Is this a true story? Yes, of course it is.
It’s the meaning behind every story that matters.
We all die. Everyone that you have ever known will die. It’s easier with some than others. We may shed a tea for an elderly aunt, but inside we know it’s the right thing. ‘She lived a good life,’ said the man with greying sideburns and a twinkle who shook you by the hand at the wake before tucking a bottle of average red into the inside pocket of his jacket. ‘It’s how she would have wanted to be remembered.’
Some die by the hand of another. Someone can be held to account. Anyone. It helps. Just.
Some just go away one day.
A child dying.
I had a friend once. His name was Alex Rose. He came from Manchester with his family, mum, dad, sister, younger by about two years, to our small town in the east Midlands. It was something to do with his dad’s work, but when you’re thirteen, you really don’t care that much. Adults exist somewhere else. Alex came to our school with his accent, his flared trousers and his sticky out ears.
I ended up going to his house sometimes, and he to mine. I think. I remember his house in the way children do. I can picture the shape of his road, the colour of his dad’s car and the route to his bedroom. I remember what his dad kept under his mattress.
I don’t have much memory for dates. Experiences of life merge together, and intertwine as I get older. I see pictures of my old school that don’t seem to fit with my memories. I see old photos of school mates and remember them as though they still looked the same way. A dancing innocence captured for ever.
I don’t remember not being friends with Alex anymore. He was always on the edge of the tribe, not one of the cool kids, or the hard kids, or the really weird kids, just someone who floated around hoping for something.
He had a brain tumor.
Did that stop our friendship? Did he become weakened somehow? Was he ostracised from the troop because of that? I don’t know.
He was away from school for a long time. I remember years, but that can’t be right. He came back. The best clothes, a smart haircut, less weight. Only Justin spoke to him, hung around with him, didn’t turn his eyes away. The teachers must have told us something. I don’t know.
He died. At sixteen. Alex Rose died. He left behind a mum, a dad and a sister younger by about two years.
I had nothing to do with him when he died.
I saw his family once more after that. In town I think. Walking together. They looked like death. I turned my eyes away.
It seemed like years later. Your life changes in so many ways as a teenager. Alex was dead. It was almost, almost, like he’d never really existed. I was, like the others, of the time. That time. The current space in my head. The future was just that. Tomorrow. The past? Done.
It was only about a year later. I was travelling around Europe with a girlfriend aged seventeen. I was Inter Railing, a big thing, an act of freedom. We rode trains in foreign places across European landscapes to great city squares. We wrote postcards and poetry, and ate pizza from street vendors. We slept in rooms offered by English speaking men at Metro exits, or cheap hotel rooms from accommodation booths.
One night in Venice I drank local wine. One glass only, with pasta, outdoors. One glass only. We were tired. Venice, with its canals and impossible pathways, led us round and round until we found a hotel. We took a room for a good price, but not cheap by our standards. And we slept well as the darkness held us.
I woke. A shape as black as anything I’d ever seen felt or experienced either then or now, above me, the length of my body, inches away. I could move, but couldn’t, I felt everything and nothing. I screamed.
She woke, her nails drawing blood from my arm, screaming too. ‘What did you see?’ I asked, the light from the lamp showing us nothing there. ‘A thing all along you. It was hovering above you. Black.’
I don’t know what happened that night. I know that I saw something. I know that she saw the same thing. I know that I still have scars on my arm from her fingernails over twenty years later.
We left the next morning and travelled onward. I sometimes wonder if the Hotel Rose is still there, whether anyone else has experienced what we experienced that night, or was it Alex? Alex Rose the dead friend who I abandoned all those years ago.