January was one of those months, as it often is. A happy sad month. The title incidentally comes from a Tim Buckley album, a singer-songwriter of my youth, but one with whom I never quite clicked: his music, like the voice that many found angelic, seemed to meander, straining for a tune. Both he and his son Jeff met tragic ends long before their allocated time on this earth would have normally expired. Tim died of a heroin overdose at 28, while Jeff, the son that he barely ever saw, drowned in the Mississippi at 30. One of Tim's earliest songs was entitled 'Grief In My Soul', so I guess his life was more sad than happy. But at least he – and Jeff – left durable legacies.
I've given up making the kind of New Year resolutions probably necessary in order to leave a durable legacy. Now it's more a matter of survival: hoping that the incipient aches and pains won't turn into fully qualified arthritis; that 2024 won't be the year that I develop tinnitus in my other ear; that that new mole on my neck won't demand deeper examination; that the occasional shooting pains inside my cranium are merely linked to muscle tension.
But don't get me wrong: my month of January was far more happy than sad, which is I suppose the general state of a perennial melancholic. Life makes me sad, but I'm determined to enjoy it while feeling sad. Despite all that's going on, and despite the customary post-Christmas anti-climactic feel that always colours the first month of the year, how can you feel too sad if your child is staying in the bosom of her family?
For all the minor exasperations – like her slavish adherence to recipes that suggest, for example, you roast six cloves of garlic prior to adding them to your sauce – The Daughter, Tilley the Kid, is a joy to have around. She's forever affectionate and often caustically funny, and it's just generally good to have a fresh perspective on things that challenges the old familiar ways – even if her youthful outlook and physical beauty contrast starkly with one’s own flagging resources and sagging physique.
The trouble with children, though – and I'll wager I'm not the first parent to notice this – is that nothing underlines more the relentless march of time. Haven't you grown! And once they're fully grown physically, you watch them growing mentally, emotionally and in all other ways, watching with a mixture of anticipation as they retrace your footsteps along the continuum of time and trepidation lest they make similar mistakes and experience the same kinds of disappointments and frustrations.
But the trouble with children, too, is that they can't stay children forever. Much as you'd love to hide them away in your own cosy nest from any slings and arrows out there, there's an unspoken recognition on both sides that a month in the country is quite long enough. Any longer and there would be serious questions asked in the house. Did we carry out our role properly? Did we do all that we could? Where did we go wrong? So back to London she had to go: for the next phase of her young life. And when they go, of course, it leaves a gaping hole. Absence makes the heart grow heavier.
And another thing. Around my daughter's current time of life, there were regular weddings to attend, and cards to open announcing the arrival of this or that healthy bouncing babe. Now it's deaths and funerals. Last month, another good friend was ferried across the river Styx. Our friend Howard in the words of e.e. cummings 'sang his didn't he danced his did' and departed far too early. We knew how life-threatening his illness was, but it was still a shock to hear that he'd gone. Not long before, over morning coffee and in my naivety, I believed that he was coping quite well with the treatment, that there was a chance of recovery. I clung to the case history of Wilko Johnson, Dr. Feelgood's manic and hilarious guitarist, who'd been given a death sentence, but then granted a reprieve of several years by a Cambridge surgeon. But no...
So there was a funeral to attend – just a couple of days before The Daughter caught the train back home-for-now. It was a beautiful day for it; 'unnaturally warm for the season' (a cliché ever since we stopped getting snow). We headed south on almost deserted roads to Capdenac Gare, which is actually just across the river Lot and therefore in the neighbouring Aveyron. Leaving nothing to chance, we got there 45 minutes early, giving us time to take a first look at Capdenac-le-Haut, one of les plus villages de France. And it is.
And since we were still too early for the ceremony, we stopped off for a coffee in one of the few bars open on a Monday morning. Pushing open the door, we both did a silent double-take. 'Did you see what I see?' Debs asked, once seated at a table. I did. Both of us had thought immediately that the man in the corner, working with his back to us on a laptop computer, was some avatar of Howard: the same stocky physique, the same shiny bald head. Next time I looked, he'd gone. It wouldn't have surprised me if he'd vanished in a puff of smoke or with a rush of chilly air.
It was a simple, dignified ceremony, with immediate family and a few close friends. A young be-suited Frenchman led the service in English with a charming accent. We were invited at one point to take a little time to remember Howard silently in our thoughts. I remembered the kind of friend who would call a spade a spade. If you'd done or said something to offend him, he'd tell you that rather than leave it hanging around unsaid like a bad smell. But should you ever be in trouble, you knew that he would help you out without a murmur. He was kind and as caustically funny as Our Kid can be. Friends like that are rare, to be treasured and sorely missed.
His body lay in a simple coffin of what looked like unvarnished poplar. We were also invited to take a marker-pen and write him a message on the bare wood: a nice touch and one which I might copy when the time comes, because I'm a notorious copycat. An even nicer touch was to end the ceremony with (I think) Prince Buster's version of 'Enjoy Yourself'. It was Howard's favourite song. How it would've appealed to his mordant and irreverent sense of humour, concluding what tends to be a po-faced service not with a hymn but with some Jamaican ska. 'Enjoy yourself (it's later than you think)/ Enjoy yourself while you're still in the pink...'
I won't copy that one – I've already decided on my own funereal music, which will include Miles Davis's 'So What' (even if some may not get the joke) – but it was a happy way to conclude a very sad event. For three minutes or so I for one wore a big smile on my face. Yes, happy sad. As Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Band suggested, 'Life's like that, isn't it?'