Death and Shadows
Death is not something a six year old boy dwells upon and I first saw its shadow when my dog died. He used to limp about and was blind in one eye and bumped into things, and was old – much older than I was, but he was loyal and was always with me and he slept in my room. Then he died and suddenly I had this nagging thought that I was going to die too, and be carried off with my dog to some heavenly place above the clouds in the sky. I was scared.
So I ran to school to discuss my worry with Mick and Lindsay. I don’t want to die, I said. We scratched circles in the dirt with our sticks and pondered my fear. “No,” said Mick. “We won’t die. Only old dogs die.” “Come and play,” said Lindsay.
The gossamer threads of my memories now haunt me. Mick and Lindsay and I were always united, like a pack of thieves, I heard a teacher say. Together we had amazing fun chasing one another in games of Red Rover, running zestfully after magnificent butterflies or haunting the street at night in ghostly shrouds or stealing oranges from the neighbour’s orchard and laughing when the juices dribbled on our chins. Our fun was furious. We vented our primal nature with Tarzan-like screams. Our motto was “Yell, Jump and Play”. We were so innocent.
Then our hormones exploded and we grew into long pants and I found a stubble on my chin and I goaded Mick and Lindsay every day until they came to class bristling with Cheshire grins.
Classroom study, though, was for swots. Testosterone fuelled our games and we rivalled each other in football or cricket, darts or even a game of poker. Our motto was still: Yell, jump, play. And we were barely socialised, and when a girl glided past with a teasing smile and the scent of oestrogen we’d lower our sophomoric gazes and scuff at the ground while a huge balloon hovered over our heads writ ‘embarrassed’ for classmates to scoff at. It made us feel small.
Eventually our hormones settled. We learned to talk to girls, however briefly, and gradually our futures emerged from the grey windows of learning. I surprised myself and gained entry to university and excelled beyond my expectations in an abstract and esoteric world. Mick surprised Lindsay and me when he joined the army (even though he had instructed us as six year olds that he would be a soldier). And they made him an officer and he went away to a war. Lindsay though was at war with himself. He became a minor football star until an ankle injury ended his career. After his rehab he joined the police and worked with homicide. He phoned me one day; his mother had died and he was all alone. He hadn’t a father and I never knew. Mick was granted leave and we stood with Lindsay to grieve at the graveside after which we went down to the George and Dragon and drank to our past. I wanted to talk about our boyhood and the loyalty we shared. However Lindsay shook his head. He was not a child. He had put those memories behind him. Now he dealt with the ugliness of human nature. And Mick said little but told of fighting by the side of his brave men. However, behind their teeth, they were afraid. I didn’t know it then – I was cloistered in academia, in a world removed from theirs.
That afternoon we embraced and promised to keep in touch. In truth, though, I was blind. The dancing specks of light in Mick’s eyes had died. I didn’t know till later of his awards for his courage. I didn’t understand that war in the desert is relentless and remorseless and at night, when others slept, Mick re-viewed in his mind what you and I would quale to see – the faces of the innocent made faceless by war. I didn’t see his shaking hands loop the rope over the beam, nor hear the sound of his falling tears, nor the smell of his death.
Mick was buried with military honours and Lindsay held my arm and we both cried. The two of us had a beer at the George and Dragon, then several more. We hugged each other. Lindsay swore he would be there for me, and I believed him. I swore I would be there for him, and he believed me. And we parted. Yes, I know what you will say. I did phone him from time to time usually while waiting at the airport on my way to another conference. Then I lost track of him. Why, I ask myself, was I blind-sided by my bookishness to lose my fellow-feeling? Lindsay left the police force, I heard. He did security work, drove a cab and then someone said he was working in a hotel somewhere. But I didn’t catch up.
When my cell phone rang last evening I felt a pang of dread, the moment when shards of your memories prick your conscious and you just know you have let someone down. My plane had just landed. I’d returned from a meeting at the University of Rome where I had presented a paper that had gone down well. I should have been in good spirits however it was raining and I was waiting for a cab. I answered the phone to hear my wife’s voice. She spoke anxiously. It was Lindsay; he had knocked at our door. He’d been drinking and he was stand there with arms spread wide and a ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ look on his sozzled face oblivious to the weather. His shirt was rent and his red hair a mess and he wanted to have a drink at the George and Dragon and talk for old time’s sake. My wife was shocked and unsure, as was I.
“Let me speak to him,” I said. “Lindsay, how are you?” He was incoherent. I told him to meet me at the George and Dragon inside an hour. Would he go there and wait for me? I repeated it. I repeated it for my wife and she repeated it to him too. He left and I hailed a cab.
Elbowing my way through the crowded pub I searched for the red hair I knew. Drinkers shook their heads as I asked. I pushed on. He’d been and gone, they said. I called his phone and he didn’t answer. To be honest I didn’t know what to do, and I was scared – scared that he might harm himself and scared because I had been found wanting. Lindsay was the link to my boyhood memories when our world was safe and uncomplicated.
And this morning when a policeman knocked on my door and held out a note, my glasses fogged so I asked if he’d to read it aloud.
“It says: To my loyal friend, do you remember when we were six years old?”
His words are a slap in the face. But the shadows have stilled and tomorrow – I will make it another day.