A Nightingale in Berkeley Square

A Nightingale in Berkeley Square

Today, I had a meeting in Berkeley Square. It was a beautiful, gloriously sunny day in central London. On the south side of the square – a fine example of a Georgian square that typifies Mayfair, Soho and other neighbourhoods in the centre – is a cocktail bar called Be At One.

It made me sad. Some 25 years ago, that building was a clubbing venue called Club Circa. A big crowd of us had gone along to see our pal Marshall Harker do a set of uplifting house music. It was a great night. At about 2am, my brother Dem asked if he could have a word. I said, "Sure, course." He said, "No, I mean outside." So I followed him out. We climbed over the iron fencing into the park itself and he asked me to sit down on a bench. He said, "Euge. I wanted to say to you, you think Mum has it in for you. And I know why you think that. She has been pretty tough on you over the years.

"But I wanted to say to you, even though I agree, there is something you need to know. She might act like she loves me and Aidan, and doesn't like you. But the fact is, when you walk into the room, her face lights up in a way that me and Aidan could never achieve. Just thought you should know."

We hugged, and went back inside. But that was typical Derm. Generous, thoughtful and kind. A nightingale of Berkeley Square... 

Two weeks ago yesterday, we cremated Derm. He had just turned 49 a week before his death. He left behind Liz, his wife whom he loved so much (they were like teenagers, always kissing and holding hands) and Niamh, 20 and Conor, 18, of whom he was so proud and whom he loved unconditionally. 

It was a glorious day, a late spring day. We had two services. A Catholic mass at Ealing Abbey, west London. And a more secular affair at a sun-drenched crematorium in a place called Ruislip. My dad spoke very movingly at the mass in his eulogy. At the crematorium, Niamh read a beautiful poem, and Conor was a hero, reading eulogies on behalf of himself, Niamh and, of course, his mother Liz. No one cried; the space was filled with love, and it was a celebration of Derm's life.

We ended up with about 20 minutes to spare. I had written a eulogy some months earlier, but I hadn't thought I would get the chance to read it. Nonetheless, I had printed it off without rehearsing it, so I thought, it's now or never. So I stood up and read it out. Here's what I said...

This morning, I turned up at Mum and Dad's. I had got dressed over in Walthamstow and took an Uber to west London with Evie. I put on a black suit and black tie. I was trying to choose a pair of shoes, and half-remembered a mnemonic, "Shoes – always brown in town."

I think the difference between my mum and dad is best summed up by the following story. When I arrived at Mum and Dad's at 10:30, Dad said, "Lord, Eugene, you look so well, and finely turned out." I went into the drawing room and my mum looked me up and down, wrinkled her nose, and said, "Arrah, Lord, Eugene – sure, it's never brown in town."

Then I asked how we were getting to the church. Dad said, "Well, I expect the hearse, limo, whatever, will be full so why don't you and Evie walk up there? It's only ten minutes or so." So that is what we did.

On March 15 1970 Derm came into our lives. It was a time of Ford Cortinas, lots of brown and orange and of woodchip and Artex. We know that – we ticked the box on all three in the house we moved to that summer, saying goodbye to a small, rather dark terraced house in the hinterland between Northfields Ave and the allotments of West Ealing. But Derm brought more colour to our new home in Drayton Green, a decent-sized four – well, three-and-a-half bed – semi.

My first “memory” of Derm is one that might not actually be a memory, but what is called an implant in Bladerunner, put there by Mum’s repetition of the anecdote over the years. “If a story’s worth telling, it’s worth telling repeatedly”, after all. Mum was upstairs, so the story or memory goes, foolishly leaving me alone with my baby brother. When she came down, there were swirling patterns of felt-tip all over his soft, barely formed head. Naturally, it was nothing to do with me, guv – the pen had “just slipped”. Derm, naturally, said nothing to give me away. Well, technically, he couldn’t have. But given his loyalty and propensity for forgiveness and the fact that, as I always tell Evie “No one likes a grass”, I maintain he wouldn’t have done.

It was a childhood of holidays to a caravan, or static home near Brighton, fish and chips by the seaside and swimming in the cold English waters. Derm and I were often taken to be twins with blond, curly hair and blue eyes, which was slightly galling as he was three years younger than me. By the time we were teenagers, no one took us for twins anymore – he shot past me and I often had people expressing surprise that he was younger than me, though I expect that was to do with his mature attitude as much as his physical stature; he was a powerful, well-built man whose physicality belied his supremely gentle nature.

As children, there was something special about Derm. Early this year, I asked Mum who was her favourite son. She said, “I don’t know, but I have to say, it wouldn’t be you.” In truth, I think Aidan and I both knew that, if push came to shove, it would have been sweet, kind, gentle Derm – or “pet chicken”, as she always called him back then.

Derm spent many hours helping Mum to bake. I can see him now, wearing an apron, tasting the cake mixture and putting the buns in the oven. No double-entendre intended; he wasn’t that kind of guy. He specialised in a sort of fudge, chocolate and digestive composite that I think is now rebranded Millionaire’s Shortbread, and it was delicious. On one school trip, he announced that he was going to make a big batch to bring with him, but Mum said, “Don’t you think the other boys would tease you for it?” Derm looked genuinely puzzled and said, earnestly, “Oh no, Mum, the other boys love it. They’d expect it.” It simply didn’t occur to him that anyone would laugh at him; and they didn’t, that gentleness combined with generosity was to become Derm’s hallmark and stock-in-trade.

Once when Derm was about 12 or so, Dad found him down in the shed throwing all the insecticides and fly-killers into a bin liner. When Dad asked him what the hell he was doing, he said, with a combination of wounded defensiveness and righteous anger, “Well, it’s just not fair, Dad, they don’t have a chance.”

I suppose it was similar concerns that led Derm to become a vegetarian and to eschew wearing leather; when he was about 18, it was a familiar sight to see him walking barefoot around the streets of Ealing and embarrassing me or Aidan by turning up to the pub like that.  

As Derm developed, kindness was, in fact, one of his defining characteristics. He volunteered in holidays to act as an escort bringing people with disabilities to Lourdes, for instance, and could always be relied upon to walk a local old lady’s dog or to help out at charity events.

I’d be lying if I said Derm was massively academic. He didn’t distinguish himself in his A levels and through clearing ended up on a course in electronics and engineering at Salford College of Technology. It was grim. He lived on the 23rd floor of a huge tower block where they possibly house asylum seekers now and his main pursuit in Manchester was an addiction to fruit machines. I went to visit him a couple of times in the seven or eight weeks he lasted there. The cashless society was in its infancy then, and Derm had worked out that by rushing from one bank’s cash machine to another with a different bank, the system would not yet have updated and he could draw more readies. The cheque guarantee card also proved fruitful…

I was at Leeds University then, and, in the age before smartphones, one dark, rainy evening I bumped into someone who told me he had seen my “kid brother”. I headed home where a frozen, sodden Derm was shivering outside the house with his bike. Turned out, he had cycled in appalling weather from Manchester across the Pennines and down to Leeds. Only Derm would undertake such a madcap mission. But that is what we loved about him, and that drive for risk-taking saw him become an accomplished skier and lover of all adrenaline-seeking activities.  

Needless to say, Derm’s academic career at Salford was neither stellar nor the pinnacle of his achievements. He returned to London and began working with a firm of accountants at the Aldwych.

This was the making of Derm for two hugely important reasons. First, it turned out that he was quite brilliant at accountancy, with a forensically analytical brain and a huge capacity for absorbing and interpreting financial and legal information. His potential was soon spotted by a partner, Mike Cox, who recruited Derm to become a co-partner in a new accountancy practice he was setting up in Rickmansworth, a move that would become the making of Derm. In fact, his major concern was having to move out of the tiny flat in a mansion block in Victoria where he and Liz were then living. As he said over a pint and a session on the fruit machine at the Grafton Arms on Strutton Ground that more or less became his front room, “I mean, where the hell is Rickmansworth anyway, Euge?”

But go he did, and he became a model employer. He genuinely liked all his employees and his clients – or nearly all of his clients. Many became personal friends and Derm always had time to meet clients and discuss their tax affairs as well as their personal lives. Nearly all of it unbillable time, needless to say, and they usually kept a box of tissues in the meeting room as some clients saw him as a counsellor and poured their hearts out to him, leaving full of tears and gratitude. He had that effect upon people.  

And the second reason was, it was at Cooper Lancaster that he met Liz, the love of his life, with whom he’d go on to have two wonderful children, darling Niamh and only slightly irritating Conor. My last memory of Derm came at the end of a wonderful few days in Southwest France where I combined a press trip with my daughter, Evie, to the wonderful medieval city of Carcassonne with a few days enjoying Derm’s company, Derm’s hospitality and Derm’s vodka at their lovely family home above the Tet Valley, close to Andorra, in the Pyrenees.

I was walking with Dad up the street and up ahead were Derm and Liz.

As ever, they lumbered along arms entwined around each other, Liz with her thumb hooked into Derm’s belt loop, Derm with his hand in Liz’s back pocket, as in love then as they had ever been. It’s my abiding memory of their blessed, love-drenched marriage, as love-drenched as was their family life.

That night, I flew back to Stansted and Dad insisted on dropping me at Whipps Cross Hospital since I’d been experiencing numerous chest pains in France. Before I knew it, I was whisked off to Bart’s Hospital in Central London where some time that night I had a massive coronary, a stroke and a number of further complications. I ended up on life support for ten days, with surgeons telling Dad and Aidan that things looked pretty bleak. Two days after my own heart attack, Derm suffered the cardiac arrest that led inexorably to this day.

When I was finally deemed capable of hearing the news – I suffered postoperative delirium and thought I had been shot in New York, mugged in Rajasthan, imprisoned in Dublin and came round in Clerkenwell, which brought me back down to earth – it was two weeks after Derm’s ultimately fatal cardiac arrest, and the news hit me hard. My poor parents and Aidan to have had two of us on life support with things looking very bleak indeed.

On Tues August 14 I received this message from Derm, though I wouldn’t see it until two weeks later:

“Hi Euge, I have just been speaking to Dad and hear you are about to have a bypass. Thank God you got back to the UK first. Good luck, am sure all will be fine, text me when you can xx”

Evie has been a wonderful support. As has my ex Lucy, who sent me a book and card. In the card she said, “I will never forget Derm. He had this way of sort of smiling when you had been really, really naughty and saying, “Oh Euge”, but looking at you with love in a way that showed he would always forgive you.”

And another wonderful ex – I’ve got shedloads of them!  – is Penny. I confided in her recently that I had been prone to angry, rage-filled outbursts. She said, “Well, just stop them. What would Derm do?” I saw her point.

The next thing, a package arrived in the post. They were full of festival-style wristbands. Embossed upon them was the legend WWDD. Pen had found a supplier to the festival industry and had a load made up. What a great girl.

So the best way to honour Derm’s incredibly rich, love-soaked life is to remember that. What Would Derm Do? I think follow that guiding principle, as I shall endeavour (and fail) to do, and you can’t go far wrong. And if you do, don’t worry. Thing about Derm is he would always forgive you, in any case.

There is a song by an artist called Cherry Ghost called Thirst For Romance. The lyrics say this:

"Remember me with a smile on my face

Replace the tears in your memory with

Two heroic arms that twisted lids from jars

And dragged you home after drinking in the park

Remember me with the wind in my sails

Replace the night nurse that sits at my bedside

With a whistling heart that played piano in the dark

And cheered you every step of the way..."

Derm indeed was heroic, and twisted lids from jars for me literally and metaphorically. He was always there to help dig me out of a hole, console me when I was in despair or depressed and, not least, to sort out my messy accounts. I naturally do remember him with the wind in his sails, not the nurse that sat at his bedside so often in recent months. He truly did have a whistling heart. Though he didn't play piano in the dark... when Dad used to drop us off in his Ford Cortina (possibly by then it was a beige Ford Escort estate bought at an auction on the Great West Road in Chiswick) for piano lessons on a Saturday morning, we'd wave till he was out of sight, then nick off to Pitshanger Park to tackle the rope swing from a tree out over the River Brent. I fell off once, landed in a clump of nettles and then rolled into the filthy river. I still see Derm laughing till he was on the verge of being sick, every so often drawing enough breath to say, "I'm so sorry, Euge", then collapsing all over again. Happy days...

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Godspeed, Derm. I can’t wait to catch up with you for a few glasses of wine in the warmth of a fire-lit snug when we see each other again, and to hear you chuckle, and raise your eyebrows once more in that quizzical way, as you murmur gently – once more – “Oh, Euge”…

And while I think of it, nightingale is not quite right.

To borrow from Harper Lee:

"That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. 'Your father's right,' she said. 'Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'" 

#WWDD