Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mark and John

I wrote this in October 2009. I can't remember why.

John and Mark at Box Hill, May 1983
It’s not a great photo: it was taken at Box Hill, the famous Surrey beauty spot, in May 1983 and my East German camera’s four functions: shutter, aperture, focus and wind-on, were all strictly manual. So when my brother John clambered onto my brother Mark’s shoulders there was no time to adjust the exposure or compose the picture properly. I just focused and pressed the shutter. Imperfect it might have been, but I did get this one shot.

A year later we returned to Box Hill, but this time we left Mark there: his ashes barely stirred by the windless air. Now, a year after John’s death, we are still waiting to do the same for him. 

When someone dies suddenly, friends will comfort you with platitudes like “at least he didn’t suffer”. When dying is long and drawn out, there is supposed to be comfort in the fact that we have time to say goodbye, put our affairs in order, spread the grief.

In April 1984 I was at university in Birmingham, John was a soldier serving in the Falkland Islands, our eldest brother Tony was preparing to go to polytechnic in Stoke and Mark had stayed in the Croydon area after our parents had moved out to Hampshire.

On Saturday 7 April, Tony and I were visiting Mark and we went to see some friends in a drama revue. During the show, our friend Tim came on stage wearing a sweatshirt with the legend “Falkland Islands 1984”. It could only mean one thing: John was back! In the bar afterwards, I commented that this might be the last time all four of us would be together. I did have my camera but couldn’t get everyone together, so I let the moment pass.

Two days later, Mark twisted the throttle on his Laverda slightly too hard as he accelerated up Oakwood Avenue in Purley. The bike skidded into a parked car while Mark was thrown into – and through – a lamp-post. He took the full impact on the chest; his heart was torn open as it was pressed against his vertebrae. The lamp-post was broken in three. Mark was dead before he hit the ground.

There is no comfort. Death is cruel and agonising. Mark’s death was a sudden, enormous horror that had to be swallowed painfully whole. In the days that followed, the worst times were the mornings: that shapeless world between sleep and wake where for just a moment you don’t know what is real and what was a dream. Every morning for weeks afterwards, there was that half-second of hope that it had been a nightmare, before full consciousness tumbled in and crushed it.

John was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1990, and this merciless condition ripped his body away from him nerve by nerve, I thought somehow that the pain at the end would be less; that I would spread my grief out over years, paying it off in instalments; with a smaller payment to come at the end.

I was wrong. If anything it was worse. I wasn’t paying off a debt of grief: I was saving it up. It paid out with interest last December when one infection too many put him in hospital and he never came out.

I had planned to see him the next day, but the day he died was my company’s Christmas ‘do’: while I was winning a go-kart race, my phone was ringing in my jacket pocket in an empty changing room. His carer never left a message or sent a text, and I didn’t notice the missed call till Dad called to tell me John had died.

We finally had a funeral for John. Being the nearest to the crematorium, I got the job of collecting his ashes (3.47 kg: he ain't heavy). Chance took me close to where Mark had died, so I photographed John's ashes on the spot where it had happened 26 years before. I took a photo – again, not a great one – simply because I couldn't think of a reason not to. The kerb is so pock-marked you can't even see the damage any more.
After nearly two decades of knowing what the end would be, he still died alone. That still hurts. I find no comfort in the platitudes of “lives lived to the full” or “our lives enriched by having known them”. Mark would have been 47 in December; John 48 in September. They should still be here and I’m angry and hurt that they’re not. Grief is the price we pay for surviving.

There hasn’t been a funeral yet. John left his body to science and science still hasn’t finished with it. I don’t care for funerals anyway.

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