He was my best friend. I’m not ashamed to say that I loved him, and weep for him still. He was the funniest, moodiest sod I ever met. We were in Moscow in 86 and 87. We discovered Shostakovich and Schnittke. We ate caviar. We drank vodka. Et in Arcadia ego… Back in Dublin, we went up on his scooter to the Glen of Imaal to that pub whose name I’ve forgotten and careered drunkenly back in the inky night. We shared a flat – Royal Terrace West, Dun Laoghaire – but that didn’t go too well. For a while we didn’t talk. Then I was stumbling through Front Square in the throes of a very minor nervous breakdown and bumped into him, and we picked things up again.
We inhabited Bewleys – frothy milky coffee, remember them? – and the snug of the Stag’s Head. I introduced him to Norfolk – someone had to get him away from the damp in Henrietta Street. He went to Brussels. I visited him there, and we went down to France to buy a Citroen DS – Doris. He wanted to go to Trabzon – cf The Towers of Trebizond, Rose Macauley – so I bought a Vespa, and passed the test the day before we left. Over the Alps we went. Inevitably there was a row – in Corfu. So back we rode, almost to the border with Switzerland before he decided to be civil. We had a pizza, turned round, went all the way back to Ancona and took the ferry to Greece. Through Istanbul we went – no time to stop. We had maps for everywhere except Turkey – ‘We just keep the Black Sea on our left,’ he said. But not long after a petrifying ride across that famous bridge the road stopped abruptly in a grubby little village. That night we were the only foreigners staying in the local hotel – where I got scabies – and there was a cinematic moment in the restaurant – with a slimy green tank full of dead fish – when all the musicians in the village descended on us. So we went back to Istanbul to buy a map. But we were diverted by the glorious madness of the Crimean Memorial Church and Ian Sherwood. We never did get to Trabzon. Ian had a job for Niall, and he stayed there for three years, running a project assisting refugees and in the process becoming an opinionated churchman. He brought Doris there, and there followed many holidays in Turkey. Before he left, he was the model for St Cuthbert in the remarkable screen painted by Mungo McCosh in the church. In the background is a vista of the Great City, with Doris crossing that bloody bridge.
I went to Spain, and we took several trips into the fabled interior – what my Benidorm-bound parishioners used to call ‘the real Spain’. He returned to Ireland, in time to ride that now deceased tiger. He prospered. I moved to Finland. He visited several times. The last time, in February 2001, we went to a concert at Finlandia Hall to hear Natalya Gutman playing something or other. For Niall at least it mattered less what was played than who was scratching that instrument between her legs. Years before, we had heard her play – of all things – Elgar’s cello concerto at the Conservatoire in Moscow, and he had managed to get backstage afterwards and had persuaded her to sign his programme.
And then, in April 2001, I was back home. I went straight from the airport to Pembroke Road. We drank champagne, ate smoked salmon, smoked Cohibas. We set out on foot for St John’s Sandymount. Niall was a devotee of benediction, and it still happened there in those days. He had just finished fulminating against the vulgarity and architectural illiteracy of the newly opened Four Seasons when he said that he didn’t feel very well. Then he said he was okay. Then he said he wasn’t. He gave me his mobile phone to call an ambulance, but I didn’t know what to do with the wretched thing, and he was wheezing too much to tell me. I flagged down a passing car, and we raced to St Vincent’s. He actually got out of the car by himself. I was still thanking the guy, who was clearly relieved that we hadn’t hijacked him. I called after Niall ‘Go straight in, I’ll register you.’ I did that, went into Casualty. He was in the first cubicle. He collapsed the moment I saw him, and all hell broke loose. The crash team came running, and I was led away to that room where you wait for what seems like hours but is probably only twenty minutes for someone to come with that look on their face and you know it’s over. And a black hole opens that will never quite be filled.