Who Needs Friends?

Sometimes, even though he was my older brother, I hated him.
Yet now, when I look at him, my heart bleeds. He is so pitiful, so alone, so broken.
For as long as I could remember Dave always seemed happy. He was full of life. Even our parents seemed to love him more than they did me. He made them laugh, made them proud, made them content in the knowledge that at least one of their children was bright and had a wonderful future ahead of him. I was the quiet one, below average at school, few friends, awful at sport and often coming home from school with ripped clothes or worse, where I had been bullied on the way. One time I entered the house reeking of piss, where three of the older boys had pinned me down in the outside toilets, while they took turns to soak me through.
In fact, this is probably the most revealing point for me to begin this story, the story of my transition from a sad childhood to a tranquil and contented adult life.
******
I was alone, leaving junior school, on a warm sunny afternoon in June. My head was in the clouds, dreaming of our yearly two week summer holiday in a caravan in Pakefield. As I grew older I would tire of these annual trips to the village where my father was born and grew up, until he was evacuated to the Midlands with my grandparents and their seven children. Dad always wanted to go back to Pakefield each year,showing us where he was born, having a drink in The Jolly Sailors, playing on the boats in Kensington Gardens and fishing nearby on the Norfolk Broads. Every year was the same and I grew to dread it.
However, at the age of just nine, I was still excited about our two week caravan holiday, our only holiday of the year. Minding my own business, just before I passed through the school gate, my satchel was yanked from my shoulder, spilling pencils and crayons all over the floor. I heard laughter and was promptly picked up by two older boys, dragged into the toilets. I started to cry, which only made them laugh all the more. There were three of them. They took turns, two holding me down while the other emptied their bladder all over me. Two of the boys I knew well. One of them was a friend of Dave, and had even been to our house.
I walked into the house, after a short walk home. One look at my mother and I burst out into tears again. As I began to explain what happened I saw Dave grinning behind Mum’s back.
“I don’t see what’s so Funny, Dave. One of them was a friend of yours. Remember Mum? That boy with the ginger hair who came round the other day?” I blurted out, shaking with anger.
“Yes, I do remember. David, I don’t want you having anything more to do with that horrible boy. Do you understand?” she demanded.
Dave just shrugged. “It’s no problem for me, Mum. I have lots of friends and can afford to drop one or two,” he replied, as he wandered of upstairs to his room.
“Well, I will be writing to the school about this. What are their names?”
At this, both Dave and I looked at the floor. We both knew better than to give their names. If we did, we would suffer far worse at the next opportunity.
******
This story was to be quite representative of my whole school life. I was regularly bullied, sometimes even by my own brother. He was two years older than me, much stronger and much cleverer. He sailed through his ‘O’ Levels, obtaining all ten, four of them with grade A.
We attended the same high school. I was always in awe of his popularity. By the time I was fourteen, I had begun to realise that he wasn’t such a nice person. He never looked out for me and I knew that he sometimes stole from Mum’s purse when she wasn’t around. I would often ask myself what it was that made him so popular. He had hundreds of friends, always going out with different girls, always the centre of attention.
I had only one person that I would call a ‘friend’. Her name was Emily. Well, she was more like a sister. I didn’t fancy her or anything, but she lived nearby and was also a bit of a loner, like me. We often walked to or from school together and more recently I had started to accompany her to take Senga, her Golden Retriever, for walks across the park. One day I asked her why the dog is called Senga, a strange name. She said that her mother had named her. Her mother’s name was Agnes, a name that she had always hated. She said that it was the ugliest name in existence, therefore if she spelt it backwards it must be the opposite of ugly. I immediately had the thought that if I ever had a dog, I would call it Evad, but kept that to myself.
We hadn’t had a dog since I was very small. The Jack Russel that we had, bit Dave when he tried to hit it with a stick and Dad got rid of it. He said, “I won’t have any nasty dogs in this house.” The real truth, of course, was that the dog was fine. It was my brother who was nasty, but Mum and Dad could see no wrong in him.
******
When I look back to my childhood, from the perspective of a mature 30 year old adult, I realise that it wasn’t so bad after all. My school time had been fairly lonely, and quite isolated from the main stream of other children, that my brother always seemed to be right in the middle of. Although, at the time, I often felt quite miserable, I now realise that it was mostly an illusion. I had permanently compared my quiet, sometimes boring existence, with my brother’s hectic life. He dashed from one party or football match to another. I was always the one left at home, with myself for company, except when Emily and I met up for a walk.
But the illusion was simply that I wanted to be more like my brother, more liked, more active, more interesting. Now, looking back, I realise that I was more comfortable leading my life than he was, leading his. He had an insatiable thirst for recognition. He could become depressed over the smallest critical comment. I realise now, that he was quite insecure. He needed all of those people. He needed their respect, their approval.
The first great change in our routine of school life came with an enormous row in the house. Dave had decided that he wanted to start earning money to finance his active lifestyle. He had also started to smoke and often came home with the smell of alcohol on his breath. My father, quite understandably, wanted Dave to stay on for his ‘A’ levels and go on to university. He was certainly intelligent enough. Dave wanted none of it. He said he wasn’t going to waste his best years studying to sit at a desk all his life. He wanted to start earning now. I thought that Dad was going to have a heart attack. I had never heard him so loud and angry. But Dave would not be turned. He left school immediately after completing his ‘O’ levels and started working on a building site as a labourer two weeks later.
“I’ll be the building site manager within three years,” he grinned, “just you wait and see.”
It was around this time that my school grades began to improve slightly. To this day, I am not sure if I was simply a late developer or whether my improvement was due to my quiet lifestyle and my one real friend. Emily and I were spending more and more time together, helping each other with homework and our long hours in the park. By now, we sat mostly on a bench and chatted, as poor old Senga was finding the long walks to be too tiring, and was happy to lie under the bench and snooze away the afternoon. Her days of chasing balls were over.
If it was possible, Dave’s life became ever busier. He worked ten hours a day, was out late every night with friends and often didn’t come home until the early hours, if at all. That suited me fine, as it meant I wouldn’t be woke up in the middle of the night.
One evening I called round to see Emily, to go for our usual walk. By this time Mrs. Roach, Emily’s mother, had become so used to my visits that she told me that I didn’t need to knock and wait for the door to be answered. I should just knock and enter, which on this occasion, I did.
“But I want her to be buried in the garden,” I heard Emily screeching loudly.
“Darling, I don’t think that is a good idea, and anyway, your father won’t be home until the weekend from his business trip. We can’t leave her here until then,” replied Mrs Roach.
Emily began to weep, just as I appeared on the scene. She took one look at me and ran upstairs to her room.
When Mrs. Roach turned towards me I said, “oh sorry, shall I come another time?”
“Senga passed away this morning. Emily wants her to be buried in the garden, but oh I don’t know, it just seems wrong and Jack is not here to take care of it for her.
“I could do it for her if she would like,” I said. “I mean, when I was little we buried our first dog in the garden. I would be happy to help Emily if she wanted.”
Mrs. Roach thought for a moment and said, “You know what Jimmy? I think she would like that very much. So would I. Why don’t you go up and talk with her?”
I had never been to Emily’s room. Somehow, we had never had that kind of close or intimate relationship. I felt quite nervous as I knocked gently on the door. She hadn’t expected me and opened the door with a start. “I want her buried in the…. Oh it’s you, Jimmy. What do you want?”
I went in and we sat on her bed. I explained to her that her Mom would happily let me help her to bury Senga in the garden.
“Oh, would you? Really?” she said, jumping up and hugging me hard. Nothing more was said. Nothing more was discussed, but that hug was the moment where I realised that Emily was more to me than a mere friend, and very different to a sister.
We spent the rest of the evening preparing the grave. We picked some wild flowers from the park, dug a deep hole between the two apple trees at the bottom of the garden and when we were ready we called Emily’s Mum to come down and join us for the burial.
Later, when it was done, I sat with Emily on the terrace while Mrs Roach did some house chores. We held hands for the first time and something passed between us, without any words, that would change our friendship forever.
******
“Come on, Jimmy. You can miss one day of revision. The break will do you good.” Dave was trying to convince me to go with him to Barmouth on his motorbike. He had bought a Triumph Bonneville and for some reason wanted to go to Barmouth the following Saturday. I had never been on his bike and felt a bit nervous travelling such a long way with him. In the end I agreed and we set off at 8am on a sunny June morning. My next GCE exam was on Tuesday, so Dave was probably right. A rest day would do me good.
By the time we reached Shrewsbury the weather had closed in. I felt cold and shivery. I wasn’t sure if that was due to the weather or the way Dave was handling the bike. He was a good driver, but took too many risks. Worst of all, he didn’t seem to anticipate potential dangers. He took the view that if he had right of way, the others must stop. Twice on the way to Barmouth he had to swerve dangerously when a car pulled out on us.
We spent a miserable few hours on the sea front. I never did learn why we went there. When I asked what was so special about Barmouth, all I could get from Dave was, “It’s just here.”
We were both happy to head back for home. I wanted to get back in time to see Emily before it was too late to call on her. The rain set in and the wind became very gusty.
The Triumph was a good machine. It handled well in such weather. However, a good bike wasn’t enough. It needed a careful driver in such weather. We dipped slightly to take a wide left-hand bend. I saw the Volkswagen Golf pull out from a side street. I saw it all, long before it happened. We would either have to tighten the bend and overtake the Golf or we would hit it. Dave banked the bike further to tighten the turn. The wheel slid, dropping the bike into a long skid into the side of the car. I watched in fear and braced for the impact, expecting a painful collision. There was no pain. There was no collision. There was only ….darkness.
******
“Do we have to go, Dad?” said Luke, my six year old boy.
“Yes, we do. It’s your uncle David’s birthday and I have never missed one since….., er well, since a long time.” I replied.
Emily helped little Louise to get her coat on and we all piled into the car. These three people are my whole life. After the accident it was a hard three years of rehab. Learning to walk again with the artificial leg was much harder than the doctors had implied. There were times when my frustration would get the better of me and I would curse, only to have my hand held and a soothing voice, gently urging me on, just as she had on that day when I regained consciousness in the hospital. She had been there almost every time I woke and had never left my side since. She had been my rock, my steadying force. Yes, she had been my best and only friend.
When I think back to the first time I was allowed to go and see Dave. He was whole, had lost no limbs as I had, but he was different. I realised immediately that something was wrong. Why hadn’t he come to see me? No-one had told me that he was paralysed from the waist down. As the Triumph hit the floor, my leg had been trapped under it and torn badly at the knee, requiring an amputation from the knee. Dave had not been trapped, but in the collision he had flown free from the bike and landed awkwardly on his back on the tarmac. He hadn’t been able to feel his legs afterwards.
The doctors were optimistic that he would walk again, but it would need further surgery and a lot of time and patience.
Except for our parents he’d had few visitors. Where were all of those great friends? The few that came had not stayed long, but only came to fulfil a duty.
As we pulled up onto his driveway, Dave came to the door. He smiled when he saw us. We gave each other a hug and Emily kissed him affectionately.
“Happy Birthday Uncle David”, shouted Louise and Luke in unison, and handed him two brightly wrapped presents.
We tried not to notice as he awkwardly limped into his small, one bedroomed maisonette.
We ate a lunch that he had prepared and then Emily took the children out to the playground at the end of the road, leaving Dave and I to chat about old times.
“You are walking better these day,” I said trying to put a positive slant on his situation. “You will soon be out and about again, living the high life, like you always used to.”
A wave of sadness drifted across his face.
“You know what Jimmy?” he replied. “For many years I thought that I was the bee’s knees. I had friends galore, girls on tap. I always wondered what was wrong with you. You were mostly alone, except for one little girl who lived a few streets away. She wasn’t even pretty. That’s how shallow I used to think. Then, in the hospital, I was aware that the little girl sat at your bedside every minute she could. She cried only when you were asleep. She perked up whenever you woke, with words of encouragement. I had no-one. Despite all my friends I didn’t have anyone to comfort me, except Mum and Dad. Initially I was angry, envious and yes, jealous. Then, over the weeks and months in that hospital I slowly became happy for you and realised that one true friend can bring more quality into your life than a thousand of the type of friends that I had, who just move on when the chips are down. I will get properly back on my feet. Every day my legs are improving, but I will never return to my old life. I want quality not quantity in my future relationships, the type of quality that I see in yours”
The End