Sometime last year I received the sad news that a very dear friend of mine had died a couple of months previously. It was quite funny (getting the news) in a horribly sad sort of way. We were the sort of friends who mailed or wrote to each other about once or twice a year depending on which way the wind was blowing, and I’d mailed him to catch him up on all the latest events in our lives. I sent the mail with some picture attachments and it bounced. I sent it several different ways, thinking it might be the pictures or something that were causing it to bounce, but it still bounced. In the end I assumed that his in box must be full and that I would ring him to tell him to clear it out so that I could bore him with the latest family photos.
His name was Edmund Cusick and he worked at Liverpool John Moore’s University as Head of their Creative Writing Department. Anyway, I rang the switchboard and asked to be put through to his office, at which point the poor receptionist said: ‘But he’s gone!’ and I said: ‘Gone where?’ and she said: ‘He’s dead.’ And I said: ‘But he can’t be (duh!), because last time I spoke to him, he was quite alive.’ At which point I burst into tears and she was rendered speechless. Eventually I said: ‘How did he die?’ thinking it must have been an accident because he wasn’t old. She told me it was a brain tumour and that it had been very quick, a matter of weeks and that he’d died in January.
Then, bless her, she said: ‘I don’t understand why you didn’t know. It was in the newspaper.’ At which point I said: ‘What newspaper?’ and she said: ‘The Liverpool Echo’. I pointed out that only people who live in Liverpool generally read The Liverpool Echo, bein’ as how it’s got quite a lot to do with Liverpool, but isn’t much use to you if you live in Glenfield. She agreed and then asked me if there was anything else she could do to help. I couldn’t think of anything other than wave a magic wand to bring him back to life, and as she was the sort of person who thought everyone in the Western Hemisphere must either live in Liverpool or subscribe to its newspapers I didn’t think this would be her forte. To be fair to the woman I probably shocked the living daylights out of her and she was at a bit of a loss. For all I know she could be as bright as a button.
Anyway, her comment was the only thing that cheered me up that day as I sat and roared my way through a box of Kleenex Balsam. At some point my dad came round and I opened the door with tears streaming down my face. He asked me what was wrong so I told him and then he went: ‘Ah well, you only spoke to him a couple of times of year, so that’s alright then. He can’t have been that much of a friend.’ At this point I wavered over biffing him repeatedly over the head with a bit of two by four, but decided against it thinking that my dad really isn’t good at emotional issues within the family and that it was slightly better than him offering to describe the inner workings of anti lock breaks which is what he has done on previous occasions.
So, Edmund has been on my mind a lot ever since, because I don’t feel like I really got to say goodbye to him properly, or to tell him how important he was to me. He just keeps popping into my head like crispy toast flying out of a toaster. I thought I might like to write something about him so that I can ‘move on’ as they say, although that really isn’t the right term. I really just wanted to talk to him for a bit I suppose.
Someone has opened a kind of memory box site for him, but you can’t say much there and I’ve always been a long winded kind of girl, and I can’t work out how to work it properly, so I didn’t. I was thinking about him again today for some reason, and I thought that this might be an actual, useful and legitimate use for my blog, rather than the usual rambling nonsense. I mean it will still be rambling nonsense because I don’t know any other way to write, but it will have a purpose, and surely that’s a good thing?
I met him when I first went to university, way back in the mists of time. I believe it was 1990, but I’m not good on dates, so don’t quote me. It was my first time being a proper student (i.e. one that turned up because they wanted to learn things, and actually called tutors by their real names, instead of ‘Sir’), and I believe it was his first time as a tutor, my tutor to be exact.
Getting to grips with university as a whole was a bit daunting, and it was really, really weird to be asked to contribute to learning instead of just listening, taking notes and regurgitating things ad nauseam. I remember being completely baffled by the whole thing and rather intimidated. The one bright spot of the week was Edmund’s tutorial. We knew we were crap and we just needed some reassurance. He provided it in bucket loads, not because he was crap as a tutor (far from it), but because he was pretty crap at being a human being, and we really needed that.
He reminded me totally of Uncle Quentin from The Famous Five, a crazy, shambolic genius who could in his case, take apart the inner workings of complex and baffling poetry rather than splitting the atom, but who couldn’t boil a kettle, do his shoe laces up or remember where he was supposed to be when. It was fascinating. Every week we would turn up, agog to see what he would do next. People used to skip lessons and lectures they didn’t like in those days, and what with the excitement of being let out to play away from our parents for the first time, it was a fairly common occurrence, but I really don’t remember anybody skipping one of his tutorials, once.
The first week we got there he offered us a hot drink, presumably to relax us. Then he couldn’t find the kettle. He finally found it behind a pot plant somewhere, but then he couldn’t find the lead for the kettle. He ruffled about, chatting to himself and opening random drawers. Eventually he found it in the filing cabinet, but not until he’d pulled out a variety of leather studded belts (which we all looked at wide eyed), and a box of cereal. He was, as I recall, rather fond of cereal, and there was generally several boxes to be found scattered about his office. Anyway, I don’t think we ever did get that hot drink, because of course that was only the beginning, and we still had to track down cups and tea and coffee themselves. It did help to relax us though. We knew we could talk to a man who couldn’t even boil a kettle.
He was, it has to be said, a brilliant teacher. He was one of those very rare human beings who manages to inculcate in you a love of the subject just because he himself loves it so much. Enthusiasm radiated out of him. I learned to see poetry for the first time because of him. It was like someone switching the light on, and I will always, always be grateful. I also blame him for my terrible, terrible poetry, which I still write occasionally, and keep in a dark cupboard somewhere. I don’t blame him for the fact that I never escaped the doom laden clutches of Sylvia Plath, but if he hadn’t been so encouraging, just think of all the trees I could have saved. I also think of him every time I write my blog, because of course, eventually I will write a novel and it will be down to him entirely. So don’t write to complain to me. It’s his fault.
Over the course of the year we became friends, and of course I fell in love with him, because at some point most people who came across him, whether they were men or women, invariably did. He was very kind and very patient, and put up with my visits, questions and dubious poetry. He learned to work his kettle, and at times was known to share his cereal. I was gutted that he was leaving at the end of the year. I wanted to take his other courses, which first years didn’t get to do, ones on fantasy writing, where he took you to ruined castles at midnight and did readings and filled you with enthusiasm for even more crazy stuff. It was never to be, sadly.
At the end of the year he left to go to Liverpool and I only saw him again three times, once at a residential course we went on about ballads, once at our final year ball to which he went with my most excellent best friend Rachel, and once more at our graduation. I always meant to visit and never got round to it, and I’m really sorry now that I didn’t.
So, that’s it in a nutshell, but there is more, so much more to say, and as it’s my blog I’m going to say it. So here are some of the things I remember and some of the things that made him such a cool friend:
- He never complained when I sent him a jar of honey and a pop gun for his birthday and the honey smashed over the pop gun, even though he must have wondered why I had sent him a sticky gun covered in glass.
- He bought me my very own Swiss Army knife which not only did he have consecrated by a White Witch of his acquaintance, but which also had my name engraved on it. I still have it, although I am sorry to say I’ve lost the bit where you pick stones out of horses hooves. It was incredibly important to me because we had been talking one day and I had told him that my dad had never let me have a pen knife when I was a kid because he said I was a girl, and that girls shouldn’t have them. I was so touched that he remembered, and that he didn’t really see me as ‘just a girl!’
- He first introduced me to some very cool books such as; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, Demian by Herman Hesse and the author Tanith Lee.
- He put up with me obsessively doodling during his classes, even though it drove him nuts. He always said he thought it meant I wasn’t paying attention, and then when he was just about to shout, I would say something which meant I was paying attention all along. Ha! The Devil makes work for idle hands you know…
- He once helped me run away from things when I was very, very miserable, for which I will always be profoundly grateful.
- He hugged trees, even when people were watching. When he left, someone went round campus and wrote on every tree in chalk: ‘This was Edmund’s Tree’.
- When I revisit university, which I have done half a dozen times, I always look at the window to his office, and even though it has been used by other people way more, it will always be his. Once when I saw a light on there one evening I got unreasonably happy thinking that he might have come back for a quick bowl of cereal!
- He once said that he thought I would get on well with Michael Moorcock. He had to read tons of Michael’s books for an article he was doing. At the time I was going through a phase of being obsessed by people with weird deformities, not the Elephant Man you understand, more like Jezza Beadle and his weird little hand, and John Thaw and his limp. Edmund drew parallels with one of the hero’s of Moorcock’s books who was an albino dwarf slayer and thought if I developed my obsession far enough I might have a career in fantasy writing! I have never actually read Moorcock, but whenever I see his books on the shelf in a bookshop I always think of Edmund.
- My continuing obsession with making up strange specialist magazine titles such as Stoats Weekly, First for Stoats, is directly from Edmund. Thanks for that.
- I once spent a solstice huddled round a fire on a Welsh hillside with him and Rachel. It was a bloody awful evening! I will always remember it as my first and only solstice celebration.
- He used to bark a lot, out loud, wherever he was, regardless of who was there. Sometimes he would also howl like a wolf. He once nearly made the head of department fall downstairs. It was very cool.
- He had a good eye for a postcard. My favourite one from him was a picture of a Nun playing darts which said: ‘180 for the Mother Superior’. I don’t know why it made me laugh, but it did. I had it on my wall for ages.
- He was absolutely rubbish at Tai Chi (he may have improved in the years that followed, to be fair to him). He used to practice by the river bank down from the university library. When we were ‘studying’ there, we would often spend a good half hour staring out of the library window watching him wobbling about like a drunken pelican. He was particularly bad at standing on one leg and would regularly fall over. It never seemed to put him off too much.
- He always seemed absolutely amazed by the world and the fact that he was in it. There was always an element of faint surprise in his eyes. It was almost as if he was startled that you could see him, and that he wasn’t in fact a ghost wandering through life randomly staring at people and just getting on with things nobody else was aware of.
- He once told me when he was in Liverpool that he had tried a dating service for a while. I asked him how it had gone and he said in his soft voice, that always sounded a bit sad: ‘Ohhhh, Katy! You know, it just didn’t go well. I ended up having a terrible day and met the date in a restaurant with a carrier bag with a My Little Pony and a carving knife in it. I just couldn’t explain it well enough, and she couldn’t get over it.’ I howled.
- Once he told me that he didn’t ever think he would get married. I asked him why and he said that his mother and father had lived together happily for years and he had never heard them exchange a cross word. He couldn’t imagine settling for anything less, but he’d never met anyone he could live with like that and he didn’t think he ever would. He was a quiet man who didn’t like to talk about his personal life much, and when I eventually did find his obituary thanks to the wonders of Google, I was surprised and delighted to know that he had a wife and several children. I was so very pleased to think that he had finally found that person to be with, however short a time he had with them.
- He was the first person to read my fortune. Sitting on a gravestone in the local church yard he read my palm, not in a flaky, faux mystical way, but in a totally matter of fact way. He was really good. I still remember what he said to me, and I just want to let him know; ‘you were right’.
There were few times that we argued, but once I remember saying to him that I thought his problem (always fatal those arguments: ‘you know what your problem is?’) was the fact that he wasn’t really real. He asked me to explain and the best I could come up with was the idea that he was a man who lived on the very cusp between one world and another. He would never be fully present in the world because of that, but it was what made him able to teach and write the way he did. He looked quite sad and said that he thought I might be right about that. That’s partly why I can’t really believe that he’s dead. It’s almost as if he just stepped off the path for a moment into that other world that he could always see, and that one day, in five or ten or twenty years time he will just reappear as if he’d never been away. I hope so.