"Если завтра я умру, мне наплевать - я все успел сделать..."
"Weekend magazine", The Guardian 22nd October
It wasn't until the autumn of 1988 on a particularly dank day, that I met for the first time Freddie's parents, Bomi and Jer Bulsara. They came to Garden Lodge to have dinner with their son. I noted a strong physical resemblance to his mother, a little lady with dark, greying hair and a lovely smile.
At the time, the mews and the garden were still a mass of foundation trenches and mounds of earth. I was in the garden and Freddie brought his mum and dad out with him when he brought me a cup of coffee. He had not told them about our affair.
"If they ask you where you sleep, tell them in the Pink Room!" he said.
A few minutes later, as he showed them around the mews, I overheard them asking who I was.
"He's my gardener," Freddie said.
"Where does he live?" they asked.
"He lives here, of course," he replied.
I didn't get to speak to Freddie's parents that day, but I met them many times after that and we always got on well. I would drive Freddie over to their small terraced house in Feltham, Middlesex, to visit them. We'd both sit down with them for tea in the kitchen.
Mrs Bulsara always got the tea at her own pace - she never rushed around. She was very independent and still drove herself everywhere in her little car. the Bulsara home was very homely. Freddie had lived there since the family first came to Britain. (They were originally from Africa, and moved first to India before settling here in 1964.) I don't think they kept a bedroom for him there, nor did they have any photographs of Freddie on display. Freddie had once offered to buy them a bigger house, but they said no. They were clearly very content with what they had.
Freddie's dad was very proud of his garden. One day he took me out to look at it. He had a fabulously shaped eucalyptus tree and many beautiful old roses. When we reached the roses he said, with a hint of regret in his voice, that he was sorry the roses were reaching the end of their natural life. I wondered whether he was telling me he knew that Freddie was reaching the end of his life.
I can't remember Freddie telling his parents that he was ill, but as time went on it was difficult to disguise from them the fact that something was terribly wrong. Freddie's physical appearance was beginning to change and he looked thinner on each visit. Freddie's mum knew he was very ill. I have a feeling Freddie did eventually tell them the truth, but he did not do so in front of any of us.
Freddie went to see his mum every Thursday afternoon for tea, and he rarely came away empty-handed. His mum made wonderful cheese biscuits and packed them into a little lunch-box for him. In fact, in one of the last photographs the newspapers published of Freddie he was outside Garden Lodge with a box of his mum's cheese biscuits under his arm.
On Joe Fannelli's birthday in 1990, he told everyone in Garden Lodge that he had some bad news. He, too, was not well.
"You mean you're HIV?" I asked.
"No," he said. "I've actually got full-blown Aids."
What can you say? I'm sorry? Nothing of any use came into my mind. It would be another blow to contend with in Garden Lodge. We were all worried about what the press would make of it if they discovered that Joe was also ill. We had visions of the sick headlines and guessed our house would be dubbed "Aids Lodge". It all made us more determined than ever to pull together and stay optimistic.
Despite putting a brave face on things for everyone else's benefit at Garden Lodge, privately I began to get very anxious about my own health. I thought I could be HIV positive as well. The more I reluctantly thought about it, the more it seemed likely. So I decided to have and Aids test but to tell no one. I did it in total secrecy under a pseudonym. On the excuse of going to see a friend, I slipped out of Garden Lodge for a day and traveled to Brighton.
Before the doctor would agree to take a blood sample for testing I had to undergo special counseling. The full implications of proving positive were explained to me compassionately. I told them I realised all the cons and wanted to proceed.
That night back at Garden Lodge I found it impossible to sleep. I had told the hospital that I could handle the news if it was going to be bad. But I wasn't so sure in my own mind that I really could. What would I do?
A few days later I rang for the results.
"I'm very sorry, you're positive," said the doctor. But I didn't have full-blown Aids. I was dazed. I didn't tell Freddie. He had enough to cope with; my news could only upset him. I buried myself in work in the garden and workshop and put thoughts of my own future out of my mind. But the thought of it kept coming back to me each night as I struggled to sleep and stop my mind from racing.
Freddie's health continued to deteriorate. He was thin and found it difficult to sleep, so I decided it was better for him if I moved to my own room permanently. Some nights I would still sleep with him, but usually I just lay next to him on top of the bedclothes. He'd snuggle up next to me for comfort. Freddie nicknamed my new bedroom the Ice Box as I slept with the window wide open, even in the middle of winter.
The move also marked the point from which almost all normal sexual relations ended between us. It was clear that sex was no longer a pleasure for him but an exhausting ordeal instead. So we settled for the next best thing: gentle kissing and heart-felt cuddles. Those cuddling sessions would be as rewarding in their way as any sex we ever had.
Freddie's 45th birthday, on September 5, 1991, was perhaps the quietest of his life. He was very aware that he wasn't on top form and that he could no longer disguise the fact that he was coming to the end of his life. He didn't want a huge bash for his friends because he didn't want them to see how sad he looked. The only thing he wanted from anyone for his last birthday was privacy.
In October the band released their single The Show Must Go On, with the B-side Keep Yourself Alive. As Freddie expected, the press weren't slow to report its questioning, haunting lyrics. They speculated on possible hidden meanings in lyrics like "What are we living for? and "I'll soon be turning round the corner now" at a time when he looked so frail. To me, the most autobiographical line was: "My make-up may be flaking but my smile still stays on." That was true. No matter how ill Freddie felt, he never grumbled to anyone or sought sympathy of any kind. It was his battle, no one else's, and he always wore a brave face against the ever-increasing odds against him.
The last video Freddie made was for the single These Are The Days Of Our Lives. (It was released, shortly after his death, on the flip-side of Bohemian Rhapsody.) It seemed a very apt swansong. When Freddie was making the video he looked worse than I had ever seen him. Now the thick make-up he used to disguise the markings on his face only seemed to highlight his gaunt features. The security at the studio was very tight and only the essential technicians were there.
We spent a last holiday in Switzerland, when I finally came to accept that Freddie wasn't going to live much longer. We were in the last few days before the end. One day Freddie and I were watching an old Thirties' movie. The heroine asked her partner: "Will we spend the rest of our lives together?" Freddie looked at me and asked the same thing.
Coming back from Switzerland, Freddie was in good spirits. We'd arranged for him to be sped through customs. In his final few weeks he'd refer to it proudly. "Even Liz Taylor doesn't get away with that, dear!" he'd say.
Of course, Freddie was given special permission to avid the queues at customs and passport control because he was so ill. He tired easily and looked terrible, and it would have been cruel to allow him to attract the attentions of the crowd. None of us were allowed to accompany Freddie and for a while he was split from the rest of us, dependent on total strangers for the first time in years. We tried protesting, but it was no use. We still had to go through immigration like everyone else while poor frail Freddie was left in the Customs Hall to wait for us.
Back at Garden Lodge, Freddie set out on the last three weeks of his life. He remained in good spirits, though he took to his bed for long parts of the day. He didn't once talk about work. Some days he'd get up in the morning and come down in his dressing gown for a cup of tea before returning to his room for the rest of the day. And I'd take him a cup of tea, along with his beloved cats for company.
We kept ourselves sane by doing jobs around the house and still pretending that everything was normal. I got round to putting fairly lights in the second magnolia tree by the corner of the house, but who cared so long as it made Freddie a little happier. I waited until Freddie and I were along in the bedroom before showing him the lights.
"You haven't passed any remark about the tree," I said.
He walked to the window and his face lit up when he saw the tree twinkling.
"Oh, you've done it," he said and hugged me.
Before, he would have responded differently, perhaps snapping sarcastically:
"Why has it taken you so long?" But now he no longer had the strength.
I found solace in working in the garden. I lived for the enjoyment he could get from looking at me and the garden from his window. Right up to the very last day I worked on the garden. Even on the Sunday he died, I mowed the lawn.
I abandoned a planned trip to Ireland as time was so clearly running out for Freddie. In the second week Freddie came off most of his medication except painkillers. It was a decision he took against the advice of his doctors.
Much of the time Freddie slept or watched television. Joe or Phoebe stayed with him through the day, relieved for short breaks by Mary or his old friend Dave Clark. Dave came every day, and we appreciated his help immensely.
Although I was busy working in the garden where he could see me, Freddie needed to hear from me more and more that I loved him. So I got into the habit of flying upstairs and quickly sticking my head around the door.
"Hey," I'd say, "I love you!"
Then I'd run back down to get on with the gardening. I knew it made him feel good for a few minutes at least. Sometimes when I got downstairs again I'd look up at his window and he'd be there waiting for me to emerge outside; then he'd blow me a kiss.
I spent the evenings alone with Freddie. We would talk or watch television, or I would doze alongside him. He'd rest his frail head in the cradle of my arm and I'd gently massage his scalp.
Joe, Phoebe and I also started taking turns to stay with Freddie through the night, usually lying awake next to him on constant stand-by. We had an intercom system installed so we could summon one another, and pagers so we could be reached instantly. We wanted to be with him at the end.
In the last 10 days before Freddie died, the press set up camp outside Garden Lodge. In the early morning one or two would arrive, followed by more as the day went on. After an hour or so there'd be six or seven dozen. Freddie was obviously aware that the press were waiting outside, since you could often hear them from the bedroom. But he never knew to what extent they were there. He thought that at any one time there were no more than a handful and none of us ever corrected him. It wouldn't have helped.
Contrary to some newspaper reports at the time, Freddie's bedroom never became a "mini-hospital". He had a drip-stand at his right-hand side, in case he needed a blood transfusion, but everything else in the room was exactly as it had always been. In the last few days Freddie stopped eating solid foods; he just ate fruit and drank fruit juices.
Mary could say some clumsy things, but perhaps she said them without thinking. One day she suggested that we should ask Freddie to take off the wedding ring that I'd given to him, as when her mother had died her fingers had swollen badly.
"The ring stays on, Mary," I said.
Later, when I was alone with Freddie, I mentioned the idea of slipping the ring off in case his finger should swell up.
"No, he said. "I'm keeping it on." It never came off; he was even cremated with it on.
The morning of Thursday, November 21, was a very sad day for me. It was the last time Freddie appeared at his bedroom window calling "cooee", and I knew that the end was very near.
That night I took special care of him. He dozed and I lay next to him on top of the bed. He only had to elbow me gently and I'd be awake if he wanted anything.
When dawn broke I was already wide awake, quietly watching television. Freddie was still asleep, cuddled inside my arm and holding on to my hand. Every so often he'd softly squeeze it. "Do you love me?" he'd asked when he woke. More than ever he wanted to hear how much he was treasured. "Yes, I love you," I whispered and kissed him on the forehead.
At about 6.30 Freddie needed to go to the loo and I walked alongside to steady him. He sat down to have a pee and I leaned against his shoulder to support him. "You're in the way!" he grumbled, and elbowed me painfully.
"If I move away from here you're going to fall over," I insisted, I got him back to bed where he sat quietly. The rest of that morning he seemed alert and well aware of what was going on. A meeting with his management triggered a flurry of activity to do with Freddie's statement to the press that he was suffering from Aids. I've always been doubtful that Freddie made that statement of his own accord. He'd kept it all quiet for so long it seemed odd that he'd suddenly want to start confessing things as if he had something to be ashamed of. I'm sure he felt his fate should not become a matter for public debate. It was only a matter for him and his immediate friends. And I'm sure he didn't want to risk Joe and me being subjected to the publicity. I did not even know that Freddie was going to issue a statement. But I do know that Freddie specifically requested that the statement was released worldwide to prevent the British gutter press from having a scoop to themselves. It was Freddie's way of saying to those so eagerly awaiting his death: "Fuck the lot of you!"
Freddie dozed through much of the next day, and in the evening I went up to see him. We were lying together on the bed when he asked me what time it was.
"It's eight o'clock," I said.
"Soon the whole world will know," he sighed looking at me with sad, brown eyes. This was the first indication I had that something was going on.
When Freddie nodded off I went downstairs and mentioned what he'd said to Joe. He confirmed that a statement explaining his condition had been prepared. It was due to be released at midnight.
I wasn't supposed to be keeping watch over Freddie through Saturday night - Joe was. But he'd gone out to the gym, then out for a drink, and didn't reappear. I was with Freddie in his room at around 10pm when he got terribly agitated. He kept asking me where Joe had got to.
"Why, what's the problem?" I asked.
"Well, I have to take my medicine."
"Oh, that's not a problem," I answered. "I can give you the pills you want. Which ones are they?" He knew exactly which three or four pills he needed - the painkillers. He had been taking AZT, but had abandoned it along with the rest.
Freddie and I chatted away all night. I don't remember what we wittered to each other about, even when Freddie was well. It was all happy inconsequential stuff. We didn't watch television any more. We just lay on the bed cuddling until he dozed off. And sometimes so did I.
Occasionally he gave me a quick jab in the ribs to stop me snoring, or a harder one if he needed something. Then he asked me to prepare some fruit for him in the kitchen. I sliced some mango and added a little sorbet to help fight his chronic dehydration.
We drifted asleep again. When Freddie next woke me it was about three and he seemed incapable of explaining himself. He couldn't talk properly and kept pointing to his mouth frowning. Something was terribly wrong. I tried to work out what he wanted, but couldn't. About half an hour later Joe came back home and saw I was having problems. As soon as Freddie spotted Joe, he pointed to his mouth.
Joe leaned over Freddie and opened his mouth. A piece of mango had lodged at the back of his throat which he could neither swallow nor bring back up. Joe prised Freddie's jaw open wide and flicked out the offending piece of fruit with his finger. Freddie didn't say anything. Joe and I were fully aware that a healthy Freddie would have been furious with me for not understanding. He sipped some juice, then went back to sleep.
Freddie woke up again at six in the morning and uttered what were to be his last two words: "Pee, Pee" He wanted to be helped to the loo. he looked terribly weak and I had to carry him. As I lowered him back on to the bed I heard a deafening crack. It sounded like one of Freddie's bones breaking, cracking like the branch of a tree. He screamed out in pain and went into a convulsion.
I yelled for Joe. I needed him to pin Freddie to the bed to stop him injuring himself. Over the years, Joe had seen Freddie have one anxiety attack after another and he knew just how to handle him - by pinning him down until the anxiety had passed. He said: "Freddie, calm down." Then Freddie's hand shot up and went straight for Joe's throat. He was like a drowning man clutching for air.
Joe freed himself from Freddie's grip and eventually he calmed him down. Then, exhausted by the strain, Freddie promptly fell asleep. We phoned Dr Atkinson, and he came over and gave Freddie an injection of morphine to help him through the day. Joe later told me Freddie was allergic to morphine, but it was now so late in the day it didn't seem to matter.
Mary came by later in the morning and we all stood around in the kitchen, waiting to hear Dr Atkinson's prognosis. He said: "Freddie will probably last until Thursday."
Joe and I looked at each other. We both knew that there was no way Freddie could last that long.
Mary left shortly after that. The rest of that day Freddie nodded in and out of sleep. I felt the need to get well away from Garden Lodge, so that afternoon I took myself off to Holland Park where I moped around for an hour.
By the time I got back, Freddie was as ill as I'd ever seen him. He seemed to know what was going on around him, but couldn't respond to any of it; he could hear, but couldn't move his eyes to acknowledge he'd heard. He just stared straight ahead, eyes glazed.
Dr Atkinson stayed at the house all afternoon and left just after 6.30pm. I thanked him for having stayed so long, saw him out, and then went straight back to be with Freddie. Freddie made clear he wanted to go to the loo. After the terrible convulsions which had followed his morning visit to the bathroom, I wasn't bold enough to try to cope with him again single-handed. I flew downstairs and found Phoebe.
By the time we got back upstairs, Freddie had wet the bed.
Phoebe looked over at me and asked:
"Shall we change the bedclothes?"
"We'd better," I answered, "If we don't and he wakes up he'll go absolutely apeshit." I don't know why I said that; perhaps it was my subconscious trying to make out that things were less serious than they were.
Phoebe started changing the bed while I took care of Freddie. As I was changing Freddie into a clean T-shirt and pair of boxer shorts, I felt him try to raise his left leg to help a little. It was the last thing he did. I looked down at him, knowing he was dead.
"Phoebe," I cried. "I'm sorry, he's gone."
I slipped my arm under Freddie's neck, kissed him and then held him. His eyes were still open. I can remember the expression on his face - and when I go to sleep every night it's still there in front of me. He looked radiant.
One minute he was a boy with a gaunt, sad little face and the next he was a picture of ecstasy. Freddie's whole face went back to everything it had been before. He looked finally and totally at peace. Seeing him like that made me happy in my sadness. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I knew that he was no longer in pain.
I stopped the tiny fly-wheel of the wind-up carriage clock by the bed. I'd given it to Freddie because he told me he'd always wanted one. It read 12 minutes past seven. I've never started it again.
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