(I wrote this yesterday afternoon, after receiving the news. I wasn’t sure that I was going to post it after all, and left it in drafts. Today, I decided to publish the post, in memory of my dear friend.)
I got some bad news today. It wasn’t completely unexpected, but no less heartbreaking for that.
One of my dearest and best friends died, after a long battle with a painful and debilitating cancer. He was only 57 years old, and had so much left to give, and to enjoy. I thought about our friendship for a long time, then took Ollie for a walk on the cold and grey afternoon that reflected my mood so well.
I first met Billy in the late 1980s, when he came to work at the ambulance station in Notting Hill, London. It seemed unlikely back then that we would ever become such firm friends. I was the experienced, somewhat bitter man. He was the gentle new boy, seeing good in everyone, keeping his head down, and keen to do his best in a strange new world. He stood a full ten inches taller than me, and had a background that couldn’t have been more different.
Very soon, Billy was a popular figure. Staff at the hospitals loved his good manners, and open personality. Patients recognised his caring nature, and colleagues appreciated his keenness, and his involvement in the life of the small ambulance station. Not long after, we were embroiled in the bitter dispute that became the six-month long national ambulance strike, from 1989-1990. Billy threw himself into that, alongside the rest of us. He came in every day, designed and painted posters and banners, and helped out wherever he could. He was no militant (like me) but could see the injustice, so resolved to fight it.
Just after the strike, we became crew-mates. An unlikely pair to work together every day, perhaps. But he mellowed my cynicism, and I helped him toughen up enough to cope. Outside of work, we also became great friends. Long evenings enjoying listening to music, talking about literature and films, and enjoying meals in each others flats. I used to complain that talking to him made my neck hurt, always having to lift my head to speak to someone so much taller. We laughed most of the time too, sharing a sense of black humour, and the often hilariously ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Yet when things got serious, we did the right thing, and Billy soon became a very accomplished Paramedic indeed.
Billy had a full and fascinating life, and was a man of huge artistic talent too. Born and brought up in America, he came back to the UK with his family at the age of eight, and settled in rural Oxfordshire. Always a spiritual person, Billy went into the Catholic Church, becoming a monk and working in the community in the Midlands. But he became disillusioned with the restrictions and attitudes of life in that field, so left to return to his love of music and books. A wonderful guitarist, he played in bands, and even toured and made records. He wrote songs, and made many contacts in that world too. He later became a librarian in the London district of Camden, before deciding to join the ambulance service, to help the community. He continued to make music, to paint and draw, and to explore religions and philosophies. He was one of the most interesting and intelligent people I ever met.
He was also an excellent cook, and a great host. He loved to experiment with Medieval and Elizabethan recipes, and his Simnel cake and Game Pie were both wonderful examples of that. He loved parties too, and the famously over the top Halloween parties, a legacy of his American youth, were a delight to attend. A welcoming and generous nature guaranteed that any evening spent in his company was always something to anticipate with relish. And a few glasses of Jack Daniels always helped too.
Over the years, our friendship continued to grow. For a long time, we lived a stone’s throw from each other in Camden, which made it much easier to socialise. When he grew restless in the job, I encouraged him to apply for promotion, and he was successful in being appointed to become a Training Officer at the regional Paramedic training centre for London. But he didn’t stop there, continuing to rise through the ranks until he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the London Ambulance Service. None of this went to his head though, and had no affect on our long friendship. When Julie and I married, he was a witness to our marriage. And when he had a Civil Ceremony with his partner Ian, I was honoured to be asked to do the same.
Billy and Ian bought a house in Oxfordshire, and moved away from the bustle of life in London. They got two dogs, and enjoyed their free time in the countryside. But they never forgot their friends, and we were always welcome. When We moved to Norfolk, they soon came to visit, and we enjoyed a great weekend touring around the area. Ironically, it was during this visit that I asked if he would be kind enough to say a few words at my own funeral, when the time came. Little did I know that he would go before me, and even as I type these words, it is impossible to think that he has.
A few days before Christmas, Julie and I went to visit Billy in a hospice where he was having treatment. We took Ollie along too. It was upsetting to see him in pain, but he did his best to stay cheerful, patting Ollie, and talking about everyday things. As we said our farewells, it was obvious that we both knew that this would be the last time we would ever see each other.
And it was.
William O’Neill. 1959-2017. You will never be forgotten.