Andrew James Talbot
I was on my way to a good friend’s house for a drink, something that would have been a normal thing to do, the most normal thing in the world, had it not been for the fact that, as he was still waiting for test results to come back about his liver, he couldn’t drink. When I spoke to him on the phone he was in surprisingly good spirits as he told me what the preliminary examination had shown: the initial signs of hepatitis. “Don’t worry if you come round and I can’t remember your name,” he managed to joke but, in truth, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about the disease, what organs it affects, what symptoms it creates, let alone that it can cause memory loss, all of which I later found out from my old school encyclopedia. This was what I thought about as I parked my car in their local supermarket after a slow two hour drive through traffic, thinking for something to buy, something to bring.
Without the obvious gift of a bottle of wine, I was at a loss. Supermarkets are not something I pretend to understand and I find something unsettlingly impersonal about their hordes of bright choice and big numbers. This was one of those big value supermarkets, with jars of peanut butter the size of people’s heads, sacks of salt, baths of olive oil, none of which helped me to pick out a present. I looked down the alcohol aisle and was amazed; there was enough booze to kill an army. In the end, after twenty minutes of people failing to say excuse me and dozens of back tracks and zigzags, I left with some designer chocolates and fresh fruit juice. On seeing my minute purchases the woman at the till gave me a strange stare; I don’t think she’d seen anyone buy so little.
As I approached my nerves grew round me. Chocolate? Can people with liver damage eat chocolate? All that fat, artificial colors and zip codes? And fruit juice? Is that ok? Too much sugar? But isn’t it natural sugar? Why didn’t I just buy a vase or a bowl or an African wooden drum, why chocolate and juice? Their house, as I approached, had not changed– it was still a respectable semi-detached house in an area that was more respectable when they bought it. I took a deep breath and closed the car door as quietly as possible, so as not to disturb them, which I knew made no sense but showed just how nervous I was about meeting an old, best friend. Lights were on and music was playing. Later I would realise that they had sold their car.
After the doorbell had finished its plastic echo I was more than a little surprised to see who had opened the door. I hadn’t seen my friend for almost two years due to a wide variety of honest excuses – work, geography, work, money, work, family, work – and for the slimmest of seconds I actually wondered, ‘Does Hepatitis make you shrink?’ as I gazed at what I quickly realised was my friend’s firstborn, a two-year-old boy. My friend’s wife, who I had known longer than her husband, waddled into view heavily pregnant and mixing something up in a bowl. I gave the kid the chocolates and fruit juice and watched him race upstairs with them. As I carefully kissed the mother on both cheeks and smiled and laughed and said what you normally say when you meet people who you used to share a large part of your life with, I looked over my shoulder for signs of my friend and signs of his health. I wasn’t expecting anything really, no drips or beeping machines, but something made me uneasy, something made my eyes search for clues and I think my friend saw this when he slowed into my view, smile wide, eyes bright, yet his body was tight, uneven, his skin looked like it needed to be ironed out.
“Now don’t be alarmed, it’s not contagious!” He said, in a voice that surprised me with its strength.
“No, I was waiting to see the evil nurse instead Henry!” I said back, feeling more comfortable, grateful for the topic to out in the open already, happy to see there could be humour here.
“Why, you just met her John, and not for the first time!” He said, as he pushed a kiss into Sarah’s red cheeks and put a hand on the belly.
“Oh c’mon Henry, she’s no nurse! Just evil!” I joked and we laughed as I was shown into the living room, into the warm jazz and low lights.
While Sarah finished cooking, Henry and I sat and I told him about the supermarket and that I didn’t know what to buy. I guess I was trying to ease him into telling me the latest news but instead he began telling me about his child, Richard, about his early birth and addiction to mashed pineapple, about the new child on the way, about Sarah’s new job - selling hand-made, extra large and extra small clothes over the internet. He seemed happy and so was I and then Sarah entered the room with a glass of water for Henry and asked me what I would like to drink.
“What are you having, Sarah?” I stumbled out, mind racing.
“Oh, water’s fine for me, John, but we’ve got a whole range of drinks, whatever you fancy?” She gave her back to me as she looked at Henry denying me a hint, a choice, a way to know what to go for, what was fair game and what wasn’t. I gave Henry a little look and he gave me one back that said I could have anything I wanted.
“John, have whatever you want, really, you’d be doing me a favor if you drank up what we have left, what we haven’t thrown away, honestly. We keep the rest for parties that we’re never going to have!” He looked at Sarah, smiling, hoping for a smile back. “Sarah, get John a beer, is that ok John, a beer?”
“Sure,” I said, straight away, grateful for his help. I needed a drink to be fair; it had been a long day and I wanted something to coat the edges.
“Right away, Honey.” Sarah smiled as she turned back out of the living room. I thought for a moment that maybe women prefer this, a sick husband, someone to care for forever, someone depending on them, someone they will never have to suspect.
“Hold on!” Henry said, “They won’t be cold. Is that ok John, I’m really sorry? I guess we didn’t think about that, they’re all in the cupboard. You don’t want a warm beer do you?”
“Well…” I ventured.
“How about I put one in the freezer now and they’ll be ready for dinner? Does that sound ok, John?”
“Really, don’t go to any trouble, water’s fine, really, a beer with the meal sounds fine, and I’m driving anyway.”
“Sure?” Asked Sarah and I nodded and she left and then I looked at Henry and he gave me a different smile.
The living room hadn’t changed much since the last time I was here: the sofa was the same, a green worn bank of old velvet that seemed to suck you down to its depth’s along with keys and all your loose change; the TV was new, perhaps, and children’s toys – a tank here, a fluffy fish there – had been kicked away into the corners. What I knew hadn’t been changed was the stereo. I had been there when he bought it; we chose it together, this enormous amplifier that weighed more than me and speakers the size of bookcases, trying on all our favorite records in the shop while the sales clerk seethed and other customers stared. I gave the place a full look and when I looked back at Henry he wasn’t watching me but looking at his glass, swirling it, letting the water get as close as possible to the rim without any of it spilling out. I guessed he had spent a lot of time doing that recently, sitting alone, swirling the water, keeping it all in. Sarah returned with my drink and I looked at him again.
“Pretty funny this, isn’t it?” He said, but more to himself, his eyes on the rolling water. “Who would have thought? Two young men, only just forty, sitting and drinking water together, after all the nights and days we had before, I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”
“Life has a way of creeping up on you I guess. We have to grow up sometime, Henry. Sooner rather than later.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess. Tell me John, what’s new with you? You and Elaine…”
“That finished a long time ago. Maybe a year ago. I told you.”
“Of course, I…I always thought you were perfect for each other, it’s still a shock: not a shock, but a surprise.”
“It’s still a surprise to me sometimes, when I see her food still sitting in the back of the cupboards, find left behind books, tapes, but…but things are better now. Well, maybe not better but easier, simpler: I know where I am, there’s no confusion, no power struggle. Easier.” I said this looking at my water, water I was yet to drink. I wanted a cigarette but was sure I would have to go outside and didn’t want to do it so early on, as we tried to put our lives back together, find a starting point.
“Time’s a great healer some guy said, and so is music. Do you still listen to music? Stupid question, I guess.”
“Yeah, all the time, but coming here, hearing that stereo, I know I’m going to go home, put on a record and it’s going to sound flat, empty.” We laughed for what felt like the first time.
“No, it’s showing its age, like me, not like you John, with that full head of hair of yours, bet you’re fighting back the ladies at the single bars!”
“Fighting back yes, but ladies no!” I picked up the toy fish. “This is more attractive than the women I’m buying drinks for!”
Sarah entered, her apron off and her hair down. “What’s this I hear about ladies? John, you old sea dog, I demand to her more about this over dinner, which, by the way, is ready, and so is a cold beer for you John, if you’d be so kind as to follow me?”
“Certainly.” I said, grateful for the diversion. It seemed Henry and I had become too serious too quickly, that we’d gone to a place we knew we were going to go but didn’t know how to get back from. Suddenly, I felt it hard to look at him; his eyes had become a threat. I left my water untouched and followed Sarah into the kitchen.
I had met Sarah at college but had never known her until we found ourselves at the same office five years later. It shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, there were at least two other people there who had gone to the same local schools and universities but when we found out, we both found it amusing and comforting, as if by making the world smaller, our lives became more important. We joked about all the wild dreams you have before you grow up and then you find out you're happy with what you’ve already got. We got on well and she and Elaine, my then long-term love and later wife, became good friends. Elaine introduced her to Henry, this guy she knew from her office who I sometimes bowled with and that was that, nothing simpler, normal life, friends of friends getting married, having children, growing up. It is wrong to expect any more from life. They used to be our regular dinner party guests, dinner parties where Henry and I would get drunk and argue about jazz and Elaine and Sarah would keep hiding the bottles. They were fun times: we earned enough money to borrow more money; we had jobs we didn’t hate and we were healthy and young. When I sat down and saw the Italian stew Sarah had cooked, saw a cold beer waiting for me and an ashtray, I felt a deep smile grow on me and I looked at Henry who was looking at my beer.
“Richard not joining us, Sarah?” I asked. My children were living with Elaine and I missed them. I would have liked to have a diversion, something to keep things fun and young.
“No, no, he’s in bed, or should be, I just put him down, he had his mouth full of chocolate when I last saw him, so thank you for that John, he’ll be running around all night now!” Sarah smiled at me.
“I’m so sorry, I just panicked, you could have told me you had given birth, you two, it’s not something you forget to say!” I said and then realised what I had done.
“We wanted it to be a surprise.” Henry said with a straight grin.
“Well, congratulations to you both,” I said, “its great news, cheers to that!” And I raised my glass and then I realised I had done it again. We clinked the glasses together, two of water, one of beer, and they gave of this dull snap, the sound a bell makes if you put your hands over it and ring.
“So,” said Sarah, as we began to eat, even though it was still steaming hot, “Tell me more about these ladies, John!”
“Well, I haven’t met my second divorce yet.” I said.
“John, you’re such a cynic! You can fall in love again anytime, anywhere!” She replied.
“I know, I know, but falling in love when you’re forty is harder than when you’re younger, I mean, everyone I meet is on round two, carrying children and mortgages and scars. Which I have too I guess, but it would be nice to go back and start again. I’m jealous of you two, with your family and house and love and everything.” I looked at Henry but he had his face down, wiping tomato sauce of his chin with a napkin. I looked at his food and realized there was no meat in it.
“Sounds like excuses to me, what do you say Henry? Do you think John’s got a secret batch of beauties somewhere?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Henry, focusing on his food, holding his fork in a fist.
“Do you see Elaine much?” I asked. I only heard from Elaine’s lawyer nowadays, normally about increasing amounts of maintenance she firstly thought I had, and secondly thought I should give to her. I didn’t want any details, I still wanted to know she was ok: although most of me wanted her to be as successful and happy as she deserved to be, there was a cold corner of my heart that only wanted to hear bad news.
“Now and then,” said Henry, looking at me, “a Christmas card, a phone call. She says she’s changed jobs and is thinking of moving.”
“Really?” I knew about the house, half of it was mine, but I didn’t know about the job. It is terrible how love can transcend, assimilate, vanish: my first thought was not of her success, but her salary, and how it would affect my own income. I looked at Henry for more information but that was it and I didn’t feel like pushing things so I sat and we talked about our jobs and their school choice and the growing winter and sport we both casually watched and all those things people talk about in other houses and while we did this I finished my beer, taking quick, long sips, when they were talking to each other, when their eyes weren’t watching me. I didn’t ask for another one and instead had a cigarette, which they insisted I have inside, using the beer can as an ashtray, and while I blew the smoke away from them Henry and I didn’t talk about jazz.
While Sarah, despite my protests, cleaned up, Henry and I returned to the living room. He put the same record on again. It was a Charles Mingus. I thanked him for the meal and said how great his family was, stuff you say when you don’t know what to say to someone you don’t really know but expect to meet again because they are friends with your friends and maybe you’ll become friends later but probably wont. Small talk. Not what I wanted, or expected, but now a welcoming refuge from reality and all its hard knocks. I listened to the music for a moment and was taken back and remembered that I used to be a completely different person but am now, somehow, exactly the same. Suddenly, Henry picked up his glass of water and downed it, like it was a single shot, and slammed it back down on the wooden coffee table causing the sleeve of the record to fall off and float down onto the carpet. When I went to pick it up Henry snapped, “Leave it!” and I did. For a few moments, only the sounds of touching plates and running water could be heard, not the music, not our breath.
“I guess you think I’ve been a bit rude tonight, or off-hand or something?”
“No, not at all.”
“It’s ok. I know I have been.”
“Can I say something John, say something without you interrupting, say it and then not speak about it, let it go, leave it for another night, another time?”
“Sure, anything, go ahead, it’s us.” I really wanted to swallow but I didn’t want him to see me do it.
“Well. I told you about the liver thing. I told you I was awaiting tests. Well, I got them back. I got them last week, after you called, after we spoke, if I remember correctly. Yeah, I’m sure. They, well, they weren’t good, weren’t good at all in fact. In fact one would say they were bad. I didn’t really understand all the medical terms, the way they said things, and anyway when you get news like that your head races away and your eyes glaze and you can’t really listen anymore.” He stopped. I wanted to say something but I didn’t know what. I wasn’t sure where this was going but I knew it wasn’t going to be a good place. It kills me to remember this, but when he was saying this to me, when he was trying to tell me he was in trouble, serious trouble, from, let’s face it, drinking too much, all I wanted was a drink. I needed a whisky, or at least a beer. I had no props, no cigarette or glass, nothing to hold onto. I let him carry on as I listened, my hands on my knees.
“The doctor said I can’t drink again. Ever. And gave me a list of all the other stuff I can’t eat, all the good stuff, all the stuff I want to eat. All the stuff we want to eat, me and Sarah. Jesus, she’s been amazing John, amazing. A queen, a saint, whatever, amazing, she deserves better John, so much better. Anyway, there’s some real damage, damage that can’t be undone apparently. I have to go in for more tests, more fucking tests to know for sure but…” He stopped. I realized I had been holding my breath. I looked at him and knew I was looking at a man with a time limit. Maybe not tomorrow but someday soon and I knew he knew that. Nobody said anything and then the record stopped. When Sarah came in we were both sitting in silence, still, only our hearts moving. She took our glasses, paused, and left.
“Basically John, well, if, if something happens, and it won't for some time, that’s what the doctors said anyway, but I’ve got a family, I’m insured and that, that’s no problem, you wont have to spend a cent. But I want to ask you, I want to ask you to help, help Sarah, keep an eye on the kids, give them a male figure, take them to baseball and tell them about girls, you know, stuff you’ve done before, nothing major, just a close uncle, family friend, you know. Could you do that for me John, could you do that?”
“Sure. Of course. Sure.”
“One more thing.”
“Never, no, not never, but, but try to keep him away from drink John. Try to keep him away from not being able to live without it. I’m not saying make him teetotal, not at all, but keep control, keep control.”
“Whatever you say Henry, I’ll do everything I can.”
We didn’t speak much after that. Sarah came in and tried to lighten things up. I kept trying to catch her eye, get some sign from her that she knew what was going on, what he’d asked me to do, what she was feeling, but her eyes gave off something else. I didn’t really understand how to feel and a while later I stood up to leave, using the long drive home and work as solid excuses. I shook Henry’s hand but held it as if he were an old person. I left him in the hall. Sarah walked me to the door and put her arms around me and I hugged her with the baby in front of us. I was going to the door when I heard an unserious scream. It came from upstairs. It was Richard.
“John, could you go and see him, please, it’ll take me five minutes to get up there.” She said, patting her belly.
“Yeah, ok.” And then I was climbing the stairs.
There were no lights on up there and I didn’t know what room he was in. For a moment I just stood there in the dark, lost, only the low blue light of a clouded moon shone through the landing window. I didn’t want to turn a light on. I didn’t want to move. I felt like I could have stayed there forever. I was only present. A moment later Richard called again and I knocked on a closed door. He was sitting up in his bed, a small lamp on, his face red with tears, his body shaking.
“Who are you?” He said, the words stuttered.
“I’m John, your Father’s friend. And Mother’s. Are you ok?” I spoke slow and quiet and moved gently to him.
“Bad dream?” I asked.
“Yes. Where’s my Mommy?”
“She’s coming in a minute. She’s got something important to do. She’ll be with us soon.”
“What’s your name?”
“John. I’m the guy who gave you the chocolate.” And I took his little wet hand but he didn’t shake it, he just held me and wouldn’t let go.
I looked around the room. I needed something to calm him down. On his bedside table was the lamp, a glass of water and a book. I picked up the book. It was a picture book about the ocean and all the magical creatures that lived there. I opened it and flicked through, careful to stay away from the sharks and squids. I stopped flicking and looked at a page. On it was a picture of a seahorse floating and shining in the deep blue.
“Richard? Is this your book? Look, look here. You see this animal? It’s called a seahorse. It’s amazing. It’s the only animal in the world where the Dad gives birth. Where the Dad is the Mom.”
“Yeah, the Dad makes the baby and then, then he goes away and the Mom looks after the young seahorses.”
“Are they happy? The little seahorses?”
“Yes, yes they are, with their mom and all their little seahorse brothers and sisters, without their dad, in all that water.”