We’ll call him Alfred, after King Alfred. Fred for short. Not because he was great (anything but) but because his second name meant Land of the High Kings. Something like that. Many years later - more in jest, to make some obscure point about something - he made that claim, that he was, in fact, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and for half a moment I almost half-believed him.
He could be a very believable man. Until you got to know him, that is. After that you soon learned not to believe a word he said.
Once upon a time he was a friend of mine.
Not in the end though. In the end he was not a friend.
He’s dead. He died a while back of so-called natural causes, lost somewhere on some obscure exotic Island in the Far East. The natural causes were probably liver failure. In other words the causes were anything but natural. He was poisoned. Poisoned by drink.
Can we say that he killed himself, or did the drink kill him? It’s hard to say. What is true is that towards the end he was so completely addled that he probably had no idea what he was doing. Drink can do that. It can wash away a man’s sense of self-respect. It can drive away his reason. It can burn out the heart of him to leave a husk of withered flesh.
I will not mourn for Fred now because I think that Fred was already dead, long before his body died. I mourned for him many years ago.
What is true, however, is that when he embarked upon the road that led to his eventual demise on that distant island, he was still fully alive. He also knew, I suspect, where he was heading, even then. He set out on that long road of isolation and derangement fully aware of where it led, fully aware of the fact that he was going to die.
Alcoholism is the slowest, ugliest, most depressing from of suicide known to man. Better the slash of a knife than to die in your own anguish and filth over years of slow decay.
I first met him over twenty years ago now, in a pub where I used to go with a few friends. There was a nice little late-night back room scene in there: darts and banter and cigarettes and pints of beer. Lots of laughter. Lots of jokes. Fred was the sporty type: very handsome, very bright, if occasionally obscure. He would make jokes but there wouldn’t be any recognisable punch line. Or there would be a sudden pun referencing something said ten minutes before. Sometimes it was hard to tell what he was talking about. He held his cards close to his chest.
I was a stay-at-home father looking after my four year old son. He was a stay-at-home father looking after his two daughters. They were about the same age as my son: one slightly older, one slightly younger. So there were days when I would visit the family, and my son would play with his daughters. Long hot summer days full of children’s laughter. The splash of water from the play pool. Screams of delight. Naked and innocent and free, the way children are meant to be.
This went on for a while. Not that long, but long enough for me to get to know him. At least I thought I knew him.
In those days I would definitely call Fred a friend. It’s true that he drank too much on occasion. But then, we all did. We were all still relatively young, with healthy, strong, resilient bodies able to recover from whatever excesses we heaped upon them.
Fred was a sportsman. He played football in the winter and cricket in the summer. He used to say that it lifted his mood playing sport. So he drank and played and he built a marvellous multi-tiered bedroom for his kids, with raised beds and walkways and hidden closets full of dressing up clothes and toys and a library of books. Not just a bedroom, an adventure playground. He was good like that.
And then something went wrong.
He was married but his wife developed a crush on someone else. One of those things. It happens. Maybe he felt neglected. It was a hard choice he’d made, to give up the certainty of being the breadwinner, to allow his wife to take over that role, and now here she was - he found out later - taking long, romantic walks in the woods with some other guy, holding his hand, gazing fondly into his eyes.
That’s as far as it ever went, a kind of fond, innocent, adolescent romance. Fred never let it go any further than that. He was much too quick off the mark.
Well it was more than the holding of hands. His wife was an intellectual, a teacher. She read and could talk about books. This other guy was a teacher too. It was more than just the romance: it was a slight to his sense of self-esteem. Was this guy better looking than Fred? Was he fitter? Was he a better love-maker? No he was not. But maybe - just maybe - she thought he was more interesting.
That’s when Fred acted. It was sudden and devastating. Within a week of the news of all of this breaking, he was dating someone else. A week or so later again and he had left his wife.
That was the shocking part. It was like he wasn’t giving anyone any time to sort this stuff out.
The woman he was suddenly going out with was the most stunningly beautiful woman I had ever seen.
Even at the time I was aware, that this was not what it appeared to be.
It was almost as if this other woman had always been there, and was waiting in the wings for just this to happen.
That’s not how Fred put it of course. He was full of how his wife had betrayed him, how he had had his chances too, but had always rejected them, how it was all her fault. But somehow all these arguments seemed just a little too pat and well-prepared. It was as if, by taking a wrong turn in their marriage, his wife had given him the excuse he had always wanted, as if he had been waiting for this opportunity for many, many years. It was all too convenient.
You got the feeling that the main point was to do with vanity more than love. It was to do with showing the world that he could still score, that he was still a good-looking man. The way to show it was to have this other woman - this statuesque beauty - on his arm, for all the world (but especially his wife) to see.
This is all in retrospect, of course. At the time, I must admit, I was a little envious. Just as he wanted me to be.
There were a few of us who got caught up in all the drama of the split. It’s how things happen. People just get sucked in, and you always end up taking sides, even when you don’t mean to.
In the case of Fred and Jane, I chose Fred’s side, not because I thought that he was in the right, but because I’m a man - I have sympathy for men - and I’d already made a decision, some years before, that I was a masculinist: meaning that in the war of the sexes I thought that women had had too much of an advantage in recent years, and that I was going to try to redress the balance.
I was bored of feminist rhetoric and was already developing a masculinist response.
- That’s not how I think any more, by the way. These days, in the battle of the sexes, I tend to think that men and women are equally culpable. -
But anyway: in our social scene there was a shake up, and one person disappeared and another stayed around. Jane disappeared and Fred stayed around. He also - by some miracle (and with the help of a good solicitor) - managed to secure custody of the kids.
It was a gory, messy business, like marriage break-ups tend to be. People lose sight of where they began. They lose sight of what brought them to this place. They are full of bitterness and mutual recrimination. It always gets down to petty things masking bigger things: like who owns what, rather than who each of you are. It’s like two plants that have grown into each other, that have merged at the roots. So when it comes to separating, both plants are ripped apart and bits shredded out of both of them. Both plants are wounded. Bits of you remain with that other person, bits of them remain with you. It takes a long while for anyone to heal.
The whole thing went on for months. Months of taking sides. Months of who did what to whom. Months of listening and arguing, and puzzling and feeling vicariously hurt for the hurt feelings of another; but after a while things settled down, and Fred became a regular visitor again for a while, only now with his new wife. And then she got pregnant, Jane moved, and Fred and his new wife and new baby followed so that she would still have access to the kids.
That’s all put in a rush of words, but, honestly, that’s how it feels.
Fred and Jane and the kids and the new wife and the new baby just sort of disappeared. They moved out of our lives. They moved on to somewhere else.
Well that might have been the end of the story. Just another messy divorce. Jane remarried, Fred and the new missus got on with their lives and, in a civilised world, that would have been the end of that. Everyone would have learned their lessons, and no one would have inflicted any pain ever again.
That’s not how it happened however.
I only found out the rest of the story later.
Fred would turn up in our small town occasionally and we’d clink a glass or two to old times. I still regarded him as a friend.
But something was happening.
One day I went round to a friend’s house after the pub, and there he was. This was a few years later. I never knew he knew this friend. He was just there, sitting on the floor, leaning with his back against the wall. It was such a surprise. I laughed and he laughed. He raised a glass and offered me a drink. He obviously expected to see me. Everyone was drinking. It was an after the pub party. But it was soon clear that there was something wrong with Fred. He was twitching in the most peculiar manner. Every so often his head would jerk, and then his arm would raise to his forehead, as if he was flicking his hair. It was one of those gestures we all make, but exaggerated, both in form and in timing. It was happening every ten seconds or so: as if he had a crying need to adjust his appearance every ten seconds. It wasn’t clear whether he was twitching and then attempting to cover up the twitch by flicking his hair, or if the flicking was part of the twitch, a kind of physiological tic of vanity, an unconscious act of self-regard: a handsome man wanting everyone to know he was handsome. Whatever it was, it was most peculiar.
It was obvious that Fred was in the middle of some kind of nervous breakdown.
He was also drinking much more heavily than I remembered: large vodkas now instead of pints, and lots and lots of them. He had a bag of clinking bottles with him.
And then he was gone again. I met him down the pub sometime later in the week. We got drunk together. We talked shit together. We said that we were brothers in arms and if he was in the trenches he wanted me to be by his side. We raised a few glasses to past times and good times and the good times that were to come. Then he went away and I forgot about him. Like you do. Friends but not friends. Pub friends.
So that’s how I found out that he’d left his second wife too; that whatever had been driving him all those years before, was still driving him now. We got roaringly drunk and he told me all about it.
He was most hurtful about his second wife. Called her a slag, a whore and all sorts of nasty things. Said she was stupid. Said that he’d never stopped loving his first wife. And that’s when I began to think that there was something seriously wrong with Fred. The whole thing just didn’t add up.
It’s hard to measure time. It’s hard to measure sanity.
On the one hand the years seem to click by like a ratchet on a cog and you grow old incrementally without even knowing it. The kids get older and then they’re not kids any more. The lines on the faces of your friends grow deeper. The days add up to weeks which add up to months which add up to years.
On the other hand, time’s particles whiz by playing tricks on the mind, and you are never any older really. You are never any wiser.
The soul is infinitely old and infinitely young at the same time, is forged and re-forged in the fiery breath of the heaven between the worlds, like a sword in the flames, beaten clean of the crud of weary time with every new life.
The babe in arms knows more than you have learned to forget.
Meanwhile the body forgets. The body grows old and weary. The body grows poisonous with the years. The body loses track. The mind gets lost in the wearisome repetitiveness of its life, in repeated patterns of forgetfulness, of loss and of pain. The body builds up defences. The face becomes a mask and the mask becomes forgotten, until you actually think it is your own face; and then one day you wake up to discover you have forgotten what lies behind the mask. You have forgotten who you are. Just a face floating through the crowd. A mask of stirring instincts, of needs, of questions-without-answers, of quotation marks without references, of habitual longings, of meaningless responses.
That’s what I think happened to Fred. Something like that. A slow, incremental descent into alcoholic madness. He had a face. He laughed a lot and bought drinks. He could talk to anyone. But behind that face something had changed. Something had got lost. It was all an act. None of it was real.
I never kept a proper track of him. But when he came back the last few times I think he was quite, quite mad.
He stopped twitching and began to appear almost normal again. But I think that this was a cover. He was learning how to blend in. He was learning how to pass muster on a scratch inspection, but inside, I think, he was lost in some narrative play of his own in which the rest of the world only had walk-on parts to play. We were all actors on the grand stage that was his own life.
So, now, we are nearing the time, the last time I saw him.
Fred turned up again, like a bad penny, as he always did.
I was in the middle of writing my book about King Arthur.
I was on my way to Glastonbury to meet with some people who said they could help me with the book.
Fred was on his way to the Midlands, he said. Or maybe to Cornwall, he wasn’t sure. Just passing through. He said if I wanted he could give me a lift.
“Are you sure Fred? Where are you going exactly? Are you sure it’s on your way?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. I’m meeting with someone in Cornwall. I can go on to the Midlands afterwards.”
So that was it. We were on our way to Glastonbury together.
That’s when he told me that his surname meant Land of the High Kings - I looked it up afterwards and he was right about that - and that he was descended from King Alfred, or King Ethelred, or one of the Saxon Kings.
One thing I haven’t told you about Fred: he was an inverted snob, and he was very contrary. He read the Sun newspaper, partly, I’m sure, because it has the best sports coverage, and he was always interested in sports, but also because, amongst the people he hung around with - people like me - he knew that he could cause offence. It was an instinctual thing, like making sexist or racist remarks just to challenge political correctness. Being right wing because you were left wing. Being working class because you were middle class. It didn‘t matter who you were or what you thought, he was bound to take an opposite point of view. Once you understood him, you realised this was partly a case of him playing devil’s advocate. Had he been amongst Daily Mail readers he would have made a point of reading the Morning Star. Class-conscious and proud of it. But he was also considered himself very bright and wanted you to know he was bright, while at the same time, sometimes it was not clear what he meant. He could be very obscure. It was as if his brain was about ten degrees removed from his mouth. What came out of his mouth was not necessarily what was going on in his brain. What he meant was often something other than what he said and part being his friend meant that you were supposed to know what he meant even when he didn’t know what he meant himself. It was all very convoluted and obscure. Jokes within jokes within jokes. Or lies within lies, depending on how you looked at it.
That was the Alfred thing. It was meant as a challenge to me. He was a down-to-earth man - an electrician, a tradesman. He read a working class newspaper. I was writing a story about a man who thought he was King Arthur. So now Fred was claiming to be a descendent of King Alfred. Alfred was a Saxon King. The challenge was on several levels. That he was Saxon and not Celtic. That he, Fred, was as good as any man living or dead, King or commoner, pilgrim or priest. And that it was all a load of rubbish anyway and why should I be interested in some nutter going around calling himself King Arthur? Didn’t I know that he was a nutter?
It was as if he was taking personal offence at this other guy’s madness: as if madness could be measured by such a mundane thing as wearing a white nightie and going about making crazy-sounding claims about yourself.
So that was what we were talking about on the long journey from Kent to Somerset: about my new book, about King Arthur, about the crazy Druid types I was on my way to interview (one of whom thought she was Morgana) who lived lives conditioned by Arthurian romance - about re-incarnation and magic and Earth Mysteries and the Holy Grail and all the rest - and all the time Fred was scoffing at me for even being interested. And the irony of this is, of all the people I’ve ever met - people who think they are the re-incarnation of this or that historical figure, people with strange concepts of the universe and their place within it, people who think they are alien beings from another planet - it was Fred, Mr Down-to-Earth, Mr Sporty-Electrician-Working-Class, Mr Sun-Reader, Mr See-You-Down-The-Pub-Hiya-How-You-Doin‘-Mine‘s-A-Pint, who was the weirdest one of the lot.
So, then, we got to Glastonbury. We went for a pint. We drank several pints. Now he was too drunk to carry on driving. I told him he could stay at my friend’s house, I’m sure it would be OK. He bought a bottle of vodka, a bottle of brandy and several bottles of wine. We went round to my friend’s house - she who thought she was Morgana - who said, yes it would be fine for Fred to stay, and would he like something to eat? Which he declined, being too interested in his booze. So I ate, and then fell asleep with all the drink, and then later woke up to find everyone still up (it was about 2 in the morning by now) but no sign of Fred.
There was a sort of excited stirring in the room. The air was abuzz with mutterings.
“Oh, so you’re up,” said Morgana, giving me this arch, knowing, deliberate look as I came down the stairs. “Hmmm. Good job. You’d better check on your friend. He’s in his car. We’ve just thrown him out. He‘s a paedophile.”
There were a number of people in the room as I walked in: maybe five or six or more, sitting around on cushions on the floor, or on various chairs. Morgana kept open house for all the crazy mystical-magical types in Glastonbury. People were drinking and smoking spliffs. There was the smell of chillum smoke and incense in the air. Music buzzing quietly away in the background. Morgana on her high throne in the middle of the room (actually it was just a chair, but every chair that Morgana sits on becomes a throne for her). There’s a guy called Trip dressed like a Krishna monk, in the yellow robe, with the shaved head and the little pony-tail. Conversations were flying about all over the place, but Morgana was definitely holding court, like she does.
So, now she tells me what had happened. I’m sitting next to her on the floor, and she’s telling me what happened, in that incredibly detailed way of hers, aided by her close friend Wilhemena. Wilhemena the Witch.
Fred was over there, she says, on the settee. She’s here. Wilhemena is opposite. Phoebe (Morgana’s grand-daughter) is still up. She’s about four years old. There’s Tim on the cushions over there. Everyone else is where they are now. And then, for some reason, Trip hands Morgana a wand that Phoebe had been playing with, and simultaneously Fred gets up, moves up close, and touches Morgana on the shoulders.
Morgana: “So there’s the wand. And then Tim sat down. And yeah, that was right, what Fred said was, ‘well anyway, I don’t believe in you, you’re taking the piss of that Arthur ain’t you? You’re taking the piss out of that Lord Arthur ain’t you?’ I said, ‘what do you mean?’ I said, ‘what’s brought this up?’ ‘Well you're that half sister aren’t you, didn’t you have his... you’ve got his baby, is that his baby?’ Pointing at Phoebe. It was extraordinary. He said, ‘you’re maud.. maud.. er..’"
Wilhemena: “He couldn’t remember the name.”
Morgana: “Then, ‘anyway, I don’t believe in you,’ and he put his hand on my thigh. So I picked his hand up and gave it back to him, and I said, ‘if you don’t believe in me you have absolutely no right to caress my thigh.’ Then I’ve got up to ring the bell, cos it was at that point I needed to break the contact and get out the seat, so I rang the bell. And he went, ‘just like I’ve got no right to take photos of two three and four year old little girls.’ He said, ‘and a known friend of yours’.”
OK. Immediately I knew what he was going on about. I’ve known Fred for years. Even at this point I can guess the circumstances he’s describing. I know about his obscurity, and his tendency to wind people up, and his useless efforts at jokes that no one else can understand. I also know Morgana, and this crowd: they’re all smoking copious amounts of cannabis, so every little nuance in the conversation will be shimmering with multiple levels of meaning. There’s two different levels of reality going on at the same time.
I say: “This ‘Friend of yours’ is me.”
Morgana: “No! He dropped a clanger.”
Wihemena: “We didn’t take it like that.”
CJ: “There’s no other friend of yours. It‘s me he‘s talking about....”
Morgana: “There’s lots of stuff that has question marks over.”
Wihemena: “There’s lots of friends that we might have on the same circuit.”
CJ: “But what was he talking about?”
Morgana: “A mutual friend. Arthur.”
CJ: “He doesn’t know Arthur.”
Wihemena: “He invoked him. It could be anybody.”
Morgana: “It was an archetype thing.”
This is how they talk. It’s all archetypes and magic and invocation and spirit-communication and wey-hey and wonder and far too much dope.
Wilhemena: “It could be anybody.”
Morgana: “The pornographic stuff came out after, after he’s sat with some information you’ve given him, got into archetype script and gone, ‘half sister, baby, incestuous,’ the words are there, ‘oh I’m into pornography.’ He laid this at Morgana’s feet, thinking I’ll go, ‘oh that’s great, show me the pictures’.”
Wilhemena: “Yeah right. You see the Morgana energy is a black energy.”
Morgana: “But it was the extraordinary way it... it wasn’t discussed..."
Wilhemena: “Nothing.” (Going into “spiritual” mode, her eyes sort of half rolling back into her head, as if she is in communication with some dead-presence, putting on this ethereal-sounding voice.) “Given. In the moment. As all of these things are. We don’t ask for it! Do we girl?”
Morgana: “No. It was like that geezer who suddenly blurted out that he killed his baby, crushed the baby’s head, and then told me to keep it secret. And I kept it totally secret, and he was in my face and in my face and in my face and in my face in the pub, and in the end I just picked up a pint of cider and I threw it at him. ‘Fuck off! Fuck off an die! Bastard.’ Two days later his brother came in, to cut a long story short, told me that he’s, you know, he said, no he won’t come here anymore, he’s dead. He had fucked off, OD’d, wrote a suicide letter.... I’m so fucking careful CJ.”
OK, with this sort of rhetoric it’s no wonder Fred has gone off into wind-up mode. Morgana is here saying that she killed someone by saying, “fuck off and die” in a pub one night. Not that he committed suicide because he had crushed his own baby’s head, but that he had told her, and then gone on about it, and it was her words that had caused his death. Morgana can be very overblown in her sense of self-esteem. Sometimes I think she lives in some kind of a soap-opera fantasy world all of her own.
And, as I said, I already know exactly what Fred’s referring to. Those “photos of two three and four year old little girls” are the photos of his daughters and my son playing in the pool all those years ago. Hence the reference to me. As it happens, it was in the news that week too: someone who had taken photos of their naked children and who had then been reported in case it turned out to be paedophile activity. So I know how all these different things have become conflated in Fred’s addled, drink-fuelled brain. But what Fred doesn’t know - and the reason none of this is in the slightest bit funny - is that there are, in fact, several victims of child-abuse in the room with him, so his un-referenced joke about a current item of news sets this little shiver of identification going about the room, like alarm bells going off, and everyone is turning on him without him understanding why.
CJ: “But going back to my position, you understand don’t you why I must reserve my judgement on this. I’m not going to....”
Morgana: “I’m reserving my judgement, because I’m totally off about mankind and womankind. I already can’t believe the things I hear my brothers and sisters do. You know what I mean? And I can’t believe how anybody could conjure that up out of their mouth. But however, people do have dirty minds, and as long as they keep it in their fucking mind, that’s their business and they have to live with that. However, if, if, that isn’t in his mind and that’s reality because he didn’t want to tell me what he did, I said, ‘what do you do?’ and he went, ‘I’m retired,’ and I thought he was going to say, ‘I’m a drug dealer’ but he covered it up with, ‘I’m an electrician, I’m a sparks’.”
CJ: “He is a sparky, yeah.”
Morgana: “He told me that he’s retired. In other words, I’ve got loads of money. And than you pushed him to tell me what he did, and he went, ‘I’m an electrician, I’m a sparky’.”
CJ: “No. You see I know the explanation for this. He was earning loads of money, as a sparky, and he’s just packed up his job. So for about two weeks now he hasn’t been working. But he was earning, like, you know, fuck loads of money. So in that sense, he’s retired. He’s just being slightly obscure, this is the problem with Fred....”
Morgana: “But CJ, listen, drug dealers are slightly obscure. No no no, but he could be a pornography dealer. And in that case he’s not made loads of money doing electrical work. But here he is with someone he thinks is the Morgana, so he’s giving me little clues as to another life that he has. And it started with, “I’m retired.” But you poked him and said, ‘go on, tell her what you do do,’ and he slipped out of that and went into your mate, and went, ‘oh, I’m an electrician.’ So just do what... just do.”
Wilhemena: “Can I bring Arthur and the Morgana into this now? Everybody connected with the Arthurian sect will find that there are echoes of this in their own daily life happening. To a degree. Never everything exactly the same. But there are knock-on effects...”
CJ: “Echoes of what?”
Wihemena: “Whatever he is dealing with. Arthur is sworn to fight corruption wherever he finds it. Anybody on that same vibe will be.... affected to a degree, whether it is something within their own family or something that they will...”
Morgana: “Pick up on in the newspapers, an article that they wouldn’t normally find or...”
Wilhemena: “Something that they would come across...”
Morgana: “A symbol of this. Because it’s happened with me.”
CJ: “What is the ‘this’ that you’re talking about?"
Wihemena: “Well at the moment...”
CJ: “You’re talking about?”
Morgana: “Child abuse, yeah.”
CJ: “Child abuse.”
Morgana: “Yeah, child-abuse.”
The above verbal exchange is very detailed. This is because it is, in fact, exactly what was said. I know because I have it on tape. Well, not on tape any more: I have a transcription of a tape I once made. I don’t know why I kept it, since it was made for possible use in the Arthur book, but never, in fact, used. I had gone there to interview Morgana and Wilhemena about Arthur. I wasn’t really interested in Fred at the time, but I’d switched on the tape recorder in preparation for anything that might come up. Later I’d transcribed it all, not - again - because it had anything to do with Fred, but because I was having trouble finding a starting point for my book, and I was busying myself as a way of avoiding the main issue. It‘s what writer‘s do They prevaricate. Anything rather than having to think. Anyway, I like the way people talk. I like transcribing the spoken word. It adds a new dimension to the written word to know what the rhythms of the spoken word sound like. It’s something I like to reproduce in my writing.
Actually it wasn’t made on the night, either, but the day after. Otherwise, everything is pretty much as I’ve described it.
On the night we all just got drunk on what remained of Fred’s vodka, while I reserved my judgement about what had really happened.
Trip said one very memorable thing. He said, “Glastonbury is the world first experimental open-air insane asylum.” He said, “people come here all normal, dressed up in a suit and tie, and a week later they’re wrapped in a table cloth, wandering up and down the High Street saying ‘I am the Devil!’”
Trip was very funny and kept us all entertained all night. He was like Tommy Cooper in a yellow robe. Tommy Cooper on acid. But that stuff about Glastonbury being like an open air insane asylum sort of stuck in my head, and coloured all the rest of what was to happen next.
Finally it was dawn, and the birds were singing, and Trip got up and drew the curtains and suddenly exclaimed: “hey CJ, your friend. I think he just got himself arrested!”
OK, so I went out, and Fred was, indeed, being arrested. There were two coppers there, and a bemused-looking Fred, wrapped up in his coat, looking cold and hungover. One of the coppers was looking over the car and taking notes. There was a half-bottle of brandy on the front seat, the passenger-side door was open and the engine was running.
“Do you know this gentleman?” the other copper said to me.
“I do,” I said, in a resigned way, shrugging my shoulders.
This whole trip was turning into the plot from a movie I wouldn't even pay to see, and here I was, having to live it for real.