How stigma killed us too

It was just another Saturday afternoon in Stoke Newington, around the middle of January 1993. Lawrence had sent me to Safeway for the last few things we needed for dinner. I’d left him preparing mussels we’d bought earlier that day at Steve Hatt’s fish market on Essex Road in Islington. We were expecting guests. I forget who now though.

My memory fails me on that small detail because they never came. Something much bigger happened instead. Something quite unimaginable. Except that when it did, it became all too real, all too quickly.

I returned from the supermarket to find Lawrence in a state of shock. I’d just missed Graham, he said. He had been the bearer of terrible news. Tim was dead. Graham was Tim’s friend and lodger at the house Tim owned just a couple of hundred yards from ours. Tim was my friend too.

The randomness of the news was momentarily bewildering. Had he been run over I wondered? What possible explanation could there be? Some other sort of freak accident, perhaps?

No, Lawrence told me. Tim had died in his bed. Graham had found him there. He’d had a bad cough and a fever and he’d gone to bed early the previous evening. But when he still hadn’t got up by mid-afternoon, Graham had knocked. There had been no answer. And then, in short order, no response. No pulse.

I couldn’t process what Lawrence was telling me. He was trying to be calm, where Graham had, he said, been distraught. Of course, he had. Who wouldn’t be on finding a friend dead?

And then I started to piece it together. Tim hadn’t been run over. I knew he’d had a cough earlier in the week because I’d stopped by for a natter as he worked away on yet another car in his driveway. He’d told me, the cough wouldn’t shift. He’d been miserable. I’d sympathised in an unremarkable way.

Yet he hadn’t told me what he must already have long suspected. And I hadn’t hung around long enough to ask. But now, shockingly, it became clear. This hadn’t been a cough and cold kind of a cough. This hadn’t even been bronchitis.

This had been pneumonia. Or to be precise, this had been PCP, Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, a particular form of lung infection that people with weakened immune systems fell prey to. People with HIV. Tim had died of AIDS. And not one of us had seen it coming because he hadn't told a soul.

We knew all about HIV in our house. Lawrence had tested positive nearly a decade earlier in 1984, a year before we’d met. By 1993 he’d retired on ill health grounds and though we kept talk of his impending death at bay, it increasingly filled the space between words.

This made the news even more discombobulating. AIDS wasn’t abstract. It was every day. But it was our everyday. Not Tim’s. Tim and I had talked about HIV of course. Gay men did quite a lot back then. But it was usually in relation to Lawrence and how we were both coping. He was kind about that. Or sometimes we talked about Terry, a mutual friend who was also positive.

We even had conversations about other friends who we thought might be positive. But I’d never asked him about his fears and he’d never volunteered them. I just assumed that like me, he was one of the lucky ones who’d got away with it. But he hadn’t and now he was dead.

And gradually it all made sense. The tentative questions and half-finished sentences. The low mood and the gradual withdrawal. The odd, inexplicable, seemingly minor infections. Why hadn't I seen what had been staring me in the face? I was his closest gay friend. And I’d let him die.

We had become friends ten years earlier not long after I’d arrived in London. He hailed from the North East and I from the North West. He was a sub-editor on a local newspaper. He was adopted, like me. Gay, like me. I’d come out at university. He was a few years older and had come out slightly later. And over the course of a couple of years before I met Lawrence, we’d become firm friends.

Sometimes we’d criss-crossed London in search of live jazz with Graham and other straight friends. On occasions we’d ended up at Ronnie Scotts and then onto a Chinese restaurant in Soho in the early hours to soak up the beer.

But other times we’d headed out together, just the two of us, to bars and clubs which were part of the fabric of a gay London which has long since vanished. He always drove one of his series of classic cars in various states of refurbishment. There was a wonderful, faux grandeur to it all. Tim was one of a kind.

One day we went to buy my first car, a 1967 De Luxe Green Hillman Minx. Just the one previous owner, somewhere in the in the suburbs and only 12,000 miles on the clock. I couldn’t drive but Minnie the Minx was my pride and joy.

Tim had trained as a journalist the old way on an NCTJ course in Teeside. He loved wordsmithery. He had a particular penchant for collecting improbable headlines. The most memorable, for me, was, ‘Awful truth found lurking underneath clothes.’

And if he gave you a book as a gift, it was never signed by him, but rather by an odd collection of imaginary characters from a bygone era. ‘Tarquin and Miranda, Torquay, Easter 1957’, springs to mind.

He was usually dry-witted, often cynical but always good company. To those who knew him less well, he could come across as taciturn, curmudgeonly, even anti-social. But if he was your friend, he was far warmer than first appearances suggested. And he was mine.

We’d had our fallings out like good friends sometimes do. In the summer of 1985, we did so spectacularly during a party at his house. In the kitchen with an audience. Drink had been taken. Tempers had been frayed. Tears had been shed. Ostensibly it was about the fact that I hadn’t phoned him to ask if he wanted to go to London Pride.

But it was really about the fact that one night after a gay jaunt, we’d fallen into bed together. It was something he’d long wanted to happen, he’d told me. And I can still remember how I felt when he said that. For all the affection I felt and the curiosity which had led to that point, I knew almost straight away that it wasn’t what I wanted. But nothing more was said and it didn’t happen again.

After the party, I didn’t see him for several months. By the time I heard from him again in the early autumn I’d met Lawrence. He invited me out for a drink and apologised. It was big of him because it had taken two to tango. Our friendship resumed and he remained an important presence in my life until that fateful day. But he and Lawrence never really hit it off. And our best days, our naïve voyage of shared discovery, they were behind us.

And now, out of nowhere on a Saturday afternoon, he was gone. Another of a generation of gay men blighted by the virus. Our journey together had been cut short and within a couple of years, my journey with Lawrence would be at an end too. They both lived a life with HIV. And they both, in their different ways and through no fault of their own, died of ignorance.

Lawrence had toughed it out openly and brazenly in the cruel, inhospitable days before being gay was a British value and when AIDS was a mark of shame. He knew who had infected him, but no one was to blame and anyway by the time he did, it was too late. It was always too late. God knows, we replayed that one.

And all the while unbeknown to us, Tim was living with the virus too, silently and inwardly. Fearfully and shamefully. He never faced up to it and I never faced up to him. Did he too know who had infected him? Why hadn’t he said something? And why hadn’t I asked? Before it was too late. I’ve replayed that one too, so many times.

AIDS was everywhere in those early days. A full frontal assault on our sensibilities. It prescribed the way we lived and loved when we'd scarcely learnt how. But it wasn’t the only killer in our midst. That would be stigma. The silent one, but no less deadly. Tim copped them both. And I miss him.

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    Chris is a writer, influencer, activist and leader. Find out more about him here. image of Chris Creegan
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