January 24, 2014 by Whispering Smith
Sundays are always slow days for me and wet ones are especially so. I had just filed my column with the local paper and was browsing the last week’s issue over my morning cup of coffee when I noted in the obits that there was to be a sort of memorial reunion for Paul Ferris, a long time town council member. A gathering of old friends, it said. Paul was an old mate who passed away much too soon the previous year courtesy of a lorry loaded with landfill rubbish which knocked him off the very bicycle he had just purchased with the aim of getting fit. I had written a bit about him in the column, not a lot, just a nod to his memory and the fact that we had grown up together. I think I headed the item ‘Another Good Man Gone’ or something like that. He wasn’t that good but he certainly was gone. He was fun in the early days, then later he got a bit up himself in many ways, pompous in his yellow chequered waistcoat and tweed suit, and with a big belly he looked like a human Toad of Toad Hall. He got himself elected Tory chair of the local council and loved the semi hero-worship he gathered from those around him.
For a long while there on that wet Sunday morning I could not make up my mind whether or not to have a cat nap or go along to the gig. I decided to go, it was something to do. I pulled on my parka raincoat and headed toward the large shelter by the river where the piece indicated the old crowd were meeting. As I walked through the rain I wondered vaguely if there would be any refreshments or if we were all going to nip along to the local pub afterwards for a beer or two. Wet outside, just as well be wet inside. It was a mile or so walk for me and by the time I was halfway there the rain had stopped, the sun was shining and my body on the inside of my supposedly breathable parka was hot and clammy.
They were gathered, quite aptly, by the flooded river which was running full and muddy dragging weed, waterlogged timber and dead sheep down from Arundel. There were several familiar faces, some of whom I recognised but could not put names to. Some looked pleased to see me while others merely nodded. Being a columnist and actually having an opinion does not always sit well with old friends who seem to see everything in some peculiar political light and take an alternative view as a direct attack or, at the very least, an affront to their firmly held views. So as not to show favours, I stood at the back and a little to one side and shed my raincoat, hanging it over my arm and feeling the rainwater running off it and down my jeans. That was another thing that set me a little to one side, everyone else, including the ladies we had known way back when, most of whom avoided eye contact with me, were dressed in their Sunday best.
Bobby Pool. I remembered him from school, tight as a duck’s backside and the only boy who ever had enough cash for a chocolate ice cream which, on a cold day, he could make last for hours with careful licking and no biting. Bobby appeared to be in charge. He stood in front of the gathering and, like some drill instructor from my RAF days, turned smartly on his right heel and faced us. Bobby was rambling on about how Paul did this and how Paul did that and all I could think of was that Paul was a bit of a letch and we had more fun with some of the women gathered there than perhaps we should have had. As I listened, I wondered what they were thinking and, as often happens with me when my attention wanders, I gazed into the middle distance, lost in sort of mid-Sunday morning reverie. That was when I saw Paul Ferris walking along the promenade toward us. Paul’s gimpy walk – he broke his left leg rather badly when he came off his Thunderbird on the ice at Crunden’s Corner – was unmistakeable. I stared long and hard and knew I was right. I tried to draw the attention of the nearest person to me, Gracie Long, a girl I had once dabbled with in the cornfields at the back of my parents’ house before the fields, almost overnight, became a housing estate, but Gracie was not about to recognise my presence. And then, quite suddenly, that year long dead, dear Paul Ferris who had done so much of this and so much of that in his shortish life was among us and standing there right next to Bobby Pool.
He was smartly dressed in blazer and grey flannels and carried a large tan coloured leather ‘man bag’ over his shoulder. His jacket was bone dry, so it obviously wasn’t raining where he had come from. He looked out over the hushed group. Paul Ferris had a pleasant voice, he was once a member of a local amateur dramatic group and could project well. He stared over the crowd, who had shown no reaction to his sudden appearance whatsoever, and fixed his attention on me at the very back. His watery blue eyes were fixed firmly on my person alone. Momentarily a little unnerved, I stared back for a moment or two then turned to Gracie, was about to speak to her when I became aware that the crowd seemed to be involved in an impromptu game of statues. No one was moving, frozen in time there on the promenade, seemingly with myself and Paul Ferris the only ones still animated.
‘Hello, Harry, I just knew you would be here you philistine, you don’t even believe in God or the afterlife so I guess you have dropped by just to pick out a few choice words and write more lies about me.’
He sounded quite cross and I was little stunned, almost lost for words, almost but not quite. ‘You came all the way back from wherever you have come from just to have a go at me? What on earth did I do to upset you?’ Considering the magnitude of the circumstance surrounding our conversation, it seemed a bit of a lame question but it was out of my mouth before I could think my way through it.
‘You know full well, those remarks about me being self-centred, standoffish, enjoying being a respected and admired community leader and all around nice guy with just a hint of corruption and larceny about my person…’
‘Hold up there,’ I said, or maybe even shouted, ‘I never said any of those things about you, I may have thought them but I never said them.’
‘They were in your column…’
‘Hold on there some more, Paul, they were never in my column and I don’t even ever recall saying them to anyone, my motto is never speak ill of the…’
He interrupted before I could finish. ‘Don’t use that word in my company, there is no such word or no such state, nothing ever dies.’
He sounded like he meant it. I had always thought him to be a Christian but maybe he was Zen. ‘OK, you should know,’ I said, ‘but that alters nothing, you say I did then, like a lot of times when you were around, you are wrong. Bad intel from somewhere, my old mate.’
At that moment there was a deafening crack of thunder and a violent flash as lightning walked across the sand dunes of the distant West Beach, a sudden wind bent the marram grass and the rain began again only much heavier this time, then another roll of thunder and a deep booming voice from the black clouds shouted, ‘Careful, boy, take greater care with your words.’
I felt emboldened and wronged. I shouted back at the dark, rain filled sky. ‘You may be the great deity they claim you to be but you are not the boss of me. I never wrote or spoke those words and that’s the God’s honest truth of it.’
‘I said take care, boy.’ The voice sounded very cross now, even more so than had that of Paul Ferris who stood very still beside Bobby Pool, glaring at me. The two of them were bone dry as were the rest of the group and I appeared to be the only one dripping with cold autumn rainwater.
I turned to the frozen Gracie Long. ‘You ever read my column, Gracie, did you ever read those words? No you didn’t because I never wrote them and just because it is a deep voice coming from a black cloud spoken by someone you cannot see does not make it so.’ Gracie Long continued to ignore me. I turned from the black cloud and glared back at Paul Ferris.
‘You did write those things, everything is known.’
‘Bollocks, just like Wikipedia, everything is known? Someone has got it wrong, given you bad advice, my friend, I may have thought them but I have never said or written them.’
There was a deep ‘harrumph’ from the black cloud.
‘Ah, but you thought them.’ It wasn’t a question.
‘I may have.’
‘Ok, so I did but I never wrote them down or published them. I always kind of liked you, liked you for the way you were in the beginning and never really saw you in another light although I was aware you became a bit of a Tory prat in later years.’
‘You still a bloody socialist who believes in a fairer world and the NHS?’
‘Is this conversation relevant?’ I asked sensing the rain was ending.
There was a deep sigh from above and the deep voice said quietly, ‘Not really.’
‘You still on the pharmaceuticals?’ Ferris asked accusingly.
‘No, not for a long time. I take the odd puff now and then though. Are you?’
‘I wish. If you are not on them then why are you talking to someone who isn’t there and listening to a voice in a cloud?’
‘Anything is possible.’
‘But why is it?’
‘Because it is’
‘You ever miss the old days?’
‘You sure you didn’t write all that bad stuff about me?’
‘Sure I am sure.’
‘Faulty intel you say?’
‘That is exactly what I say.’
The deep voice asked in a gentler tone now, ‘Is this conversation going anywhere?’
I looked up at the cloud, the cloud which was no longer dark and threatening. Then the sky lightened and I could see the marram grass on the dunes cease its seemingly endless motion as the wind eased to a gentle breeze.
Paul said, ‘I might have got it wrong, nothing is perfect.’
That deep sigh again from the large, white, friendly fluffy cloud.
‘You did and it’s big of you to admit it. Takes a big man to admit he is wrong when he has such a dark cloud for back up.’
Again that distant sigh, but much fainter this time.
‘Sorry, mate, my bad. I get a bit bored sometimes, especially on a Sunday, and it is easy to allow old wounds to open. We were good friends most of our young lives, so let’s just leave it at that.’
‘Fair enough, Paul,’ I couldn’t quite bring myself to call him mate again.
‘Look, he said brightly, ‘I brought some goodies for the gang. He dug into his tan leather man bag and brought out a handful of brightly coloured lapel buttons, bumper stickers, fridge magnets, key rings and pens. ‘Share these around when I’m gone will you, oh, and I do read the column most weeks and enjoy it. Maybe one time you can write something nice about me, our childhood, you know, brush away those negative thoughts. After all, I was only human. On my next anniversary perhaps?’
And with that, Paul Ferris was gone. Bobby Pool was dribbling on, Gracie Long at last acknowledged my presence with an up and under eyelash smile and the two of us were heading off to the pub, not exactly hand in hand but I felt I might be on a promise…
When I awoke, my drink was cold, the sun was shining through the lounge window and there on my coffee table was a large lapel button badge with a very intricate and exquisite design on it, the centrepiece of which was a lightning bolt. I have searched the internet, tattoo artists reference books and eBay many times, but have never found its like on offer anywhere.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith 2014
A lovely thought provoking story. Makes a nice change from much of the dross I read nowadays… Thankyou.