SENSITIVE CONTENT: Death, alcohol abuse, mental health.
I was in work when my brother called to tell me Willo Hicks had died. It was a cold Tuesday in early March. I thought of the joke.
What did Willo Hicks die of?
He died of a Tuesday.
'Ray, are you there?' said my brother.
'Yeah,' I said, 'sorry, I zoned out for a moment.'
'I did the same when I heard,' he said.
A pause followed like the space between scenes of a movie. Finally, my brother spoke.
'No details yet about a funeral or anything. I'll keep you posted.'
I thanked him and hung up.
I'd known Willo since we were little kids but in our twenties, we'd lost touch. Then, out of the blue, about three months before his death, he'd sent me a message suggesting we meet up. I replied saying it was a good idea but for one reason or another, it never happened. My brother and a few of the lads met up with him in late January. He later admonished me for not going.
'I have kids, life is busy, I can't just drop things like you.'
'Suit yourself, anyway, he was asking for you.'
'I’ll try and catch up with him soon,' I said.
'You should,' said my brother, before adding, 'he seems to be in a good place.'
‘He's more stable than when I last saw him.'
Willo Hicks had struggled his whole life. He was smart as a whip and schoolwork came easy to him, but like many smart kids, he got bored and lost interest in almost everything except drawing. We'd be in English class and Mr. Barton who we nicknamed Mr. Boreton, would be droning on about Shakespeare or one of those old writers who made studying literature miserable.
Willo, who gave the impression he was miles away, would be listening, but he'd also be doodling, and Barton would prowl around him before pouncing and snatching whatever Willo had been drawing. It was usually amazing, sometimes it was pure imagination. Sometimes it was related to the lesson. During our reading of Hamlet, Willo did a pencil drawing of the Dane looking out a huge window in Elsinore. The drawing had the intricate, ornate detail of a medieval church. I couldn’t fathom how a mind could imagine such a scene let alone bring it to life on a blank page. Willo’s Hamlet looked lost in thought as if he were trying to make sense of something that couldn't be articulated.
Under the drawing, Willo had written:
I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space., were it not that I have bad dreams.
Barton held it up to the class but on this occasion, rather than make a derogatory comment, he passed it around and told us to study the drawing. He then retrieved it and praised Willo.
'Normally,’ he said in his typically sardonic tone, ‘I wouldn't condone artwork during English class, but this is very nice indeed. Isn't it lads?' Later in the year, the drawing became the cover of the school literary magazine. The thing was, though, it didn’t give Willo any satisfaction to see this. I think he felt his art had been misappropriated and, much like Hamlet, he retreated into himself. I couldn't explain why. A lot of Willo's behaviour was beyond explanation.
He began drinking around that time. It wasn't until much later that I realised what Willo’s bad dreams really were.
He became a regular drinker. We were no different to any other teens of the time. We drank to get drunk and liked a party. Willo would often start slow but after a few beers he’d become animated and then he'd hit the hard stuff, usually vodka. I never had much of a tolerance for it and would often end up outside in the garden puking on the roses or once in a raised bed of lettuce. Anyway, with a few drinks in him Willo would get high on life and this in turn would intoxicate those around him. Sometimes it was pure fun, sometimes it was surreal.
'What would be the worst way to die?' he said to those who'd gathered at his court. It was two in the morning at Anna McGuire's house and the party was beginning to dwindle. The assembled, mostly lads, had no clue what to say.
'Quint,' he slurred, 'in Jaws. That was brutal. Eaten alive by a huge fucking shark.'
'The face melting in Raiders of the Lost Ark,' said someone.
'Riding your ma,' said someone else and the whole place collapsed into laughter.
'I propose a committee to investigate the worst way to die,' said Willo once the laughter had subsided. He then jumped imperiously on a chair, held his balance for a superb moment before losing it and pitching headlong and unceremoniously on top of a quiet, and startled pixie-type girl who was dozing on the couch. She awoke with a scream that rattled everyone into a kind of feral alertness.
This girl, Lisa, became his girlfriend then his wife and then his ex-wife.
At his funeral, she asked me if I'd be a pallbearer.
'You were like a brother to him, all of you were like brothers.'
I said I'd be honoured and then felt the fierce sting of cold steel in my chest for being a fraud, for not meeting up with him when I had the chance.
Willo’s father approached us as we gathered to lift the coffin.
'It's a hard blow,' he said, 'but you boys being here helps. Thank you.'
We carried the coffin to the hearse, and I swear it weighed a million tonnes. Just as we lifted it down, I felt my left leg buckle and for a second I imagined the worst. Steo Palmer laughed out loud.
'Steady on there, Rayo,' he said, 'this is not a time for butterfingers.'
At the crematorium, Willo's father spoke in the way only a parent who's burying their child can. He related the story of how Willo, whose real name was Patrick, got his nickname.
'He was a mind of information,' said Willo's father, 'I think you all know that.'
He paused and then told of the time when Willo was thirteen and had just discovered cricket and told everyone he met that cricket bats were made from the wood of willow trees and that the Latin name for willow was Salix.
He continued in this manner before reciting a poem he'd written for the occasion. There wasn't a dry eye in the place. A hard lump caught thickly in my throat and lingered there for days after. Finally, the coffin went in behind the curtain and that was it for Willo Hicks' earthly remains.
After the cremation, we went to The Cedar House, Willo's local. When he'd separated from Lisa he'd moved back home and every Friday night, without fail, you’d find Willo and his father having a few pints and setting the world to right. Sometimes they'd insist you sat with them, other times they were deep in the weeds of some philosophical discussion and wild horses couldn't distract them.
Standing in the pub, looking at the tables Willo used to occupy, I didn't feel right. The whole thing felt off. Everyone was having a drink and a chat, but I couldn't loosen up.
'Nearly caused a scene there with the coffin.'
A hand clasped my shoulder in that forceful but friendly way some men act. It was Steo Palmer. A few seconds later my brother and the other lads joined us. Steo continued ribbing me and I tried to smile and join in, but I wasn't in the mood for banter. I sipped my drink and then on the pretext of going to the toilet I slipped out the door and stood in the street.
The growing shroud of night had begun to fall. It was cold, but I enjoyed its bracing touch. It should have been me, I kept thinking, it should have been me. Since Willo's death, I had been turning one event over and over in my mind. I had tried for years to dismiss it, but the night we determined which of us would die first had resurfaced with a vengeance when I’d learned of Willo’s death and I could no longer ignore it, even if I knew correlation and coincidence were not the same thing.
Sometimes, after the lights and drink at a party had flickered out, Willo and I would end up walking home together. This was usually on account of having no money for a cab, but sometimes it was to have a chat. The walk could be as short as a few streets or much, much longer. One June morning at about two, Willo and I left a party in Sutton and began the long walk home. The sky was rich indigo with a big milky moon. The familiar summer constellations hung on it like glittering pins on a curtain. To our left, the sea spread into the bay. The moonlight rippled over the water like a silver ribbon. We were about to walk along the seaside road when Willo turned to look at me. He was drunk, but there was a mellowness to his mood and his eyes sparkled with an idea.
'Let’s walk along the train tracks,' he said excitedly.
I began to reply but he grabbed my arm and manoeuvred me in the direction of the tracks.
'Don't worry, there are no trains at this hour.'
A few minutes later we were climbing over the barrier to the tracks and after a minute we were standing on the platform. Willo slowly and theatrically looked first one way and then the other.
'See,' he said, no trains.'
We began to walk. I stumbled on the sleepers a couple of times. More than once, I almost went headfirst onto them, but each time Willo caught me.
'You are the clumsiest fucker, Rayo. I swear it’ll be the death of you.'
‘Probably,’ I agreed.
We sang Hotel California and Layla to pass the time, but mostly we talked.
Willo was everyone's friend, but he was very circumspect about who he confided in. I was one of those people. I won't bore you with the details as most were the mundane anxieties of being a young adult in a world that saw you as an outsider while expecting you to fit in. Yes, Willo and I were a bit awkward and a bit depressed and a bit lots of other things. Invariably our conversations turned to death. These weren't the whimsical musings about the worst way to die, no, these were speculation about death.
We spoke about everything from the existence of the afterlife to what that might entail. Willo's pet theory was that each of us lived several lives, some good, some bad. After that, we moved on to whatever came next. He surmised that a life free from suffering wasn't a real life. If it was easy, as far as he was concerned, it wasn't worthwhile.
We were in the middle of one of these conversations when a high-pitched noise like the squeak of air being let out of a balloon began to resonate up and down the tracks.
'A train,' I said.
There was no real danger. We were in an unlit section of the track, but we weren't in a tunnel or on a bridge. There was room for us to climb safely up the steep bank. Unexpectedly, I became excited at the thought of the train's impending approach. Willo was smiling and his eyes had that familiar sparkle. He stood in the middle of the tracks.
'I'm going to wait for it.'
'Don't be stupid,' I said.
In the distance, the pale-yellow glow of a moving light began to emerge from the dark.
'Seriously,' I said, 'let's just climb up the bank and wait for it to pass.'
'Boring,' said Willo, in an exaggerated manner, 'you can do that, I'm waiting here.'
I couldn't win. In that mood, Willo was as intractable as a dog with a bone. I retreated to the bank and watched as Willo stood in a defiant crouch.
There was no way of telling how near the train was. The light was pale like an underwater shimmer and in the semi-darkness our depth perception was poor. The only way we could really tell was the gathering noise. As it grew, I retreated further up the bank, all evidence of earlier excitement now replaced by concern for my friend. What happened next is a surreal portrait in my memory. I can't be certain it happened in the way I describe it here, but whenever I recall it, it's always the same.
The chugging rattle of the train was now really loud. Its light was beginning to fill the available space and the bank seemed much smaller. I tried to move further up the bank when I slipped and slid dramatically down the incline. I clawed at the loose stones that crumbled and slid downwards with me but couldn't get purchase. Suddenly the noise from the train became deafening. It was barrelling down on me like some ancient monster, and I was sliding helplessly towards it. I cried out, but in the noise, I had no idea if any sound came from my mouth or just a feeble croak. The train couldn't have been more than a hundred feet away when my shoes hit the edge of the track. I could feel its pulsing force bounce through me and all I could think of is why I couldn't stop myself from falling towards it. The train passed by with a whooshing primal roar and I felt the wind under the edge of its clearance brush within inches of my toes. I lay there, pinned to the earth, and waited for it to rip my feet from me and suck me into its mechanical processes and chew me up.
When it began to recede into the darkness I continued laying there, my chest heaving and my heart racing. I stayed there for some time until I opened my eyes and saw the shape of Willo leaning over me.
'That was cool,' he said in his best Butthead impression.
'I saw the whole thing; you almost fell down the bank.'
‘Forget it, get up.’
'Can we go home a different way?' I asked.
Willo lifted me up and with wobbly legs we walked the short distance to where we could climb a railing and get off the tracks.
'You dodged it,' said Willo.
I didn't reply, I knew where his thoughts were going.
'You could have easily fallen onto the tracks or been sucked under the train, but you weren't, it wasn't your time.'
'Can we just sing something and go home, I'm not in the mood for this now.'
'Okay, Rayo,' said Willo, 'but tell you what, I bet you anything I'm going to go before you.'
I shook my head.
'No,’ he said animatedly, ‘listen to me, it makes sense, it skipped you and moved to me. You were meant to fall down the bank and get smushed, but you weren’t, fate, man. Destiny.'
'That's ridiculous,' I said.
'No,' said Willo, 'in the Precambrian Era, insects were as big as birds. Now that's ridiculous. Imagine a wasp the size of a swan.'
I laughed out loud and almost immediately the laughter turned to tears, a waterfall of them. Willo embraced me and we stood there while I cried it out.
Willo's house was the first stop. It was almost four and the first hints of dawn were emerging from the night in thin rosy wisps.
'Don't forget this,' said Willo, 'you've got a lot of life to live, Rayo.'
I nodded and he smiled and turned down the driveway and within a few seconds, he was gone.
Lisa's voice broke my reverie.
It took me a moment to acknowledge her. I asked her if Willo had told her about the train.
'Yes,' she said, 'and how you cried.'
I felt my cheeks flush.
'He loved you, Ray, he loved all of you, but you were the one he loved most.'
'I didn't see him when I had the chance,' I said.
'I know,' said Lisa, 'but maybe that was for the best, he wasn't the same guy you knew.'
'My brother met him, he said he was doing well.'
Lisa looked at the ground.
'Are you coming back inside?'
'No, I think I'll just go home.'
She leaned in and kissed me gently on the cheek.
'Thanks for everything today, Ray.'
She went back inside, and I pulled my coat around me and walked towards home.
On the way, I took a detour. I stood on a bridge overlooking the same tracks Willo and I had walked all those years before. I leaned over and followed the twin lines into the dark as far as I could with my eyes. I did this for a while and was totally absorbed in it when I heard the distant rumble of an approaching train. I decided to wait. I knew it was close and getting closer. Before long the air coming from under the bridge became restless and smelled different. The bridge began to shake and within seconds the train raged along the tracks with the fury of a dragon. As it passed, I resisted the urge that had welled up inside me and instead shouted into the deafening noise until my lungs were empty and my throat hurt. After it had gone, I sank onto the ground and looked into the darkness of the night sky until my mind became quiet and I could finally get up and go home.