For David John Canham
On a grey day, under clouds of slate, the grey train click clacked between closeted, over manicured villages where graffiti at home is a crime worse than genocide abroad, then onward into the grime of beige commuter towns, separated from the railway by muddy parks and weedy allotments and shunted to a faltering halt under the glare of harsh lamps that cast no shadows.
The tube took me north west, out of the city and into leafier suburbs nestling under the same slate clouds. Preston Road, Northwood Hills, little settlements known to the tube map but alien to me. Are they real places I wonder or just handy platforms for commuters caught between the city and whatever tempts people to live in a Zone 9 postcode.
Deep breath of damp city air, press the doorbell and wait slightly longer than comfortable. Warm greetings for grey days and grim news.
A stale bedroom and empty words. About cricket, about which I know zilch, but he once belonged to the MCC and probably deplores my lack of insight, about the grammar school he attended with Reg Dwight, about Watford FC and about Christmases in Suffolk, which never properly began until he stood on the doorstep clutching a suitcase to his chest with presents balanced on top, all capped by an awkward smile.
I drank bad coffee while he dozed. I thought about all the trips to London when I had better things to do than pop in to say hello. Back in the days when he'd know I was there to see him.
I thought about a man past 70, on his hissing air bed, and about the shy man I once knew. A sharp intelligence inside a brittle shell, the rise through the ranks of the electric company, a few halcyon years and then his troubles, the descent, the diagnosis of dementia when he was barely into his fourth decade. Slowly but surely calcifying a brain too fragile to resist its creeping tendrils.
I remembered the case conferences, admissions, discharges and re-admissions. Tedious social workers, tired consultants and eager junior doctors who carried the smell of the hospital with them.
I talked again. Filling the empty spaces with empty words, about nothing and everything. His family home in Pinner. The organ with his graduation picture on, next to the statue of a knight whose head bent back to reveal a lighter that always fascinated me as a child. A monologue of the banal to keep myself company.
I said goodbye. I said I'd be back in February, but I knew they were useless words. Said for me not him. I stood on the doorstep between the warm haze of inside and the bright cold air outside. Talk of care, comfort and 'arrangements' to be made. All these useless words.
Somehow, I was on the tube, rocking back to the city accompanied by the buzz of meaningless chatter and useless words.
'When do we get off mummy...'
'Do you think Watford stand a chance against Newcastle on Saturday..?'
'... And he told me never to do that again, but I was like...'
The man with the cocaine tic feeding mints between his cracked lips. The woman in a hijab staring at the advert for glossy overpriced homes for two… three… four stops, as if committing every detail to memory. The long-married couple sitting close together and a long way apart. Two teenagers, playing verbal ping pong of boasts and lies.
All these useless words as we rattle through dull stations, neon shops and uneven houses with their backs turned to the railway line. Untidy gardens, and broken swings, a slash of graffiti on a leaning fence and a train of bored commuters swaying past in the opposite direction, on their way home to Preston Road and Northwood Hills.
Ugly shoes on ugly seats, swaying into Baker Street, exit for Madam Tussauds, ugly people and ugly thoughts. Alight and shuffle with the crowds to another carriage under skies turning from grey to black without my permission.
Bethnal Green, higgledy piggledy roofs, neon kebab shops and glaring chemists. Cars crawling outside the carriage. Inside children chatter, nonsense words, parents umm and arr... more useless words. Too much cheap Christmas scent, phone screens for tired eyes and pale ghosts reflected in the window staring into laptops.
Tottenham Hale. TE COS superstore, wondering where the first S went and why I care. Bleak rooms abandoned dinner tables and anonymous offices lit up for our inspection.
All these useless words. Words that shuttle us between now and the past. Memories and snippets of history played out in a flat narrative, free from trauma and worry.
Words of comfort and consolation, words of hope and peace, and words of half-truths and lies. Words that define us, defile us and expose us. That drown out our inner voices, smother our guilt and give shape to our impotence to change anything, now or in the past. Words spoken but not meant, heard but not understood, ignored and forgotten or stored away forever.
All these useless words that change nothing. Nothing at all.
Words that die with us,
David passed away at 04:00 on 31 December 2018.