had the same phone for five years, and the same number for longer than that. I don’t see the point of continually changing. You only spend a shitload of credit sending everyone your new number.
I love this world and my life upon it (as the song says) and I can’t imagine the sofa-surfing lifestyle any more. Twenty years it seemed so appealing. Now I just want a girlfriend to stay over once in a while, and enough time and money to finish the jobs that need doing.
If that means (as my friend Mike B. would have it) that I’ve become bourgeois, then so be it. I’d prefer to know that my friends will turn up for my funeral, rather than finding out by Chinese Whispers weeks or months later.