Grant Galligan died yesterday in Auckland Hospital. From cardiac arrest. He was forty-two.
The funeral notice will be in tomorrow’s Herald.
I stared at the email and its concise sentences. Behind my eyes, the news flashed like a lightning bolt. Grant Galligan, dead? It couldn’t be. Grant was fit, and strong. A swimmer, a surfer, a diver. Yet the stark fact was there. He was dead.
Grant had been a member of a writing class I had tutored two years ago, a one-month travel writing course. The group of twelve – mostly women – had got on together well. Unusually, there were no misfits, no difficult personalities. The participants had all been to interesting places and were determined to get their stories out into the world. They were motivated, and they worked hard. None harder than Grant Galligan. He had to, because he was not a natural writer. When I assessed his first piece of writing – about a sailing trip on the Hauraki Gulf – I was struck by its exuberance, as well as its defects.
Suddenly, out of the blue, a dolphin breached. Sleak and shiney, it began to race the yacht. I yelled at Murray. Look, a dolphin! And then as I yelled there was another dolphin, and another. All racing us, on both sides of the boat’s prow, and turning and grinning up at us. I had the urge to jump in and swim with them, with these affectionate mamals that were so obviously enjoying our company. Little did I know that this marked a red letter day in my life.
Grant and I sat side-by-side in the tutorial room, going over his story. His shaven head gleamed under the room’s strip lighting. I couldn’t help wondering, how does he shave it without cutting himself? The nakedness of his pate made his ears seem larger, and he had a small chin, a longish nose and dark brown, sensitive eyes. As he watched me reading his story he clasped his hands tightly with nervousness. When I looked up he said, apprehensively, ‘Well Stephanie, what do you think?’
I gave him a candid assessment. The moment of discovery you describe is undeniably joyful, I told him, but the writing is marred by technical faults and imprecision. When his face fell, I consoled him. ‘But that’s why you’re here, so your writing will improve.’ Frowning, Grant nodded. ‘I know I’ve always had a spelling problem,’ he admitted. I invited him to have another look at his story and see which words he’d misspelt. He coloured slightly as he looked closely at the page. ‘Sleak?’ he said, uncertainly. I nodded. ‘Oh, it’s spelt s-l-e-e-k, isn’t it?’ ‘Right,’ I said. He made an exasperated clicking sound. Brow knitted with concentration, he studied the rest of the story. He picked up ‘breached’, and ‘shiney’, but didn’t get the spelling of ‘mammals’ or the fact that ‘bow’ was the right word, not ‘prow’, until I drew his attention to these slippages.
We worked our way through his story, line by line. Most writing is rewriting, I reassured Grant. Polish, polish, polish. And if in doubt about the spelling of a word, I urged him, use the dictionary, don’t rely on your computer’s spell check. Keep an eye out for clichés, too, like ‘red letter day’. Avoid cliches ‘like the plague’, I said. Grant didn’t get that at first. Then he did, and laughed uproariously. Be as fresh and original with your expressions as you can, I told him. It was old advice, hardly in itself original, but he needed to follow it.
Although Grant was a willing student, writing was a struggle for him. Unlike Jacqueline, who wrote of her stay among the Iban of Kalimantan so evocatively that I felt I was there alongside her. And Yuchi, a handsome Japanese man who described his exploration of the Abel Tasman National Park in prose which was lyrical. And Lorna, an elderly woman who wrote a vivid account of making love on a yacht in the Caribbean. These students needed only the gentlest of guidance. But for Grant, writing was like looking for quartz gold with a pick and shovel. A vein of precious metal was there, but the overburden was dense. In the end though, he got there.
Suddenly, out of the indigo ocean, a dolphin broached. Sleek, laminated, the creature began to race the yacht. I yelled at Murray. ‘Look! A dolphin!’ And as I yelled and pointed, another dolphin appeared, then another. All racing us, on both sides of the bow, and turning and grinning up at us, like playful puppies. I had an urge to leap overboard and swim alongside them, these affectionate mammals which were so obviously relishing our arrival in their territory.
Little did I know that this event also marked a turning point in my life.
In Grant’s favour was his deep knowledge of the sea and marine mammals. He had a master’s degree in marine biology and a sincere concern for the environment. Grant was so green he was almost fluorescent.
It dawned on me only slowly that he was gay. He never came out and said so, and he certainly wasn’t a stereotypical gay man. But just occasionally there was a mannerism, along with an extreme sensitivity towards others, which indicated that his feminine side was not just a side. The fact that he referred to his partner, with whom he was going diving in Tonga, as Alistair, confirmed this impression. I noticed too that when good-looking Yuchi read his work aloud, Grant would look at him with undisguised admiration. Not that his sexual orientation mattered in the slightest to me. Some of my best friends, as the saying goes, are gay. And as one of them, a wise elderly woman, once remarked to me when we touched upon the subject: ‘Ah well Stephanie, chaque’un a son gout’. Each one to their own taste. That seemed to me to be an admirable philosophy.
The travel writing course continued on its steady, purposeful way. The class members did well. Jacqueline had a story – an account of her visit to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Cuba – accepted by the Listener while the course was still on, and the others applauded delightedly when I announced this news. Yuchi emailed the Japanese version of his Abel Tasman National Park story to a newspaper in Osaka and they offered to publish, while eighty-two-year-old Lorna’s erotic encounter on the yacht was accepted by a national sailing magazine.
Grant still struggled, though. He was inclined to rush his writing, and in this way scramble his syntax. Spelling remained a challenge to him. But his sincerity shone through. We had long talks, not just about his writing, but about his environmental worries. He was concerned that the ‘swimming with dolphins’ industry may be altering the creatures’ natural behaviour patterns, and thus perhaps jeopardising their future. It was this deep love for his subject, his great concern for sea mammals, that suggested he would succeed as a chronicler of the interaction of humans and marine creatures.
At the end of the course Grant presented me with a bouquet of irises – he had remembered my telling him that they were my favourite flowers – and a card. The card featured a drawing he had done of dolphins, and the message inside the card read:
For Stephanie, who made such a difference.
The gift brought tears to my eyes.
Little did I know that this event also marked a turning point in my life.
Grant had not exaggerated. After the class ended he wrote more environmental and wildlife features – diving at the Poor Knights, swimming with fur seals on the West Coast, surfing alongside dolphins in the Coromandel – and sent them to me for comments. Again, his love for his subject was evident, and infectious. His spelling improved out of sight. But in such a highly competitive field – everyone, it seems, wants to be a travel writer – Grant’s chances of having his stories accepted were slim. Accordingly, I was careful not to give him false expectations. Then one day, about six months after the end of the course, I received a jubilant email. Stephanie, publication! Grant had had a story about diving alongside the seals of Kaikoura, illustrated with his own photographs, accepted by an airline magazine. A few weeks after the story was published, he received a commission from the same magazine to write a feature about the hoiho – the yellow-eyed penguin. The following year he became the specialist wildlife writer for the airline’s international in-flight magazine. Grant Galligan had found his metier.
Over the next few years this writerly role took Grant off-shore regularly, to Torres Strait, to Alaska, to the Tuamotu atolls. We didn’t meet again, but he always sent me copies of the stories he had had published, and always thanked me for getting him started. But in reality I had played only a small role in his success. He had shown what can be achieved through a combination of enthusiasm and perseverance.
And now he was dead. One of the most kind-hearted men I had known, failed by his own heart.
A commemorative service for Grant will be held at St Martins church on Tuesday, 11 April, at 2pm. People who knew Grant are invited to attend and celebrate the life of a man who loved all creatures great and small.
It seemed a little strange to me that Grant’s service was being held in a church. He hadn’t seemed the slightest bit religious. And when I rang Jacqueline to see if she was going, she reacted the same way.
‘A church? Grant? He told me once that he didn’t have a religion, but if he did it would be animism.’
‘Maybe it’s his family’s wish,’ I said. Grant had once told me that he hadn’t had anything to do with his family for years. ‘But I’ll be going to the service,’ I told Jacqueline. ‘Will you?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I liked him very much.’
St Martins was a little way from the city centre, and the only building of any architectural distinction in the area, surrounded as it was by cheap apartment blocks and nondescript offices. A large, handsome building, it had been built from Oamaru stone, with a square belfry on its northern corner and a huge, twin-gabled west front. Above its buttresses were rows of lancet windows, their kaleidoscopic stained glass contrasting strongly with the cream stone of the blocks into which they were set.
I walked along the footpath beside the church and around to the entrance. Several liquidambar trees, their leaves now a lovely russet colour, grew on the berm. A group of formally dressed, elderly men and women, none of whom I knew, was standing outside the church door. A hearse, as black and shiny as patent leather, was parked near the entrance. I went into the church. Taking a seat in a pew on the left, I was immediately enveloped by the beauty and serenity of the building’s interior. Although I had attended St Mary’s in Karori when I was a girl, subsequent events had led me down other paths. Yet I had retained a respect, even an affection, for the trappings of the church. And St Martins certainly possessed these.
There was fan vaulting along both sides of the interior, the downward curves of the fans merging into a series of elegant columns of matching stone. The aisle was so long that the high altar and the stained glass window above it seemed a very long way away, and the vaulted ceiling soared high above the nave. The pulpit was of carved wood, and stood to the right of the transept, next to the organ. The organ was unattended, but music was being piped through the church from an unseen source, filling the interior with sound. The John Denver song, Calypso. Fitting music for Grant, I thought. He had greatly admired the environmental work of the Cousteau family, he told me. His gleaming but unadorned casket lay on its chrome trolley in the centre of the transept, facing the altar. There were no flowers on the casket, which struck me as unusual.
The congregation of about 200 people was spread about the pews. They were mostly people in their 30s and 40s. Hardly any of the men wore suits, and nearly all the women were informally dressed, as I was, in skirt and jumper. I recognised some of them: Cynthia Wilson, the editor of a motoring magazine which had published some of Grant’s wildlife stories, Melanie McCauley the radio producer – Grant’s series on migrating humpbacks had been adapted by her and broadcast – Lorna and a couple of other women from the travel writing course. All were solemn and still, their eyes on the coffin. Several of the women were weeping, silently. No one spoke.
What I presumed was Grant’s family were conspicuous, sitting in the front right-hand pew. There was a tall, elderly man in a dark suit, with a woman in a black suit and matching hat beside him. Another elderly, suited man stood to her right. At first I could see no one there who could have been Grant’s partner, but as we sat and let John Denver’s lyrics wash over us, a pale man of about thirty with blond spiked hair, wearing jeans and a leather jacket over a white T-shirt, came down the aisle. Alistair. He paused before the casket, then placed a large framed photograph on it. When he turned away I saw that it was a photograph of Grant, in wetsuit and flippers, standing on a rock, grinning at the cameraman. Then a thirty-something woman with long dark hair came forward, placed another object on the casket and returned to her pew. What she had put there was a dolphin, made of grey felt. People in the congregation turned to each other and smiled.
As I sat and waited for the service to begin I saw Jacqueline walk down the left-hand side of the church and slip into the pew a little way down from where I was sitting. She was wearing a dark green velvet jacket with the collar turned up. She took a seat, then focused her attention on the casket. Seconds later, as the John Denver song faded away, another figure strode down the aisle. I glanced to my right as he passed. A middle-aged man, a large black Bible tucked under his left arm.
He walked to the pulpit and climbed the steps. He placed the Bible on the lectern, then cast his eyes carefully over the congregation. He wore a stylishly cut charcoal suit with a navy blue roll neck jersey under the jacket. Of medium height, he looked lean and athletic. His neatly cut hair was greying slightly, receding at the temples, and his face was square, his cheeks tanned. A good-looking man, the sort who would set the pulses of his female congregation quivering, I thought. But I thought too how the church had changed. When I was a girl it would have been unthinkable for a man of the cloth to conduct a funeral service in anything but a clerical collar. Still, times change, I reminded myself.
Sliding his hands into his suit jacket pockets, the minister smiled down at the congregation. He began to speak, the lectern’s microphone amplifying his words so that they reached clearly to every pew and to the font at the rear of the church.
‘Good afternoon, brothers and sisters, friends and family of Grant Galligan. I am the Reverend Michael Fitzgibbon.’ He paused, tilting his chin upwards slightly. ‘We are gathered here today to pay tribute to Grant, who departed this life five days ago. I was invited to conduct this service by Grant’s family. This is not in fact my church, mine is the Evangelical Revival Church, in Hillsborough, the place of worship for Grant’s family, so I am grateful to the dean of St Martins for allowing me to be a guest in this hallowed house. It was Grant’s dying wish that his farewell be held here, because he had long admired the beauty of this building, I was told.’ He looked down again. ‘This service will be followed by a private, family-only cremation. Grant also instructed that his ashes be scattered in the Hauraki Gulf.’ Among the congregation, heads nodded. This was right, this was as it should be, the nods said.
The minister allowed a pause, then continued, tilting his head slightly to one side. ‘Although I never met Grant, I have been speaking with his family over the last day or two, and I have built up a portrait of the man who we are here to farewell.’ His eyes swivelled, and fell upon the casket. ‘Grant, I am told, loved nature. All God’s creatures were special to him, and especially those who dwell in the sea. He was, his family have told me, never happier than when he was in their company.’ He paused, removed his hands from his jacket pockets, stared up at the ceiling high above for some moments. Then, lowering his gaze, his eyes again swept the congregation. His smile had vanished.
‘And now Grant has gone. He has been taken from us. Prematurely, some would say.’ The tone of his voice became lower, and more deliberate. ‘But who amongst us dare gainsay the word, or the decisions, which God makes? For the truth is, He holds the right of judgement over all of us. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’ His hands fell to his sides momentarily, then he reached out and gripped the sides of the lectern. When he resumed speaking, the tone of his voice had changed again. Now it had an edge to it. ‘There is a clear message in the early death of Grant, and that message is this: Our Lord condemns those who transgress his holy laws. Especially those involving the sins of the flesh.’
A tremor passed through the congregation, like the first stirrings of wind on an autumn day. The two men in the pew in front of me looked at each other sharply. The minister paused, opened the Bible on the lectern, then continued. ‘And friends, our Lord’s teaching is particularly clear with regard to unnatural relationships.’ Staring down at the Bible, he began to recite, slowly. ‘Leviticus, chapter 18, verse 22. “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman. It is detestable. If a man lies with a man as he lies with a woman, then both of them have committed an abomination.”’ He looked up, and now his expression was triumphant. ‘Note that word, my friends. An abomination. The good Lord knows that unnatural practice for what it is, and we must take heed of his message. We know from the Book of Genesis, chapter 19, that God brought fire and brimstone down upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so we can be sure that God will always seek out and destroy that which is abominable to Him.’ Again he paused before continuing. ‘And friends, this world is still filled with sinners. They are everywhere, and their sins are all around us. So, the Lord must continue His work in punishing those who transgress his Holy laws.’ His gaze altered its trajectory again, alighting once more on the coffin below. ‘Grant may have loved nature, but he practised an unnatural love, one which he must have known – for he was raised in a devout household – violated God’s Holy law. And for this he will suffer God’s wrath.’
The young woman sitting next to me gave a little cry, then froze. All around me, people seemed to have become frozen as they stared up at the pulpit. All except Grant’s family, whose heads remained bowed. Looking away from the casket, the preacher’s eyes again fell upon the congregation. ‘But it is not too late for the rest of you to repent your sins. Seek the Lord’s salvation, friends, through giving yourselves to His son Jesus Christ, and you will avoid the eternal, sulphurous fires of hell and damnation.’
I too stared up at the preacher. His pronouncements filled me with horror. The contrast between the man we were here to farewell, and the loathing in the preacher’s message, could not have been starker. I wanted to shout up at him, No, that was not Grant! You are insulting his memory! Still staring upwards, I willed him to stop. But he had just begun. His cheeks were reddening, his hands were gripping the sides of the lectern like talons.
‘Sin is all around us, friends. The Lord knows this, and He knows how to seek out and punish those who violate His holy laws. The adulterers, the fornicators, the sodomites in our midst. They will be found out, and they will be punished. For the Lord sees all, and knows all. There is no place in His kingdom for those who disobey his teachings, especially who commit sins of the flesh.’ Again there was the smile triumphant as he waved the index finger of his left hand in the air. ‘Satan awaits those sinners who do not repent, my friends, Satan awaits …’
The young man who had placed the photograph of Grant on the casket pushed his way to the end of his pew, paused to glare up at the pulpit, then turned on his heels and strode back along the aisle. His fists were clenched, and as he passed me I heard him sob. The young woman with the long dark hair was the next to leave. She got up from her pew and walked quickly down the aisle, one hand covering her face. Then Jacqueline stood up. Head held high, shoulders squared, she stared defiantly at the minister for a few seconds, then turned, moved along the pew and walked away, her face rigid. Two other women from the pew in front of her did the same. As I got to my feet I saw Lorna stand and walk away, her face ashen.
Taking not the slightest bit of notice of what was happening below him, the man at the pulpit railed on.
‘Our God is a wrathful God, friends, so sinners everywhere should quail in the knowledge that the Lord’s punishment awaits them. Unless they repent, unless they confess their sins, unless they throw themselves upon His mercy, seeking forgiveness through his son Jesus Christ. Sin, dear friends, is everywhere. Everywhere. Grant was a sinner, and he died with his sins bearing down upon him. He left it too late to repent. And for that he is now in purgatory.’
I got to my feet. I wanted to speak up for Grant, to cry out on his behalf. But my voice would not respond. My throat was paralysed. Instead I stared up at the harbinger of hatred, willing my thoughts to beam out and up and into his consciousness, but sickened by the realisation that this was impossible. The young woman next to me, her head bowed, was crying openly now. I eased my way past her, stepped out into the aisle and walked from the church.
The afternoon was bathed in mid-afternoon sun. The rear door of the hearse was open, waiting to take Grant on his final journey. Jacqueline was sitting on a seat under one of the liquidambar trees, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. When I sat down beside her she looked at me with an expression of bewilderment. Her face was streaked with tears, her mascara was running. ‘That was not Grant,’ she whispered. ‘He was a kind man, a decent man.’
I put my arm around her.
‘Yes, he was.’
‘So why, why,’ she implored, ‘is that … God-bothering monster… saying what he’s saying?’
I inhaled deeply, in an effort to control my own anger. ‘Perhaps … it was his family who instructed him to do it. Grant once told me that he was estranged from them.’
Jacqueline stared at me levelly, through misty eyes.
‘He was gay, did you know?’ I nodded. She swallowed. ‘And he had Aids, did you know that?’
I went very still.
‘Yes. That was what he died of. Heart failure, brought on by the Aids.’
Now my own eyes filled with tears. Tears of sorrow for Grant, tears of anger for intolerance. After a long silence, still with my arm around Jacqueline, I said, ‘We know what a fine person Grant was. And so do most of the people in there. No amount of religious bigotry can change that.’ I nodded towards the church door. ‘Look.’
More people were streaming through the door, their expressions furious.
I stared up at St Martins’ west front. There were four lancet, leadlight windows set into the beautiful, white stone façade. It seemed to me that the dignity of the building, as well as Grant’s life, had been contaminated by today’s events.
Jacqueline followed my gaze. We sat in deep silence for some moments before she said quietly, ‘I used to be agnostic. Now I think I’m going to be an atheist.’
Nodding, understanding, I drew her closer to me. Still staring upwards, I saw that the afternoon sun was turning the façade’s blocks of stone bright white. But the stained glass windows set into the facade were dark and blank.