Barely had the new year begun than the news came through. One of my oldest friends had died.
Howard was fifty-six, a non-smoker, not a heavy drinker. He was slim and active, a member of the RNLI operating on the Thames. He’d run a half-marathon in October. This was a bolt from the blue which hit me, and our other friends, hard. I can only begin to imagine how it has devastated his wife and family.
We’d known each other since we were six when I started attending school in the small village in South Wales where we grew up. We were in the same class for most of our school lives. Over the years we fought like cat and dog, played in the same football and rugby teams, attended cubs and scouts, camped out, drank, chased girls, went on a boys’ holiday to Corfu, and did all the other things you’d expect lifelong friends to have got up to.
He was supportive of my writing endeavours and I believe was secretly chuffed I’d given a character in the Earth Haven trilogy his first name.
In February 2020, in a world only weeks away from being devastated by covid, we spent a weekend in Dublin with some of our other friends. There are photos of him on this blog from that trip: In Dublin’s Fair City. When we made our way back to Dublin airport, he hopped off the bus before the rest of us since he needed to be in a different terminal to catch his flight back to London. As the bus pulled away, he banged on the window and grinned. That was the last time I saw him.
Howard lived in London for many years. It’s where his life was, one far removed from our quiet home village. Yet, whenever we saw him—perhaps at Christmas, or at a funeral or a rugby international—we’d pick up where we’d left off, as though it had been months since we’d last seen him, not years.
And how well he’d done for himself. After qualifying as a quantity surveyor and working in private practice, he went on to hold high-powered estate management positions with the Metropolitan Police and, more lately, with the British Museum. A far cry from how our teachers had perceived him when we were in comprehensive school.
Neither of us were loud in class. We tended to keep our heads down and try not to draw attention to ourselves. Accordingly, I don’t think our teachers had any real idea of who we were.
When we were sixteen, Howard and I were asked by the school to attend a local factory which was on the lookout for apprentices. The factory manufactured staples—the sort you use to attach pieces of paper together. I have no idea why the school thought we would be interested in becoming staple manufacturers, but they asked us to go and, seeing the opportunity for a day off school, we both said yes. I don’t remember much about the visit, except that we caught the bus up the valley, attended the factory, nodded and smiled when shown around, and caught the bus home again.
Presumably the school followed up, asking whether we wanted to apply for apprenticeships at the factory, but I don’t really remember. The answers would have been two firm noes in any event. I had no idea what I wanted to be at that age, but I did know I didn’t want to make staples. And neither did Howard. (Nothing wrong with being a staple maker; it just wasn’t for us.)
I went on to become a lawyer and now a writer, and Howard, as already mentioned, went on to become successful in the world of estate management, outcomes that I imagine would greatly surprise whoever’s idea it was that we might want to make staples. It’s something we shared many a chuckle over.
I am proud of what he achieved, not only professionally but in his private life, too—his marriage to a lovely lady who he was completely crazy about; his selfless work for the RNLI; his dry wit and popularity with everyone who knew him. But here’s the thing: I never told him I was proud of him. It’s not the sort of thing blokes say to each other. At least, not among my friends.
Perhaps we should. And not just that we’re proud of each other. Perhaps we should tell our loved ones how we feel about them more often. Our friends and colleagues how much we appreciate them.
Otherwise, before we know it, it’s too late.