Friday 1 May 2020

Borderlines: Remembering Rob

I began a Creative Writing module with OU last year- that I completed yesterday. I loved it all and am sad that it's finished, but looking forward to returning to an Advanced Creative Writing module after my next module this October, that explores the nature and construction of stories (which I know I'm also going to really enjoy).

The creative writing module covered poetry, fiction and life writing and many of the exercises used to spark the writing, involved delving into memory.

The piece below is an extract from a larger segment of memoir that I wrote during the course.

It focusses on a moment when my friend Rob, was very ill in the final weeks of his life... I was moved by how vividly I recalled the scene. Today is the 14th anniversary of his death and so I felt it would be a good day to share a little of that piece.

Beneath the story I will also post some songs that Bill and I have written over the years, about our time with Rob.


Rob lay stretched out on a sun lounger in the tiny yard outside his house.  Birdsong cut through intermittent traffic noise of the surrounding streets while bees hummed around the little white and yellow flowers that spilled over their terracotta pots and hanging baskets. Spring had truly arrived that day and the April sun was hotter than expected, especially there in that little patio garden.
We didn’t talk. Every now and then I heard snuffles and grunts coming from beneath Rob’s old straw sun hat, as he sipped water through a straw. I sat upright on a wooden garden chair and let my mind wander, meandering over the past seven years and the strange reality of the moment, babysitting this man—my friend—who was in his early forties, juxtaposed with the beauty of spring and all its promise of new life.
In the sun-lit yard, Rob turned to me,
‘Too hot, need to go in now,’ he rasped.
I watched sweat trickle down his cheek. He was so tired those days, he didn’t fill his sentences with anything other than bare essentials of need; a writer whose love of language was seemingly eroding at the same pace as cells beneath his yellow tinged skin. Once so alert and attentive, asking questions and constantly trying to download multiple ideas that came cascading out of him as poetry and prose, commentary and argument, sometimes all at once. His poetry and prose that had taken us across America and the UK, to festivals and theatres and makeshift stages in unlikely places.
I nodded in agreement and helped him stand. He shuffled slowly towards the door, leaning on my arm. We paused at the step. I’d never noticed quite what a distance it was between ground and house. Rob made several attempts to raise his legs but he couldn’t do it. He had no strength. We stayed there for a moment, stuck in the garden, as my brain lurched into problem solving overdrive. I leaned down to try and help lift his legs, but that wasn’t going to work either, he couldn’t comfortably lean on me and I might unknowingly injure him by trying to move his muscles. Panic set in as my mind conjured different scenarios of us being stranded outside of the house for hours. Maybe I could set up a big shaded area, bring out ice and cold flannels to keep him cool? I had an unhelpful a desire to giggle at the surreal image of myself deftly trying to construct a temporary shelter—like the outdoor dens I had once built with Rob’s young son, Lukas. No. He needed to be indoors, back on the sofa. 
‘Rob, I’ll carry you,’ I said.
He bobbed his head just enough to indicate his agreement and I reached down and scooped him into my arms, as gently as I could, one arm around his waist, the other under his knees, shocked at how effortless it was. He was so light.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been with him on the threshold between life and death. In some ways it wasn’t the first time I’d carried him either, though I had not been alone; his wife Sandra and their son Lukas; my husband Bill; we’d all carried Rob in different ways. Five years previously we’d carried him daily, crossing the border between San Diego, America and Tijuana Mexico, as cancer had gnawed deep into his bones. Then two years after Mexico, with unprecedented full remission, Bill and I had carried him through multiple tours and performances across the UK and America. Now here we were again, existing in a moment where the borderline between Rob’s life and death, had grown very thin.
Stepping into the conservatory, I lowered Rob onto the sofa bed as gently as I could and watched as he drifted in and out of sleep, pondering the way our lives form narrative. Life doesn’t always resemble a linear construct, more often than not it seems to pass in waves, ebbs and flow of connection within time, but sometimes these connections lead to a complete lived out story, with a beginning, middle and end.
We’d first met Rob at a festival. My husband Bill and I visiting Britain from Australia, had caught Rob, performing an energetic one-man show. Most impressed, we’d chatted with him afterwards. It was the moment that became a prelude to our story. Two years later, living back in the UK, Bill and I would find ourselves on tour with Rob and his wife Sandra­­—also a performer, as our story with them began in earnest.
The show was called Grey Daze, a futuristic sci-fi allegory of love and redemption. During the show Sandra as ‘Em’ would scoop a dead Rob as ‘Joss’ into her arms and carry him across the stage. In time this would become a two edged allegory, a symbolic enactment of all that was to come in their lives together. I always marveled at the physical strength Sandra had throughout that scene, a strength that would be matched by her own determined emotional courage, carrying her husband and partner throughout all of his illness.

How far we’d all travelled. How far we’d all come.

My contemplations paused when I heard the car pulling up outside, as Sandra, her mother Analisse, five year old Lukas and newborn baby Lena, just one week old, all arrived home from a shopping trip to the Mothercare outlet.  Sandra entered the kitchen space all strength and smiles, but I could see her anxiety in her posture. As a professional dancer, Sandra always held herself with elegance and poise, but right now her tense raised shoulders signaled all that she was carrying; far too much weight of worry and sorrow for one person to hold.
‘Thanks Rachel,’ she said, placing tiny, baby Lena, into her bassinet next to Rob. Here was that juxtaposition again, all hope and beauty and promise of new life, lying curled up and sleeping, next to her dying father.
I helped Sandra to unpack her bags, while my mind sifted through myriad thoughts, arriving jumbled and incomplete, mostly flashes of our life lived on the road. I saw the car that we’d travelled in, when Rob, Sandra, Bill and I toured the breadth of the UK with shows. I saw us at midnight under a pitch black sky, disconnecting the trailer that held all our theatre equipment, trying not to trip as we fumbled in the dark— one of us holding a torch and the rest of us heaving the trailer off the back of the car… I saw crystalline icicles hanging from snow-laden pine forests, in Sandra’s hometown, Ludwigstadt, where we’d visited after Rob’s dramatic recovery... I saw baby Lukas on my knee, in a shuttle-bus in Mexico…  I saw stages— in halls— and theatres— and festivals. I saw audiences; vast crowds of tens of thousands and rooms holding less than fifty… And I saw myself. So many versions of me; laughing, arguing, crying, succeeding, failing, loving, surviving…

Two weeks later on the first of May, Bill and I sang the song By and By. It was a song that Bill had written in the transit lounge at Chicago Airport, on his way to join Rob, Sandra, Lukas and I, in Mexico... We knew as we sang it we were saying goodbye. 

At that same moment Rob was crossing his final border.

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