Thursday, 26 June 2008

An old boy called Dave

Some friends where going to Glastonbury town for the weekend and invited me along with them. I wasn’t doing anything special so I agreed. They were the right kind of people to go to Glastonbury with; kind, spiritual, genuine and intelligent. I usually went to the West Country with more nefarious characters; druggies who liked to rave and get high, so I figured it would make a nice change. There were 8 of us - three couples, a single girl and myself. The plan was to stay in one of the hippy retreats at the bottom of the Tor and explore. I’d been to Glastonbury town a few times I knew it quite well; the chalice well, the site of king Arthur and Guinevere’s grave, the Tor, the witches, the druids, the stories. I knew a lot about this world, you could say I came from it in some ways. I was a Glastonbury festival veteran, I must have been to 15 of them at least. It used to be my Mecca right up until the year the fences finally went up strong enough that they actually managed to keep illegal revellers out. It had to happen in the end, the law was about to shut it down for good, but that was the year Glastonbury Festival lost its real heart beat. It would never be the same again. You need the wildness, and it just won’t get it back. It is a corporate event now. Everything changes, it is just how it goes. Life cycles. The festival is something I could write a book about of itself, hell, maybe one day I will, but this story is about something else, it just so happens to have taken place in Glastonbury Town.

So we hired an 8-seater and drove the 150 miles from London to Somerset after work on a Friday night. It was winter but wasn’t too cold or harsh. Maybe it was spring I don’t exactly remember, but it sure wasn’t summer. We all stayed in a wood cabin on the grounds of the retreat. There was chanting and meditation in the evening, the usual vegetarian dishes, and lesbian hippies all over the place being twee and talking bollocks. Such places always made me sarcastic and obnoxious. I just didn’t seem to settle well into the whole pseudo-spiritual-environmentally-sound thing, which is strange considering how much of a freak I am and what I have seen and done. I always feel a little let down by them somehow, distanced. Like, where is the spunk? It’s all a little pretentious, or maybe I am. I am never certain. Well I tried to go along with it and play nice. My friends were the same, but seemed better adept at being polite and fitting in than I. So I snuck out for cigarettes and wondered when we would all go out drinking so that I could try and pull something. We found a crazy party in the end with drunken West Country cider drinkers playing ukuleles and cross-dressing, t’was quite a night. I started to think it had been a good move getting myself out of London for a change. We got up early the next day, hardly hung over, and raring to get out and about round the town. It is a great place to visit even if you aren’t a hippy. It’s small, but there is magic there, this is the true Isle of Avalon, and if you are even slightly bent towards a spiritual nature then I guarantee there is no better place in the world to have weird and amazing experiences. It is always good, always odd, and always somehow feminine, but I digress.

We did the town, and by the afternoon were ready for the walk up the Tor. For those who don’t know, the Tor is a medieval building atop a strangely layered hill that rises sharply above Glastonbury town. A king hung a monk up there once to prove some point, and there are strange tales about a Badgerman who lives inside the hill. Good old England. You can see the Tor for miles around and it has many legends associated with it. It is a powerful place. The sun was out, it was a calm day, but crisp, and we ascended from the far side up a zigzag path that had seats occasionally for to rest ones tired butt. It was at one of these seats that the single girl, J, met an old guy called Dave. I noticed him immediately because he made me laugh, well his hat did, it was torn in the middle, a flat cap clearly the worse for wear. I had walked past him and nodded hello, then snickered to myself, and continued on. J being the beautiful character that she is, decided to stop and chat, and the next thing we know she has invited him to join our little soiree up to the top of the Tor. Not a big deal, but as Dave’s story unfolded I was touched by J’s perceptiveness to know that this guy really needed something like this to happen just at that moment.

I can be a pretty ignorant son-of-a-bitch at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I caught snippets of the conversation between J and the old boy, and my curiosity drew me to walk with them. It turned out Dave was 80 years old. He looked pretty good for it, I thought. He could still hold his own in the walk up the Tor. He said it was the first time he had gotten out of his house in a few months. Turned out his wife had died about 2 months previous and he had gone into a state of shock. She had been the only woman in his life; this guy was true old-school British. When she had died his world had, unsurprisingly, fallen apart. He said the last of their good friends had died a few years back and so when she went he realised he had no more friends on this earth. He had no other family alive, but we didn’t ask why. It had hit him hard, he said, and his collapse had been total. He was unable to make sense of the world for a while. For anyone who has had any kind of cathartic shock in life you will know that when these things happen you cease to be capable of functioning, and so it was his body and mind had shutdown. He said he got steadily worse until he ended up laid in bed for 2 days, covered in his own faeces, totally out of his mind, unable to eat, or move, and no idea what to do other than wait for death, and so he waited. What upset him the most was that no one from the local church they had attended for the last few years rang, or came to see how he was doing. Dave was a Christian. He was devastated by the realisation that all those god fearing so-called do-gooders had been so selfish. He couldn’t understand it. In the end, after a couple more days, he managed to get up and clean himself and left the house to get some food. All this had happened a few days previously. He had walked out from his home that morning to the Tor hoping to try to start getting himself back on track, he couldn’t afford the bus fare either and was waiting a few days to collect his next pension, what little it was.

I was shocked by his story and more so, that I had not picked up on his state at all. He just looked like another old boy sat on a bench enjoying the air. I had walked passed so many of them in my time and never considered it much. It got me thinking; how many people had I passed in my life and ignored, yet had this kind of story and just wanted someone to tell it to, some stranger to connect with? You just wouldn’t know to look at them. The loneliness of growing old was so unavoidable as you become more and more distant from people, with less and less reason, or ability, to communicate to strangers who would really probably rather ignore you. I had been pretty blasé towards him, I was always like this, and I had no idea until then just how bad I was. I had seen that loneliness before too, with my Granddad and my Gran. It dawned on me that there was no escaping this fate for any of us. The only way out was an early death and no one wanted that. Life was so god damn cruel. The future was a pretty scary place.

Dave hung out with us for the day, he was so revitalised by having human contact it was a beautiful thing to see. He said he had never met people like us, always hanging round older people as he had, but he was no fuddy duddy, he’d had many adventures in his life, a few of which he told us about. You could see the glow in his eyes as he recounted them and the pleasure he took in having an audience that actually was interested to listen. I wondered what kind of life he must have been living the past few years and what kind of people he’d had to suffer just to find company. The human world can be so full of coldness and false pretence. He kept saying how different we were, but I knew we were just younger, it was changing for us every day, getting a little harder and more isolated.

We took him back to the retreat and the lesbians made a big fuss of him, danced with him, fed him, and generally totally won me over for being able to give the guy a bit of love that he really deserved. I was shamed to admit they were better people than me after all, they knew how to give love to a stranger. Another thing that amazed me about Dave was how he had no bitterness in his soul whatsoever. I was 40 and already 40 times more twisted over life than this guy, and my story was nothing compared to his. But there was an unspoken fear there, we all sensed it in our own ways, it was our fear; the reflection he brought to us that made us look into our own lonesome souls and quake in terror at the inevitable day that this would happen to us, that we would find ourselves alone, love-lost, and helpless. I guess this is why all those churchgoers shunned him, instead bowing to their false sanctuary they called the Church of God, going each Sunday to put a little money in the charity tray just to buy off the guilt they must feel, because I figured everyone of them knew damn well they were avoiding Dave.

The sad thing was, or maybe it wasn’t sad at all, but on the journey home the next morning after what had been a life changing weekend in many ways, I sat in the back staring out the window at the rain falling on the queues of cars taking the M4 motorway back to the Big Smoke, when a thought struck me; Had anyone bothered to get a contact number or address for him? I asked, knowing I wasn’t the sort to stay in touch, but thinking they might, of course no one had.

That was the way it went sometimes, you fell into a moment, you passed people like ships in the night, experienced something profound yet often disturbing, and then it was gone like dust through your fingers before you could grab the goodness in it. A guilty silence descended, but I knew we had done something right, there was nothing more we could have done really. The experiences came and went, like life did, and we had shared it in the best possible way. If we had clung on, it wouldn’t have kept the magic, it happened how it happened and it was right, I felt sure. I snuggled down, pulling my jacket round me, and listened to the hum of the engine and the music play quietly, watching the red car lights lead me back to one of the biggest cities in the world and yet a place where you could live in anonymity without speaking to a soul for years, all the while surrounded by over a million people. Makes you wonder about us all really. How cold we get, how uncommunicative we become as the years go by, and how hard it is to stay happy, so god damn hard just to believe everything is going to be ok in the end.

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