Let me tell my best friend about my oldest friend.
I’ve known him since we were ten or eleven. At first he was a presence rather than a true friend. Reserved, in a way I wasn’t, not then. But eventually we bonded over post-exam days spent beating a wild area of the school of its nettles with sticks that we fancied were swords. I can still feel the heat that day, and the pungent smell of wounded nettle.
We are both the sons of alcoholics. He wouldn’t have people back to his house until after his father died, and that was in his early twenties. Whereas I wasn’t so much ashamed of my father’s drinking – he wasn’t there to be ashamed about – as increasingly angry with him for the abnegation of responsibility, the selfishness in not supporting us to the level he was legally supposed to. His holidays abroad while his three children made do with Butlins at best.
My old friend had and still has a conk of a broken nose, and we teased him for it, but he never bit back or lost his cool. A peaceable man, to his core. I forget how he broke it now; rugby, I suspect. Sport was never his forte. I turned him on to mod music and to politics and he went on to outstrip my knowledge of both. And now he lives an ex-anarchist’s life in Catalonia with a lovely Catalan woman and I can’t but help feel that he is freer than I am.
Of course, we wanted different things. I wanted the space which allows my imagination to fly free; he wanted to avoid the constraints of career and capitalism. Freedom isn’t as simple as having achieved freedom in a limited sphere. It has to be continually and mentally fought for, or your lot accepted.
Six years have passed but we are just the same together as ever. Immediately there is the same depth to our conversation, the same gentle piss-taking of individual traits neither of us will ever shake off. We meet in the heart of London and remember back. I see northern soul dance floors and a fearless cycle courier with the sides of his head shaved. He sees a bedsit on a street with a ludicrous name which still makes us laugh and the gig we were at the night he heard his father was dead. As we walk, the three of us, for the lovely Catalan has her memories too, everywhere we see change. London never stops moving, the pieces of its jigsaw constantly being refreshed. But we can still pick our way across it, because while it changes, it also always stays the same.
We pick our way through politics too, which similarly never stops moving and always stays the same. We are older, shades wiser, less easily swayed by sentiment or youthful passion. It’s harder to believe that any kind of change can be exacted except slowly, and painfully. Extremists aside, all that all of the people caught up in all of the current conflicts across the world want is food and shelter and freedom and peace, within the structure of which they can earn a living, carouse or otherwise party with friends, and perhaps run themselves fit through whatever countryside or cityscape forms the backdrop to their lives. Just as much as us, they want to be able to pause and reflect and tell their stories – stories which do not always, always have grim survival and hate and blood and sudden death as their bedrock. While we may feel powerless in the face of it all, I think we have to continue to express what is in us, what we experience, and risk that seeming trite or trivial in the face of those horrors, because to fall silent is to admit defeat, to say that there is no hope and no better life to strive for. We are lucky, and we should humbly celebrate our luck, and where and when we can, add our voices to those saying, these atrocities should not be.
My old friend and I take the Underground across town, and try to remember the last time we were on a tube together. Going to that club near Old Street, I venture. Our destination now is an exhibition. My path always seems somehow to follow in your traces; we are going to one of the places you went last year. In the magnificence of its café, beyond the courtyard with the shallow pool, I wonder, did you also look up at these ceilings and the several huge spheres of silver light hanging from them, and think about the chandeliers which must have hung there before them, and about the friends or indeed lovers who have sat beneath their light across a century or more?
My old friend’s brother has joined us; for a time he and I we were at college together. He’s never quite been all there; a softy with no apparent strength, someone you’d fear for as they make their way through the world, and feel protective about. My old friend is mercilessly yet affectionately taking the piss out of him because implausibly he has just got married to a woman from a country well known for exporting brides, and neglected to tell his family soon enough that they might have been able to book flights and attend the traditional ceremony. My old friend texts his sister with each new detail his brother lets slip. There were four hundred guests – all on the bride’s side. There was a dowry of so many thousand Baht. There were nineteen monks blessing the nuptials with their presence. Family wouldn’t have been able to find the place because it’s not marked on any map. They can’t live together because she has two farms and a restaurant to run, while all his money is tied up in bonds which won’t expire for another seven years. You couldn’t make it up.
Earlier, as we talked our way through lunch, it became clear that my old friend is drifting. He’s let a line of work slip away, and hasn’t the motivation to dedicate himself to a new, more creative one. He’s free, but he no longer knows what to do with that freedom. I try to encourage him, but I’m not sure it’s enough. It becomes harder to reinvent yourself as you age. Harder, but not impossible. You have to have a reason, a rationale, a spur. I wonder if I have once last reinvention inside of me, waiting for the right time. I know I would find the energy, with you alongside me. Without it being so, what can I do but channel my all into this, the act I am currently engaged in, the act I will always engage in, fired by love.