I’m not emotionally equipped to deal with most things, least of all death. Last Tuesday, slightly before half past nine in the evening, I received a phone call and through stifled sobs was told that my friend James was dead. It’s the sort of news that knocks the wind right out of you. It was one of those moments where life pops up and shouts “Oh hi there! You’re not using that heart are you? Great! Now let me carve it out of your chest with this comically large spoon. And since I’m here I may as well take your digestive tract too. You don’t need that. Thinking about it I’m sure you can manage just fine if I just hollow you out completely.” When life decides to take a swing at you it always swings in with the haymaker. I’m never quite sure how to react to a bombshell like that. I probably spent an hour just staring off into space trying to get my head round it. Even now, almost a week later it hasn’t really sunk in. Part of me still believes it’s all just an elaborate joke. Denial makes it easier, it makes the unbearable just a little bit easier to swallow. It tides you over until the pain isn’t quite so sharp, until it’s just a little easier to live with. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Despite the inevitability and ubiquity of death, humanity seems to try so very hard to avoid recognising it as even there. Bit the bullet, bought the farm, shuffled off their mortal coil, pushing up the daisies, checked out, cashed in their chips, the list goes on. We avoid it because it hurts. It hurts like all manner of hell.
I met him sometime in about 2005. Seven years, it’s a long time to know someone. James was, without doubt, a better man than I. He was probably a much better friend to me than I was to him. He was one of those guys who is just there. Solid, dependable, there. Needed a lift somewhere? He was your man, swinging into action in his green Daewoo Matiz, a monster with an engine the size of a tin can. He gave me a lift the day of my first job interview, he saw me in a suit, he had the decency not to laugh. Over the years I was quite cruel to him and never really repaid the kindness he so happily offered to me and all he knew. I took to calling him “Strawberry” (James, Jam, Strawberry, I’m like Oscar Wilde I am) and he hated it. To make matters worse it stuck. I mocked his receding hair line for no other reason than it was there. When he was finally diagnosed with cancer I took to calling him “Cancer Boy” I’m just that awful. Part of me hopes my flippancy made it all seem a little less grim. We’d drifted apart in recent years. We’d both graduated, he’d gotten a place on a PhD and I’d gotten a job that was working me into the ground. I was busy, didn’t have the time, I just couldn’t be bother with a lot of social gatherings. Then when he got ill I couldn’t really be near him. Him with an immune system shot to shit and me constantly with a cold, or malaise or virulent plague of sorts. I could have quite literally killed him, so I kept my distance. Then I moved away. I was in my twenties, I was still young, I didn’t make the time because I thought we were all going to live forever. What makes everything so much worse is that we never expected him to lose the fight, we always expected him to win. And although I still don’t have the full details or specifics, I’m told he did win. He beat cancer, he punched it in its smug little face. Then in the moment of his victory he was side-swiped by something small and shitty, something insignificant. I’m told he’d picked up a chest infection that just wouldn’t shift.
But we sure had some laughs. It’s all you can really ask for.
It was with James that I went on the first proper holiday of my adult life. We got into his tiny little car and pootled our way from Nottingham to Newcastle where I acted as a particularly shit tour guide. Then we got lost in the roads of Cow-Gate for 2 hours as we tried to find where we were supposed to be staying for the night. We learned that night that you should never trust the directions from Google maps. Next day we headed off up to Edinburgh and discovered ourselves once again in an area called Cow-Gate. James coined the phrase “This city needs more Cow-Gate.” Oh how we laughed. We visited the castle, he purchased a CD of bagpipe covers of popular rock/pop songs. Later that year a rag-tag band of misfits was formed and we all went to Dorset for the weekend. We bought science themed ties from the local gift-shop. Both me and James were on the losing side of an argument over the legitimacy of making scrambled eggs in the microwave. When we left we navigated our way across Exeter by the seat of our pants using only an old AA atlas that didn’t show half the roads. Upon arriving back in Nottingham James realised he’d left his keys in Dorset. Oh how we laughed (James did not laugh.) We also occasionally shared in the same outright paranoia. Shortly after seeing the end of season 3 of Battlestar Galactica we both started hearing All Along the Watchtower almost everywhere we went. It seriously freaked us out, so much so that we concluded that we must clearly be cylons and promptly moved on with our sham lives amongst the human meat-sacks.
The last communication I received from him was over twitter only a few days before his sad demise. In response to my declaration of beardedness he replied “but beards cause cancer remember? :-P” His cancer diagnosis came shortly after he’d grown a beard himself. Thus, to me, the beard was the obvious root cause of his aliments. Even if it was, at least he got to look like a pirate for a while.