It was so good to catch up with you last night. Standing in front of the house, the whole of Bedford hidden from view behind the conifers and more obviously local hawthorns and assorted hedgerow shrubbery beside your parents’ house, its commanding presence over-looking the whole of Bedford an unknown secret as I faced the front door.
You know, in all these years I don’t recall ever using the front door, its textured glass disguising the pristine carpet beyond. Maybe that was the clue? Ringing the bell seemed perfectly natural despite 30 years of letting myself in at the side door and treating your house like it was my own. Richard welcomed me with a warm smile and open arms.
“Long time no see” I called to you, half hidden, as you sat on the stairs behind your Dad, smiling. He replied for you, I guess that was weird too.
It’s been far too many years since we last hung out yet you looked younger than I remember. Relaxed, happy and content in your environment. I moved forwards to embrace you but was then pulled to the side by Pete as he dragged me over to see the old gang, chatting away, having a drink, reliving ‘the good times’
All that time you sat there looking down and across to us.
Everyone was seemingly oblivious to your presence. Everyone except me.
You continued to sit there on the stair, absorbing the scene as it acted it’s way around you. Eventually I extricated myself from the sea of guests and sat below you. Shooting the breeze as if nothing had ever changed, you told me everything was “going to be okay”. That should have freaked me out, I had no idea what you meant, but I wasn’t upset as your beatific eyes told me this was important.
It was only when I woke up that I paid attention to the rather odd realisation that no-one else had spoken to you. Not your parents, not Trish, not even Julia. I was the only one that had noticed you were there.
What then compelled me to write this? Am I still upset that you are dead, or is it selfish guilt at the loss of our misplaced childhoods?
I feel the passage of time so acutely, it is worse than a ride I can’t get off, more like a never-ending avalanche. Branches and trees flowing in and out of sight, my flailing arms unable to grasp them. I am so aware of my own mortality that it hurts. Waves of panic rush over me and I see my life disappearing behind me even as I blink.
Despite this I know in the depth of my heart that everything will be okay, because you told me with such conviction. You were my wingman, I have absolute trust in you.”
I wrote that letter after the most incredibly vivid dream I had in April 2017. The outline was written in my head as I ran a tearful lap around the lake, then on paper the same afternoon. I kept returning to it, chopping and changing over the following few weeks. Today felt like the right time to update with a new draft, as I spend the day celebrating my friendship with Rob ‘Kate’ Smith (and you have to be of a certain vintage to appreciate and understand that nickname)
It is interesting, and a little worrying, to read how I struggled to feel the flow of writing 4 years ago:
“Tonight, I felt the flow. Sitting down, I started to play Appetite For Destruction but that felt wrong, and was drawn to Use Your Illusion II. According to iTunes I have never played it, despite buying it after your funeral. In the split second that Slash strums the G5 that starts Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door I broke down, crying hard in a way that felt like a release. It was so sudden, so strange.
Now I know why I put that album on. You were reminding me it is okay to be sad, it is okay to cry, it is okay to remember the past but don’t dwell on it, don’t stay there. That way leads to pain, to suffering, to self-disgust.
In the nicest possible way, you are telling me to get over myself. I have so much to give. I know I am awesome, I just allowed myself to forget it.”
Today marks the terrible, terrifying, tenth anniversary of my best mate’s death, struck down by an undiagnosed heart condition a year shy of 40. I remember that day far too well. The text from Julia. Ringing Michaela because I couldn’t believe what I had just read, only to hear confirmation in the silence between her sobs.
My head on my knees as I felt my heart being ripped out by the intensity of the grief in that moment.
Somehow, I pulled myself clear of the carpet, with just enough presence of mind to not phone Jan, and instead head for the bottle of Jack stood, unopened in a couple of years, in the cabinet.
I sat, cross-legged, in front of the TV, utilising the still new technology of YouTube and a smartTV, and dropped into my teens and early twenties for a few hours (you can hear that playlist below). I was still drinking straight from the bottle some hours later when I realised it was getting dark and I could hear Jan and Anya pulling up in the Zafira. I will add some context at this juncture. It was my first weekend working a new contract delivering fitness on retreats at Horwood House, So I had not seen the text until I got home around 6. I also had to be up early on the Sunday morning to greet everyone with a pre-breakfast circuit. It took less will-power than you might expect to stay the right side of that instantly recognisable square silhouetted bottle of Old No. 7.
For four or five years I burst into tears every time I heard Sweet Child O Mine on the radio. I would say it was only last year, in the height of lockdown, that I really started to come to terms with Rob’s death. And stop feeling so sorry for myself. That journey had not even started until the dream.
I have added to the letter over the years. Each time recognising the past, and slowly looking towards a brighter future. This year, the tenth milestone, is very different to the others. Perhaps because I was up at the farm only last week, chatting to his Mum, and being gently reminded that you can only look forwards. Rob would not us to be moping about him all the time. He would demand nothing less than me making the most of my life.
“Do you remember when I sat on your shoulders at Donington? The timing could not have been better. “I want to introduce a friend of ours” hollered Steven Tyler, “Mr Jimmy Page!” and as they launched into ‘Train Kept a Rollin’ the lights lifted up over the screaming crowd and I was surrounded by a sea of 200,000 arms. There ain’t much that will ever beat that.
That’s the thing with memories of eighteen-year-olds.
So many memories, gigs, girls, Southern Comfort, your Kadett written off by a rabbit, you falling into my living room through the window, swinging on our old rope ladder for a split second before landing heavily on your arse, me standing in the way of a fist so you wouldn’t have a reason to retaliate. All of them make me smile, but Aerosmith is The One, when thoughts bring you back I want my abiding memory to be the absolute, unbridled, joy of that moment.
Our last walk together now has a deeper, more spiritual, meaning to me. I don’t remember a word of what we said, maybe we didn’t need to speak, to catch up on the years of lost and irregular contact. Is that not what friends are there for? Just to be. I remember the walk though. The powerful blue of the sky, the feeling of the warm breeze, the smell of the farm so much less pungent than when I used to cycle up in the evenings of our schooldays. I can almost feel the dry earth beneath my feet. My memory stops at the top of the field, maybe that is far as I need to go. You can see so far from there. Right down across Brickhill to the town centre and the River Great Ouse. A land ever changing in recent years, yet not so different to the 80’s. To me it feels like that is the future, a land of opportunity, fun and happiness. I don’t know what is over the fields and hill behind me, perhaps nothing. I am not ready to go in that direction, not for a long, long time.
I bid your farewell and thank you for always being there when I needed you. With all my love and gratitude I thank you.”
So I never forget the memory of Robert John ‘Kate’ Smith 11/5/1972 – 27/5/2011