This was no larkin’ matter
How rarely people surprise us. Consider Fred, who rang the other day. When Fred was 16 and I was 26 I taught him English. I introduced his class to, among other things, the brilliant miseries of Philip Larkin: ‘‘Only one ship is seeking us, a black-sailed unfamiliar…’’ – that sort of thing.
Fred and I got on well back then because we shared a religion. Its one tenet was that I knew everything. I’ve kept the faith ever since – what’s a religion for if not to defy the evidence? – but I fear that at some point in the last four decades Fred may have apostatised. Nevertheless we’ve stayed intermittently in touch.
The decade between us has shrunk, and now that he’s over 50 we’re not far from being the same age. But whenever I hear from Fred I still picture a skinny teenager with a penchant for football and honesty. And perhaps he still pictures a young man with carrot-coloured hair and a penchant for gloom-sodden poets.
Fred was a nice kid and, as nice kids tend to do, he’s grown into a nice adult. (We deceive ourselves about the influence of schools. Most children’s nature is sealed before they ever set foot in school. As a teacher, when you meet the parents you forgive the child everything.)
Fred’s sired a swarm of kids and been the sort of father all kids deserve but too few get – modest, loving and good at walking away when they annoy him. His sons admire him; his daughters adore him.
We talked on the phone of this and that – the passage of time, the diet Fred’s been on, dogs – and then as the call was tapering towards goodbye, ‘‘oh and by the way,’’ said Fred, ‘‘I nearly died.’’
‘‘Whoa ho,’’ I said, ‘‘tell me more,’’ because proximity to death is always good. ‘‘I’ll send you an email,’’ said Fred and he did.
It seems that Fred caught a strain of the flu that killed a lot of people. Its trick was to coat and smother the bronchioles. (I’ll admit to not knowing precisely what bronchioles are but I have an image of the little waving arms of a sea anemone, all of them busy grabbing oxygen.)
The effect of smothered bronchioles is slow suffocation. For five days and nights Fred struggled to breathe and was afflicted with vertigo.
‘‘Not only did I feel like I was being forcibly strangled, whilst spinning in my bed in the middle of the night for hours on end, but I actually had the sensation of my spirit leaving my body. It was terrifying beyond words.
‘‘Long after I was more or less back to strength, the anxiety and depression lingered. Any time I was given an opportunity to enjoy a cup of coffee, or a biscuit, or anything of any remote pleasure, I was confronted with feelings of ‘What’s the point? – all this is useless to me – death is waiting’. I tried to explain it to a couple of people but it meant nothing to them.’’
It took more than a year for Fred to shake off this existential dread enough to take pleasure again from pleasurable things. And he reckons he’s scarred for life.
But then, because character doesn’t change, Fred apologised for having written such a gloomy email and he hoped that he hadn’t depressed me.
‘‘Not at all,’’ I wrote back. ‘‘You’re as honest as ever, and honesty’s always good. Besides, your email reads like a Larkin poem.’’
‘‘I knew you’d say that,’’ he said.