“Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph, preserve your memories…”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck – where is the fucking thing!” I growled as I rummaged through yet another dusty storage box.
Looking at the tornado aftermath of my frantic search, henchmen spies had seemingly ransacked our garage looking for a top-secret microfiche. Strewn all over the joint, there were old skool negatives, photos and the gaudy branded packets they came in. Char came out to gently enquire as to what on God’s planet I was doing. Sweating, still in my gym gear and possibly with a slightly deranged look in my eye, I spun around and spat – “For fuck’s sake, when are we finally going to sort through all this shit – we’ve been here for 10 years now and we’ve still not done it. I’m sick of not finding photos of my dead friends.” A paragon of patient tact as always in responding to another of her ‘eldest child’s’ temper tantrums, she made sympathetic noises and wisely withdrew back into the house. Finally, in the last storage box I dragged from the bottom of a tower of musty suitcases, I found the shoebox I was looking for.
Hot and dusty, schvitzing all over the dining table, I rifled through the pictures, a pile of shards refracting our past – sentimental ones from our Thai honeymoon, bawdy ones from a mate’s stag weekend, drunken ones from raucous fancy dress parties – but all of them from a lost world where concepts of adult responsibilities, planning for the future and even just conceiving the idea of having children – were not on our radar. Then I found a couple of her…not the ones I was looking for…but ones from a friends’ wedding shabeem in a room over a Manchester boozer. She shone in a slinky dark navy number, beaming girlish face with mischievous glint in alluring eyes. I could hear that lovely lunatic laugh of hers in my head and the buoyant greeting pronounced in her Belfast brogue, especially amped up for my benefit – “What about ye, Carleesh!” I could see her dancing zealously but with her cool groove, rhythmically pulsating around the dancefloor on lithe limbs, hands gliding, ever present roll-up pinched between her bony fingers. Her fist punching the air in approval as a pearler got dropped on the decks with the ecstatic proclamation echoing, “TOP CHOOON! TOP CHOOOON!”
For a few years in my early twenties in Manchester, Hilary Fitzpatrick was my closest friend, confidante, fellow-drinker and co-conspirator in numerous, glorious hedonistic crimes. She shared my joys, unconditionally offered her shoulder for my tears, gently let me down easy when I thought I’d fallen for her, but above all I remember the laughter we shared. Unbridled, life-affirming mirth, sometimes alcohol and dope-fuelled, often through the early hours and into another grey Manchester dawn – but almost always there with her and always with that loony machine-gun guffaw of hers – shaking out the fears and anxieties making the world feel a slightly less daunting place in which to be. To lend a Manc-born expression, she was, at least for a while, my sugar spun sister. Then we all moved on, embarking on careers and coupling – she went off to London into, I think, publishing – I met the love of my life in Char and we moved out to rural Lancashire so I could cut my teeth as a cadet newspaper hack.
Finally, on a rain-driven cliff top in Anglesey, I asked Char to marry me one New Year’s Day. Thankfully she didn’t take the chance to off me over the cliff and instead agreed to my proposal. To accommodate the hordes of our relatives based in the capital, we were to be wed at London Zoo on the last Sunday in July in the football closed season to accommodate the whittled down group of our closest friends – one of whom just had to be Hilary – I hadn’t been in touch with her for a couple of years, but I managed to get her address off a mutual friend. An official invitation was dispatched with a personal note from me scrawled on it, saying I would dearly love her to be a part of mine and Char’s public celebration of our love for each other. She never RSVP’d and I heard nothing from her, but I just put this down to H being like the rest of us from that mob, pretty relaxed about formalities – it wasn’t the way we rolled – eschewing planning ahead as a compromiser of coveted spontaneity. As table places were at a premium at the wedding – we had ended up having to fight for a clutch of 30 of our friends in an overall list of 120-odd of relatives and parents’ friends – there was pressure on to cross Hilary off the invite list as a non-responder. I called her at her work-place having tracked down the publishing firm for who she worked. She wasn’t there I was told, so I left a message with them and waited for her to call back…for days…but nothing. I speculated she was mad-crazy busy in her new career – but I was sure in my heart she would show up on the day. Upon my insistence, a place was left for her at the table earmarked for all our Manchester friends. But she never showed…
A few weeks or months after the wedding, there was a phone call, I can’t remember if I’d tried calling her again or she’d got in touch with me. She was of course deeply apologetic, all the more so, after I’d been at pains to explain to her just how much her absence from this the then most important day of my life had injured me. She explained, she’d been going some through some heavy shit at the time and just hadn’t felt like she could face all of us at what was such a happy occasion. I listened but I didn’t hear her – perhaps if it had been after my first serious bout of depression, I might have heard her more clearly, been more compassionate and caring and forgiven her instantly in my heart, rather, in truth, holding a grudge against her for many years that she hadn’t show up for my wedding. I told her I forgave her and that we should keep in touch. We didn’t, I didn’t, other than in response to an email she sent asking for the contact details of a friend who ran a Spanish language school in Madrid. Publishing hadn’t worked out for her – so now apparently she was going to move to Spain to teach English with a thick Belfaaast accent.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later, I receive a Facebook message from an old mate who was part of our old Manchester crew telling me Hilary – with whom he’s kept in touch – is embarking on a course of chemotherapy because she has breast cancer. He says I should drop her a line, as she’s going through a really hard time and feeling pretty low. I tell him I’ve not heard from her for years – but God, that’s terrible, and of course, I’ll get in touch with her…except I don’t. Insidiously, there’s part of me still carrying that grudge from all those years ago. It’s almost imperceptible to my consciousness – but there is certainly a sense of conflict there. It’s something I need to work through I tell myself – I need time to process it, is how I justify it to myself. This is regardless of the fact that here is someone whom I once regarded as a spiritual sister who was there for me on so many occasions in the past – who has a serious illness and could really do with some support right now. All because I needed time to fucking process my 20-year-old resentment about her not turning up to my wedding? How fucking self-centred can I be? Even now?
Back in the UK to see my family four weeks ago, and on a brief overnight trip to Manchester, we drop in on my mate who’d originally messaged me about H’s illness. I spoke to her the other week and she’s not doing very well at all – really struggling with the chemo, he tells me. I think she’d really appreciate it if you got in touch with her. I mumble that I fully intend to – just been really busy, you know how it is as a working parent. Is she on Facebook, I ask? Yeah of course that’s mainly how we keep in touch, he says. Just Friend request her, he encourages. But I don’t – it’s all so hectic back in England, family time and all that and…and…and…and…..
Then the message came last week, she was gone…I am numb for a moment, before the shocking reality hits home – but I had no idea it had got so bad for her. If only I’d known and there they are, the two simple words that carry with them densest regret…if only….
It’s her funeral in Belfast today as I write this. Her best mate who I met when she came over to visit one time – another beaming Belfast belle – set up a Facebook page for people to share their memories and photos of Hilary for a screen-show to be projected on to a wall at a night of song and dancing celebrating H’s life tonight. Hence my frenzied search for the picture – the picture at the top of this blog of Hilary getting her Cousin It/Captain Caveman on during a train journey down to Brum to watch a supposed friendly pre-season football match between my football team, Birmingham City, and Glasgow Celtic – it wasn’t friendly at all when we got there at all – but that’s another story. As we sped down the tracks to Brum, on a rare hot sunny July afternoon, drinking, smoking and happily talking shite, we all found ourselves crying with hysterics at the spectacle of Hilary masked by her long orange locks. Then the sunglasses were placed completing the look leaving us all howling gleefully – classic H indeed.
I said a prayer as I flicked through the last handful of photos in the battered old shoebox and, thank God, (which I promptly did) there was the picture.
Life is too fucking short and getting shorter by the second – I don’t want to be shuffling through dusty old boxes for a glimpse of friends I’ve lost touch with, clutching at memories from decades ago. You can’t have a two-way conversation with a photograph ‘til dawn, talking shite listening to music and smoking ash-tray butt sourced roll-ups; you can’t love a photo and be loved back unconditionally and, sure, while the photo put a dirty great big grin on my mush, then made me sob all over the dining room table – you can’t share long, life-affirming laughter with a photo.
Please learn from my terrible mistake, put down your crosses, kick down the walls and reach out to those that need your loving. Don’t waste time, don’t hesitate now is not a rehearsal for the future. Just get on with it. Forgive. Give. It’s so fucking simple, isn’t it? But I just didn’t get it.
Goodbye Hilary, my beautiful friend – I’m dancing with my memories of you tonight.