Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Masterson
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‘My legs are frozed, I can’t get up!’
Timmy twitches his arms and legs, once, as if to emphasise the point.
‘Can’t get up!’ he adds.
Olly comes pelting toward him, boots tearing shreds out of the field, clods of grass flying off behind his speeding feet. Timmy heaves himself up just in time, as Olly rips through the space where his head had been. Olly yells something incomprehensible over his shoulder as he runs, and Timmy leaps to his feet, ready to follow as always.
The new boy, Paul, shouts from a few metres away. ‘You were FROZED!’
Kieran stands in the shade and does his best impression of a grown-up, leaning against a tree trunk, one leg propped, the other taking his weight. His head is cocked to one side, and he looks on the frenzied boys with a critical eye.
‘They’re so stupid,’ he says coolly, but just loud enough that he hopes the nearby parents might hear.
There’s an underpass no one uses. On the one side it leads to the chemists, the McDonalds, and the charity shop on the corner. On the other side it disappears off into the woods. Sometimes a dog walker shuffles through it, quick as they can. Two of the lights are out, and they fear for their lives as they emerge from the dark to find four teenage boys on the steep grass banks either side, saying their strange things, two of them with cigarettes in their hands.
The boys don’t realise how threatening they look, poised there like teenage gargoyles. They don’t realise much of anything, but that it’s a summer’s evening, and the sun burns out late tonight.
On his school jumper, stretched out over his knees, Olly is rolling another for Tim.
Polo, who they used to call Paul, reclines on the opposite bank, basking in the evening sun. He cranks his head up just long enough to speak.
‘You shouldn’t smoke that shit,’ he says, for maybe the twentieth time, and then lets his head fall back. ‘You’ll give yourselves cancer.’
Olly blows a lungful of smoke roughly in Paul’s direction, though it scatters long before reaching him.
‘Only if we smoke enough,’ Olly says. ‘Hey, Tim, reckon we smoked enough?’
Olly offers the cigarette, and Tim happily takes it.
‘I watched this film, right,’ Tim says, as he lights up, ‘This black and white film, about this guy who was dying of lung cancer, and he had this dog. And when he was nearly dead, on his deathbed with his rolly in his hand, the dog starts puffing on it. Like, he wants to follow his master.’
‘That sounds fucking awful,’ Olly says.
‘It was pretty good, actually. It was all in black and white.’
‘What happened to the dog?’ Paul asks, without lifting his head, his words wafting up into the air.
‘The dog? Dunno. I fell asleep.’
Polo lets out a snort.
‘What? I said it was good, I didn’t say it was interesting. It was like, artistic and shit.’
Kieran has been in his usual world, nose-deep in a novel, eyes occasionally glancing up when someone says something interesting, but otherwise with very little to add. Now he looks up from his book.
‘Mate,’ he says to Olly, ‘I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but those girls have been staring at you for about ten minutes.’
Kieran nods down the road, to where two girls stand with a spaniel on its leash. They mutter to each other, their eyes hardly wandering from the subway where the boys sit.
‘Yeah?’ Olly says, like it’s no big surprise. He shuffles forward to the retaining wall, and squashes the last of his cigarette under his shoe as he stands.
‘You’re gonna talk to them?’ Tim asks.
‘Yeah, ‘course I am.’
Olly gives him a look like he’s just sprouted tentacles.
‘What does it matter? Not your stupid smoking dog film, anyway.’
Olly hops down from the retaining wall as the girls start to mutter faster, gesturing a little.
‘It was a good film,’ Tim replies, half to himself, and perhaps a little defensively, to which Kieran and Polo have absolutely nothing to say.
‘Two weeks until the big day, man,’ Kieran says. ‘This is your last weekend of freedom. How you feeling?’
‘Just a thing, isn’t it?’ Olly replies, stretching out some of the aches and pains from yesterday’s white-water rafting. ‘Jess is fussing over everything. I’m not that bothered.’
‘Just you wait,’ Paul says, and Olly can’t help but frown at the ominous tone of voice.
‘C’mon, it’s not like things are gonna be any different afterwards. We’re both back to work on the Monday after. Honeymoon isn’t for another six months after that.’
Paul smirks, and Kieran checks his watch again.
‘Where’s Timbo at?’
Timbo, who they used to call Tim, who they used to call Timmy, chooses this moment to burst back into the room, cradling several bottles of beer.
‘Right then. Final preparations!’ he cries, with all the authority of the best man. ‘Libations, for today’s adventures!’
‘You say that like it’s the first drink we’ve had today,’ Kieran replies. For the record, they started at ten o’clock.
‘It’s the first that matters, alright?’
Timbo passes out the bottles, and they each pop one, taking a deep swig. Timbo lowers his bottle, and lets out a satisfied ahhh.
‘Life, eh? Who’d have thought we’d live long enough to get married?
‘I thought for sure you’d be dead by now, at least,’ Paul says, tipping his bottle toward Tim.
‘Fuck off! Anyway, Olly’s gonna die first.’
‘How do you figure?’
‘Well, he’s got married first, hasn’t he?’
‘Hey, now,’ Kieran says, drifting toward the oversized hotel window. ‘Today’s not about being dead. Today’s about…you know. Not being dead yet.’
They laugh, and between chuckles Polo lifts his bottle.
‘To not being dead yet!’
They toast, bottles clanging, as they look out over the view of Dublin below. They chat for a while, about cars, movies, video games, but before long a subconscious kind of quiet settles over them.
Someone sighs, contently.
‘I had this idea, right,’ Tim says eventually, into the silence, ‘For when we all get old and start dying and shit. Basically, we get this one stone – not at our graves or owt, just somewhere – and we’ll put our names on it, maybe with some last words to go with it, you know. So even if we all die separate and get buried or cremated or what have you all in different places, we’ll still have our group. Together in the end, right?’
A strange set of murmurs follows, like everyone agrees but is slightly too embarrassed to say so.
‘Sounds a bit gay,’ Olly says after a moment, breaking the tension, and soon enough they’re chatting again, moving on. Paul stays quiet, thinking, as Tim starts to talk about this movie script he’s working on. Really working on, not like all the other ones. It’s a really unique idea, you’ve never really seen it done…and everyone zones out a little.
Four months later, Olly reveals his girlfriend is expecting their first child.
‘It’s nice,’ Kieran says. ‘Very nice. Cosy.’
Shit, that sounds awful.
‘Won’t cost much to heat,’ he adds.
Shit, that isn’t any better.
‘Yeah,’ Paul says, apparently taking it in his stride. It is a nice house. It’s old, built tight like the architect was conscious of space, but in the right way. The living room feels like a place for a family; the kitchen is just large enough for a dining table. There’s a spare room for a study, and one day, just maybe, a child or two.
‘Well, we’re thinking of stripping all this back, having the bare stone. And I’ve got this mate who’s a plasterer, so he’s gonna help with some of the work needs doing upstairs. I’ve said to Chrissy she’s got free reign of the kitchen.’
‘May God have mercy on your soul.’
‘Hah, well, yeah. Here look, sun’s out. We’re south-facing and all. Greenhouse out there, as well.’
Kieran can’t help but keep score. He’s back renting again, with a divorce pending. It’s hard to keep the smile on his face, but he knows jealousy is an ugly emotion. After all, he has his health, and he’s not quite past it yet. He still hopes there’ll be someone else, even if he struggles to believe it sometimes.
It’s just that sometimes he wishes for more.
Before it’s too late.
There’s something comforting about just observing the routine of coffee shop life. Watching the customers come and go, the baristas taking orders, churning out lattes, mocchas, teas and hot chocolates in all shapes and sizes. How much time have they all spent in coffee shops over the years? It’s so normal as to be completely safe. Nothing bad happens in a coffee shop.
‘Still doesn’t seem real, does it? Thinking he’s gone like that. One of us lot.’
Oliver watches the pattern as if it were a time-lapse, like those videos of a day’s traffic compressed into a minute. An abstraction of the real world, where nothing bad happens. He seems barely aware that he’s speaking.
‘I know,’ Kieran says.
‘Weird, isn’t it? I keep saying he’s gone, my Mikey keeps asking me where Uncle Polo has gone. Thing is, I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know where he’s gone any better than Mikey does. They never teach you how to explain shit like that to a kid.’
‘And there’s even this horrible part of me that’s saying…well, at least it wasn’t Tim, you know? If it was Tim, I don’t know how I’d… that’s shit, isn’t it? This whole thing is just horrible. I wasn’t ready for this.’
‘You can’t just say that forever.’
There’s a rare smile, not seen since the news. Paul dead at thirty-seven, three days after his birthday.
‘I know,’ Kieran says. Knowing has always been his thing, really. It’s what they all looked to him for. Even when the news had broken, they would keep looking at him like he was about to say something wise, or have some clever suggestion that would get them through it.
Not this time.
Oliver starts to fold his napkin, and tries to conjure up a reason why he gives a shit about that, or much of anything else.
‘I’ve been taking a lot of long walks and stuff,’ he says. ‘Needing the alone time. Jess is going a bit spare with it all, I think. She’s trying to be supportive, but she’s got that way of huffing-’
‘I know the one.’ Another long, awkward moment passes. Kieran and Oliver have been friends now for, what, nearly thirty years? They always get together and have a laugh, but they’re men. Friendship doesn’t necessarily mean feelings. Tim and Olly have always been the ones with that connection. Without Tim here with them, Kieran just isn’t sure what to say.
He wings it.
‘Don’t let it come between the two of you. Paul wouldn’t have wanted that.’
‘No, no, I get that. It’s just so surreal. Felt like we’d all be together forever, friends for life. But I guess life goes on, doesn’t it? And eventually it stops.’
‘Part that really gets me is what did he leave behind? He didn’t have any kids, no proper girlfriend since Christine. Didn’t even have a dog or cat. Thirty-seven years for – what? It all just goes away. All the years and nothing to show for it, and now we’re all that’s left of him. That’s weird, isn’t it? I feel like we’re supposed to do something, like…I dunno.’
Olly tails off, and they sit in silence again for a while.
‘So. How’s your love life these days?’
Kieran frowns, surprised by the question, but Olly just shrugs helplessly.
‘We can’t talk about him forever, can we? He’d want us to carry on. So…?’
‘Nothing to report,’ Kieran says, with the soft, sad smile he seems to keep stored for just this sort of conversation. It’s sadder than ever, perhaps, now that Polo is gone. Like Paul, Kieran has no kids, and no partner since the divorce. If he’s lucky, he might be outlived by his dog.
Oliver simply nods.
‘We spent a whole year fighting, once,’ Oliver says, back in his own world. ‘Something I said to his sister. Me and him didn’t talk for months after that. Seemed so important at the time, ignoring each other so hard until one of us gave in. Now I’d do anything for that year back.’
‘I think I’d be okay with a half hour,’ Kieran says, with the same sad smile. ‘Just long enough for a coffee.’
They sit together along the promenade, watching the sea roll in. Without a word, their hands meet, and a spark seems to jump between them. Tim’s heart thumps like he’s sixteen again.
It’s not easy, he thinks, to avoid the do-over. He doesn’t want to take her to all the same places, introduce her to all the same things, but he’s lived in this town for nearly half a century. There’s only so much space to put the memories into.
The ghost of his life with Judy drifts into his mind’s eye, even a year after the divorce. She’s there to watch, ready with a heartbroken look or a snide comment if he makes the same jokes, or uses the same pet names.
And Tim thinks to himself that you never do live just the one life. You find a girl and you have a kid and you buy a house, and you dare to think: this is it. This is my life now. But how many people make it for the long haul? You divorce and you find someone else and it’s just as terrifying as it was the first time over, because it’s different and the same in all the wrong ways. So you buy another house, and on and on it goes, new memories teetering on a pile of the old.
Sometimes he wonders if old age will come as a relief, just because things will stop happening.
Feeling bold, he starts to tell her about this movie script he’s working on. She’s smiling, and fascinated by it, which, at the risk of comparing, is more interest than Judy ever showed.
And for a second the ghosts of the past disappear, and it’s like it’s first time over. He’s sixteen again in all the best ways.
It rains on Michael’s graduation day, but luckily, like a wedding or a birth, it’s one of those days where no one will really remember it for the weather.
‘I appreciate you coming today,’ Oliver says, raising his voice to be heard over the applause. ‘You’ve always been Michael’s favourite. He says you’re one of my better influences.’
‘My pleasure. I just can’t believe he’s graduating. I still remember when he was this tall and wouldn’t eat anything red. And tell him thanks. He’s always been a smart kid.’
‘Steady on, I didn’t say I agreed with him.’
‘Hah, yeah well. Next thing you know he’ll be married with kids. Scary thought, isn’t it?’
‘Round and round it goes. When did we get old? Do you remember?’
A parade of speeches and congratulations follow, and later Oliver and Michael have their pictures taken. For a moment, Kieran struggles with the notion that it’s the grey-haired man in the photo who has been his friend this whole time. Michael looks identical to the Oliver that still lives in his head.
Later, their talk eventually turns towards Timothy, who’s in and out of hospital. Every time it seems they’ve sorted the problem it returns, subtly different, as if going out of its way to deny the effect of medicine. And that, they eventually decide, might be what it means to get old.
Oliver spends a lot of time sleeping, these days. Timothy is over for a visit, perhaps the first time he’s seen him in a year, maybe a year and a half. It took them all of five minutes to catch up, and now the both of them seem content to sit in silence, occasionally dozing in the sun, as the grand children rush around, playing harebrained games, tearing around the garden between bouts of talking about things Oliver largely doesn’t understand. The smell of the barbecue is still on the air, and he tries to shut away the frustration that comes with not being able to eat most of it any more.
After all, today is a good day. The house has been too quiet this past decade, with the kids and the grand-kids all gone, but every so often, when things work out, they still meet up. The pressures of life seem to have died away, shrivelling back into memory, which seems both a blessing and a curse. The days smear into one, an indistinct mess of housebound routine. At the same time, he likes to think the worst is behind him; the dramas of being alive are over, and in his dressing room he hears the actors of the next play take the stage.
He glances at Timothy, whose eyes are slightly open, knowing he feels much the same way. Sometimes it seems like they’ve almost run out of words, having played out the same conversations over and over again for decades now. But that’s not a bad thing. The silence is somehow fresh and full. It’s a silence of content.
Oliver flashes a boyish smile, melting the years away from his wrinkled face, and closes his eyes again.
Timothy visits the cemetery when he can, which isn’t so often as he would like, but then they always struggled to make time to see each other. Besides, it’s better than nothing, and at his age just getting here feels like a grand enough gesture. Deep down, he somehow never expected to live this long, and certainly wasn’t prepared for it.
Some of them had opted for burial, others cremation. None of them actually rested in this cemetery. They had all wished different things from death, but they had agreed on one part, and here it was; a memorial, with room for each name and an epitaph they chose in life.
There are three names now, with only one more to go.
‘How’s it going, my friends?’ he murmurs. ‘Hope you don’t mind me standing, only my knees are frozen solid. I can’t move quite so well as I used to.’
It is very cold. It’s the coldest winter he can remember. He shouldn’t even be out, but he makes a visit for each birthday. It’s the least he can do. His eyes find Oliver’s name.
‘I met your Michael in town today,’ Timothy says. ‘He saw me walking up the road, he said we should get a coffee. I can’t drink coffee any more, but he’s the only one of the kids who’ll say hello when he sees me, so I said okay then, let’s go for a drink. Had a bit of cake and talked about what he was up to. He’s just bought a house, apparently, says it’s this cosy one just off Ashburton Square near where Chrissy used to live after her and Paul split. He invited me round, but I said no, you’re okay Michael, I wouldn’t want to impose. He said he was glad to see I was still going strong.’
A vision of Oliver swims into his head. Not an aged and wrinkled man, but a young adult, fit and strong, with a smile that could light up a heart. He still sees that smile, occasionally, because Michael has it.
‘You’d be proud of him, Olly. He’s so much like his dad. A good liar. Strong, he says? Can’t say I feel strong any more. I’m back into the hospital on Tuesday for another look at my knees. Don’t suppose they’ll get any better now, though. Here, he asked a funny thing when we were saying goodbye. He said, what’s it like, being the last one? How do you cope?’
Timothy stares at the ground for a moment, looking past his own gnarled hands as they rest on the walking stick.
‘I didn’t have an answer to that until I stood here. Seems obvious to me now, though. I wrote in that film script of mine, a long time ago, that you don’t just live your life through once. And I was right. So, he asks how I cope with it, and maybe that’s the answer. I don’t cope, not really. I just go back, and I live it all again.
Timothy’s eyes find Paul’s name. It’s dusted over a little with moss, and he wants to brush it free, but he knows if he bends down he’ll never get back to standing again.
‘Happy birthday to you, Polo. Say, do you remember the day we met you? We must’ve only been about nine or ten…’
About the Author
Daniel Masterson is a full-time procrastinator from the UK, forever in danger of actually writing something. Some day, it is to be hoped, he’ll stop scribbling and write for real. In the meantime, he hopes you enjoyed this sample of his brain and would be most grateful if you could take the time to leave a review at your chosen retailer.
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