It was a promise I made.
We’re only as good as the promises we keep, even if those promises are made to ourselves and only ourselves. This promise I made to my best friend. The sort of promise you make when you’re young, never thinking you’ll ever have to do anything about it.
Wendy and John once promised each other that if they hadn’t settled down and married by the time they turned thirty then they’d marry each other. I treated my promise like theirs, but of course mine wasn’t a half arsed rejection. My promise was not about making myself and the person I loved second best. It wasn’t about giving up in the face of a real love that required commitment and effort. My promise was as big and real as they come.
And yet I held it at bay and did not fulfil it for such a very long time.
You see, there was no time limit on my promise. Once Paul died, I had all the time in the world to make good on the promise we had made each other.
I like to think that I avoided carrying out that one last task for Paul because I saw it as an acceptance of his death and I could never, ever accept that Paul was no longer here. With me. In the next room. On the end of the phone. Waiting in a pub. Always waiting because although he wasn’t Mr Punctual, I made a habit of being Mr Tardy.
The habit of my lateness defines me well beyond the matter of time. I am a victim and circumstances conspire against me. As a result, I hold a healthy wariness towards the world. It does not exactly like me. To visit the place I promised I’d visit would be to lay myself vulnerable in a way that I cannot cope with. It always felt like visiting with Paul’s fate. The discomfort I felt at the prospect of that meeting was too much to bare and so I put off that fateful day again and again.
Paul referred to the place of his birth and upbringing as brutiful – both brutal and beautiful. Old Mills was a throwback of a prosperous time. The mills were still there. They weren’t exactly satanic, but they were dark and foreboding. The chimneys were fingers bursting from their grave and clawing at the air. But to hear Paul talk of the place there was an obvious beauty that went far, far deeper than the surface. When Paul spoke of Old Mills, he quietly lit up and he reminded me of Russell Crowe in Gladiator as he told Marcus Aurelius of his home in Spain. Vulnerable, yet strong. I have always loved those unselfconscious moments when someone reveals the focal point of their passion. We are more alive in those moments than at any other time. We are more us.
Another reason for deferring the timing of my fulfilment of my promise to Paul was that I was never a patch on him. He had that passion, whereas I was calm. I never felt that I could do the moment justice, that I could not do Paul justice. I could not countenance failing my friend in this final act when I would have nothing left that I could do to make amends, and so I focused on that failure and that alone. Averting my eyes and ignoring the light that shone above them.
Excuses are lies. We all know that and yet we go right ahead and make excuses all the same. Putting something off until tomorrow or the next day is a denial. The promise was not the only task that I put off. Once you develop bad habits they stick and they infect the entirety of your life. I led an excuse of a life after Paul died. My grief was real and I needed that time, but I kept on stealing time long after I moved on. I moved on and I denied Paul every day after that. I made a graven image of him and built a shallow life of falsehood.
Why is the most difficult question of all and I’ll never have a suitable answer. Not a palatable one anyway. I did it because I could. We’re meat robots with bad programming. Our base protocols are contrary urges. I sometimes think we’ve been hacked, but the joke is that we are the hacker. Our propensity towards self-loathing compelling us to eschew reality and self-destruct in the most cowardly, sad and pathetic of ways.
Reality always wins in the end. The truth will out whether we like it or not. Our lies and the house of cards we construct with them will always topple. The harder we try to ignore that, the bigger the crash is. That’s the price we pay. The sad thing is that we all have to pay a price, it never had to hurt like this though. I earned the pain instead of dutifully paying the admission fee to life.
In the end, I just had to go and pay my respects. Commune with the reality of Paul’s passing. That it took me over two decades was shameful and I carried the weight of that awful embarrassment with me every step of the way whilst telling myself I had grown old. It wasn’t that I was old. It was that I had made myself ill. Crippled myself with bad choices.
As I made my pilgrimage and struggled up that hill, I thought of Paul. After all, I was here for him. I could think of little else as the door to my memories fell open and they spilled out. I’d been young once and I’d had dreams. The world had been laid out before me and I had an abundance of choices awaiting me. Once, I would have strode up this hill and conquered it with ease.
I wasn’t alone then though. Life is easier when you have company.
Walking up that hill hurt. It hurt in every way imaginable and no wonder, I’d retreated into my imagination and suffered more than I ever could in this world. I huffed and puffed and ached and memory after memory assailed me, reminding me of who I had been and the potential I had squandered.
The hill was small and the slope gentle, but it was more than equal to me. It may as well have been a mountain to the likes of me. Less than halfway up my head went down and I wondered whether I’d ever get to the top. But now I was here I would not countenance failure. I could not fail. This was something I should have done a very long time ago and now I was here I would do it. Not to do so seemed the biggest travesty of all. A betrayal of Paul. A betrayal of his memory. But also a betrayal of myself and who I had been when he was alive.
Halfway up the hill I realised that I was carrying my former self up that hill. I had to. I had to bring him up that hill for he was the man who had made the promise to Paul. Not me. I was an impostor.
As I walked ever upwards, a fog lifted and I saw what it was that I must do. What it was that I was doing. This was redemption. This was the fulfilment of more than one promise. I was a promise and I was owed this much.
At last I saw the bench and in that instant something changed within me. I was lighter somehow and that was when I remembered the plaque. I had seen the brass plaque that Paul’s mother had had engraved, but never where it belonged. My steps were more deliberate and surefooted as I approached the empty bench. I reached out with my fingertip and felt the indentations of Paul’s name. That touch made it all real. All of it.
I turned and sat on the bench, making space for the plaque and raising an inappropriately proprietorial arm up and resting it over the bench and Paul’s name. Then I took in the view that he had so loved. A view that was much a part of him as his voice and the questioning eyebrows he raised so often at me. Now, as I sat here and looked out over Old Mills I understood that Paul was a question. He challenged me and that challenge had made me want to be a better man.
I smiled as this dawned on me. I smiled because instead of feeling guilty and forlorn and ashamed, I felt more myself than I had in an age. I was back in touch with Paul here and he was the conduit through which I was reconnecting with myself.
An inexplicable feeling of peace and contentment rose up within me as I took in that view and thought of Paul and me. Me, the real me, not the facsimile that I had become, blaming Paul for leaving me when he’d never done anything of the sort.
“Hello Paul,” I said to the view before me.
“Late again, I see.”
I should have jumped out of my skin, but I didn’t. I was at peace for the first time in a long time and the sound of Paul’s voice only added to that.
“Better late than never,” I replied, my eyes remaining firmly fixed on the view.
“You say that…” Paul’s voice was closer now.
“You want me to apologise for letting life get in the way?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “because that would be a lie.”
Riled by his words, I turned to remonstrate with the phantom I had created, and there he was. Not sat in the place I had allotted for my fantasy of him, but one place away, at the end of the bench. He sat there casually as though the last twenty three years hadn’t happened and he sat there with a smile playing upon his lips and an eyebrow raised in a challenge I knew I was not up to.
“Hello Gary,” he said “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I didn’t say a word. Instead I let out the longest of breaths. I didn’t want to ruin this moment with banal commentary on the reality of my situation. But this wasn’t a fantasy. This was as far away from a fantasy as could be. This was all too real, so as the words came, I left them unspoken.
I’m not here.
This isn’t happening.
“I’m sorry that I never got around to making good on my promise,” I told Paul.
“Our promise,” he replied.
We’d both made the promise. Whoever remained when one of us passed. They were tasked with a pilgrimage such as this. A final reunion of sorts.
“Still…” I began.
“You’re here,” he said with a sad finality.
“With you,” I said.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“This is it then?” I asked him.
And the bugger laughed. He actually laughed. But then, that was Paul, “since when has this been it?” he asked me.
More melodrama from me. I had made this moment everything when we were always a part of something bigger. I felt that connection now. I felt part of something bigger.
“You’ve always been a part of something bigger,” Paul told me, “we are eternal. You have nothing to fear. Fear has never hurt you. It can’t hurt you. Only you can hurt you when it comes to the matter of fear.”
“My life story,” I said glibly.
But he was shaking his head, “not really it wasn’t. You got caught up in a passing moment. You have to forgive yourself for that. You have to let go.”
“But me no buts and if me no ifs,” he said, “just let go.”
“You say that,” I said tetchily, “but how do I let go?”
He smiled and that smile was the best smile I ever saw, “remember what counts. Put aside the noise. The fear. The anger. The shame. The hate. Everything that stops you from being you. You are not the name your parents gave you, how could you be? You are not that nose of yours, the nose you have always felt self-conscious about. You’re not your name, you’re not even your body. You refer to that as my body. Few of us ever take the time to try to understand what we actually are and who we actually are. You are not your feelings just the same as you are not the car you drive, or that holiday of a lifetime in South America. You’re not a job, a promotion or a pay rise. You’re not even Man United.”
I laughed then, and so did he. Man United had been one of his religions. It was said that if you’d snapped Paul in half he’d have the words Man United written inside him just like a stick of Blackpool rock.
As my laughter subsided I looked him in the eye and asked the burning question, “you let go of Man United?”
He nodded solemnly.
“What about Metallica?” that follow up was brutal, but it had to be done. Paul was Metallica as far as I was concerned. Or perhaps one of those double acts where you couldn’t have one without the other.
He frowned at me, then he grinned, “music is different,” he said sheepishly.
I returned his grin, “that makes sense.”
His grin faded, “however, you do have to be prepared to let go of all of it.”
“You let go of Metallica?” I asked him.
“Everything,” he replied.
I took a deep breath, not just out of habit, but because I wanted to feel that last breath and enjoy the simplicity of it, “I love you, mate.”
He nodded, and both of those eyebrows stayed down, “now that you will never let go of. That is all that matters. That is all that we are.”
I wasn’t there.
It never happened.
I was over a hundred miles away in a hospital bed. The terminal cancer had eaten and destroyed enough of me for my war with it to be over. I died peacefully with a knowing smile on my face. Because I was there and it did happen and I fulfilled the promise I made my best friend Paul in the end. Right at the end, when it counted the most.