Allen was scared. It was not the type of fear that resulted in an immediate desire to run for his life – although he had experienced that – this was an old, familiar fear that he thought he had left in his teenage years. This ancient, buried dread crawled up out of the ground and grasped his ankles without warning. All the fight had departed from him, so he just gave in and accepted it.
The message he received was the touch paper to this episode. That morning his own reaction surprised him. In fact for the past five years, he had believed that he’d stopped caring about other people’s opinions, then that name from the past appeared on his screen and had jolted him back in time, and he was newly confused and as nervous as a teenager about to go on a first date.
His sister had text him that she’d seen a friend of his in their home town. George.
George was not just any friend, George was his best friend. They were like two sides of a coin – always together. But it was obvious that they weren’t related because they looked so different, but they were still like twins with their behaviour, emerging teenage style and strong opinions about everything from what real music was, the best drugs and everything about sex. George’s unruly ginger hair was almost equal in size to Allen’s neatly trimmed afro, they also somehow managed to end up with similar clothes as well – probably due to the few shopping options in their small town, and the fact that their mothers often met in the High Street.
‘George,’ Allen said.
‘Yeah, mate.’ The reply was absentminded, easy and casual like everything between them.
‘D’you wanna go fishing tomorrow?’
‘Yeah. Why not? Got nothing else on.’
‘Cool. I’ll get the stuff ready tonight – we’ll have to go early like, alright?’
‘Sure. Whatever.’ George paused and looked up from the games console, ‘You’re so serious about fishing and I always get the best catch – every time! I don’t know why you keep trying so hard. I’m always gonna beat you.’
They laughed together, and Allen smiled because he knew George was right, as usual, he did get the biggest fish, but Allen didn’t care, he just like hanging out with George.
‘It’s funny!’ George observed, suddenly being unusually serious for his teenage self, ‘I’m better at things that you like doing, and you’re better at things that I like. We’re a right pair of wally’s!’ The statement was accompanied with his usual laughter aimed at Allen – but not spitefully. They messed around, but not to permanently hurt each other. They never fell out for more than a day. That’s not what they did, not who they were.
They had left school with duplicate Technical Certificates and went into similar apprenticeship jobs, so it was not unusual to see them together, at either parents’ house. They knew that they would have a meal saved for them every night whichever house they ended up in; both sets of parents had informally adopted the other boy. The boys themselves hadn’t questioned it or expected anything else. They just continued the friendship that they had started when they met in the first term of secondary school.
As close as they were, they did have time apart when puberty and girlfriends appeared on the scene, but never more than a few evenings without seeing each other. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
‘Oh! Morning George,’ said Mrs Mason bumping into him outside the bathroom.
‘Morning, Mrs Mason.’ His slow response reflected his desire to still be asleep but he knew he couldn’t miss any more days at work, his attendance record was not as good as Allen’s who never missed a day.
‘I didn’t know you stayed over last night. You two must have got back late. Did you ring your mother?’
‘Yes, of course. Allen made me!’
‘Good. Don’t be late to work – that’s both of you! Best you both get up and get out quickly, it’s nearly 8 o’clock. See you two later?’
‘’Spect so. Bye.’
The conversations were reversed when Allen stayed at George’s house, with the exception that he didn’t have to be asked if he called home – he always did. He was always conscientious of other people’s feelings. At George’s he used the spare sleeping bag on the floor and George would use the pull out bed when he was at the Mason’s house.
Initially when Allen moved away for work they called and met up at weekends or went on holidays together and with other friends. They remained tight for years until Allen’s 25th birthday party in Birmingham.
After that George started calling Allen ‘Jester’ whenever he went home for the weekend, and then they started slipping out of each other’s lives without fanfare.
It was at a surprise encounter after three years before George suddenly said, ‘So, what’s this Jester’s bar you’re always at?’ It was like he was jabbing a knife at Allen’s chest.
‘What you talking about?’ Allen was surprised and confused.
‘The Jester, you plonker! Don’t act thick’
Everything was strained between them. There was no friendly greeting, just the verbal assault. George knew why things had changed, he had seen something new and found out a secret, but he never said anything before that Sunday years later.
Allen flushed. It was difficult for most people to see when he was embarrassed because of his dark complexion, but George knew him. He knew he’d hit a nerve, so he jabbed again.
‘At your 25th. When you were first in Brum, The Jester.’
Allen felt like a boxer suddenly on the ropes. He floundered.
What did George think? What did he really know? What did this mean to them?
Immediately Allen fully understood the silence that had grown between them.
‘One of your mates, from your work you said, the one with the pink shirt and way too neat hair, him, he said he’d see you at the ‘Jester as usual’. You didn’t know that I’d heard? Obviously …’
‘George … mate,’ Allen faltered to find the words he needed. But they evaporated from his throat before he could form them, and George threw his final combination blows that further winded Allen.
‘You could have told me! I thought I was your best mate. How could you?!’
‘George, I wanted to … I mean, I tried to … you know, say something, but …’
‘But what, Allen?! You couldn’t find the right time? Is that the excuse you’re going with?’
‘Well, yeah. But it’s not an excu …’
‘Oh, shut up!’ George’s face had reddened to complement the colour of his hair. He was shouting now. Allen was both sad and happy that he was with George and they were talking, well shouting at that exact moment, but it was a connection and he’d missed the familiar feel of being around someone who knew him before he’d started to discover himself. Of course he’d made new friends since moving to Birmingham, but they weren’t the right shape to fit into the best friend gap he held carefully in his chest.
‘It’s the weakest shitting excuse ever,’ George fumed. He had held his sadness quietly for years, and now he released it like a tornado. He wanted to explain how he’d missed Allen, but he had no-one to tell. His new mates didn’t understand people like Allen. They didn’t know he was … just Allen. Nothing else. Just Allen. His mate.
‘You just pissed off and said nothing. Like fucking blue mist! What was I supposed to think? What was I supposed to do?’
Allen realised he had been too busy looking from his cloudy side of life’s mirror to notice that George had been on the other side trying to get to him. Allen felt the tears on his face but didn’t know when they had started. He didn’t care. He was shaking on the inside and was afraid his organs were going to react to the disturbance and relocate in his body. Everything hurt like he’d been in a vehicle collision. ‘So, this is sadness,’ he mused. ‘It sucks.’
He instinctively knew he had just encountered a different kind of heart break to the one he had imagined would destroy him or the kind he felt when he broke up his short relationships. This new type of pain was core deep and one that even welding did not seem able to address. All he wanted to do was get back on the train and go to his flat in Birmingham, and close the door. His friendship had cracked into hundreds of splinter sharp pieces of honeycomb because he’d been distracted by himself.
Then, like a sudden break in the clouds, George’s face reverted to the face of his seventeen year old self and Allen felt a serge of hope and wiping his face awkwardly, he offered, ‘I didn’t know what you’d think if I told you the …’
George unexpectedly hardened his face immediately and scowled at his one-time friend, then he turned smartly on his heel and walked off throwing a parting comment over his shoulder, ‘You didn’t know? You didn’t know?! Like I said. Fucking excuses. All that time we spent together – for fuck’s sake, Allen! You’re a wanker! I though … I thought we were friends. How wrong was I?’
Allen again looked at the text from his sister, ‘You never guess who I saw last week?! George. Your friend George from school. He’s back in town. He asked about you. I said you were fine, but said he should call you himself. He said he didn’t have your number (why???!), but gave me his for you to contact him. Here it is …’
So, Allen stared at his phone, and the words and numbers became hieroglyphics and cave paintings in his hand as he regressed to the nascent fear that pervaded his everyday decisions and routine self-presentation. He had finally chosen to be honest with himself in his third decade, but – like a teenager – he still cared what George thought of him. George who he had shared so many secrets with, George who was the brother he never had, the same George who had disappeared and taken a whole portion of Allen’s life with him. That George wanted to get in touch with him again.
Allen wondered if best friends remained best friends for life, and concluded that calling the number would answer that question for George, because Allen, the grown man with the sensitive teenager’s heart, had never removed the ‘best friend’ label from George’s name even when he was suffocating in fear.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2018