• Giles Swayne
  • Epitaph and Refrain (2003)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • harp/flute/viola/horn
  • 12 min

Programme Note

On 10 June 2002 a Ghanaian man aged 44 died of heart failure as he was about to leave Central Middlesex Hospital in north-west London, after treatment for TB. His name was Nii Sackey Codje, and he was the brother of my ex-wife and one of the best and gentlest 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 menial job in order to save enough money to return to Ghana and make a decent life for himself. He saw no-one, apart from his sister and me, and did nothing except work, eat and sleep, sacrificing all normal comforts to the dream of a better future. For several years he did two jobs at once – one by day, one at night; but after a while he got a relatively secure job as a cleaner in a picture-frame factory. His dream was to learn gilding and become a framer himself.

In 1995 however, the factory closed and Sackey was made redundant. He was given a sum of redundancy money, and I begged him for the thousandth time to take his savings and return home immediately. But the years of isolation and hard work had taken their toll: in the absence of family and friends, his job had been the main structure in his life, without it, he secretly went to pieces, drinking more and more heavily, and gambling insanely on the National Lottery. Soon it was obvious that he had wasted all the money he had saved in ten years and was unable to go home.

His drinking, fuelled by despair, became worse; he found it difficult to pay his rent, and was thrown out by his odious landlord (whom, to my delight, he punched on the nose). For a couple of months he stayed with me; then we found him a hostel, and moved his jumble of possessions over there. There was even talk of his starting a course in gilding. But shortly afterwards he dropped out completely and left the hostel without telling me. About a year later I got word that he had been seen locally, and I searched for him until I found the guest house where he was living. I put a note under the door of his room, but he never responded; he was very proud and I am sure that he did not want me to see him in that state. After this, I heard nothing more and at the back of my mind, there was a terrible foreboding.

Then, in mid-June 2002, my doorbell rang at midnight. Two Ghanaian ladies from a nearby church appeared to break the news of his death. There was no family in Britain except me; even his real name was unknown to all except me. 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 things – particularly poignant, since in the relaxation of death he closely resemble his father, whom I had kept company in a squalid ward in an Accra clinic ten years before, spending the nights beside him while he died of bowel cancer.

Sackey’s story is all too common, but none the less tragic for that. He left no children, and his warmth and laughter were blotted out by a world for which he was not adequately equipped, leaving nothing behind. Nobody, except a handful of kind Ghanaian church people came to his cremation, which was paid for by the hospital where he died: even I was abroad at the time.

My piece is an attempt to give Sackey’s life a musical epitaph. A simple 25-bar refrain is gradually transformed, recurring four times. There 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 he harp quietly plays the melody of a hymn which was a favourite of Sackey’s:

“Rock of ages cleft for me.
Let me hide myself in thee…”

© Giles Swayne