The Post

This was no larkin’ matter

- Joe Bennett

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.

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