Remembering my friend Alan
My friend Alan Wadey slipped away from us quietly, drawing his last breath in the middle of the night last week.
His departure from our midst at 96 years was a dramatic shift from how we met several years ago, when I saw him trip and horrifyingly plant his face on the cold pavement outside a coffee shop in the middle of the town where we live. I rushed to his aid, called an ambulance, shared his frustration when the service told us it might be two hours of waiting in the late winter chill, and, at his insistence, ignored the swelling bruise on the side of his face, and took him home. We checked in on him the next day, shocked by the lump on his temple and growing purple bruise that had taken over half his face.
He was unfazed. We were transfixed, and completely and utterly sold on the incredible package of human being that was Alan Wadey.
We’ve been inseparable since. Like England and the US (two countries separated by a common language), we created a special if not unlikely bond; two retirees of different generations, cultural backgrounds, and socio-economic status yet with similar beliefs, attitudes and wishes for the world. His origin was east London hardscrabble, a boy who ‘played marbles in the streets’ and who cut his teeth selling Colgate products to EastEnder tough guys, often hiding cash as he hurried past gangsters who would have rolled him into the Thames for a fraction of what he was carrying.
Like me, he had benefited from a receptive working life that rewarded him well for his efforts. He, too, had benefited from having a partner who was the love of his life, a priceless co-conspirator. And like me, he yearned for the goodness of the world to trample the permeating evil that seems everywhere these days, but that Alan had seen more directly.
He joined the merchant services during WWII, sailing through U-boat infested waters and carrying war supplies around the world, finding his way into ports on all continents and counting the days – and his good fortune for dodging trouble, unlike some of his mates on other vessels – as the war wound to a close.
He survived both EastEnder head bangers and the Germans without as much as a scratch, and carried on. Over the years he found himself in the corporate world of consumer food products after the company he worked for was acquired by Swiss giant Nestle, using his skill for numbers to advance and grow. With years of experience under his belt, Alan was offered a managing director’s job to oversee the company’s interests in Asia, based in Hong Kong.
He declined, feeling the corporate road had come to an end (as it did at roughly the same time of my life as it had for him), and decided to seek something different. So he bought a farm. He and his wife, Lee, took over 130 acres of fields in East Sussex, taking over land, buildings and outbuildings that they didn’t know how to farm, manage or maintain. “I was bloody hopeless,” he assessed with is inimitable honesty and clarity. “It was a miracle, but somehow we managed.”
Not only did he manage, but he survived and carried on. Prospered, even, turning ‘fields that has had all the goodness taken from them,’ into hay and cereal fields that allowed the couple to earn a living. They repaired the centuries-old house, updated the outbuildings and rented them to cottage industrialists in need of a roof and a workshop. He learned to rotate crops, letting fields lie fallow for a season. Learned to drive a tractor. Cleared the weed-choked pond and stocked it with fish.
Soft of heart (and often head, as he would say), he and Lee often named the sheep and chickens they raised, treating them more like pets than fodder for the dinner table. So when it came time to butcher and stock the freezer they traded ‘pets’ with a neighboring farmer. “Wouldn’t have felt right eating an animal we had held in our lap,” he reasoned.
Along the way, he and Lee created a sense of community, and for Alan, that included regular visits to The Bulls Head in a nearby village called Boreham Street. He’d walk the couple miles through the fields to the pub, belly up to the bar, sip a pint and munch on pork scratchings, and pry farming tips from some of the other reticent locals, some of whom, he said, were only waiting for him to fail.
“But we didn’t, did we?” he mused to me with a grin on a warm late-autumn day only weeks ago, as we sat in the Bull’s Head garden, him nursing a half pint of bitter and plowing his way through an enormous bowl of chunky chips with way too much salt. One thing I learned from Alan is that it’s pointless to argue with a nonagenarian about his dietary habits.
I sipped soda water. Someone had to be responsible about getting us safely home on the winding roads through the English countryside, and no way was I letting Alan get behind the wheel.
I had picked Alan up at his apartment in the town center, offering him a chance to get out into the sunshine as his health declined and the days began to turn chilly. ‘Where to?’ I asked, expecting him to suggest a coffee at one of our regular haunts, or a drive up to Beachy Head to look out at the Channel and muse about the thousands of days gone by in his life.
He scowled, thinking. “I fancy a pint and some chips at the Bull.”
So off we went.
Alan and I ‘put the world right’ time and again over hours and hours of conversation, delving into one another’s mindsets, experiences and perspectives. Mostly I listened during our endless sessions together, prompting him with questions to steer him away from stories I knew so well I could tell them myself, toward virgin turf that enriched our relationship and bolstered my understanding of my dear friend.
We often disagreed, sometimes mildly heatedly. At times he would ‘rabbit on’ opining ad nauseum until his self-correcting English heritage would get the better of him. He would flap his hands like a child whose hot chocolate had burned his tongue, chiding himself with a ‘Oh, shut up, Alan, you silly old man.’
“Miserable old git,” I’d call him. “You really are bloody barmy, aren’t you?” he’d counter.
“My old sweetie,” or “my old dad” he’d call me when I telephoned to book a coffee date, always signing off with his signature, “God bless.” The last time we saw him, waking him from an endless nap the afternoon before he died, he met my eyes with his: “Oh, my lovely friends!”
What I would give to hear one of his stock stories once more. Or laugh with him as he wove facts into fabulous fiction (he once told me that Eastbourne had more murders in one month than the entire UK did in a year, slapping me on the shoulder in punishment when I pointed out that it was statistically impossible for the part (Eastbourne’s murder rate, which is miniscule) to be larger than the whole.
Alan foresaw his death by months, even welcomed it. He had suffered unthinkable indignities with quintessential stoicism and humor as his health declined and getting out of his sixth-floor flat became problematic without help. He longed to be re-united with the love of his life, Lee, who passed away several years ago, and his belief in God and His system of the afterlife had him convinced she was waiting for him with open arms.
His wishes were for no service, only a simple cremation overseen by his son, Andy, who will scatter his ashes over land that he loved, in quiet, understated privacy.
But Gabi and I sought closure, some way of honoring a dear friend whose voice we will never hear again, telling us the same stories over and over, as old people do, taking solace in the gift of reminiscence.
So we went to the Bull’s Head last night, arriving shortly after the local regulars had taken their regular spots at the bar. We told the barmaid Alan’s story, and opened a tab for drinks on us in remembrance of our friend. Gabi and I settled into a table near the bar, fired up the cribbage board and nursed our drinks until the kitchen opened for business and the chef would prepare our memorial bowl of chips.
What transpired warmed our hearts and rekindled something in our souls, as one by one, the beneficiaries of our impromptu memorial service stopped by our table not to just say thank you, but to ask about Alan, us, and to linger and chat for awhile.
We exchanged stories, and I fielded the inevitable question of whether I was American or Canadian. One man was celebrating his birthday, and we shook hands and, in classic English style, mild personal jabs. “What’s it like to be 30?” I asked him (he was nearing my age). “What’s it like to be French?” he countered. Belly laughs all around. Alan would have approved.
Another man called Alex bought us a round, and we spoke for awhile at the bar as I settled the tab on the way out. A young working-class lad, trousers dabbed with paint, shook my hand, thanked us for the pint, and expressed sympathy for our loss.
A couple of them invited us back ‘on a happier occasion,’ to continue the discussions, and to bask in the unique warmth of what Alan correctly described as “one of the last proper English pubs.” Like our friend and those of his generation, classic English pubs are quietly slipping away.
Saying goodbye is never easy, especially to a friend whose huge presence filled a lonely void now once again vacated. But there’s always a visit to the Bull, where friendly banter awaits over hand-pulled pints, salty bowls of delicious chips, and people who understand what it means to savor something precious, something worth preserving.
And not only survive, but to carry on.