When one of your nurses told me that I should talk to you, I was, to tell you the truth, a little sceptical. I didn’t say so, but my first thought was ‘What good will that do?’ Even in my head, the thought sounded disrespectful, to her and to you. So, I followed her suggestion blindly, and I only hope that you have heard our ‘conversations’, and that they have done some good. I can say, candidly and in all honesty, that they have done me good. Which is why I have carried our friend’s suggestion to another level by writing you this letter. Who knows – perhaps it will be the first of many!
It seems like a long time since I wrote a letter – or, if it comes to that, anything substantial. These days no-one writes letters. They all use email, or something of that sort. Besides, what reason do I have? I am afraid that my mental acuity has, like so many things, deteriorated. If this letter impresses my terminable decline, then I am sorry.
A letter ought, among other things, to contain news. So, I will begin by telling you something new. Yesterday I attended the funeral of Raymond Gettigan. You might remember him. We entertained him and his wife a few times. Our paths crossed back in the seventies when I was still Head at the Grammar School. Back then, he was Chair of the Chamber of Commerce. He had been instrumental in regenerating the many bombed-out parts of the centre dating back to the war. They held his funeral in the cathedral. He was ninety-six, a year my senior. The Bishop presided.
As I remember, and so much was confirmed by those who read eulogies, he was a feisty character – an animus at the heart of our urban world, and something like an inspiration. He breathed new life into our city and galvanised a fresh wave of inward investment. Right, then, that he should receive that sort of commemoration.
Hearing his story, and learning a little more about his many accomplishments, re-awakened some of the energy and enthusiasm I can remember feeling at the time. I cannot claim that he was a close associate, but he was my generation, and his ambitions, attitudes, assumptions, and above all, his values, were all mine. Despite the incidental differences, I even came away thinking that it was a little like bearing witness to one’s own final farewell.
It was a pleasure to hear about his achievements, not least, I admit, because they rekindled my own. But on the reverse side of that sentiment, I discovered loneliness. His passing was one more reminder that I am still living, left behind by all those who have already gone. None of our close friends remain. As in all things, the more it happens, the more inured to it I become. I still remember Stuart Weatherall, a schoolboy in my year who died when we were just eight years old. That was the biggest shock. Since then, I can’t help but feel that I have grown emotional calluses around death. And yet with Raymond, it feels like there is no-one else left. I stand at the end of life, peering dimly, myopically, over the edge.
We have our family, of course. Michael, Julia and their children, are as faithful and regular in their visits to me as they are to you. Michael ferries me about, or if he can’t, insists on arranging taxis. All of which keeps me on my toes, but it’s not the same. I remember long ago, noticing the subtle ways in which generations differ. Words, expressions, values, points of reference, politics, even general knowledge and understanding about the world – all of it changes, albeit almost imperceptibly, like the combined shift of microcosmic life whose effects are only felt in the long term. We can talk, and they take good care of me – of us. But time leaves everyone marooned eventually.
Which leads me to another piece of news. I have, finally, admitted defeat and vacated our flat – worse still, I have sold it. Michael told me, quite firmly, that the outside stairs were no longer safe for me, particularly in winter. I would fall, he said. I had no stomach for resistance, and there is nothing to resist, because he is right. To my credit, I had the decency to sell the flat to someone interesting: a political journalist. He had been living in Manchester but has taken a job down here.
Which means that, like you, these days I live in a room. Is that depressing? Really, I can’t see what the fuss is about. It makes sense. It’s quite comfortable, less trouble and I am safer here than on my own. I have company, too – many of the residents are charming, and, when you can fathom fact from fiction, appear to have led colourful lives. They certainly have many stories to tell.
But I don’t want to dress a mortal wound with a sticking plaster. My new digs make sense at my time of life, but they shouldn’t disguise the reality. Let’s summarise what we know, shall we? My health and strength are declining – I can feel it, my heart, in particular. I am in no fit state to manage myself and my own home, but instead rely on the help of my care-workers. I am so old that I now have no contemporaries. As time sweeps aside everyone from my generation, I can witness my ways of thinking and habits disappearing into the past. I am intermittently startled by intimations of the departed.
Then, of course, there’s you, my darling. Where are you? I can visit you, which I do every day. But are you there?
At every stage of life, it’s easy to get distracted. People always want to tell themselves that ‘it’s all right’. They want to say ‘I chose the right career’, or ‘I bought the right car’, or ‘I was right to question the planning application’. Maybe some people are right when they take those decisions, but I expect that, just as often, they are wrong; in any case, a powerful pulse of self-interest makes it harder to look at the matter objectively. And yet no-one, no matter how conscientious and considered, can block out the final stage. So, in the end, is it not all right?
Is there something which, from conception, lurks beneath the surface? Something sad, lonely, which when the veil is lifted from it, is better hidden away in a home so that it doesn’t tarnish the view? Once you have chosen the right career, bought the right car, and questioned the planning application – what remains? I have never much gone in for this sort of philosophising, but if it stares you in the face and you still have a mind to grapple with it, it is hard to ignore. We are not just past our prime, we are so far past our prime that most people would need to consult the archives to know that we even had one!
What remains? Conventional wisdom says nothing. We are no longer striving for something, looking towards it. Instead, we are at the end of the road, having run our course. Yet – and I say this emphatically – something does remain. I feel it and know it; and I can see it in you too. By which I don’t just mean the ramshackle flesh and bone we inhabit. There is more to it than that. There is still spirit, breath, life, a kind of enchantment inviolate to the course of time and events.
Which makes me wonder, and I find, in my long hours alone, that my mind turns over these thoughts. I return to them again and again. It is, I believe, a kind of odd metaphysical fascination I have acquired in extreme old age.
When I write the words ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, and ‘life’ and say they cause me to reflect, I don’t mean that I reflect on whether they are real, whether I am deluded by something; a mistaken perception, or a will to endure even at the final hour. I don’t doubt them at all or reflect on their reality. Whatever I am referring to with these words is real. I know it; I can feel it. Rather they make me look back, to question and consider things in a different light.
Forgive me for labouring my metaphors, but the career, the car and the planning application, as passionately felt as they were at the time, don’t seem quite so important. The passion was a kind of confused attachment, which the breath of life found in ambition, in pleasure, even in power. I’d even say that, in the partnership of power, pleasure and things, a certain kind of occlusion sets in; the real magic of life is obscured, marginalised, even forgotten. And more to the point, once those flimsy and evanescent distractions are brushed aside, you find that the mercurial background remains, despite the display which stood in its way.
I find then that, in spite of my age and the fact that I can’t really be expected to eke out my mortality much longer, that I have not lost all the things which make life worth living. I would even say that life is revealing itself to me in new ways. Do I look back and wish I could return to my forties or fifties? To a time when I held a position of influence, I had a family around me, and we would talk, kiss and love each other as we once did? I find that the answer is no; I don’t resent the passing of time. I look back with affection. I am proud and enriched by the experience, but I don’t want to live permanently at any one point. There is a natural course to events, in which some things fade from view and many things change, but in some sense, nothing changes entirely.
It’s a little like the seasons: each time of the year is beautiful in its own way. Perhaps, I keep thinking, the older we get and the more we can bear witness to the people and things which have had their time, the more we can spy the continuity; the landscape that remains despite the flourishing and falling of leaves.
Which is why, returning to where I started, that I now believe in talking to you, and even more so, in writing to you. When I speak to you, I believe you hear me; in a certain sense, I would say I know you do. In Tibetan religion, talking to the departed is ritualised – they guide their dead, steer them in the right direction. We are not yet there, but we are still guiding each other, supporting and steering each other, just as we have always done. When we talk, we communicate – but in a different way.
And in a similar way, when I write these words, I know they will reach you. You are not here; I cannot see you. When I bring this letter to you tomorrow, I will place it on the coffee table in your room. You won’t pick it up. You won’t scan your eyes over it. Your sense and understanding won’t engage with it or digest it. But you will have read it; I know you will.
We share the same breath, the same life, and it is on that breath that these words will reach you.
I love, my darling.