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Remember that pact we made? Signed and sealed with spit-slicked hands. Time’s up. I’ve decided to keep it.
It’s weird of me to write a letter, I know. Why not just text, or even an email? I’m writing you a letter the old-fashioned way (my hand’s sore already) because I want you – you more than anyone else – to understand what I’m about to do.
Richard and Olly – me and you. Hard to know where to start. If someone were to tell the story of us it might begin:
Two houses stood next to each other on a big hill. One was a small bungalow in the middle of a big garden, and the other was trying to look like an old English manor but was too small for the effect to work. Each house made the other look out of place.
At first we were friends because we lived next door to each other – we could just hop over the wall. Since my house was lower down the hill than yours, the drop on my side of the wall was further. So I put a deck chair there for you, but my mother moved it and you hurt your knee. I assume you remember – last time I saw you, that knee was still giving you grief after nearly twenty years.
So. Happy childhood. School was different – remember when that shithead Michael McGrath asked us if we wanted to play hide and seek, and then locked us in the caretaker’s shed? Probably not. You were never the one to hold a grudge. When we finally got out you laughed along with everyone else.
We never got picked for games or group projects, we didn’t have friends – just each other. It wasn’t so bad for me. You seemed to hate it – when we finally got to secondary school you turned to me one day, when we were alone in our spot by the back entrance, and said, “If it’s still like this when we’re 30, let’s kill ourselves. Together.”
I think I remember laughing. I think I remember saying yes. I remember the wet handshake, feeling like an 80s movie cliché.
After that the strangest thing happened – things got better. For you. Not me. Seemed like next day you were talking and laughing with a big group of kids. My body went stiff, even though you beckoned me over. I stayed on my own. You had friends now – it seemed like having that dark thought set you free.
Pretty soon after that our roles were set. I was the quiet one, with a reputation for being strange. I said little and participated in nothing. You were outgoing, and you had a new knack for getting involved in things. A match, a school play, a fight. That last one earned you a broken nose. Never looked quite right after that, did it? Some people didn’t like your new personality. I was fascinated by it. I’d sit alone at breaks, but near enough to keep you in sight. I was convinced you’d learned some secret, some hidden ability to get on in life, to make people like you.
In my inactive years of watching you, I sometimes got lost in my own mind. I retreated into a private space, just me and my thoughts. No way you’d want to keep our promise now. I forgot about it myself, until 30 started to creep up on me. One day, I felt your eyes on me and snapped out of it. You were by the lockers with your friends, cutting into me with your eyes. Like you really wanted to ask me something but couldn’t word it right. Imagine how it felt for me, the onlooker, to have the tables turned like that. I felt like a display in a glass case. Still do – I automatically assume that anyone who looks at me is seeing my flaws, listing the things they don’t like about me. At that time, I was really mad at you for abandoning me. Even still, I admired you. I just couldn’t convince myself that you admired me. No, if you thought of me at all, it must be with at least a tinge of derision – that hanger-on, that slightly desperate semi-friend you got stuck with early on and couldn’t seem to shake.
Eventually, it was time for college – coincidentally, it turned out we were both going to NUIG. You asked me to live with you – a total shock. I couldn’t understand it, since we were hardly speaking then. But live together we did. Any ill feeling fell away the moment you asked; I thought things would go back to how they were.
One night, you and a gang of friends were in the living room getting ready to go out. I got a cup out of the press in the kitchen, listening to you guys talk, laugh, get revved up. Happy enough to be alone.
Until I heard Sarah, who was then your new girlfriend say, “Olly seems nice but he’s so quiet.”
I stopped mid-action, hand on the handle of the cupboard door.
Your response was a small relief. “Yeah, I guess.”
“Why do you let him hang around you so much?”
“Because he’s my friend.” I burned against her. So sure that I knew you so much better than she did. But then you continued, “Like, we’ve known each other for so long that I kind of feel responsible for him.”
I lost my thirst, even though my throat was dry, dry, dry. My stomach went cold and there was heat behind my eyes. You probably don’t remember. One small moment out of a million moments. But every now and again, I’ll take the memory, so fresh and painful still, out from where I’ve filed it away. Turn it over. Look at it.
Years went by. Things got better for you and worse for me. You got a big financial job in London, I got a shitty graduate job in Dublin. You got promoted, I got the sack. You bought a flat, I moved back home with my parents. You got engaged, I lost the will to get out of bed in the morning.
What’s your secret? How’d you figure it all out when I didn’t? The thought I keep returning to is this: some people are simply better equipped for life. The rest of us just muddle along, dreaming of some better future but unable to make that leap, that crossover from mental image to reality. I can easily imagine a better life for myself than the one I have now. One in which I have a job, love someone that loves me back, have my own place. Nothing flashy. No riches. I just want what everyone else wants.
I’m back on antidepressants. I don’t think they help much. There’s a thin film between the world and me. Things seem further than they are. I’ll never make it out of here. How to get to that life I can see in my mind’s eye? It’s like there’s some wavelength I can’t tap into that would let me put the pieces together. Put together a life for myself I can respect.
You’re not the only one who feels responsible. My parents look at me like they’re afraid I’ll break. I can’t take disappointing people any more, or myself. Can’t take being the object of all this concern. Can’t, can’t, can’t.
Sorry I didn’t come to your engagement party. I ignored Sarah’s email about it. I guess I was angry that you didn’t ask me yourself. Sorry again. Tell her that she seems really nice, not the girl I thought she was all that time ago.
If you text or email me again I won’t reply. Not because I won’t want to, but because I won’t get it. Amazing. It’s astonishing that after all these years you’re still checking up on me. Even though I’ve never given you anything to show for it.
I have a plan.
The house is quiet now. My parents left for work. Just the radio murmuring downstairs. I’ll go post this letter now.
And when you get it, you won’t even need to respond.
Thanks Rich. You’ve been everything a person can be. You’ve been the constant, my dear, my only friend. You’re free now. Free from checking up on me. Free from feeling guilty about leaving me behind. Free from your responsibilities.
Me again. Sorry to clog up your inbox. Ritchie’s ceremony is tomorrow. Did you get my email about it last week? I sent you the details but didn’t hear back
I hope you’re coping alright. Can’t say the same for me. I’m still in shock. I haven’t even cried. One day we were planning our wedding and the next I’m planning his funeral.
He always talked about you, you know. Olly this, Olly that. All the fun you had in school together. Hopping over the garden wall. His knee was still fucked up. I always wondered why you never came to London to see us. You would have been welcome. I’m sorry I didn’t make much effort to get to know you when we were in NUIG together. That’s life I guess. You look back and think you’d do things so much better if you knew what you knew now.
So please come. It would have meant so much to him.
And, to be honest, there’s another reason. I want to talk to you. Ritchie had been acting sort of strange for weeks, months really. He’d miss work, staying in bed all day. He’d sit for hours doing nothing. When I suggested going to see a doctor he laughed it off, but I could see what was really happening and I was so worried. He talked about you a lot, more than usual. He mentioned some promise he’d made.
It sounded like something from years ago, but he took it really seriously. He said he wanted to keep it, even if you didn’t. Do you know what he meant? Please, please tell me if you do.