Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pennines and pavements

My good friend John Pullan is dead. My oldest friend John Pullan is dead. He died a while ago now, on the morning of Sunday 30 November 2008. He had spent two years battling cancer - if that is the word I should use. Whenever there is talk about the way people deal with cancer the word always trotted out is "battle", but I'm not sure that describes what John did. Better to say that medicine and surgery helped him resist it with a courage that was admirable and an insouciance that was, at times, disquieting. Despite being progressively worn down by the most aggressive of brain tumours he tried to keep his life as normal as possible. For a long time, until the funeral, I didn't understand why that was. It was just one of John's traits that I didn't really get. Pity he had to die for me to come to terms with who he was and his reasons.

The funeral was held at the crematorium in Skipton and I arrived there the day before when scraps of snow littered the streets and a persistent drizzle wrapped everything in a obscuring mist. I didn't want to be there, didn't want my friend to be dead, wanted time to say all the things I should have done and did not want a chapter of my life to close with such finality.

That night, and the next as I was wandering about Skipton, my head was down to match my mood and all I saw was the untidy, gritty pavements passing beneath my feet. And then, I'm not sure why, I lifted my head and had a startling moment of clarity. People do not visit Skipton to look at its pavements. The town sits in an adverbially pretty part of North Yorkshire. The hills circling it are beautiful in any and every weather. Clad in deep frost, light snow and low winter light they looked picture perfect.

It was then that light dawned about why John stayed in Yorkshire; why he went back after studying at Newcastle. He only had to look out of the window - any number of times a day - to know he had chosen well. The way the hills looked on that cold December morning showed how smart John was to stay and what he had seen that I, and others, had missed. And left behind.

But John didn't. That was why he stayed, I think. He had everything he needed; family, friends, a sense of belonging. Enough for anyone. For someone as rootless and faithless as me the sense of his choice, why he did not want to change, was hard to appreciate. But not now. Now I know why. And it makes me miss him all the more. If that were possible. My good friend, my oldest friend, John Pullan is dead.

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