I was driving to work the other day, listening to Stackridge and when it got to “Happy in the Lord” it made me think of you, like it always does. Well, I remembered that I had always meant to write to you but had never got round to it, again like I always do, but this time I decided better late than never and that I would finally write.
This is not the easiest letter I have written. After all, the last time I saw you was 34 years ago. I was fourteen then and you were twenty one. I’m now approaching 49 and therefore you would be 56 or not far off. I’m not sure I would recognise you, although I’m sure you would recognise me. Apart from having better hair and more wrinkles, I don’t think I’ve really changed that much.
So much has happened since then, I don’t really know where to begin. Well, a potted history is: I did my O’ Levels, I did my A’ Levels, I got a degree, I got married, I had kids, I got divorced, I’m happy now. That leaves out so much, though. I was a punk and still am essentially. I spent 18 glorious months spiking my hair, wearing loads of eye liner and dark purple lipstick, wearing pink leopardskin pants, a short kilt, a leather jacket and various butchered t-shirts. I went to the Kings Road on a Saturday and met and hung out with other punks. I went to gigs, sniffed solvents and generally ran wild.
I spent my twenties and thirties bringing up three kids and trying so hard to be normal. I gave up when I got to forty and got my first tattoo. Others followed, then I had my nose repierced and then my tragus pierced. I rediscovered punk and realised I had never really stopped being one. At the grand old age of 44, I joined a Border Morris team and now I like to describe myself as either a punk Morris Dancer or a Morris Dancing punk. Oh and I got my Grade 8 piano at the grand old age of 29, 12 years after I got my Grade 7.
As I don’t know how to get this letter to you, Enn, this obviously has to be an open letter, so I should perhaps explain who you are (or were) to anybody else who may be reading. You were my big sister’s boyfriend and you were like an extremely indulgent big brother to me and my other sister, Panda. A favourite big brother. We both idolised you and thought you were the coolest person ever. You were funny: I particularly recall your brilliant Bluebottle impression and your good humour always seemed irrepressible. Not even Panda’s and my squabbling in the back seat of your car could annoy you: you simply shut us up by swinging the car hard to one side and then the next until we were giggling and helpless in the back. After all, that was before seatbelts in the back of cars were compulsory.
Panda and I were both at boarding school and you would sometimes come up to see us with Gee. By then you had ditched the Moggy and had a Triumph Spitfire. There was no back seat in the Spitfire but that was no problem: Panda and I just sat on the boot as you took us all to a copse, where you lit a fire and we roasted/burned marshmallows and sausages (which Gee had pre-cooked, so there was no danger of food poisoning). On the way back, you drove past a police car and the nice friendly policemen inside merely waved Panda and me down. I’m sure that nowadays you would have been stopped and got 3 points on your licence and a fine and Panda and I would have had to walk back to school.
That trip out to the countryside provided me and Panda with a break from school. Neither of us were happy there and those weekend days we had away, first with Mum and Dad and later with you and Gee, were oases of calm for us. There is a line in a Pretenders song that really sums it up for me, “Like a break in the battle was your part, in the wretched life of a lonely heart”. School was a battle and for me and it was a losing battle: one I never won. Mum eventually threw in the towel for me and I came home for the Sixth Form and did my A’ Levels at a local school.
Before then, though, you provided me with a period of calm, a truce, by your final act because one day, completely unexpectedly, Panda and I were called out of our classes and taken to the headmaster’s office. Waiting there were Mum and Dad. Mum was in tears and she told us that you had committed suicide. It came as a complete shock to me: it was entirely unexpected. After all, you were cheerful, you were funny, you were kind to me, you had been a rock to me during a very unhappy phase in my life. Mum and Dad took us out for the rest of the day, I suppose to try and take our minds off it a bit but also to give us a chance to come to terms with it before they took us back in the evening. After our tea, which we had in a local cafe, they took us back and we went into Prep and there I noticed the truce. Prep was normally the time when I came in for the most abuse from the bullies at school but that night there was to be none. One lad, a day scholar, who presumably had not been told what had happened did start on me but was quickly hushed. It’s something I have never forgotten and I know now that I would have traded that period of calm gladly to have you back but of course that was impossible.
Bereavement is a funny thing. My initial shock gave way to complete and devastating grief. This was punctuated by moments of disbelief, irrational hope and guilt. Guilt was at the small things, for instance, I had always promised to write to you but never got round to it. Now I could never rectify that omission. Irrational hope was mainly that the police had got it wrong, that it hadn’t been you on the railway line, or that you had somehow survived and we had simply been wrongly informed and of course the disbelief was that I found it so difficult to believe that you could have done what you did.
You were my first bereavement and I can honestly say it was a baptism of fire. I have been bereaved since but not even my Mum’s death hit me so hard. It would be absurd to say that your death didn’t change me but I cannot say for sure how it changed me. After all, I have no alternative me with which to compare myself. I think I am more compassionate than I might have been, having been exposed to the extreme measures to which people can resort when under extreme stress. I know that I refuse to blame you (or anybody for that matter) for what you did and I never blame other suicides or consider them selfish or cowardly, which seem to be the adjectives most commonly applied to them. I think you taught me that nothing is permanent so we need to treasure what we have while we have it. I’ve also learned that suicide is something that I could never do because I know what it does to the people around you and I could never do that to the people I love.
I still miss you, Enn, and wish you had not ended your life when you were so young: when you had so much ahead of you. I know you had your reasons but were things really so bad that you had to kill yourself? I can sense a feeling of blame creeping in here but I think I’m trying more to understand why you felt this was the only course of action left to you than blaming you for doing it.
So I’m coming to the end of this letter. I’m sorry it took me so long to write it but I’ve never been a particularly punctual person. I’m not sure how to end this letter. I’ve never been very good at endings. I suppose I would just like to say thanks to you for the short time I knew you and I would just like to let you know that although death separates people (and, to my knowledge, permanently), it doesn’t destroy love. My Mum once told me that she didn’t believe in life after death but she believed that she would live on in people’s memory. Well, you both did and, as my memory is very selective, the bits that survived are the best bits, like the day you took us to that copse to roast marshmallows and “Happy in the Lord” was playing in your Triumph Spitfire.