On July 22nd I heard the news that Chris Vickery had died. I hadn’t seen him since 1978, the year we left Folkestone to go to University. He went to Leeds to study Medicine. I went to Reading to read French. We all unfolded our wings and flew away. We became invested in other things and in other people because, well, that’s what happens when you leave home – you can’t hold every hand in the river.
I can remember everything about Chris at 18 – his face, his voice, his Cheshire-cat smile and his whip-smart mind. My dad really liked him because he was so passionate. And he was a Communist. Long before he qualified as a doctor, Chris declared his intention never to work in private practice. That Chris Vickery is going to change the world, my father used to say.
Last week, we gathered in the Chapel of Jesus College, Oxford for Chris’ funeral. Never meet your heroes said Tony Davies, his oldest and closest friend in his eulogy. Chris was his hero and he was never disappointed by him. Vickery inherited an abiding sense of honesty and integrity from his parents. He was mischievous, scatological, charming, funny and incredibly bright. He was the ‘bonkers’ uncle to Tony’s children and he brought them unusual gifts from his travels.
In 1988, Chris worked on a TB control programme in Nepal. In 1994, in the aftermath of the genocide, he went to Rwanda. Dr. Vickery’s level of dedication to his patients was legendary. In 2000 he was posted to West Bengal where he team-led a project to implement a health care system for 90 million people. Chris’ respect and inclusivity resulted in unprecedented levels of support from the Minister of Health. He was a Master Class in how to work with people and deliver a successful outcome, recalled his friend and colleague, Satjit Singh.
Chris really did change the world. He improved and saved the lives of thousands, hundreds of thousands and quite possibly millions of people.
In spite of the fact that Chris and I hadn’t been in touch for more than 40 years, I felt oddly compelled to attend his funeral. Tony was instantly recognisable as his 18 year-old self but he was also a 62 year-old stranger. Everything about the day felt familiar and at the same time remote. A decade ago, my daughter, Lucy was approached at a party by a woman who called her by my name. Lucy explained, a little frostily, that Suseli was her mother, to which the woman replied: Of course she is, it’s just that you are the mirror image of your mother the last time I saw her. I didn’t want to be that stranger at Chris Vickery’s funeral, the woman who told his eldest son that he was a doppelganger for his father.
When I introduced myself to Chris’ widow, I was struck by a sudden feeling of imposter syndrome. You won’t know me, I offered weakly. I knew Chris in Folkestone many years ago.
‘Suseli? she replied. I know you. Chris mentioned you in his stories. One involved Andre gifting you a pipe rack for Christmas. I had no memory of any pipe rack. I didn’t start smoking a pipe until 1983. Andre’s mind was equally blank, although eccentric presents, he told me, were a tradition in the group. One year Ric bought Jonny some welding goggles, or maybe it was the other way round.
Our minds may be a little cloudy but we remember what it felt like to be 18, standing on the brink of a beginning, on the right side of a long life. Those bonds of early friendship remain. The unremembered is not forgotten.