Ocado sent me a 20% discount voucher in the same month that
David died. It felt like fate was telling me never to go out again, so I
didn’t. It’s not the grief, I joked, it’s the means. He left me the flat and
some very successful investments – and honestly when you can have a boneless
organic chicken thigh delivered straight to your door, why risk getting your
He loved this flat. He used to say he loved me, Barbra
Streisand and the flat, mostly in that order, but Barbra and I were
interchangeable if I’d forgotten to put the rubbish out or if she really hit that
high D5 at the end of A Piece of Sky. It’s a recording, I’d say, she hits the
same note every time. Yes, he’d say, but sometimes I just feel it more.
The flat is on the top floor of Ben Jonson House on the northern
edge of the Barbican estate in London. It has two rooms, side by side, each
with a barrel ceiling. From the inside the rounded white roofs make you think
you have more space than you really do. From the outside I like to imagine it
looks like two sleeping giants cuddled up under a duvet.
David started renting the flat when he was studying at the
Guildhall School of Music, or Downstairs as he always called it. When the owner
sold up in the early nineties David had to buy the place because he’d filled it
with too many records to move. 1423 records line an entire wall of the living
room in orange crate shelves. They are mostly original cast recordings of
musicals in all the languages of the countries he visited. Only sixty-seven of
them are by Barbra, but she does have her own crate. I got my own crate in 2006.
Well, it was a drawer. David was twenty years older than me and everyone assumed
I was more in love with his south-facing balcony in Zone 1 than with him, but I
would have moved into one of his orange crates under the Hammersmith flyover if
he’d asked. Me, David and 1423 records living happily ever after. Or, in the
end, about twelve years.
The Barbican estate was built over the wreckage World War II
left of this part of London. David loved that it was someone’s vision of optimal
living realised on such a large scale, that from a bombsite they thought they
could rescue the future. His balcony overlooks the entire complex, the terraces
and tower blocks, the mewses and the museum, the Arts Centre and its plazas.
From that angle all the odd shaped buildings and covered walkways form an insane
Escher print. When I’d go out there to water the plants he would wrap his arms
around me from behind, his chin resting on my shoulder, and let his hand trace a
path for some new adventure across the cityscape. With all there is, he’d sing
in my ear, why settle for just a piece of sky?
Even then I used to think it all depended on the piece of
sky you were looking at.
I haven’t been out on the balcony since he died. I’ve barely
opened the curtains. Half of the plants dropped their leaves over the side like
desperate passengers jumping from a sinking ship. The half that couldn’t reach
the edge just curled up on the floor. David left me the flat and the money and
the records and the plants, but do you need me to tell you he took away more
than he left? Because I can’t be bothered to go into it – actually, that sums
it up: David died and I couldn’t be bothered anymore.
When anyone remarked on the twenty years between us, and
anyone often did, David would rush his hand to his cheek as though he’d been
slapped. I was born on the 26th June, he was born on the 27th.
There were nineteen years and 364 days between us. It never mattered to me, but
since other people seemed so keen on numbers he liked to make sure they got it
On my birthday, the first thing he’d do was fling the covers
off and crow about how young he felt. On his, the morning after, he’d play the
ancient crone. Of all the time we had together, those twenty-four hours in
between were often our happiest.
Sometimes we never left the flat. Sometimes we never left
the bed. Once, on the day I turned thirty and he’d failed to cook the chicken
for long enough, we spent most of it in the bathroom. He claimed it was because
he’d heated it on the dying embers of his forties. If you can find a man who
makes you laugh after giving you food poisoning, he’s the one.
David’s warmth evaporated time. Today, those same twenty-four
hours yawn with their lack of promise. I am now thirty-eight and I’ve woken up
alone in our bed for nearly a year. The same bed that it felt so decadent to
stay in as the turning of the world notched up another number for me then him.
There’s nothing decadent about staying in bed all day when you have nowhere
else to be. Or nobody to share it with.
I get up at 7am and shower. I realised quite early on that
it was easier to get rid of time at the start of the day. Also, for all of the
talk about optimal living, the walls between the Barbican’s flats are thin
enough that I know when my bedroom-side neighbour Bianca has had an overnight
guest – because I hear her shower going twice, not because she’s a screamer
(though the guests sometimes are). With the noise of her, possibly plus one,
and Pete and Soph on the living-room side all getting ready for work in the
morning there’s really no point in trying to lay in.
I eat breakfast and get on with my Big Job of the day.
There’s only ever one. If you don’t work or even leave the two rooms you live
in, your To Do list is minimal. The art is to spread it out over the course of
the week: one day for cleaning, one day for washing, changing the bed gets a
whole day of its own because it usually takes everything I have. One day I throw
things in a casserole dish. Everything tastes the same anyway and one bucket of
stew will last me all week. That’s unless Soph is away and Pete comes over. But
if it runs out I usually eat cereal for dinner. Or nothing.
By 9am everyone in bothering radius will have left the
building. If I put on one of David’s records I’m either feeling brave or the
exact opposite. Usually I stick to some quiet, measurable task: today I will
knit fifty rows of this scarf or today I will read two-hundred pages of
Persuasion or today I will open at least three of the letters that continue to get
forwarded for David and try to forgive the writer for existing in a world where
he is still alive.
At 6pm I heat up my dinner. If any of my neighbours are
going to knock to check that I haven’t made their lives awkward by killing
myself, it’s usually now. If they don’t, I put on David’s ancient headphones
that are attached by a spiralling wire to a radiogram thing on a shelf above
the bed. I lay down and listen to a crackling Asian radio station that could be
broadcasting cricket scores or prayers, but that completely drowns out the
sounds of Pete and Soph making their evening meal together or Bianca laughing
into her phone on the balcony as she lights another cigarette. I’d take the
sounds of endless morning ablutions over their easy early evening chatter and hopefulness.
It’s meditative, listening to a language you don’t
understand. After long enough you can hear the music in it. Music that doesn’t
remind you of anyone.
He would’ve been fifty-eight tomorrow.
My dad and I get on fine, thanks for asking, though we joke
that he threw me out at eighteen. He just wanted me to want more than the
generic comfort of middle class Bristol. He stays because it makes mum happy
and he loves her. He’s a doctor who wishes he’d been a sculptor or a fashion
designer or a maker of anthropomorphic miniature ceramics – it all depends on
what documentary he’s watching at the time. I was quite happy pulling up weeds
and laying turf for the housewives of Clifton Village, though I was well aware
that I didn’t want to lay anything else for them. I applied to art college for
him really. And, fair enough, to sleep with someone other than the barman at
My mum was more comfortable with my lack of ambition. She
called it being an old soul. When they dropped me off at Ravensbourne she gave
me a backgammon set and enough tinned soft fruit for a lifetime of untroubled
dentures. Following a succession of diabolical paintings and haircuts, a Duke
of Edinburgh Award in navigating my way home from a different part of London
every other morning - before the advent
of Google Maps - and absolutely no backgammon, I graduated and got a job as an
The most creative thing I was doing was arranging the
pictures of other people’s homes in the window. I told my parents I was having
a fabulous time and they believed me. I told myself that too, but it was less
Pete is on my balcony sweeping up rotting leaves and quite a
few of Bianca’s discarded cigarette butts. He does this whenever he comes over
for dinner since I never go out there now. He has a broom in one hand and his
phone in the other, into which I hear him shouting to his wife Soph that he’s
about to eat one of Dolly’s famous one-pot wonders. I am Dolly. I am
microwaving a five bean chilli I made using only two kinds of beans and the
entire last jar of fucks I had to give. I’ve barely moved from the sofa in five
hours, but have only been trying to ignore Pete’s questions for the last
Pete was already David’s neighbour when I moved into the
flat. At the time I had a quiff that my friends used to say was maintained by
all the comments that flew over my head. I was twenty-five, I’d been passed
around London’s vibrant gay Soho like a tray of unwanted cakes and I was
finally getting bored of butching it up and dumbing it down. Maybe it’s
different now that kids have to build a personal brand online before they’re
old enough to drink, but back when I was fresh meat it wasn’t what came out
of your mouth that guys were interested in. I met David in the toilets at
the Green Carnation – don’t worry, it wasn’t as seedy as it sounds. We were standing
side by side looking in the mirror wearing matching Joe 90 glasses; me tall and
dark, him short and bald. He said we looked like Dolce and Gabbana. I looked
down at my designer-imposter daps and his wide-fit loafers and said we were
more like Dolcis and Garden Centre. When he laughed it felt like someone had
heard my real voice for the first time. I came back to the flat with him that
night and four months later I lived here.
Dolce having instantly become Dolcis then became Dolly.
That’s how he introduced me to Pete. Say hello to Dolly. Pete had been a DJ on
the rave scene in the early nineties and still shouted everything inches from
your ear like he was trying to be heard over Josh Wink’s Higher State of
Consciousness. He smelled so straight and alien, like weed and the hot plastic
of a Gameboy. It was the forbidden smell of someone’s older brother’s bedroom
and on reflex I stayed silent in case I got kicked out. He looked into the tops
of my boxes and asked me if I played backgammon then, with no response from me,
reached in and pulled out a Prodigy CD. He waved it triumphantly in David’s
face, delighted to finally have a neighbour who might play something other than
Color Me Barbra through the wall. David was unfazed. Neither then nor at any
time since has there been a CD player in the flat.
Now of course we can instantly play whatever we want to hear
on our phones, but Pete and I are both at an age where eating two bean chilli at
Prodigy speed could cause intestinal woe for days. He comes in from the balcony
and selects a record to put on. It’s Je m’appelle Barbra, the original 1966
Colombia LP. Side two, track six: I’ve Been Here.
We were going to knock on your birthday but the lights were
out, says Pete. And on his too. Then, after a deep breath, he tells me that Bianca
has told Soph who has told him that she’s been doing some PR for the promoters
who put on summer concerts in Hyde Park and that she’s heard that this year
Barbra Streisand will be doing one of them and she could get us all tickets and
we should go. VIP entry, away from the crowds. It will be the first time she’s
performed in the UK for years and might be the last. David wouldn’t have missed
it. David would’ve been there in a Fanny Brice sailor suit.
Over on the record player Barbra is assuring us that she is
not a frightened dove.
I say I’m not ready.
The record finishes and there’s only static to fill the
silence. Pete takes our half-empty bowls and puts them in the sink, where he
stands as the whispering record turns and turns and turns and turns.
I need to go Dolly, he says. And I don’t know if I can go
David and Pete had both done a lot of drugs, though it was
never part of David’s work like it was for Pete. David travelled – he’d been a
singer and then an internationally renowned vocal coach – but when he was home,
he was home. Ask Pete if he ended up with a drug problem because it’s hard for
a DJ to draw a line between his professional and private life, he’ll tell you
that he doesn’t know because he never even tried. He was having a brilliant
time and getting paid a lot of money. He got a mortgage for the flat next to
David’s in 1999 with the advances from a series of Millennium gigs that he
wouldn’t end up playing. Instead he went on what he now calls the Bender Of
Destiny. His bookings disappeared. He went from sucking MDMA off a model’s
nipple to sucking fag ash from the footwells of Mondeos at a car valeting
service. He could barely afford enough speed to get him through the weekend.
When he finally got so desperate that he sold his speakers, David knocked on
his door. This was years before I’d met David, years before Pete met Soph. At
the time they may not have had much in common except a very thin wall, but
David was probably the only neighbour in the world who had a problem if you
weren’t playing music. Pete’s existence had descended to skirting board level
and the flat was basically empty. The highest vantage point was a stack of
unopened post. Recently Pete must have fallen off or into or in front of something
or someone and there was a dried trail of blood weaving back and forth between
the two filthy airless rooms. David sat down on the floor next to Pete anyway
and put his arms around him whilst he cried.
David took Pete next door and ran him a bath. He washed his
clothes and his bedding. He cleaned Pete’s flat, he cooked for him. He sat with
him every night, made him tea whilst he opened all the terrifying post, sorted
out his payment plans. He helped him find some furniture, a job at a friend’s
recording studio, a reason to go on. He played him the 1964 Original Cast
Recording of Funny Girl and the 1970 soundtrack to On A Clear Day You Can See
Forever and every single studio album Barbra had ever released. When you can
afford your own speakers again we can listen to what you want, David would say,
until then let’s have something ageless and evergreen.
Pete gave the eulogy at David’s funeral. I couldn’t speak. He
said that David had saved his life. He chose all the music too. People kept
thanking me afterwards and telling me how perfect the songs were. I tried to
say that Pete had chosen everything but he said it didn’t matter. He took me
home and said I didn’t need to explain anything to anyone. I didn’t need to see
anyone or speak to anyone if I didn’t want to.
Pete takes Je m’appelle Barbra off of the record player,
returns it to its sleeve and its place on the orange crate shelves.
There’s seven months until the gig, he tells me, we’ll start
small. He opens the balcony door and steps outside, then he turns back and
holds out his hand for me to join him.