Scarcely anyone reading this will have heard of Marie Buckley who has died aged 86. Yet she was, by any measure, a remarkable woman. And although I had not seen her for many years, she was also one of the most significant people in my life.
Marie was my late partner, Lawrence’s mum. If you watched It’s A Sin and remember Colin’s devoted mother, Eileen, you will be able to make sense of why Marie mattered so much to me in a heartbeat. Marie stood by Lawrence, and me, to a fault through the AIDS epidemic.
There, for the most part, the parallels end. Save one. Marie and Eileen were working class women whose sons came to inhabit a world apart from the one they had been born into — in no small part because they were gay. And then came the virus.
Marie was a Scouser. Where Lawrence’s accent had mellowed by the time I met him, there was no mistaking Marie’s origins. Lawrence’s early years were spent in Huyton on the outskirts of Liverpool. He would joke that he was amazed to discover when he left primary school that not everyone in the world was a Catholic.
But by the time Lawrence was in his teens, Marie, a cleaner to trade, had fled domestic abuse at the hands of his dad (a miner who later ended up destitute) and taken her children with her to Douglas on the Isle of Man. It was there that Lawrence completed his secondary education before going up to Worcester College Oxford to read Greats in 1975.
The apparent contradiction in those bare facts tells its own story. Lawrence’s single — bloody — mindedness that Oxford would be his destination was, of course, testament to him. But that determination came from somewhere and Marie embodied it. In her modesty there was a pride which was palpable from the moment you encountered her.
‘Tell me more about her,’ a friend said today when I shared the news of her death. And I was taken back to the tin of rollies she kept forever tightly packed and the teabags which were always used twice. A little bit went a long way. It had to. Life was hard and luck was all too often in scarce supply. She did not have her troubles to seek.
Yet Marie was almost relentlessly uncomplaining. And whatever bewilderment she must have felt when her brilliant son contracted a deadly virus at the age of 27, she wore her response to it with an equanimity which was astounding. Perhaps by then there had already been so many knocks that it was just one more.
But still, this was the mid-1980s. The virus itself had only just been discovered. The vast majority of those infected were gay and bisexual men in London. Fear and ignorance raged. Treatment, such as it was, was in its infancy. Death was, as far as anyone knew, by far the most likely outcome. And it hurtled towards those in the virus’ wake.
Quite what Marie made of me when Lawrence first introduced me to her, I’ve no idea. Though my academic pedigree was no match for his, on the face of it our backgrounds could not be more different. And I had never had an accent to mellow. But none of that mattered. The only thing that did was that I loved him — because she did.
He was less forgiving. My seemingly middle-class sensitivities grated even in the throes of love. And my politically correct aversion to the idea of people having cleaners drew a sharp response. His mum was a cleaner and my inadvertent sniffiness about her trade was off limits. I was told.
But when I heard the news of Marie’s death from Lawrence’s brother, it was to the last days not the first that my thoughts immediately returned. And to a piece I wrote five years ago which culminated with the night he died.
‘For the next four hours, his mum and I sat by Lawrence’s bed. Sometimes together, sometimes alone. We talked a little to each other, and to him. This was no time for inhibition. Hearing stays until almost the end. Who knows whether we made any sense to his addled mind. It didn’t matter. Love did.
As the evening wore on, his breathing started to slow and became harder to hear. Several times we wondered if the moment had come. But when it did, we both knew. We turned to each other. I switched the fan off and his mum held a feather to Lawrence’s lips. It didn’t stir. ‘He’s gone, Chris,’ she said.
I was 34 and I had not known love like his before. But she had brought him into the world and he was just 37. There was nothing left to say.’
Whatever had been before — or was to come after — we had shared that moment. Neither of us would have had it any other way. True it was our house — mine and his. But he was her son and her generosity in sharing those precious last hours with me were a mark of the woman she was.
And it sat in stark contrast to the response of other parents who turned their backs or worse still, took over at the end. Lawrence’s first boyfriend Bob was one such case. His parents ashamed and disapproving of his ‘lifestyle’ appeared unceremoniously and took him ‘home’ from London to Somerset for a private family funeral.
Not for Marie — or his siblings — Lawrence’s was a funeral carved out of difference which excluded no one and left no part of his life in the shade. She was content to let me curate it but remained fiercely attentive to every detail — as my friend, John, who I had asked to play the organ, discovered the night before.
Ever playful John had an air of tomfoolery about him which rattled her. It was just his nerves, of course, but Marie needed reassurance. ‘Mind you remember, this is my son’s funeral,’ she warned him gently. He got it. And all was well.
After Lawrence’s death Marie and I gradually saw less of each other. My life and hers — and geography — got in the way. Yet until dementia arrived a few years ago, there would always be a phone call or a text on the anniversaries — his birthday, the day of his death and the day of his funeral. Sometimes World AIDS Day too.
Memorialisation in the quiet corners of our lives born out of our shared loss. Almost habitual — but never superficial. In the decade we had known each other while he was alive, her support for him — and me — had never wavered. Not even for a second. Even when I had faltered. And we had been together with him at the last.
It is strange to think, all these years on, that long before it was in vogue, let alone permissible, ours was a marriage of sorts and that she was a mother-in-law to boot. Lawrence would have scoffed mightily at that — me too back then. But in her passing, I will claim it now. I loved her for sure.
‘A woman worth knowing,’ my friend remarked as I tried to conjure her character up in between tears today. She was indeed — and I knew her. I will always be grateful for that.
Photo: Lawrence, Marie (front left) and his siblings, Graduation Day, Worcester College, Oxford, 1978