The car dashboard display tells me it’s been an hour now. A whole hour since I received the call that everyone with two elderly parents keeps their phone beside the bed for. Sunday morning, 12.54am. The screen illuminated the bedside table and when it said “Parents”, I knew. The only question between waking and swiping my thumb was, “Which voice am I going to hear?”
The paramedics’ efforts continued long into the ambulance ride across Birmingham, from Solihull to Heartlands A&E, my terrified, inconsolable mum following in a second ambulance – and now, not for the first time, I’m waiting for music to tell me how I feel. Driving north from London, I turn on the car radio and Don Ray’s 1978 disco hit Got To Have Loving is playing. It sounds incredible, barely able to utilise the energy it appears to be generating. And actually, that is how I feel right now. I’ve never felt so wired. If I look in the rear-view mirror, I can’t say for certain the eyes looking back at me won’t be two spinning Catherine wheels.
It’s a Studio 54-themed edition of Ana Matronic’s BBC Radio 2 show, and the song which follows happens to be one of my all-time favourites: Santa Esmeralda’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, a record I bought on a wet Friday morning in an empty WH Smith in 1988, after hearing it over the speakers and knowing I couldn’t leave without it. I thought I was listening to something cool until the assistant showed me the sleeve: Santa Esmeralda frontman Leroy Gómez in flagrante, pushed against the chassis of a limo by three Latin lovelies. Now, 34 years later, I’ve finally found an even less appropriate setting for this seismic celebration of wounded longing.
Am I enjoying this song right now? I don’t want to turn it off because the alternative is the sound of my car engine and that would definitely be worse. But Santa Esmeralda? Bloody hell. What’s wrong with me? Is there something wrong with me? Let’s see what else there is to listen to. Absolute 80s. Hit Radio. The muzak of my formative years. The innocuous schlub-rock of Stuck With You by Huey Lewis & The News. This’ll do. Am I in shock, or am I a monster? If I’m in shock, how do I know I’m in shock? Is not knowing you’re in shock a sign of being in shock?
My mum is already in the hospital. She’s going to wait for me and my older brother before going into the room where they’ve put my dad. Better start imagining what I’m going to see, because if I’m not already in shock, then I might go into shock when I see him – and that’s no good to anyone, least of all my mum. There’s a Little Simz song called Dead Body, which opens with the artist asking, “Do you wanna see a dead body?/Prolly not”. And it’s this – not the more mood-appropriate The Weeping Song by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, or Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House – that parachutes into my head.
Back in 1989, after my ex-girlfriend lost her mother, she asked me to come with her to the hospital and step through the curtain which had been drawn around her mum’s bed. Do you wanna see a dead body? Prolly not then, either. Aged 20, I remember telling myself not to avert my gaze, because then I’d only have to look again. More than three decades on, the advice of my younger self still holds good: I don’t turn away once the whole time I’m in there, as if it were a macabre, one-sided staring contest.
Without even realising it, I have become a parent to my mother. “Ton kakomiri,” she sobs. There is no single-word translation of the Greek word kakomiri, which is used to describe someone who has met an awful fate – someone with whom you wouldn’t want to swap places. Except that, over the ensuing days, she expresses a desire to do just that, and any response other than clasping her hand feels condescending. So I clasp just a bit harder and place my head on her shoulder.
As the first rays of light find the hospital car park, my brother mutters something about the undignified conditions in which they keep the newly deceased. “It’s brutal,” he says, shaking his head. “Where’s the dignity?”
“It’s just a room in a hospital,” I say. “They probably have to use it for other things, too.”
“Yeah, but still…”
“It’ll be different at the undertakers,” I tell him, but he’s already decided that’s somewhere he won’t be visiting. Fair enough, really.
Twenty-four hours after we get home, it’s a sunny Monday morning and I’m starting to think that I was never in shock. So I move on to ponder denial. Well, I fully understand what I saw in the hospital, so no – I don’t think so. I am coping. Yes, that’s what I’m doing. Coping. And coping is a full-time activity.
When you’re coping, the to-do list is long, and you underestimate the task ahead – letting everyone know, organising the funeral service, death certificates – at your peril. When someone dies, there is always a super-together person. My mum isn’t even close to processing the collateral damage of that hideous hour when my dad released two, maybe three coughs, shut his eyes and fell sideways onto the mattress beside her. The instructions bellowed at her by the woman on the other end of the line. The switching on of the upstairs and downstairs lights prior to the arrival of the ambulance, with the door left open. As for my brother, I think he actually is in shock. There’s clearly a vacancy for a coper, so that’s who I’m going to be. Like the protagonist in The Killers’ 2018 single The Man, “nothing can break me down”: I’m going to cope the hell out of this.
Go for a run. That’s the sort of thing that people who cope do. I run onto Monkspath Hall Road, alongside the grass verges which the council has created meadows, scattering wild flowers to attract the dwindling numbers of Brummie bees. I pass Solihull Train Station and veer left towards the suburb of Acocks Green, where I spent my first 20 years. It is less a thought than a compulsion – like Snoopy in Peanuts, who wakes up one morning and returns to Daisy Hill Puppy Farm.
Because this isn’t a film, most of the songs that make up the soundtrack of my run might be great, but they don’t magically accord with the reason I’m here. However, once in a while, serendipity shows its hand. Freetime by the Trashcan Sinatras is one reminder that music can care for you while you try and care for others:
“And when the sun shines, I celebrate
the beauty in life — it’s my duty in life
’cause the rhythm of change
will carry on beating
I’ll take these blue skies, however fleeting
It might be too late tomorrow.”
If I just keep running, these words and notes and chords won’t overwhelm me. Keep running past the corner shop where my friend Vijay, at no more than seven years old, impressed me by making a new sort of snack called a chapati. We used to look for discarded Player’s cigarette packets because Vijay’s cousin had told him that you had to cut out the picture and keep it on you for good luck, while singing: “Sailor, sailor, bring me luck/If you don’t I’ll rip you up.” And because I was an elective mute at the time, Vijay would recite the rhyme twice, once for him and once for me. Keep running past the site of Nick’s Continental Salon where David Grant and Jaki Graham’s featherlight reading of Could It Be I’m Falling In Love played on the radio as I nervously awaited my tonsorial fate. Towards my old junior school, then back onto Yardley Road, past the fast food outlet where my parents’ fish and chip shop used to be.
Daft Punk’s Giorgio By Moroder starts to play: the arc of a lifetime told in nine minutes, voiced by the visionary to whom the song serves as a love letter. To start with, it’s nothing I can’t handle. In fact, I make myself smile by imagining what my dad’s version, Chris By Paphides, might sound like:
“I knew that by using the best Maris Pipers and fish freighted overnight from Aberdeen/
You could build up a fish and chip shop from nothing/
Sure, your profit margin is smaller because you’re getting the best produce/
But you make it back with more customers.”
The bouzoukis would kick in at this point, of course. But then the sound in my headphones quietly reasserts itself: “My name is Giovanni Giorgio/But everybody calls me Giorgio.” I don’t know why my eyes fill with tears at Giorgio Moroder telling us his name. Later, I wonder if there are intimations of the afterlife about the track – if not here, then surely by the eight-minute mark, when white-hot intergalactic missile fire, electric guitar and Omar Hakim’s full-on drum freak-out perform the function of emotional booster rockets. Deliberately or otherwise, it’s as close a musical simulation of mortality giving way to immortality as it’s possible to attain. What is the feeling it inspires? Do we need a new adjective – like “griephoria”? Whatever you call it, I have suddenly doubled my speed.
My iPod chooses another song that charts the arc of a lifetime. I know what’s coming when I hear the opening notes of Maddox Table by 10,000 Maniacs, and I know that this time, the outcome isn’t glorious. The lead singer, Natalie Merchant, sings with extraordinary empathy about a worker in a furniture factory who sees themselves mirrored, through four decades of loyal service, in the image of an ox “burned/Into every stick of furniture”. But the gut punch comes right at the end, where the song suddenly turns into a reminiscence of early courtship, a snapshot of lost innocence:
“Oh, my Dolly was a weak
Not a burdened girl
Treat her to a piece of vaudeville
A Winter Garden moving picture show
Bemus Point on July Sundays
By trolley we’d go.”
In my teens, I listened to Maddox Table and its parent album the Wishing Chair over and over, its stories echoing the lovestruck schemes my mum and dad had ditched in order to move far from their home in Cyprus. They never realised the move would become permanent: that once their kids grew up here, they were never going to want to move back with them. As a teenager I ached for the factory worker of Maddox Table far more than I did for my parents; perhaps I was rerouting a sense of guilt, because I knew I could never really give them what they wanted. Right now, the lines of demarcation – between guilt and gratitude; between the subject of Maddox Table and my parents – are fast unravelling.
Mum is awake by the time I return. She seems surprised when she clocks my running gear. But as the self-appointed one who is coping, my brief moments of grief will not be allowed to interfere with the to-do list, which expands exponentially every day until the funeral. Informing employers and organisers of events where I was due to host is something I can do without any great sadness. But I had tickets to the red carpet premiere of the Abba Voyage shows in London which, it turns out, I can’t attend because it’ll be the night before the funeral. I had said that nothing on earth would stop me from going and, in a manner of speaking, I was right.
Abba were the only English-speaking group my dad listened to. Money Money Money was the song that, to him, perfectly explained the situation in which he’d found himself in moving so far from his beloved Cyprus: a perfect articulation of the gratification so many migrants delay for decades in the hope that, when the time comes, they might still be alive to experience it. Indeed, if he’d hung on until July, he could have experienced some of that gratification by using one of the Abba tickets I had bought for us.
The only time I struggle to get the words out – “um, we lost my dad” – is when I call my childhood friend and sometime neighbour, Ged. It seems that telling people with whom I shared my early years is the one portal to instant, overpowering desolation.
I never imagined announcing my father’s death on social media, but then I know that he loved attention. Anyone who saw him cheerfully working the room at a recent Birmingham event for my memoir, Broken Greek, would agree: he would definitely have wanted me to tell everyone. Sitting at the dining room table, two metres from my mum, I post a Facebook update with a photo of Dad aged 21, exhibiting a world-beating Elvis pompadour, and the mere act of doing so gets the better of me.
Being the coper, I hasten to the garage where I know she won’t find me. On one of the many shelves where my dad used to hoard everything from detergent and motor oil to spare car parts – and, inexplicably, a fibreglass fairground horse – is the first radio he bought after arriving from Cyprus in 1963. It’s a nine band Ekco Mariner model, and on it is a note written in biro:
THIS RADIO KEPT ME COMPANY DURING THE LONG WINTER NIGHTS OF 1964–1980s. IT’S A GEM. WHOEVER GETS IT AFTER I AM GONE – LOOK AFTER IT.
Most days after this, my internal playlist merges with his. This isn’t a decision I make. I am not “paying tribute”. But day upon surreal day, I start to feel I know him better than I did when he was alive. On Sundays, when the shop was closed and his homesickness got the better of him, he played Greek albums bought in the carefree years between leaving the army and boarding the boat to Britain: music made by dapper outlaw descendants of the rembetika generation, who wore sharp suits and sang their woes over baleful bouzoukis. He played them to remember what he was like when he was a younger man – and now I do the same.
Sinefiasmeni Kyriaki (Cloudy Sunday), written by Vassilis Tsitsanis, was recorded by dozens of singers – but the definitive one is by Stelios Kazantzidis. Its bars of alternating lengths convey a sort of drunken torment, like someone repeatedly trying to get up off the floor – and it used to scare the hell out of me when Dad played it on the radiogram above our chippy on correspondingly cloudy Sundays. The longer it played, the less air there was in the room.
But my dad’s favourite singer was Grigoris Bithikotsis, and his favourite recording by him was Ena Amaxi Me Dio Aloga (One Cart With Two Horses). It’s a song that sounds deceptively jaunty – its clip-clopping bouzouki canter puts you in mind of an Hellenic Johnny Cash – but the protagonist is actually singing about his own funeral:
“One horse should be white
Like the dreams I had as a child
The other horse is black
Like my bitter, black life”
On Boxing Days, pining for Kyrenia, my father got blitzed on whisky and cognac and listened to that song.
If you were choosing apposite tracks for a funeral, you’d most likely skip that one. A better bet would have been another of my father’s all-time staples, O Kaimos (The Sadness – at times, it is hard to forget that we Greeks invented tragedy) by Mikis Theodorakis, a song created for communal mourning. At Blur’s Glastonbury festival reunion in 2009, singing the “Oh my baby” lines from Tender with a crowd of over 100,000 people, I remembered O Kaimos, whose coda of handclaps after its chorus makes you part of the performance. (A similar spell takes hold when you listen to Mercedes Sosa’s Sólo le Pido a Dios, or Ismael Lö’s Tajabone, both songs for shared self-commiseration.)
I imagine a version of my dad’s funeral in which O Kaimos is played as the coffin is lowered into the ground and the assembled guests clap him into the hereafter. Since it falls to me to arrange the funeral, why not? Because all the funerals I have been to were British funerals, at cemeteries where a day rarely passes without Over The Rainbow or In My Life emerging from a bluetooth speaker. At British funerals, having a song is a thing – but not at Greek ones. To have insisted on it at my father’s funeral would have been to risk making my outré choices the talking point of his farewell, thus negating the intended effect.
Tying up the loose ends of his life, it’s tempting to say that it feels as if my father’s soul has passed into my body – like a cross between the bit in The Doors biopic where the spirit of a native American passes into the young Jim Morrison and a yet-to-be broadcast episode of Stath Lets Flats. But I am just spending another day in his interior world – a place which, oddly, is starting to feel like home.
Scrolling through the contacts list on Dad’s phone, trying to make sure there’s no one I’ve forgotten to invite to his funeral, I get an insight into how some old people deal with the modern world. Saint Etienne’s I’ve Been Trying to Tell You album somehow chooses itself as a soundtrack to this sad, almost reassuringly simple job. If the album sounds like a melancholy memorial to a forgotten era, it’s because that’s exactly what it is: unrecognisable samples of unremembered hits from the turn of this new century, like ghosts trying to get comfortable in a strange machine that barely registers their presence.
I realise that’s what the 21st century must have been like for my dad a lot of the time. By no means a slow-witted man, he could take a malfunctioning car engine and make it purr. At our chippy, his command of 20th-century political history allowed him to hold his own with university professors as they waited for their haddock. But as time goes by, it gets harder to keep up. By and large, he managed. I see that, rather than use his Notes app to write down important information, he would just create a new phone contact. Here were the bank details for his granddaughters, stored so he could send them birthday money. Every time I drove to my parents’ house from London, he noted down the miles I had done so he knew when to change the oil. There’s a separate entry in his contacts list for each oil change. The last one reads “Ford Galaxy Oil Change 55000 27 3 21”. After that, I bought an electric car, thus depriving him of his most enjoyable way of telling me he loved me. Other entries include: “Ford Key Code”; “BLINDS Good Firm”; “BUS Airport X12”; and “Builder Asian Good”. If someone had died, he would update their entry, writing “DIED” beside the name.
Saint Etienne is the holding music I choose over that offered to me while I wait to speak with a company called Debt Recovery Plus, in order to let them know that my dad is dead. They want to take him to court because he used a car park which would only take payment via a smartphone app, or a series of automated phone commands involving a credit card that he didn’t have. While I’m on hold, I fire off a series of tweets about how impossible the digital world is for octogenarians to navigate, and it seems I wasn’t the only one whose average month involved hours spent trying to help elderly relatives use online payment systems.
The tweets go viral and the next day, I’m in a Zoom waiting room making small talk with Esther Rantzen ahead of a news story on Radio 4’s Today show prompted by my dad’s parking nightmare. The relentless stream of Greek well-wishers coming to the house over the past few days means that, for the first time in 50 years, my vocabulary is expanding. Like Bart Simpson in the episode where he is kidnapped in rural France, it’s no small feat that I manage to get through the entire interview without defaulting to my second language.
More than a week elapses without me pressing play on a song with English words. I sometimes think about When People Are Dead by the Go-Betweens, a song which uncannily captures the reassuring banalities of fresh grief – “‘What’s “buried?”’, Rosie said/‘Something you do when people are dead’” – but the fact that I’m living it precludes the need to play it. I think about the Waterboys’ Something That Is Gone, because it comes close to capturing the phantom limb ache of my dad’s absence. But on my first return to London, I opt for the most recent album by Elbow. The eponymous opening song of Flying Dream #1 views the panorama before it, like tired eyes adjusting to the low winter sun that follows the longest of nights. Guy Garvey sings about this most commonplace of human dreams – the one where you take off and gaze down at the world beneath you – one or two notches above a whisper, as though to raise his voice might break the spell, sending him crashing down.
Because I know that some of these songs were assembled from the debris of fresh grief, I wonder if playing it now amounts to an act of masochism. Is It A Bird? is one verse repeated over and over in tribute to the departed souls whose memory it celebrates. But here’s the thing I’m slowly learning: grief waits in the most unexpected of places. When I finally get home, my wife and I take the dog for a walk and about ten yards ahead of us are two small boys, perhaps brothers, around eight and ten years old. They’re carrying overnight bags and roll mats, and they appear to be walking to a sleepover. I might have barely noticed them before. Suddenly, it feels as if all the goodness of the world is to be found in this everyday moment.
It’s the same thing with Elbow’s Flying Dream #1. I’m not floored by the song about losing a loved one: the track that flattens me is Six Word, a song which both describes and simulates the surging rapture of selfless love. “Look who loves me! Look who loves me!” Garvey sings, completing a gentle climb to the top of his register, where a single sniff on the ozone of adoration takes you beyond the physical realm. When the Undertones’ Teenage Kicks comes on the radio, the line about teenage dreams being hard to beat is freighted with fresh devastation. I realise then that this is the gift that grief gives you. When a loved one leaves this world, they take with them the invisible membrane that stood between your senses and the songs they receive.
In the days leading up to the funeral, I’m so terrified you’d think it was me being buried. I’ve spent the past three weeks reacquainting myself with a community whose exacting standards of Greekness were impossible for a “Charlie” like me to live up to – the name used to describe the excessively anglicised offspring of the first generation: the Greeks who had forgotten how to speak their mother tongue; who hardly ever went to Greek church, and when they did, had no idea when to sit down or stand up or take communion; who married “out” and had the temerity to give their kids English names.
My mum wants me to do a reading that she’s written in Greek – and I’m numb with fear at the prospect of trying to carry this off in front of all the people who have long since passed judgement on my lack of respect for the tradition. I practise over and over, even writing it down phonetically to diminish the chances of screwing it up. But really, I know it’ll be OK. I am both a coper and carer for my mum, and nothing is going to overwhelm me now.
And because everything in my life makes me think about music – and quite frankly, it’s far too late to change now – the bit at the start of the funeral where I help Mum out of the limo and link arms to walk her to my dad’s grave, reminds me of archive footage of James Brown being helped to the stage by his cape handler, Danny Ray. Sometimes I wish I had an off switch. Except that today, I have to be on all the time. I meet more Greeks than I can keep track of. And in doing so, I realise that all that rubbish about being a Charlie was in my head. They were probably never judging me. They all had offspring who had also turned into people they didn’t quite understand. That fight was over a long time ago.
Yet the venue I choose for the wake is a reminder that my guiding stars were never going to be the same as my parents’. It’s a 15 minute drive from the cemetery to the Bell in Tanworth-In-Arden, a village I know of only because Nick Drake spent his childhood here. For two hours, this Kodachrome vision of postwar England is gently besieged by the sound of plangent bouzoukis lilting out across the village green, and the bilingual chatter of Chris Paphides’ contacts list: retired Cypriot chip shop proprietors and their offspring brushing shoulders with my parents’ British neighbours – all of whom were equally touched and amused by the occasional sight of my dad standing at their front door, presenting them with a box of fruit from the market.
The next morning, a sunny Saturday, my phone vibrates. It’s an offer of tickets for the second night of Abba’s Voyage shows. I tell my wife and instinctively leave a pause because I can’t quite believe that, for the first time in 27 days, there is no aspect of my father’s death that needs to be dealt with tonight. “We can go, right?” I say, and she laughs. “Yes, we can go!” From the back of the car, our daughters bellow, “DAD! YOU HAVE TO GO!” Now we’re all laughing. These shows I had been so inarticulately excited about since they were announced last year have, in the past few weeks, somehow become a distant detail in a world I could no longer inhabit.
We accept, of course, but I’m as disconnected from the moment I was exactly a month ago, when Ana Matronic’s disco selections soundtracked the unimaginable days ahead. It takes the sight of the Abba logo projected onto the purpose-built arena outside Pudding Mill Lane station to change that. There is a sense of accelerating into a valium-like sense of well-being – as if walking onto the hand of a giant that you know could never harm you. This is how it will feel right until we take our seats, which is when the fear comes. Fear because I’ve avoided all the early reviews and photographs, and I just don’t know what the show will amount to. But then, how could you? Who can predict how it will feel to see the digitally-recreated, three-dimensional Abba of your earliest years interacting with each other beside an actual live band?
Last year an acquaintance who plays in that band swore me to secrecy and showed me the set list, so I knew the show would start with The Visitors – and God, I loved them for that. A song about a Russian dissident waiting for the knock on the door that will effectively end his life, from an album that formalised the end of Abba’s commercial reign. It’s a hi-NRG prelude to sheer terror, and a song I’ll forever associate with the Christmas my dad decided that Abba had lost it. There was, after all, nothing here for a homesick Cypriot chip shop proprietor who wanted Dancing Queen and Mamma Mia, not esoteric Nordic memorials to the irreversible decay of youthful optimism.
But in all honesty, I don’t think any of that enters my conscious mind as the glacial intro magics Abba into life – ghosts of pop past in red and gold sequins, gazing out beatifically from the disco Vatican they’ve built for themselves. A month after I first had occasion to ask myself the question, here it is again: Am I in shock? Is this shock?
There’s a place you can never quite get to when you try to retreat into nostalgia. But as Frida sings “I cannot move/I’m standing numb and frozen”, it’s clear that we’ve finally smashed through that wall, into our collective past – and when the surging synth hook that follows the chorus triggers a sense of shared release, I’m gone. It happens again in S.O.S, when Benny’s knowing maestro smirk accompanies the baroque flourish which vaults us into the chorus: Frida and Agnetha’s soprano/mezzo-soprano harmonies seem to transmit from two halves of the same broken heart. When the curtain rises to reveal the live band, I note that there’s just the one synth player because of course, you’ve got Benny taking care of the piano parts, and it takes me a full five songs to remember that the electric piano being played by Benny is no more real than the man playing it. So yes, perhaps this time, I am in shock.
And if this is shock, let me stay here a while longer, with the first group who peered out through the cathode ray and told me, “Look kid, what can I tell you? It’s complicated. Sometimes love doesn’t last. Sorry you had to hear it from us.” The nuclear winter of divorce depicted in Knowing Me Knowing You inspires enough tears to fill several branded Abba water bottles (£4.50, very reasonable). During When All Is Said And Done, the erstwhile couples glance across at each other with meaningful tenderness, something they couldn’t possibly have managed at the time of the song’s release: their respective break-ups were too raw. In Does Your Mother Know, the female vocalists in the live band move centre stage and lead a performance that rocks like a steamship in a gale; for sheer pyromaniacal overload, it’s surpassed only by Waterloo. Here, virtual Abba cede the stage to a translucent screen showing their Eurovision-winning younger selves – translucent so we can see the muscular glam-dram landslide of the live band’s performance.
And then there’s Chiquitita. Oh my, Chiquitita. In the 43 years since its release, Abba have donated half the royalties from Chiquitita to UNICEF – fitting for a song written to console broken children around the world. And perhaps because it once consoled us as children, we continue to be consoled by it. There are two lines which I truly feel are as close to the meaning of life as I’ve ever heard in a song: “Chiquitita, you and I cry/But the sun is still in the sky and shining above you.” I’ve quoted it hundreds of times over the years, to hundreds of sad souls, some of whom will have almost certainly wanted me to shut up and mind my own business. But their truth is irreducible, and it’s this: the consciousness that makes mortality almost unbearable is a small price to pay for the miracle of knowing what it means to be alive in the first place.
Then comes Benny’s piano outro, a thumping authentication of that same sentiment. Great shoulder-shaking sobs of snot, spit and tears flood my face. It feels transcendent. Finally, I can stop coping.