As someone for whom outdoor occasions are rationed even when the rest of the world is partying like it’s 1999, I didn’t anticipate the closing down of society would impact much upon my routinely threadbare social diary – and overall, it hasn’t; but I did have something pencilled-in for today that has sadly had to be postponed. Yet, unlike the roll-call of sporting events whose absence, though strange, can nonetheless be compensated for twelve months from now as this year is written-off as a unique post-war anomaly, I had something planned for today that won’t mean quite the same once this day is done. The personal significance of 3 April 2020 for me cannot be replicated a day from now, let alone a month or two, for only this day will mark a particular anniversary I felt I needed to observe in a specific way; and because of where we unexpectedly find ourselves, I can’t.
Ten years ago today, my friend Alison died alone of heart failure as flames engulfed her candlelit home. She was three weeks short of her fiftieth birthday and was living a breadline existence with no electricity and very little money; what money did pass through her hands was inevitably exchanged for alcohol to quench her long-time thirst for the demon drink, a curse that had left an indelible, destructive mark on her life and person. Alison’s sad story was comprehensively covered both in a blog I ran from 2014-17 as well as the book, ‘Looking for Alison’, which originally appeared in 2015. I stopped posting on the blog when I felt I’d more or less said everything that could be said on the subject; and I’d come as close as anyone could in constructing a biography for a life in which there remain numerous gaps that I filled with what I felt to be plausible conjecture.
What I now tend to refer to as ‘the Alison project’ occupied the majority of my time for a good couple of years and entailed exhaustive research of the kind we’re all accustomed to seeing in detective dramas but rarely turn our hands to. Nobody could have tried harder to piece together the fragments of a life that initially appeared to have left so few traces behind, and whilst the fruits of my labour are far-from perfect, I really couldn’t have done much more. I had a brief correspondence with Alison’s youngest son, who almost acted as a ‘Deep Throat’-like source of information to point me in the right direction, and by the end I felt I’d come to know someone far better than I ever did when she was an actual physical presence in my life. It was just a pity it took her absence for that to happen.
But I was very conscious from the start that a great deal of what drove me to rescue Alison from unwarranted obscurity was guilt. Despite the sadness that casts its posthumous shadow over her memory, Alison in life was a uniquely entertaining eccentric – witty and unpredictable as well as endearingly sweet; she will always be one of the most original individuals ever to cross my path, quite unlike anyone else I’ve ever known. But she caught me at a bad time in my own life (as most people who catch me tend to do) and I wasn’t always in a position to help her when she needed it. The fact that I didn’t learn of her death until four years after it happened – we’d lost touch in the way that friends do – meant that the shock was immediately overwhelmed by feelings of guilt that I’d let her down and hadn’t done enough for her while she was still around. In all honesty, I don’t think anyone of her acquaintance could have done enough; but that didn’t stop the guilt on my part.
The guilt gradually subsided as I eventually completed a project intended to ensure Alison wouldn’t be forgotten as I applied my natural creativity to honour her memory. And I gave it my best shot. The blog is still available to view, the book is still available to buy, and her final resting place received a makeover I thought she deserved. It was this location I’d intended to visit today after a too-lengthy absence, accompanied by the kindred spirit and occasional Winegum commentator who goes by the name of Gildas when in his online guise. Alas, it wasn’t to be on the one day I really wanted to pay my respects; but perhaps the fact that I haven’t visited her grave for more than two years demonstrates that the living sometimes can’t help but be distracted by the one thing the dead are spared. Besides, Alison’s afterlife made arguably an even greater long-term impact on me than the eight years in which we shared an existence, and maybe that was her most significant legacy.
Alison’s afterlife began for me when I belatedly discovered she had died, and that afterlife acted as the catalyst for a seismic shift in the way I saw both myself and the bigger picture. She was the first person I’d made a connection with who’d left the stage, and when that happens, you invariably take stock of where you are and who you are. The determination to evade regret and recriminations in the future is an unrealisable aim, but it can alter your perception and imbue momentary courage. Such a landmark loss also helps prepare you for the losses to come, and I wasn’t to know more would follow far sooner than I’d anticipated. Everyone of importance who’d recently entered my orbit in 2014, and (even more so) those who entered it swiftly thereafter, are emotionally entwined with the memory of Alison in my mind now, and are just as irretrievable. It’s as though the ghost of Alison had placed us all on a celestial chessboard and directed the following episode – beginning, middle and end – from wherever her spirit resided. And when I speak of her spirit, I do so from a secular, agnostic perspective that nevertheless believes science has not entirely explained everything.
Today I can’t help but ruminate on all that Alison missed by passing away in 2010. As a person whose political leanings were very much to the left, she probably wouldn’t have been impressed by the outcome of the General Election that took place just a month after her death. She missed the Coalition and Austerity; she missed the 2011 riots and numerous terrorist atrocities; she missed Brexit and the election of Trump; and she missed Covid-19. Yes, one could say she timed her exit well, I guess; but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t criminally premature and tragic, all the same. I often play the morbid game whereby I consider the moments in my own life when I’d really had enough and then think of everything I would’ve missed had I done the deed. The first two examples that spring to mind would’ve robbed me of experiences which improved that life no end, whereas the most recent finds me struggling to think of anything that vindicated my decision (or cowardice) to stick around. But, hey-ho.
I guess what the loss of Alison taught me was the kind of life lesson everyone receives at some point. Not before time, I realised one has to cherish what one has whilst one has it, because nothing is permanent, however much we want the good stuff to last forever. Granted, even adhering to that truism doesn’t make it any easier whatsoever once the good stuff has gone; if it mattered, one never fully heals; there is always a hole in the heart that can never be filled in quite the same way again. The eternal optimist could say these devastating losses, which often appear totally random and without reason as they clear decks we were content to remain comfortably cluttered, happen in order to refashion us as a different person, but the trick is then learning to like that different person; and that ain’t easy. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we simply prefer the people we were when we were happy. And as Alison herself must have known only too well, the transience of happiness is what makes it so bloody elusive. That said, wherever you are now, Alison, I hope you found it in the end.
© The Editor