Till death us did part
He was my ally, my partner in crime and my confidante. With just thirteen days between us – never say a fortnight because that would be fourteen, right? – we were close in accordance with a multitude of definitions; the most obvious being second cousins. My paternal great-grandparents were his maternal great-grandparents. Although that in itself didn’t really count for much as our great grandparents had begotten 17 offspring so our parents had cousins galore.
Yet not quite. My father and his mother had grown up just a few houses apart and they too had been firm allies as the youngest children in their respective families. Many were the tales of their helpless giggling at high tea and high jinx at other inappropriate moments. Even now, living in different cities with families of their own, they were still always delighted to see each other.
He and I were no different. True, we grew up a 20-minute train ride away, but each childhood encounter sealed our allegiance and mutual understanding. We played and plotted, agreed on the spectacular ridiculousness of our older siblings, camped together and lived a life in cahoots albeit apart. By the time we were teens, we were soul mates. A natural party ‘date’ for the other when required – the fact that he was eye candy wasn’t lost on my gal pals – and music lovers. We listened to ABBA for me and Barry Manilow for him – he had a good friend called Mandy. A friend?, I would tease. A friend, he would insist. We talked family and future. We talked boys.
The sudden death of his father shook our 17-yr old spirits. He grieved, I held him. In a bid to start living our own lives, we promptly planned our first holiday together and landed in Stockholm the following summer. We had a blast. One night we slithered under the age-limit radar and saw a nightclub drag show. He made eye contact with an ‘older woman’ in the bar before curtain up. Then she appeared on stage…. He was mortified, I was rolling in the aisle. That story never got old.
And life rolled on too. The following year I fell in love. It crashed, I burned. To a crisp. I raged, he held me. It’s hard to detest men when there’s a decent guy in your corner. He taught me not all men are the same. Thank God.
We matured and grew older, or vice versa. He moved to a London suburb, I moved to Stockholm. But we reunited at his mother’s home every Christmas.
One Christmas he got out his diary and pointed to a Friday in late February. “I’ll be on the 21.05 plane, ok?” Obviously ok. And that was that. Two months later I drove out to the airport. He got off the 21.05 from London. Just as I knew he would. Now we could legitimately get into nightclubs and we had another blast together with a close Swedish friend whom he also knew well. The three of us laughed until we cried. We talked family, friends, music and men. He returned to the UK, and both she and I missed him.
Back home, he fell in love and settled down. I was thrilled. And we continued to meet every Christmas.
Then one September he called to say he’d be on Friday’s 15.30 from London. Was that ok? Obviously. I drove out to the airport. But, where was he? Perplexed I searched the Arrivals Hall again. And there he was. Gaunt and pale, utterly exhausted. Standing with his eyes closed as he leaned against a pillar. I hadn’t recognised his unfamiliar, emaciated features. Frantic, I asked our good friend to join us for dinner. He asked her how it was going at work and they had a lengthy discussion. When he went to the bathroom, she leaned across the dinner table and placed her hand on my arm: It’s AIDS. I nodded, with panic but not surprise. She worked with HIV and AIDS patients and he knew as much as she did about the latest medications and trials.
That weekend we tried to have a blast. Pretending everything was all right while making allowances for everything that was so sickeningly wrong. No need for nightclubs. Or significant small talk. So he returned to the UK without discussing his diagnosis. But he knew I knew. This was why he came. No need to say it. Not out loud. AIDS was a four-letter word back in the 1990s. God’s wrath. Dirty. Shameful. The media were revelling in a gay warlock hunt.
Only, no. Wait.
He didn’t match the media blueprint of a man who committed shady acts after dark. He was a wonderful young man with plans in his head and dreams in his heart. There was nothing shameful or dirty about him. Nothing. He was a perfect gentleman, an amazing listener, loyal, strong, immensely kind, caring and funny. He gave much more than he took. And he loved his partner.
How could that ever be divine retribution?
I realised the family still didn’t know. It’s amazing how busy life is in London. Far too busy for a trip home. But by Christmas the entire family was up to speed and rallying round. We had a man down – almost. But they can do a lot for cancer these days, can’t they? Yes, I agreed, they can do a lot for cancer. Assumptions are tricky bastards. But why crush a mother’s broken heart?
Later that summer I flew back to the UK. His mother, finally in possession of all the facts, was nursing him with professional support. She welcomed me in.
Sun streamed in through the open window but was no match for the dark despair in the bed. This was death’s chamber now and its terror was tangible. He’d finally joined the ranks of the living dead.
He struggled to smile despite his agonisingly painful mouth, but death mocked as it continued to gnaw relentlessly on his flesh and bones. I lay on the bed and held what was left of him, part of me shamefully petrified the researchers were wrong and this heinous disease was contagious by touch. Whenever he was awake, I talked. About family, friends, music and men.
I told him I loved him.
Then he slowly and painstakingly told me how his partner had inadvertently given him HIV. But that I wasn’t to blame him. It was an accident. He told me he hoped the researchers would find a cure but that he knew it would be too late to help him.
He told me he loved me.
We thought this would be the last time we’d be together. Thank God we were right.
I’ve not told you his name because he’s not here to give his blessing.
And I’ve not told you his name, because this blog is really dedicated to EVERY young gay guy who lost his life to this cruel disease under an even crueller cloud of contempt in the early 1990s. May they all rest in peace.