For Lisa Simpson, the best time of the week came after church on Sunday morning: ‘It’s the longest possible time before more church!’ For me, it was the time when my piano lesson finished. At 5pm on Wednesday 13 May 1998, then, I was in a good mood, talkative in the car home, excited at the prospect of the European Cup Winners’ Cup final that evening. If I’d stopped to observe my father I’d have noticed he was subdued. When we got home I found out that William had died.
I stood in the kitchen, looking into one of the cupboards at nothing in particular for several minutes, not speaking, hiding my face. I’d known he was ill, but hadn’t acknowledged to myself the possibility that he might die. The night before, it had sounded like his condition had improved. I watched the football, and I jumped up and shouted with joy when Gianfranco Zola scored the winner for Chelsea. It had taken my mind off things momentarily. But there were wild thunderstorms in Somerset that night, and we had a powercut, and when I went to bed with a candle I felt alone.
I don’t think I went to school the next day. My friends must have thought me a malingerer as I invariably took a couple of days off each half term, unconvincingly pleading illness, but when I told them my uncle had died they were sympathetic. For fear of offending them I didn’t tell them what I told myself, that I’d lost my best friend. Perhaps self-martyrdom was a way of coping. I don’t think I cried until a couple of weeks after the event. I knew I wanted to die, and I knew I would never be able to bring myself to do anything about it.
Although, living 160 miles apart, we didn’t see each other all that often, we had been close in other ways, even when I was little. I don’t think William found small children particularly interesting, and that was something we had in common. While other relatives talked down to me, William did the opposite. He wrote my seventh birthday card phonetically in Ancient Greek.
When I was not much older he sent me, unsolicited, a copy of a new Latin course he had written to use in his school, for my approval. Occasionally he signed himself ‘Gulielmus’.
I have other letters from him. Two weeks after my eighth birthday I received the following:
Since a criminal, whom justice may eventually press down, or so we shall hope, has basely intercepted a card sent to you by me, I, although incredibly busy, have seen fit to post a letter in its stead.
This was a typical opening gambit.
The following Christmas he initiated me into some of the mysteries of engineering and electronics. The Electronic Project Lab he gave me was a source of constant fascination, with its diodes and transistors and circuits and transformers and something called a piezo buzzer. A step up from Spirograph, anyway. He loved gadgets. Among other presents was the Casio DATA-CAL 50, a calculator with an inbuilt phone number directory and password protection option. He was the only person I knew who wouldn’t have needed my help to programme the video recorder.
William was probably the first grown-up I heard swear. I’d seen people swearing on TV and in the playground, but my home life was not a profane one. My parents were careful not to swear while my younger brothers were around, and in any case they had both been well brought up, an indignity I happily escaped. But William would gladly say fuck in my presence, at the table or while he was helping with the washing up afterwards, and I would feel agreeably complicit. I try to live up to his example.
We had our private jokes. We called each other ‘expert’. I have somewhere a gift tag with my childish writing on the back, ‘Here is your pack of sample expert sweets, from your fellow expert.’ And each of us used to ask the other if he’d been swimming recently. I don’t know why it was funny, but it was. Possibly because neither of us liked to swim. If he telephoned, wanting to speak to my mother, and I picked up first, we might end up talking for quite some time. I remember talking to him about Louis Malle and (I think) Lindsay Anderson. Once, he said he was contemplating doctoral studies at Oxford. ‘Oh, you mean a DPhil?’ He was surprised a twelve-year-old should know the terminology. I’d picked it up from Adrian Mole, but I didn’t feel able to admit it to him. I wanted him to think I’d known it all my life. I craved his approval more than anyone else’s.
That was probably why I decided, possibly as early as primary school, that Cambridge was where I was headed. Hero worship, dreams of emulation. Because it was where he had gone, I assumed I’d be capable of doing the same, didn’t feel intimidated by it, despite my bog-standard comprehensive education. I wish he’d lived long enough to learn that I’d got in, to know that I was happy there, not much of a joiner-in with things but happy at any rate being independent.
At some point, presumably during the last few months of his life, my family were on our way somewhere and stopped outside the hospital where he was being treated. Did I want to go in and see him? I did, of course, but not like that. I gave my apologies, and said that I had a lot of school work to do, which was true, not that I did any of it in the car. He sent back the message that he understood. In the years that followed, I regretted not taking the opportunity of what would have been our final meeting.
My religion had all but disappeared by the time William died. His getting rid of my uncle didn’t endear God to me greatly. I did sometimes fantasise about the possibility of an afterlife, though, of an eventual reunion with William. I missed being able to talk to him. I had one-way conversations in which I told him that I was OK, that I was in love, conversations we’d never have had if he’d been alive. I thought perhaps he watched over me. I don’t now expect to see him again, but I don’t mind that. The dead live in our memories and in our selves. Even before he died, people used to observe how alike William and I were, in various ways. I feel honoured to think that I might have been the closest to an heir that he had. There are things I do and say, ways I act and talk, that are a tribute to him, and sometimes I’m conscious of them and sometimes I’m not.
I went to his funeral in Leeds, and to a memorial service at his school shortly afterwards. The two occasions have blurred into one. I have a memory of returning home from one of them on the train (can we have travelled by train? but that is my memory) and of listening to ‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five on my personal stereo as the train pulled in and I emerged on to the sunny platform of Frome Station. That sweet, melancholy song has had an association with him ever since, though I’m not sure he’d have liked it himself, nor the Eels and Radiohead whose sympathetic gloom kept me company through my grief.
William was an organist, an organ scholar. He introduced me to music through CDs he gave me. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bruckner’s 7th I discovered through him. After his death, I inherited/claimed some of his own CDs. Mahler’s 5th, Weill’s Die sieben Todsünden, Bartók’s string quartets, Chopin’s études. Organ music too, through his own performances that I found on his MiniDiscs (another gadget). Percy Whitlock, S.S. Wesley. Connections that we didn’t have during his life but became established later on. His PC, which we took home to replace our old one, had programs installed on it that fuelled my passion for composing, wave editing, the compiling of playlists. A bequest.
In about a year I’ll be the age William was when he died. I sometimes reflect, not with sadness, just with honesty, that my life hasn’t amounted to much, but perhaps he had the same thought, and I have a conviction that we affect more people than we can possibly realise, and in all different kinds of ways. More on that here.