The last 12 months have been melancholy with the loss of a dear friend, one whom I celebrate here. In so doing, it is timely to remember others who passed away in years gone by, but of whom I have been thinking a great deal lately. I would like to share with you the lives of three or four who brought kindness, laughter and (often) behaviour that could have been better …
Join me then then, at the drink-drive rehab centre on the Askew Road in West London for this is where I found myself early one evening in summer 2003, waiting for the session to start, feeling shame. For heaven’s sake Forte; you’re a Mother, you have Children, how did you get yourself into this mess and on a 50cc scooter too? I’m afraid the reasons will take a whole other blog not yet ready for writing, but as my thoughts perambulated through the shame (the shame!) a phone behind me rang, answered swiftly by a robust and gravelly voice agreeing to meet the caller in an hour or so. I don’t know who you are, I thought, but I like the sound of you …
Rehab commenced with the group sitting in a circle confessing the volume of alcohol consumed when stopped and breathalysed. Me: probably about a bottle of red wine. And last of all: …. Eighteen Pisco Sours!
The group stared aghast at this round jolly fellow who beamed at us all unfazed, wondering – I later learned – what on earth we lightweights were all doing there.
The following evening I arranged to meet a friend at the Chelsea Arts Club and as I entered the Billiard Room, sitting at the bar was Mr Pisco Sour himself. Our eyes met, instantly he grinned broadly, arm outstretched to point at me and in booming tones I KNEW I’D KNOW YOU! COME HERE AND DRINK WITH ME! That, dear reader, was that.
Bad Rod and I had rocking times together, partly because he lived on a barge and partly because most of the time we were laughing, for Rod was never truly bad; he was a great companion, a splendid raconteur and clearly, a lively drinker. He was a trusty friend, a patient listener and source of advice both sound and very unsound.
While most of us were back on our vehicles after nine months (the rehab reduced the ban by three), Rod had to wait much longer and, nervous about the blood test required to re-establish him behind the wheel, had a blood transfusion before the test. Sadly, he failed … but in typically sanguine fashion, found the situation amusing – and carried on drinking.
Our friendship endured through times good and less good; we understood each other and when in the company of others could communicate feeling, opinion and usually shockingly un-pc views by way of a mere look, reducing us to gales of laughter, baffling those around us. Terribly rude I know, but it couldn’t be helped.
Astonishingly, Rod’s health lasted almost twenty years from our first meeting until he developed myriad problems associated with prolonged smoking and drinking habits. He remained cheerful to the end. After receiving a message that he was in hospital in South Kensington last year I went looking for him, but he’d gone home. He died before I could get to the assisted flat he now occupied. I hear his gales of laughter often, his encouragement and approval of bad behaviour … and miss him very much.
Pia was a schoolfriend who, for reasons I cannot fathom I have been thinking of a great deal lately. Pia kept her drinking hidden; we all knew she was partial to excess but her eating disorder was the more prominent problem and one that we all tried to ameliorate with little success. We were on the wrong track because it was the drink that killed her. A troubled young woman, she hid her unhappiness with acerbic wit and a sharp tongue.
My abiding memory of Pia is of an earlier time however, when we stayed with her parents in their London flat one weekend during the A-level years. Bored, we told Mr & Mrs B that we were going to the house of a schoolfriend for dinner. Dressed up we shimmied out of the apartment calling our goodbyes so they wouldn’t see our nightclub-ready clothes; we jumped onto a bus and alighted at Leicester Square. Navigating the Soho streets we avoided the corn-on-the-cob vendors holding their wares aloft asking if we wanted one … and made our way into a club that looked pretty lively: the Whisky-A-Go-Go – later to become the infamous WAG.
Here, we bought cocktails and danced, thrilled with our debut to the West End and our schoolgirl derring-do. Before too long, three boys approached … boys we had met the week before at a sixth-form dance organised between our school and the nearby college. We exchanged glances … what were the chances, really?
Unable to put them off, we minced our way into the Ladies where we found an open window. Exchanging silent glances we scaled the wall, slipped through the window and escaped into the night laughing until we cried. Finding the little money we had all spent, we begged change from passers by and called Mr B who came to fetch us, furious with our lies and the danger into which we had placed our young selves. We were returned to school early the following day under a storm of parental disapproval but oh yes, we agreed, it had been worth it. Thank you Pia, thank you for the fun and my first London club night.
To an older friend then, a Gentleman who worked in the same industry as I, who despite his diminutive stature genuinely believed himself to be six feet tall. He may as well have been for his confidence was unassailable. We met through a reference he had provided for someone who turned out to be sackable (and duly sacked). Writing to the author of this dodgy reference, I received a call offering profuse apologies. May he share a drink with me and apologise in person? Knowing his influence in the world of health to be considerable I thought why not?
Mr Gentleman and I got along famously; a mutual love of Portuguese Red enhanced by his portfolio of very funny jokes and older charm, for Gentleman was in his late 70s. We became great friends, he regaling me with tales of his affairs and other stories and I soaking up details of his roguish life – well, the ones he was happy to share with me.
We found ourselves often at the same Conferences and at one such away from home, he invited me to a dinner gathering, suggesting I meet him in the foyer of his hotel, a short walk from mine. It transpired of course, that everyone else seems to have gone on ahead; in other words, the gathering was entirely fictitious. Never mind, I thought, he’s good company. We walked through the streets, found the river and strolled along the Boulevards until we found a charming corner Brasserie; our table for two was next to a panoramic window – perfect.
The food was wonderful, the company amusing and over pudding he looked me squarely in the eye and said: we are going to have sex tonight aren’t we? A blink was the briefest beat to precede my reply: No, we are not. Coffee and brandy might be nice though. Shall we?
Entirely untroubled by rejection, Mr Gentleman continued to be amusing and charming as though nothing untoward had been said and we walked to the steps of my hotel where he pecked my cheek and walked the block or two to his. Retreating to my room amused at what had taken place, I tapped thanks into my phone: Hello …. As my finger hovered over send I spotted in the nick of time what autocorrect had edited: my message now began Hello Tiger …
With bated breath I checked the phone only to realise that had Tiger been received, my bedroom door would have been punctured by the unmistakable shape of an enthusiastic, if diminutive elderly Gentleman. With a sigh of relief, I settled into bed and slept. Alone.
Mr Gentleman passed away three years ago aged around 84. I think of him often and smile for he taught me an important lesson: believe in yourself … for there is nothing you cannot attempt. As if to prove this from beyond the grave at his Wake I was approached by a Grande Dame quite close to my age. We chatted and eventually she asked Did you ever sleep with him? Well. Er, no, I replied, I didn’t. She smiled and with rather misty eyes confided: You should have. He was a wonderful lover … to the last. Good for you, Mr Gentleman!
Last but not least there is the incomparable Charlie, about whom I have written before. Charlie was a much loved Respectable Rogue … If you have time, read Charles Knevitt, A Tribute. He is a man worth knowing even in death.
I have many more and wonderful tales to tell of dearly departed friends, but the last 12 months have been melancholy enough. Best to cherish the memories and even better, to raise a glass of something robust to them all.
© Giovanna Forte 2021