In a departure from our usual fact and opinion-based offerings, we’ve branched out with a dip into the glorious waters of fiction writing, courtesy of this short story from Chester writer and actor Paul Williams. We hope you enjoy Paul’s thought-provoking writing, which focuses here on the lives of a group of friends from Chester during lockdown. When not busy writing or acting, Paul is a drama teacher. A note of caution: This story is not suitable for children due to the issues covered. We’re fortunate to be able to illustrate this story with some of Dai Owen’s wonderful artwork. Another short story from Paul will follow soon.
It was tradition.
Like all traditions it was bound to be broken that year. Every April, as the leaves came back, Jez would wound wind his way back to Chester, find his spot at the bar for 7pm and wait. In they would come; one by broken one. Until three men stood laughing at beer pumps, raising glasses to events that had happened in a past far off. It always had a surreal quality but was destined to have a bigger one this time around.
“We can’t not do it,” Jez had said to Digsy over the phone.
“All the pubs are shut mate. Be a really rubbish pub crawl wouldn’t it?” Digs had replied.
“Can we not go digital like everyone else is doin’? Like a conference call or somethin’?”
“Jokin’ aren’t ya? I don’t even think Bryn has got a laptop.”
“He can do it on his phone.”
“I’ll ask,” said Digs.
And ask he did and everything was arranged for Friday. This was going to be one way to make isolation bearable, a way to stay well but carry on tradition. This was going to keep friendships alive.
After last year Jez couldn’t honestly say he was filled with regret at not having to see Bryn. For if the three-man juggernaut had been good for a meeting every twelve months the years themselves had not been kind to their friend. Bryn had detached himself from the world through drink. It was rare that anyone wanted to hang around with him nowadays. The first thing he had done the previous year was go to the toilet to be sick.
“I can’t help it recently,” he said in that thick Welsh burr.
The night had gone on as usual with drinks and laughs, but on coming out of the pub there was a rather unneeded argument.
“We need to go this way,” said Bryn.
“Hang on,” said Digs, “I thought we were going for a curry.”
“Nah, let’s jib that off and go for some more drinks,” slurred Bryn.
“But I’m starvin’,” pleaded Digsy.
“Yeah,” interjected Jez, “we always go for a curry.”
“Well Christ,” said an exasperated Bryn, “can we not break the law for once? I’m gaspin’ for more ale.”
“You can have a beer in the curry house. No-one said you have to eat,” reasoned Digsy.
“What am I supposed to do? Sit there an watch you?”
“Is this about money?” said Digs, reaching into his pocket, “I’ll sort it out if you want. You won’t have to pay.”
“Shut up you!!” spat Bryn.
“Now just hang on a sec,” said Jez, raising his hand in a conciliatory gesture.
“Nah, nah, he can do one. Just cuz he’s minted…” raged Bryn.
“Woah, woah, he didn’t mean it like that.”
“I didn’t mean it like that Bryn,” said Digsy.
“Why don’t you do one back to ya firm in London?”
“Hang on Bryn…”
“What’s the need…”
“I owe em money!!” yelled Bryn, breaking at last under the almighty peer pressure.
“Who?” asked Digsy.
“The curry house.”
“What do you owe them money for?”
“A curry. I stole a curry. They gave it me and I didn’t pay. I ran off.”
Bryn sat down at one of the outside tables and put his head in his hands. For a moment they were silent.
It started like a ripple. First Digsy’s shoulders started going, then Jez’s then Bryn’s. Then the laughter was vocalized, spilling out in torrents, pushing up towards the pub windows. Three old mates in April wondering how their lives had ended so differently: one high living in London, one scraping by in the teaching game and the other resorting to stealing take aways. It just didn’t seem to join feel normal. They opted for a kebab instead.
Jez sat in the glow of his room in Milton Keynes trying to figure out how to use the app. He never had been much good with technology and this recent glitch in the matrix had forced him to grapple with these things more seriously than he would have liked. His technophobe bubble was quickly being eroded by events. Eventually he managed to get on and there, glowering on his laptop screen, smiling and complacent in his plush London apartment was Digsy. He cracked open a beer.
“Alright fella how are ya?” asked Digs.
“All good mate, what you been up to?”
“What do you think? Stayin’ in.”
“Mate I don’t even know what day it is.”
“Friday son. Cheers.”
They raised their cans in front of the cameras and mimed clinking them as if in a venue.
“Where’s Bryn?” asked Digsy.
“Not a clue.”
“Shall we message him?”
“Yeah, go ‘ead.”
“Better not lads!!” a voice shouted as an image came up on screen.
Jez and Digs cheered. Bryn was holding the phone so close to his face that it was virtually up his nostril.
“Bryn take the phone away from your face man,” said Digs.
He did, and upon completing the instruction both Jez and Digsy wished he hadn’t. Bryn’s eye was swollen and he had a cut on his face just below his left cheek. The cut looked relatively fresh. To add an extra layer to the whole visage Bryn was laughing. Not a voluptuous outburst, but a low level, high pitched constant sound, punctuated by occasional shouts of “Digs!!” or “Jez!” followed by more of the same. It was like the worse radio static you’ve ever heard.
Jez and Digsy tried to plough on with conversation but couldn’t really concentrate. They made several efforts to try and talk to Bryn but were met only with loud laughing and shouts of “I love you boys!!”
Whilst trying to keep up with conversation Jez looked at Bryn. Not only was there swelling around his eye, but the face itself looked haggard and bloated, its veins pushed to the surface like pavement cracks.
And the laughter was not real. It was forced, an overcompensation for a train wreck existence. Brin laughed because he wanted his mind to follow suit.
After a while the beer had gone and conversation died.
Together they were a gang, a marauding band of Vikings conquering the town; here they were three lads sat in radically different places in life, held together only by the desire for company amid a pandemic.
Bryn’s high-pitched squeal had stopped. He was just staring into the Camera. The faint sound of ABBA dribbled out from the screen.
“Bryn, are you listening to ABBA?” laughed Jez.
“It makes me happy,” said Bryn, with the only attempt he’d made at seriousness all night.
Jez got the phone call three days later.
They had found him on his sofa. No evidence of foul play. Bryn didn’t even figure in the statistics. Neither suicide nor virus. Just a death that made no sense, no need for even a news report. What was the point when it was simply another vomit-choked lad that couldn’t handle his beer? Shouldn’t he have known better in this time of extreme caution?
The previous few years Jez and Digsy had physically put him in bed. That’s what hurt most. That on the last night of his existence, cut-eyed and miserable in his dingy flat, he couldn’t even rely on his friends.
And all that talk of social solidarity and ‘be kind’ nonsense…. Where was the clapping crew when he started to choke on a Friday night; when his airways clogged and the gurgling came from his throat? The whole western world was empty, but that flat was the emptiest place of them all. Had it not been for a nosy neighbour wanting to complain about three days’ worth of ABBA, god knows how long he would have lain in state for.
Jez had many questions to ask but he refrained. On his walk that evening he stopped underneath a bridge by a motorway. There was no traffic. He enjoyed the silence for a few minutes and thought of all those old memories, howling at drunken skies in Chester, laughing in pubs now closed.
The world was changing. All those years trying to cling on to youth really had been hopeless. It was time to grow up.