A long time ago, there was a friendship.
It started at school, probably around 1976 or ’77, and it ended in 1989, just like that. One day on, the next day off. I’m sure it was a typical male friendship in many ways: inseparable friends, similar tastes, similar sense of humour, voices that sounded uncannily alike. When you choose friends at that age (13/14), I suppose you’re looking for an ideal mirror self, someone to reflect back a better version of you.
When I look back at it, I see it through a long lens, and my memories are sketchy and unreliable. I need to practice remembering more, but it’s hard. It was 45 years ago after all, and the last time I really put some effort into remembering was about 20 years ago. My somewhat jaundiced view of that friendship now is that it was often imbalanced, asymmetrical; at the same time, I’m sure that he feels or felt exactly the same way a lot of the time.
A couple of things have prompted me to think about the past. I picked up my younger daughter from Nottingham today. On the way up there, alone in the car, I played some of my own music, written and recorded in the early noughts, in other words about 20 years ago, when I was doing a lot of remembering. Why was I listening to this music? I just do sometimes. I critique my own efforts.
And then on the way back from Nottingham (now listening to Sinatra), I passed through the village of Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire. There’s a BP petrol station there, which just happens to be the last place I saw my once best friend.
Our friendship survived my leaving school early and moving down to Kent for a bit. Grew stronger in fact, because it was only then that I realised how important I was in his life. Before that, I’d always felt the asymmetry, especially during school summer holidays. He only lived across town, but I usually saw nothing of him between July and September. Partly this was because I was and am useless at just picking up the phone, I’m sure.
But it was when I moved down to Herne Bay that he wrote me a long letter laying out his feelings. So the friendship grew even closer for a few years. We were even in a band together for a while; he didn’t keep up with it and I carried on with three other musicians. We played a few gigs; he would come along to watch. By this time, middle of the 80s, my contact with him was intermittent, going through intense phases of seeing each other a lot, followed by months of nothing. Our once parallel lines were slowly diverging. This happened around the time he met the girl he would marry. Didn’t see him for months, and then he turned up to announce he was engaged. That was an odd occasion. We had gone for a walk along the railway track behind my house and he broke the news. And the way he said it was, it was as if he wanted me to stop him. Which I didn’t. I was kind of emotionally withdrawn because he had been seeing this girl for a few months and I had seen virtually nothing of him.
I wasn’t invited to the wedding. His parents had never approved of me, or at least, not after a while. Fair enough: I never much liked them. His mum was all right, but his dad seemed cold and distant, with no sense of humour. I think they blamed me for his failure at school. Once I had left, he had given up. The problem, of course, had been that he’d lost interest a long time before, and was only continuing with school for social reasons. Once the social reason started to be less compelling, he was done with it. And then I think they blamed me for whatever teenage rebelliousness he exhibited, at whatever time. Perhaps they had high hopes for him, career-wise, but the truth was he wasn’t particularly academic, and, like me, he suffered from a peculiar lack of ambition. Neither of us was interested in getting a job and having a fucking career.
Anyway, we went out, the two of us, for a drink before the wedding. It wasn’t a stag night: neither of us could drink much because we were both driving. I don’t remember what we talked about, apart from one thing. He went off and got married. She was a nice enough girl: pretty, funny; although I personally couldn’t see whatever it was he saw in her. She didn’t have the spark, was just an ordinary girl: too mainstream, too normal, too ordinary.
And then, pretty soon, he started coming round again, a lot, without her, and pretty soon they were separated and she was suing him for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, which included spending all his time round my house.
We’d had a conversation on the eve of his wedding, which was when I knew the marriage was doomed. He’d more or less said he didn’t want to go through with it. And when I asked how he’d ended up in this situation, he confessed that he couldn’t bring himself to be mean to her for the one moment it would take to finish it. I also suspect, though I have little evidence for this, that he was a bit scared of her father. I think he was a little frightened of what her dad would do, should he break her heart. But then he did anyway. Should I have said something? It’s general policy not to get involved, right? Should I have encouraged him to call it off, even if it was the last minute?
And of course it would have been kinder in the long term to have told her, but it just wasn’t in him. A form of passive aggression, I suppose, because in the end the meanness was in marrying her and then leaving her alone night after night after night.
What is that? A peculiar self-image, tying so much up in being (at least on the surface) a nice guy. He always wanted to be cool, laid-back, relaxed, easy-going, even-tempered. I envied him his disposition; I was always up and down, the proverbial rollercoaster – or dodgem car, more like, always crashing. But then, my turmoil was always inside: the face presented to the world is a quiet and cool exterior. I’m the one you stick with on the first day at school because I always know where I’m going—or look as if I do.
After the breakup he disappeared to Australia for several months, and when he returned, well, things had taken a turn. I suddenly saw him very differently, saw through him, I suppose. For years, the pattern of our relationship was built around the fact that I was the still, steady centre and he would go off into his cometary orbit and return now and again to regale me with all his amazing stories and exploits.
But all of a sudden I stopped believing in his act. He left the house one night and never returned. I never said anything and nor did he, although he may have spotted the odd eye roll, or look exchanged between my then girlfriend and me.
There remain two more things to mention. The last time I saw him, I was commuting home to Buckingham from Nottingham, and I passed that BP garage on the A5 at Weedon Bec. Standing by one of the pumps was a biker, in leathers, helmet off, blonde hair. There was a familiarity to his posture, a kind of curvature of the spine and the shoulders that made me certain it was him. It was a mere moment, I was passing by at 30 miles per hour, accelerating, and I didn’t stop.
And it was before that, in the first flurry of social networking, that someone I’d been at school with passed his work email address to me. It turned out that – more than a decade after he’d returned from Australia full of beans and full of plans to return, to emigrate, as soon as he possibly could – that he was still working in the same job he’d had since he left school. In the same period of time, I’d given up my first job, done three university degrees, got married, had kids, and started a whole new career in a different part of the country. I was also about to quit that and go into teaching. And there he was, exposed, it seemed to me, as the fabulist he had always been. Where are they now? I wrote, in one of my songs: All those legendary friends?
I think he was just back from the pub, or he’d surely never have entertained an exchange of emails. I was honestly surprised he was still working at the same place, sitting in the same office, getting on for 20 years after he’d started. But he hadn’t changed.
‘I’ve got to get a plan,’ he wrote, as if the trip back to Australia was still on his mind. I was actually embarrassed for him. It was no skin off my nose if he was still working in the same old job – all jobs are a shitty imposition on our free time, so who fucking cares? But to read him still talking about escaping in the same old way, using the same old words, was disconcerting. Anyway, I’m sure as soon as he sobered up he regretted the conversation, brief as it was.
I think his employer closed down in the end, and I believe (only because it was mentioned in the blurb of a television programme I never watched) he moved on to train as a firefighter at an airport: ever the hero in his own mind, I guess.
Anyway, I wrote this song after I saw him at the BP garage, and it contains all my disdain for his bullshit. One of my self-critiques is that too many of my lyrics were allusive, at one remove from what I was really writing about. I would use abstract nouns rather than concrete; something like that, anyway. That’s definitely a fault with this, but I know who it’s about.
4 responses to “Dreaming of the past”
Good to hear your voice again; the familiarity of tone, the familiarity – almost – of tune. Interesting dissection of a relationship, too.
Thanks, John. I think you’re saying all my songs – almost – sound the same, which is probably true. It’s all one song, John.
You have inspired me to make contact with an old mate from my days of working in outback. He has had a triple bypass and my heart and lungs are screwed from the life we have lived. We have made a pact that before we die we will once more visit the parts of our country that mean the most to us and screw what anyone thinks or says.
Thanks, Mick. Take is slowly, then!