Saturday, 8 June 2013

Don

I saw him in the distance, rangy and muscular under his blue plaid shirt and stonewashed jeans, his dark hair streaked with silver ruffling in the breeze, his eyes twinkling as only they could, a healthy glow on his skin. He returned my spreading grin and walked quickly towards me. We hugged the hug of old friends absent for far too long. I smelled the once-familiar scent of cigarettes on his breath and clothes.

'I suppose this means the cremation's off then?' I quipped.

'No, I've come to say goodbye Laura' he replied before seeming to vanish before my eyes.

I woke up, shocked that there was no escape from the news even in my dreams, yet feeling oddly comforted at the same time.

Today I attended Don's funeral.

We should never have been an item. It was a fluke. A moment of weakness on my newly-dumped part. Young at heart as he was, Don was 19 years older for one thing, patently not the marrying kind, and wait for it, he had an ex-wife and five children to prove it.

But Don knew how to overcome all such misgivings. He knew how to make a girl laugh and feel good about herself, and perhaps even more importantly how to make a girl laugh at the world, and even herself and her silly habit of taking the world far too seriously. In short, he could make you forget yourself and actually notice the birdsong and the beauty of a sunset once more.

We met at the party of a friend-of-a-friend in Coventry where neither of us knew anyone and owing to a logjam in the kitchen we ended up sitting on the stairs together. I believe an invitation to the cinema ensued. I had no other invitations at the time so didn't turn him down.

Things progressed swiftly. His lovemaking was fast and furious but any customer service complaints were met by a roar of laughter. Here was a man totally secure in himself if somewhat selfish. We started meeting for the odd weekend on the Kent coast where he now lived, first in a rambling Victorian commune full of amiable middle-aged hippies near Ashford. Then eventually Don got himself a rented terraced house by the sea with no furniture in it and chatting on the stairs featured again. Every time I visited the sun seemed to be shining and we had lovely weekends walking around Dover, Folkestone and Hastings. I also accompanied Don on a couple of 'booze cruises' to France (popular at the time) to supplement his income as a recently-separated man and a memorable hovercraft trip to Calais (like being in a washing machine) where we sat on Calais beach eating warm bread, fresh tomatoes and camembert before the trip home again. We traipsed around various museums and had a highly amusing afternoon one frosty February when we came upon a group of nudists perilously frying sausages on the descent to a secluded beach.

We enjoyed many trips in Don's £800 gold Renault car (an auction gamble) and he took me to all the local pubs and to see various down-on-their luck friends of his with whom he traded booze and cigarettes. In car boot sales and second hand shops he was ever on the hunt for overlooked Ming vases or books telling him how to spot an overlooked Ming vase (his get rich quick plan). His car was awash with language tapes (he was always trying to learn a new language) and the inevitable overflowing ash tray. I still cherish the white summer canvas bag he bought me one afternoon in old Hastings.

I always knew it wouldn't last between us and often wondered what he saw in a non-smoking, vegetarian, teetotaller with bad skin and that twentysomething judgmentalism that made me somewhat appalled that he could leave a wife and five children, though apparently she had thrown him out, having discovered a sizable Sainsburys receipt in his pocket with another woman's shopping on it! As per life's great ironies, the young woman concerned had gone on to have three different children with three different fathers without ever once sleeping with Don. And he had it bad where *Mary was concerned. She was one of the few who had really gotten under his skin. Though according to his friends and relations this was far from the only instance of bad-boydom on his part.

I certainly didn't kid myself that I was his one and only and for the first time in my life that was fine with me. In fact I expected half the chapel to be full of weeping women with brightly coloured handkerchiefs, but actually it was just me and a pretty blonde solicitor and former colleague he had once cheered up by whisking her to Paris upon learning of her recent divorce trauma. Another friendship he had kept up as she turned out to be the last one to visit him in hospital before his unexpected death. No sign then of the mysterious French millionairess he regularly visited on Eurostar who begged him to decamp to France to live with her full-time. He described this woman as 'my soulmate' but said he could never accept her offer and become a kept man. In addition he was devoted to his five children in England whom he saw and took on holidays regularly, not to mention his octogenarian mum.

I surveyed those five children today on the sun-dappled lawn - three strapping twentysomething lads in their funeral suits, the youngest looking startlingly like Don, though they all share his mischievous ready smile, his two girls tall and elegant, one dark and one (the one expecting the first grandchild he will never see) fair. Their mother sits next to them with the elegance and grace of a woman who has long forgiven the past and is just grateful to have five happy, healthy young adults before her. A job well done. On the patio Don's mother (now 93, but elegant as a dowager and sharp as a pin) flicks through photo albums exclaiming more than once 'What did the silly bugger have to go and die for?' She's right. No mother should have to bury their child and that thought brought a frog-sized lump to my throat at the start of the service as she hobbled in, almost as large as the one I had when the curtains closed around the coffin at the end. Nearby the daughter who hasn't seen her for seventeen years tries to lurk in the shadows fearing the flick of her mother's critical tongue, the reason she left home at 14 and dodges attempts at family photographs. Even in death, she has her doubts she can ever compete with 'golden boy' Don. She is flanked by her two engaging thirtysomething daughters who annoyingly have no such problem with their indomitable nan and happily laugh along with her through the lens of generational distance. I talk to Don's mum's 'toyboy' the eightysomething *Jack, a fixture of the family for years, yet seemingly still a fish out of water in terms of the family dynamics.

The whole family together, evidently for the first time in years. Don would have loved this sunny afternoon laden with drinks and buffet sandwiches in his honour. What a shame it has taken his death to bring it about.

Apart from being annoyed by her second class treatment growing up (illustrated by how few photographs of her there seem to be in the family albums), Don's sister *Anita feels Don was slightly unhinged by his insistence on attending an approved city boarding school many miles from Coventry after their father walked out, now known for its high throughput of depressives, alcoholics and devil-may-cares. On the other hand it probably propelled him into further education and the eventual degree that hatched the first solicitor in their working class district. I remember Don was always terribly proud of having bettered himself against the odds (single mum in a council house in the 1950s/60s), though curiously went out of his way to socialise in working class pubs with out of work fishermen and ferrymen, often preferring this to the company of the chattering classes he had been so eager to aspire to.

But then Don's strong social conscience was always the most admirable thing about him, apart from his sense of humour. His career as a solicitor specialised in defending mostly hopeless cases, going where angels feared to tread, but someone had to do the unglamorous side of legal work in the name of British justice. In the last couple of years Don also rose to become leader of his local Labour party, despite or perhaps because of his cheap suits, campaigning for new work and opportunities for the deprived areas of Kent before having to step down owing to ill health. In a cruel twist of fate, he died not of the throat cancer he had contracted (and which he was making a good recovery from) but from a pulmonary embolism which formed in his leg and travelled up to his heart.

It was I who called time on our alliance. Having invited me to Lewes for Bonfire night and the weekend, I then didn't hear from Don until the next invitation, some weeks after said bonfire night, no reference to the previous. I told him firmly but politely. 'No. I'm not going to be messed about, even if it isn't terribly serious.' So that's where we left things, aside from the odd drink over the years, Christmas cards and Facebook contact. It was my most painless relationship, and more to the point, painless relationship break-up ever, and for that I thank him. I also thank Don for the courage he gave my younger and more unconfident self to just go out there, do things and enjoy life. Don loved life and I have learned to love life too. He was also not afraid to make trouble when circumstances dictated, though I am more moderate in that I try not to be the originator of any trouble in my life - just steel myself not to be afraid to finish it. Finally I thank Don for the lifetime's free legal advice he offered me as a parting gift. Sadly he being a criminal lawyer (and me not being a criminal), I never had cause to utilise this generous offer.

Moreover I never did collaborate on that autobiography Don threatened to write and asked me to help him with but I'm sure it would have made a rattling good read!

RIP o' restless Don and here's to you with a large lemonade! If you hadn't existed, someone would have had to invent you! Fond memories always. Lxx