I sometimes wonder what book I would read if I knew it were to be my last. Candide would be an immediate contender, as would A Glastonbury Romance (and not just to stretch out the time). Possibly some essays of Montaigne or Primo Levi. But perhaps I would settle for Rabelais or a volume of P. G. Wodehouse and just die laughing. It was a topic among many my friend John Vernon and I used to discuss, exchanging titles and enthusiasms. When it came to it, he had been re-reading Paradise Lost with renewed amazement, and had also found pleasure in returning to the Attic Greek textbook of his schooldays.

One thing I can’t discuss with him now is a peculiar dream I had.

There comes a tipping point in life – in any life lived to a natural extent and not truncated by tragedy – where the number of departed friends, or just the old familiar faces, begins to outweigh the number of those who remain to us. I haven’t reached that stage, but John’s departure set me counting back again through the years, and brooding on the enduring strangeness that our ‘allotted’ spans should be so various and on the randomness of our fates. I thought of Angus, here in Tokyo, walking normally one day and starting to stagger the next – prelude to the discovery of a tumour in his brain already so big as to be inoperable; of his devastated girlfriend Kayoko, engulfed a few years later by a tidal wave on a beach in Sri Lanka; of my bubbly grandmother Rosa, who lived a healthy life throughout an entire century, just touching the two either side of it; of easy-going Sally, who had little more than three decades before cancer took her from her daughters.

In such recollections old university friends loom large. My Selwyn College contemporary Chris Foale lost his life a year after graduation in a car crash in Yugoslavia (from which his brother Michael miraculously emerged and went on to become the first Briton to walk in space). Others who had slipped away I learned about through obituaries encountered later by chance: the scholar Siobhan Kilfeather in Belfast, the poet Anne Blon- stein in Basel – two more still youthful victims of cancer.

At times it’s the injustice that impresses, at others the absurdity. A year ago my Czech friend Otakar, who had been looking forward to a well- earned retirement with his wife in Prague, succumbed to The Talented Mr. Ripley. A sensitive and loving man, he was so upset by the film of Patricia Highsmith’s story that no sooner had he switched off the television than he began to suffer palpitations. As his wife went to the phone to call an am- bulance, he unwisely tried to stand again and fell, cracking his head in the process and inducing a fatal haemorrhage.

John had made his living in the financial field, dividing his time between Britain and Japan, a country to which he responded with the true discrimi- nation of the connoisseur and critic. We had come out to Japan together many years earlier as English teachers and he had eventually relocated to London with his Japanese wife and daughter. Later, when settled in the purlieus of Purley, with an MBA from the London Business School to add to his Oxford degree, and having had his fill of working for banks, he had set up his own financial training venture.

But his heart was less in finance than in literature and history. He read widely and thoughtfully. He would write reviews of books and send them off a dozen at a time by email to selected friends, works that ranged from Marguerite Yourcenar to Patrick O’Brian, from Don Cupitt to Dorothy Hartley, sometimes with a favourite classic thrown in – Gawain and the Green Knight or his beloved Tristram Shandy. I urged him to send some reviews to various journals, but he could never be bothered. Eventually he took to posting some online, but it was discussion with friends he most enjoyed, the sharing of ideas and loves in conversation rather than the hasty and fragmented discourses typical of cyberspace. When we last talked on the phone, he had said he was looking forward to Forrest Reid’s Demophon, a magical Greek fantasy, which my small press was planning to republish. But his long – and for so long, so secret – struggle with myelofibrosis was nearing its end, and two weeks later it was pneumonia that brought the coup de grâce.

John had nothing but praise for the nurses and doctors at the south London hospital where he had spent so much of the last year. But he had been under no illusions about the chances of surviving his bone marrow transplant. He researched the whole business with the thoroughness of a statistician, which rendered somewhat feeble my attempts to encourage alternative visions of reality. But philosophically he had most of the bases covered. He knew his C. S. Lewis and his Richard Dawkins too, his Buddhist interpreters and his Zen koans. In recent years he had become acquainted with all three of the Powys brothers – with the psychological profundities of John Cowper, the no-nonsense epicureanism of Llewelyn, the melancholy mysticism of Theodore. He was especially struck, as all its readers are, by the chapter titled ‘The Dirt of God’ in the latter’s Kindness in a Corner in which the sexton Truggins allays the fear of death of the elderly Mr and Mrs Turtle with a comically emotive enactment of the blessings vouchsafed for us by a grave in a country churchyard. It is one of the most extraordinary passages in our literature – one which induces in the reader, as with the Turtles them- selves, a curious longing simply to lie down and die. Not that John had any intention of doing so. I had wanted to get Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Divine and the Human to him too, as a kind of counterpoint, with its marvellous definition of immortality as ‘memory made clear and serene’, but relucted lest it had seemed precipitous, an admission almost of defeat. In any case, it would have required more energy than was left to him.

During one of my recent visits home, when he had still been just well enough to drive, we had met in Winchester. As the autumnal drizzle grew heavier in the late afternoon we took refuge in the Cathedral, joining the thinly scattered congregation and adding our voices to ‘Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven’, as if both trying to recapture something that time and distance had left behind us, something specific to each of us yet somehow unifying. We took in again some of its many monuments – the great west window, an abstract masterpiece formed of the glass that was shattered by Cromwell’s batteries, the Fishermen’s Chapel with Izaak Walton’s memo- rial, the mortuary chests of the Saxon and Danish kings, the gravestone of Jane Austen that breathes no word of her writings but honours the woman and friend. When we parted outside, I tried to resist the feeling that this would be my last sight of John, as he walked slowly away with the aid of his stick, tall and thin in his trench coat and wide-brimmed fedora. It proved not to be: prosaic as reality is, that was of John in hospital later in the spring being suddenly wheeled off down the corridor for yet another scan. But it remains my valedictory image, the one that abides.

And then he came into my dream on the day of his funeral. It was a very brief scene, one among many in the usual hotchpotch of these emanations from our nether-consciousness, or as some would have it, from the spirit world. It was a scene as if from a silent movie. In a small, bare room, John was sitting in an armchair, with his back to the camera, as it were. I had the feeling I was standing behind him with one of my hands on his shoulder, while stroking his head with the other, as if in an act of reassurance. This sense of the tactile was very strong, yet I had no visible presence. To his left sat our mutual friend Luke in profile, and next to Luke in another armchair sat an unidentified man in a black cassock and dog collar. His face was not known to me or even distinct, but I had the sense after waking that I had somehow been introducing John to this friendly stranger.

I thought no more of the dream for a while, but recalled it some days later when speaking with Luke on the phone. He related how when he had last seen John in his hospital room, two days before he died, a priest had en- tered to deliver a Bible. The padre of the local parish apparently did the rounds of the hospital, though I had no knowledge of this, or that John had spoken with him on an earlier visit and accepted his offer of a copy. But there these three men had been, in a room together, two of them old friends of mine and the other an unknown man of the cloth.

It’s unusual for me to dream of specific individuals I cannot identify, and it was only in mentioning this to Luke that I added what was, in fact, the most puzzling element of the dream for me – that this stranger had been a black man. Luke’s silence was eloquent, and when he spoke again it was to tell me that the padre was from Kenya.

Most dreams are bizarre and their contents unaccountable, though often one can recognize components and make obvious associations. But some cry out for rational explanation. The only explanations I can think of for this one are beyond rationality. To attempt to ‘interpret’ it would seem to me to cheapen whatever significance it may have. So I content myself in embracing the mystery of its irrefutability, and in satisfying the desire to record it.

Perhaps, after all, the ‘Good Book’ was the last one John had been reading. That too would have been a return to his roots, emotional if not intellectual. I will like to think it was John who was reassuring me, conveying to me this singular scene in the only way left when letters, emails and phone lines are gone. ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ Or to give it the Rabelaisian form: ‘Bon espoir y gist au fond’ – Good hope lies at the bottom.

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