Stephen C. Middleton


In improvised music it is called “catching an ending”. A moment of lone or mutual determination that a piece has reached its conclusion, logical or not. There are those, of course, who habitually play past endings. A group of players, improvising together, will have reached what seems to them a resolution and, often hunched over their instruments, will still prior to the relaxation that triggers applause, when one of their number goes rippling, honking, skirling or (as Colin put it, about one renowned offender) plucking off.

This much Nancy had been able to tell even before she’d learnt the declensions and grammar; Colin listened, responded, and stopped on empathetic hue. He initiated as well, but in, it seemed to her, a democratic way. This was what Greg claimed too though he went further in his attributions of empathy. And it became clear to Nancy, that they were, if not the key axis, a considerable axis in any aggregation in which they played together. Which is why, despite Colin’s gentle assertion (and implicit absolution) that, “you can’t expect to depend on Greg”, she was hurt that she didn’t receive more help from him, especially at the time of the benefit.

It had buoyed Nancy greatly that she had been able to tell Colin that she’d been drawn to his playing on first hearing. In later, quartet, discussions, of didactic complexity, she’d felt reassured by this basic sonic attraction and prescience that helped negate her occasional feelings of inadequacy when the stuff of the music was being examined. It was a measure of her closeness to Colin and of his (infinite) patient explanation that this sense of inadequacy receded throughout the duration of their relationship, and was only rarely superseded by involuntary jealous possessiveness as its termination approached in a manner and on terms that only she seemed able to grasp. At the time of her first diffident praise for his music, she was able only to say that she’d been moved by his playing and had respected the group interaction – a choice of words that had amused him.

“Respect is good”, he’d said, “and when a cheque or gig magically fails to materialise, it’s often all there is. Respect and self respect. But it’s still good”.

She’d expected the quartet to analyse and dissect their performances and conceptual underpinnings but she was surprised by their readiness, Tom and Nathan too, but especially Greg, abetted by Colin’s quiet acquiescence, to discuss the spiritual empathy with which the work resonated. To name the pellucid moments that gave each performance its instances of frisson. The moments when, in her terms, they made it cohere. This insistence on the empathy, its nature, and component parts, made her uneasy. This was surely too sacred, too indefinable, too spiritual, would unravel if articulated. She could cite such diverse luminaries as McCoy Tyner and Paul McCartney – the former from her quick fire research, sparked by her first exposure to the quartet – both of whom were on record as being uneasy defining or discussing the interactive musical processes lest they disappear under scrutiny or if spoken. It was also, she felt, so obvious: implicit, for example, in her being enamoured of the playing instinctively; respect coming before understanding. Tom and Nathan did speak in these elevated terms, but less instinctively than Greg, who tended to see Nancy as a confidante in this regard. Colin had hinted at secret suffering prior to the severe drug problems that had beset Greg in recent years. Greg, himself, only alluded to these latter as part of his empathy with Colin spiel; and with reference to his “nerves”. In this context the empathy always seemed more like dependence to Nancy, who, though she didn’t need to be told how caring Colin was, and certainly not as often as Greg did so, began to feel an exasperated fondness for Greg. She even sympathised, distinctly on the sly, with him when Colin, it seemed to her, grew too avuncular – a mode that was always prefigured by what she fondly called his “hippie diffidence”. On these occasions she and Greg would flash smiles at each other that never seemed to faze, or silence, Colin, though he did tell her in the Hospice that he had been aware of them and that her growing closeness to Greg had pleased him. As, they both agreed, she should remember the music and the luminous high spots of their relationship rather than the long physical waning, so, he implied, she should try to retain this positive image of Greg, rather than that of absconding friend that dominated her perceptions of him, when she had time for them or when they intruded, in the last months of Colin’s illness.

There certainly was a form of rapport. She enjoyed his moments of animation, though they were somewhat cathectic. His insistence on empathy, empathy, and more empathy, and what a great guy Colin was, supportive musically and everywhichway, contained the truth somewhere in amongst its motivations. Mostly it was, she came to realise, a touchstone for him.

“He’s scared of his shadow”, she told Colin.

“He’s scared of his shades”, was the wryly delivered riposte. And the relentless assertions of Colin’s kindness / greatness were, perhaps, wisdom, approval, and gratitude bestowed the only way he knew how – certainly that was Colin’s view. The problem arose with the half stated notion that the chief quartet axis was one of those elevated intuitive relationships that brook outsiders but not outsiders’ understanding.

“It’s so exclusive”, she’d moan.

“For him it has to be”, Colin would say, amused at her fretting, “We know that we have different areas of empathy that he can’t share – and I’m sure he’s as aware of that, in his own way, as we are”. This was true, she was sure, but she still reserved the right to see Greg as Colin’s blind spot, to be covered by her if need be. The which, she would concede, was a miniscule part of her pleasure at growing closer to Greg.

In spite of his insistence on the exclusivity of his rapport with Colin, Greg purported to value Nancy’s “outsider’s insight” into the quartet’s performances. Whilst not over enamoured of the phrase, Nancy shared his cherished notion of a “creative audience”, without whom… In one of Colin’s most potently but amusingly irritating phrases, she could conceive of “a place for” the creative audience and, since she’d come to accept that she was in some way / to some degree attuned to the radiance of the music, she offered her opinion whenever asked and sometimes of her own volition. Having been a dancer – indeed dance had been her first love, though she’d never felt inclined to adapt her classical style to the rigours of improvising with the quartet – she knew that unwanted observations could be frenzy inducing but, caring for Colin and the music, felt it better that they should know, have as much information as possible, whether about the music or, inseparable in any case, audience reaction on which Nancy could truly claim more than a degree of expertise. She listened, she watched, she sounded out other loyal supporters. There were those who came to virtually every gig and those tied to place – this latter giving instructive comparisons over lengthy periods, whereas she was hearing the music evolve almost every week, or at least this was true of Colin’s music. She performed her creative listening role and provided an audience critique whenever she heard him play solo or with other groups.

The quartet was the nucleus from which other aggregations sprung, or were based upon; rarely did Colin play in a group without at least one musician from the quartet – and Nancy knew this early on. Colin, having in fact, announced it to her when they were considering moving from casual relationship (though it had never really been of that ilk) to full time alliance (“becoming a team”) – with the same seriousness, and it seemed to her, and was later confirmed by him, that he had expected the same resistance as if he had announced that he was gay. It was, however, a nucleus of which Nancy approved, and, consequently, it held few real fears for her. She believed in Colin’s music, cherished, adored the way his saxophone would suddenly alight on a dance, even in a maelstrom – and, for this, she was prepared to suffer a certain amount of shared intimacy; and there was a line beyond which… and he knew that. Irritation was actually the most that she usually felt at quartet incursions into time set aside for her and Colin alone.

The quartet themselves seemed to share this view, though they all played, and recorded, in other groupings. Greg was the most vocal in support of the elevated union on display in the quartet. It seemed ironic to Nancy, but may, she was prepared to concede, have been more complex, that, in the last year of Colin’s life, Greg should have been so preoccupied with a piece that he had written for percussion and string quintet and that had been granted Contemporary Music Network support for a tour. This predated the diagnosis, though Colin’s playing had been so obviously laboured for a while that, though this was often, curiously, affecting, it was clear that something was seriously amiss. Once Colin began his seemingly eternal chemo and radiotherapy round, Greg’s focus became as one dimensional as his “empathetic”spiel – and no less irksome, Nancy felt. She had more time, then and earlier, for his “tor strewn ranges”.

“Nature and his nerves, that’s what Greg lives off”, the usually taciturn Nathan had ventured.

“That and Colin”, Nancy had said, smiling to blunt the edge. Taciturn Nathan had, with bass and voice, made cat noises.

Greg was besotted with hills, especially those bedecked with rocky outcrops, and favoured most among these, in the way, though several times as vocally, as Colin elevated John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, were Dartmoor and The Stiperstones. To his mountain ramblings she listened enrapt, without taking in a single detail, cherishing his enthusiasm for quartz, granite, bauxite… At times she felt these outpourings to be misplaced, inappropriate, mere displacement activities – though there was no doubting the love of space, handholds, and silence that informed his monologues. His particular pleasure, quartet and Colin aside, was lying on a hillside heather bed watching sunrise and hearing the dawn chorus. This was why, he segued into jazz, a habit that all the quartet possessed, this was why Conference Of The Birds by Dave Holland, already a masterpiece, with Rivers and Braxton interweaving, was one of his very favourite CDs. The title and inspiration piquant extras. His fervent reiterations of the virtues of hills and Holland, and his increasingly un-nerving, to three quarters of a quartet battling extinction, obsession with, and litanies about, the quintet with strings were met by Colin (made pain faced by illness not desertion) with his familiar “Greg mantra”; “It’s his way of coping. He needs certainty and dreams”.

There was about Colin a “stage beyond hippie diffidence” that occasionally, but only occasionally, infuriated Nancy, sparking their infrequent but furious rows – quickly consummated and cast aside. The apotheosis of this characteristic was Colin’s assessment of Greg’s (to Nancy) failings – with Greg he was permanently in what she referred to as his “everything has its place” mode.

“Sure”, she’d say, “selfishness has its place. Poverty has its place – here, in case you hadn’t noticed”. The only areas to which no diffidence extended were to the respect accorded to quartet or Nancy, and an implacable musical vision that tended, in his chosen art form alone, to narrowness. Whereas he was receptive and literate from Shakespeare to Sontag, from Chagall to Corbusier, he could be easily induced to join in the schismatic world of tune / no tune and improvisation as against composition, adhering to a line that roughly translated as “life’s too short for tunes, we’ve had centuries of that”, whilst conceding Nancy’s point that the quartet had the possibility of more tunes than any tune she knew. From this entrenched position he viewed Nancy’s toe dipping into earlier jazz with benevolent disdain. These pieces had their place, were of historical importance, but life was too short – the need was to immerse oneself in the idiom, to forge ahead. Gradually, through her reasoning – the gentleness and empathy of the Golson/ Farmer Jazztet, the political courage of Max Roach allied to Eric Dolphy’s gnarled suffering and Clifford Jordan’s steadfast righteousness – shamed him out of his assumptions and in the Hospice his Walkman often contained Davis, Gordon, Waldron, and Hutcherson, as well as Coltrane, Evan Parker, Joe McPhee, Cecil Taylor, and, of course, the quartet, though he was rarely well enough to listen for long. Only in this respect, in his speciality alone, was he narrow. In many other ways he was the gentler, more open, patient, and tolerant, of the two.

Colin’s soft spoken, the more so once the illness was all pervasive – it gave his voice a blurred effect, introducing new harmonics and sighs – defence of Greg’s infrequent visits to hospital and complete absence from the Hospice, only aggravated her. Worse, it made her feel insensitive and she resented this. Why shouldn’t she be angry with Greg; circumstances were, after all, exceptional. Here, and perhaps only here, the generation gap did have a shiver of impact (he had twelve years on her still dancing step) – it seemed to her that his diffidence was more avuncular and, simultaneously, more absolute than usual. This, combined with his condition, meant that it brooked no dissent.

“He’s sublimating”, said Colin about Greg’s frantic focus on his percussion and strings piece, and the forthcoming Contemporary Music Network Tour, “It’s the only way he can face it”.

“Don’t care if he’s masturbating”, she said, “His closest friend – the person he has this wonderful empathy with – is dying. He can make an exception”. Her savagery unleashed a brief spasm of temper and argument that fading into humour and self-affirmation for both of them. Their relationship was quickly remelded by these feisty outbursts of hers and his stubborn insistence, revealing some of each partner’s favourite qualities of the other. Unusually, though, resentment lingered (not surprisingly) and she was increasingly of the silent opinion that, with the exception of their musical rapport, the much vaunted empathy was largely accidental or conjectured out of air and glances, and also that she and Greg had different slants on “when it matters” – as, “when it matters we’re always there for each other”.

Naturally she and Colin speculated about the cause of his illness – “circular breathing cigarette smoke in clubs and pubs” was the favourite theory and to this extent it was a work related injury, they felt. The spread of the disease was astonishingly rapid and seemed a series of self fulfilling prophecies; every advance prefigured by gloomy specialists mapping out possible courses, all of which the illness latched onto and exceeded. To mention it was to spread it, and, it seemed to Nancy that fatalism had infected the medical profession and she railed against it and sought to spare Colin their painful ministrations once the case was palpably hopeless, whilst trying to give the suggestion of hope herself.

If there was an overwhelming mutual sense they had for each other it was gratitude. She inspired it in him for her staunch support, in his music and during his illness, as audience and, if not exactly as muse, at least as a focus for inspiration (or titles of pieces after the event) and a generator of intensity. He inspired it in her for the music and for allowing her a creative and complex closeness that surprised in her untapped fervour and resentments that he seemed able to assuage and allay, until careless obituaries began to warp his personality and achievements, over which she stood guard, as she felt that she had against Greg’s failings and audience members who talked during performances. These latter, she had observed, were more readily chastened by female outrage than male.

The benefit audience was an unusually attentive one. The event itself was, for her, both joyous and harrowing. The same contaminated air – and she caught herself scowling at smokers – but some faces not seen in a while, here supportive and sensitive. Some of the playing was clearly inspired, though whether at random or by the poignancy of the evening she had no way of knowing – though, obviously, she hoped… Some of the donations surprised and moved her, the more so because many of the donors, once they had made clear their respect for Colin, insisted that she have the money to keep her life “covered” whilst she attended to, what they didn’t say was, the end of his. His absence seemed to both validate and lighten the event. His rationale was that it would spare her the business of keeping him in hand and also that Greg seemed to find his presence (and, by implication, ravaged appearance) upsetting. Her “so what” met by teasing and gentle chiding to the effect that Greg was giving of his time (“so he should” and “not much of it”, she retorted) when the percussion and string quintet tour was imminent. He also told her the story of a benefit gig where the musician being benefited had recovered sufficiently from his ailment to play at his own benefit. She told this anecdote at the benefit –“Footballers and cricketers do”, someone chimed in. An anorak, she thought, smiling her gratitude and thought.

There were four groupings, each one roughly pre-ordained and ranged around a member of the quartet. Greg’s segment seemed the most impersonal; both musically and in pronouncements, though, as a drummer, he was not best placed for these, she conceded. He barely met her eye all evening, though he did hug her at the close, before disappearing sharpish. Earlier she’d heard him talking to various people about his fast approaching tour. By the time the music ended she was too overwhelmed, and worried about Colin, to feel anything much about this. She too hurried away. She rang the next day to thank Greg – as she did Tom and Nathan – but got his ansaphone, to which she made herself wish him luck for his tour, and also informed him that Colin would be going into a Hospice shortly and she hoped that he’d visit him.

The Hospice was magnificent – both gentle and very focused. Colin drifted in and out of consciousness but seemed miraculously pain free – and there were some marvellous moments when he surfaced fully and strained, it seemed to her, to put her firmly at the centre of his life, acknowledging her input in all areas and, if reminiscing (a sign that the lucid period was fading away) always inserted “I wish you’d met him / her” or “You would have loved / loathed it”, at appropriate moments.

By the tenth day in the Hospice it was obvious that he was going. She visited as often, and stayed as long, as possible, as, at first, did several musicians – striking up a rapport with other patients and nurses when Colin was asleep or exhausted, encouraging him to resort to rest or Walkman if their visits tired him. With them, and from her observation of, and friendly encounters with, other patients – she railed at the suggestion, read somewhere that she could not recall, that cancer was a “bureaurocrat's disease” – citing Colin, Coltrane, and Jimmy Lyons as just the most obvious arguments against this. By consent, though, the musicians left the last two or three days to her. Other people, family members, arrived too, but only to visit, not to be present at the very end, or, as he put it, “when it counts”. She became terrified by this phrase, worried that she’d miss it – be asleep / in the toilet – but once he’d made her articulate this fear, he assured her that she wouldn’t. No diffidence to this final confidence in her. And later this fierce resolve would be a memory that lingered when the blanket suffering had largely faded – all those relentless images of his suffering and its indignities and of her perceived failures in nursing and of faith. The Macmillan nurse called a few times after Colin’s death and reassured her that her occasional despair hadn’t weakened Colin’s spirit, hadn’t, in fact, shown at all.

On the last afternoon she sat with him, holding hands against the inevitable, and listening as he reminisced, wheezier than ever. He talked solely about their time together, though he lost the thread occasionally and eventually talking became too difficult and, by nightfall, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to last much longer. Once the final process began there was no question of her missing the last moments. It was so intimate and utterly involving, but, despite the horror, there were certainly enough moments of bravery and spirit to resonate after the crushing aftermath. With which people consoled her afterwards, and though she conscientiously acknowledged this it (his bravery) took awhile to take root and their assurances seemed glib and vapid and sometimes seemed to come from some inner confidence / angle of their own, which she would have been inclined to resent, had she been following her thoughts to any sort of conclusion in the first months after his death. The last hours though, were the most absorbing, and shared, moments of her life, and lasted well into the night.

Greg had finished his farewells with the other players quickly after the concert in Birmingham, the opening date of his Contemporary Music Network tour. He hadn’t booked a hotel, and left the quintet to make its way to theirs alone. He collected his car and drove north west to Shropshire and then, via Shrewsbury, which, though not the obvious route, had been the gateway to this tor topped obsession, he made his way to Pontesbury. He stopped there for a smoke and a drink – then drove on, through Minsterly, to turn near Ploxgreen, past Snailbeach, through Stiperstones Village and along the base of the hills. He followed the road past The Bog, parking higher up, from where he made directly for heather and heights. In sight of the outcrops, beside a small, high level and windblown, copse, he laid his coat on the ground and lay down, thinking the concert through, before drifting to sleep.

At about three in the morning he woke, grainy and pained. He got up, rolled a fairly rancid cigarette; fresh air and foul mouth combined and he wandered towards the crest. He sat on one of the main outcrops, humming passages from his composition, his shaking hands beating time or fingering strings in the near dark. He dozed awhile, hunkered down in the stones, then woke with the dawn chorus; a cross current swell, almost slow serialism at first, through call and response to glorious cacophony. The quartz of smaller outcrops shone strangely luminous, purple veined – and into the countryside, chorus, and Greg, a pellucid moment came, as when the music cohered and seemed to glisten in the busy air. He breathed in cautiously, didn’t cough, and waited as long as he could before expelling the breath. The feathery hills came into focus again only slowly, the sky assuming a chill clarity. Some distance away in the arms of Nancy, Colin tensed, relaxed, and died …catching an ending.

Stephen C. Middleton is a writer working in London, England. He has had five books published, including A Brave Light (Stride) and Worlds of Pain / Shades of Grace (Poetry Salzburg). He has been in a number of anthologies, including Paging Doctor Jazz (Shoestring) & Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh (Salt, 2009). For several years he was editor of Ostinato, a magazine of jazz and jazz related poetry, and The Tenormen Press, producing limited edition art books of illustrated poetry about music. He has been in many magazines, mostly in the U.K, but also in the U.S.A, Australia, and Europe. His live work includes poetry readings, performance pieces with musicians, stand up comedy, and storytelling. He is currently working on a number of projects (prose and poetry) relating to jazz, blues, politics, outsider (folk) art, mountain environments, and long-term illness.

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