When I first met Billy, I was working behind the bar at the Euston Tavern in Kings Cross. Billy had been staring across the bar at me for two months and I hadn’t even noticed. Eventually his friends persuaded me to go to a party with them and we ended up standing together in the hall, talking for two hours. I finally realised what was going on – how naive I was then, a 17-year-old law-breaker (in 1980 the age of consent for gay men was still 21).
We got our first flat together with a borrowed settee, no bed and a fridge that arrived two weeks late.
Home furnishings were never important to Bill; we liked to travel: Barbados, Gambia, America. We saw the world.
A black mark appeared on my leg, starting out as a bruise but turning completely black. It cleared, but if ever my leg scraped against anything these bruises kept appearing.
I visited my GP, who referred me to the local hospital. The consultant I saw suggested that I have a bone marrow test to check my platelet count. It was three.
Panic set in. The consultant seemed quite amazed that I was still breathing. She decided it was time for me to have the big test.
I gave the blood sample and was asked to return in a week. One week later, I was back in the waiting room where I sat. And sat.
Eventually my consultant arrived, looking extremely worried. She confirmed that I had thrombocytopenia, which I already knew. I wanted to know the result of my HIV test.
It took her all her courage to tell me that she had lost the test result and that I would have to give more blood and wait another week. One week later, I had some more news: the blood had been sent somewhere else for “confirmation” and I would have to wait another week for the result.
Week three came and we had a result. To be honest, I really didn’t care by then, having been messed around so much. I was positive.
I remember going home; Billy was in the bath and I sat on the toilet next to him and started crying. His only reply was, “thought so – don’t worry." Not long after that Billy also tested HIV-positive.
This was our big year: skiing in France, shopping in New York, partying in Ibiza, lots of weekends away.
Billy was feeling tired in July but still managed to visit the pub every night. He worked in the mornings and slept the afternoons away at home, unless it was sunny, when he would go sunbathing or take the dog to the park.
Trouble started in September, when Billy was made redundant. At the same time he started coughing, a cough that was to be persistent.
Our last holiday together was in Florida in November. Even though Billy was tired, we had a great time together: Disney, MGM, Universal. But on the flight back, Billy said he felt unwell and ended up spending most of the flight in the toilet, trying to cool down.
The first big bomb dropped about three days before Christmas. When we went to the pub together, standing face to face, he said to me, “I know I won’t be here this time next year.” It was the first negative thing he had said concerning his illness. I remember holding his head, putting it next to mine, and for a brief moment I knew he was telling the truth.
Billy was off on holiday again in the Canaries, this time with a friend from work. I met them at the airport. As soon as I saw them walk through the arrivals door I started crying: Billy looked a shadow of himself (though still the beauty I knew).
In hospital the next day we were told that Billy had a collapsed lung and would have to stay in for a few days. He was determined to get out and go back to Ireland for another break, and told the staff he was going, collapsed lung or not.
Ireland wasn’t to be: a filter was put on his lung but on the second day his other lung collapsed. In the course of the next month, both his lungs were operated on. Shortly after his second operation I got a call from a nurse, at 10pm. She said, “Billy can’t come to the phone, but can you come up to the hospital now with two tubs of Haagen Daz ice cream?” He picked his moments.
Billy was in hospital for a long time, six weeks of which he was unable to move because of his filters, and we both felt the strain. I was tired, pissed off. I visited some mornings – went to work – back at lunch break – back to work – home to take the dog for a walk before going back to hospital and staying till late. Some nights we didn’t even talk.
Although Billy was very frail and exhausted and his weight was down to seven stone, they allowed him home on 11th May.
Within five days, the home care team insisted he should go back to hospital. I dressed him and walked him to the car. He was so thin that on the way to the car his trousers just came down. I was not ashamed.
On the way to the hospital I told him how much I loved him. This was something we always did, but this time I wanted to be sure he knew how much I meant it. He told me it had been a pleasure sharing his life with me. I drove to the hospital in tears.
At the hospital the doctors and nurses were ready for him and a private room had been prepared. Bells started ringing in my head and my body just crumbled; reality was setting in.
I rang a friend and my sister, Kay who, along with the rest of my family, had only known about Billy’s illness for two weeks prior to this. Kay arrived and we held each other and cried.
Kay and I stayed on the bed next to Billy, though we didn’t sleep. Billy woke twice, once to say he wanted to go home, and once to say he loved me. The morning took so long to arrive.
In the morning my mum arrived. It was so good to see her. Mum, Kay and myself just looked at each other and wept. Billy’s sister and brother-in-law arrived in the afternoon, but they didn’t want to know what was going on. His sister held Billy but his brother-in-law didn’t know what to do.
I hadn’t slept for ages, but at around 11.30pm I closed my eyes. I was woken at 12.35am to be told that Billy was going.
How can I ever explain in words how it feels to see someone you love slipping away? Anger, loneliness, emptiness. For the first time in our lives together there was nothing I could do. I remember smelling his hair, his breath, his being. But he was gone.
The care and love of the nurses on the ward was wonderful for Billy and for me and my friends. My friends were incredible and together they saw me through the lowest point of my life.
Until we meet again, Billy, I love you eternally.
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