It was one of those autumnal Fridays where winter seems still far off. The sun shone. The leaves were red and gold, the hedges still green. And then, suddenly, out of a literal and metaphorical blue sky, winter. With a phone call.
One Friday, 31st October 2014, I found out that my cousin, HW, had died from diabetes related complications. He was 31. And I hardly knew him.
My father got the call, hung up the phone and told my mum and myself. To start with, I was simply lost for words. I had to check that he was talking about who I thought he was talking about. It seemed totally unbelievable. When finally words did come, they were brief. My siblings both uttered the same first word as I did when they were told. Fuck.
None of us really knew how to process, because none of us had seen it coming. My sister seems to have been hit hardest of the three of us – perhaps because she doesn’t think there is anything else but the here and now, perhaps simply because she was the closest in age to H – but all three of us were astounded. I didn’t even realise H was diabetic (though it was, I know now, far from being a secret). But even so, people don’t DIE of diabetes! They live with it. It sucks, but they live with it. And H had always been fine. No, not fine, mythic.
H was 31 when he died – nine years my senior. When I was a child, visiting my aunt and uncle, he was a cool, detached teenager. In fact, I can’t imagine him in anything other than very baggy jeans and skate shoes. When I was in my teens, he was in his early twenties. He was always that step ahead.
We never saw as much of H as I would like. Like his brother, he was independent and superficially very different from his family. At the big gatherings, he and C would make brief appearances and little else. I never really got to know him, and that is perhaps what saddens me most. H was by all accounts, an amazing guy, and that I will never now get to know him is one of the worst things.
But there were glimmers of the man he certainly was. The man I might have got to know. H spent the last few years in Bristol, where he was part of a strong artistic community. I knew his work as a photographer first. He once did a 365 project, and I am very pleased that his flickr is still online. There are photos there which I shall, in due course, want to copy. So, I was rather surprised when we went to an exhibition he put on a few years back, entitled Shades. I had expected more photography. What we got were sky lines and silhouettes, hot air balloons and security cameras, barbed wire and the occasional dinosaur. I am incredibly pleased that not only did we go, but also that I have one of his works hanging on my wall. A piece of his creation. Of him.
I loved the ideal of H which I had. He had a flair I couldn’t help bur admire. When I was having a pop-punk phase, it was H who put me onto the more raw, politically charged branches of the nineties punk revival, which had peaked when I was a toddler. I don’t think I will ever listen to Rancid without thinking of H (although that sounds far less of a compliment to his taste than he deserves – I was just never that good at Punk).
If you want to define the idea I had of H, though, there is one occasion which stands out. In April 2011, plans to open a new Tesco in Stokes Croft, combined with a police raid on a squat, resulted in nights of rioting. I can’t help thinking that H probably had some sympathy with the rioters. Certainly, the punk in him would have seen eye to eye with their ideal. But his response, rather than getting involved in the protests, was to pick up his camera. And a model. In a backless top. The photos he took are brilliant, with police trying incredibly hard not to check out the gorgeous girl H brought along. They are clearly failing.
That, I think, sums up the version of H I lament not getting to know. Likewise, it explains my other great objection. The artistic soul should not fizzle out because of an insulin imbalance. A life so well lived deserved to be lived more fully, or spent more dearly. On the Saturday night, I bought a bottle of Scotch, and my sister and I held a wake. H will get a funeral of course. It will be very proper, and I am sure God will show up, but I can’t help thinking H would have wanted something else (as well, if not instead). So Lucinda and I drank and talked the night away. As I said to her then, what angers me most is the anti-climax. It was a death not fitting for such a life.
But this is the way the world ends.