The phone call explained everything. Emotional upheaval is nothing new in my life, I lurch from one relationship to the next, crushing feelings beneath my feet, it’s not something I’m proud of, when I finally look back, they’ll be the only source of my regrets, I hope. Was unloved, finds it hard to love now, not least myself, it’s an old story and it’s not just my story and it’s not the one I want to tell now.
The text message said one thing: ‘five years’. And, sitting at my desk, I started to cry. A lot’s happened in the last few months, not least my moving home and cities. The machinations of a half-finished book to deal with, going inside the darkest reaches of myself to make my latest leading man come to life. That’s my choice though, and one I’m glad to have. But in the sheer noise I’d surrounded myself with to combat the pain and loneliness I was feeling, I’d somehow overlooked the fact that this early autumn week always drains the the life out of me. If you look at the Vintage imprint of CCMS, there’s an inconsequential looking serial number and some letters at the top, embedded in the edge of the box: JSTB 18 – 09/07. Simply put, Justin Smith The Boy and the date on which he died, the 18 September 2007. Five years ago. CCMS was dedicated to him and Ted Millington (who I’ve written about before here) and for those who were unlucky enough not to have met either, I can tell you that you have a life less lived. Boy, he was always called The Boy or Boy, was Justin Smith to his mam (we’re Welsh, we have mams, not mums), and, for a brief, dazzling second he was Pepsi Tate of Tigertailz. Built like a second row forward but with a shock of blonde hair and more than adept at applying lipstick and eyeliner and a dusting of rouge. Women adored him, men didn’t know quite what to make of him. As two Welshmen away from home and living in London (though he travelled back and forth) we became fast friends, quick witted, too loud, too in thrall with ourselves, but if you can’t be buoyed up on your own magic at age 23 then when can you ever be? The band faltered, I got fired from my job, we stopped moving in the same circles, life had brought us down with a tangible bump. We both, strangely, became producers, but in different cities and spheres, and our collective disappointment in the thing we thought would save or make us meant that we avoided contact with each other as if that stink of failure might somehow rub off against us again. It’s hard when you first realise that life is a fragile house of cards and can give way at any point.
Then suddenly I was forty and threw a party in a private club in Soho. I remember the crippling bar tab and the wraps of coke made up as party gifts for my guests, colourful, garish bundles of face-chewing joy. And I remember Boy being there, and it’s a cliche, but it’s a truism too, it was as if he’d never left London, as if we’d never quietly left each other’s side. We laughed and argued and laughed, speaking some sort of internal dialect that perhaps siblings share. I went home while he went on into the night taking one of our friends with him who he got so drunk that they threw up in a potted plant in the Groucho. I was on my own sofa by then and thoroughly exhausted. The Boy still raging into the night and against the dying of the light.
He got ill not long after that, after he’d come back into my life and made me realise how easily we can let love go in all its shapes and forms. His cancer whittled away at him, reduced him to this tired, sleepy figure made miniscule among the cushions of his own sofa. We went to Wales and sat with him on his birthday, the knot of friends wondering how many more birthdays there would be where we could embrace him and touch the curve of his shoulder. He had a long scar that ran as an angry red line down his chest. And as I sat and looked at him across the table I knew that he was moving quickly from this life and into the next and no matter how hard I embraced him or clung to him he was always going to resist me now. He travelled to New York not long before he died with his wonderful wife and his dearest friend, he actually got engaged there as I remember it, and while they sat in a dusky New York bar, the remains of the day as spokes of light filtering through the window, she stood up and silenced the bar with a full blooded and quite, quite beautiful rendition of Moon River. Shan can make a room rise and fall with her voice, theatres and arenas too, she is, as they say, the real deal. But in that small room, in the company of strangers, she passed on her final gift to the only man she ever wanted to marry, one final thing before he died.
Months later, after we’d buried him on a Welsh hillside, where the different shades of green rolled ever upwards to meet the blue of the sky, I was sitting in an apartment block over looking San Francisco Bay, somewhere behind me a TV was on when Moon River came out of the speaker, a gospel rendition full of longing and need, before me I could see the lights flickering on along the Bay, a tanker sitting unmoving in the channel and in my head the roar of loss intermingling with the last echoing note as Moon River drifted by. Another thing lost to the oncoming night.
Two years and a matter of days later, today in fact, Sylvain died. She was my cat and while that might mean nothing to you, she was my cat for most of my adult life. She sat impassively through my years and months, my growing, a lazy eye on my comings and going. She sat on my desk as I wrote my first novel and looked at me as if she too wondered why the hell I was putting myself through it with no real idea of whether I’d be published or even if I had a book in me and if I didn’t then what would I do with the rest of my life? I’ve only ever wanted to be three things; a clown (I suppose I might have qualified for that one), a vet and a novelist. A lot of people don’t get to live their dreams, I was fully prepared and expecting to be one of them.
Cancer, they think it was cancer, took her too. She lay in the garden one night, hidden deep in the undergrowth and mewled and mewled, the sound of heartbreak and pain. I remember bringing her inside and holding her, but it was like trying to hold onto the Boy, she was beyond me then and always would be. The vet called me while she was still on the operating table, she had a gentle voice, one that didn’t want to make that call, and told me it would be best not to wake her again, her insides were a mass of infection, small nodules of death littering her insides. Some of the people who worked there had stayed late to see if she might live, they thought there might be a chance, but she was a shadow now too. I sat on my front step and cried and cried and then I went inside and gathered up her toys and held them to me and gulped for air as grief made my body shake. Those toys and her bowl still sit in the top drawer of my desk, so that sometimes when I write I can imagine her sitting there regarding me, never knowing when death might come.
I still miss them both, sometimes, like now, with an acuteness of feeling that makes me want to howl with anger and pain. I know that life is fleeting and that love is, absurdly, all. But they were and are two marks on my skin, a part of my making, beautifully rendered moments of love that I’ll follow down forever, always calling them back, but knowing they’ll never come.