A year at university in about 1980 taught me I wasn't for the academic life and although I could do the beer drinking bit (we didn't have electric blue vodka in those days) I wasn't very good at stuff like girls. Probably bright enough, but no, what, application? I was reading Physics, Mathematics and Computer Sciences. Not much use for chatting up girls. My good friend Richard though, he had no trouble at all and occasionally I could eat the crumbs of his rich fare. He was reading Physics too - we sat together - and music. He persuaded me to come to a concert by the University Orchestra - I suspect he had his eye on the first violinist. Probably all the violinists.
Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto is a beautiful beautiful piece of music. But I made one of those innocent errors that cause people sitting around you to turn and look at you both strangely and sympathetically and the oaf two rows away to guffaw. "I don't really think much of this," I said to Richard. He turned and stared at me. "They're warming up!" he said. I've never forgotten that an orchestra tunes its instruments to an Oboe's 'A'.
You see, there are times when, even though everybody else knows what's going on, you don't. And you don't even know that you don't know what's going on but you could find out if only you asked.
Top floor of the Ealing hospital. Cancer ward.
My mate Greg lies thin and skeletal on a bed with a single sheet over his heaving body. A lady is manipulating her fingers over the soles of his feet. An oxygen mask grips his mouth. He is no longer taking food - morphine only. He is waiting to die and the hospital isn't allowed to kill him. His boyfriend J sits gaunt by his side and nods at me, well - or unwell in this case - gauntly as I come in. When J rang me to tell me Greg had elected to stop food and medication the medics gave him 3 days. That was Saturday. This was Wednesday, day 4. Greggy lasted till the next Saturday. Stubborn bugger.
A few months earlier he had talked me through his huge plastic bag of multi-coloured pills. He took a menu of them every day. He had defeated the cancer that had invaded him and started to eat his body. He had been teaching in Kiev when Chernobyl blew. Or it may have been an evolution of the shingles. Maybe both. Who knows how this stuff works?
"I was lying there one night," he told me seriously, "when I had a vision. A real, film quality vision inside my head."
He paused for a sip of water. "I was a conductor. Of an orchestra. All of the players were packing up and going home. I tapped my baton on the lectern. I cleared my throat and tapped harder. Everyone stopped and turned to look at me. People returned to the seats, unpacked their instruments and started playing.
"The orchestra was me and the players were the parts of my body."
I looked at J. He was holding it together, I had tears streaming down my face. Greg was breathing hard clutching at life from the mask.
"Greg?" I said softly.
An eye clawed open and flickered towards me.
"Has the orchestra all gone home?" I asked.
He nodded with difficulty.
As I said, there are times when, even though everybody else knows what's going on, you don't. But you don't even know that you don't. And you could find out if only you asked. But you can't and you don't.
Here's the thing. There are times when no fucker, not even the health guys and the scientists we reverently look to, know what's going on. But they don't want us to know that, so they peddle confidence. In place of knowledge. Then slight of hand to conflate the two.
And here's another thing. There are times when, even though everybody else thinks they know what's going on, they don't. And even though you think you don't know what's going on, you do.
Maybe that's why we turn to things like religion. Or spirituality.
His ashes were flown back to Sydney so I've not seen a sign of him since. But I talk to him often.