Charles was the first to move in at Hermit’s Croft student accommodation that fateful Saturday in September. His buzz cut look and austere apparel was not the combination of flowing locks and trim overcoats I would become used to over the next four years or so. He was recently returned from a cycling trip around Europe where he had stayed with monks in the Balkans – perhaps it was there that he absorbed asceticism by osmosis?
Those were a blistering few weeks of several hundred introductions. His firm handshake (or would it have been a footballer’s pitch greeting at this Chelsea-supporting stage?) was just one of these and yet perhaps the only one that would tide me through uninterrupted from the first semester to the last and far beyond. We came to Edinburgh from quite different places, and not just opposite end s of the country – he’d been to UCL and reapplied after a gap year with renewed purpose; I’d come naïve and straight from school.
In so many ways he showed me how life could be lived differently and how every part of his was lived consciously – sometimes painstakingly, infuriatingly so. I was able to live more and expand my breadth of experience because of him. We went to events others would dismiss out of hand and he invited me into his life to a much greater degree than I have ever felt accepted by anybody. His presence invigorated me and showed me perspectives I would have otherwise been denied.
Many probably questioned our friendship. Why would a lefty comprehensive-educated Orcadian like me feel any affinity with an instinctively conservative (but never dogmatic or orthodox) ex-boarding school Londoner? It didn’t make a lot of sense on paper, but it made so much sense in practice. He enhanced me, challenged my prejudices, sought to gain as much as possible from Edinburgh – the city and the university. Charles was interested in everything. Nothing was too trivial or unimportant to him. It was almost inevitable that we gravitated towards each other, although we certainly had our disagreements too, most of which were amicable and constructive.
Our relationship was such that we never felt any burdensome obligation to one another. Charles was principled, as in everything, in his resistance to social media and stood by his belief that it was neither for him nor conducive to a healthy society. When we spoke – through WhatsApp latterly – it was usually to arrange a meet-up or share an article for later discussion in person. After graduation, his preference was a long call every couple of weeks and not constant piecemeal messages. The last time I heard his voice he was deciding whether to stay at his flat or move back in with his parents for the duration of the lockdown. At that moment in time, we were both experiencing a kind of frustrated optimism about the trajectory of our lives, none of us had yet secured graduate employment but each of us had made definite steps to achieve that end.
Charles had so much more to give. In every aspect of his life, he wanted to use his learning – he was not content to learn for knowledge’s sake alone. What has happened is an appalling thing and what makes it all the more galling is the fact that so many people whose lives he influenced for the better will be denied the chance to commemorate for what looks like several months now. He was taken long before his time. At any time, this would be very hard to take but now it is doubly so. If there is any comfort to be taken, then it is in the hundreds who will come to celebrate Charles when the lockdown lifts because he touched everyone who came to know him profoundly.
Another source from which I draw comfort is that he was able to visit Orkney in the summer and I had the opportunity to show him the place where I grew up. It gave me immense pride to see him in awe of what I had come to take for granted and he enabled me to see my home with fresh eyes once more. His sudden interest in the birdlife all about him rekindled in me a childhood passion and it was a real joy to hunker down with puffins on the clifftops at the Brough of Birsay, event to be attacked by arctic terns in the bay of Rackwick on Hoy.
Whoever had the honour of calling Charles a friend was enriched beyond measure.
It is hard not to dwell on “what ifs” at this time. So many people will have their regrets and hypothetical scenarios playing out in their heads at the moment. We cannot ignore these thoughts but must try and focus on the life he did lead, not the one he was denied.
As with all things right now, consolation must come at a delay. Until then the monotony of existence goes on but we will gather again and come to celebrate the far-reaching impact of his all-too-short life.
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