Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

1630020_000I’m writing this for my friend Ken, who died last week. I’d lost touch with him in recent years, then heard he’d fallen ill with vascular dementia. I rang him up last Christmas, but he didn’t know me. He spent a while in a care home in the earlier part of this year, then passed away alone, in a hospital far from home.
Ken was a writer, the first, the only real live writer I have ever known personally. Like me though, he never made his living by it. We worked as engineers and that’s how we met. We began as strangers, peeing into neighbouring urinals. By way of breaking the ice he turned to me and said:
“What I want to know is who’s Armitage, and what’s Shanking?”
I laughed. Oh, how I laughed. Indeed, I laughed my way throughout the 80’s with Ken. And we walked. I didn’t think you could devise a twenty-mile hike in the West Pennines, but Ken managed it. And as he walked, he imparted jewels of quirky wisdom. He came to my wedding, was godfather to my firstborn. Then, he got potted in the great downsizing that began in the nineties. I was devastated for him, but he described it as the best thing that ever happened. It released him from servitude at the age of forty-nine. It got him a pittance of a pension, but enough for him to realize his dream of writing full time, and freedom. You manage he said. I should have starved to death decades ago, but you don’t. You manage.
His cars were always interesting, a variety of makes, though all of them decrepit. The most impressive was a Vauxhall Viva whose gear-box was held in place by rope. The rope gradually stretched, lowering the box to the ground, from which it raised sparks. He generally had warning of this as the gear stick became shorter, and he knew to tighten the rope when he got home.
He could have bought a better car but had this theory about the universe. It only ever gave you so many problems in life to solve. So he preferred to have them contained in one place, in his car. If he’d ever solved all those problems, say by buying a better car, goodness knows where they’d show up next. A bad leg? A bad heart? And fair enough, who’d want to risk that?
He and his good lady read my early stories, were enthusiastic about them, told me to keep going. But he also warned me there was a dark secret to writing that few authors cared to admit. It was that, actually, there was no money in it, even if you got published. Also, you should beware the vanity of authorship. If you wanted to write, you had no choice in the matter, because it was in your blood. That’s all. Some of us were just made that way. Writing shaped our lives, our thoughts, our interests. That was the mark of writing, and its true reward, even if no one else read a single word of it.
It was advice I was a while warming to, because I wanted more than anything to be a successful novelist. I wanted to wear the tweed jacket, and sign books for an adoring fan-ship, in a proper book-scented bookshop. He had that pleasure once, and I was pleased for him, excited for him, but it didn’t bring him fame and fortune. He never courted it, because he didn’t want it.
On hill-walking he held the view that no matter how arduous the climb, the respectful walker never claimed the summit cairn, but veered away from it, as if within reach of the last few feet, you settled back and said: enough. It was the difference between respecting the hill and conquering it. The wise man never sought to conquer it, because that just fed the ego. And if you struggled with that concept, your ego was already too big.
Although a devout Catholic, there was also something of the pagan about him. He saw God moving in mysterious ways. It was his last wish he be seen out by the full-monty of a Requiem Mass. I’m not a Catholic, but have attended a few of those, and for sure that’s a Roll’s Royce of a way to be signed off for the next life. He was denied it though – covid and all that. There were just three people at his funeral. It was a done deal before I caught up with news of his departure, and which is partly why I’m writing this now. I’m sure the universe will forgive the humbleness of his bon-voyage, because he paid it plenty of respects while he was living. I only hope the universe will also forgive my neglect of our friendship in his final years.
The value of a person’s life may not be apparent to that person themselves. Indeed, it would be narcissistic to value oneself. Rather, it’s in the hearts of those who knew them, were guided and influenced by them, either directly or indirectly. Ken, if you’re listening, my friend, you made a big difference to my life. There was always a twinkle in your eye, a sense of irreverent mischief never far from the surface, and always a good yarn. But more than that, you were a steadying hand, a listening ear, and your quirky philosophies were always reassuring that I wasn’t actually as odd as I sometimes felt myself to be, if only because you were much odder, though in a way to be treasured.
I was always better, lighter, happier for an hour in your company. Then, I’d return home with the boot of my car full of rubbish you’d been clearing out. It was ancient books mostly, but once I recall a broken old valve radio no one in their right minds would give house-room. After electrocuting myself on it several times, I somehow managed to restore it. If I still had that old thing now, I’d be tuning in to the static around the names of stations that no longer exist. And there I’d be half expecting to hear your voice coming out of the aether, saying to me:
“What I want to know is, who’s Armitage and what’s Shanking?”
God bless you Ken, you were a legend, and though there weren’t many around to see you off, there were many, many more whose lives were all the brighter for knowing you.

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man strolling in a wooded landscape - detail - A A Mills

I lost my friend. He did not die,
He just forgot my name
And now I’m sorry
I let slide so many days.

And then I telephoned, you see?
Brim full of news and guilt,
And thinking to snatch back
Full tilt, those sacks of missing time,
Only then to find old age’s stealth
And the mind’s fragility,
Had of a sudden robbed him
Of both himself, and me.

And falling thus into the void
Was all we’d said and done,
And all we’d seen,
And all the places that we’d been,
And the laughter,… oh the jolliness,
It was gone,
And I was just this stranger,
Cold-calling, on the telephone.


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