Elegy for an old friend

It´s been a while since I felt like writing. The world doesn´t seem to be improving much. World events in general are depressing. And words can´t seem to change this state of affairs. Afghanistan is a mess. Putin is a mess. Israel is a mess. US politics is a mess. South Africa is a mess. The EU is a mess, the environment is a mess, and so on and so on.

So I shall turn to another topic.

This summer I met again a friend from my youth.

It´s been thirty years. He has returned to the island where he grew up, mainly, I suspect, since he has nowhere else to go. There he has the house he inherited from his grandparents. There he has a house where he can slowly waste away from the scourge that consumes him. Alcohol.

I knew of him, I knew he was back, but our paths hadn´t crossed – yet. I only go to the island when the sun is shining, he lives there all year round. It would take some coincidence for our paths to cross. Suddenly they crossed thrice within the space of a few days.

The first time I simply didn´t recognize him, not at first. We were sitting next to each other at a quiz; I arrived late, as the score was being made, and made some suggestions off the cuff, as I am wont to do. He fixed me with a stern stare. Just looked at me. He knew who I was – I haven´t changed that much. As for him, he had round cheeks at eighteen when I last saw him. These were gone, they were sunken, his skin dry. But his eyes. They were the same.

Several times, that steely stare. Then the quiz was done, we left. Early the next morning those eyes came back to me, and I recognized him. I knew it had to be him. The rest also made sense. An intelligent guy with a background in journalism and politics – who else would be quizmaster on this island?

I made some enquiries, and indeed, the assumption was well founded.

Almost immediately we ran into each other again, and this time we talked. Not much, but we talked. We skirted the topic of my non-recognition, which was painful for him and embarrassing for me.

When I was 15-16, we spent lots of time together in the summer, working in the same shop, hauling goods, cleaning, towing rubbish to a skerry to burn it illegally, mending boats, and going to evening parties. He knew how to drink. I was always sober. The sight of drunkenness all around repelled me, but the sight of the cute girls from the capital attracted me. There was push and pull, and some good company, too. Once, my friend was quite drunk; I teased him, and he chased me twice around a cabin in the semi-darkness. The ground was uneven, with rocks and steps and sloping terrain, and I had to give it my best to keep him from catching up with me. The day after, he could not remember this episode, which I take as a sign that his body and mind tolerated alcohol only too well.

He was a very kind, open-minded guy, and in this respect rather different from the other islanders. He was also much brighter, more curious. His career would not be at sea, but on shore, in the world of ideas. So we enjoyed hanging out. I was a couple of years younger, physically immature, but intellectually ahead of my age; he could drink and pull girls where I could do neither. So to me, his friendship was a great boon.

The last time I saw him he was hitch-hiking. Being seated at a bus-stop with some bags of shopping was an open invitation to stop and give him a ride out to the little harbour from where a boat or a ferry can carry you to the island. I duly stopped and he hopped aboard, and in that brief space he gave me a quick resumé of parts of his life. I would say he left out a few painful details.

As we arrived and parked, I looked at him and thanked him for his kindness back then, and told him he had a good heart. He was touched. I don´t expect he gets many compliments these days, and the winters are long and lonely. I was acutely aware of how the balance had swung between us. Once we were equals, with him a bit more equal than me. Now… my resources seem infinite next to his. He scrapes by, living from one bottle-feast to the next. I can exercise all my faculties and lead a fulfilling life, both for myself and for the people I care about and have a duty towards.

I have no idea how long you will last, dear friend, nor what your end will be. As a greek friend once said – kanenas then kseri póte pethaeni. No-one knows when he will die. But the omens are not good.

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