Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old.
That is how the TV version of Brideshead Revisited begins. I am watching it again with Cathy, but this time I am finding the experience entirely different. In the past the opening line, and the beginning phrases, played like a sad but lovely refrain – something like a piece for piano by Debussy – but now I find it all a little more discordant, and the opening line in particular quite jarring. It is as if I put on a record expecting Chopin’s Nocturnes and got Stravinsky.
Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers…. Here my last love died.
Not of course that things are quite as bad as all that, but I am thirty-nine and I have begun to feel a little stiff and weary. I find that I make quite extraordinary noises when I stand up now after chasing some toy that has skittered into the furthermost corner under the couch; that there is some creaking and exhalation as I attempt to clamber from the floor to my full height again. I also look forward to Friday nights and the couch and the TV and a glass of wine a little too much probably. Having been denied those things all week by the need to work I sink with gratitude into my corner of the couch, laugh at Graham Norton on the telly, and then fall asleep until Cathy prods me awake and I lumber into bed.
My feeling of discomfit is not improved as Brideshead progresses.
I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer.
More than twenty years ago I started university, and exactly twenty years ago I met Matt. At the end of 1993 he left for England to join his parents and get a job, and I see, looking at the inside covers, that it was in 1993 that I read, for the first time, The Portrait of Dorian Grey, and Brideshead Revisited. It was also in the summer of 1993-1994 that some friends and I made up a writing group, and I wrote a story called The Hazey Days which was really my version of myself and my friends, and which I thought for a long time would be my first novel.
We lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.
“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I have been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.”
All of which is pure Matt. I remember him saying something very similar; that he would like to bottle a wine in every place he had been happy so that in the years after he could see in them the captured essence of that particular time, that particular summer.
When Brideshead first played in New Zealand I suppose Matt was 11 or 12 years old, and I imagine it poured its heady mix of romance and ennui into him. Watching Et In Arcadia Ego is like watching Matt both being formed, and in later life re-enacting certain set pieces and moods on us. He is not Sebastian, nor Charles, he is both, and he is the mood of the piece as a whole.
I should say was. He was the mood of the piece as a whole. I should say “was” not because he has died, but because he seemed to be to have moved beyond the book the last few times I met him. Despite the romance of the novel, none of us, who met in 1991 and 1992, seem to have sunk into the despair and isolation of either Sebastian or Charles at the end of Brideshead. I felt certain I would, and felt pretty grim about things in 2003 and 2004, but thanks to Cathy and others I pulled through and find myself in 2012 pretty content with life.
As Matt seemed to be. Not always of course. I still sometimes find myself being gnawed at by dread, or nostalgia, and I’m sure Matt was the same, but the compensation for that has turned out to be people. Other people get you through.
Matt’s death brought us all together for the first time since about 1994. Yesterday I saw people I haven’t seen for possibly a decade, and it was good. I saw people I used to spend all day with everyday: who I used to listen to music with, and play role-playing games with, and talk absolute shit with for hours on end.
We went out to dinner. All of us down a long table, and my daughter Rosamund at the head. The rowdiness of a happy restaurant, and good food, and wine, and a little band tucked in a corner with an acoustic guitar and some brushes and some voices. Rosamund bobbing away with her little golden curls, flirting with the musicians, and I sitting happily in her shade, watching her joy and petulance, and the others at our table trying to cheat a smile or a wave from her. It was a happy night with old friends.
I wished you were there Matt.
We all did. And we always will.
As long as we continue to meet up every now and then, we can keep you with us. Take you through to the old age you deserved. It’s not the same, of course, but it will have to do.
Cathy and I put your photo up in our spare room. In Matt’s room. You’re always welcome to stay, and you always will be.