Some people are bound to say that my writing about Simon is a betrayal of his friendship. Yet he asked me to, on his deathbed. He himself suggested the title of this reluctantly-penned obituary.
We were introduced in the country house of a Chilean writer and former diplomat close to the Marxist president Salvador Allende. This was incongruous because Simon hated “Communists” and was in conflict with our host over a path to the latter’s land through Simon’s smallholding. But Roberto wanted me to meet the other “gringo” living in the district. He had learned to live with lawsuits and usually won them.
It wasn’t difficult to guess that Simon was an ex-convict. He was powerfully- built, with a shaved bullet head, square jaw, flattened nose and tiny cold blue eyes in a blotchy, prematurely-lined face.
He’d brought along a family tree traced by his father, an Anglican priest. Among his ancestors were enough vicars and colonels to fill a street in Colchester and a highwayman who was hanged at Tyburn in the seventeenth century. The profession of the current black sheep of the family was listed as “physical fitness.”
Over the years we were to learn everything about each other. We had more in common than met the eye.
Simon was born in Brazil, where his parents were missionaries. He played football with his black neighbours and ran wild without shoes. At the age of eight, he was buggered by a gang of white youths. At ten, he was sent to one of those boarding schools in England which take sons of the clergy at a discount. He detested the climate and was caned “every single day” for disobedience and insolence. The matron regularly dragged him out of his bed in the middle of the night and took turns with the music mistress to sit on his penis in the “san.” He was expelled from three schools, the last one for “it.” The prettier boys seemed like girls to the bulky boy from South America.
Simon was the second of three brothers. The younger one became their father’s curate in Valparaiso but was struck dead by God in church after praying for release from his unnatural desires. The older one, whom Simon loathed, trained to be a teacher.
Simon admired his father but could emulate him only in the matter of religious faith. The low-church minister had qualified as a scientist at Cambridge but took the cloth after the Second World War.
“Everyone in the forces had their I.Q.s tested and my father came out as the second most intelligent person in the RAF. He trained pilots but was never sent on a mission himself. That was because of his brains. They didn’t want to waste them. But he knew nearly everyone he trained was going to die. That was made him accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.”
Simon hadn’t set not set eyes on his parents since they dumped him on a small farm twenty years ago. He received a small allowance his parents had somehow obtained from the Church Commissioners.
“I’m not academic. I’ve read only three books in my life: the Bible, Zane Grey – about the Wild West, I don’t remember the title – and the Late, Great Planet Earth.” The latter work by the American Christian Zionist Hal Lindsey analyses global conflict in the light of Holy Scriptures.
Proud as he was of his British nationality, Simon had gone seriously native. His Spanish was fluent and full of hackneyed vernacular expressions. He always wore some item of riding gear: boots complete with enormous spinning rowels; leather gaiters to protect the legs from thorny trees; a black jacket, short like a waistcoat, which he had had cut from an old suit of his father’s; a poncho and a wide-brimmed stiff velvet hat which he never removed, even when it hindered my vision while driving. He carried a brush in his pocket to keep the shine on his boots. Round his neck hung a silver cross big enough for a bishop.
Mounted on his black stallion “Pirate” and armed with an automatic pistol displayed in a holster, Simon was the epitome of the macho. The horse’s name alluded to the English sailors like Drake who terrorized the coasts of Chile and Peru. Only Pirate’s owner could ride him.
Simon was as proud of his criminal record as he was of his faith.
“My brothers went to university while I went to jail. Manchester. I joined the Quality Street Gang. We used to set up phoney drug deals by pretending to be foreigners wanting to sell to the local mafia. The handovers were made in a public lavatory. I came up behind the buyer and slammed him into the wall while he was slashing. I stripped him of wads of notes stashed in his leather greatcoat.”
“You must have made a lot of money.”
“Fifty thousand quid one day. Blew my slice on a Daimler Dart. Primrose yellow.”
His ten- year sentence for armed robbery of a casino was reduced to five after a visit to Durham Prison by a bishop who kissed him on the lips. “I told my father. The bishop was his boss. Silly old woman he said.”
Simon was married to an English bisexual who shared her female lovers with him. She left him while he was inside, taking their three children with her. He never saw them again or learned of their whereabouts.
“I’ve been deported. Like to Australia. Pinochet was in power, so it was stable. My father had a high regard for him. This country needs a firm hand. There was more respect in those days, less crime. I want to see my father when I sell a piece of land and can buy an air ticket. I don’t care about my mother but I regret calling her a poisonous Welsh dwarf. It was when I was chopping onions in the kitchen and she screamed Mac, Simon’s got a knife. My parents had lodgers who lived with us as though they were part of the family. My mother gave my room to someone who was studying for an exam. I had to sleep in a broom cupboard. These lodgers called my parents Mum and Dad. It made me sick.”
Simon spent much of his time in the brothels of Valparaiso, where he spread the Gospel as well as the girls’legs. He lamented his taste for sodomy as it was condemned in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, he claimed the women didn’t mind.
“Don’t let those do-gooders tell you they don’t like it. They love it! They’re worse than me. God loves them just the same, like Mary Magdalene. They’re family.”
He made friends with beggars, thieves and drug pushers “just as Christ did.”
Meanwhile he neglected to water the fruit trees on his smallholding, which went to rack and ruin. The peasants called him “little gringo,” which is not an insult in Chile, but he took it badly and responded by calling them “little Chileans.” They cut his water pipes, threw tarantulas through his windows and poisoned his dog. But they didn’t dare go near his horse. He told the police he was going to start a war. The threat of “an international situation” worked. When peace temporarily returned to the Quebrada with the intervention of Her Majesty’s Consul (a friend of the family), Simon magnanimously provided his neighbours with water from his exceptionally deep well.
Simon became popular and with his habits and attitudes blended into the community. His natural politeness adapted to the curiously formal ways of the country folk. The familiar “tu” wasn’t in his vocabulary, not even when addressing his Chilean wife. He thought frequent washing was effeminate and that my green sweater was a woman’s colour. A man should wear navy blue, black or grey. He never exposed his body to the sun, struck matches towards himself, sat with his legs wide apart on the bus as though the size of his balls prevented him from closing them, and greeted everyone with a hand like a vice.
Although he never attended church services of any persuasion, he dressed up on Sundays, plucking the white hairs out of his moustache and shaving his head without soap. He wore a white shirt fastened with a gold collar stud, sharply pressed black trousers, a bomber jacket in winter and one of his expensive hats with an owl’s feather “for luck.” He swayed and staggered in heels made to stay in stirrups rather than for walking on the ground.
Simon suffered from an extreme type of bipolar disorder but had never been diagnosed. He couldn’t bear to be alone. This prevented him from working on his farm because he couldn’t afford paid help. He spent days away from his property, dossing on the floor in some friend’s house or in a brothel. On his birthday, the whores dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and were conveyed around the port by taxis pipping their horns.
My best friend wasn’t one of those men who think it shameful to pay for sex, but it was bankrupting him. The solution came when he was out riding and came across Teresa, one of his “girlfriends,” busty lass with red hair and green eyes – the “daughter of a tourist.” She was waiting by the side of the road with a suitcase after being sacked for slapping a customer who tried to kiss her – a privilege only Simon enjoyed.
He invited her to stay with him. Needless to say, it was a busman’s holiday. He strapped the suitcase to Pirate’s rump, threw Teresa over the withers and galloped home like a knight with a damsel in distress.
His relationship with Teresa did not improve his image in the community. The police were called when they put all their clothes into the washing machine and ran around naked until their laundry was dried. There were fights in the “Forget Me Not” restaurant when a bunch of cowboys called her a “puta.” Simon challenged them to come outside: “seven against two.” The battle was well under way with Teresa punching and spitting and Simon head-butting and smashing teeth with his homemade knuckleduster when the police arrived on their regular patrol to demand a free bottle of pisco from the bar. Teresa jumped onto the bonnet of the police car and kicked the headlights in.
Simon eventually decided to put down roots and marry a local girl. Teresa was packed off back to work in the port. He’d had his eye on the butcher’s daughter for some time, a dark-skinned beauty half his age. She laughed with scorn when he banged on her door with his knuckleduster and announced that he intended to marry her.
“I’ve got a boyfriend. Don’t waste your time.”
“Be patient. He’ll go away sooner or later. You need a real man, not a poodle like him.”
“My dad’s got a shotgun. You’d better be off.”
A year later, decked out in a frilly white frock and yellow socks, Carmen walked down the aisle with her “gringito” in his sparkling boots with whirling spurs.
“It was a Catholic wedding. That’s how they like it. I’d no objection. I’m married in the eyes of God. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need priests. But I like to conform.”
They were married for only a few years but those were the happiest Simon had known. His wife worked as a dental mechanic in Viña del Mar, around half an hour by train from the local town of Limache. He provided the property they lived on and she took care of the cash.
After bouts of heavy drinking he got up at dawn and ran ten miles on tarmacked roads. “I’d die if I didn’t do it. Discipline. That’s the secret.”
Around seven in the evening Simon left his drinking chums and dutifully caught a bus to the railway station to accompany his wife back to the Quebrada and carry the shopping. He brought his pistol – for which he had somehow obtained a licence - “in case someone tries to rape her.” Carmen cooked the evening meal and cleaned the house at the weekends.
“Not every weekend. She’s bone idle. She wants me to take her to England. Not much use when she can’t be bothered to learn a word of English.”
He complained that she was no good in bed. “As limp as a rag doll” but he liked the fact that she was “furry” and forbade her to shave her legs above the knee. A strand of thick black hair crept along the length of her spine “like an animal.”
Actually, Carmen was a clean country girl. I wondered how she could put up with her husband’s smell. Nor my cat, who always slept on his knee as we talked. He took care over his appearance but his breath was foul from cheap wine and cigarettes. He’d smoked since he was twelve. His trousers were stiff with his sweat and that of his horse. Thankfully, he never took his boots off in my presence.
Ten years younger than me, he used the spicy idioms of my father’s generation and talked about how life was in the trenches as though he’d been in the war. Being with him was like standing in the bar of an English pub at a time when women were relegated to the lounge or “snug.” His friendship meant we could talk real, native English. It was an escape from Chile, where I’d been stranded for so long, to use expressions like “dressing down the maid” or speak of a “snag” in the hose-pipe. I cannot imagine getting through those years without his company.
Often I let him down, refusing to leave my fireside in the rain to bring him a demi-john of wine for his homeless friends who were sleeping three to a bed in his house for the night. We clashed over politics, religion and my siding with Prince Charles over his divorce.
We watched the BBC news, Simon talking all the time as he couldn’t concentrate for more than thirty seconds. In any case, the wars, plagues and natural disasters were all in the Bible.
“You should read Hal Lindsey, Nicholas. The Late Great Planet Earth.”
“Yes, Simon, the only book you read in prison.”
“He’s got it all worked out from the Bible. Christ will come again and the Jews will be converted. All of them will go back to Israel, from England, France, America, wherever they are. Many will walk. Already they’re building shoe factories along the route. The stiff-necked among them will be destroyed. Christ will then rule the world for a thousand years no matter what the United Nations says.”
He lugged a tree stump in to put on the fire and mixed cigarette tobacco with marijuana in his pipe. The silver lid was recycled from a napkin ring given at his christening with his initials on it.
“I’ve decided to go in for politics,” he announced. “I’m going to run for mayor of Olmue.” The municipal area which included the Quebrada.
I decided to humour him. At times his gangsterish temper frightened me.
“How do you mean, Simon? You don’t belong to a political party, do you?”
“No, that’s the point. I want to clean up politics by getting rid of all the parties, finish with their backhanders and jobs for the boys. The Chileans are just a veneer. That’s what my mother always said. Thieves and liars. That’s what my father thinks. We British should set an example. Chile would never have got rid of the Spanish without help from Lord Cochrane. I’m serious about this. I have all voters in the Quebrada behind me. The “Forget Me Not” owner will back me. She treats me like her son.”
“I thought you were in debt to Angelita.”
“I am but I always pay up. I’ll send a lot of custom her way if I win.”
“You have to have a programme, some policies?”
“I do have one but it’s not political. I’m not political. Like Pinochet. He lasted for twenty years because everyone was scared shitless of him. I’ll be the same when I get in. The only thing I believe in is the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I’ve been collecting signatures to back my campaign. The young people are behind me. I’m going to clean up the Quebrada of drugs and put some law and order into the place. We need a gym to keep youth off the streets. I’ll run it myself."
“How can you be the mayor or even a councillor if you can’t read and write Spanish?”
“All I have to do is sign where they tell me. That’s what the clerks are for.”
“Surely you have to be a Chilean citizen to stand for election?”
“They told me in Valparaiso I’d have to be Chileanized for five years before I can stand for mayor but I won’t renounce my British passport. They respect me for who I am. They want me, they say I can stand. Go ahead, Don Simonito. We’re behind you. The Quebrada is going to the dogs. The people are fed up with politics. They were better off under the army. The problem was that they became corrupt and got political. I’m going to put a stop to the squabbling among the political parties and do what the people want for a change. They will have their say!”
He brought down his fist on the table like a steak hammer and held it aloft defiantly as though clutching a gigantic egg he was about to throw at the semi-literate fox who had been mayor of Olmue for as long as anyone could remember.
“What does Carmen think of your political ambitions?”
“What do I care what she thinks! I wear the trousers in our house but you wouldn’t think so at times. She’s started to wear them herself. That really annoys me. She knows I like to see her in a dress. She’s acting like a feminist. The Bible says the man should rule the roost, not the woman. She likes to belittle me. She’s always nagging me about going to England. I want to go when we have kids, grandchildren to show off to my parents. If we haven’t had children it’s not my fault. There’s nothing wrong with my sperm count! She’s having tests now. She wants me to go too but I won’t have any doctor fiddling with my balls. I can have children. That’s clear. It’s her fault we can’t produce any unless Pirate’s knackered me. I’ve ridden bareback too much.”
It was common knowledge that Simon beat his wife. At the risk of being attacked myself, I tackled him about it.
“I’ve never clouted her, Nicholas. Believe you me. That’s a lie her family are putting around. They want us to separate so she’ll get half my farm. They won’t get their hands of my farm. It’s my inheritance. Only once I grabbed her wrist and gave her a crack with the back of my hand, just once, like I do with my dog on the snout. She went quiet as a mouse. It’s the only way to shut them up.”
Carmen went back to her parents’. A divorce law had only just come into force and she made use of it without delay. Simon went rapidly downhill but succeeded in keeping his property intact. He divided his land into lots and began to sell them one by one. The proceeds were blown on all-night parties with busloads of whores and drug-crazed Andean street musicians. He lost the rest of his capital on imaginary business schemes invented by fraudsters who stripped him of every peso, leaving him to face the creditors. But, “like Christ,” he never bore them a grudge and wanted to give them all “a second chance.”
Simon rented and did up a “town house” in the village. Like the stage set of a Beckett play, it was furnished with a few plastic chairs, a huge bed to which he retired early with his boots on as his companions went on with the party, throwing their empty beer cans into an oil drum. When the restorations were completed, the owner cut off the electricity to get him out. Simon was consuming large amounts of cocaine and kept an iron bar in a corner for self-defence.
Not all his enemies were a figment of his paranoia. One dark night a masked cowboy galloped up and dealt him a blow with a lead pipe. He was taken to hospital with a fractured skull but survived. He knew who his attacker was but the man wasn’t detained. He asked me to drive him to Santiago to talk to “my ambassador.” He carried his blood-soaked coat in a supermarket bag but was obliged to leave it with reception and was fobbed off by a junior official.
I wanted to help Simon but he became unbearable. I’d heard his anecdotes and opinions time and time again. Nevertheless, he was a friend I could talk to about my private life in a way I couldn’t to a priest or psychiatrist. It was the same with him.
One Christmas he came round severely depressed. He’d not eaten for three days and was wearing two pairs of trousers to hide his loss of weight. Out of tobacco, he sucked on his pipe like a dummy. He’d spent days sitting on the steps on his house with his head in his hands, his teeth ground down with nerves. He was ready to “top” himself. He’d sold Pirate years ago and the neighbours had broken into his house and stolen his English saddle as well his pistol, which had saved him from ending his life there and then. I dissuaded him from the lingering agony of an amateur hanging. He agreed not to die like Judas.
He spent several days with me, sleeping in my study, reminiscing as usual about his past. He smoked endless cigarettes outside the kitchen door as I boiled the potatoes and grilled steaks on the fire. Despite his state of undernourishment, he refused my organic produce: he hadn’t touched fruit and vegetables for years and didn’t intend to start now. He left feeling positive about his plan to turn his property into a retirement home for Evangelical Christians called “Camp David” after his favourite brother.
A few months later he returned like a stray dog with the alarming news that he’d been experiencing an excruciating pain in his anus “like someone twisting a pair of pliers in there.” I made an appointment for him to see a specialist in Viña. The elderly doctor was tall with long fingers which made Simon scream behind the screen. While the patient was pulling up his trousers the doctor made a callous gesture indicating that the case was hopeless. Simon had a tumour the size of a mushroom. Advanced cancer of the rectum was confirmed by tests.
I’d predicted such a fate ten years ago, done my best to warn him. But Simon, who was 47 at the time, replied that he didn’t intend to change his “way of life” nor did he desire to live beyond 60 and become an old man incapable of enjoying himself.
“Don’t write me off, Nicholas. I’m not going to behave like a condemned man. I’m not going round with a bag of shit under my shirt. It would show in the gym. Anyway, so what if I die. The world’s coming to an end, so I won’t miss it.”
Demonstrating that despite owning around 20 acres of land he was a pauper, Simon got onto the national health system and underwent a nine-hour operation during which he was fitted with a colostomic bag.
The marathon operation appeared to have been a success but he caught some bug and went into intensive care. He asked to see only me and his ex-mother-in-law, though not her daughter. On the Saturday before Easter Sunday we were told he probably wouldn’t survive the night. I’d sent my black suit and tie to the cleaners but in vain: he resurrected like his Lord and Saviour on Easter Day and was soon back in the ward, complaining about the no-smoking rules and threatening to smash the skull of a patient moaning in the next bed.
Simon developed a voracious appetite for yoghurts – something he’d always despised – and said it was time to “take up my bed and walk.” The doctors told him not to be silly: he wouldn’t get as far as the door without collapsing. When their backs were turned, he discharged himself, stopping off for a drink in his favourite bar before going home.
Throughout the two years of life left to him on this earth, Simon continued to chain-smoke, drink a bottle of wine a day, eat “blue” steaks with no veg and abstain from fruit. He turned up for chemo-therapy straight from the brothel stinking of beer and cigarettes. For him, “chemo” was a cocktail.
“I’m enjoying prolonging this!”
Knowing that he could die in the street at any moment, I tried to persuade him to make a will. He didn’t reject the idea in principle but it wasn’t a priority as he expected to live for many years to come.
His tolerance to pain was exceptionally high. He took no pain-killers for over a year, preferring to “get to know the pain slowly. He’s like a friend whose hands are all over my body. It’s strange but I don’t mind him.” Inexplicably, he no longer smelled, as though the suffering was purifying him.
He continued to talk about his plans for “Camp David.” He wanted to set up a trust which would bring his friends the seamen of Valparaiso together with the peasants of the Quebrada and offer half-price accommodation to “doctors, nurses, prostitutes and lady scouts.” He looked forward to seeing his brother David in heaven.
He asked me to write letters to his ancient parents. They’d asked their parish in England to pray for their wayward son during one of his crises in hospital. When their prayers were answered, he asked them to increase his allowance to pay for his binges in “Valpo.”
His missionary work went on to the end. He told a Somalian sailor, “You worship Ali or whatever he’s called. I worship Jehovah. I want to hear your side of the story.”
I’d already read him the “visitation of the sick” from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. I expected it would move him to tears as it did me. Unrepentant, he said, “I’ve had a good life.”
Now he was on morphine drops and powerful sleeping pills which were destroying his short-term memory but he vividly recalled incidents in his past. “I wanted to have hands laid on me but instead of the pastor, his wife came at me. I don’t approve of women in the Church, so I ducked. I shouted No! But the Holy Spirit wouldn’t be put off. He bowled me over like a gust of wind.”
As the end approached, he asked to see his ex-wife.
“I never asked to be divorced. I’ve never fornicated since we separated. I’ve been in bed with women but I’ve kept my underpants on. Man cannot put asunder what God has joined. I’m still her husband.”
I told him that if he didn’t make a will his estate would go to his parents and shortly after to Mark, his elder brother. He hated Mark so much that he couldn’t bring himself to read the Gospel according to the same. To avoid legal problems, his ex-mother-in-law arranged for him to sell his property to her for a song so that he would die without a bean. He told her which of the plots was to go to Carmen. It was a neat little arrangement with something of biblical wisdom in it.
By this stage his suffering couldn’t be disguised despite his resolve to be “joyful unto the end.” Out of curiosity I asked him if he would consider taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He gave me an accusatory stare. “God would be disappointed with me.”
I felt ashamed. He never complained about his pain. Instead, he asked how my ailing cat was and told me it was good to hear my voice. With the cancer spread throughout his guts, the end was nigh. The Welsh Dwarf, an ex-military nurse, told me coolly over the telephone, “In these cases the patient has little time.”
“The Cross will save me,” Simon said with Evangelical zeal. “I’m leaving mine to you - and my pipe. Smoke it. It’s good for you.”
Shortly after receiving this advice, I left for a holiday in Europe. I rang Simon often. About two weeks before he died, he asked me to remind him of the date of my return flight to Chile. He died the very hour I landed at Santiago.
I was sleeping off the jet lag when the British Consul rang me, just two hours before the funeral was due to commence in the little wooden Anglican church in Viña del Mar.
A pair of gleaming spurs lay on the coffin.
One hymn (“All the Saints”) had been stipulated by his father – two verses at the beginning of the service and two at the end. But, as requested by Simon many years before his illness, I sang “The Lord’s My Shepherd” to the organ music of “Crimond” and gave a little oration in Spanish, mentioning my best friend’s unfaltering faith in Christ, generosity, bravery, frankness and kindness to animals.
Perhaps I should have left it at that. But, as I’ve already said, Simon asked me to write about him. Now that duty has been discharged, I will never again laugh about him behind his back.