For the past 18 months I would call in to see my old friend Harry* on a Saturday or Sunday morning in his Clapham flat.
Our long friendship started when we were in our mid-20s. He and his first wife became very good friends to my wife and I, both fairly new to London, and they soon introduced us to their circle of friends. Harry and I were particularly close thanks to our love of jazz and contemporary music which we listened to for hours two or three evenings a week.
The seven or eight years of friendships, parties, holidays, dinners, pubs and clubs were the best years of our lives, ending when the ‘set’ drifted apart as kids came on the scene or couples split up.
Harry was even then, among a pretty hard living group, the heaviest drinker and user of recreational drugs. He was also prone to attacks of depression which he put down to his childhood with a violent alcoholic father. It made Harry difficult to be with at times, irrationally angry towards those who loved him the most and prone to self-harm.
Following the failure of his first marriage, Harry’s life went slowly downhill, mainly due to his depression and alcoholism, though he and I kept in touch as he moved around London and then many years in Germany.
He had a zest and energy for life, when on good form, and gave wonderful parties always with new circles of interesting and delightful friends, and the rump of former social circles. Whether I saw him at these parties or just for a mid-day chat, he was always drinking, and he smoked 40 or 50 cigarettes a day.
This drinking and smoking continued throughout an unsuccessful marriage (his third I think) to a long suffering, warm German woman, and ten years of unemployed misery in Frankfurt. Unsurprisingly his physical and mental health deteriorated there and at the fourth or fifth attempt he finally came back to live first with a friend in Surrey and then on his own in a flat in South London.
I was shocked when I saw him, as the ravages of the drink and cigarettes had aged him terribly. One of the few things he brought back from Germany was a list of illnesses including emphysema, osteoporosis, myopathy and pulmonary oedema. The depression was far worse, sapping him of a will to live, to do nothing more than drink and smoke.
By this time Harry had fallen out with his two sisters (his only family) and most of his friends…so he asked me if I would visit him once or twice a week to get some shopping and clean the flat. As I was only a mile away, and still liked the old rogue, I agreed.
His shopping list always started with 200 Mayfair Smooth and three large bottles of gin and three bottles of tonic, a bottle of port and two bottles of wine. There was not much in the way of healthy food.
After I put away the shopping we usually chatted, listened to some music before I made my excuses, his cigarette smoke making my eyes run and throat feel sore, and unable to bear any longer the sound of accumulated phlegm gurgling in his throat.
Recently the amount of food he wanted decreased…he was losing weight, getting more and more depressed. He sought medical help but then refused to go to hospital or GP appointments. I, and one or two other friends who saw him occasionally, told him he was drinking and smoking himself to death, to which he replied ‘Good, that’s my business not yours.’
Harry started going downhill more rapidly two or three weeks ago. I was very worried this Saturday when I visited him as he had lost a lot of weight and didn’t have the energy to get himself out of his easy chair. I told him I was going to take him to hospital or call an ambulance to get him admitted. He got very bad tempered and told me not to interfere. I said that I was going to come round tomorrow (Sunday) and come what may ensure he got to hospital.
I was too late. I opened the door to his flat at 12.15 yesterday and he was curled up on the floor, stone cold dead, his head resting on towels he had by his easy chair.
I called the police, and then the ‘emergency services’ took over…did an excellent job, contacted the coroner and organised for Harry to be taken by a local funeral director to the nearest mortuary. On the advice of the police I left his flat before the fd arrived.
The police found a few numbers on his mobile, and I had the numbers of other old friends, so yesterday afternoon and evening was spent telling people and discussing the tragedy that was Harry’s last few years. His funeral will be sparse but not completely lonely.
It’s likely that I’ll be involved in the funeral arrangements…Harry refused to discuss anything to do with his funeral or death, in effect a focus group of one who saw no point in My Last Song.
Even so, I’ll spend some time going through my memories of the music we used to listen to endlessly when in our 20s and 30s. There will be an appropriate last song for Harry, and those who attend the farewell will know why it’s been chosen.
*Not his real name. Those who know ‘Harry’ will know who this is about. I’ve also not named the wonderful people who shared parts of his life and were not always appreciated by Harry for their love and friendship.