The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Sunday, July 13, 2003
EPILOGUE TO THE CHURCH OF ME

1. After the death of his first wife Hilda Carline, Stanley Spencer continued to write letters to her for the remaining decade of his own life; extended conversations with the afterlife as a means of interpreting and, more importantly, keeping alive the memory of their living relationship.

2. After the death of Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel continued to conceive and write routines for both of them for the remaining eight years of his own life. It kept his creativity alive and stopped him from immolating himself in untold depths of grief.

3. The bad memories towards the end will discolour the good if you are not careful. I might have been unduly unfair to I, Monster recently. In reality I am too scared to listen repeatedly to their song “Sunny Delights” – a summer song which is about dehydrating, melting and dying in an ozone-less torment of a heatwave. The distant trombone sample reminds me of Pete Moore’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Samantha” which ends the David Jacobs Show on Radio 2 every Sunday night. This always marked the end of our weekend and our reluctant return to the world of work. Now it is yet another symbol of a life, an existence, beyond anyone’s reach. I think of the August Bank Holiday Saturday, the hottest day of 2001 in Oxford, and what the heat and the sun did to help finish off someone already too weak to fight anything off.

4. But I also think of what our lives were like in the years before then, summed up well by Roy Harper in his song “Me And My Woman”:

“I never know what kind of day it’s been on my battlefield of ideals
But the way she touches and the way it feels, must be just how it heals
And it’s got a little better since I let her sundance.”

5. David Bedford’s orchestral arrangement on this song – how it comes and goes, listening and interpolating, the personification of the Other.

6. Perhaps it is the painful effort to prolong one’s own life which makes me so hostile towards those who would assert that there is no future, that it was all over by 1969 or 1974. Of Ian MacDonald’s The People’s Music I have little to say except to quote from Harper again:

“You tell me that Grandad was a hero
That he fought for peace and no more guns
But I think he must have changed his name to Nero
You see every time he grunts he kills his sons.”
(“One Man Rock And Roll Band”)

7. So many reasons why the career of Joy Division/New Order is the greatest career in all of pop music. Laura and I would never have happened without them. What greater example of bereavement counselling is there than the career of New Order? On Movement they are speaking in the tongues of the deceased. But they leave an escape hatch open for themselves with “Everything’s Gone Green.” The laughing heard in the intro to the 12-inch of “Temptation.” “Blue Monday” – we mourn the person, we embrace the monument, we reinvent pop, we move on and live.

8. The sentiment of the Byrds’ “Everybody’s Been Burned” is relevant. One could describe one’s new ambition as finding someone to whom the last line of the song could be sung.

PROLOGUE TO THE CHURCH OF ME

He awakened, quite naturally, at 5:51 am. It was strange how getting up at six in the morning to go to work was drainingly exhausting for him; yet, having gone to bed at about 1:15 am, he could feel that he had had a full and satisfying night’s sleep. It was a lush morning, warm but not stiflingly so. Even the dreams had divested themselves of the elements of nightmare – always the case when there’s a definite end to be met.

After ablutions and breakfast he briefly looked at the contents of his front room. He knew it was unwise for his gaze to linger too long upon them. What would happen to everything? He left a note for his landlady with this month’s rent, saying that he would be away for some time. But after so many months the landlady would run out of patience and dispose of everything in there in lieu of any further rent payments. That is if the bailiffs didn’t get there first; sent by the card company following six months of ignored reminders, final reminders, debt collection notices, county court judgements. Who could possibly sell, or want, all of it? An archive meaningless without the existence of its proprietor, whose existence had not been deemed sufficiently noteworthy for the archive to be preserved and deified. He remembered the equally quick gaze he gave to the empty, echoing flat in Oxford – now just another anonymous, unlovable bolthole of accommodation – before putting the keys back through the letterbox. In fact he was too hot and tired for prolonged gazing and meditating, having just spent two hours shifting everything out of there. Probably just as well. He would otherwise probably never have made it beyond Sandhills Park and Ride.

He went out into the comfortable-looking street. He had no need of a newspaper from the 24-hour garage, where already cars were filling up in the forecourt, their drivers beaming at the thought of a long and happy day of travelling. Victoria Coach Station in miniature, but with no set departure times. A bus appeared on cue, and he boarded it.

He knew of course that in other circumstances he would now be waking up in Brighton for a bracing stroll along the promenade. But Brighton was no longer an option. He knew from the moment he emerged from the train station that this place held nothing for him, would not delete or assuage his pain, would be too crowded for him to stay sane. The art of walking down an ordinary street was usually enough to defeat him; the debilitating need to assert himself every five or ten paces. So he used public transport whenever he could, though could doubtless have done with more walking, if it didn’t exhaust him so much.

The bus approached Streatham Hill station. Not too late to give Brighton another chance. Hop off, hop onto a commuter train, change at Gatwick and away you go. But of course he is having none of it. Can’t go there again. He stayed on the bus until it reached its terminus at Clapham Common. What a lovely day for just lounging about on the Common. Any sane person would; get a paper, a book, switch your Walkman on, spread the towel out and enjoy yourself. Or you could always cross the road and get an 88 to Camden Town (too much like Brighton for his liking), then the 24 to Hampstead Heath and leisure about there for the rest of the day. Maybe come out the Highgate end, go and have a look at Highgate or Crouch End or Muswell Hill, perhaps go as far as Ally Pally; or else venture in the opposite direction, towards Finchley and the surreal farmlands of Mill Hill. You didn’t even need to do that. Look, there’s the tube – get the Northern line to Waterloo, spend a nice morning wandering on the South Bank, looking at the second-hand books. This idea he actually half-considered; it was always one of his favourite ways of spending a morning in London. Then a quick coffee in the NFT café, then go over the bridge and keep going towards Covent Garden and Soho; check out the record and bookshops. He had recently, and briefly, experimented with the idea of doing this in the company of others, but it had been a disaster. Everyone, most of all him, felt uncomfortable. It was a stupid idea. This is the kind of activity which can only be undertaken on one’s own, or in the trusted company of a loved Other. There were too many memories of what it was like when both of them did it.

True enough, anyway, that even if he did get the tube he would probably have to change at Kennington and wait for a Charing Cross train. Too much effort. Today he needed to expend the least amount of effort possible. He thought of that strange street, Windmill Row, which comes at you at the junction of Kennington Road and Kennington Lane. It was almost like a miniature Abingdon; the little music shop, the newsagent next to it – the kind of Home Counties oasis you don’t expect to encounter in the unforgiving terrain of south-east London. Home Counties? More than that; he could narrow his eyes and imagine that he was approaching Swaffham, or Stamford.

But he will not get the tube for here comes a 137 bus, going all the way to Oxford Circus, and here he is getting on it automatically. The back seat upstairs is free; he makes himself comfortable on it. It’s a holiday so the bus is not too busy. Not too late. Not too late just to stay on it until it gets to the Circus of Oxford, and then you can go through Soho, Covent Garden, South Bank in reverse. Or anywhere for that matter. Not Battersea though. Nothing of value for him in Battersea. He passes the Stepping Stone restaurant and remembers an uncomfortable staff Christmas dinner from a few years ago. Forced smiles, daggers out at appraisal the next afternoon. Except it wasn’t even at the Stepping Stone but at the Café Rouge up the road. Cold turkey and colder pudding.

The circuitous industrial estate, the Battersea Park roundabout, and then it’s Chelsea Bridge. The north riverbank on the left side reminded him far too lushly of another now defunct element of his life. In truth there was little left in London which didn’t remind him. Still, you know the deal; come off at Sloane Square, have a gander down the King’s Road, maybe walk down to Kensington Gardens, come out the Notting Hill end and then onwards to Portobello.

But he is not taking this option either. The logical and rational thing for him to do would have been to disembark at Lower Sloane Street, cross over and get an 11 or 211 to Victoria Coach Station. See if you can’t get a last-minute return to Glasgow! Go up and see your mum! With no luggage? Glasgow was, more than ever, not an option. Or why even settle for the Coach Station? Stay on the bus until you reach the train station! Then you have one final chance to go to fucking Brighton! The express service! Or Lewes for fuck’s sake if you want that genuine Virginia Woolf feeling. Take a look at the old house. Think what must have gone through the poor bastard’s head as she strained not to turn the selfsame head back towards the house, the life, which she was leaving behind. Nicole Kidman stepping daintily into the Ouse in sumptuous Philip Glass-soundtracked sunlight. In reality it was a windy, freezing March afternoon and the river was flowing so fast that even walking, never mind jumping, into the bastard would have been enough to break your neck and finish you off. Nonetheless, what he had to do could not be accomplished in Lewes.

So he stayed on the bus, right the way through Knightsbridge, right up to Hyde Park Corner, and even here he had the option of getting off and getting on a 14 or 19 to Piccadilly and just – well – try to keep going. But of course he is a stupid bastard and he knows exactly where he is going and no one is ever going to be able to talk any sense into him. With crushing inevitability he finally gets off the 137 bus at the approach to Marble Arch and makes his way towards the Oxford Tube stop. Even here there are options, so many options, still open to him – a 10 or a 73 into town, there a 36 heading towards Paddington; get off there, walk down Westbourne Grove into the Grove of the Lad Broke for indeed he is a lad broke so fuck off as regards that unfulfilling option.

But no, here is an Oxford Citylink coach, and no way is he getting on it. Why did Oxford Citylink never bother to install toilets in their coaches? It is inexplicable. Well, they say, it’s only 52 miles, not long enough to justify the expenditure – and yet here you have the Oxford Tube with its double deckers and WCs making a killing. If he were to go to Oxford he would do so on a Tube of Oxford coach in bright red in accordance with its indirect sponsors the Central Line. He looked again at the 36 bus peeking out from behind it. Perhaps go to Paddington and get a train? 15 quid, but what does that matter? It is true that on evenings when he was running late or tired he would sometimes opt for the train just to get home at a reasonable time, when he didn’t feel in a mood for the slow jams of the Savoy Circus. But that was not the way he usually did it, and if he’s going to do it this time, he must do it the way he usually did it.

And before long the Oxford Tube appeared. There were only a couple of studenty-looking tourists waiting at the stop beside him, and he noted with some relief that the coach itself was relatively sparsely populated. He paid his ten quid, went upstairs and settled in the front seat. Crowded coaches were a terrible and suffocating thing. He had become used to the commuter crush, having done it for so many years, but doubted whether he had any energy left to endure it now. The day, most importantly of all, needed to be free of stress, since in a way that was the purpose of the day.

The bus drifted down through Bayswater, Notting Hill (not too late to get off! Make your excuses!) and the Shepherds Bush roundabout (you could still get off here! One last chance! No chance) before heading onto the empty expanses of the A40. Astonishing how quickly one could get from the BBC to Park Royal when there was no commuter traffic. Perhaps, he reflected, he should have done it on a 5:20 pm Friday night jam-packed coach/motorway for the real experience. The Savoy Circus, East Acton (Wormwood Scrubs blending imperceptibly with Hammersmith Hospital), the half-demolished Western Avenue, the Hoover Building (what would it actually be like to live somewhere like Perivale?), Hanger Lane, all flicked by with great rapidity, and before he knew it he had arrived at the terminal desert of Hillingdon. He realised of course that this was yet one more chance for him to get out of the deal; come off here, get the tube back into town (Baker Street in 45 minutes; come on, admit it, you just had a funny morning). He will not be talked to. He thought it odd that Hillingdon station, and what surrounded it, was not strictly speaking Hillingdon, but the unlovely arse-end of Uxbridge. Actually the little he had seen of Hillingdon itself suggested that it tended to do itself down overly. But that hospital. Hospitals in general.

So he is staying on this bus and nothing and no one is going to get him off it until he so decides. On through the fake ski-slopes outside Gerrards Cross, the distantly glimpsed Chequers, the non-existence of Borehamwood.

The approach to High Wycombe. Truly this is a grand approach; the town brutally cut into the hillside, looking far bigger than it actually is. He thought sadly of past summer evenings, coming back home through this cutting, music on the Walkman. When work was a pleasure. Oh no, it was scarcely five or six years ago that he thought nothing of getting off the coach at Victoria and walking at breakneck pace to Denmark Hill in about 40 minutes, happy and looking forward to the day’s adventures, or even the day’s routines. Now walking to the end of his own street was enough to knacker him. In truth he could have done with a lot more walking, but the right foot would start to ache with the bare minimum of propulsion and the lung damage sustained following the accident meant that he was more easily wont to run out of breath.

Then more Wycombe, with the briefest glimpse of Windsor Castle on his far left; onwards through the hollow lands of Stokenchurch, waiting for the Telecom Tower’s upstart little brother to make itself visible – and then, the great cutting, the great boundary, used in a million car adverts, the point where GLR disappeared from reception and was replaced by BBC Radio Oxford, for he was now back in Oxfordshire. The luxuriant panorama of countryside which awaited him at the end of the cutting – Oxford itself not yet visible, but there the Didcot cooling towers, that most reliable of landmarks. And there the Junction 6 turnoff at Lewknor. He had never quite worked out why the coach always stopped here, except that he had once heard a story that it was because the managing director of Oxford Tube lived around here. Oh the joys of compulsory capitalism. And even here it was not too late for him to turn back, to walk under the bridge and get the Tube returning in the opposite direction, back to London, back to life; or if he couldn’t be bothered about London, why not hitch-hike a bit, flag down a passing local bus service and maybe have a look at Thame, with its street of tea shops and its occasional opportunities to meet Robin Gibb or Tim Rice. The options that are open to man in the 21st century are limitless.

At Lewknor, needless to say, he did not disembark, and instead he carried on through the anonymous farmland – there the Thame turnoff, and right in front of it, there the turnoff to Oxford. He mused that maybe he could have hitched all the way up to blinking Birmingham if he had so wished. But what was there for him in Birmingham? He thought of someone he had known in Edgbaston, but that was 20 years ago. Come off it.

But he would not come off it, not even at the service station. One of the most frightening nights of his life came when, having boarded the National Express from Victoria to Glasgow, it followed the A40 route and stopped off at Oxford Services for refuelling. He shivered. This was no escape. A freezing cold December midnight, and there she was, the whole purpose of his life, freezing just a couple of miles up the road in Headington Cemetery. He would gladly have stepped out, lay down and let the coach squash him.

So onwards, past the tower block at Wheatley adjoining the library where she did her apprenticeship, and then there he was, at Sandhills Park & Ride. Even here he could have opted out, crossed over and gone back. It was still early and it was still summer. The day remained in hand. The day remained an option. But he carried on, past the Green Lane roundabout, past Bury Knowle Park.

However, he had to get off at Headington shops. He didn’t know whether he had the nerve to visit, but he wasn’t going to be there again, so off he finally came. The plexiglass shark. He thought about what kind of life its owner must have. He had never knowingly seen him in all his years in Oxford and regretted it somewhat; he sounded like the sort of bloke worth having a pint with in the Angel and Greyhound. He had heard stories that the man had at one point stared bankruptcy in the face – his shark-related legal battles having cost so much – but how he had come through it and was now content with his jumble sale jumpers. Was there a lesson there for himself? What’s a shark worth?

So across the road, past Somerfield, and up the Old High Street with its impossibly narrow pavement. then left into St Andrew’s Road, past a pub wherein he had recently spent a depressing birthday, then right into Dunstan Road, past Ruskin College, up the hill and finally through the gates of Headington Cemetery.

Then after an interval, which need not be described here, he left the cemetery via the John Radcliffe side gate, threaded his way through the hospital grounds – having to stop off in the hospital itself to visit the gents’, invoking more memories of how she was always there to visit him when he was transferred there after the accident, how she brought him home – then out past the Arthur Sanctuary House, round the back of the old football ground, down Cuckoo Lane, down through Sandfield Road and then back onto the road to Oxford proper, past South Park, through St Clements, past Magdalen and on down the High Street. When he reached the Carfax Tower he noticed that it was still too early for the Carfax Chippy to be open. This he decided was probably a good thing. Can’t do what he planned to do on a full stomach. Needed to feel at ease.

He was now on the penultimate stretch. He did not especially need to dwell in detail on the city itself. He knew it too well. Down, therefore, through the shops on Queen Street, past the Westgate, the Library, the council, the castle, the nick. Onwards down Park End Street, past the train station (still time to get that train back to Paddington. Never too late you idiot!) and onto the Botley Road. Past the forlorn B&Bs and the Wetgate Hotel whose missing “S” was apparently irreplaceable. The allotments. The community centre. The entrance to Botley Park.

And through there he wandered, knowing what he would see at the end of it but driven to see it nonetheless. There was of course nothing for him there anymore. How could he have expected there to be anything there for him? New curtains in the window, new furniture, new decorations; all visible from ground level. New people. He didn’t feel invaded or emptied, just out of place. It was utterly alien to him. He did not understand its purpose. He did not recognise the place. He stared into his past and found only a blank space. Not even indefinable grey matter; just a colour-free, toneless blank space. A nothingness.

He realised that his work was done. He never quite understood why people felt the need to berate him with words such as: “How do you think she would have felt to see you like this?” It actually did not matter because she was not here to see him like anything. It was enough to get the words down, as proof that once she existed and this was the difference that she made to the world and this is where, and how, she stays alive.

Only one place left to go. He of course no longer had a key to go through the gate and the shortcut into Binsey Lane proper, so he had to do a U-turn up Helen Road, back into Botley Road (there a number 4! Why not pay a visit to Cumnor Hill or Abingdon? No, Cumnor Hill consisted of a pub populated entirely by Mojo readers, and that’s all there is to say about that) and then down the whole length of Binsey Lane, being careful to avoid 90 mph idiot drivers (not that there were any; a few cyclists and that was it, the Perch Inn having only just opened its doors), then turn right at the Perch Inn, down the shaded path, over the stile, and there he was, back in Port Meadow.

It was a glorious day, not a doubt about that. He observed the Oxford skyline away off to his right and the cows grazing directly opposite him on the other riverbank. There was no one else around. He walked for a while in the direction of Godstow Lock. Can’t do it there of course; too many people, that pub with its clientele of impatient motorists. Perhaps carry on towards Wolvercote? Or go up over Duke’s Cut and plunge into the Wolvercote Viaduct? Bit too melodramatic; besides which he didn’t fancy being threshed into pieces.

No, go for that bend just before Godstow becomes visible – Black Jack Hole. Oddly appropriate. There was never any talking to him. He was given so many chances and discarded all of them. Even at this final moment there is absolutely nothing on earth, except him, to prevent him from crossing over to Wolvercote, getting the bus back down the Woodstock Road into town and getting the next Oxford Tube coach out of Gloucester Green.

He takes one final cautious look behind him. No one coming. No swans in the river either to start pecking at him when he goes in, either. Mustn’t overlook that possibility. He is of course severely disappointed that no woman appears to talk him out of it, because if the truth is to be told, the selfish, self-pitying prima donna that he is, that is actually what he wants; not to disappear, but for another Other, a gentle and compassionate female, to come and gather him up in her arms – metaphorically, of course – rescue him and nurse him back to life. It was always fantasy. If that’s what he really wanted he would have done something about it. He would have gone out, gone places, start chatting to people, and as akin as something like that might be to cutting off his right arm, he would somehow have overcome his self-constructed prison and the ideal would have become reality. Except that he’s tried that, and all that happens is that he depresses the fuck out of every potential new Other because he cannot shut up about what has happened, because he cannot block out what has happened, because THIS WAS MY LIFE AND IT HAS NOW ENDED and really what he is about to do now is the best and most painless option.

One last long look, then. Not at Brighton Beach, but at the place where they had been happiest. And, almost subliminally, the pain gradually disappeared and there was now in its place a strange sort of contentment. Now that there was no turning back – now that everything had been decided – there was no need to fear anyone or anything. Most importantly, there was no need to fear that her life would be forgotten – the words he has written prove that she was here and that her spirit has found a home wherein the person he knew can never die. He found it in himself to smile a genuine smile for the first time in too many years.


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