It is only halfway through the memoir that we learn the underlying cause of David’s death: chronic decompensated alcoholic liver disease. Coles’s reticence, he explains, arises because “alcoholic” is a word “both too narrow [to describe him] … and too narrowing of sympathetic engagement”. This strain against stock meanings and expected responses shapes a memoir that beautifully records Coles’s explosive experience of grief.
Before his death, David had bought a plot for his burial and one alongside for Richard. Their love for each other is unquestionable and deeply moving. The book spans the period from David’s arrival in hospital until his burial after Christmas. It has an immediacy that is not born of long reflection and it is all the better for it. Grief is a madness. It has, supposedly, five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Perhaps alcoholism involves these five stages as well.
Coles rarely tries to bundle his experiences into neat, instructive lessons (unless advising patience with people in hospital car parks). Grief is shown as messy and volatile — he becomes a potential “pit explosion”, a “walking social IED”. It wrenches all the filters off normality until reality becomes porous, even absurd: he mistakes a hanging dressing gown for the person who once wore it and, at one nightmarish point, fixates on a Paddington bear tied to the railings outside David’s hospital room, seeing echoes of the 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece in its sinisterly pointing paw. It’s bold, intimate writing from the man David would mockingly call “Britain’s best-loved vicar”, catching the seasick pitch of his new state.
The memoir cleverly alternates between a narrative of David’s death and passages describing Coles’s attempt to come to terms with being a widower. He has, he says, been at many deathbeds, sometimes in a professional role but several personal. “For a gay man living in a big city like London in the Eighties and Nineties, deathbeds came frequently as HIV rampaged its way through our circle of friends and intimates.” He heard of the death of the first friend, in 1986, minutes before he went on stage to perform Don’t Leave Me This Way in a TV studio in Barcelona.