The Rhythm of Grief

How I mourned my wife by playing the drums

May 2022

Music played a special part in the relationship I had with my wife Vikki.

We met at a gig in Oxford in the early eighties; I was playing drums in the band, she was in the audience. Our eyes met across a sweaty, student crowd. An old-fashioned look. Love at first sight. Like a dream. Or the corniest of films.

It was the start of a long relationship – we grew up together, got married, we were best friends, we were soulmates.

We moved to London, first Peckham then Greenwich. We were blessed, we were married. Careers followed; my music life continued albeit reduced (my main living was earned as a script writer).

I played on sessions, TV themes, did gigs all round the country. I loved it. She did too. Would always be there if she could. Liked to watch me play the drums. It always took us back to the start.

Late nineties we were flying high and my writing life was taking off – not much room for the music at all now which was a regret from both of us. “I wish you’d play the drums again,” she’d say.

We were successful, we were on the up. Young and prosperous. Everything a possibility. All we needed was more time to enjoy it at all.

Then Vikki was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36.

Years of treatment followed and a new life began. Uncertain. Faster and faster. We no longer dreamed or imagined we just DID. We moved house, travelled the world, changed our work / life balance, built fires on the beach, learned to ski, made new friends. But in the midst of all that racing around, the music got left behind completely and though she still said, more than once,

“I wish you’d play the drums again. You really should”.

I just never got round to it. Should have but never did.

We just didn’t seem to have time for it. We didn’t seem to have enough time for anything. You don’t when someone’s dying.

Vikki finally passed away in 2007 after a nine-year battle against cancer. I was stunned like we all were. Doesn’t matter how long someone’s been ill – nothing prepares you for the end.

When they go forever, you don’t forget anything they’ve said. You hold it tight. Hoard it like treasure. Play it again and again in your head. Forwards and backwards.  Round and round. And sure as anything, in amongst the awfulness, the agony, the missing her, from time to time, in my head the same phrase, the same sentiment would pop up unexpectedly.

“I wish you’d play the drums again. You really should”.

And I felt sad that it hadn’t happened. And after a while that sadness turned into something else, an itch, a want, a need to put it right. For both of us.

So, after a couple of years; after funerals, memorials and headstones; after the business of estate and getting my daughter back on track and emerging from the first desolate fog of bereavement, I did, at my fiftieth birthday party. Myself and three other guys I had met – my daughter’s guitar teacher, a student pupil of his and a bass player who worked in Landfill. We played one number “Long Train Running”, there’s a video of it somewhere on YouTube. We called ourselves “Hangover Square” after the Patrick Hamilton novel.

It went well, really well, helped by the addition of an old mate who just happens to play lead trumpet with Jools Holland. The crowd cheered, we made a very passable sound and what’s more I felt absolutely elated. Lifted. Happy.

Afterwards we were excited for more and discussed it excitedly like teenagers.

“You really should play again. You should”. I could hear Vikki more clearly than ever.

So, another journey started. The journey of Hangover Square.

That one number we played at my birthday bash became many more – two, hour-long sets in fact and not long after, we hit the road (well the A148 and assorted back roads). Playing wherever we could, gigging properly, performing for money, but mostly gigging because we loved it – at weddings, 50th birthdays, beer festivals; in pubs, on the veranda of someone’s house, on the back of a lorry.

It was a success from the start. We picked up other offers. We scaled up, bought ourselves a PA. We got lights. We were driven to and from the venues by the student’s father who was our roadie, and owned a local business.

And it was such a thrill. Even the tedious bits. Humping the gear on to the van hours before; the monitors, the speakers, the reams of cables, the mics, the stands, then my drums, my beautiful, now vintage black Premier kit from 1977 which still sounded like heaven despite being held together by gaffer tape and some screws from an old lawnmower; the bumpy rides, the banter, the unloading, the hanging around, the terrible small loos you change in, the indifferent crowds you sweat it out with and finally bring joyously to their feet; the comedown afterwards, the crisp five pound notes in your hand, the reloading, the tiring journey home, the unloading again. The whole damn ritual of it all.

I was back just doing it. And I had a sense of satisfaction. Of completion. It wasn’t glamorous – quite the opposite but that absolutely didn’t seem to matter; the whole experience was just so right.

The adventure isn’t over – we’re still gigging in 2015. We’ve gone the way of all bands in between; the student has left to live with his girlfriend in Leicester and the bass player has departed due to musical differences (he wanted to do more pub gigs than weddings) but a new line up has emerged and I will go on playing.

I have to now. I absolutely have to.

Costessy or Spixsworth may not sound like the kind of places you would normally have a spiritual moment but for me every gig is like being in church albeit one that smells of chlorine and beer and where the loos often need updating.

For as soon as I sit behind the drums I am totally there – yet somewhere else at the same time.

Taken back to another place, another time and another person. The woman standing smiling at the back, watching me as I play. Approving. Loving it.

The woman who said “I wish you’d play the drums again”.

Well, I did.

And I will.