It is a hard thing to account for: feeling close, intimate, connected with people you have never met, people who were lost before you were even born. Especially when they left so much life over, were stopped half-way or hardly across the starting line. Perhaps it is like a relay cut short, and we had some of their race to run before we could start our own. And what to do with the baton handed across to us, still warm with their hands, the trace of someone we did not know?
For a long while, what they suffered felt like a sort of warning to me. It was used as a warning. This is what you get. So, love and death were intertwined, sex and death too, and perhaps I have never managed to get myself past the logic. How many nights have I sweated under my own quilt, unable to stop my mind whirring off into panic, scrolling through statistics, convincing myself that the end, that inevitable line I would have to cross, was finally here. And even if I knew that it would all be ok, even if I knew that there would be no more dying (at least not here, not under this quilt of money, of privilege), why was I so afraid to join their ranks? Because I was afraid to belong with them? Because something deep down, some message, told me that if I did, it would be a fault, not a blessing.
An army of lovers behind me. I cannot touch them, cannot account for how I feel that they are ancestors of mine. An army of ghosts, so proximate, their lives stitched through mine, a community of blood not passed through birth, but through touch. I think of the poet Danez Smith, writing themselves into the tradition of queer literature, listening to their forebears, ‘who we miss & never knew / is that you? / my wrist to my ear / you’re here.’
How best to remember them? Or, instead, how best to live for them? I can still remember hearing George Michael, singing for his first love, Anselmo, who died of AIDS-related complications: ‘So the words you could not say / I’ll sing them for you. / And the love we would have made / I’ll make it for two.’ Death as an imperative for more life, doubled life, tripled, on and on, to the power of however many lives were lost. Perhaps that is where we look for the true meaning of death: not in the darkness, but in the light. Not in death itself, but in life. And if the panels of the quilt approximate the size of a grave, six feet by three, it is not the grave they resemble. No one has stitched images of death. The colours are not black and grey, but pink, blue, yellow, red. There are fiddles and musical notes; trees and suns; trains and motorbikes. If we dreamt under this quilt, they would not be dreams among unknown figures, but dreams among friends, relatives, full of gossip and laughter.
Debbie, Christina, Barry, Tom, Jaqueline, Nico, Rory, Michael, Noel. The beat of their names, not as a mourning drum, but as a pulse, a rhythm. And then, the words of Khalil Gibran, stitched into the quilt. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance. After the memorials, held from Sligo to Dublin, Cork to Belfast, there may be crying, but there will always be dancing too, and the eerie and precious intimation that there are people standing beside us who we cannot see. And then, the music, the drinks, the lights whirling across a bar. The dances not danced, we dance them for two, and at the end of the night we stumble home to bed, pull the quilt across ourselves, and maybe we are alone, or maybe we are not, but either way we feel the tiredness in our limbs, and we feel we have done them proud.
Into Sackville Gardens, just off Canal Street, Manchester, in 2016, I wandered half-drunk after spending the day amongst the crowds of the Pride celebrations. A quiet interstice between bars and the stages built on municipal car parks where my friends and I had su ng along with drag queens, talked to strangers, felt something of a togetherness amongst people we had never met. The day before, I had broken up with my boyfriend and was feeling fragile, but here I didn’t feel alone, and the smiles on the faces of strangers told me that I could still be loved.
We had come to the gardens for a candlelit vigil after dark to remember those lost to AIDS, those lost to violence, an those suffering. On a bronze bench by one of the paths, a sculpture of Alan Turing sits, with just enough space beside him on either side for you to sit next to him, to feel him as a friend, to offer him your company despite the gulf of years between you, the fact that you have never met.
My friends and I stood through the speeches from activists, poets, community workers, and were handed white tapered candles and small paper cones to hold them in. A s the darkness gathered around us through the trees, through the streets, over the surface of the canal, a hush descended. The speakers told stories of lost friends, lost lovers, and the work still to be done.
And at the end, when all of the candles were lit, a drag queen stepped onto the stage in a long, silver-sequinned gown, a mass of red, curled hair tumbling around her face, and sang Nessun Dorma. It took me by surprise – I was used to laughing along with drag queens, but not crying along with them. Her voice was beautiful, one of those voices that seems to bring in the emotions of the whole audience and let them flow through it. It wasn’t just her, but history singing.
I thought that I cried because I had broken up with my boyfriend, and certainly the wine hadn’t helped. But I think that I cried from the peace that comes with being amidst resilience, the feeling that belonging was no bad thing at all. Nessun Dorma rising over the gardens, the trees, the flickering candle flames. None shall sleep. Nella tua fredda stanza / Guardi le stelle che tremano / D'amore e di speranza. In your cold room, watch the stars that tremble with love and with hope.
Seán Hewitt is a poet, lecturer and literary critic. He is the author of a Rooney Prize-winning literary memoir, All Down Darkness Wide, and an Laurel Prize-winning collection of poetry, Tongues of Fire.