Yo rang my old friend Graham Caveney in England. When I answered the phone, I asked how he was.
“I’m all right, mate,” he replied.
“You’re not though, are you?” I said.
“No,” I have admitted. “I’m not.”
I had just received his message that doctors had given him six months to live. At most. With no warning. He was 57 years old, one year younger than me.
He offered to share the “funny” version of the story of his impending death, which he was developing as a kind of low-key spoken-word performance, with ironic twists, comedic turns and feint-and-jab punchlines.
I don’t know when he hoped to present it, or where he felt it would fit into his repertoire.
But that’s what writers do with our lives. We turn everything into a story.
Graham’s most recent book, On Agoraphobia, had been released a fortnight previously, in April. He had a three-page extract published in the UK Guardian and the newspaper’s book reviewer – or, at least, the sub-editor who wrote the headline – had called it “a brilliant memoir”.
Sober now for nearly 13 years, Graham had been working on his fitness, jogging around a lake in a park, clutching a kettlebell in each hand. His new workout was an instant success: weight loss was sudden and spectacular. It was as if Graham had finally cracked the exercise riddle.
But it turned out that he had terminal cancer: it had started, undetected, in his oesophagus and spread, incurably, to his liver.
He opened a letter from his doctors officially confirming that he had a 43-centimetre tumor growing inside his body, murdering him. He knew it was a mistake: the tumor was only 4.3 centimetres. Surely, he thought, if the medical staff could mix up their numbers, they might also confuse their words from him. Perhaps when they describe the tumor as “malign”, they had meant to type “benign”.
Graham laughed – with the same gravelly, scraping cackle that has made him sound as though he were about to topple into a grave cut ever since I first met him at university in 1983.
And he had been close to death in the past. Abused as a child by Father Kevin O’Neill, the head teacher at his school in Blackburn, Lancashire, Graham was living in a crack house, his teeth bashed out by gangsters, when he finally fought his way out of his suicidal stupor and into a life without drugs and alcohol.
I wrote a feature about Graham’s re-emergence as a writer for this magazine in 2017. On the phone, Graham “joked” that I was probably already planning to write a follow-up piece about his death: “Remember that abused kid, well …”
It had crossed my mind, yeah.
“Do it,” he said.
Graham said doctors had told him that he might live 14 months if he opted for chemotherapy, but he had decided against it, as he would have to waste what little time he had left in the world with his head in a bucket, vomiting.
I pointed out that he had already spent half his life that way.
I have laughed dutifully. He had given me the opening and I had taken it. Mechanically. Unimaginatively. We were the straight man and his comic foil of him, performing for an audience of none.
I promised that I would come back to England as soon as I could. I needed to speak with him in person (for the story, if nothing else). Graham assured me that he did not want his friends to feel that he was not interested in their lives, or that it was somehow trivial for them to talk about themselves. I told him not to worry about that with me, mate. Boom boom.
He planned to marry his partner, Emma, before his funeral, which sounded like the right order in which to do these things. There was a COVID-19-driven backlog of couples waiting to be wed but, apparently, you jump to the front of the queue if the celebrant knows that you might be dead by Christmas. It’s also comparatively easy to attract and retain the attention of your GP, even with Britain’s National Health Service in permanent crisis.
There are all sorts of little-known advantages to dying.
I flew from Sydney to London, looped west to see my mum in Bristol, then caught a train through the body of England and met Graham somewhere close to its belly, in the town of Beeston, near Nottingham.
It seemed a down-to-earth sort of place. I passed a lounge bar and restaurant called Lounge Bar and Restaurant. When I took a picture of the sign, the
owner stepped out, as if to fight me.
Later in the day, he found a boarded-up corner shop called The Corner Shop.
I had been worried that I might not recognize Graham but he arrived dressed up as me – or, at least, me 40 years ago – in jeans and boots, a Fred Perry cardigan and a pork-pie hat.
I felt uneasy with jetlag, but quietly overjoyed to see him. He was slimmer than ever, but he seemed taller, too. Graham was unbowed.
We had arranged to have lunch in a town-centre bar – which, disappointingly, was not called Town Center Bar – but it was closed, so Graham took me home to his house in a terrace magically tucked away from the unbustle of nearby streets. The downstairs walls seemed made of books.
Graham told me that he had decided to go for chemotherapy after all. He had misunderstood his choices of him, believing he could trade a shorter lifespan for greater dignity, but it turned out that he was going to spend his last days in the bucket either way. I refused to allow myself to imagine how that might feel.
He was going to begin the treatment two days after his wedding. The oncologist had asked to see him on his wedding day.
When we were younger, I had not known that Graham had been preyed upon by the priest, or that he suffered from agoraphobia. In his new book, he writes: “To be sexually abused is to be invaded, colonized. It calls into question one of the key tenets of our selfhood: Who does my body belong to? The answer is far from clear. Strategies of survival include: collaboration, insurgency, separatism, insurrection. We may combine these strategies, or alternate them. We may go on dirty protest or hunger strike, or carve graffiti on our arms and the backs of our legs.
“Or we may retreat, find the unexpectedness of society simply too much to risk.”
But Graham is reluctant to ascribe his agoraphobia directly to the churchman’s betrayal.
What does “agoraphobia” even mean? A psychiatrist once asked Graham how he might teach a course on becoming agoraphobic. Graham wrote:
Avoid spaces that make you feel empty.
Avoid empty spaces.
Start to suspect there are two things only: indoors or outdoors.
Find it surprising there are people in the world who are not agoraphobic.
Think of the window pane as a movie screen.
Wonder if blind people can be agoraphobic.
Picture these words written on a flip chart.
And watch them disappear.
It is brittle, beautiful poetry. But so what?
I ignored Graham’s psychic pain. Because I get toey sitting in a house, and I like to be outside, with people. So, in the course of the next 24 hours, I cajoled Graham into taking me on a walk through the town and a stroll around the lake (the lake!). We had dinner in The Victoria pub and breakfast at Caffè Nero.
We talked and laughed continually. We alternated as comedians, by tacit agreement.
Fleetingly, I felt as though I were in a writers’ room, working up material for a sitcom about a dying artist and his idiot mate. But only for one self-aware, self-hating moment.
We spoke a little about people we used to know and things we used to do, but Graham did not want to linger in the past. He was proud and happy to be sober and in love with Emma, and to have written his most recent books by him.
Because the topic we talked about the most was writing. We bitched about publishers, agents, royalties, contracts, book tours and reviewers. It was fluid and cathartic and important, because we have both grown up and it’s with wonder that I have come to understand that we are both authors – proper writers – and that was all we ever wanted to be.
Once, when I mistakenly thought I was dying (in fact, I had been rushed to hospital with, um, indigestion), it wasn’t my life that passed before my eyes, but my children and my novels.
Graham writes like an angel – okay, that might be an insensitive choice of word – and the success of On Agoraphobia you have suggested that other people understand and appreciate that.
All we writers have to offer the world is our words and our love.
The world has accepted Graham’s, and I think that makes it easier for him to die.
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