How could a fellow priest send me such a heartless message? In the final extract from his exquisite memoir about the death of his partner, the Rev Richard Coles reveals police probed vile hate mail he received even as he prepared to bury the man he loved
- Reverend Richard Coles’s partner Reverend David Coles died in December 2019
- Recalls the toughest moments he has experienced coming to terms with grief
- David’s funeral service was in Finedon parish church where Richard is the vicar
- Received hate email after death saying ‘Your David is now a roast on a spit in Hell’
A few days after my partner David’s death in December 2019, I went to visit Lorna, an old friend who had once been mine and Jimmy Somerville’s manager when we were The Communards.
I remember nothing about the journey from Northamptonshire to Sussex, save for straying carelessly into the path of a juggernaut driver, who jammed his brakes on and expressed himself with eloquent gestures. I felt a surge of rage and wanted to scream at him I HAVE JUST LOST THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, CAN’T YOU TELL?
Lorna had also invited along Kevin, another old friend whom I had first met in the early Eighties when we were both living in London around what sociologists now call the Alternative Gay Scene.
After lunch, we went for a drive and I talked about someone I had met recently, a surgeon in Syria who had worked in a hospital through the horrors of the civil war there. He was only home a day or two when he was asked to lunch at Buckingham Palace by the Queen.
She sat down next to him and asked what it was like in his hospital and he found that he could not speak, it was too much.
A few days after my partner David’s death in December 2019, I went to visit Lorna, an old friend who had once been mine and Jimmy Somerville’s manager when we were The Communards. Pictured: Richard Coles and dog Pongo
The Queen, noticing this, said very gently, ‘Would you like to feed the corgis?’ and produced a packet of treats, and they quietly fed the dogs until he regained his composure. Telling this story made me lose mine and for the first time in front of my friends I began to cry.
I tried to smother it, as if it were a loss of face, which was ridiculous, but I was trying to contain the explosion, and the thought of losing control was too much for me.
Until that moment, I had defended myself against grief by busying myself with the post- mortem tasks I called ‘sadmin’.
David’s car, stuck on the drive since he died, would not start, so after his brother, Mark, had helped me get it going with jump leads, I took it out for a drive to get some energy into the battery. When I got in, everything was adjusted to his size and shape and I had to readjust it to mine.
It felt very faintly of betrayal, so I followed the route he used to take to our boat as if each mile on that remembered road would somehow restore the original settings.
David also had a vintage Morris Minor Cabriolet called Millie. I had decided to give her to his father, Vinnie, so Mark and a friend brought a trailer and pushed and winched her on, like a reluctant cow going up the ramp to a cattle truck.
As they drove away, I felt for the first time a now frequent anxiety: that he is beginning to fade, and that every day a part of him is less distinct, his voice more distant, his smell, of fags and Jo Malone and whisky, less piquant.
As is traditional for priests, David was to be buried wearing vestments. Not wanting to overdress him for eternity, I put the simplest of his clerical outfits into an overnight bag, with socks and shoes, and at the funeral director’s discreet, but firm, insistence, a pair of pants. Do people sometimes forget to include these, obliging their departed loved ones to go commando into that good night?
David’s car, stuck on the drive since he died, would not start, so after his brother, Mark, had helped me get it going with jump leads, I took it out for a drive to get some energy into the battery. Pictured: Richard and David Coles
I had also to pick a coffin from the catalogue handed to me by the undertaker. Flicking through and wishing that David was there to advise me because he had such a good eye for these things, and would take care to get whatever he appeared in just right, I made the selection like someone on a first date in a restaurant, choosing wine not from the bottom of the list nor the top, but mid-range.
The burial site had already been decided. Although we lived in the vicarage in the village of Finedon, where I was the parish priest, we owned a cottage in Grafton Underwood, a village seven miles away, and a few years ago David mentioned that he had bought our graves in the churchyard there.
We arranged to meet the churchwardens to pick the spot but David was, as usual, late. By the time he arrived they had departed and I had chosen a plot on the unfashionable north side of the churchyard, a suitably humble spot for two priests.
David did not appreciate this nicety on my part, arguing that there were brighter spots with better views, despite my pointing out that the view would not be something readily to captivate us from six feet under.
We quarrelled about many things, little arguments replacing the bigger ones about his lack of self-care and my failure to help him get better.
The alcoholism which killed him had wrecked his digestive system, leaving him unable to cope with spicy food or fats, and I could not eat them while he was around because they made him nauseous. I sometimes think this was partly a kickback to my impatience with his cigarette smoke, which I started to find unbearable after I gave up smoking and he did not.
In the first weeks of my widowhood, in all sorts of ways, I enjoyed being alone. I enjoyed eating an Indian takeaway on a tray on my lap watching a bullet-riddled thriller, the kind of film he hated. I enjoyed the pure air, untainted by the bitter smell of burnt tobacco. I enjoyed cooking with Scotch bonnet chillies and unctuous pork belly.
All these enjoyments were almost at once extinguished by guilt, for enjoying anything at all now David was dead. But I could not yet believe he was dead. He was just away on an unauthorised holiday.
We arranged to meet the churchwardens to pick the spot but David was, as usual, late. By the time he arrived they had departed and I had chosen a plot on the unfashionable north side of the churchyard, a suitably humble spot for two priests
Once, I looked up and saw from the corner of my eye his dressing gown, which I had hung at the bottom of the banisters when I was gathering his hospital bag together, and had not been able to put away just yet; but my mind saw David standing at the foot of the stairs, and my heart leapt, and I thought I was waking up from the nightmare of his loss to the reality of his continuing existence. The pain of those moments is really hard.
At night, our five dachshunds filled the vacant half of the bed and I was glad of them, two on, three in, close to me as I fell asleep to the sound of Daisy snoring, which sounded soothingly like David’s snoring.
Loyal to David to the point of barely tolerating me, Daisy was the oldest of our dogs and had, since his death, developed a heart-piercing habit of looking behind her on walks, looking for him, and then refusing to move, so I had to put her on the lead and pull her behind me.
Five dachshunds looked after by two people, one of whom is often away, is difficult enough, but on my own I simply would not be able to take proper care of them.
I did not think it fair to disrupt the lives of Daisy and Pongo, another old-timer, but found homes for the younger dogs with family and friends. Captain Guster and H would be fine. Guster was only a recent arrival and H was fearless and independent, but Audrey was not. She was nervous and she was mine.
I remember when she arrived, it was just before May Day, which we celebrate on the lawn of the old vicarage by maypole dancing and crowning the May Queen. I took Audrey to show to the kids and she was so frightened she peed all down my cassock.
She has always been sensitive to my moods and in the nights after David died she would burrow down under the duvet and snuggle up close to me, so I could put my arm over her and we would both fall asleep.
Planning her departure, making the arrangements, felt like a betrayal as well as a loss and I would dissolve miserably into tears thinking of Audrey, uncomprehending, whimpering for home, and for me.
Loyal to David to the point of barely tolerating me, Daisy was the oldest of our dogs and had, since his death, developed a heart-piercing habit of looking behind her on walks, looking for him
Our vet, Anna, who spends much of her professional life around people dissolving into tears because of what they think an animal is feeling, was calm and rational.
‘You’ve made the right decision. They’re going to good homes. It will be tough, but it’s the right thing to do. And you will be able to see them whenever you want.’
She was right, I knew she was, but the lesser loss of the dogs breached my defences against the greater unimaginable loss of David and when that happened I felt mad with grief.
The funeral service was in Finedon parish church but, although I am the vicar there, I had asked Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and David’s former principal at theological college, to officiate.
As the choir sang Psalm 121 to the chant by Walford Davies, I looked at the Order of Service.
I had chosen two photographs of David, one on the front of him looking happy holding H, taken when we were on holiday in Yorkshire, and on the back one of him paddleboarding in Kintyre, a tiny figure way out at sea with Ailsa Craig faintly visible in the background. Hello, I’m here, and goodbye, I’m floating away.
After the service, we stowed David in the hearse and then family and close friends drove to Grafton Underwood for the burial with my curate Jane as officiant.
When David bought the plot, its occupancy had been a remote possibility, but there I was, watching his coffin being lowered into the grave as Jane said the words I have said dozens and dozens of times: ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust . . .’
We returned to Finedon and, after refreshments at the cricket club, Lorna walked back to the vicarage with me as darkness fell and the spire of the church began to glow orange as the flood-lights came on.
Almost as soon as I was in, the doorbell rang. It was Alex, our dentist, and her husband Duncan, who were taking General Guster. I handed him over to his new owners, with his going-away bag, and as they left I had to dive into my study, unable to contain the sorrow which overwhelmed me.
The doorbell rang again. David’s brother Mark had come to take H. I remembered the day he arrived. David asked me to come into the kitchen and open a lidded basket on the kitchen table, and there he was, tiny and blinking. He was still tiny and blinking, equally bemused by everything, as Mark carried him away.
The funeral service was in Finedon parish church but, although I am the vicar there, I had asked Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and David’s former principal at theological college, to officiate
Next came David’s parents who were taking Audrey back to Lancashire with them. It had to be done. There could be no better home for her. But I still cannot think of her without feeling grief come rumbling in, like thunder, or the tide.
I was, at least, spared the sight of her wriggling to escape between the front door and the car, or looking back through the back window at the retreating vicarage, because just as I was handing her over, the doorbell went again.
It was a police officer who needed to see me about an investigation into the hate mail I had received following David’s death.
‘Your David is now a roast on a spit in Hell,’ read one email. ‘You face the same eternity unless you repent!’
I get messages like this from time to time. Some are frank about their dislike of homosexuality, others try to disguise it.
As usual I had shared their weirdness on Facebook and they were picked up by the news and in turn the police, who asked if I wanted to make a complaint.
At first I had been reluctant, not considering them offensive enough to merit police time, but they told me that it was unwise to ignore a hate crime because it might escalate if not checked. That made sense.
And while I say I was unaffected by hostile attention, actually I think I was — not so much by the crazy stuff, although every blow lands, but more by cruel remarks from people who should know better.
The worst of these came from another Anglican priest, who took the trouble to say that while it was regrettable that David had died, it in no way affected his firm belief that we were both unfit to be public representatives of the Christian faith.
Someone writing crazy stuff in a mental maelstrom is much easier to forgive than someone calmly thinking about it and sending something so heartless, so indifferent to the suffering of the newly bereaved.
By the time the police officer left, Audrey was gone, leaving only Daisy and Pongo from the pack of five dogs who had been at the centre of mine and David’s lives. For human company I had Lorna and I picked up a takeaway which we ate in front of the fire.
‘Are you OK?’ she asked.
No, and from deep within grief flowed up like lava. My tears were hot and rolled down my cheeks and my throat was tight, and breathing came in gasps. What I needed was to howl, and Lorna just let me do it, saying nothing, not flinching, waiting until the gale had blown itself out.
This is what I wanted. I wanted old, close friends to be strong and steady and present. I did not want to be left alone to grieve, I did not want to pretend that I was all right, I did not want people to look away nervously if I began to cry.
Not everyone can do this, for all sorts of reasons, and if you can be forgiving, forgive it, because deaths and bereavement are difficult to handle and not everyone does it well.
I had chosen two photographs of David, one on the front of him looking happy holding H, taken when we were on holiday in Yorkshire, and on the back one of him paddleboarding in Kintyre
I did find that I remembered who delivered, and who did not, and while I have not trimmed the Christmas card list as a result, I have, without conscious decision, resolved to spend what limited resources of time and attention I have on people who wish to return them in roughly the same proportion.
Among them is my friend Martin, who I have known for nearly 30 years. He was en route to Australia when David died and did not get back until after the funeral.
A working-class Glaswegian of the Fifties, he regards untidiness and uncleanliness as moral dereliction and arrived on a mission to comfort me and sort through David’s possessions which had taken over his studio, the summerhouse and the garage.
Even Martin, in his purifying zeal, did not dispose of a box of photographs he found, which I have never seen before, of David as a child and youth and a young man.
I do not know why David had not shown them to me, but they are heartbreaking to look at now.
There is one of him and his two brothers, taken nearly 40 years ago, underexposed and badly composed and printed on a glossy white-bordered square.
He must have been about five, so sweet and affectionate, holding Ralph, his stuffed rabbit.
Why is it so affecting? Because he is innocent of what is to come, the shadow that fell across his life and shortened it and took him away.
I most fully inhabit my grief at his loss when I listen to music, and the piece that makes me feel it most keenly is Vaughan Williams’ organ prelude Rhosymedre, played at David’s funeral.
Not because I associate it with that, but because the tune, an old Welsh hymn, sometimes goes by the English name Lovely.
David was to me inexpressibly lovely, and in spite of everything in his life which was tough and hard, and in spite of what we suffered together, he made my life lovely, as no one else could, and never will.
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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