Five of us lived in the college house twenty years ago. In the intervening years, two died. The two funerals were separated by more than a decade.
Death of the Piano Man (2001)
It was seven years since college but felt just like old times except me and Ben were walking up to North Wembley tube
station to meet Emma. Ben was in hysterics walking along. He was laughing at my shoes and pin-striped suit – my only suit. Or rather, he was laughing at my dad’s old black brogues, two sizes too big for me and it felt like it and judging by Ben, looked like it too. Then there was Emma walking towards us. Dressed in black, and with a fake fur coat, I hadn’t seen her in five years yet she looked exactly the same and it felt like it was only yesterday. She said as much when we met. Yes, it was just like old times what with me and Ben walking along and Ben laughing at me. Except that I was wearing a pin-striped suit and Ben a dark grey one and we were going to a funeral. Emma said we looked almost like adults in our suits. Emma and Ben had turned thirty recently. I was to be thirty in a few months.
Emma asked me what I’d been doing and reminded me of the gypsy who told me, some years ago, that I would die on my thirtieth birthday if I hadn’t changed my way of life by then. I hadn’t really, and I was almost thirty*. We got into Ben’s brothers car and drove to the address, a short drive from the station. We small-talked until we arrived at the family house. Then everything turned a bit sombre.
I had called Ben the day before, and he’d called Emma. I had read about Dave’s death in The Financial Times on the Tuesday. It occupied a few lines at the bottom of page eighteen. There was no photo of him. David had died at the weekend, in his sleep, of a heart attack. He was thirty-four but the day he died it was his thirty-fifth birthday. Dave had been a photographer on the FT. He was a good photographer. I hadn’t see many of his photos after college but he'd spent time in Pakistan taking photos there. His two passions were photography and The Who.
The reception was in Wembley, the Muslim prayers in Harrow and the burial in Hertfordshire. It was an open casket, we took turns to pay our last respects to Dave. Women were screeching but Dave looked peaceful and serene, as if taking a nap. It was such a shock meeting his brother; I had to do a double take. He looked identical to Dave. The congregation was, like Dave, a complete contradiction: there were bikers; there were poncy ex-film and photography students (us); there was Irish family and there was Muslim family.
After the funeral Emma and I looked for a pub, to toast Dave. Eventually we found an Irish pub, full of old men (and a few women), all watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on a large screen at the back of the pub. No one was talking, everyone was watching the screen. We didn't care. We went straight to the jukebox. Billy Joel's The Piano Man was Dave's song ("the microphone smelled like a beer"), and we played twice over, almost drowning out Chris Tarrant's voice. We had a few whiskies for Dave. It seemed apt. Dave's father was Pakistani but his mother Irish. A curious mix for a curious man who had long battled the bottle and his sexuality. He'd eventually come out winning and was sorting his life out.
(Shortly after was 9/11, but just before that another young friend died too. He had converted to Islam a few years before, and we hardly heard from him. He had a wife and child who we weren't allowed to see. He had completely changed since converting. He took his family to Jordan for a holiday where they all died one night in a hotel room of carbon monoxide poisoning. It felt like the whole world changed that year.)
One of the last times I saw Dave was when I accompanied him to an Alcoholics Anonymous party. It was tense and twitchy. People were standing around; obviously there was no alcohol involved. We didn't stay long. I remember him saying to me this evening would just become an anecdote, but to him it was his life. He was right – I did tell people about it, it was such a surreal evening. Dave was a passionate, tough, burly, complex, mixed up, bisexual, alcoholic, angry man but interesting and a good friend.
Redemption Song (2014)
Had I really not seen Ben since Dave's funeral? It would seem not. Again, after a ten year gap, we almost immediately reverted to our former roles: taking the piss out of each other. I was running late; it was deepest north west London. I finally got to the Methodist church and slinked in at the back. There was incense, chanting and a woman blowing from a horn. I was one of only about five white people in the crowd. It was my first Rastafarian funeral, and four old college friends were there too: Ben (white), Maria (black), Ruby (black) and Sharon (also black).
I remember Isaac's laid back attitude, his multiple women, his spicy chicken noodle soup with dumplings. The service was conducted by a charismatic black man in flowing robes. Before long the service turned into a sermon and diatribe, the priest vehemently blaming the white man for suppressing black people, who would all rise again once they returned to Africa. Later he asked the congregation to call out prominent black people (mostly men): Haile Selassie! Marcus Garvey! Bob Marley! I started feeling very hot around the collar, and glanced around at the handful of other white people in the room. But white and black people alike found it uncomfortable and inappropriate.
After the service, we all moved to the burial ground. It was a hot, windy day, and all the men – black and white – took turns shovelling dirt into the grave whilst the Priest and congregation chanted and sang. Bob Marley's Redmption Song was the last song, and it got quiter and quiter til it was almost a whisper.
In truth I had hardly thought about Isaac in the past twenty years. I regret losing contact with many friends but this is life, it seems to move forward at a terrific speed with scant regard for sentiment and reflection until it's too late. A funeral is the place you find out more about the dead person than you did during their life; it's the place you actually want the dead person to be alive at, there's so many questions to ask them, but obviously it's too late.
*Twelve years later, Maria would 'joke' at Isaac's funeral that the next funeral they will all be going to would be mine. Within the next five years. Charming.
Previously on Barnflakes:
Notes on losing friends