The enduring legacy of a friend
Every week about a million people die. That's good news for undertakers and various forms of clergy. In the same period about 2 million people are born which is good news for midwives and commodity prices. But it's bad news for everything else.
Of the million who died last week I knew one. His name was Roger. He died in a hospice in England on Tuesday, November 20, 2012.
Cancer got him. It had taken a year to strip away his flesh and squeeze the breath from him. By all accounts he bore the pain with courage. I'm not surprised. He was a brave man. But it isn't for his courage that I'll remember Roger.
He was an entrepreneur, which meant only that he liked to be independent and was full of ideas. He started numerous businesses. He sold helicopters to South America. He traded in computers before most of us knew what a computer was. When his house flooded he got painters in and by the time they'd finished he'd formed them into a limited company with a contract to paint supermarkets in Nigeria. But it isn't for his enterprise that I'll remember Roger.
One of his ventures was a language school. He'd rent a prep school near London for the summer and fill it with teenagers from Europe. To look after them he hired university students and other wastrels. Our job was to teach the kids English, entertain them and prevent them having sex. We succeeded in entertaining them.
I worked for Roger for four summers. But it isn't as an employer that I'll remember him.
He loved to argue. Often after the kids had gone to bed, and some of them even to sleep, we would sit up late discussing split infinitives or gravity or God. Roger would argue with quiet reason. I would always oppose him.
But I also listened closely, because next time the subject arose I planned to steal his arguments. He had one of the clearest minds I have known. Yet it isn't as a thinker that I'll remember Roger.
Roger's laugh rose like the bubbles in tonic water. He was a naturally funny man, but he preferred to enjoy the comedy of others. Such modesty was typical, as was his gentleness. I never saw him lose his temper or heard him raise his voice. But what I'll remember him for is his kindness.
Andy, Peter and I took the kids to see Tommy Steele in London. Once they were inside the theatre, Andy and I snuck off to watch a film. We didn't want to see Tommy Steele, and the kids couldn't get into any trouble.
They could and they did. Such trouble indeed that Tommy Steele refused to come out for the second half until our kids had been thrown out. When Andy and I returned we found them outside with a frazzled Peter and an irate theatre manager.
Back at school we admitted our sin to Roger. He was the sort of man you didn't lie to. He explained how we had put him in legal jeopardy, as well as neglecting our duty. Then he said he'd never liked Tommy Steele much either.
There was a German kid at the school who had a broader English vocabulary than most of his teachers. Once he found me fishing, and watched as I baited the hook with a single maggot, then reached for the bait tin. "Allow me to impale another larva," he said.
But the kid had a bad dose of adolescence. He was appallingly shy, volcanic with acne and the girls complained that he smelt. We teachers weren't far out of adolescence ourselves and we did nothing to help the lad. Roger did.
When he emerged from Roger's office clutching a bag of toiletries, he looked happier and more confident than I had seen him before. It was a little thing for Roger, a huge thing for the boy.
And it is for things like that that I'll remember Roger. He was among the kindest people I have known. I don't believe there is a greater virtue. He made people feel good about themselves.
His daughter was with him when he died. "He was sharp-witted to the end," she wrote in an email, "and so very tender-hearted."
There are a million more people on the planet than there were last week. And next week there'll be a million more. Let's hope there are some as sharp-witted and tender-hearted as Roger. There will need to be. Rest his good bones.
The Dominion Post