He crossed the finish line and reached for the water, fingers fumbling with the bottle cap, limbs lurching across the turf. It was over. He’d made it. Now he could return a hero, a winner, and he would tell them all about his journey, the trainers which fell apart, the beer that bound his nerves, the satisfaction he felt at doing something meaningful. Smiling, he would assure them he was okay. He was tired, but that was normal, and when he finished his final pint and left the pub, he would lay in bed and think about his friends, the both of them, dead.
Collapsing on the seat of the train, his muscles sore and rigid, he watched the buildings flash by outside. He looked around the carriage, examined the advertisements, counted the stations, and disappeared within the pattern of an empty seat. Witnessing the passengers come and go, he wondered if they knew, or would ever care. Today, he achieved something. He wanted to tell someone. He wanted to nudge the woman next to him and point at his medal. He wanted her to acknowledge his achievement and thank him, in her own way, for what he’d done. And he had done it. He had, no matter what everyone said behind his back.
At Ealing Broadway Station he remembered the Whetherspoons pub and the countless evenings he once enjoyed with – and without, his wife. He remembered how it was, all those years ago, but tonight he wouldn’t talk about her. Tonight he was happy, with a medal to prove it. If anyone asked he would explain, holding back the truth, or what could pass as true. They were his reasons, his explanations, his friends. No one needed to know about him, or them, or anything beyond the medal. And so it was, as always, altered. Moving from pub to pub permitted different lives, different pasts, and different people. Better people. All of them nothing like him. It was a habit he developed following the divorce, honesty and deceit indistinguishable to strangers, their opinions open to his approach. Within such conversations he was a new man, liberated from his life, and finally set free. The world was full of wonder, full of life, and he wanted to live. But more than that, he wanted his friends, the ones that left him behind with nothing but beer and bedsits. Nothing but memories of who they were, and who he was before the cancer claimed them.
Entering the pub he calculated the quantity of pints he could purchase with the money he’d raised in advance of the race. He would pay it back, of course. And anyway, it was for charity, for research into cures and treatment, the very things he could self-administer. It was too late to make a difference, to save his friends, or somehow, save himself. All that remained was the promise of another pint, and tonight he’d drink for them. He leaned on the bar and looked around the pub, nervous should he recognise someone from his past, someone who might reveal his real identity and call into question the person he pretended to be. Satisfied with the outcome of his search, he waited for the barman to approach, his tongue coarse and dry. The medal clanked against the edge of the bar and he reached down and wrapped his fingers tightly around the bronze medallion, the pressed metal cold to his touch. Having ordered his pint he waited, resigned to silence, the barman unwilling to indulge his conversational advances. Carrying his pint he approached a vacant table tucked away in the corner of the pub, his glass already half empty. Here he would recline in his seat and stretch his legs, the prospect of another beer soothing the ache within. Tonight he had money in his pocket and a ribbon round his neck. Tonight, he was Terry. A delivery driver for the Royal Mail. Married with two children, both of whom no longer lived at home. It was his birthday; fifty three years. Two years from retirement, and happy.
As he sipped from his second pint he swallowed hard, surprised at how quickly the pub filled up. Friends and lovers out for the night, toasting their companionship, joking and laughing and embracing, unafraid to show affection in public, unlike the years of his youth. He first met John and Harry at Stamford Bridge; an FA Cup game in 1972. They began talking during the match, the referee the target of their scorn. After the game he joined them for a drink in their local and at the end of the night they exchanged numbers and arranged to meet the following week before kick-off. For thirty years they remained friends, attended weddings, baptisms, Holy Communions, and finally, funerals, with his the last to come.
After his third pint he could feel his thoughts veering towards his wife, so he tried to think about something else and reached for the medal. He closed his eyes and thought back to Greg’s stag do, back in ’83. They flew to Berlin on a BA flight, and it was the first – and last – time he travelled in such style. It was a pretty standard stag do; alcohol and cocaine and seedy strip clubs, but it was also the best time of his life, and on the last night as they sat in a cellar bar drinking vodka, they vowed to remain friends forever, a promise none of them could keep. Thinking back to Berlin he remembered the prostitute. He remembered how they lay in bed, his head resting on her lap as she ran her fingers through his thinning hair, her lips sculpting an unfamiliar lullaby, the most beautiful song he’d ever heard. In the morning he told his friends he’d fucked her good, discovering for the first time that little lies were worn like shields, her name etched in his brain and given to his only child, the daughter that was never born.
Looking up from his beer he spotted Jerry, the brother of his ex-wife, walking towards him, so he downed his pint and his awaited his arrival, knowing he would sit with him, regardless. ‘All right Mick,’ Jerry said. He looked up and nodded. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
‘What you doing here? I didn’t know you ventured out this far?’
‘Just stopped in for a quick one.’
He realised he was still holding the medallion. ‘My medal.’
‘You did a walk for charity? You?’
‘Yeah.’ Mick let go of the medal and reached in to his pocket to secure the money for another pint, but as soon as he pulled his hand out he realised his miscalculation. Within his palm lay seventy two pence, nowhere near enough for a pint, let alone a four-pack. How did that happen? Where did the rest go? And then he remembered the whiskey chasers and the sausage roll that prevented his gut from unravelling on the pavement. He could feel Jerry watching him count the money, over and over again, and when he finally looked up, the choice was clear.
‘I bet the girls love that,’ Jerry said, and without answering Mick pulled the ribbon over his head and pushed his prize across the table. This was the man with whom he’d bonded, all those years ago when family meant everything to him. This was the man who comforted him in hospital when the birth went wrong, who told him everything would be okay, who almost made him believe it. This was the man who never failed to help, who was always there, before the beer, and after. This was the man he wanted to be, the man he tried to be, and failed with every single story. He watched Jerry put the medal on and leaned back in his chair. It was just a piece of metal. It didn’t mean anything, not really. He’d finished the walk. He’d done it. If no one else believed him, so what. They never believed him anyway. As Jerry rose from his chair to order their drinks, Mick thought about his wife, his friends, his Nadia. He thought about everything he’d lost, or maybe never really had, the biggest lie of all his life, the one in which he drowned, every, single, day.
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