When I was a poor student, I was fortunate to secure a waitressing job at one of the local hotels. I worked there for a few years whilst I completed my studies and became really good friends with the other staff at the hotel. Although we worked hard, I always enjoyed the good-natured banter and the shared meals at the end of our shifts. I had a particular soft spot for the Head Chef, a loud cockney with a ready twinkle in his eye and a fast one-liner for every occasion. He was a big man in every sense of the word and he’d worked for the hotel company for many years since leaving the army after achieving the rank of sergeant. Unlike many other chefs I worked with, he was an excellent mentor to many of his young trainees and wouldn’t tolerate bullying of any form within his kitchen.
He was a jolly soul and played up to all the new waitresses, pinching bottoms and leering suggestively over the hot plate always in a non-offensive manner. Of course, I knew that he was just play-acting as I was aware that he was gay man but it was never my secret to share and I respected his decision to live his life as he wanted.
Just before the last year of my studies he secured a top job at a prestigious hotel nearer to his family in London and from time to time, he would visit each time looking a great deal thinner than the last. He assured me it was the pressure of the job, and sometime later he moved back to Devon taking a less high-profile role in yet another flagship hotel.
Shortly after he relocated he was involved in a car accident in suspicious circumstances; he had apparently been driving across Dartmoor on his own in the middle of the night when the car had left the road. The police report said that there had been no other vehicle involved and the reason for the accident remained a mystery.
Immediately after his discharge from hospital, his mother and father collected him and he just disappeared from our lives, returning to his family home in London. Initially we had been advised that he had terminal cancer but eventually the real reason for his departure was disclosed and that was that he had contracted AIDS.
I sent him several letters, none of which he ever answered but I like to think that he read them. A few months’ later we heard that he had passed;I can’t begin to imagine the grief which his parents felt having to nurse him through this debilitating disease whilst watching him fade away in front of them. It saddened my heart that he felt unable to share these dark days with those that loved and admired him. Regrettably, we still live in a world full of ignorance and bigotry and I truly hope that our lives never get too busy or too full to be able to hold out a hand to comfort a friend.
So my dearest pal wherever you are, I want you to know that I often think of you and feel comforted to know that there is an extra star in the midnight sky burning as brightly as you did in life.