Brown as Berries
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Since my calling it a day from the world of work I have tried to do all those things we talk and dream about: a holiday in some far off sunny clime, taking up a new hobby or activity; you know the kind of thing, golf or bowls, nothing too strenuous of course and spend more time with family and friends. You owe it to yourself after a lifetime of employment to have a period to relax and enjoy what remains to you.
For me the greatest pleasure is just having time to think in an indolent kind of way and read a few books I always said I would read and never got round to. There was always something to get in the way. Now there could be no excuses, pretexts or prevarications. Tomorrow has become a taboo or dirty word. If you want to do anything you do it now, today, this week, certainly this year for you know what happens if you don’t.
My day, usually around mid-morning, always starts with a visit to one of the local cafes. Of late Café Nero beside the Europa Hotel has been a favourite for you can watch people coming and going from the bus and railway stations or flitting back and forth from offices and shops. I enjoy in particular the vicarious excitement of seeing those travelling through town for I wonder where they might be going and from where they might have come. Moreover it doesn’t cost me a thing except the small price of a coffee and sometimes a panini.
It was one morning in sunny June when I was making for the café with doglike single-mindedness that a voice hailed me. When I looked round among a dizzy throng I spotted Geoff a friend who I had not seen for years. He was as dapper as ever in a pinstripe suit, his bald head gleaming, with an attractive middle-aged brunette on his arm.
‘Well this is a surprise,’ I said banally.
‘Hi Steve,’ said Geoff. ‘How long?’
‘Too long,’ I said courteously and glanced at his lady.
‘Oh this is Orla,’ he replied. I stretched out a hand to Orla.
She smiled warmly and presented a cheek which I kissed.
‘Geoff has told me so much about you,’ she said.
Such a comment tends both to please and chill me, but I tried not to be cynical. I always say I was a top graduate of Belfast Cynical!
‘Nothing derogatory I hope.’
‘Never,’ she said with a charming smile. Geoff always chose prepossessing ladies and had got through quite a few in his fifty years or so. ‘Look if you boys want to get together for a chat, do some catch up, don’t let me stop you. I’m off to shop and I know it bores Geoff.’
‘What a good idea,’ said Geoff with a genuine show of relief. ‘Dress shops are not for me. I feel like a spare something or other. See you later darling.’
Orla gave Geoff a brief hug and walked elegantly down the street my gaze momentarily trailing her.
Geoff and I drifted into Café Nero. It was filling up nicely with the lunchtime crowd while some music played in the background.
‘A cappuccino?’ I ventured.
‘You and your cappuccinos! Yeah a cappuccino.’
I ordered and we took a table overlooking the street.
‘It’s been a while Steve!’ said Geoff.
‘I know. The last time was in the Appartment. Remember that? I think we had had more than a few.’
‘A better memory than me.’
‘Yours should be better Geoff, you’re younger.’
‘Funny,’ said Geoff, ‘just the other evening I recalled something. Do you recollect when we were kids, teenagers, one summer day, it was a scorcher, we cycled down the peninsula to Portaferry? It was a great day but when we were there my bike got a puncture so we had to share yours and pull mine along behind. We didn’t get home till midnight!’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Your ma was raging you got home so late.’
‘We had been out in the sun all day,’ said Geoff reflectively taking a sip of his coffee, ‘and we were as brown as berries.’ The thought seemed to give him profound delight.
‘That’s right. One heck of a day.’
‘I’ll never forget that. Brown as berries…’
‘Orla seems a lovely lady,’ I said to rouse my friend from his daydream.
‘Yes indeed. You know I have been married a few times before, but I really think she is the one.’
I knew I had heard similar comments before from Geoff and was tempted to remind him, but it would have been churlish. Life has taught me something I thought with some self-satisfaction.
‘No ladies in your life Steve?’
‘I have had my disappointments.’
‘Don’t be coy, who was she?’
‘I don’t normally discuss such matters Geoff, but just for you I’ll tell you. Her name was Carolyn.’
‘That’s a lovely name.’
‘She was a lovely girl.’
‘I was young and naïve. She was going abroad to work. I suppose I rushed things. Kicked myself afterwards of course.’
‘You never saw here again?’
‘I have thought about it lots of times since. Maybe we were unsuited, incompatible. Who knows? It bothered me then of course. Time passes and all that. Well that was in the past. How about you? Any plans as we used to say?’
I could see instantly that I had touched a sore spot for my friend looked as if I had said something deeply wounding. I would normally retreat and not press the matter, but I could see something was on his mind and he wanted to talk about it.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘I don’t normally like to spill the personal stuff, but since you’re an old friend I’ll tell you. I’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer.’
‘Jesus! You’re having me on? A joke in poor taste.’
‘I wish I were. Too much tobacco I expect. I heard only recently.’
‘You’re having treatment, therapy?’ I said with a note of desperation.
‘I could have opted for that,’ said Geoff, ‘but it would only have delayed the inevitable. According to the consultant the cancer is in an advanced state. I might have gained a few months. It didn’t seem worthwhile.’
There are times when the words fail to come and this was one occasion.
‘What would you have done in that situation?’ asked Geoff looking closely at me. I could see he was keen for my opinion.
‘I would have gone out and got drunk - repeatedly.’
‘Seriously. And then I would have tried to live life, what remained of it, as intensely as possible. I would compress everything I wanted to do into the time left. How has |Orla taken it? You have told her?’
‘We were having such fun, I couldn’t bear to tell her.’
‘You have to tell her. She needs to know.’
‘I expect you’re right. I’ll tell her….What is that music?’ said Geoff apparently going off at a tangent.
‘It’s American Pie by Don Mclean. Funny, I remember coming out of the Gramaphone Shop around the corner in Donegall Square in, I think, 1972 and hearing that coming from the speakers and I thought then I’ll never forget this moment.’
‘Yes,’ said Geoff, ‘you have moments like that.’
He suddenly seemed to cast off the gloom that had enshrouded him and took on a youthful optimism which I had not detected in him for many years.
‘Time for another coffee,’ I said.
Geoff sat with me for another hour talking blithely about past times and escapades until he took a call from his wife and he got up and left. I watched him open the door of the café with some effort and disappear in the crowds along Great Victoria Street. Afterwards I sat back in my chair for a long while sipping the remainder of my coffee.
Six months later I found myself standing in Roselawn Cemetery just out of town. I seemed to find myself there more often I thought ruefully. It was raining too. Does anyone ever have a sunny funeral? The minister was making a short oration as the coffin was lowered into the ground and I thought that’s my friend, my old friend Geoff there. I felt like raising a hand in fond farewell. Despite my hardboiled, worldly exterior I can get quite emotional at times and this was one of them. Just as I felt a tear arise Orla, Geoff’s widow, came over to me as the gathering began to disperse.
I felt like saying widowhood becomes you for she looked beautiful in black - a sleek and elegant figure. However, I crushed out the thought. She kissed me on the cheek and hugged me a little overlong but then that was grief, genuine grief.
‘Thank you for coming Steve. You were one of Geoff’s best friends.’
‘We go back a long way,’ I said aware that cliché at a time like this can say a whole lot, ‘a very long way. I wanted to be here. We had a few ups and downs along the road of course and a lot of laughs.’
‘When he spoke of friends he always spoke of you. He said you were always truthful with him. You were always loyal.’
Praise is usually welcome, but sometimes it is better left unsaid, or maybe hinted at or is that just me? It has me looking into the distance in a vague, thoughtful kind of way, or worse, staring at my feet.
‘I am glad I came and if there is anything I can do don’t hesitate.’
‘Thank you,’ she said and turned her beautiful head down and went to join the other mourners.
I walked away feeling as if an era, an exciting, beguiling era, one I would never see again, had finally come to a close, one I could not quite fathom or appreciate, but knew it was important. That evening I went to the Crown Bar and got very, very drunk.