When I saw my friend’s textmessage to call him back, I knew the inevitable had happened. It had taken precisely 5 months.
Forget silly stories and local writing competitions, there are few reasons why I would step onto a coach for 8 hours and cross countries in the middle of the night. I had contacted my friend last week whether I could see him and his dad this weekend. He had answered he really wouldn’t know how long it would still take, but to call him when I got home. I never got to make the call, because the news of his father’s death reached me on the day I got off the bus.
Flashforward 12 hours and my friend R. and I open the gardengate and walk through the backdoor into H. dad’s house. The door is open of course: one of the many small-town traditions. We hug our friend H, his girlfriend and his sister. I put my silly gift of Family box M&S biscuits on the table, well they are going to get enough visitors the next few days. His sister has her girl friends over, we decide to leave them to it in the living room and retreat to the kitchen. We are sitting around the kitchen table and hear the occasional giggle coming out of the other room. Yes the mood is not just sad, everyone had been prepared for weeks and the inital shock has waned.
We talk about what happened, how it happened and what’s going to happen now. We discuss what we can do for them. We see initial drafts of the funeral card, I make a quick translation for any foreign colleagues and clients his dad might have had. I’m glad I can at least help a little bit.
There are so many things you need to organise when someone dies: paperwork, logistics, family-politics. The neighbours pop in, his mother phones from her place to remind him of other relatives to call. H. has everything under control. Two more friends join us all dressed up: his god-daughter has just done her Confirmation. His god-daughter, born when he was /we were fifteen and we were all impressed he had been chosen to be god-father. The fact she’s done her Confirmation must mean she’s twelve now…
We go upstairs and I say my goodbyes to H’s dad. It is easy, he is the shadow of the man he once was. Only H’s warning has prepared me for the fragile skeletal body displayed on the bed. It is easy: his dad is most definitely gone.
Back in the kitchen we open a bottle of wine, bottles of beer and drink to his life. Whilst conversation flows and laughter rings around the kitchentable I know there are only a few reasons why I wander the world for hours/days/weeks/years on end: because no one bats an eye-lid to see me in that kitchen, because the conversation and the banter stay the same, because the hugs are as warm as ever. In a house filled with death and friendship, the love is once more confirmed: I travel because I can come home.
Epilogue: On the very last day his dad was awake and had a sudden clear moment he requested, despite not having eaten anything for nearly two weeks, two things: a cigarette and a drink. They all had a drink with him, on an empty stomach before noon. Apart from a toast to his life, he had one more simple message:
Be good to each other kids. Be good to each other.