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The first death I ever witnessed was that of a motorcyclist descending a hill beside the common in Chalfonts Saint Peter in Buckinghamshire, England, who failed to make a turn, crashed into a wall, and broke his neck.
I was about five when it happened, and only a few yards away from the point of impact. I remember the crash, and the fact that his head was at a funny angle, but I don’t recall any blood. He was wearing a helmet and leathers. At that age, I didn’t know what death looked like, but he looked – and was – dead. I didn’t stick around. I went on home with my carton of cigarettes and told my mother what had happened. She didn’t believe a word.
Today, children aren’t allowed out by themselves at such an early age but that was then, and I had a fairly unusual mother. From the age of five I had been sent down to the village to buy her cigarettes. I normally bought them by the carton. I was known as “the little boy in the pith helmet who likes Craven A.” The pith helmet was a military affair, given to me by one of mother’s many boyfriends, which fitted me little better than a basin. But I loved it. The only outfit, that I know of, that wears such headgear today is the Royal Marines (see photo).
I am always feel mildly jealous when I see them in action. I thought I had the monopoly on such cool gear. The point of a pith helmet was to keep the sun off – scarcely a threat in England in those days. My helmet was made out of some kind of insulating cork composite, covered with cotton and a spike, and was wonderful in the rain. It was like wearing an umbrella.
Thereafter I considered myself as a person of experience and capable of dealing with death. When relatives and family friends died off, I wasn’t particularly phased. I was never taken to the funerals. Death was normally a line in a school letter; and remote. Face after face sort of faded away. I wasn’t entirely unaffected as the ranks thinned, but I rationalized that it was the natural order of things.
I dreaded my grandmother dying. She was the person I loved most and was closest to, and a constant support under any, and all, circumstances. She didn’t fuss and she didn’t nag. In times of crisis, violent or otherwise, she was as cool as a cucumber. When I was bought home at dawn by a police car after being mugged and injured by a gang in north London – we chased and caught them and they were imprisoned - she didn’t turn a hair. She merely helped me out my torn clothes, and cooked breakfast. She had been a nurse in WWI and an Air Raid Warden in WWII during the blitz in London so death and injury just went with the territory. When she died, my heart was broken. I knew life would never be the same; and it hasn’t been.
Over the years I’ve experienced death in various ways and in various forms but I have never had so many friends die as over the last six months. It started with Jo who killed herself as a small group of her friends, including me, stood around her bed. She was dying anyway, in enormous pain, so all she really did was chose the time and circumstances; and I salute her for that.
Since then, one more person who I knew well, has died in this building, as have five other friends elsewhere – mostly of cancer.
I guess I should accept all this with equanimity, but the truth is that the death of each friend has hit hard. It doesn’t fit my self-image. I like to think of myself as reasonable compassionate, but stoic.
I fear that is not the case. Perhaps, on balance, it’s a good thing. But I still feel sad.