Goodbye To My Little Brother (Part 2)

Llyr

Okay. Deep breaths.

This is the story of me and the dude up there that I have affectionately referred to as ‘my little brother’ for years now. When I finally publish this, I’ll have lost track of how many drafts I’ll have written, hated and discarded.

What I hope is that what follows does my best friend Llŷr justice.

What I know is that I will have been a howling mess of snot and tears on several points through it.

It’s a story that I wish I’d written ages ago, after he gave me his blessing to write about him, and while he was still around to actually read it.

Whilst I’ve mentioned Llŷr many times, until my last post I’d never mentioned his actual illness, because I knew he didn’t want it to define him, and I wanted to respect that. I want to remember him how he was too.

I got his consent two years ago, when we shared a hotel room at a friend’s wedding. He’d want me to tell you it was twin beds, not a double, but it wasn’t. He’d definitely want me to stress there were no shenanigans though, no “those aren’t pillows!” moments:

The wedding just happened to fall on the same weekend as his 40th birthday. Typically Llŷr refused to let us properly celebrate his milestone birthday as he didn’t want to steal the limelight from the happy couple.

But him reaching forty was something to celebrate, more so than anyone else I knew, and so I started writing this post.

But much as I tried to, I couldn’t find the right words.

Nothing seemed appropriate, didn’t do him justice, just didn’t seem right. So I put it on the back burner, resolving to return to it once I’d had chance to mull things over some more.

And now it’s too late for him to read it.

On Friday I went to his memorial service and then the reception. Note: not a wake. As you might expect, there were many tears, hugs and embraces, but also many smiles and laughs amid much swapping of stories and memories; there was singing, there was dancing, there was a lot of drinking, oh-so-many glasses clinked together in his name.

He would have loved it.

*****

So I thought I’d explain how Llŷr and I became such good friends. Truth be told, we were thrown together by circumstance.

I had been living with a bloke I knew from college days, who found he was about to be a father and decided that my bedroom would be much better deployed as a nursery, which definitely did not require a sponging, chain-smoking lodger residing in it.

Hint taken, I promptly moved out, and found myself a flat in the Grangetown area of Cardiff. It was the first time I’d ever lived alone, and I greatly enjoyed being able to eat what I wanted when I wanted without disapproving looks from housemates, or watch whatever I liked on TV. And if I wanted to watch TV in just my underwear, I could, without anyone either judging me or dry-wretching at the sight in the same way as you are at the image now in your mind.

Around the same time, Llŷr found himself in a similar situation; he had been lodging with Richie, a chap who I had worked with years earlier in the video shop, who now worked at the same insurance company as we did, and who also suddenly found fathership was impending. Llŷr moved out and got himself a flat on the same side of the river as me and which just so happened to be about five minutes walk from my flat.

We knew nobody else who lived in this area of Cardiff, and so consequently, united in our ostricisation, we started spending more and more time in each other’s company, usually at his flat, partly because it had central heating (a fact I had failed to consider when moving into mine), partly because Llŷr didn’t live under the permanent shadow of the electricity going off as I did (as I had to pre-pay via a meter which only accepted discontinued fifty pence pieces which I had to purchase from my landlord) , but mostly because Llŷr had an absolute treasure trove of a collection of popular culture for us to feast on.

Firstly, a mountain of vinyl, some of the most ludicrous but still somehow cool records you’ve ever seen. A gatefold Bay City Rollers album, you say? Ordinarily, not fussed. But somehow, imbued with Llŷr’s consent, such things seemed cool.

Secondly, an absolute wall of video tapes, all crammed with stuff he had taped off the TV. This was manna from heaven for me, and most nights I was there I would just sit back, drink beer and smoke whilst he fast forwarded through another VHS to find the next good bit he had captured.

Now, I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder myself when it comes to popular culture, but my VHS taped-from-TV collection pretty much ends at a load of clips from Top of the Pops or any other music show. Llŷr, however, took it to another level.

I will never forget the night that we drunkenly watched – several times – footage from The Big Breakfast he had taped, where some blokes from shouty-not-very-good-indie band Reef played that game where you place your forehead on a broom, run round it several times then try to run a short obstacle course, inevitably falling over in a dizzy mess. The night ended with both of us taking it in turns to lay on our back in his living room, trying (with an impressive degree of success) to light our own beery farts.

I had just turned thirty and I felt like a teenager again.

Llŷr suggested us sharing a place and initially I was resistant. I was thirty, and had finally got a flat of my own. To start sharing again felt like a step backwards.

And then the bills at my flat started becoming a bit much, and suddenly it felt like a good idea to be splitting them with someone.

We went to visit a couple of female friends of ours, who rented a ground-floor flat back in Cathays, the cooler studenty-area of Cardiff. They just happened to be moving out and were looking for someone to take the flat off their hands. Llŷr floated the idea of us sharing a flat again, and this time I jumped at it.

We became inseparable. On the rare occasions that he went out without me, he would come home telling me everyone had been asking where I was, and I found the reverse to be true. We very briefly discussed that perhaps everyone thought we were “a couple”, dismissed the idea, and decided that we didn’t really care what anyone else thought anyway.

The flat, pristine and beautiful when we moved in, fell into decay because we behaved exactly as you would expect two lazy blokes to behave. Shall we do a bit of housekeeping, or watch some more utter tat on the telly? Telly it is!

I’ll never forget the night a couple of female friends came back to ours for a drink; one went to the bathroom, and when she hadn’t returned some twenty minutes later and we went to check she was okay, we found her scrubbing our bath with bleach because it was so grim. Llŷr’s reaction: “Oh, have we got bleach?”, which pretty much sums up our distant relationship with keeping the flat clean.

Initially we just had the sofa in the living room – part of the features and fittings when we moved in – to sit on, but at some point we added to the furniture by retrieving a knackered old arm-chair somebody had thrown out onto the street. Under cover of darkness, we dragged it into the flat one night only to find that the springs had all gone; still, stick an upturned washing-up bowl (it wasn’t required for any other purpose in the house of filth) underneath it and it worked just fine. But Llŷr made it very clear: this had been my idea, so the scuzzy armchair was mine, the sofa was his. Fair enough.

While we lived together, my re-education really began.

It was Llŷr who reminded me, in my early thirties, that it’s absolutely fine to like pop records, and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about in doing so.

See that “There’s No Such Thing As A Guilty Pleasure” tagline? It simply wouldn’t be there were it not for Llŷr.

I’ll go further. Without that little seed sown, I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. He told me many times that he really loved that I do this, regularly left grateful comments or sent me encouraging messages about something I’d posted, and once told me that he wanted to start writing something himself: you know, like younger brothers often do, to impress their older sibling.

It may seem glib or inappropriate to post tunes now, but everyone who knew him would agree that Llŷr was all about the music. There’s a multitude of songs I could post which will always remind me of him. It’s impossible to choose just one.

OK. Here’s one. To start.

One night in a bar in Cardiff, Llŷr got into an argument with a friend who dared to be dismissive of Kelly Clarkson, of all people. Llŷr wasn’t having that: just because she’d won American Idol did not automatically mean that her songs were awful. He was right, of course. This is a belter:

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Kelly Clarkson – Since U Been Gone

And then there’s the night, in a different bar, when he defended his love for Energy 52‘s ‘Cafe Del Mar’ to another long-standing friend by pointing out that it really didn’t matter if a tune had no words, as long it sounded great and didn’t sound like whoever the friend’s favourite song was by. If ever there was a tune which makes me think of Llŷr, that’s it.

All of which makes Llŷr sound a right argumentative bugger, but he really wasn’t. Passionate, yes. Persuasive, yes. And generally right.

Llŷr and I lived together for four or five years, and I can only think of one occasion that we argued in all that time. The disputed subject was telling: the BBC had announced the winner of American Idol before ITV had shown the final; he couldn’t believe the Beeb had broken that bond of trust, whilst I couldn’t believe he thought the BBC wouldn’t do whatever it deemed necessary to prevent their audience from watching a rival channel, even if it was only ITV2. I still think I was right, but I wish I hadn’t been.

We were once asked to DJ for an hour or so at a friend’s wedding. Suffering a crisis of confidence, I suggested that he did the actual DJ’ing bit and I’d just pass him the records he wanted. Llŷr was having none of it: he might play the records, but we would jointly decide what was played.

We agreed on this, and the dance floor went wild:

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Girls Aloud – Love Machine

The actual DJ for the night gave us his business card and asked us to call him if we ever wanted any work. We never did. We didn’t need him.

Then there’s the night my parents visited Cardiff, and stayed at our flat. We all went out to eat, came back to the flat, and after my Mum had gone to bed, Llŷr and my Dad bonded over obscure records by none other than (who else?) Edward Woodward. Llŷr had something by him on vinyl. Of course he did.

About a week later, I received a parcel through the post. It was a load of Max Boyce records my Dad owned on vinyl, burnt off onto CDs. The post-it note attached made it very clear that they were not meant for me, but for Llŷr. They’d discussed him at length, apparently. That was the effect he had on people: they immediately wanted to share things with him and be part of his story.

He was perfectly happy to admit when he liked something that you really wouldn’t have expected him to. The term “eclectic music taste” was probably devised to describe him. Which also meant that if you told him you liked a band that he didn’t like, or knew little about, he would want to understand the appeal, and would go off and investigate for himself.

We never quite saw eye-to-eye on R.E.M., who I love but he was generally indifferent to. They played Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium on their tour to promote their not-very-good Around The Sun album. We went to see them, me as the uber-fan, he as the curious outsider. He’d done his research of the band’s discography in advance, which had led him to one tune by them that he really loved.

Llŷr (at the gig, in between songs): Do you reckon they’ll play it, Jez?

Me: Nah, they won’t play that one. They never do.

Llŷr: Are you sure, Jez?

Me: Yup. Won’t happen.

Llŷr: A tenner says they do.

Me: Deal.

Llŷr: (as the band crashed into the opening chords of the song in question): Shall we stop at a cash machine on the way home?

I later found out that in advance of the gig, he had checked the set-list for all of the gigs the band had already done on the tour, and knew bloody well they’d be playing it.

This one:

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R.E.M. – These Days

(I learned at the memorial service on Friday that he’d played a very similar prank on his younger sister, Sian, when they were kids, this time tricking her out of her pocket-money by getting her to bet on a horse in the Grand National, a race where he miraculously managed to pick the winner. Unbeknownst to Sian, the race had happened hours earlier, he already knew the result, whilst she was betting on the highlights.)

Another case in point: he and Hel (his older sister, also often mentioned on these pages) went to Glastonbury in 2009, a year I didn’t manage to get a ticket for.

2009 just happened to be the year that my much beloved Status Quo played on the Sunday morning. The two of them went to watch them (because they knew I’d be really annoyed with them if they didn’t), and I got a text from Llŷr at some point that day telling me that they’d played Mean Girl, a song that, whilst he wasn’t at all bothered about anything else they’d ever done, he had found for himself and loved.

My response, articulately put and spread over a number of texts, was along the lines of:

“They never play that! They never played that. Did they play that? Tell me you’re joking. No. They didn’t play that.”

Come the edited highlights on BBC4 later that day, I had to eat my proverbial hat.

You think I’d learn, wouldn’t you? Still, at least no money changed hands this time.

He never let me forget that. Ever. You know, like smart ass little brothers don’t let you forget stuff like that.

Sorry, I have to post this while I have a little cry:

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Status Quo – Mean Girl

Just to be clear: I’m not claiming that as a result of knowing me he suddenly loved R.E.M. and Status Quo. Far from it: he saw I loved them, gave them a listen, and decided he liked precisely one song by each.

Then there was the time that I won two tickets to go and see Gene play at Clwb Ifor Bach; initially he was dismissive as Sian had been a member of their fan club when she was much younger (so he told me, citation needed) and he had – as older brothers are supposed to – mercilessly ripped the piss out of her for it.

But he came with me anyway, and left the gig buzzing, telling me that his opinion had changed, asking to borrow all of my Gene records, but making me swear I’d never tell Sian, of his conversion. Well, I managed it until now…

There’s one song by Gene the title of which would be sadly, horribly appropriate for me to post here, but I can’t bear to listen to it, so instead a song the opening lines of which we both felt a great affinity with:

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Gene – Sick, Sober and Sorry

And then everything changed forever.

One Sunday, when Sian – who had been sofa-surfing at ours for a couple of weeks and, moving into her own flat the next day, had offered to take us out for a Sunday lunch somewhere as a “thank you” for letting her stay – suddenly, scarily, started banging on my bedroom door, imploring that I come help quickly.

Something was happening to Llŷr.

He had gone to the bathroom to clean his teeth, and had started having some kind of fit. I emerged to find him on his back on the bathroom floor, seemingly unconscious, frothing at the mouth.

I sent Sian off to the front of the house where phone reception was better to call an ambulance. But now what to do? Having taken control of the situation, I had to do something. Remembering films I’d seen, where this sort of thing happened, I threw water on Llŷr, believing that would snap him out of it.

It didn’t, of course, but by the time the paramedics arrived, his fit had ended. They asked why his hair and T-shirt was all wet, a question which Llŷr himself asked as he was lifted into the ambulance.

I looked sheepish. “Threw some water on you. Thought it might work. Sorry.”

I kicked my heels and felt sheepish.

I love the NHS. But that Sunday in Cardiff they were completely overwhelmed. We spent hours waiting to be seen and then, when he finally was, as I recall, the seizures having stopped hours earlier, they gave him a quick once over, resolved all was okay, and sent him home with an instruction to take a day or two off work.

Back at the flat, we ordered Chinese food and Llŷr made us both promise not to tell his parents. Neither Sian nor I were happy about it, but we respected his wish. Okay, we can convince ourselves that was a one-off.

I took the next day off work as a precaution too. Llŷr’s dad was due to visit to collect Sian, and since we didn’t want him to know what a shit-hole we lived in, or that Sian had stayed in, we pledged to clean the flat before he arrived.

Llŷr went off to clean the bathroom, and since this was where his last incident had happened, I was wary. Just take it easy, I said, and if you get into difficulties, just holler.

Ten minutes, later there was a crashing noise from the bathroom. I, stupidly, assumed he was having a laugh at my expense.

“Llŷr, are you okay?” I called.

No answer.

“Llŷr..?”

Still nothing.

“Okay, I’m coming, but you’d better be properly ill and not winding me up or I’m going to kill you myself”. Funny how words said in jest can come back to haunt you.

I found Llŷr laying on his side, having fortuitously landed in something approaching the recovery position, having another fit.

Reassuring words spoken. Ambulance called, again.

And this time, a much-needed stay in hospital.

When he was discharged, I hated leaving him at home alone for fear of anything happening whilst I was out, but he was insistent. Before he became ill, Llŷr and I often went clubbing together, and he was adamant that I should carry on even though he no longer could. Unsaid, I think he wanted to live vicariously through me, for whenever I went out clubbing he would be waiting up when I got home, eager to hear who had been out, and more importantly, what tunes had been played. I could remember the former, rarely the latter. And so we devised a system: if I was out, he just had to text me a code word – and I would come home.

And so fast forward a few weeks. I met some friends in a bar in Cardiff, heading club-wards. They offered me some coke, which I declined. Seconds later my phone rang, and it was Llŷr. I answered, but could just hear a gurgling noise from the other end.

Fuck.

I ran home, passing people I knew through clubbing who were very surprised to see me run, and found Llŷr laying on the living room floor, in the final throes of another fit.

Nerves calmed – “I’m here, it’s going to be okay” – ambulance called.

Shortly afterwards, Llŷr was diagnosed with a brain tumour which was causing the seizures. He was given medication to stop them happening, but tragically the tumour was inoperable.

And that was fourteen years ago.

Fourteen years. Fourteen years where he has struggled and coped and fought and never once did I ever hear him complain. He knew the cards he had been dealt, accepted it but refused to let it define him, refused to let it stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do for as long as he could. He would still go to gigs, would still go to Glastonbury, and no annoying thing living in his head was going to stop him.

I wish I could say I’d react the same. I can’t say that I would. Who knows. But what I do know is that despite his restricted capabilities, Llŷr carried on regardless. Like he knew his time was limited and he was going to make sure he continued enjoying every second he had left.

Much as I may try here, I can’t properly express my admiration for him and the way he insisted on conducting himself.

And now Llŷr has left us, and there’s a gaping hole in my life where he used to be which nobody can ever fill.

Never again will we go to an indie club and do our little joke to each other where we would sing along to a record but take a swig of our drink when it gets to a lyric we don’t quite know (which we found so much funnier than I just made that sound).

Never again will we get to play “French, or Student?”, a game we devised – and even made up a theme tune to, nicked from Raw Sex’s musical enunciation of French & Saunders. The game was that when out at an indie club, one of us would stand behind someone who was dressed like they could be French or could be a Student, and the other had to guess which they were. Again, you probably had to be there.

Never again will I be able to text him the word “Pennoes!” and know he would be watching the same football match as me.

Never again will I have to worry about him spilling the beans on some of the more embarrassing moments that happened when we lived together. Never again will I be able to buy his silence with the threat of an equally unsavoury  tale.

Never again will we go to a Super Furry Animals gig together, as we did countless times, and laugh with each other as we basked in our self-perceived glory when we air-drummed the fill after the bridge on this tune, which we did every time, without fail, much to the bemusement and confusement of anyone who was with us:

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Super Furry Animals – Slow Life

Never again.

All of these records – and so, so many more – will always make me think of Llŷr.

They are ours.

Not past tense. Are. Not were.

For whilst he may be gone, they’re here with me now, as he will be whenever I hear them, for as long as I’m still breathing through these knackered old lungs of mine. I’ve felt him at my shoulder as I’ve written every word of this: “Oh Jeremy, don’t tell that story…and pick that tune…no, not that one, that one.” He’s gone, but he’s not, because I, and every person who ever met him, remember him as the most joyous, loveable, force of life you could ever hope to meet.

I’m honoured to have known Llŷr, to be able to call him my friend, my best friend, my little brother, and to know that would be reciprocated.

Dude, I miss you already. I always will.

There’s so many things I feel sad about. Selfishly, that my own recent illness robbed me of a couple of visits to see him, that I didn’t get chance to say goodbye to him properly.

Unselfishly, for you, my friend; for the battle you had, for all of the normal things one expects a life to deliver that you were robbed of, for the opportunities and experiences you’ll never have.

And angry at how terribly, terribly unfair it is that you’ve been taken from us.

Sleep easy, dude, you deserve a rest. We’ll all love you forever. We’ll never forget you. And I will forever try to be the man you should still be.

*****

The final hymn at the memorial service on Friday was this, a song I have heard many times before, usually in the build-up to a Welsh rugby match. It never fails to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But never before had I heard it sung so beautifully, so passionately, as it was on Friday:

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The Treorchy Male Voice Choir – Cwm Rhondda (Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah/Bread of Heaven)

I warned you: here come the snot and tears again.

*****

Sian is running the London Marathon this year, raising funds for The Brain Tumor Charity. As I write this, she has smashed her target of £5000.00 – but that’s not a cut-off point. It would please me, and Llŷr’s family and friends, immensely if you could see your way to contributing, no matter how large or small an amount, so that one day, maybe, a family doesn’t have to go through what Llŷr and his family have had to.

If you’ve read this far a) well done, b) thank you, and c) please click the link below and read Sian’s words about Llŷr. They were written before he passed, but she says it way better – and, crucially, more concisely – than I have. But be warned, I’ve just read it again and I’m bawling my eyes out. Again.

 

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More soon.

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This is Pop #4

I’ve spent the past couple of evenings binge-watching “Search Party” on All 4, the online streaming service of the UK’s Channel 4.

In case you’ve not watched it yet (and I recommend that you do), it’s a ten part dark comedy series set in Brooklyn (the suburb of New York, not the Beckham) following Dory, who learns of the disappearance of her school friend Chantal, becoming obsessed with finding her, dragging boyfriend Drew, and friends Elliot and Portia into her efforts to track her down.

There’ll be no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the conclusion ties things up in exactly the way that most TV shows don’t.

It’s a lot better than I just made that sound, trust me. For a start, referring to having binge-watched it is not entirely correct, since each episode only lasts a little over twenty minutes, you can plough through the whole lot in one evening if you put your mind to it. Oh, and a word to All 4: if you can remember what shows I’ve watched, and where I’ve got to in a series I’m watching, then it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to remember that I’m over 16 after you’ve asked me once and not ask me again before every episode. And anyway, has anyone ever been asked that question when they’ve been under the specified age and thought “Ah well, that’s me out then”? (This isn’t a rhetorical question; I was way above the age of eighteen when a situation first arose where I was asked to confirm my age before watching something online, but that’s…erm…another story…)

Ahem. Anyway. in Episode 3, at an all night vigil for the missing girl, an a capella group perform a version of today’s song, with results guaranteed to make you cringe:

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Kelly Clarkson – Since U Been Gone

Clarkson, of course, was the winner of the first ever series of American Idol, which should mean that I hate this, but I don’t. In fact, the only thing I don’t like is the spelling of the title. For a start: you’re not Prince, you’re not even Slade, so let’s have less of this “U” nonsense. And it should be You’ve, in any event.

Anyway, “Since U Been Gone”, if I really must call it that, was originally written with Pink in mind, but she rejected it, the fool, whilst Hilary Duff declined it as she couldn’t hit the high notes. It’s yet another song of positivity (aren’t they all in this thread?), an expression of relief by a woman escaping from a troubled relationship, something which is demonstrated not just in the lyrics, but in the way the song just explodes at the chorus.

I walked into a bar once when I was living in Cardiff, to find my friend and former flatmate Llyr involved in a heated discussion with Jamie, a guy we knew, who was attempting to ridicule him for having voiced the controversial opinion that he liked this record.

“No,” I remember Llyr saying, “just because I like something that you don’t, doesn’t make you right and me wrong. In fact, from my point of view, it’s completely the other way round.” Or put another way, Llyr wasn’t wrong for liking it, and Jamie wasn’t wrong for disagreeing, a notion which should ring a few bells with some of you.

So this one’s for you, Llyr.

More soon.