Errol Knower – by Richard Simon ( Farewell, Atahualpa – by Richard Simon)
Visiting the mortician’s parlour to pay his last respects to the remains of Errol Knower, one of Errol’s former teammates on the crack athletics squad that St Thomas’s College fielded in the mid-Seventies reminisced to his fellow mourners how, on track days, Errol – always a dedicated truant – would sit with his louche, unathletic cronies at a tea-kiosk up on the Galle Road, smoking and telling funny stories, listening all the while with half a ear to the voices of the meet marshals calling events and results over the PA system on the school grounds below. When they called an event he was in, he would drink up his tea, stub out his ‘fag’ and race down the hill, arriving at the starting-line just in time for the gun. He would then run the race without any apparent effort, seeming to float along the track. ‘He didn’t seem to be moving any faster than the others. You knew he was faster only when you saw him breast the tape.’ Two Sri Lanka Public Schools track records set by Errol stood for almost thirty years until they were finally broken in the twenty-first century.
Those records were fated, however, to be the sum total of what might be described, by conventional reckoning, as Errol’s life achievements. Well, perhaps not quite – he once played Atahualpa in a cut-down version of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which won his house at St Thomas’s first prize at the annual Old Boys’ Day drama competition. This will mean little except to Old Thomians, who know what a big deal the inter-house drama competition is. Errol had only one line in the script, but he looked authentically, regally Inca with that magnificent hooked nose and upright carriage of his, in a stunning costume made up for him by Caryll Ponniah, who loved him only slightly less than she loved her own sons.
By conventional reckoning, Errol Christopher Lawrence Knower did nothing with his life. He had no ‘career’; most of the time he didn’t even have a job. In spite of his natural gifts he had no real interest in sports, either; he abandoned athletics the day he left school. He never married, never raised a family, never felt the joy of looking into a grandchild’s eyes. For most of his adult life, he never had a steady partner. He had no skills apart from a rudimentary ability to cook. He loved music to distraction, but an early attempt to learn the guitar was quickly abandoned. Practising was far too much like work, and Errol was lazy. It probably did not help that his best friend at school and his own elder brother were each masters of the instrument.
He left St Thomas’s without, I believe, taking his O-levels – certainly without passing them. Someone from the Thomian old-boy network gave him a job selling fridges and gas cookers. He loathed it and played truant constantly, just as he had at school. His employer put up with it for a few months for the sake of the old College tie, then sacked him. Next, he did a bit of DJing; it was probably the thing he stuck to longest. He worked at a tourist resort on the south coast for some time, but I never went to hear him.
Multiple tragedies struck him in a cluster during his twenties. His mother died young. His elder brother and sister both emigrated while he stayed behind, living in a crumbling old Dutch house with his elderly, retired father. His enviably gorgeous girlfriend dumped him, then emigrated too.
While most of this was happening, I was in England, failing to obtain a physics degree. When I came back in 1981 and began looking up my old friends, Errol had vanished from the scene. It didn’t take long to find out why. Heroin had hit Colombo while I was abroad, and many of its first victims were members of that tiny, confused band of nonconformists, most of them English-educated middle-class kids, who had taken up the long-haired, peace-sign-flashing hippie lifestyle they’d seen in movies and Life magazine photos, listening to hard-to-obtain rock and soul music from abroad, smoking ganja and saying maaan a lot. I was one of those kids myself. Most of us were not nearly as sophisticated as we thought we were, and when mass-market heroin came along (brown, Chinese, smoked off a scrap of tinfoil rather than injected), many had no idea of the danger it posed. They got stuck on it like flies on flybait.
One of the flies, I learnt, had been Errol.
* * *
Meanwhile, I was working in the advertising business, finding my own adult circle, dating girls who didn’t really care for me, playing in amateur rock bands and generally building a life, all against the background of the bloody, atrocious civil war into which Lanka’s post-colonial favourite sport of oppressing ethnic and linguistic minorities had finally, inevitably, plunged us. All this time, I never saw Errol. Every now and then, I would hear something about him. The news was rarely good.
Then, in 1988, my own life hit a bit of a speed bump and I found myself regularly visiting a friend called Imtiaz Hamid, a very chilled and gentle man, one of the oldest of Lanka’s hippie generation. At his house a handful of troubled souls would gather to smoke weed, listen to music and talk. We were a kind of mutual therapy group with Imti as the moderator. All of us had suffered reverses in life. Some had had troubles with drugs, some had been dumped by partners or were struggling with their emotional lives, at least one had serious mental-health issues. Amongst these wounded creatures, I was reunited with Errol.
He had got himself off smack some years earlier, going through the terror and misery of cold turkey all alone without help or comfort from anyone. Personally, I would add this to the tally of Errol’s life achievements without hesitation; most of the other once-respectable Colombo lads who took up smack at the same time he did are now either dead, hopeless alcoholics, or still on it. For all that, the years lost to heroin addiction had damaged him badly. He could never really hope to be a normal person after that.
But he could, and did, return to the world. Imtiaz’s circle extended well beyond his ‘patients’; other interesting people – artists and ad people, filmmakers and former movie stars, rogue academics, old-money eccentrics, the Hindu priest of the Kataragama Maha Devale – would drop in from time to time. Many of these visitors saw something in Errol that they liked. They took him up, invited him to parties, introduced him to their friends. Pretty soon, Errol was moving in the most fashionable circles. Society adored him.
It was not at all clear why. Errol was tall and had a well-muscled, lanky runner’s physique, but you wouldn’t exactly call him handsome. He had decent manners and the social advantages of his Thomian education, but he wasn’t what you would call sophisticated or even, really, a very interesting conversationalist. He was not yet the energetic and hilarious raconteur he would become in later years; this was the period during which he was living the stories he would later tell. He had no claim to fame, no glittering career or trophy to serve as his calling-card, only those long-ago athletic records – which in any case he never mentioned, not in my hearing, anyway (and I was often with him in those days). When he compiled music CDs or DJ’d at parties, people were just as likely to complain as to dig it. As for money, that ultimate calling-card, he was always as poor as a church-mouse. He had his faults, too: his morals were as eccentric as the rest of him and he was fiercely intolerant of those he considered bad hats, occasionally giving vent to embarrassing public tirades against them. He was a terrible, terrible snob. He was dreadful to waiters, taxi-drivers and servitors in general, though he made an exception for his friends’ domestic help. He was unreliable; you learnt never to put any store in his promises, well meant though they were. He was absurdly, disastrously, hilariously unpunctual; if you ever arranged to pick Errol up on your way to a concert or a party, you would certainly be late for it and stood a good chance of never getting there at all. He was clumsy. He bumped into things and smashed them. He had a tendency to grumble loud and long when he was peeved. All was tolerated, even embraced, for Errol had the gift of making us love him.
From time to time his friends would give him jobs, mostly in advertising and other service ‘industries’. He would last a month or two, sowing chaos through the office and insulting valued clients, till came the inevitable parting of the ways. After a while it became patent to all who knew him that Errol neither could nor would work. He had problems with relationships, too; after his first girlfriend left him and went to Australia, he would be without a long-term partner for well over twenty years.
* * *
By the time I got married for the first time, Errol had moved up in life. He was now living in jet-set mode, entirely subsidized by new friends. They made a darling of him, showering him with presents, pressing drink and drugs and occasional sexual bonbons upon him. Though still unemployed, still living with his father and largely bereft of income, he lived a rock star’s life – the life, it was not hard to see, that he had always dreamed of. He developed a taste for booze and cocaine. It became normal for him to stay up for several nights in a row, partying with his new set.
Pretty soon, he lost his bearings completely. He ceased to have any interest in self-maintenance. His home became a filthy, cobweb-festooned mess. He began misbehaving in other ways too, which need not concern us here. Being dependent on his rich pals to support his new lifestyle, he was forced to make some urgent adjustments to his moral compass, and the mental acrobatics he performed to justify himself at the time were easily the ugliest thing I ever saw in Errol’s life.
Still, he and I continued to get together (usually when he was coming down after some three-day party), listen to and share music, go to concerts and jam sessions and make weekend jaunts out of the city. For a while he ‘worked’ in the same office as my first wife: she dubbed him the Voice of Colombo because his desk telephone served as an interchange for all the gossip of the city’s bohemian elite. I called him Petronius, because it seemed to me that no-one in that set could do anything – go anywhere, take up a new fashion, serve a new cocktail, start an affair, even go to the bathroom – without Errol’s say-so, any more than the Emperor Nero’s friends in Rome could have moved a finger without the approval of Petronius Arbiter.
I was beginning to wonder whether my friend would meet his end in some Pulp Fiction-type disaster: maybe in a bathtub full of blood and warm water, surrounded by laughing beauties, just like Petronius. He had terrifying adventures with a few of the women who hang about the white-powder scene – damaged harpies who spread devastation all about them. Eventually he found a real woman, and that was what saved him.
Jacqui had a job as an ad executive; no doubt her salary kept them both afloat. Perhaps Errol, too, had money to contribute from time to time. The two of them became a couple, moved in together. After his father died, they left the cavernous, crumbling old Knower home for a more affordable place and Errol finally settled into long-overdue domesticity.
These were probably the best years of his life. Jacqui became the relatively still centre he needed (a perfectly still centre would not have worked at all) and though the partying continued, it was with a far less toxic set. He gave up alcohol. He burnished his already growing reputation as a raconteur, reducing his listeners to helpless laughter with stories about the absurd events and people that had comprised his life – the latter including, of course, all of us. Errol was always a master of making people laugh at themselves.
Those halcyon days were never going to last. Errol was not made for domesticity. In the end, coping with his erratic and unpredictable ways while being the sole breadwinner in the household became, I surmise, a bit too much for Jacqui. She left, and started a new life with a man who had once been Errol’s schoolmate (and mine). Generously, the pair continued to look after Errol, paying his rent and helping him survive, often inviting him up to their place in the hills for weekends or whenever they needed someone to take care of their dogs while they were away. Errol loved all dogs just the way he loved people, or maybe even more; I don’t think he really distinguished between one species and the other.
* * *
By 2012 or so, despite his ex’s and her partner’s support, Errol was in obvious decline. He was living alone in a low-rent part of Colombo that most of us try to avoid visiting, in a house that looked as though the builders had abandoned it half finished. It was damp and messy and there were rats in the kitchen. Unsavoury-looking characters came and went. Errol’s appearance grew distinctly ragged, and the smoker’s cough he’d had for years (he always mixed his weed with tobacco) took on a graveyard echo. He took to keeping his fancy designer clothes – long-ago presents from his jet-set friends – at other people’s houses so that they didn’t get spoiled by the damp and insects at home.
I continued to visit him from time to time, though it was becoming a real trial. I’m fussy and hate messes of all kinds – and Errol, too, was growing ever more eccentric and excitable. Getting to his place from where I lived also involved driving through the most traffic-choked and disreputable parts of the city of Colombo. Excuses, excuses… Still, I would visit every month or so, mostly on Sundays, and we would have a smoke together and listen to music and talk about old times. Sometimes he would give me a haircut; it was a skill ‘Aunty Caryll’ had taught him as a teenager, and he’d worked for some time at the most fashionable hairdresser’s in town – another of his short-lived periods of employment. Most of the time we sat and listened to music and reminisced. We were old men now, reflecting on our mad youth.
Around 2016, I stopped visiting regularly. By the time Covid struck I had barely seen Errol for about two years, though we kept in touch, talked on the phone, occasionally met at musical occasions of one kind or another. He could still get in anywhere he wanted without having to pay for himself, a matter of great pride with him. Right up to the end he was always the same: cheerful, funny, angrily excitable about politics and communalism, unfailingly generous (poverty never stopped him) and always full of music.
Even after I drifted away, there remained, I am glad to say, a handful of people who kept in touch, looked out for and, of course, partied with Errol. They were all dedicated bohemians like him. On the last Saturday in February one of them called me, sobbing so hard I could barely understand what he was saying. At last I made out that Errol was dead. It had had happened the previous night. He’d been up at Jacqui and her partner’s place, alone, dog-sitting while they were away. He’d been receiving treatment for a ‘lung infection’, but he wasn’t actually sick; or at any rate, far from bedridden and living what passed for a normal life by his standards. But Jacqui was worried about the cough, so she called in to check on him. He didn’t answer. After trying a few more times she asked a neighbour to go round to their house and take a look. The neighbour found Errol dead.
On the night before his funeral, I visited the parlour. His friends – the loyal few who had loved him – were trying to make a jolly old wake of it but it wasn’t working. Loud rock and funk music in a the small, close room, cranked up high against the traffic noise outside, made it impossible to talk, and everyone was far too sad and tired to pretend to party. The core group of mourners had been there since morning and looked absolutely shattered. I was worried about Covid, too, and left as soon as I decently could.
The funeral was better. Duleep de Chickera, the emeritus Bishop of Colombo who had been our chaplain at St Thomas’s in the Seventies, was speaking over the coffin when I arrived. He’d always been fond of Errol and had been touched to hear that the straying sheep had made a return to the Church, reading the Bible and attending Sunday service, in his last years. As the coffin was lowered, Jerome Speldewinde began a selection of songs, among them Knocking on Heaven’s Door, You’ll Never Walk Alone and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. My wife, who hasn’t really gone out since Covid struck Lanka, was shocked to see how old we’ve all become.
There was another wake, later, in the garden of an expensive nearby restaurant. It worked, unlike the one at the parlour – big crowd, lots of drink and refreshments, music and dancing, people in party clothes and much loving talk about the departed. A beautiful woman told me, laughing, that dying had been Errol’s final, desperate strategy to pull his long-scattered friends together and give them one last blast. An improper thought if ever there was one, but loving withal. Though slightly shocked, I endorsed it.
* * *
Errol Knower was one of a handful of people who, at different times in my life, have had a profound and lasting effect on me. I would be a different person today if not for him. I can’t explain how he changed me as a person, because I don’t really know; and to explain why we were lifelong friends at all would take a book. Once, long ago, another old acquaintance told me how sorry he felt for Errol and the sad mess he had made of his life. I looked at him in astonishment. Errol, I replied, is one of my great heroes. I don’t envy him or want to live his life, but I have nothing but admiration for his determination to do exactly what he wants and nothing more, for sticking to his erratic but well-defined morals and principles all through life, and for somehow surviving and even, at times, thriving with nothing more to sustain him than a positive outlook and the generosity of his friends.
Errol became a well-known figure in Colombo society just by existing. He was welcomed and loved by many and, as far as I know, hated by none apart from one or two jealous wives who disapproved of him leading their husbands into trouble. Ladies, I know what you thought. But I was there, and I can assure you that it was always your husbands who led Errol into trouble, never the other way round.
Am I mourning him? I am not sure. The only time a death ever made me cry, my tears were for a hopeless, stupid waste of life rather than for the deceased themselves. It might seem to you, from what I’ve written here, that Errol, too, led a feckless, wasted life. I assure you that he did not. He was dealt a rotten hand and made more of it than most ever do with far better cards. If he was unhappy, it was buried so deep he did not even know it himself. He helped many, harmed no-one and experienced more pleasure (and, I suppose, more complementary pain) than most people will ever know in their lives.
All in all, he was a remarkably lucky fellow. Despite the crazy life he led and the awful things that from time to time befell him, he never lost his good humour or his hopeful outlook. He did no-one any harm and a great many people, myself included, an incalculable amount of good. He managed successfully to live his whole life without growing up. And by dying at sixty-two, he has neatly avoided the terrible fate that I and many others feared was in store for him: a lonely, destitute and miserable old age.
All I have to mourn, really, is the fact that he isn’t around for me any more. A selfish minor detail, though of course it means the world to me. Farewell, Atahualpa.