Fallible Friends

My oldest friends and the ones I’d like to consider my best friends have always reliably disappointed me.  I get burned so frequently it’s bewildering and, at risk of sounding unnecessarily soppy, upsetting.

One of my earliest memories of this was aged fourteen or fifteen, being dropped by a parent at the cinema of a small town where we’d agreed to meet, only to discover that plans had changed but I wasn’t informed.  They weren’t there.  There were no mobile phones.

I went to see the film anyway, the first of many cinema screenings I would see alone.  At the end of Congo, a largely unmemorable film about a mountain Gorilla, I cried buckets.

There was the time not long after when I was dropped outside the house of a friend.  A big party was on, these parties had developed cult status, the host had a freer leash than most of us.  He was allowed to smoke at home.  I had finally been invited to one of these parties.  I had ARRIVED.  I found the house completely empty.  I was suddenly alone in a small countryside hamlet I didn’t know.  I walked for miles to find a phonebox.

I’m the last informed, the one people forget or don’t bother to tell.  Of course I can speculate (like you can), but I’ve never understood why.

They remain my oldest friends, but they’re inclined to do this even now I’m now back in the same city as several of them, a short walk away.  And I knew they would be.  Old friendships have been renewed.  I’ve been for drinks with a couple since returning; one has visited my new place: everything done at my instigation.  It was the latter guest’s birthday on Sunday and they all went for a pub dinner, another friend informed me by email.

“If you are offended at not being asked, dont be,” my friend’s email instructed.  “He barely wanted to have that and didnt invite anyone else either cos he’s not terribly fussed on his birthday.”

I did practically nothing at the weekend and had asked if one of the group fancied meeting up for a pint, only to receive a belated ‘too busy sorting for holiday’ reply.

You can do little more than accept it, raise an eyebrow, curl a lower lip, shrug.  Given my hopelessness with females, I’m not unfamiliar with borderline excessive inward-looking, what-the-FUCK-is-wrong-with-me? analysis.  But this sort of thing doesn’t exactly help to plump up the ego either.  It gets really bloody cold out here.

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Dead Dog

Klinsmann had been going downhill for a while.  He was getting slower on rare walks, which were shorter than ever, and limped gingerly when he rose after a sleep.  Cocking his leg looked like it took too much effort and he’d recently taken to squatting.  They knew there was a lump.  It was just about how big, how fast.  Now he’d begun yelping and whining when he moved up and down steps.

Graham knew it was probably curtains.

In the hallway he crouched down and looked Klinsmann in those big soppy eyes.  Face-to-face with his reliable old friend, Graham held Klinsmann’s head, tugged at his sad drooping jowls before scratching behind both his ears.  The Labrador closed his eyes, enjoying the soothing nails of his master like he’d enjoyed them hundreds of times before.  Graham stopped scratching; the dog opened his eyes and looked at him.  What?

Klinsmann slunk out onto the driveway and looked at the car.  Leaping into the back of the car had long been out of the question.  Do we have to? his face asked Graham.   Afraid so pal, Graham leaned down and took the dog in his arms, lifted him up and onto an old rug which lay across the floor of the boot.  He felt Klinsmann wince and tighten before whining as he touched down onto the rug.

Sssshhh.  Easy now.

Graham had bought the young puppy when he was on the cusp of giving up.  As much as he tried, other people still didn’t seem to work for him.  Or he didn’t work for other people.  Maybe both.  Graham worked alone from a small converted office room of his house.  Always of modest ambition, he didn’t mind his work itself.  But he was growing sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and bored and lonely, and not having conversations with anyone for days on end, sometimes weeks; of barely having any relationships at all.  He pretended it was all fine to anyone he did speak to, of course, because that’s what you do.  Saying anything else scared people and made him sound like a self-obsessed idiot.  If ever he did say anything, they gave empty platitudes and he nodded and shrugged.  It was all rather pointless, so he stopped doing it after a certain age.

Having been raised around them, Graham always liked dogs and often entertained the idea of keeping one.  The idea wasn’t one which could be realised while he rented properties, but after buying his first place – yet  another new start in another part of town which would surely herald new things (what those ‘things’ were exactly, he wasn’t sure) – getting a dog was a realistic option.   It was a greener part of town too, with easy access to other parts of the country.  Walking would be good for both of them.

Conversely, he took up light smoking around the same time, despite never smoking before in his life.  Once he got the hang of it, the breathing and taking it in properly, it was enjoyable, a sensation like no other.  There would be no global disaster if it sped up his time to expiry.

Like the smoking, Klinsmann made him calmer, less anxious.  That was, once the frenetic puppy years and misbehaviour were done with.  He became a handsome, fit and noble looking young dog; people said they complimented each other well.  They looked at them both, admiring the affable dog and pretending not to glance over Graham with that mixture of pity and sympathy.  They thought that by now he would have found a..  Perhaps there was something wrong with him.  But maybe the dog would help with.. you know? some had suggested.

Over their thirteen and a half years together, there were a couple of possibilities which withered and faded as quickly and predictably as a struck match, nothing which Graham invested much meaning in.  His pessimism didn’t stop him from trying or hoping, but maybe it still shone through somehow, or he continued to exude whatever it was that consistently repelled.  Klinsmann and tobacco became effective crutches.

dog

The dog was good company too, a trusty dependable and dependent friend who could offer genuine affection of some kind, as well as a physical presence, from a buoyant puppy to a slow old dog.  The blonde blot on the floor plodded from room to room towards the end, grumbling and groaning in search of sunbeams which never stayed in the same bloody place.  He only became human.

*

Graham cut the car engine in the tight car part of the surgery and looked glumly ahead at the brick wall, concentrating on his breathing, not losing it too soon.  A glance in the rear mirror showed no excitable golden crown of Klinsmann’s head.  He didn’t care where they were, or he already knew.  The dog recoiled when Graham first tried to scoop him out of the boot, his eyes large and doey, his ears low and defeated.  Touching the cement, his rear legs bent and he expelled a small trickle of piss.  He squatted and gained some command of the flow.  They stood in the car park under an overcast, drizzling sky, watching the unusually luminous liquid running down the slope of the car park.  Many minutes had been spent over the last thirteen and a half years waiting for Klinsmann to piss.  Together they hobbled slowly into the surgery, Graham swallowing hard.

The Labrador’s hind legs buckled accommodatingly when Graham deposited him on the examination table.  Klinsmann flinched and tightened as the Vet inspected regions where he wasn’t used to being touched.  He was simply too exhausted to growl, although Graham could sense that he wanted to.  Ssh now, Graham smoothed his velvety ears, the fur there not as coarse as it had grown elsewhere.

The tumour had indeed grown, the Vet confirmed.  Can’t expect it to get better I’m afraid.  In pain now, aren’t you?  Graham nodded too, his eyes filling in direct correlation with the horrid, inexorable direction of the conversation.  His hand didn’t leave brave Klinsmann’s head.

The Vet delicately inserted a needle into Klinsmann’s rear left thigh, and pressed home the lethal fluid.  Off you go boy.  Thanks, Graham whispered, gently cradling the dog’s head in his hands.  Klinsmann’s chest stopped rising and falling, no air came from his nostrils, the Vet walked across to the other side of the room.  Graham wept silently, bent over his dead dog.  When he finally stood up straight, wiping his stinging eyes, the Vet looked at him from a table where he was feigning attendance to paperwork.  Seeing this kind of thing became tiring.  He looked at Graham, level and sober.  I’m sorry.  For the best.  Do you want to take him or..?  We can look after him here, if you..?  Miriam at reception can sort out the details.

Graham hadn’t thought about that.  He had nowhere to really.  Not in his small, untended garden where nothing grew.  He remembered digging graves for the dogs of his childhood: the mud sweat and tears.  What then?  Was it really worth..?  It was just the body of a dead dog now, after all.  Graham looked down at the perfectly still Labrador once more and kissed the top of his head.  Then he stroked him one last time, from his spongy nose, over his skull, neck, bobbles of spine and down to the tip of his tail, which he gripped in the fist of his right hand.  Bye lad.

Graham swallowed again, feeling his cheeks tearstained and grubby but not caring.  He took a handful of tissues from a tactfully positioned box, wiped his cheeks and blew his nose.  He turned around, thanked the Vet and accepted the forms he was proffering, before walking out of the room.  The lady at reception accepted the forms and offered him those sympathetic, pitying looks he was used to receiving and she was used to giving out.  Punchdrunk, he unthinkingly signed his name, gave a bank card and entered his pin number.

The house was empty when he stepped back inside the front door.  No fond, doddery old boy welcome, no other movements, no presence, no groaning or sly blipping farts.  Only stillness and ticking.  A faint waft of him – perhaps not as faint for visitors, he was used to it; patches of moulted hair which needed hoovering, his empty basket, that picture of him on that Welsh mountainside looking all regal, pretending he was Lassie.

removal

Ambling down the main high street with open and sober eyes for the first time in a long time, I noted all the shop changes: the ubiquitous supermarket chains which had ceded banks in ornate corner buildings, the prime-located bar properties with boarded up windows, providing only an advertising platform for other entertainment, ongoing pedestrianisation construction work which was making an eyesore of one area.  Not much of it was pretty.

It was that dead time shortly after most office workers’ home time and before any revellers hit the town; human traffic was sparse and fleeting.  I turned right at the end of the road, past the castle and onto the main pedestrianised shopping street.  I glanced into travel agents at managers’ specials, yearning for heat, a break before starting this whole thing properly.

But it had started properly already.  I was all moved-in now and had finally completed my construction of Ikea furniture.  Hours and hours of sweat and strain and swearing.  It wasn’t all seamless but it stood up, didn’t buckle or collapse with its contents.  Or hadn’t yet.  Standing back to admire the books I’d placed on a newly assembled bookcase felt like a watershed adult moment: arrival of a kind.  Thirty years old in a few months.  Now I felt it, but suddenly it wasn’t all that bad.

I had moved myself from one capital to another, single-handed in one day, which wasn’t easy.    Much lifting and carrying led to the aching of muscles I was unaware I had and bleary after four separate three-hour drives.

The final journey from London to Cardiff was miserable.  Having cleaned, cleared and packed up my small flat, I looked back at its dark emptiness, still not wanting to go, and slumped onto my old small sofa one last time.  Much as I liked my new flat, its space and size and reasonable location, I liked London better than Cardiff.  It had more; more everything.  Things could have been different here if..  Too many ifs.  Things weren’t different.  I stood from the sofa and left the flat: 10.30pm on Saturday evening.  Trundling my way through West London towards the motorway I saw people done-up for their Saturday nights, young bottle blonde girls exhibiting a little too much flesh, a swaggering hopeful teen.  Traffic headlights blotched and blurred through watery eyes and mournful acoustic singer-songwriters whined: songs about endings, change, new starts.

*

I wandered on down the pedestrianised shopping street early yesterday evening, conscious of my headphones.  Their lurid blue and different design felt more ostentatious here, somehow.  I was paranoid and inaccurately exaggerating the parochialism of the place.  They probably did sell them here too.  They had chain shops and the internet; it was developed.  It just wasn’t London.  Less had changed on this street and the same stores had largely remained.

Did I want to sit down and have a pint?  I had an enjoyable book, the weather was overcast but perfectly ok to sit outside for half an hour.  Pints were cheaper here.  I shunned a rough Wetherspoons for a classier looking bar I half remembered.  For a second I considered the possibility of bumping into someone I knew from my time here before leaving five years ago.  Come on, it’s not THAT small a city, I dismissed myself and the idea.  The chance was slim.

The first section of the bar was practically dead, but for a table of young female office workers.  I glanced around a pillar as I approached the bar and saw a table of two guys my own age.  Our eyes connected and held.  We’d worked across a desk from each other for four months about seven years ago and hadn’t kept in touch.  Never matey, I always felt he didn’t like me but was never sure if he exuded that to most other guys; only a year older, there was a certain superior aloofness which was never quite aggressive enough to be arrogance.  It’s possible that he was threatened somehow, despite, or even because we were similar, with similar interests and skillsets, perhaps characters too.

For a second I dithered after saying hello, explaining my newbie situation.  He gave his own appraisal then said he had a similar pair of headphones to those which hung round my neck, except his were the next grade up.

Still a tosser then?  No, he didn’t say it in that one-upmanship way.  He was all right.

Was he all right?  Or was he a tosser?  I never had worked it out.

Did I want to impose anyway?  Yeah, go on, he’s probably decent enough really, maybe matured a bit, smart enough guy.  If he thinks I’m a tosser it doesn’t matter as I’ll probably never see him again anyway.  Steady on.  Smaller town, remember?  You can’t apply that as readily here as you could in London.

Ah, bollocks.

“Dyou mind if I join you?”  For a line which often requires a degree of boldness, it can also be difficult to say no to that: as if it contains its own inherently respectable power.  They affably agreed, moved their bags to make space, declined the offer of a drink and I got a pint.

I only stayed half an hour, a weak pint of bitter’s length.  We spoke of the university administration where he worked; public and private sector differences, careers, the directions our lives had taken over the last seven years.

He looked at his phone and said he should be going soon.  Keen not to encroach any further on their time, I gulped the last mouthful of bitter down the wrong pipe, obstructing the smoothness of my departure and damaging the up until then credible social performance I’d given.  Now momentarily reddened and spluttery, I shook hands and gave the business cards requested, donned my outdated headphones and found a new way home.

Putting things in boxes

“Do you have a box, Patrick?” the Headmaster of our village primary school asked my friend at the beginning of assembly.  Even aged 10 or somewhere around there, I was tickled by Sir’s banal question and stifled a giggle. I strangely loved Sir’s inanities at these cosy assemblies.

The memory returned as I was retrieving cardboard boxes from the eaves of the building in preparation for my move: large sturdy boxes capable of transporting books and pictures, imprinted with the names of obscure independent grocers who couldn’t possibly still exist in these recessionary times.

boxes

I pulled the brown cardboard nest through the small hatch and into the attic bedroom of my flat, increasingly populated with boxes, plastic bags, miscellaneous tins, probable junk, suitcases, smaller bags and strewn clothing.  And I’ve continued to mull it as I’ve gone about counting down the last things – the last time I’ll do this or go there, and regretting the things I’ve missed, forgotten or never got round to doing.

There’s a broader need for boxes.  When certain real-life chapters end and begin it’s difficult to perceive them in a segregated, neatly ordered way.  It’s more natural to feel it as one linear chain of indigestible noise – which is how we experience it at the time.

“Life is just one damned thing after another.”
Elbert Hubbard US author (1856 – 1915)

It’s hard to compartmentalise, box up experience and place it to one side; to neatly shelve times, places and people before taking a deep breath and another step forward, having another go.  Although this is what we tell ourselves we must do, particularly if recent experience is unsavoury and not one we’d wish to replay.  Put it behind you, move on.

It’s possible that ability to segregate comes with greater age and even more retrospection.  (I could read this in thirty years and think: oh yes, my blogging period, what a prick).

But amidst change, relatively young adulthood and eighteen-month hops of experience, memory doesn’t tend to have fixed borders.  It segues to and fro, slopping dangerously over the sides, ignoring our laughably empty pleas: we’ve changed, we’re different now, we have moved on, that’s all in the past.

We try because it’s human instinct: self-preservation through self-image, to feel as if we’re developing, evolving, learning and growing through the experience of change.  Not simply making one clumsy guess after another.

This wasn’t really what our Headmaster was driving at though, even in a primary school simplified manner.  He just wanted to talk about boxes.

“Um, probably Sir,” Patrick said.