The first time I came to love the early morning was on a sleepover at yours, which I did too little, now I realise, and we got up and it was the warmest summer day and we walked in the dusty peace of the suburbs down to the local butchers and bought fresh half-a-dozen local eggs and Cumberland sausage. We went back again with the papers for Nan, I remember she read the Mirror during the week and the People on Sunday, and sometimes she would eat toast before she began on the sherry and sit in the quiet and matted dark of the front room. We whittled away in the kitchen, you telling me of your childhood on the Norfolk broads where you’d learnt to be a wheelwright and you and your girl at the time cycled all over until her father got a job in Birmingham before the war, and you never saw her again, which was, I suppose, lucky for my mother, me and especially my sister, who came to need you more than I did, I guess. But you still loved your Colman’s mustard with your sausages, even for breakfast, while I preferred the bramble jelly, it was the perfect breakfast (before I knew about the pigs, of course), it is still the perfect breakfast, still the way you make poached eggs the apex of geometry, the hours we played cribbage with Swan’s matches counting our scores, 15-2, 15-4, the means by which you never burdened your pain on any other, even on the day you died, cracking jokes about the verbosity of Auntie M (the little quack, quack sign of your hand such an effort to make, but you made it) and it took all the composure you taught me to read the Rudyard Kipling at your service. And for days and weeks after owls came into my life: owl trinkets, owls on ties, the snowy, tawny and swivelling eyes, the wise old creature you were, transmigrated into this symbol, sitting watch all night over me; welcoming me back to the morning.
Every time I hear Portishead’s ‘Waterfall’ this is where it takes me, back to your room. I can’t remember how we met or how we got talking. I’ve a faint idea it was somewhere I didn’t usually go—you weren’t the usual person I met—and somehow the lack of sleep and the haze of the end of things and the music and the atmosphere you cultivated in your open plan studio made it one of the most magical mornings I’ve woken to. Although I don’t think we went to sleep, and I think, but am not sure, you ended up being a Radio 1 Wales DJ, is that you I sometimes hear about doing the breakfast show? I wonder if, when you play that song on your show (now you’ve moved to the evening), you think of that morning too, what I meant to you, what we spoke about, nothing of which I can remember now, I only remember the softness of the white sheets, the yellow hidden light coming in through the curtains, that we didn’t undress, that you made scrambled eggs, and your questions made me realise I’d never asked anything honest of myself, not really, and yet that I needed to be home and gone in two hours and I hadn’t even packed, that for the first time there really did not feel like a world outside.
Of course I’ve got all the gear, I told you over the phone, even as I lay in the makeshift bed with R having done no such thing, even as you were stepping onto the plane at Stansted, so when you arrived for New Year’s Eve we had to rush around all the ski shops kitting me out so in the morning we could head up the mountain and go snowboarding, and I laughed all the way round, practising my poor Italian, testing your patience as I had that time, I supposed, when I was four hours late for our lad’s weekend away (that time, I was in bed with J) and all the other times, before realising, even as, the next day, you tried to teach me how to snowboard and I was sticking my two-fingers up the in air at you as I struggled to master ‘Falling Leaves’, that it was not patience you were showing me but love, the love of a brother, of a family member, a love I did not recognise, not having experienced it before. Yet I learnt how, from you, which is why now, with your new daughter, I put £25 a month away for her for her future, which buys me a little honorary avuncularity, so I can teach her to be irrepressible and reckless and yet show her she will still be able to count on the people loving her best, and teaching her these things too: how to find the edge, how to test her father’s patience, how to make you laugh despite yourself.
One of the daily phone calls I looked forward to more and more, as the more we spoke, the more it seemed we had to say to each other. I needed to leave K’s house as there was no reception there, and so I wandered along the road towards the Thames and the Greenwich Mean Time laser that cut through the air above that fortunate part of the grand city, so I was sometimes talking to you in the Eastern hemisphere, sometimes the West, always in an imaginative world, not an invented one, sitting on the wall looking out at the Millennium Dome, listening to the seagulls and the ducks and the odd human in transit along this quietest of routes, where the Queen of Spain once arrived on her way to wed the King of England and was welcomed by the amputees at the Maritime Hospital and, it is reported, she for a moment believed, having never met one before, that all Englishmen were missing limbs and other ways deformed. It would be too crass to use that as some sort of leap forward in time, not even your Edinburgh Fringe show would… no, yes it would, because that was the other thing that I loved about you, your fun, your quickness, your willingness to test any idea, say anything, but just once I wished you had said no, no to the other comedian, no to the open end of the funnel, no to blindness, your impulses, and just once I wish I had said yes, rather than stop, yes, rather than I can’t.
It is one of my strongest single memories: of the boat trip out to the Farne Islands to see the puffins. The four of us a family of tourists, and others, say about a dozen in total, on the back of a small boat churning the water at six or seven knots an hour, the day chill but sunny, your sister’s boyfriend taking photos of the birds and the seals, charmed like a little child, and the boat rocking but not too much, not enough to make anyone sick or scared of going overboard. And then as we moved through a patch thick with the life of birds we all got up to go over to the one side of the boat to get a better look, and I turned around, and you were unsure, unsteady on your feet, you were still recovering from the last ten years, your body frail and a little bit broken, your world limited by your migraines and your breathing, and you looked across at me and pinched your lips and smiled and nodded ‘this is okay, this is far enough’ and I was overwhelmed by the love I feel for you, a love that hopes you never die and cannot handle the thought that you will, that there will be a time when we cannot laugh together, cannot comfort and claim each other, that there will be nothing left of us of this love that feels more important than any arbitrary physical rule that dares to impugn on us the news that we are mortal. I cannot stand that love because I cannot face the annihilation of that love by something so decrepit and uncalled for as death.