April 13th, 2004


Saying goodbye

My parents told me at the weekend that my uncle Bryan had died. They didn't seem to be mourning him very much.

He was an alcoholic. For decades he'd been telling people that he had a terminal illness. He said he was going to die. "We all are," I'd say, taking his 'terminal illness' with a pinch of salt. The same sort of pinch of salt with which I learned to season his stories of being asked to join the Beatles, of living next door to John Betjeman, of getting shot at by the CIA.

I last saw him seven years ago, at my grandma's funeral. His mother-in-law's funeral. Bryan patted his beer belly and told me proudly that the bulge was his liver, all swollen up like a balloon. I tried to change the subject, but there are only awkward conversations at funerals: conversations where death is vividly and embarrassingly present, or conversations where death is vastly and overpoweringly absent.

My aunt Denny -- my dad's younger sister -- finally divorced Bryan after years of him refusing to work, living off her earnings, having affairs, and slowly dragging them both into drink, depression and eventually attempted suicide. (She survived, moved away, joined AA, got a good job, and is now teetotal, happily remarried to a fellow AA success story.)

As a child I loved visits from Denny and Bryan (always the two names, always in that order, indivisible). Both of them were full of life and laughter; they played games with my sister and me, they told jokes -- even rude jokes, which shocked and delighted me. They used to come and stay for New Year, and we'd all play noisy card games, and my sister and I would beg to be allowed to stay up to see the New Year in, but we weren't old enough, so instead we got to say "Good night, see you next year," which never failed to amuse us.

Bryan used to play Scrabble with me when I was small; he always won, and it was only years later that I found out he used to invent words in order to win. I didn't mind, when I found out; it seemed better than the patronising way some adults always let children win, as if always winning was a good thing to get used to.

You don't always win.

I don't know if anybody was there when Bryan died. Denny didn't find out until a week later. It turns out he left all his worldly goods to the French woman with whom he'd had an affair. All his records, his guitars. He used to talk to me about music. He gave me his complete set of Beatles LPs; also Wagner's Ring cycle on vinyl, 25 LPs in a gigantic box. He told me that the Ring took 20 years to record, and you could hear the difference in the recording quality between the first discs and the last. I still haven't listened to it, so I can't say if that's true or not; I hate Wagner, but I didn't have the heart to tell him.

He was telling the truth about the terminal illness, even if it was an illness partly self-inflicted. Who knows, maybe he was telling the truth about the Beatles, about Betjeman.

I remember his beard always scratched when I went to kiss him goodbye.