Sunday, 8 January 2012

Never Tell

(Violent Femmes: Never Tell)

They had been drunk, it's true, but not very drunk, and they were very young. Simon persuaded Paul to work through their summer job lunchbreak so they could finish early, and then on the way home one of them had suggested a swift pint that turned into three, but Simon could never remember whose idea that was. They didn't take the usual route home, because a tractor turned into the lane ahead of them, so Paul drove the long way round because it would be quicker. He slid a copy of Doolittle into the cassette player and turned it up loud, and Simon drummed on the dash and sang along.

They turned a corner and she stepped out into the road from nowhere and bang onto the bonnet and thump over the roof and then she was behind them on the road and Paul was standing on the brakes, and Simon was just holding on to the dashboard and swearing softly, over and over, and Black Francis shrieked, "Tame" until Paul slapped at the stop button and everything went very quiet.

When they reached her, her eyes were wide open and her mouth was open as if she was going to say something, but she would not say anything ever again.

They looked at her, and they looked at each other, and they looked at the empty countryside around them, and then they ran to the car.

There were three terrible weeks of stories in the local paper, and conversations in local shops. Simon slept fitfully, and woke at five most mornings, not sure if he had dreamed a hammering on the door or whether it was real. The stories stopped when nothing new happened and other stories came along, and one night Simon went to sleep at eleven and woke at nine the next morning, and hadn't dreamed of anything at all.

They didn't decide to spend less time together, but that's how it turned out. Simon went off to university, and Paul took on his dad's business, and occasional sessions in the pub turned into once a year Christmas cards, and then much later, they were just Facebook friends who never messaged or commented, just watched.

Simon hadn't spoken to Paul for five years when he got a message on Facebook with a phone number at the end. Call me, it said. We need to talk.

When Simon phoned he could hear a child shouting in the background, and the loud sound of a TV. "Can't speak now," Paul said. "But can we meet? I really want to talk."

"Sure," Simon said, "it would be great." He wasn't sure that he meant it, because although he missed the friendship that they had once had, he knew that they would never get that back. There would be an awkward conversation in a pub, a lot of time spent talking about other people they had once known, and then they would say this was great, we must do it again and they never would.

They met in a seaside town halfway between where each of them lived now, in the car park of a pub. There was an awkward shaking of hands, and Simon said, "Pint?" and then regretted it. "Or a coffee, whatever?"

Paul was older, fatter, but with dark smudges under his eyes. "Maybe in a bit." He sounded even more tired than he looked. "I've got a banging headache, drive down was a nightmare. Can we just walk for a bit, get some fresh air, blow it away?"

"Sure," Simon said, and they walked along the prom, past deserted out-of-season arcades. The path rose up from the town onto the cliffs above the bay and the wind grew stronger there and whipped at Simon's hair. It didn't seem to do Paul much good

"You don't seem right, mate." The last word felt wrong in Simon's mouth. Once, but not now. Once they had been as close as brothers, now they were just strangers with a brief shared past and one terrible secret.

"I see her," Paul said. "When I go to sleep at nights. When I wake up. I've been thinking of nothing else for months. I can't stand it." He walked to the edge of the cliff, stared out at the sea.

"Jesus, man. I'm sorry." Simon walked to him, thought of putting an arm around his shoulder, hesitated, the years apart filling the six inches between them.

"It's not her that scares me. It's what she could do to my life. My family."

"She can't do anything. It's done with. In the past. Case closed. A terrible tragedy, but she walked out from nowhere. You're not to blame." He saw the look. "We're not to blame."

"It eats away at me like a  tumour. Every day, I wake up, and I worry that day will be the day it all comes out. I've got so much in my life now, so many good things. I don't deserve them, but I have them, anyway.  But the better it gets, the more I have to lose. The day before I got in touch with you, I was reading Ella a bedtime story, and she snuggled right into me and squeezed my hand and said 'Daddy, I never ever want to lose you' and just the thought of it...Jesus."

"Paul, get a grip - you won't lose her, she won't lose you.You're just panicking, getting it all out of perspective."

"No," Paul said. "I've got everything in perspective. For the first time since it happened."

Simon snorted. "If you had it in perspective, you wouldn't be in this fucking state. It's ten years on, Paul. She's forgotten.  Not by us, you know I don't mean that, but the police? A dusty file in an archive box somewhere, and nothing to link it to us, to you. Nothing. That's what you've got to keep in mind, when you're going through a bad time, like now. No-one knows, Paul. No-one knows."

Paul shook his head slowly. "You do," he said, and Simon tried to take a step back from the cliff edge but it was all too late, far, far too late.

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