UK

RICHARD COLES recounts the paralysing despair of his partner’s agonising death from alcoholism 

Richard Coles is pictured above with his dogs

My partner David had a deeply enjoyable habit of not knowing who famous people were. Once we were dining with friends and he sat next to a young fellow who said he played the piano.

‘Oh, Richard’s a pianist,’ David said.

‘Yes, I know,’ said the young fellow, ‘I’m a fan.’

‘Well I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you, maybe give you some advice.’

‘That would be lovely,’ he said.

He mentioned he had a gig coming up.

‘Oh, where?’

‘The Hollywood Bowl.’

It was Jamie Cullum.

Such encounters were not unusual, thanks to my low-watt celebrity status as what David liked to call a ‘border-line national trinket’.

At one Northamptonshire county do, the high sheriff’s garden party, I met Charles and Karen, the Earl and Countess Spencer.

These affairs can sometimes be duty as much as pleasure and we rather fell on each other, living in overlapping worlds through Charles’s background in broadcasting and as a writer, and Karen’s running of a charity for children in the developing world.

My own life is divided between parish responsibilities and earning a living in the media. 

Our affinity made for an accelerated friendship and we became regular guests at Althorp House, not far from Finedon, the parish where I am the vicar and David, to his irritation, was a de facto vicar’s spouse, although ordained himself.

In the days leading up to David’s death at Kettering General Hospital in December 2019, these stalwart friends were among those who came to see him.

They have some experience of public bereavement and when David died shortly afterwards they invited me to spend Christmas with them — ‘You’ll be behind a wall, secure, you can come and go as you please.’

On Christmas morning, Charles made me breakfast and I went for a walk through the park. It was perfectly quiet and still, save the bleating of sheep, and the quacking of waterfowl, round the curiously named Round Oval, a small lake with a little island in the middle.

It is famously the burial place of Princess Diana, Charles’s older sister, and I sat looking out at the island, wondering how you got there, if you wanted to.

Then I saw a tethered rowing boat and thought I might row out, but the likelihood of falling in, on a cold Christmas morning, and having to explain to my host that I had been attempting to land on the island where his sister is buried made me reconsider.

David pulled me towards him until my forehead rested on his. It felt warm and clammy. And, very matter of fact, he said: u00BFThey are going to operate, but I might die. I love you'

David pulled me towards him until my forehead rested on his. It felt warm and clammy. And, very matter of fact, he said: ‘They are going to operate, but I might die. I love you’

On the island there is a little neo-classical temple, with her face in silhouette, and name on it, indelibly.

When the Diana exhibition at Althorp first opened, the teaspoons in the cafeteria, marked with the Spencer S, were stolen in their thousands, but by the time I was there the visitor numbers had decreased to the point when it was no longer sensible to continue. Her death, so noticed by the world, had begun to fade.

And so David would soon be forgotten by the world. It was already happening, removed from people’s contacts, unresponsive on Twitter and Facebook, and, now I had the death certificate, deleted from the financial sector, from government.

The erasure was remorseless but he would not be forgotten by me, not ever.

We met on July 1, 2007, the day of the smoking ban, an irony considering his devotion to that habit. Then a curate, I was preaching in Norwich when I noticed a young and handsome man in the congregation.

At the Communion, he appeared in my queue, which required him to move to the other side of the church. He always denied this, but I think he did.

Afterwards, he introduced himself. Fifteen years younger than me, he was a nurse from Manchester interested in exploring his vocation and asked if he could come and see me to discuss it.

The following Sunday he turned up at my house and we talked all afternoon. I was very proper, very professional.

When the clock struck half past five and it was time for me to go to Evensong, he said, can I come and see you again? I said, yes, let’s make an appointment for a month or six weeks and see where you’ve got to.

I said goodbye, shook his hand, and walked to church thinking, what a nice young man. Then my phone buzzed in my pocket.

It was a text from David.

‘Don’t you get it?’

And that was that.

We were at our best together when we were away, mostly in remote parts of Scotland where we went with the dogs every year, Kintyre, or Galloway, or Caithness. 

Far from the madding crowd he would weave wicker and go paddleboarding while I read and wrote and cooked. We went whole days in each other’s exclusive company content, blissfully content, without saying a word.

We had planned to get a little house up there and had started looking in the places we liked. Now when I look ahead I see nothing.

David’s illness was alcohol addiction. He was an alcoholic, although I do not like to describe a person in all his complexity in so simplistic a way.

When he was stressed, or anxious, or unsure of himself, drink was effective, in the short term at any rate, accessible and socially acceptable. At least, it was until it became uncontrollable.

Alcohol released dark impulses that made him obnoxious. Our social life became impossible.

He lost his job as an occupational health adviser, his ministry as a curate in a neighbouring parish, and he nearly lost me, because I could not stop being angry with him for inflicting this damage on himself and on our happiness.

At its worst I would come home, and sit in my car on the drive, wondering what awaited inside. I had to nerve myself to go in, and find him passed out on the floor, surrounded by broken glass, the dogs desperate to be fed and watered and let out.

And then, after an episode of such appalling behaviour the police were involved, I stopped being angry because I loved him, and he did not need me to make him feel worse than he was already feeling.

He stopped getting drunk to the point of oblivion, but when I checked the empties in the recycling I realised he was getting through almost as much as ever, only in smaller doses.

I tried everything to get him off it, but he could not give it up and the debilitating physical dysfunction was in some ways as hard to bear as drunkenness, sometimes causing me to explode with a temper I did not know I had.

One of the worst explosions was the last, a week before he was taken ill, when I discovered he was spending money we could not spare starting a cafe and craft centre, a project he could not possibly undertake because he was too sick.

To David, I realise now, it was a last defence against the death he sensed was coming, so when I confronted him he would not hear reason. And because I too must have understood on some level that he was on the edge of the abyss, and it frightened me, I lost my temper and shouted and screamed at him.

On Christmas morning, Charles made me breakfast and I went for a walk through the park. It was perfectly quiet and still, save the bleating of sheep, and the quacking of waterfowl, round the curiously named Round Oval, a small lake with a little island in the middle. It is famously the burial place of Princess Diana

On Christmas morning, Charles made me breakfast and I went for a walk through the park. It was perfectly quiet and still, save the bleating of sheep, and the quacking of waterfowl, round the curiously named Round Oval, a small lake with a little island in the middle. It is famously the burial place of Princess Diana

When this had happened previously, he would mock me and say, sarcastically, ‘Britain’s best-loved vicar?’ which would make me laugh and we could move on. But this time he retreated into the kitchen, doubled over in pain and gulping for air.

I am ashamed of having lost my temper, and feel guilty that my verbal violence caused him physical injury. I think, I fear, it contributed to his death.

Friday, December 13, 2019, ill-starred day, began with Boris Johnson walking into No 10 as Prime Minister for the first time after his general election victory, and David vomiting blood.

I find it extraordinary now that the sight of my beloved being stowed in an ambulance did not particularly alarm me, but this was form we had followed before.

I went upstairs to pack the overnight bag he needed for this stay, which would involve a blood transfusion, I supposed, like last time, and then drove to the hospital.

There I was led into a treatment area where David was lying on a trolley, still throwing up blood. One of the medics standing around him handed me a blood-stained consent form.

It said something about options and a risk of death, and I said, ‘Ooh, let’s not do the one with a risk of death, please,’ and looked for a reaction to my campery, but they just looked at me.

David said: ‘He doesn’t understand, give us a minute.’

The medics left. David pulled me towards him until my forehead rested on his. It felt warm and clammy. And, very matter of fact, he said: ‘They are going to operate, but I might die. I love you.’

I started to say ‘I love you too’ but my voice broke, and then he was wheeled away and I signed the consent form and my hands began to shake.

A nurse said he would take me somewhere in the intensive care unit (ICU) where I could wait. As we passed the Costa in reception, I heard a voice say, ‘Oh look, it’s the Strictly Rev! Do us a twirl, Rev!’

I pretended not to hear, but then a couple came over and said: ‘Can we have a selfie?’

And so as David was being prepped for surgery I stood outside Costa doing selfies for people — smile, thumbs up — and later wondered if they would see in their pictures that I had congealed blood on my hands and was white with shock.

Later, David’s doctors explained that he had a gastro-intestinal bleed which they could not repair because his blood pressure was too low.

To operate, they would have to transfer him to Leicester and he would almost certainly not survive the journey.

There was nothing more they could do for him.

‘This is . . . devastating . . .’ I said. ‘What’s your best medical advice on how to proceed?’ I must have sounded like Captain Mainwaring.

‘Make him comfortable, and put him on end-of-life care.’

End-of-life care. He is going to die.

‘We’ll admit him to ICU and when the time is right, withdraw ventilation and let him slip away.’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘His parents are coming from Lancashire. It might be a couple of hours.’

‘When you’re ready.’

I called my PA so she could cancel my appointments and the wasp-buzz of anxiety about disappointing people, losing revenue, was replaced by the arrival of dread, like an ice shelf gliding in from the Antarctic.

My older brother Andy and his wife Louise arrived and we were taken to see David in the ICU. There he lay, calm and still but so vulnerable, so dependent on tubes and plugs and constant attention from the nurses, who were gentle with him and gentle with us.

When his parents arrived, his mum Irene almost ran to his bed and took his hand.

I could see the pulse in Irene’s wrist and prayed, hopelessly, that hers would strengthen his.

After a while, when they had held his hand and kissed him and told him they were there, I suggested we go for a cup of tea in the family room. Irene and Vinnie, true Lancastrians, rank tea just below air in the hierarchy of needs.

I explained what had been explained to me and when I said ‘and let him fade away…’ I felt a stab of betrayal that I was colluding in the medical abandonment of a 43-year-old man only halfway through an extraordinary life.

I wondered if Irene would be angry with me and shout ‘DO SOMETHING!’ She didn’t. We all knew he would not make old bones. One thing to know that, another to be summoned to his deathbed.

Once his brothers Andrew and Mark had arrived, David was taken off ventilation. Without the tube hanging out of his mouth he seemed more peaceful, lying on his back in what looked like a Victorian deathbed pose. How unlike him, I thought, to look so composed, he who could fall asleep anywhere and did.

He had an unflattering habit of dozing off while I was preaching and when we lived in London we once had a team of police officers run through the flat with a helicopter overhead, trying to catch a cat burglar on the rooftops of Belgravia. David, who had nodded off in an armchair, did not stir.

We arranged ourselves around his bed and waited for his breathing to slow and stop. It was only three days after his birthday, which I had marked by giving him coffee mugs made by our friend the potter Doug Fitch.

Had I known it was his last, what would I have done differently? Bought him a Rolex? Whisked him off for a night at Claridge’s? Or just given him more of my attention than I actually had, because I was tired and Rick Stein was confiting a tomato on television?

Obstinate in life, David was obstinate in dying. That first night, we took turns to sit with him and I relieved Irene of duty in the small hours.

Pulling a blanket over myself in the soft medical light I listened to his breathing, which sent me to sleep.

I woke up after a couple of hours and for a blissful second or two did not know where I was. And then I remembered.

It is the worst moment, the opposite of that feeling of immense relief when you wake from a nightmare, then remember it is not real. This is the nightmare you wake into.

I looked at David, sleeping, and my stomach suddenly twisted again, and I knew, in that moment, that I was losing him. David was dying. Soon he would no longer be here, and I would be alone.

That sudden shift, unprotected by the buffers consciousness erects between us and data too horrible to handle, shifted the jumble of what I was feeling, a mixture of denial and anger and curiosity, and as it tumbled away, sorrow filled the space, sorrow of an intensity I had not experienced before.

Over the next four days, there were moments when it seemed he was about to die, but then he would come back and we returned to the long routine. At about 2am on Tuesday, I nipped home to check on the dogs. 

They were oblivious of the hour, just pleased to see me, and I made a cup of tea and sat down for five minutes with them on the sofa, and closed my eyes.

The next thing I knew my phone was ringing. It was five in the morning, and it was his brother, Mark.

‘He’s gone.’

I don’t remember driving to the hospital, but I remember arriving in David’s room. Irene and Vinnie were at his bedside, and Mark, too.

David was lying tidily on the bed, his eyes half-closed, in the unmistakable stillness of death. I don’t think I cried at that moment. I stroked his hair and kissed him on the forehead.

I could not face a hundred phone calls, so we agreed that I should tweet the news. 

To the announcement I added a picture of us both, on the Mount of Olives in our dog collars, when we were leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and a line from Isaiah: ‘The Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.’

I was sending David’s death out into the world. There could be no recall and as I pressed ‘send’ I thought of a dead Viking on a burning ship, heading towards the horizon.

Adapted from The Madness Of Grief by Richard Coles, to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on April 1 at £16.99. © 2021 Richard Coles. To order a copy for £14.95 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Delivery charges may apply. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until April 4, 2021.


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