Epitaph and refrain

for flute, horn, viola, harp.
12 mins.

Commissioned by the ensemble Arpège, and first performed by them at the Jack Lyons Hall, Universty of York, on 5th February 2003.

Programme notes

On June 10th 2002 a Ghanaian man aged forty-four died of heart failure as he was leaving Central Middlesex Hospital, north-west London, after treatment for TB. His name was Nii Sackey Codjoe, and he was the brother of my ex-wife and one of the nicest men I have ever known. He had come to London early in 1986 on a six-month visa and stayed on illegally, working at a grindingly menial job in order to save enough money to return to Ghana and make a decent life. He saw no-one apart from his sister and me, and did nothing except work, eat and sleep, sacrificing normal comforts to the hope of a better future. For several years he did two jobs at once – one by day, one at night; but later he found a relatively secure job as cleaner in a factory producing picture-frames. His dream was to learn gilding and become a framer himself.

In 1995 the factory closed, and Sackey was made redundant. He knew this would happen, and was given a sum of redundancy money; at which point I begged him to take his savings and go home. But the years of isolation and overwork had taken their toll: in the absence of family and friends, his job had been the main structure in his life – without it he quietly and secretly went to pieces, drinking more and more heavily and gambling on the national lottery. Soon he had wasted all the money he had saved in ten years, and was unable to go home and lose face.

Eventually, he found it difficult to pay his rent and was thrown out by his landlord. For a while he stayed with me; but I was no longer married to his sister, and although we were very good friends he found it humiliating to be dependent upon me. We found him a room in a hostel; after that I heard nothing from him, and gradually became worried. About a year later I heard that he had been seen locally, and after a search I tracked him down. I put a note under the door of his room, but he never responded: he was a very proud person, and I’m sure he did not want me to see him in a bad way.

In mid-June 2002 my doorbell rang at midnight, and two Ghanaian ladies from a nearby church appeared, bringing news of his death. There was no family in Britain except me; even his name was unknown to all except me, as he had used an alias. There was no-one else who could identify his body or give the coroner his true name and date of birth, so I went to the morgue and did those family things – all the more poignant for me because in death he strongly resembled his father, with whom I had kept company in an Accra clinic ten years before, spending nights on the bed (or floor) next to him while he died uncomplainingly of cancer.

Sackey’s story is all too common in our cities, and none the less tragic for that. He left no children, and his warmth and laughter were snuffed out by a world for which he was not adequately equipped, and in which he left nothing behind. Nobody except a handful of Ghanaian strangers came to his cremation; even I was abroad at the time.

This piece is my attempt to give Sackey a musical epitaph. A simple 25-bar refrain is gradually transformed, recurring four times. These four refrains are interspersed by four episodes, which give a musical portrait of aspects of Sackey’s life and character. After the fourth refrain comes the final section, Valediction, in which we hear his pulse (represented by flute, horn and viola) falter and cease, while the harp quietly plays the melody of a hymn which was a favourite of Sackey’s:

Rock the ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee…

2008 Giles Swayne