John looked like the old John, and I was relieved.
He smiled as Jamie and I walked over, but the smile disappeared quicker than usual leaving behind a slight grimace. I sat down and before I had a chance to speak, he said how well I looked, but his eyes were distracted and I wasn’t sure if he truly noticed. I responded rather too enthusiastically that he was looking well too as if it was a surprise, which, of course, it was.
I like the shirt, he said. It really suits you.
Got it from TK’s. A bit too tight, but hey …
How’s things going for Brighton?
I understood his tactics and went along with it, giving a long, theatrical answer about how stressed I was, how the actors were driving me mad, how it was turning out to be a hassle I could have done without, and how I was never writing another play. Even Mike, who usually cuts me off with a loud sigh and an ‘Oh, well…’ let me continue as if it was the most important thing in the world.
As I rambled on, I saw how thin the back of his neck had become, and I almost lost my breath.
It was Jamie who thankfully brought my unravelling monologue to an end when he asked me if I wanted a drink. I said yes but pretended I wasn’t sure what I wanted, so I could make an escape to the bar.
At the bar I asked Jamie if he thought John should be drinking, and he said, Why the fuck not? Wouldn’t you be drinking? And he was right.
When we got back to the table, John asked Jamie how his yoga was going. Jamie obliged with an answer that wasn’t as long as maybe John needed it to be. Eventually things fell silent and although I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, I needed to fill the emptiness.
Have they managed to control the pain yet?
I don’t want to talk about it. I’m bored.
His anger shocked us all, even himself. Mike shot me a look that said, sorry. I reached over and patted his hand to let him know there was no need.
I can’t remember what else we spoke about that night. I wish I could. There are small things I remember though, like noticing his same-old, mis-shapen thumb nails as he lifted his port to his mouth. These thumbnails, usually a source of playful ribbing, now made me feel terribly sad. I also remember how his silver hair was more silver than ever, and how his cherub face remained cherub-like although his cheekbones appeared to be closer to the surface of the skin. I remember the spurts of boyish laughter that still rang out from his mouth whenever I, in an attempt to make everything feel normal, joked or made a bitchy comment about something.
I’ll never forget that laugh, just like I’ll never forget the night at The Eagle when I bought poppers and John had a sniff for the very first time even though he was forty-eight. I’ll never forget his boyish delight at doing something naughty. Nor will I ever forget seeing him in a sauna in Hamburg being trailed by the hand by Mike like he was his son, not his lover. And I’ll never forget his rotund stomach and how I used to pat it every time I saw him, teasing him about his weight. I’ll never forget the obscene, hilariously camp, red shorts he wore on holiday in Crete, and how he looked like a mischievous Ronnie Corbett when he wore a beany.
I’ll never forget.
When we left the Molly House that night and said our good-byes, I wish I could say we shared a special moment; a moment I could remember, like in the movies, that would mark the last time I saw him in a profound and moving way. But I don’t think there was. We hugged briefly in the rain, said see you soon and then walked away into the night. There was no turning back for one last wave; no running back towards each other for one last embrace. Instead we just kept walking in opposite directions, each step taking us further away from each other into the black night.
Billy Cowan is an award-winning playwright and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. His micro-fiction stories have appeared in Flash, Quickies and are forthcoming in Flash Nonfiction Funny edited by Tom Hazuka. Billy’s website: www.truantcompany.com