Tuesday, 18 November 2008

He was a friend of mine

Michael and me - around 1997, not long after he had moved into his new flat
I had known Michael since around 1987. I was working for a London Borough when Michael came into he room on his way to an interview for the post of manager of a day centre for people with learning difficulties. Michael was from San Diego, he wore a long ear-ring in one ear and his prematurely greying, long hair was braided over one shoulder - he seemed rather exotic to my every-day world. He got the the job and in the course of my own position we often spoke on the phone - when he went back to America on holiday he was kind enough to bring an San Diego American Football cap back for my son who at that time was an avid fan.

We gradually got to know each other as friends - though once, on a warm summer's evening, we sort of had a date. One Saturday, we met in Highgate, north London (where I lived) and walked across Hampstead Heath. By the time we walked back it was dark and there was a full moon hanging like a lantern in the sky. When we reached the Kenwood part of the heath there were dozens of people sitting around in groups with little camping stoves and lanterns, enjoying the warm night after an open air classical concert - there was definitely something magical about that evening.

Michael was something of a loner, he always wore black and gradually his long hair became shorter and whiter until he wore it completely cropped. Although he was a very handsome man, he had a complex about his looks and spent quite a bit of his savings on cosmetic surgery. On one occasion, he asked me to meet him from a clinic in Knightsbridge after he had had his face 'dermablasted'. He left the clinic swathed in bandages and the taxi-driver asked me if he had been in a house fire. Why Michael did it I never quite understood and thought it must be a Californian 'thing'.

Quite remarkably, when I left London to live in Wiltshire, Michael and I remained friends. A few times a year, I would meet up with him in London for the day and we would go to art galleries. Then he got the culture bug and started going to classical and world music concerts at least once or twice a week - Sunday mornings we would check in with each other by phone and I would get to hear about his trips to concerts or the theatre. In turn, I drove him to exasperation with the angst I experiencing over a 'great love affair gone wrong' - but he was always patient.

Then, early summer, a couple of years ago Michael sounded scared on the phone. He had found lumps on his body and had an extreme pain in his shoulder - the thing that had haunted him for nearly twenty years finally caught up with him. Michael was a gay man and had lived with the HIV virus from the mid-eighties onwards. A dreadful few months followed while test after test was delayed and his pain increased - eventually he was hospitalised where, this most fastidious of people, managed to retain his dignity to the end. Michael died mid-November two years ago.

At his funeral, Michael had asked people to wear black (as he always did) and to carry one white lily. He chose his own music and the first piece was the theme to the film Dracula - very dramatic. Unfortunately, on that wet, dismal, November afternoon, the celebrant at the service had been caught up in a traffic jam, so the Dracula music was played over and over again while the gothic Golders Green chapel got chillier and gloomier. It was sort of funny, in a dark way.

Michael taught me the meaning of integrity in which he excelled. He also advised me not to wear grey and I try not to. I guess he must have been lonely a lot of the time but he chose that life rather than compromise anyone else by his medical condition.

Out of sight but not out of mind. Michael, the quiet American - he was a friend of mine.