“So, wotcha think about this King Edward the Confessor geezer?” he asked. It was Henry blagging his way through some history homework for the only teacher he ever made any effort to please. The teacher used to let him hide in the book cupboard at the head of the history classroom when the Deputy Head was on the warpath and hunting him down. As a point of honour and not to get his parents in trouble, Henry came to school every day, but actually sticking around for anything other than the first class where the attendance register was taken, was strictly optional to his way of thinking.
As he later explained it to me, you had to get checked in, but when you checked out was entirely up to you. He’d that gift of spotting the obvious bureaucratic loophole that would never occur to the Einsteins of the world. According to the register and therefore officially, he never missed a day. School was a kind of Colditz Castle he was obliged to report into every morning, and a challenge to make a home run out of by noon latest.
I became a connoisseur of his great escapes and some of them were just straight out of the well I’ll be fucked zone. I once saw him sitting brazenly on the crown tiles atop a four storey building watching two teachers scouring the grounds for him. They never spotted him. It’s only children who ever look up when they’re searching.
He’d become the Deputy’s pet project, since they were useless at doing their own job and chasing Henry was something they thought they’d be rather good at. They weren’t. Everyone knew he was there in the cupboard, except the Deputy, who I’m pretty sure had a lifetime curse of being the last person to know anything. Nobody ever ratted him out and anyway, the history teacher was a good bloke nobody wanted to make problems for. After all, he’d taught us to curse in Arabic, a souvenir of a few years dancing around in the north African desert with a certain Erwin Rommel.
I first met Henry when we nearly killed each other. I can’t remember what exactly sparked it off but it was a good battle. He was a head shorter than me but built like an Andalucía bull. He’d some great short body shots and all you could do was get your elbows in the way and hammer that thick skull of his drilling into you. He kept on bulling in and I got my shots in as best I could on the retreat. It was my impression of pugilistic art versus his one of blunt force trauma. His impression was much better than mine.
Dance like a butterfly, get battered like a twat. We knocked ten bowls of shit out of each other until we’d absolutely nothing left to give except a smouldering I’m going to kill your ass dead glare. We’d toed to toed, battled each other to a complete standstill and I could see well into him and just knew I’d have to absolutely kill the bastard to stop him. The circle of people milling around us closed in and pulled the exhausted combatants apart, declaring a draw.
After that sort of intimacy, we became the best of friends.
I negotiated him onto the soccer team where we were the fullbacks, a defensive position. He’d huge protective instincts which made him a natural. Not many strikers got past us. After carefully explaining to him that someone moving towards our goal with a ball wasn’t a mitigating circumstance for a justifiable homicide plea, he got the hang of the thing. Advance on them looking threatening (he was truly gifted in that area), crowd them, get in their face and rely on your mate to guess which way they’d pass the thing and then intercept it. And by the way, chasing a terrified ref around the field with three or four of your team mates hanging off you was frowned upon.
There was always that elemental force about Henry but at the same time, there wasn’t a cruel or mean bone in his body. What he lacked in terms of being a potential Nobel laureate in nuclear astrophysics was more than made up for by a huge heart. He’d a knack of being around when a gang of bullies were plying their trade and then Christ help them. Every underdog suddenly had this ferocious pit bull on their side. On more than one occasion, we ended up back to back against assorted barbarians and he saved my bacon.
He never changed or traded down, he never tokened the odds when someone was in trouble, just ploughed in to come to their aid. That would be called moral courage I suppose, but in his case it was just good old-fashioned courage and he’d picked up a few scars to prove it, every one a badge of honour. Long after we’d all outgrown our juvenile fists of fury stage, he’d always be the first person to a friend’s side if they needed help.
Your childhood friendships are your first love affair. The love you have for them means you start to look out into the world through their eyes, rather than those me-centric ones. It does knock you off that I’m the centre of the universe perch. Henry taught me that so often it’s the person who matters rather than any careful and minute analysis of the rights and wrongs of the situation, and I’ve never forgotten that lesson. Real friends teach you the important stuff.
A man not given to yapping his head off, he’d two great words he was obliged to use on me all too often; bollocks and fuckit. He’d listen patiently to me droning on about the pros and cons of some situation like a conflicted agony aunt and when I’d finally run down and after his idea of a thoughtful and sensitive pause, he’d pronounce the single word bollocks with a certain judicial finality, but always softened the hard edge with his wolf teeth grin and black beady eyes piercing me. It meant get a grip mate and he was usually right. Most things that really matter are not that horrendously complicated.
Fuckit was reserved for those totally bad occasions when there was absolutely nothing which could be done. Nothing. And more than once he pulled me away out of trouble with an arm around my throat when I was mad determined to do something totally bloody stupid. Just say fuckit. It meant suck it up Buster and walk away, this one you can’t win.
Given his nature, I ended up pulling him out of more than a few hopeless fuckit situations, and that’s the simple love friends give back. He was predictably vulnerable in certain circumstances and I didn’t mind taking the heat of stopping him doing the right thing, rather than the smart thing. Sometimes, doing the right thing comes with too expensive a price tag, and the only comfort was the hope there’ll be another day and it’ll be a better one.
Thinking back upon it, it was actually me who taught him about fuckit, and that wasn’t much of a service. He needed a bit of care from someone a bit more cynical than him and who could never be as fearless as he was. Such occasional acts of small betrayal become a part of every friendship you value.
I started explaining about King Edward. His domestic policies pleased the courtiers but did little or nothing for his subjects. The foreign policy was a complete disaster but the important thing about him was his overriding desire to be made a saint by the church after he was dead. I was about to go into the finer details but could see the bollocks word starting to form in his head, so I cut straight to the executive summary about Edward the Confessor – “he was a complete wanker.”
Quick as a flash, Henry scribbled down those five words and with that, his homework was done and he was outta there with nothing left behind but this Roadrunner-like cloud gradually fading away to nothing where he’d been. I’m sure the history teacher loved marking that homework.
That huge heart failed him in the end but that was just the biology, not his spirit. He was a gentle and loving husband, a great Dad to his kids who totally adored him and a generous man to all who knew him. He always looked out for his idiot friend.
Escaping out of Heaven for some fun in the afternoon won’t present any problems.