World AIDS Day 01.12.11
The boy in the photograph wears a cowboy hat and carries a toy gun. Feet planted firmly apart, he stands at the opening to a brand new, white tent. The latter is a birthday present. Today he is five-years-old. Life is an adventure!
A Golden Labrador lies at his feet, gazing up at him in adoration, his faithful companion of the last three years. She dedicates her life to following him round the garden, allowing herself to be dragged outside even when she’d rather be lying by the fire, enjoying an afternoon snooze. The rewards are great, cuddles, curling up together on the floor, boy asleep with his head on her velvet tummy, a slice of his toast when mother isn’t looking.
The boy is the youngest of four children and the only son.
These are the golden days of childhood in the mid sixties. England still has time to win the World Cup, Mao Tse–tung proclaims a cultural revolution in China and the boy’s first day at school is still weeks away. A life-long interest in world affairs has yet to be born. This is a time for fishing for Tiddlers in the lake in the park and making secret dens in the garden. It is a time for running as fast as you can to avoid being caught, playing hide and seek with your friends, a time for picking blackcurrants for mum’s famous pie and eating as many as go into the basket. It is a time for begging for ‘tiger tails’ from the baker who delivers to the door and for playing *“run-rabbit-run” on the top bunk before you go to bed.
The long summer ends and September dawns. The boy is standing at the school gate with his mother and older sister. He watches the other children dash around the playground. He hangs back. When the school bell rings, his mother kisses him goodbye and he walks towards the classroom.
As the last child files into school, the boy turns and runs. He heads for the driveway, running blindly towards the gate where he thinks his mother will still be.
She has gone.
For a moment he is confused. A teacher hurries after him and takes his hand but he is inconsolable. His sister is sent for. His sister is nine years old. She takes his hand and he follows her into the school. He allows himself to be divested of his coat and his sister stays with him for a few minutes until the teacher gently tells her to leave him now.
There are many days like this. The boy does not like school very much. He is bright and quick but school is boring. His sister will always remember the feel of his small hand in hers as they cross the playground, each clad in a gabardine Mac that crackles and rustles as they walk.
Secondary school is no better.
The boy makes a few friends but he seems shy and reticent. He is top of the class but dreads games lessons. He prefers to watch sport rather than join in. His father was an all-round sportsmen in his younger days. Why doesn’t he take after his father? His sister is in the hockey team. He prefers to watch.
One day, his sister will read how he felt he must measure up to her, yet always fell short. She will wish she had known more at the time but hind-sight is a wonderful thing.
He is self-conscious and wears his hair long, curling onto his collar and hanging like a curtain, over one eye. The mirror is not his friend in these turbulent, teenage years and school soon becomes the enemy.
He spends long hours listening to music and teaching himself to play the guitar.
There are days when he is dragged from his bed amidst shouts and screams. His sister hears and tries to help but the boy will not be reasoned with. It becomes normal for the boy to put up a fight and the sister to leave before there is a scene because she knows there is nothing to be done.
The school inspectors visit regularly. They are perplexed. Is he being bullied? Is he very ill? They check with the school. His academic record is good. Even with these extensive absences he is ahead of most of his peers. They relent and let him study at home.
Away from school, there is still laughter and banter shared between the boy and his family. He is clever, funny, articulate and generous to a fault. His interest in current affairs and statistics develops and he holds his own in any conversation with his elders.
His education continues in this way, infrequent visits to the classroom, backed up by home study. He leaves the school with a healthy clutch of GCEs at respectable grades despite all this.
The boy enjoys college and he finds a good job. He dabbles in politics. At last he seems happy. He has a new set of friends from far away places and he travels.
When he is 21, he writes a garbled letter to his sister and admits that he is gay and has met someone special. She phones him, he is apologetic. He had written the letter whilst drunk, plucking up courage to say the words that he thought might shock. The sister knows, has known for some time. It is not a shock but she is sad that he was so afraid to confide in her.
The boy in the cowboy hat no longer plays hide-and-seek. He has found himself.
The family are supportive though the father once dismissed the suggestion that his son is gay as ludicrous, citing his deep, booming voice as proof!
There are long and happy years where nieces and nephews grow and the boy and his partner settle down.
There is a birthday party in June 1991. The boy is thirty. The family are invited and the house is alive with the sound of laughter and music. The boys’ friends come from far and wide. It is a glorious, sunny day. The guests eat and drink out on the lawn and though the boy has known for some time that he and his partner are HIV+, everyone forgets what this might mean for a while. It is a time for celebration and fun.
A dog follows the boy and his partner around as they move through the crowd. This is George, an elderly Springer Spaniel, adopted a couple of years ago. The children love George and George loves the children but he is keen to stay with his masters.
When sore throats occur with increasing regularity and fatigue sets in, the boy says nothing. It takes time for others to notice that he is ill. He is fighting the onset of AIDS.
For the past few months, the boy has been in and out of hospital. He has become very depressed. New drugs are being trialed and each time everyone hopes this will be the one that stems the march of the relentless disease.
The boy meets Princess Diana and Barbara Bush. He says Princess Diana is beautiful and kind and Barbara Bush, warm and down to earth.
The boy’s sister wants to take his hand in hers and lead him to safety. She wants to save him from the indignities of this illness and give him back his cowboy hat, his gun and his white tent.
Christmas comes and the boy, now a man, wraps up warm and goes shopping. He takes out his savings and spends them, meager as they are, on presents for the entire family. Everyone will get a memorable gift this year. This, he knows, will be his last Christmas.
He is philosophical. He has had a good life. He has a partner he loves and he cannot complain. He knows his partner will follow him within a couple of years. The family will feel they have lost not one but two brothers/sons.
It is now 1993 and the end is near. Family visits become more frequent.
There are long telephone conversations between the boy and his sister in which they discuss life after death. He is keen to make her understand that he will come back and let her know he is ok if he is able. She jokes. He must not suddenly appear in the darkness of night or corner her in the bedroom when she is alone in the house and scare her half to death! He teases her but agrees that he will be careful and only contact her in daylight. He sees it all as an amazing adventure. He is no longer afraid.
The end is painfully slow. The sister, who was nine years old when she had to coax him back into school and wipe his tears away, holds his hand, such a frail, skeletal hand, in hers. He opens his eyes and smiles at her. She smiles back and tells him, very quietly, that she is proud of him. He looks surprised.
“Are you really?” he asks.
She nods and tightens her grip on his hand. At this moment she could not be more proud of the boy who once had a cowboy hat, a gun and a white tent, who loved music, hated school, and who has fought this illness so courageously.
It is now some weeks since the boy left this world. The house is empty. The sister is sad. She begs for a sign that the boy is all right. She makes the plea aloud as she switches the kettle on and reaches for the teabags.
Carrying the cup of tea into the living room, she looks around in case there is a sign she has yet to see. There is nothing. She sits down and sighs.
The radio in the corner bursts into life. The music that pours forth fills the room. How odd. The radio was switched off, what has made it turn itself on? The sister checks, she gets her husband to check. There is no pre-set timer, no faulty switch.
After that, at the merest thought of the boy, the radio switches itself on. It is as though it is activated by her very thoughts.
The sister chooses to believe that this is a sign that her brother is ok. She finds that she has to avoid thinking about him so that the radio stays silent. Finally, she tells him that she understands. She gets it. He can stop this now.
The radio does not turn on by itself, ever again.
It is scant proof of an after-life but put together with the merest glimpse of someone at her elbow as she spills some milk on the worktop and the sarcastic comment whispered in her ear, which she answers with a laugh, it is enough.
“Over the past 27 years, nearly 25 million people have died from AIDS.1 HIV/AIDS”
Did you know any of those 25 million? Chances are, you did.
He was a boy wearing a cowboy hat, carrying a gun and standing in front of a billowing white tent.
Drawn hurriedly, without him knowing, by a 9-year -old me, this sketch in red ink on a postcard, captures John aged 5 watching the television.
John (left) and Eric (right) relaxing in their garden, 1989
At the Millennium Summit in September 2000 the largest gathering of world leaders in history adopted the UN Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty and setting out a series of time-bound targets, with a deadline of 2015, that have become known as the Millennium Development Goals. The sixth of these goals is:
Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
*Run-Rabbit_Run – a made-up childish game in which one person lies down and tries to catch the other person’s leg between their ankles and trip them up as they ‘run’ (dance)