LONG READ - A remarkable, lyrical & deeply moving story by film-maker Cristian Solimeno about a friend's suicide and how he tried to make sense of it in the aftermath. An absolute must read...
I was anxious and it was late and I didn’t want to drink or smoke that night. That just had to stop, it was killing me. The good thing was that I’d been slowly getting in to photography over the proceeding few months and I’d started thinking that it might be some amazing cure-all.
When I was taking photos my thoughts would stop shouting and pointing at me and telling me how shit I am and I liked that. I also liked the license it gave me to talk to strangers and I really loved sometimes getting an image that held a bit of genuine magic. There was a funny thing though, and it must mean something: I found that anytime I got a good result, it felt to me like I was breaking the law somehow, like I wasn’t allowed to be doing it. If a portrait came out really well and was full of the person’s personality then I’d get this feeling of guilt. Things I‘d seen in other people’s photos couldn’t be produced by me, I told myself. It just couldn’t. But it was. One time I set the shutter speed fast and waited on a corner for something to happen till these girls ran past for the bus and I’m not saying that what came out was the best photo in the world or anything, but it had something. It did. And that made me feel like I was transgressing the social order, like I was shoplifting or starting a fight with a stranger for no reason.
Girls running past the bus stop
On this night I’m talking about, when I was anxious and didn’t want to smoke or drink I picked up the camera, went out and started shooting instead. I saw a bicycle chained up and I tried to capture it’s soul. A phone box. Passing cars… as you start, your perceptions shift. It’s hard to explain. It’s subtle but there’s a change. I felt it carry me along a little and it was nice. Music was playing out from my phone and up through the little white headphones into my ears so when my friend Sam called from America I heard it straight away and clicked the clicker thing and the music stopped and there was his voice. It had been a while and I’d missed him. We started to catch up and I was feeling a bit like a proper photographer all of a sudden because I didn’t even need to stop taking shots. I just kept snapping away at things while I slowly meandered around the quiet streets and listened to news of my friend’s adventures on another continent and everything was all just fine.
A beeping interrupted my end of the conversation, an incoming call. Another friend, Luke. But Luke wasn’t in America and Luke I could easily call back later or tomorrow and he would be cool with that and I hadn’t been able to get ahold of Sam for ages so I kept chatting and the beeping stopped. A minute later though, it resumed. Luke again. A terrible equation was calculated deep inside me and answer came through in pieces. Luke called twice. I stopped talking for a second and checked my watch. It was late. Luke called twice. Luke has kids and he doesn’t stay up late any more and he doesn’t call twice in a row.
Sam and I kept talking but a bad feeling was overtaking me.
It suddenly came to my mind that another friend, Billy had called the day before. I’d had to cut the conversation short because I was walking into a cinema at the time and so I’d promised to call back the next day. That day. The day of the night I’m telling you about. That’s when I was supposed to call back but I hadn’t. I’d thought to do it, I’d laid out on my bed staring up at the ceiling and had planned to pick up the phone but I’d had other things on my mind, selfish things. My own sadness and regrets and all that bullshit that filled me up with toxic air and make me bad company. I’d figured that I’d wait till some of my head pollution had cleared. I’d only finally returned his call a couple of hours previously, and it had gone straight to answerphone and that had just seemed wrong for some reason. Not a big deal, but a little wrong. All this took a split second to occur to me, and just then a text message came through from Luke.
It said, “You need to call me mate”.
There was something about it all. The rhythm was unmistakable. It was catastrophic news. It had to be. My heart rate ramped up and I excused myself to Sam and tried to prepare myself as the adrenaline started to flood my body. Luke picked up straight away and just told me flat out. “It’s Billy mate. He’s gone and done it. He’s killed himself.”
A bomb went off in my chest. Things that had taken years to rebuild inside of me were turned to rubble once again. The sun was blacked out by some dreadful eclipse and many of us were plunged into a world without light for a long time.
Billy Yates was no longer in the world. The day before he had been. Earlier that same day he had been. Now he wasn’t. Everything he knew, all his memories of all his many adventures. All his special, unique insights into the world and the people he loved, all his love and his most beautiful thoughts. His secrets that were only his and the ones he must have shared with someone else, his ability to make me feel alive and seen and known. His force, his warmth, his humour and the promise of what amazing things he would accomplish in the future… all of that and much, much more was suddenly gone because he had ended his story right in the middle. All of the things we do in our lives… I mean, some of them are big things, people build skyscrapers and jump out of planes and Billy had done big things himself. But then this one action, physically quite small in comparison, had this one specific, awful quality. It could not be reversed and it could not be undone or fixed no matter what.
That’s what Luke was saying, “He’s gone and done it”… that’s what that meant.
I will always be grateful to Luke and the others who put aside their own grief that night to ring around and let other people know what had happened. It must have been hard to dial the next number knowing that they’d have to listen to us all sob and break down and choke and wail as we heard this terrible news for the first time. For me personally, I’d have to hear it a great many more times before I would even start to believe it. Even now, I don’t know If I really do. It just doesn’t seem possible.
After I got off the phone, I turned around and went to the shop on my way home. I bought 2 packs of cigarettes and 2 bottles of whiskey, just in case. I really didn’t want to run out.
I’m not really sure how to bring this up so I’m just going to say it. There is another element of all this which is highly unusual. I’m a film maker you see and I’d spent the previous year or so making a tiny, self-funded feature film called ‘I made this for You’, an experimental art house movie wherein a character is on the edge of attempting suicide. Because he’s completely isolated himself from everyone, his worried friends get together and make him a documentary all about him, a kind of video intervention. They talk about how they met and how they feel about him and about his life and bit by bit as we watch our isolated hero watch this fake documentary we come to understand his story and he gets some catharsis. Now the documentary element really had to seem real and so the way I’d created it was by shooting real interviews with people I knew where I would get them to talk about their own friends that they’d either lost or were worried about. I’d steer them in the interviews to get what I needed but that was the premise. And Billy was one of the first people I’d interviewed. In fact his interview was one of the best bits of the film. He was one of the only people who had chosen to talk about suicide itself and he did so with his usual charm, honesty and humour.
Poster for I made this for You
Now the week before he died was the 27th of April, my birthday, and I’d decided to celebrate with a screening of the rough cut of the film. It was the first time I’d shared it. Just an informal thing for friends, family and cast and crew, at the Lyric Hammersmith; a load of us had been at the youth theatre there. The screen was full, the lights went down and the film breathed for the first time. It stood up and moved around and danced and had a life and spoke to all these people till the lights came back up again. Some had been very moved. Some not so much, but there were lots of tears and kind words from lots of good people and we all drank together and spoke about it and I took notes and knew there would be lots more work to do to get it just so. My birthday had fallen on a weeknight that year so lots of people involved with the film couldn’t make it and most importantly, Billy couldn’t make it, he’d had to work. He called me after and it was loud in the bar at the Lyric and I was a bit euphoric and drunk by this point but I told him how it had played well and that he was fucking brilliant in it which he is. Several people had already commented on it. We cracked a few jokes and he wished me a happy birthday and exactly 7 days later he ended his life.
I was trying to create a net that might catch a few people out there who were at risk of falling and Billy had even helped, but right as I was tying off the ends of the thing, one of the people I most loved fell right through my hands and I hadn’t even seen it coming. We’d spoken loads about how he felt but still I hadn’t seen it coming. This is a shameful thing for me because I could have seen it coming if I’d opened my eyes and ears and tried to hear what he was trying to say. It took me a while to work out that the only plausible explanation was that I just hadn’t been truly listening. I still don’t know exactly why he did it or why he picked that day. It’s clear now that I really didn’t know where he was at. How he felt or what he thought. My instruments had given me false readings and I accepted them, probably because they suited me. I don’t suppose I wanted to see the state he was really in and I will have to live with that.
There was still a lot of work to do on the film and I tried to do it despite being utterly heartbroken. Mechanically I forced myself to make the cuts it needed but it was extremely hard going. Not least because It was unbearably painful to see my friend every day talking about this very subject and seeming fine and well on screen while I knew what I now knew. But I did it because it seemed important somehow and also it was something I could do. At the same time though, it also seemed completely unimportant, utterly futile.
I cant remember now how much time passed before the funeral came around but it seemed like ages. Lots happened in between. Some of us had met and cried together. Many phone calls went back and forth. Billy’s girlfriend had introduced herself via message and some of us that hadn’t known her before had begun a friendship with her. I hadn’t met her before myself, and my god, she really reminded me of him. There was just something about her which made me feel like they were twinned in some way. She was in such a lot of pain but was incredibly generous and through her I got to know things about Billy’s state of mind that, I’m ashamed to say, I hadn’t worked out for myself. I suppose we were all playing detective in a way, trying to understand what had happened and all his other loved ones were the witnesses.
I began to notice how separate he’d kept some parts of his life. It seemed glaringly obvious all of a sudden but I truly hadn’t noticed before, maybe because I have similar habits myself. I made contact with his family who I’d also never met, though Billy had talked about them often. I didn’t know what to say to them or where to start and every word I contemplated seemed insultingly small and banal. But I tried and they were kind about my clumsy attempts.
Also, more bad news came in via Facebook. Another guy, not a close friend but a lovely guy I knew from way back, who I’d bump into here and there. Richard Quist, he’d died suddenly too. He was around Billy’s age. Around 40. I would have been devastated to hear about Richard on any day but in amongst everything else, it cut me down to my soul. He was a lovely, lovely man too. All smiles and warmth and gentle joking around. He had a young child. Shit. I didn’t even know that he’d become a dad. I wished I’d made more of an effort while I’d had the chance. That’s what we always wish isn’t it? Such a cliche but I did wish that and even while I was wishing I’d been a better friend and a better man I lost track of time, sank deeper into the deep well of self-pity and despair and I didn’t even make it to his send off.
I don’t want to get too in to describing Bill here because that seems like too big a task to attempt. With him gone now it seems like a portrait would have to be so brilliant. So perfect to be justified or do him justice and honestly I don’t think I knew him well enough to take on that task. Maybe someone could, but not me. Not a portrait. But for now let me just tell you a few things about the man: he was clever, very clever and very kind but also physically so strong and tough and then he was extremely funny too, world class funny really. He was also incredibly vulnerable, he knew pain well and was sensitive to it in others. If you got close to him then he would definitely be one of your favourite people. He just had that effect on you. He’d shaved his head since his hair line had retreated from his eyebrows and he was a handsome fucker but he didn’t seem to realise it. Once when I’d tried to set him up with a girl he’d said to me, “Noooo, she’s an 8 and I’m a 6”. He’d said it for a laugh but still. He was kooky and eccentric and wore bright clothes, The most garish vans sneakers he could find and glasses, and actually that’s sort of a weird thing because somehow you could kind of know him by his specs and yet, loads of people wear glasses and you barely notice, but when he wore them he made them seem iconic. You could spot him in a crowd with no trouble at all, even if you’d only just met him. Everyone would fall for him, like how everyone falls in love with Ireland when they go there and they feel like it’s just them but really, everyone feels that way. He was incredibly, particularly, very specifically him. Everything about his character was bespoke. He relentlessly created all sorts of words and phrases of his own and went out of his way to innovate in every area he possibly could, the result of it all being that he was unicorn rare and his whole way of being was like a giant fingerprint. Having said that, for some reason, whenever I hear the song ‘My Sad Captains’ by Elbow, It reminds me of him so much that it’s almost like he’s right there, just like how when I hear ‘That’s Entertainment’ by The Jam I feel like Luke is right next to me and I have to call him. Not everyone has their own song but those two do. I’d told him that and he didn’t seem to mind and now I ration how often I listen to that song because it really does conjure him up for me still and I don’t want the magic of it to get rubbed off.
He was a camera man. He shot television shows. He took photos too, though I never saw them and we never really shared that stuff, which is weird now that I think about it, and he loved art. One of his last messages to me was saying that he’d been to a Hockney exhibition and that the photo montages had “Blown his teeny tiny mind” as he put it. A while after he was gone I went to his flat one day. It was still pretty much as he’d left it, but maybe a touch tidier. And there, on the floor in the kitchen was his kit bag, the one he’d bring to work with him. It was bashed up and well used with clips and cable ties and rolls of coloured tape and all kinds of camera tools filling it up. God it was a beautiful thing. You could see that it had been an extension of him, that was just obvious, you could just see it. But then there it was, alone on the floor, just inert now. A tool without a purpose. A bag without an owner.
Another of his last messages to me simply read, “Your pictures are great Gunga Din”. I’d been posting my fledgling attempts to make something beautiful on Instagram and this was pure Billy, a thoughtful and supportive message out of the blue with just enough of an obscure and tilted reference or wordplay in it to Billy-ise it. I do believe, that message kind of changed my life to some degree, because later, in my mind photography and Billy became linked. He approved of it, he liked my work. I think after we lost him I started to feel like I was pleasing him by doing it and I was desperate to bring his spirit any joy I could. It was far too late now of course but as I’d come to realise, my mind has no respect for time’s arrow whatsoever. I think deep down I got this feeling which I still can’t shake that if I could just do the right thing or take the right photo then maybe he would choose to undo what’s been done and to come back to us.
When I’d get done working on the film I’d be good for nothing else and so my spare time became more and more about taking photos. The volume crept up. Between the beginning of May when it happened and the end of the year, I took thousands and thousands of shots. I’m not even going to tell you the actual number because you wouldn’t believe it. Photos just took over. I found I couldn’t really sit down to anything else except editing ‘I made this for You’. I didn’t want to watch films or read. Plus I couldn’t get a paid acting gig and barely had an audition and financially I was getting in pretty bad trouble. But no matter what, I could always get out there and shoot a bit more.
It turned out that Billy’s funeral would be on a Monday, up in Darwen. The small northern town that he was from. People were driving up on the Sunday but the thing was I wanted to go alone. I wanted to see him. To visit the funeral home and actually see his face one last time and if I left the day before everyone else then I figured I’d be able to, so I booked a train for Saturday afternoon. I thought I’d get there while it was still light, walk around and soak up the feel of this place that he’d grown up in. I’d visit him on Sunday morning before the others got there and I’d have had some decent solo time to think and feel close to him.
Word had gone around that the service itself was to be brightly coloured clothes only. I got the sentiment, I really did. It would make it all very Billy but I just couldn’t do that. I felt guilty as I folded up my black clothes and put them in the bag. The bright clothes thing just wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to celebrate a life lived. I was purely going there to mourn. No way would there be so much as a fond smile while I reminisced or any of that stuff. I would just be sad. That was my intention. I’d be as sad as I knew how, and that’s one thing I’m generally pretty good at.
I’ve lived most of my life being driven by a little inner voice and a sense of compulsion to do certain things in certain ways. Like if there’s two possible routes to a place then it feels meaningful that I chose one over the other and I would even imagine that my life was kept on its proper path by making the correct choice. Sometimes I’d follow one road and then on my way, I’d bump into an old friend out of the blue and it would reinforce this sense of the world being constructed this way and of the inner voice being worth listening to. This used to give me a sense of moving towards my destiny but it doesn’t anymore. I don’t really believe in it anymore, Still, on that occasion, the little voice told me to pack a camera and I knew I would have to do it. And actually, I could see the logic on this one for a change. I would cope with it all by hiding behind the little magic device. I wouldn’t look directly at the eclipse because you shouldn’t do that should you. You can be blinded trying to do that. I’d peek through a viewfinder instead. I’d be protected. It would be okay.
I got to Euston, a London terminal where national trains leave from. I was early, the sky was a grey soup and it was drizzling. I took some shots of this and that. I still wasn’t sure what to take photos of really. I would usually just take them and hope and occasionally something good would happen. But not often and not this time. I got one of a porno book shop across the road that I kind of liked but that was it. Once I got on the train my nerves started screeching inside me. I couldn’t handle being in my own skin. I focused on the camera, I went black and white and took some photos out the window. They were shit too but they calmed me down. Over the next 4 hours I sank deeper and deeper in to… what? I don’t know how to put it. It was like I was falling out of normal life altogether. Out of the world where Hockney photo montages blew Billy’s mind and where I’d be seeing my friend again any day now. And I was falling into this other place where he did await me, but he was dead. It was a nightmare world. I was slowly falling in to a nightmare. I wanted the train to break down. I wanted to never get there. But it didn’t and I did.
I couldn’t even tell you anything about Darwen station. I don’t remember getting off the train. My mind was bunched up tight and I could barely see through the fog of dread. I must have come out, checked directions to the hotel on my phone and decided to walk. I was brought back to consciousness less than a minute later when I turned a corner and looked up and saw two young lads playing on some scaffolding. What an image. It reminded me of those photos people used to take back in the fifties and sixties and then it struck me that this was actually in front of me right then and there. I’d repacked my camera, sure that I wouldn’t be taking any more shots till much later. Getting the camera out, I moved slowly and deliberately as if I was trying to not spook a herd of wild animals. I put my back to them, and kept expecting the boys to spot me and for the wonderful moment to cease just being for its own sake. Get the exposure right, get the ISO right, shutter speed should work just fine, turn around slowly and click. click. Two shots, got it. Wow. My heart was beating fast from the thrill of trying to capture what’s happening without disturbing it before it vanishes. There should be a word for that. It’s a real thing.
I headed off to find the hotel and was soon completely lost. It’s only a small town with one long main road that runs all the way through it and I’m not sure if anyone else I know has a bad enough sense of direction to manage to get lost there but I did. The little main road has some shops, a petrol station, a car wash. Some of it feels new and ambitious while some of it is thoroughly run down and urban. Not more than five minutes after turning off it though I found myself in what seemed to be to be very rural countryside and I was almost instantly lost. God, it was beautiful though. All old stone walls covered with the most beautiful moss, I walked through some old woodland and ran across a small field with a lone horse in it. I stopped and spoke to the animal and took some photos and moved on. I’m used to being lost. It happens all the time. Always has, and honestly I like it, I kind of feel safer when I don’t know where I’m going. My senses slowly woke up and my imagination opened, the beauty and contradictions of the place poured in and made me think of Billy’s childhood. What adventures he’d have had here. I pictured him as one of those two boys on the scaffolding, I pictured him and his pals telling each other their dreams and fears and playing in these woods for hours.
When I checked in, they asked me if I was there for the wedding, and I shook my head. They knew about the funeral too. People had been booking all the rooms up for one event or the other. Hotels know everything in a small town. I didn’t stay for long, thought I’d have another walk around, unencumbered by my bags. I planned to walk a while and then come back and get an early night before going to see my friend in the morning. Zoe was here already so I gave her a call after I’d been wandering for a bit. She told me that a bunch of his old mates were all gathered in a local pub but she’d left already as it had all gotten a bit much for her. She said I should pop in and see them. I didn’t want to at all. The thought of meeting a bunch of strangers. A bunch of lads, out on the beer in mourning. That kind of frightened me to be honest. Despite growing up here, I’ve never had much of an affinity with English culture. Pubs, football, beer, television. None of it really works for me. She told me the name of the pub, The Spinners. I looked up and it was literally right across the road from where I was stood. She also told me that Brad was there and once she said that, I knew that I would have to at least pop in. Brad was a London boy too and probably Billy’s best friend. I’d met him once, really liked him and Billy had spoken of him often. Brad had been the one to find Bill’s body, I knew I had to see him.
I crossed the road and planned it out. Show my face, check in on Brad, say hello to his other mates, have a pint and then head back. I opened the door and walked in. feeling tense, feeling like an intruder, feeling like an imposter. I had to leave. By the bar stood a bunch of blokes. They had an atmosphere about them, they were locked in on each other. They were either going through something together or planning a bank job, I thought that might be them but I couldn’t see Brad. I felt shy of them, I didn’t belong there, I had to go, They wouldn’t want to see me anyway. I needed to be on my own. There was a wall around me and I didn’t belong with other people. Then one of them turned around, a big man with a shaved head and a little scar on his face. He said, “You’re Cristian?” I was taken aback. I nodded and he came right over and gave me a huge hug. Just like that, and I started crying. I’d never even met the guy before. This was Cuz, a lion hearted man from Newcastle who had arrived that day too, What an incredible thing to do. What a remarkable guy. I will never forget that moment. We all introduced ourselves, Maz, Nick, Chung, Aaron and there was Brad, tucked into the bar, but he was a different man now. Grief had flayed the meat off his bones and he was pale and drawn. Maz reminded me of Bill so much. Another local lad who knew how to rock a pair of specs and had grown up with artistic aspirations and a love of cool shit and American street style. Maz had wound up in Bristol and is a fucking brilliant artist. Billy took root in London and we couldn’t help but wonder what part the city I’m from had played in what had happened. Billy’s mates were all massive personalities and they instantly felt like old friends. They welcomed me like a long lost brother and I forgot for a while about the wall around me. We drank together till closing and took turns to cry and we did laugh a lot too after all and we spoke about Billy and tried to make sense of what had transpired. As I fell asleep that night my mind raced as always and was filled with traces of all the many things I’d seen that day and all the people I’d met
The next morning I went to see Billy. I dawdled getting there. I took photos of nothing by the side of the road. I stood one at the mouth of the street that the funeral home was tucked away on and then packed up my camera. There wouldn’t be anything to hide behind here. Just me and him. The funeral director greeted me gently and showed me up to the tiny little chapel that held my enormous friend. This man whose spirit was so oversized. Who crossed the earth with his wanderings, making friends everywhere he went. This man whose head was a museum of modern amusements. Full of books and films and thoughts and ideas and loves and knowledge. Special knowledge that no one else could ever have gleaned. In that little chapel was a little box and there, inside it was Billy. I tried to talk to him but I felt like a fucking fool. The reality of the situation was overpowering. It pressed down on me till I could hardly stand. I longed to sit down. To lie down right there but instead I just stared at him. Stared and stared and couldn’t work out what I was seeing, what I was looking at. It was him but not him. In some was it hardly even resembled the man I knew, like a second rate wax work. I tried again and again to say something that might be right or true but I failed every time, those words never came and in the end I just said goodbye and turned and walked out of there without looking back.
I left in a daze with water streaming from my eyes. I wasn’t sobbing or anything. They were just watering endlessly. The world was the same as I’d left it when I went in except that all the meaning had fallen out of it. It was suddenly no more than a jumbled mess of senseless stuff. All these things, these shops and people and cars and cobblestones and bollards and buildings and they were all useless things. They were all like Billy’s old camera bag now. Everything was inert. Everything was a tool without a purpose. I felt like the world was being slowly tipped to vertical like I was in a giant rotating room. I moved past all these useless stupid things that couldn’t do a fucking thing to stop this happening. That couldn’t save him then and couldn’t reverse what’s happened now and I felt that I was a drunk man at a funfair, staggering through all the garish, pointless shit and wondering how in the hell I would ever get home.
I desperately reached into my bag and got out my magic talisman. I looked through the viewfinder and put something between me and reality and it helped. Things slowed down, the world gradually moved back on its axis. There were flags with the Saint George’s cross flying overhead. I took photo after photo of the stupid fucking things flapping in the wind till I was okay again. My camera was set to black and white and that helped. I didn’t need all the useless colour of everything right then, I just didn’t need it. Quite suddenly a car pulled up and BIlly’s sister Geraldine got out of it.
She drove us to a cafe that’s out the back of a little shop. It was a nice place and I really needed that coffee. Geraldine and I had been speaking on Facebook since what had happened had happened but we’d never met in person before. Despite that, we were straight in to talking in depth about everything like we’d been mates for years. One of BIlly’s friends, who I’d met the previous night was there too. Independently, just there with his wife and little girl eating a late breakfast. Sunday afternoon. Of course. This was a small town and people had lives to live. As I waved over at them, I could see in my mind how he’d have to bury his own grief deep down. His wife. His child… How could they ever be expected to even really look at it? Surely you couldn’t share it with them. Not really. Surely it would feel kind of unprofessional in a way. Like against the code of being a dad. I knew then that I would make a terrible father because I’m like old concrete and there‘s no hiding my cracks. But this guy was strong and upright and was stoic as hell and I thought, this is a lucky kid right here, because her dad is going to protect her from every bad thing that he can. He’s going to keep her dry and keep the flood tide out. But I also wondered what it would cost him to do it.
Before long I confessed to Geraldine how Billy had called me the day before he’d killed himself. I told her how I’d been on the way to the cinema with my girlfriend and I’d answered his call on loudspeaker in the car. He’d sounded okay to my insensitive ear. I’d turned in to the car park after only a couple of minutes and the call had cut out. Before we went in to the movie I sent him a text message telling him we were just about to go in to this silly superhero film and that I was excited as a little kid to watch it and I asked If he’d be around tomorrow to catch up. And he messaged back that he would be around… “I’ll be around tomorrow”. Those were his words. The next day, as I mentioned earlier I was bent over the altar of my own misery in the day and didn’t feel like talking to anyone and so I didn’t try to call until the evening… and then he wasn’t around. He was gone by then. So he’d reached out his hand the day before as he was sliding down the bank and I’d batted it away to watch a fucking film. They were hard words to say so I just blurted them out. I needed her to know but I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. I felt like it would be perfectly justified if she stormed out and told me that it was all my fault. But she didn’t. I almost wanted her to. I felt like I should be punished for letting him down so badly. For being so negligent and committing the awful, terrible sin of not recognising his peril. But she was lovely and kind and she talked about her own feelings and we spoke about her marvellous brother and how when he’d come home for Christmas he’d always go straight to her place, drop off his bag, mess the whole house up in about ten minutes and then go to this local Chinese restaurant called Mr Fu’s to eat a portion of his beloved salt and pepper chicken wings. She described it so beautifully that I immediately felt like it was a memory of my own, and I wondered how in the hell she or their parents or other sister were going to cope. Every Christmas would be fucked. Every birthday. Everything was just fucked now. Surely Billy can’t have understood what he was doing to all these other people that he loved. How does damage like this get repaired? Can it? Can anything even work at all after this? I looked over at her while I thought these things and was really taken aback by how alike they are. Nick told me that Billy used to say that Geraldine was like him with lipstick
I walked up the road after saying goodbye and saw this massive chimney. I mean, I’d been seeing it ever since I got there. It literally towers over the town. If you could get up high enough I’m sure you’d see its shadow cast right across the place like a huge sundial as if the factory it belonged to, dictated time itself in that place. Anyway, it’s set back from the road and just now I was near the base of it. As I got my camera out I saw a really interesting dude just up ahead. He had the physicality of a jockey. Light and wiry. He was loitering, as if he was just waiting for something interesting to happen. Straight off the bat, even in the distance like that I could tell that he was full of story and I really wanted to take his photo but right then and there I just didn’t have it in me to introduce myself and ask, so I stole one of him in the distance from the hip and then just started taking some shots of the chimney. Moments later a voice asked me if I was there for the falcons. Here he was. Even more interesting up close. I told him I was just passing through and didn’t even know what the chimney was for. This was Phil. He told me how the chimney was part of the old India Cotton mill that the town had been built around. It had become something else after and had been for years, I think he said a paint factory, and he himself had worked there for a long time till it had finally closed in… I think the late eighties. Apparently a family of falcons nest at the top up there and always have. He pointed up and sure enough there was one right there, standing on a ledge surveying the territory. Phil told me that once when he was working there, a falcon chick had fallen down to a level below and the working men and women from the factory floor had spent their lunch break getting the little thing back in its nest. In the end I took some great photos of Phil. There was something wonderful about him. He didn’t pose. He didn’t smile. There was no veneer. He was serious and alive and he just was. He was like a man from another era all together. I was sad to say goodbye to him.
I popped back in to the Spinners. Cuz, Brad and Maz were there already. We talked some more and it was magical again but before you knew it other people started to arrive and the spell was broken. Not everyone was on good terms with each other, some of them hadn’t been in touch for years. An ex girlfriend of Billy’s showed up. She’d broken Billy’s heart. But then, all ex-girlfriends break your heart I guess. Anyway, a load of Billy’s people were all going en masse out to this tower on a hill, a place he loved apparently. That didn’t appeal to me in the least. I couldn’t face that kind of thing so I made my way on my own to the Chinese restaurant that Geraldine had mentioned. I had the famous wings and tasted something he had tasted and they were as righteous as I’d imagined and then I headed back to the hotel to for a nap. I was exhausted.
The evening was a blur of drinking and hugging and tears and laughter. It was weird how many of us were there, it was weird we were all staying over. There were moments when you could almost forget what we were all doing there. In many ways, it was more like a wedding after all. Most of us wound up back at the biggest hotel in the town. Not the one I was staying in, but only a short walk away so I stayed up with them there till the wee hours. I guess none of us really wanted the morning to come nor what it would bring. Brett had driven from London, he’d brought Luke, Simon and Nick with him. It was good to see them. Nick had flown in from Cordoba in Spain where he lives now. I was worried about him. He’d suffered a lot of tragedy over the last few years and it was showing on him. He’s a fighter. He’s brave, very clever, strong and funny. Up for living and all that goes with it, but I could see that even he was struggling. 5 years previously my best and oldest friend, Luis had passed away suddenly in his 30’s. He was the person I’d grown up with and to whom I was closest after my mum. He was saintly in his forbearance and generosity, but had a razor blade for a funny bone and was a master of sarcasm. He liked raspberry syrup in his latte’s for some reason and was occasionally clumsy and nothing made me happier than him tripping over or like when the lid popped off the giant drink he’d just bought and he spilled that coke all over himself at the cinema that time. I loved things like that as only a lifelong friend could. He was impossibly gentle and kind but would also tell me little lies without even blinking and I loved that about him too, I loved those fibs which I could usually spot a mile off but rarely pulled him up on. It was just part of his fingerprint. Honestly, I loved everything about him. He died in a plane crash and so much of me died with him. Not in the instant like he did, but in little pieces since that time. All those things that had happened that only we were there to see would now never be referenced again. Could never really be shared again, and so the memories withered, or worse in a way. The emotional charge of those memories began to change.
I don’t know how people get to the point where they can fondly reminisce about those who are gone, for me it wasn’t like that at all. For me the thoughts and memories had been electrified. To touch them was to guarantee a shock and so I’d come to steer around them. And every fucking tragedy that came along fenced me off from more and more of my own history.
Luis had also moved to Spain, years before, in fact he’d picked Nick up from the airport in the height of summer, Nick bursting with sweat and dangerously overheating because he’d had to wear as many layers of his clothes as he could manage to avoid the sickening price gauging for luggage. Luis always used to laugh about that and there, the two of them had grown closer and so Nick was decimated by the loss too. That was in the April, then late that December, right before Christmas I got a call from Nick one day while I was on my way to see my mum. His voice was small and taught and desperate as he told me that Alan had died. I was at the mouth of an alleyway. I ducked into it and leaned against the industrial waste bins there so I wouldn’t fall over. I still feel a residual charge of something when I pass that spot where I took that call. Like I said, all of this was 5 years before but it still felt so raw. Alan was one of the most remarkable characters I have ever met. One of those special ones like Billy, bright and colourful and full of funniness and charm. He was a brilliant dancer by the way, not like leg warmers and professional performances, but out and about at clubs and on dance floors, he was absolutely incredible. Skill, grace and class and always so funny at the same time. He was another one with a huge personality and a unique fingerprint who it was impossible not to take right to your heart. He was madly in love with life. He’d just gotten married and just had a baby girl. Then one night, on his way home after his office Christmas party he stood too close to the yellow line at a tube station and was drunk and swaying and when the train came in it clipped him and took all of that beauty and magnificence and all of his formidable magic out of this world in a moment. It’s impossible to comprehend, it really is. That year, Alan himself had arranged a Christmas gathering at a lovely pub in Putney. He’d arranged it and then… well, everyone just still showed up, even his parents came down and instead of a Christmas thing, it was an Alan thing. A very beautiful thing. Impromptu. It just happened the way it happened. That’s a treasured memory of Billy actually, because he was so strong that day. He got everything right. I was struggling to know how to be with everyone, especially Alan’s family and Bill just led the way. He was great like that. He was the person you would want with you at a time like that
Nick had grown up with Alan, He’d loved Luis and he was one of Billy’s first friends in London and I honestly do not know how he himself made it through that year nor how he handled the next.
Billy’s funeral was really something. A massive church completely packed. Our cab hadn’t showed up and then right at the last moment Daniel Dobby took control of the situation and piled us all into his car like we were the keystone cops and he raced there and if it wasn’t for him we’d have missed it. As it was, we just arrived as it started and wound up off to the side and high up in the rafters looking down on it all from a great height. I felt as though my soul was heavy and soaked through with something flammable as I looked down at the coffin and around the church. As requested, most people had come dressed in brightly coloured clothes and it was as they’d hoped it would be I think. Really powerful and really very Billy Yates. Obviously I was itchy with guilt in my dark clothes. Normally you’d be facing the same way as everyone else and it was strange to be able to see the faces of all the other mourners as they went through it all and I couldn’t help but watch them closely. One thing I really remember is Brad standing up and talking about Billy and doing a bit of an impression of him at one point. That was sheer magic. He sketched his best friend so fast but so clearly with his mannerisms and turn of phrase that it was as if our missing person had appeared there for a second. I doubt there was a single person in the church that didn’t see a flash of him. I stared at the coffin. I watched my friends down there. I watched Billy’s family. It was happening. I didn’t fully believe it even then. I just couldn’t. But it was happening. It did happen. I watched them all. Scores of people all sat stock still with their souls on fire.
Afterwards the casket was quickly taken away and only a few people were allowed to the burial itself. I hadn’t been expecting that, but that’s how it went. The rest of us walked slowly across town to the location of the wake. We drank more but our hearts weren’t in it. We smoked cigarettes till our hands shook and we held each other up where we could. Luke, who had told me the news in the first place and who was very close to Billy was stood not far from his ex-wife which was weird. I don’t think they’d spoken for years. I don’t even think they spoke that day, but there they both were. For me it was nice to see her. I’d lost touch with her after their breakup and I’d always felt bad about that. I gave my condolences to Billy’s mum and dad and his other sister Katherine and they showed such grace but I felt embarrassed by my clumsiness. Billy’s nephew was still a kid then, which is weird because already, in the time since, he’s become a man. He was broken hearted and got drunk and we all thought the absolute world of him.
Luke hitched a ride home with James Griffin in the end, so there was a space in Brett’s car and I gladly took it.
We said our goodbyes. To Billy. To the place itself and to all the new people we had connected with. I hugged Cuz. The man who’d embraced me on that Saturday night and brought me in. I thanked him but I couldn’t find words to express the true depth of my gratitude. I can never find adequate words. Some bloody writer I am. I looked at him, stood there draped as he was in grief and the indescribably bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a tiger that he’d worn the last time he and Bill had met. I looked at him and I knew how precious all of this was and I tried to remember the details. I wanted to hang on to it. I wanted to never forget anything about it or him or the conversation we’d had in the wee hours of the night before about the things that we live for and the things that break us. I wanted to remember all of it. The whole weekend. I wanted to remember more of my time with Billy. More of our long, late night phone conversations. I looked at Cuz and I wanted all that, but even as I stood there trying to hang on, I could feel it all slipping through my fingers. The truth is, I can’t honestly remember what was emblazoned on that t-shirt of his. It was something much better than I remember, much funnier, and I can’t remember what its connection to Billy was. Only that there was one. It may have even belonged to him. I just don’t know any more. Then we were in Brett’s car and pulling away. They all got smaller and smaller in the back window but I could still see them, and then all of a sudden we turned a corner and it was all the past all of a sudden and they were gone.
The journey home was different from how I imagined it. Quieter. The odd exchange here and there, but that was it. Brett was driving. Nick in the front passenger seat and Simon and I in the back. Simon tends to steer towards the light in conversation. He keeps it funny and upbeat with great skill but he also feels things deeply I think, and when he does talk about something sad he often does it with great insight. I can’t remember what was said but I know I enjoyed listening to Nick, Brett and Simon going back and forth. I may have even chimed in myself, but I couldn’t say for sure. The atmosphere in the car was strange but in a lovely way. It was quiet and full. The four of us were alone together. The air was thick with thoughts instead of words and it was nice. Actually it was beautiful. I suppose the seasons were turning too and outside in the world, spring was giving way to summer. It was surprisingly idyllic out there and we looked out as it flew by and we just existed side by side for a while. Nick said it reminded him of the end of the film ‘Stand by Me’. I couldn’t help but agree. After a while, Simon wound the window down and put his head out of it like one of those dogs you see and let the wind just wash over his face.
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