I met Connie in London on a cold, bright November afternoon. I was there on business, or, more precisely, on commission, my job to sell and service photocopiers. He was there grieving. Only the day before his sister, he told me the details later, had been crushed beneath a bus, dying of horrendous injuries and in great pain, probably, both legs amputated above the knee in a hopeless effort by surgeons to save her.
I can still, after all these years, recollect the moment we met. It was on London Bridge. I was looking down at the river boats when I realised this striking figure by my side. Though short he expressed a dignified strength sourced of suffering. I was attracted at once.
– Are you staring at me? he asked.
– At the view, I replied.
– I thought you were staring at me. I’ve just lost my sister. She fell under a bus.
– My deepest condolences. Was it an accident?
– Are you a detective?
– No. But it might help with the insurance.
– How thoughtful mate. I’ll bear that in mind.
– My pleasure. May I be of any further assistance?
– Are you an undertaker? he asked.
– Do I look like one? I replied, somewhat insulted by the suggestion.
– No, your hands are far too dirty. What’s that on them?’
– Are you a writer? he speculated and I saw no reason to challenge this, though the truth was it was grime from an old machine I’d been trying to fix earlier at an office in Tottenham Court Road. I felt I could tell him anything and he’d go along for the ride.
– Yes, I ventured, Crime novels.
(Though I had never read one in my life. I hoped he was not a fan.)
– Trash! He looked disappointed. I prefer history or the old classics. There’s grist in them. Something to chew on.
– I quite agree. I write only for the money.
– Does it pay well?
– Enough so I can travel.
– Where are you from mate?
– A great country. Wonderful people.
He came forward, embraced me. We exchanged names. He hugged me again tightly.
– I love Australia. Kangaroos. Koalas. The Melbourne Cup.
– Have you been?
– I’ve friends there, he answered. Many friends. One in particular. She’s famous.
He looked worried.
– What is it?
– My sister.
– The one who just died?
– We weren’t close to be honest.
– I’m sorry.
– No worries mate. It’s a blessing she’s gone to tell the truth, and I know that’s blasphemy, save me God.
At this he crossed himself extravagantly. Too extravagantly I thought, like someone who mimics in order to make clear their contempt.
– I was hoping to leave this awful country tomorrow, he continued. But I suppose there will have to be an inquest?
– I’m sure you can slip away, leave a note behind, I suggested. The police will be in touch if they need to.
– Are you sure? You sound like you have experience?
– I lost a sister too.
– Beneath a bus?
– That would have been quicker I fancy. No. She slipped in the kitchen, impaling herself on a carving knife left point up in the dishwasher. I happened to be out at the time buying a joint of meat.
– How bizarre.
– Yes. And the joint was quite rotten by the time I was ready to eat again. Stunk the fridge out for months.
Connie started to laugh. A rolling laugh that made passers-by stare, resume their walk eyes cast back revealing either amusement or disdain.
I joined in with his laughter, sealing our friendship, equalled by my joy in what, then, I innocently took to be his delight in buffoonery. It took longer before I understood his urgent need for comfort and recognition. In that he was no different from any of us. Except he bore no hypocrisy. He came at you full chat and needed certainty as he chased death.
Unrecognised he may be. But in my estimation Connie [C.H.] Constantine can hold his head high. How often does a person come along so unreformed?
These stories are his memoir.
[To be continued.]