Seeing a friend out.

I once had a friend. He and his wife and family had moved in a few doors down. Our youngest sons went to the same junior school, babies really. Anyway, the annual BBQ in May came around and it was the usual dissolute business. Always invite all the neighbours, that way it blunts any possible complaint about raging bonfires and music at all hours, because they’ve been at it. That is the usual form. He and I and others finished up in the early hours of the morning in a semi-circle around the bonfire talking bullshit to each other while we listened to a bad bootleg copy of Paul Brady singing Arthur McBride.

As with so many of my dear friends, I soon found out we had not a lot in common. Our politics were diametrically opposite, his musical taste never seemed to have evolved beyond his teens and he read about four rubbish books a year, and that’d be tops. But he was a mad Manchester United fan which I was also. We compared stories of where we were watching the lads making football history. Doing the triple by beating in injury time the best Deutschland had to fling at us.

A number of years down the line, he and his wife divorced. These things are hard on everybody, especially if you like both of them, but you try to keep in touch with the two of them. They sold the house and shared out the proceeds. He bought a bachelor flat in town where for a number of years I’d visit on big match days. Do we need a resupply on the Jameson’s front? I’d telephone in advance. Best to come packing Pointy, he’d advise, so I’d make a stop at the local liquour store before getting to his place. I had a permanent bottle of my favourite tipple in his drinks tray for years.

There was a banging on the door one night in the week. When it’s dark and late, I instinctively as Pappa bear move into point position, I’ll take this one. There was his ex-wife and one of his sons. I can see the fear in their faces, and it wrenches. “Come on in, come on in” and they do. This is not going to be good I think as I usher them in.

They’ve been trying to get in touch with him for the last week and haven’t had a reply. Have I heard from him? No.

But you’ve got a key for his place, haven’t you?

He was a diabetic and I’d once caught him slipping away into unconsciousness in the middle of a match, so I’d insisted he get another key cut for the front door of his flat just in case I needed to get in. Getting a new key cut would be a lot cheaper than getting a new front door I’d kicked down replaced if I got the screaming abdabs about him. He’d given me the second key, but obviously the word of my possession of it had got out, but it wasn’t from me.

I pile them all into my car, but decide to include our youngest son as an afterthought. He’s the last one in the nest, but a presentiment sense tells me I’ll need him. Mid twenties, old enough to handle what I fear we might find. The dreams I’ve had lately have not been good, so the dread already had its icy hands squeezing around my heart.

We get to his flat. It was always a curious layout. More a spiraling upwards tower than an apartment. Ground floor; entrance hall, kitchen and a garage. Second story, living room and attached study cubby hole. Third; master bedroom and another one you couldn’t swing a cat in. It’s one of those weird townhouse designs that fits into a larger conurbation that some architectural firm artfully tarted past a planning permissions department. No fire escape. In the event of a fire, it’d be a death trap.

One turn of the Yale key, and we’re in and standing in the hall. I have a hyper-acute sense of smell and am barely in the door when I know we’re on a recovery mission here rather than a rescue one; just bringing home the dead meat. I smell the spoiled pork smell of decomposition and know what I’m going to find upstairs. It probably showed on my face, so when I ordered them to stay there as I went up the stairs, they all stayed exactly there. When I need to take control of a situation, I don’t fuck around and it comes out in my voice.

He’s sitting in front of his laptop in the adjunct study. His head is lolling over the back of the seat and his sightless eyes are wide open and staring up at the ceiling and his mouth is agape. His skin is white and pasty and cold, but I do the usual checks anyway. He’s long gone John. Long, long gone Johnny boy. I wiggle the mouse to see what he was looking at, but it’s something boring and financial, but take a moment to delete his browsing history anyway.

There’s nothing immediate I can do here, so the moment I’d been putting off has arrived. I klump my way downstairs and tell them he’s gone. Gone? He’s dead. I’m sure there were probably finer ways of making that announcement, but he was my friend too and I was struggling a bit with shock as well. He was way too fucking young to be doing an unexpected checkout like this.

There’s one of those wall mounted phones in the hall. I dial the emergency services, giving the essential details. The woman on the end wants to start taking a lengthy deposition. I’m just not in the fucking mood and hand the phone over to my boy. He gets into a long conversation with the bloody telephonist who is deadly determined to make sure just how exactly he absolutely knows the guy is dead.

I’m trying to think my way ahead of the situation but can see him getting upset and angrily take the handset back from him. You have the address, get some fucking first responders here I tell her and slam it down. In the great tradition of giving orders, I tell the family for no good reason to move out of the hall and into the kitchen, and tell my boy I need his help upstairs and ascend them again without looking behind me, hoping he’d follow, which he does.

The casual thought flits across my mind. I’m blooding him. Perhaps so. What a great dad I am.

He gets to see his first dead man, but I’m giving orders to get him off the spot and moving. Go up those stairs behind you. You’ll find a bedroom. Find a duvet or sheet or something and bring it down. He looks at me. Now, I bark at him. The spell is broken and he scurries upstairs. I look around, there’s nothing more I can do here.

My lad appears holding a duvet and pauses at the end of the mezzanine stairs holding it. I can see an element of shock and there’s an unspoken question. What do I do with this Dad? I tell him, just drape it over him, over his head, which he does. He does it gently and with respect. I tell him to go downstairs and don’t let them come up, I’ll be down there presently. I want to do the last-minute check for my friend before it all goes into the official slot.

On his desk is one of those tin flat containers of the slim panatella cigars he liked to smoke. When I was on one of my giving up smoking efforts, I’d be around his place watching Man U with a drink in one hand and the other annoyingly empty. Without even looking at me, he’d sense the momentary pang. I won’t offer Pointy, but if you want a cigar, just help yourself. I invariably would, and with both hands full, could settle down to watching Man U footballing the shit out of the likes of Chelsea or Bayern Munich.

I take one cigar and place it behind my ear, a mannerism of an uncle I’d noticed as a child. He was a huge big brute of a man who was as gentle and easy as the day was long. Every mistake a mortal man could make, he’d made and probably invented a few more, and yet he always took time to josh and chase us scamps all around the house. Upstairs, downstairs and all around the house. He was a darling gentle man before those two words became conjoined.

A memory comes unbidden of a story one of my older siblings told me about him. He’d had one of his usual disasters and in response had “taken to his bed”. It’s a very nineteenth century term but means in the face of some terrible catastrophe, you get into bed, drink a steady stream of cups of tea and just don’t get out of it until you feel once again able to face the world. That would be my uncle Ger.

“Uncle Ger, when are you going to get up?” She was just a young kid and wanted her uncle to play with her as usual, but she knew he was also in distress. Empathy. He pointed at an empty lemonade bottle beside the bed that he’d been dropping his cigarette butts into. “When that gets full to the top, I’ll get up”. Different times.

I can’t think of anything more I can do to protect him and the family, so I go downstairs and join them all in the kitchen.

They’re all in shock, numbed. I’ve been through this crappy terrain before. There’s nothing I can do for them, but my lad I can give a job to. In that type of situation, it’s best to keep as many arses and elbows moving as you possibly can. Don’t let them stand around and mope. The apartment is hidden away in a warren of back roads that were laid down in Roman times. I tell him to get out on the main road and watch for an ambulance, which will be coming. Wave it down and guide the paramedics to the place I order him.

I can see it’s with some relief. First dead man he’s seen, a family in shock and a hard side of me I’d hoped he’d never have to see. He’s as good as gold, guiding two paramedics into the warren of apartments and then getting out of their way. I tell him to stay in the kitchen with the family while I stand outside the front door. I give him a hard parting glance which he has the smarts to understand – you’re crowd control in the kitchen. They simply don’t go up those stairs under any circumstances to see the two medics working on a dead man. That’s a last image of him they don’t need.

I’m waiting for the second wave which I know will be the cops. I also know the questions they’re going to be asking but know I can take that heat for the family. I’m the key holder, the one who found the body, the one who called it in. I’m the point, the one they’ll want to talk to. Everybody else is a bystander.

They give me a cursory mauling to dismiss the suspicious death thing. I do the grey man thing; know nothing, deny everything and admit nothing routine so they’re quickly satisfied. I just found the body; end of story. It is actually a natural death, but I don’t want some cop enthusiast getting their teeth into it and making a whole lot more out of it than it actually is.

Once it’s all been managed and we’re outta the joint, we go home. My son looks at me in a new way; like he’s just found a sinister alien lurking in the midst of the family. I give him my poker face. If you want me to get all weepy about tonight, it’s just not going to happen. It’s screw you, grow up time, is the unspoken message to him. You only knew him as your school mate’s dad, but he was my friend. I’ve done enough tough guy shit for one evening and really just want to be left the fuck alone for the rest of it.

They get the message.

Once they’re all safely abed, I open up a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey and remember my friend, and I kill it while smoking the last panatella cigar I’d ever get from that friend. Loss is always hard, but situations have to be managed at the moment in time. Someone just has to step up and keep on functioning, despite the distress. Big boys can’t cry, but I’ve never managed to bring myself to watch a Man U game ever since. There’d be no fun in it, because I know there’d always be a shadow of a ghost of a friend at my elbow cheering them on in his living room as we used to do.

So, there you go.


8 Responses to “Seeing a friend out.”
  1. hunter says:

    What a deeply moving, gritty and all too human story, very well told.


  2. gallopingcamel says:

    Nobody can imagine how an unexpected death will affect them until it happens. I hardly knew Andrew Costorphine, a trooper in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment who died in 1957 following a roll-over accident in a Daimler scout car……….something I will never forget.

    While I did not see Andrew’s body his skull was crushed and he was decapitated. His vehicle was full of blood and bone fragments. The clean up fell to me using a high pressure hose several days later including removing the bottom armor plates where blood pools had attracted swarms of flies. Now I am feeling queasy.

    This makes me appreciate the police and emergency services who handle this sort of thing on a daily basis……something I could not cope with.


  3. Blackswan says:


    Every society has its Village Warriors; the men and women who accept responsibility for dealing with Life’s challenges. Not everybody is willing to do that. They look to VWs to be a buffer between themselves and the raw realities that inevitably confront us all.

    Our police/fire/paramedic or civilian first responders are perfect examples of that.

    It’s a sad irony that people often regard such capable VWs as “other” … perhaps because such unflinching fortitude in some, contrasts the timidity in themselves.

    On the other hand, perhaps what you saw in your son’s reaction to a confronting experience was not about an “alien” at all, but a new awareness of his father’s strength in dealing with what had to be done.

    There is always time for tears later … or a stiff drink and a good cigar.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Michael 2 says:

    I save many of your stories but this one is special.


  5. Truthseeker says:


    As Jordan Peterson would say, you have definitely integrated your shadow …

    Sorry for the loss of your friend.

    John Warby


  6. Torquaymada says:

    I know of what you speak.

    Well written. It’s the mundanity of it all that preys on the mind.


  7. Dolf (a.k.a. Anders Ericsson) says:

    “mouse” and “browsing history”, can’t be that far away then. This side of the millennium shift I presume.
    Anyway, thanks for a gripping rendering of a turning point event.


  8. Shallowbrit says:

    Your stories will endure because you write the truth…


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