This is a difficult blog post to write. It’s not about writing – although it kind of is. It’s about a friend who died. And about bad luck. And making the most of what you have. And love.
Two and a half weeks ago (is it that long already?!) a friend of mine died unexpectedly. I mean, he had a heart valve that had always been a bit rubbish. And he’d known for years that it was possible to get an infection in that valve that could be fatal if not caught in time. But he didn’t know that the cough and fever he’d had for five months were symptoms of that infection. And his doctor didn’t realise, because he’d had an identical cough and fever in the past which were the result of a totally different infection. And so nobody realised, until it was too late. He went into hospital on the Wednesday where they immediately flooded him with antibiotics and promised to replace the valve with a synthetic one when the infection was gone. But two days later it was all over – the valve had gone kaput. Bill – funny, witty, silly, clever, talented Bill – was extinguished. Snuffed out. Here – then not.
I’ve known people die before. But I’ve never been so closely involved. Bill’s wife Helen went through a huge cancer operation last year. I wrote her a song. She came through the op and was given the all clear. And then Bill fell ill. And it’s just not fair. Not that life’s fair, but you know – you sort of think that good people deserve a break – and sometimes they just don’t get that break.
Bill was bonkers. Mad as a box of frogs. Clever as a cartload of monkeys. He was a rocket scientist (YES, REALLY. I KNOW) but he was also a very talented actor, writer and composer. He once showed me a novel he’d started work on. I read the first chapter and immediately wanted to send it to my agent; it was THAT good. Terry Pratchett-esque. Off-the-wall surreal humour with great characters and an original concept. The next few chapters showed his inexperience: he lost control of his plot and the book weakened as a result. I urged him to rewrite. He kept putting it off, saying he didn’t have time – but actually it was because he didn’t believe he was good enough.
I had no idea that he also had a huge back catalogue of songs he’d composed himself, some personal and heartfelt, some rude and some just downright silly. He wrote and performed in sketches with my husband in the comedy group The Dead Secrets. His sense of humour verged on the macabre. He’d be pleased that his last words in this life were the slightly surprised, ‘My heart’s stopped!’ though he’d no doubt have preferred to go out on an inventive expletive. He was an extraordinary actor. One of those actors other actors want to hate because when they’re onstage, everyone else is reduced to the background. But he was definitely a team player, constantly seeking reassurance from others that he was ‘good enough’, always doubting himself. Never seeking the limelight, and slightly embarrassed that he enjoyed it when he got it.
It’s funny how sometimes the people who shine the brightest have absolutely no understanding of their own light. Everyone around Bill could see it; his talent, his passion, his love of endless banter, his kindness. He was a wonderful father to three children and a perfect foil for Helen, whose sense of humour matched his own. He wasn’t without fault, of course – no one is. He whinged about stuff; was hopelessly flaky about responding to emails; couldn’t seem to get himself organised; crossed the line with jokes that could offend practically everyone. Yet he was also passionately feminist, hating our patriarchal society, determined to help his daughters fight it. And he never understood how much he brightened other people’s lives. When he died, Helen was swamped with people offering help and memories and sympathy. Bill would be astonished that so many are broken-hearted by his loss.
It’s his funeral on Wednesday. He’s getting a good send-off, we’ll see to that. There’ll be purple clothing. There’ll be people making inappropriate jokes (probably Helen), there’ll be short readings and a song he wrote himself. And he’ll be dressed for his final performance – in the costume he wore a few years back in a stage production of La Bête, in which he blew pretty much everyone off the stage.
I don’t know what I think about life after death. I don’t have any firm opinions. I’m not sure if spirits can hang around afterwards or not; or if there’s another Place to go to. But there are people left behind – Helen, and his three children. And Bill would want them looked after and supported and loved. To be honest, he’d want his youngest (aged 3) to grow up to be President of the World and frankly, given her independent personality, she might just do that.
In the song I wrote for Helen last year, there’s a line that brought her great comfort during the months of waiting for the operation: “Let the hammer fall. Let the thunder roar. We will stand in the lightning by your side.”
Helen, we’re still standing in the storm with you. And Bill – well, for goodness’ sake – we hope you know NOW what you should have known while you were alive: that you were Really Quite Awesome. And that the world is just that little bit dimmer without you.
Below is Helen’s favourite sketch from The Dead Secrets: Starved. In it, Bill plays a business man who suggests that the only way the survivors of a plane crash will make it is if they eat one of their colleagues. Fortunately, a nun is on hand to bring holy salvation to the disaster…