Tuesday, 7 September 2010

You'll Follow Me Back With The Sun In Your Eyes.

I've watched the World Cup in some strange places. In Scottish pubs, full of people proudly wearing the team colours of anyone-but-England; backstage in theatres, desperately hoping that the penalty shootout will be completed before I actually have to go on stage; even in Kingston-Upon-Thames. This year I watched the scrappy, ill-tempered affair between Holland and Spain on a tiny bedside screen in the Royal Marsden Hospital, and it's this year's final which I will remember more vividly than any that has gone before or that is to come.

As I left the Marsden that night, an unwanted thought crept into my brain. Would my dear friend, the man who I'd been visiting, be around for the next World Cup final? I dismissed it as a craven, weedy, disloyal thought. It didn't for a second cross my mind that I had just seen him for the last time, but I had. The magnificent Jerome O'Donohoe died on Friday morning, at the obscene, devastating, laughable age of 37.

I first met Jerome a few days after my 30th birthday, which is to say a couple of months after his own. It wasn't a good time for me. My father was already ill with the disease which was to take his life; the same bastard that has snatched Jer's as well. I remember in particular a night at a little Sam Smith's pub in St Giles', which has a small conservatory running alongside it. My phone rang, which in those days only meant bad news. My mother told me of dad's latest symptoms, treatments, ailments. We were both becoming aware of the fact that this was a battle dad was not going to win, and I strode up and down the conservatory becoming more and more agitated and scared. I had no idea how to return to the pub table and behave normally once the call was over; fortunately I didn't need to. The moment I hung up the phone, Jerome came to where I was standing, gave me a wordless but infinitely comforting hug, and gently led me back to where the others were sitting. He didn't try and say anything, didn't feign concern; he just helped, supported and understood. What will give you the measure of the man is that this was just the second time we had met. Essentially, he didn't know me from Adam. But he recognised exactly what was needed and quietly, unflashily, generously and selflessly provided it.

The problem with writing about the death of someone wonderful (apart from the practical problem of typing through the mist) is that all the things one wants to say have become obituary clich├ęs. Everything that made Jerome so special sounds like something from a Hallmark sympathy card. But it's all true. He DID have the biggest, warmest heart. When I conjure his image, he IS always smiling or laughing. He DID possess, to an extraordinary degree, that elusive quality, the gift of friendship. He really HAS left behind him a gap so vast that nobody who knew and loved him will ever adequately be able to find ways of filling it.

And, so you know I'm not just mouthing platitudes, I can give you chapter and verse for everything. His big heart and extraordinary generosity, for example. I eventually learned not to express enthusiasm for anything he owned, because he'd be as likely as not to give it to you. My house is full of bits of kit, books, even a five disc Eddie Izzard box set, which Jerome just handed over and said 'it's yours. I didn't need it anyway'. As for the smile and the laughter, one of the incidental pleasure/pain aspects of his passing is that whenever the sound of his voice pops unbidden into my head, it's never morose or grumpy sounding. Try it, if you knew him- listen out in your head for his voice. See? A cheerful inflection, a sense of mischief. Only ever seconds away from a joke. And as for the gift of friendship, well. Jerome knew everyone, and to meet him was pretty much to become his friend. So many of my friends became his; so many of his became mine. Because he was interested in people, because he loved people, because he was truly a social animal, he was also the most cohesive kind of social glue. He is utterly irreplaceable; I can only imagine how that irreplaceability must feel to his adored and adoring wife Geri, and to his close and loving family.

In the last dazed few days since he left us, one image comes again and again into my brain. It is Jerome and me dancing around a chintzy living room with two other friends and my housemate of the time. I'd been doing a rep season at the theatre in Pitlochry, miles and miles from home. Jerome came to visit, sharing the long drive with our friend Julia. He saw the show I was in (bellowing out a standing ovation amid a crowd of politely clapping highland pensioners) and then joined me and some of the cast in the after-hours bar near the theatre. There was a song out at the time, an anthemic little number by one of those bands that shifts units by the bucketload but which nobody ever actually confesses to liking. One by one, my housemate, my colleague Fran (who was subsequently to become a close friend of the O'Donohoes- that gift again) Jerome, Julia and I all confessed to having a soft spot for the song. Come chucking-out time we were yelling it antisocially in the quiet streets. When we got back to my digs, Jerome did some business with a mac and some wires and the telly and there was the song, playing through the TV speakers. It took him seconds, and in 2004 the idea that we could talk about a song one minute and have it playing through the TV the next seemed like the most thrilling magic. But that was Jerome, and that is how I will always remember him. On holiday, at parties, at the pub, at weddings, in conversation- he'd come in to the room and suddenly, from somewhere, there'd be music.