“Why ask me? He must know other people better.” This was the first time I had met Miriam. “I haven’t even spoken to him as a grown up, are you sure I’m the right person to go?” I guess she had her reasons but her answer is unexpected. “Well, he talks of you constantly I think you kind of inspired him to be who he is, No?” This kind of threw me; I always thought it were the other way around.
We had been very good friends. But then that was way back when and well before he completed any of his known work. We knew each other at school, out of contact for some time yet once inseparable. Back then I sort of knew he would be big, though not perhaps his grand fame. I can’t remember him ever being interested in such things. We had had other hobbies, adventures around the forests and countryside that made up the landscape near the school or perhaps after lights out raids to the kitchen store.
He had spoken to us of his thoughts, opened our eyes to the world and the possibilities that lay ahead, that we were here to prepare for. In his way he cajoled us to follow his lead rarely to be discovered or ever get into trouble. We depended on his invention and learnt not to question his reason in a blind trust. He had had wild locks of blond hair, never combed and big wondering eyes that gave him an atmosphere of a trouble maker. This attracted gossip from his peers, the stories he himself dispelled but we anyway wanted to believe.
Regrettably his father had changed job near the end of our schooling and he and family moved overseas giving a premature end to our friendship. Some said it was to Brazil for diplomatic work others talked of strange Asian countries, Myanmar, Laos or Indonesia where he was employed in extracting oil. However, I knew none of these stories were true as I had received a postcard from Galicia. I never said anything to the others. His father had suddenly retired and started small scale farming preferring to keep the family closer at hand.
My last memory of him other than later photographs in glossy art magazines and an occasional newspaper article was on the grass outside the school that the visitor’s cars circled to pick up a border and his trunk. He never looked back as the car pulled away and this had upset me. It felt as though he had already forgotten about our friendship. This image stuck with me for years; brought back every time I had to say goodbye at an airport or station to girlfriend, family or friends making the partings sadder than they ought to have been.
This was very different though I now had the opportunity to dispel the old image, forget the abrupt goodbye and restart our friendship after years of non existence. The images I now have are older than the goodbye; our gang camping on a hill overlooking the school grounds or hiding late at night in the kitchen to avoid a prefect. A sense of adventure has taken over; the school’s bicycle replaced by a hire car and map.
More images flash past as I get closer. The time when I had lost the others and Dan had found me crying and sheltering from the rain in a disused bus stop; he never told anyone how scared I had been to be on my own. He comforted me, telling me in his knowing way something that I’d repeat to myself at various stages of my life “No one ever has to be on their own, in fact it’s strange to like the idea of it.”
I had left the motorway on Miriam’s instructions and the roads had narrowed and now had no centre markings. The overgrown fields were encroaching on both sides making driving more hazardous than necessary. The landscape is unusually green for a Spanish trip the locals a little older than expected. Miriam had told me to forget about Sangria and paella and try to imagine I was in Wales. So far her descriptions had rung true. My limited Spanish even less useful because the locals would mix in Galician to a response for directions. I knew the village was close perhaps I was thrown by my thought of its proximity to the sea; the coast was out of view. I slow the car to a crawl as a group of stone farm houses come closer. One acts as a bar only noticeable by a rusty beer sign that hangs at right angles to the building above the door.
The barman is big. His shirt doesn’t button up and a collar size two times bigger wouldn’t go round his neck. The whiff of stale perspiration and cigarettes is thick and pungent a smell that only an older man could make. He has a look of mild annoyance in his eyes that I convince myself is a natural expression and not because I’m clearly foreign. I ask for directions that he shows no sign of understanding then acknowledges something to himself with a gruff then nods in the direction of a table at the far side of the room, furthest from the door. There a man sits alone slumped over a table an empty wine glass pushed away in annoyance. I begin to understand that he is who I have come to see. I ask for two glasses of whatever he had drunk, not wine, something much stronger that is poured from a clear bottle with no label or trademark. It smells sweet and excessively alcoholic, the type of liquor that turns the inexperienced drinker’s face red in an instant. Still holding the glasses I wrap a foot around a chair leg and pull it free of the table. The grating sound of metal on the ceramic floor wakes the man, raising his head as he fumbles for his spectacles. One lens is missing so he makes do by closing one eye and squinting with the other. His hair is grey and disorganised his face showing the lines of worry. I look for signs of my school friend in the man and it is the eyes that give him away; that same mischievous look that caught everyone’s attention all those years ago.
During the journey I had thought he might have trouble recognising me but that idea is quickly dispelled as he lets out a series of expletives both in the local dialect and English that changes to laughter. “Did you come by pushbike?” He sniggers to himself in amusement of his own joke. “Did she send you?” Dan had a way of quickly working things out. “Yes, she’s very worried Dan and to be honest she scared me a little.” Dan smiles at my concern, his eyes lighting up as if a game were about to begin.
He stands abruptly and looks me up and down while letting out a gasp of surprise in an attempt to wipe out his drunken humour and clean the air. The bear like hug is strong and honest as he makes long eye contact with a hand now on each of my shoulders. “I can’t believe you’re here, do you forgive me? I think I’m paying for my selfishness later in life.” He didn’t make much sense to me but I had forgiven him years before, probably when I first saw some of the familiar landscapes he painted to earn his fame.
His cottage is perched between two outcrops of granite the width narrow to occupy the space and sat, made up of four story single rooms the last two made up as bedrooms. The staircase seemed to be an after thought; angling sharply as not to take up much needed living space. The kitchen was extremely dirty. A layer of grease blackened the hobs and let off a burnt smell as he heated a cafeteria. Later, after a late lunch of lean meats and cheese, the conversation came close to the reality of the situation. I knew this moment would come but it had to wait a little longer until after reminiscing our youth; Dan filling in the detail of our years of separation.
“I hated England; the most unlikely of things giving the reward of daring to come back home. The dumplings in China Town, the second hand book shops and being unknown in the big city.” I think he was trying to excuse his absence from our friendship. “I had little commitments other than immediate family. I had tried to stay with a couple who had children of similar age to our own but that went bad after two days. It seemed to destroy everything that had gone before. This made me nervous of visiting other friends. Perhaps I wanted them to remember me how I was. Maybe you’ll find this a little selfish; someone as vain as me who desperately wants to remain the same despite aging and adding complexes.” I tried imaging myself in his place but couldn’t. The thought of being away scared me. Even holidays I kept short in case I missed something back home, silly things, a news item or piece of gossip from a neighbour. However, being here with Dan didn’t seem like a trip overseas. It felt like coming home.
Dan’s father had been a very big influence over his opportunities. I’ll come to why shortly but Dan had helped me understand my own father. He taught me to ignore him as he never seemed satisfied with both his and my own choices. My father kind of despised my stamina to stay at the same thing; I think he envied the respect I got from others for being a known person in my field. Once, at a younger cousins wedding, he had tried to belittle me with a comment “There’s always someone bigger or better.” I can remember the conversation, the objects in the room and my mother looking up; concerned how I was going to react. I never countered him, my mother reading my expression correctly, calm in knowing that I respected him but could never be the same. Dan’s father, well his life was a great mystery. The kind of mystery you could read in a spy novel where the protagonist has a double life. I had mentioned this to Dan at school but he dispelled it at once admitting to me he would have trouble living up to his father’s work and felt the pressure way before finishing school. The move to Galicia had changed his view. He had seen his father vulnerable and conversely had improved Dan’s prospects, given him the freedom to tackle his life and hit on something that made him.
All this time I can’t remember him coughing. Not In the bar, nor the walk back to the cottage and even during lunch. This had even caused me to doubt what Miriam had said, since meeting Dan again it hadn’t been important why I was here, away from my family and on the request of a stranger. There wasn’t a cause for the fit. It just happened. He lifted the small coffee cup to his mouth, paused as if distracted momentarily. His chest lifted and he lurched forward as if to vomit. Something was caught in his throat perhaps, maybe some lunch. He stood then reached out for a napkin; unused and still folded diagonally to form a sail shape. He turned his back to me and started coughing hideously. This went on for longer than appeared healthy, stopped then he embarrassingly side stepped to the bathroom to emerge a moment later completely groomed and smiling. I knew then that Miriam, who I thought had exaggerated a little, may have been right to ask for my help. I had seen this before. A work colleague had had the same cough then suddenly died. He was more open about his condition and once had shown me the blood, a warm red that contrasted dramatically on white tissues. “It’s a build up, sometimes a mornings worth or if it’s a good day it doesn’t happen till I get home yet either way beyond repair.” My old colleague’s words coming back to me as I retraced the conversation with Dan.
“There’s something I wanted to show you.” His words had a planned edge. “I found it well before someone mentioned it to me; this made me think that was kind of meant to be, that it had some importance to things.” The path narrowed, bent to the left to take out the steepness of the climb. “We’re nearly there. Don’t worry it’s worth the extra effort.” His energy had increased since the journey had begun; the importance of what he wanted to show me quickening his pace. “Here we are. Amazing isn’t it?” The view was stunning; a rocky top to a short hill overlooking the old town. Someone had even manoeuvred the boats into a perfect position ready for a landscape artist to depict the scene. “But you have your back to the rock.” I turned from the view to read his expression. “Go on touch it.” He was looking at the rock that sat above us, perched on smaller versions of itself. “I placed a suspicious palm on its cool dry surface a little confused to its importance. “Push for Christ’s sake, push.” This was one of Dan’s jokes and my mind wandered back to the school days when he played similar tricks on me. I would look silly when the boulder didn’t move and be reminded of my gullibility for the rest of the day. But to my surprise the super massive boulder moved, just a few millimetres but it moved. It must have weighed over twenty tons. Dan reached out just one finger and repeated the experiment with a look of wow on his face. “To the locals it has lost its mysticism but I see it as a sign from the past when we were still spiritual. Those times are gone but that legacy is still here teaching us how to live. Or you could look at it this way: The boulder represents our life with all that we have experienced yet it rests on a small point, a worry and we balance there a small force able to tip us up despite that weight of experience. What do you think?” I was struggling with his interpretation. “What is the worry?” I had at least the opportunity to get him to reveal something. “The worry is just a metaphor, it changes p!
person yet everyone has one, don’t they?” I understood his point but we both knew we were there for him and we were talking around the subject in hand.
We sat with our back to the boulder studying the view. It was late afternoon and the village was coming back to life after the extended hours for lunch. Delivery vans wound their way through the narrow streets below stopping occasionally to off load bread or boxes of unknown contents. “Did you come here with Miriam?” I try to cover up my failed attempt of getting him to speak of his worries. “Sure, many times. In fact she usually suggested the walk.” Dan seemed to be reminiscing. “So, why are you guys living separately now? You don’t appear to have many differences.” Dan didn’t answer. “Why so late in your lives did you decide that?” Dan had the back of his hand in his mouth as he used to do at school when thinking deeply. “It’s such a basic difference that I can’t believe the split didn’t happen sooner. It’s as if our whole lives were misused considering the weight of the thing.” Miriam hadn’t told me this part, I knew about the cough and not wanting to see a doctor but this was something else. “What Dan? What thing?” He looked annoyed that I was persisting. “It doesn’t matter what, just that it exists and it’s irresolvable. Can we leave it at that?” I stopped kidding myself that he may tell me. “Of course if she comes round to my way of thinking then I’ll welcome her back. Be the best husband in the world and be her slave for the rest of my life; if that’s what it will take.” At least I could tell Miriam he missed her. That was something.
There was now a slight edge to our company; the walk back silent. He slowed up the last hundred metres to the cottage, delaying arrival knowing he would have to say something. He stopped just short of the front door, shuffled on his feet while retrieving the key from a trouser pocket. “I’ve a good bottle of Brandy in the kitchen, why don’t you stay outside on the bench while I retrieve it and we finish the day with a few drinks?” He had started to make sense, the idea settling the angst of the walk and conversation at the boulder.
The brandy was good. It affected me, relaxed the conversation as Dan filled out some missing detail from his life. The time he worked in Australia, the women of south East Asia or the people of the Himalayas. A little about his current work that he needed to practice discussing before the critics asked any questions. And then he asked. I was surprised at first but it seemed to make sense of our meeting and conversation. “Will you write my obituary?” He said after a lull in the conversation. “Sure.” I said “How would you like it? The version that ends now or the one that guesses the next twenty years?” He liked that, or at least he liked the thought of it. “I’m a little obsessed with the mark I’ll leave. In a way that’s more important to me than the art. Something about learning to live with a name and keeping it alive; it’s not for me though. It’s for the family. Maybe it can help them.” I wasn’t sure it seemed a little too much of a dark thought even with the brandy.
“There’s one thing though. I’m no writer. You’ll have to send it for editing or something.” Dan nodded. “I think the point is in life you have to be a little selfish or at least to a point that you can live with. Miriam will understand that. I want that to be the message; you know the thing between the lines for those that know me. I’ve been absent in people’s lives but I’ve had to do that to achieve my greatest work. I’ve done that with you too. That’s why I want you to write it. I want to say I’m sorry but I had fun.” I emptied the remains of the bottle into the glasses and we fell silent again.
The journey back to the airport seemed too soon after my arrival. As if I only had a passing curiosity in Dan’s life and needn’t stay longer. I had slept well that night but I sensed Dan hadn’t. I think he wanted me to stay, he could’ve been scared at the thought of being on his own again but I couldn’t be sure. “Can I come back and visit you with the family?” Dan looked pleased at my request. “Just a few days we won’t interrupt your work.” Dan looked down to his shoes momentarily pondering the thought. “I would love you all to come; it’s just that it has to be soon, very soon.” I ignored the darkness of his reply and simply smiled.
As I pulled off I had the familiar flashback of him leaving school preferring to momentarily stop the car wind down a window and shout back “I won’t forget our conversation at neither the boulder nor our friendship, see you very soon my old friend.” He held his hand to his mouth and if I could read his mind I’m sure he too was reminising our last goodbye.
I didn’t mind being the go between; I sort of revelled in such a role. I already had a plan, an invention that would have worked at school, something to get Dan to do what we all daren’t. That had been my role in our old friendship; I was his kind of sponsor without ever knowing my real importance. I guess I still had to keep doing the same; the person to move the great weight of his worry with a simple push so life could move on.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Tim Martin.
Published on e-Stories.org on 14.03.2011.