They were the best of friends. They didn't live next door to each other, nowhere near. In fact a large black car park separated their houses but this didn't matter. They hadn't known each other long, and wouldn't get to know each other for any great length of time, a mere two years. That didn't matter either. They were happy in each others company and appeared to get along very well. And why wouldn't they? They both came from similar backgrounds. The young man, not yet 40, who had a partially self-inflicted hard life and who was busy trying to deal with his demons, along with a serious Hep C problem and assorted issues that a long life spent injecting drugs provide. The older man who'd also spent a life wrestling with the white powder devil and the lifestyle it brings, who had forgotten more than most people would ever wrestle with in regards to ethics. They had a lot in common indeed.
They'd spend long nights together, talking about everything and nothing. The younger man would bring out his photo albums and show them off. In those photos he’d see a younger version of himself, playing little league football for the Redlegs. Two best and fairest trophies that now sat in his spare room, a reminder of the promise that once existed, a time when he could match it with the best of his generation and come up trumps. He'd played alongside some of the game's later greats as a youth, but where they'd gone on to fame, adulation and fortune, he'd slipped into obscurity once he'd sampled his first toke from the bong. He’d see the football on the television and ponder how he’d have been if he’d listened to the coaches and kept playing. He'd show the older man the memories of his life. An album full of cards that he'd gotten for his coming of age - his 21st birthday. All the cards, proudly displayed, signed by family
members long dead and others who'd disowned him. Signed by friends who'd long ceased to speak to him or tolerate his habits. One signed in a delicate pen, "My Darling, I Love You Now And I'll Love You Forever", signed by a girl who'd also long since vanished out of his life. He'd show him photos from his primary school years and they'd laugh at the childish pranks. Oh, they'd laugh. They'd laugh until his ailing body was wracked with spasms and the thick, brackish blood would rise and be caught on the rugs that lay around the house. Then he'd pass out and sleep where he fell. The older man would simply rise and leave.
Sometimes he'd pull down the photos of his parents, the sepia tone photos, the enamel photo of their wedding day. He kept all the stuffed toys that his parents had given him as a child. His favourite was a grey bear that he'd gotten at a very young age. He'd show the bear off and make sure that the bear had his own seat. Often he'd speak to the bear. Sometimes he'd sit and look at photos of his parents, his father, long gone, his mother, living in a nursing home, incapable of looking after herself but still with enough wits surrounding her to send a birthday card to her wayward son, each and every year, each time with the same salutation, “I Hope This Year Is Better”. She'd just sent one two weeks previously. He'd hold that card and stare at his bear and begin to sob. The sobbing would turn to uncontrollable weeping. The old man would simply rise and leave.
He lived a simple life, as simple as he could make it. Each day was just like the last, he’d wake, do what he had to do to get through the day and then hope that the nightmares wouldn’t trouble him too much in sleep. The days and nights, the months and years, just blurred into one long day, twenty four endless hours. He’d amuse himself with his childhood, which he kept close at hand. The video tapes of old television science fiction shows, the music that most would laugh at he played and enjoyed. No compact discs here, just cassette tapes and old vinyl records. He’d read the books that he read at school, he joined several libraries and would borrow. Reading didn’t take much effort and it was rarely taxing. His school reports showed that he excelled at such pursuits, he was creative, and the impish grin that looked back at him from the photo albums, the young teenage self that constantly challenged him. What would he say to that younger version, the fit young man, the creative young man, the well read young man, the cheeky little man if he met him now? He’d never know, but he’d often wonder.
The old man would help the young man. He'd help him call the taxis that he needed to get around to the doctors and the chemists. He’d help lift him off the floor and into the bed. He'd help him medicate, both legally and otherwise. Sometimes he'd go and score the junk that the younger man would never cure himself of craving and, with a steady hand, find the vein and inject it, resulting in a good nights sleep. And he was there when the inevitable finally happened.
They'd been talking about the old times when the younger man began to scream and writhe in terror. This time the old man didn’t simply get up and leave. The old man stood and watched as the younger man fell onto the floor coughing blood at an alarming rate with a violent seizure that defied the body. He watched as the younger man began to sob and scream for his bear, his eyes weeping blood, unable to hear even himself as his ears filled with a yellowish fluid. He watched as the younger man began to speak in languages that he'd never heard before. He watched this unfold for fifteen minutes until the younger man ceased thrashing and began to merely twitch. Then he phoned for the ambulance to come and take the body away.
The ambulance workers arrived, donned gloves and face masks and began treatment. The younger man gathered all his remaining strength and attempted to stand. He failed. As he fell he uttered the last cohesive words anyone would hear. "My bear!!" Then he was taken away, taken to the emergency department where several Bronze Johns and their assistants would labour for three hours to not only keep him alive but make sure he remained alive. They didn’t know who he was, they didn’t know his life and they didn’t care. They wanted to keep his life going, they failed. In the end he simply got up and left himself. He died in the early hours, his bear not by his side, with only an unknown hospital staffer to hold his hand and whisper to him that everything would be alright, to just let go and be at peace. I don’t know who she was, but I hope she at least shed a tear at his passing.
So it ended. Once the ambulance left the older man knew what to do. He stood and watched it leave the courtyard and turn around the corner. He could hear the sirens fade. He knew the police would soon arrive. He scuttled across the darkened car park to his own house, gathered his sack truck and scurried back. It was a long, sweaty hour but at the end of it he'd managed to claim a brand new washing machine, a television, a
DVD player, a fridge, several credit cards, and identification and banking details. The police arrived and passed on the sad news. The older man stood, stunned. The younger man was gone now but the older man knew what to do. The next morning he used the cards and drained the bank accounts dry, gaining another few hundred dollars in total. You see during these late night long chats he'd managed to get the younger man to reveal more than just a distant, fading past, he'd given him details of a present. Certain numbers. Signatures on hire purchase documents and credit applications for items that would never be paid off. Signatures obtained from an ailing man in a delirious state. This was his payment for those long nights. This was the price of his friendship.
Recently I prevented the older man from obtaining the most important items, the photos, the cards, the trophies and, most importantly, the bear. The family asked for them. "He can keep the rest," they stated, "none of it matters, but he's not having that stuff." That didn't stop him from trying. "Call a cop," I said, standing tall, broad and mean, "or someone who cares. This stuff is ours now, it was never yours." He wasn't happy but he did stand up and walk away.
The old man says he's going to complain now, to the minister himself. I hope he does. I can't wait. The younger man, wherever he is, is now out of his reach, out of pain but I suspect still in sorrow, as he now knows what he was worth to the last person he called friend.