four years ago I went to the Horniman Museum in Lewisham one hot August afternoon. Afterwards, I sat in the museum’s garden, and wondered how much time I had left. I was 41, out-of-condition, out-of-sorts, unemployed and unattached.
The museum is on a hill, with views over London which are called commanding. I sat on a bench feeling a miserable failure-both privately and professionally-added to which I had pains all over my body. But on a whim I walked up the hill, and on another park bench I surrendered myself and my body to the sun and south London below. Suddenly I felt whole again. Do you sometimes feel like this, that you have no idea whether large tracts of your life are pleasure or pain?
Then I thought about those who need no longer wonder this: my personal dead. Like in the Henry James story, The Altar of the Dead, except that I was not going to erect any altars to them. I am sometimes considered a nice person, but I lack pity. I don’t believe we care for others; only intermittently do we wish them well at all. We are, after all, the only species that systematically kills its own kind.
My personal dead were all roughly of my own age-one thinks less about the older ones. Most of them had died within a short time, in a sudden sweep of death’s scythe. The son of my parents’ friends, the diabetic, who had died alone in an empty house. The strange, vivid girl met at a snowbound party, dead three months later of a brain haemorrhage. The half-friend half-enemy from school pushed off a roof in Los Angeles. The Aids deaths. The… I didn’t remember the rest.
Except one. He was called Martin, and he was more significant. I was worried that I did not feel his loss, because he had been my friend.
But is that true? I had known him more than 20 years. We had met at Oxford. He was a Northern Irish Catholic; brilliant, a sexual conqueror. He could destroy me with a word, but honoured me with his friendship. But for some reason that I never quite fathomed, at the age of 25, his life stopped. The rest, until his blood pressure killed him at 43, was epilogue. He lived on the dole in a tiny stinking room in Oxford, attending Mass…