I didn't want to take Mikey but I owed him and we both knew that. At the end of the day it all boiled down to the fact that he was depressed and depressed people aren't the best company on a weekend away. I would liked to have gone with anyone else but him, but it was too late now to go back on my word as he'd already booked us a couple of rooms in a hotel, and I'd made a promise.
We'd both grown up on the same housing estate and attended the same schools. I went on to university while Mikey took a job as a salesman with a conservatory marketing company so he could flash some cash. I'd stumbled into a career in quantity surveying while he'd been the one who had managed to accumulate quite a substantial amount of money. He'd caught a wave just as the market for conservatories went crazy but when the recession hit the cash dried up and it wasn't long before the bank came knocking on the door. In the blink of an eye his marriage had collapsed and he was back on the street he grew up on touting for business as a gardener/handyman. Maybe it was the heartbreak or humiliation that brought on the depression, who knows, I never asked.
Mikey was never what you might call 'outgoing', he had always been prone to bouts of quiet introspection and melancholy, especially when he imagined I was having a better time than him. He'd hide himself away in the kitchen at parties or slink off home during a night out in the pub if he was feeling uncomfortable. Our friendship was more valuable to him than me, although it took some years for me to work that out. I had come to realise that I represented confidence and security to him and that he aspired to be more like me than anyone else.
I'd done the decent thing by agreeing to accompany him on a short trip away to the mountains, although deep down he was the last person I wanted to be with at that time. I'd managed to build myself a large circle of close friends and business associates since leaving university and I was used to holidaying and playing golf with them. Mikey and I were a thing of the past as far as I was concerned.
So one evening he called me, out of the blue, and asked if I wanted to rekindle our old friendship as he was feeling a bit low. Of course I said yes, what else could I do? We'd been so close for almost ten years it seemed unkind to turn him down.
I knocked on his front door and tried to generate enough appropriate enthusiasm for our first meeting in eight years.
"Hey Mikey, how's things?" I said
"Good to see you Chris, come on in".
I couldn't tell if the beard was a result of a lack of personal hygiene or grown on purpose but it made him look different. I didn't know if that was good or not. I sniffed the air as I followed him into the kitchen, just to check. There was a faint aroma of sweat, nothing overtly strong but just enough to tell a tale.
"Let's catch up on the way Mikey, we should get going if we want to make last orders at the hotel bar."
In the car I broke the awkward silence by asking him again how things were going.
"Fine Chris, just fine."
Then we started to talk but it was obvious that we were just talking to prevent a silence filling the car, it felt like the sort of conversation you engage in while waiting somewhere with a stranger.
Mikey spent most of the rest of the journey staring out of the side window, I tried hard to draw him into a conversation. Did he watch the latest James Bond? Where did he stand on who was going to top the Premier League? How was his job? All of which he answered briefly as if the answers weren't really relevant to him. And then he suddenly said, "I haven't brought my walking boots."
"Don't worry mate, I've a spare pair behind the seat, you can use those."
I turned the radio on to fill the air with noise, Mikey went back to staring out of the window. As he hadn't answered any of my questions I left him to his thoughts and waited for the right moment to say something.
"Looks like the weather's on our side Mikey," I said.
"It's ok, at least it's not cold," he replied.
It went on like that for quite a while until I ran out of things to say so I decided to talk about some of the funny times we'd shared whilst we were growing up, but eventually the nostalgic reminiscences dried up and we lapsed into silence once more. The awkward edge had gone though and so I settled back and concentrated on my driving. Every so often Mikey would perk up and talk about something that had just popped into his mind about our childhood or some mutual friend that we shared. The journey became more tolerable, although still slightly uncomfortable. I told myself that the trip would play out just as it had always done years ago, at least we had the safety net of a shared past that we could drop into when things became edgy.
We had an okay time in the mountains. Mikey became quite irritable sometimes which I found annoying. Often he'd become angry over the smallest of things, like finding a place to park the car or having to wait at the bar for drinks. He was very quiet and introspective a lot of the time, I think he was so absorbed in his own thoughts and feelings that it seemed he hadn't heard half of what I'd said. My patience ran very thin on many occasions and I wished we could both just get back in the car and drive straight home. I imagined how much of a better time I'd have had if I'd come away with my real friends. I wondered whether I'd agreed to come away with him for my own benefit, I had this feeling that maybe it was all to do with making myself feel superior to him in some way. A sort of perverse gloating.
It rained on and off so we decided to cut the trip short and head home a day earlier than planned. I still found it difficult to get through to Mikey and to get him to share his feelings with me and we didn't really talk in any depth about things. Every time I tried to get into his head he would clam up or change the conversation to something banal so I went with the flow and stayed with the small talk. Sometimes his silence would be unbearable, I was desperate to shake him by his shoulders and tell him to cheer up, but I knew that would be wrong. So I took it all. I listened to everything he said, agreed when it seemed the best thing to do and disagreed if I wanted to offer him a chance to discuss something.
At least he seemed to have cheered up over the course of the two days so I wasn't dreading the journey home in the car. I felt tired, not just from the walking but from the awkwardness of the situation, it had been difficult to stay happy and positive when Mikey was obviously so unhappy and I was looking forwards to getting home.
There was less than an hour to go until the end of our journey and quite unexpectedly Mickey started telling me about his depression. I don't know why he'd waited so long but I thought it best just to listen.
"Sometimes I get fed up, feel really down for a while and then I don't know what to do," he said. I didn't dare look at him in case it ruined his moment but I nodded slowly to show I understood.
"It's not like being unhappy or feeling low for a while, it's something else entirely, like I've got stuck in the middle of a dark tunnel and I can't see the end. Sometimes I can't even imagine that there is an end to the blackness, sometimes I think it'll go on for ever and ever."
I didn't dare look sideways in case I caught his gaze and upset his flow.
"Think of an egg timer," he said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes. "One of those old-fashioned ones you turn upside down and all the sand slowly drains out. That's what it's like Chris." I thought he was going to carry on talking but he started to cry, softly at first but then with heaving great sobs that seemed to pour from him in waves.
"When it all drains away there's just this empty space. Empty as if nothing can ever fill it."
I brought the car to a stop by the side of the road and looked at him. I knew I was facing something very delicate and I didn't want to say the wrong thing in case it crushed the fragility into pieces neither of us would be able to put together again. So I put my hand on his shoulder and smiled at him.
"We'd better get going," he said.
"Keep talking if you need to, I don't mind listening," I said.
"No, I feel better now," Mikey replied, "We've had a great time together haven't we?"
"Yes Mikey, we have, we've had a lovely time, we must do it again soon."
I dropped him off outside his house and watched him walk to the door. He turned and waved, and I waved back and smiled. I felt pleased that we'd managed to get through the trip without any serious mishap, but guilty at how relieved I was that it was over.
Mikey stands quietly alone in the middle of the living room and forces himself to look through the window. He describes out loud everything he sees to prove to himself that he hasn't gone completely insane, and also so that he can hear the sound of his own voice. He hasn't spoken to anyone in days, hasn't ventured much beyond the patio behind the house and hasn't lifted his head from his pillow much since the weekend just gone. He knows his poor state of mind, realises it's something that has plagued him since he was young, but he doesn't fully understand why or how things have become so bad. His job went belly-up along with his marriage, his drinking got out of control and he had been registered officially bankrupt, too much to compute even for someone not predisposed to depression. He feels a fleeting sense of something brighter but it melts away as soon as he turns back to face the room.
A large slug of vodka helps him make the decision to phone somebody, although he doesn't know who. The doctor told him to get as much exercise as possible, to quit drinking and to try harder to connect with people but it was easier said than done. He grabs his phone and calls Chris.
As the door closes behind him he feels a clarifying pleasure in the cold, wet air, in his purposeful stride and, he can admit it, in not being on his own. Mikey reminds himself how important it is not to share too much and to keep steering the conversation away from anything that might reveal his feelings. He decides to keep the conversation simple and shallow so that his friend won't feel uncomfortable, although he knows deep down that it would be a good thing if he were to allow a little bit of himself to fly free. He's almost certain that if it happens (and it would be a big 'if') it would be a good thing, the doctor had recommended it, and he agreed.
The car journey is difficult, not because there's nothing to say but because both know that there's a subject that needs to be addressed in its own time and at its own pace. The first hour or so is a continuation of their reunion. They discuss mutual friends, school and football, then there's a mute, vacuous hour where they both try to think of subjects that won't give too much away. They resort to talking about things they can see from the car, which makes Mikey feel happier although he knows that Chris is, to a large extent , humouring him. But the simple act of talking is enough and he allows himself to just sit with it for a while.
He feels better already. There's someone he has known for years next to him and if he wants to he could talk, but the fact that he's here and on his way is enough. As the journey progresses his mood changes and he senses a calm inside, a confidence that he knows has been lacking for a long time. The sun is up and it picks out the colours of the grass in the fields and the leaves on the trees and in the hedgerows. Everything begins to look and feel serene and normal, the scene doesn't fill him with dread like it used to. He feels he wants to laugh and cry at the same time, to talk about everything he can see and to tell Chris what a gorgeous day it is to be out. But there's a part of him that holds back just in case he might come across as being too talkative. As an habitual observer of his own moods he decides to wait until Chris says something so that he can answer and enjoy the process of a response.
Mikey knows that his friend understands him and that he's agreed to take him away with him because he wants to. That's worth more than any therapy, or drug, it's a shared backpack, a helping hand that has been offered without any need for settlement, and it feels as if a heavy, dank fog has been lifted from him and thrown out to the world where it'll be lost forever to the wind.
Mikey walks by his friend's side and they talk about the things that they can see and hear, the flowers that carpet the slopes of the hills, the bright shades of green that change with the light and the rugged, angry mountain tops where crows circle lazily in the breeze. He doesn't feel like talking about his problems or his moods because they no longer exist. Everything is good.
The journey home makes him feel as if he's moving away from a place in his mind that has always existed but has been hidden from him and then rediscovered. He fears he's going back to somewhere cold and dark where the musings of his mind will fold in on themselves until they become issues that will sit heavily within him. Mikey worries that his thoughts will again stifle the very life out of all the goodness that he has managed to revive. He sees a sign that says there's twenty miles to go until they reach the city and something inside him bursts. Everything comes out all at once, but he dare not look at his friend in case it disrupts the words that he knows have been waiting to flow since leaving home.
The words have been said, and it feels like they've been absorbed into a place where they'll be understood. The very act of letting them go makes him feel tearful and he knows it would be weak of him to cry in front of his friend. But he does, and he feels a compassionate hand on his shoulder.
He opens the door to his house and turns and waves goodbye to his friend. He knows now that there is someone who has taken the time to listen, and that's a feeling that he wants to keep with him forever.