10. Men in a rut




One of my standout autumn memories as an adult is a gut-wrenching decision made in October 2011, when I told two friends in Chelmsford that I’d had enough of their company.

It made me feel ill, physically and mentally, for about a month, and probably took me a year to fully get over the feelings of guilt and disloyalty. It felt like relationship incompetence, for want of a better word, until time provided wider perspective.

Steve and Tony were two very clever guys. Maybe typically male in their need for ritual. Pub, sport, speed. In fact much more complex than that, but those were the bones. All of which I can handle if there isn’t a dull regularity to the agenda, and – here’s the critical bit – an abundance of good, open conversation. A real exchange of views, with lashings of humour, a modicum of vulnerability, and a huge amount of empathy and listening. Otherwise, what the fuck is the point?

At some stage, a group nickname appeared, the Three Musketeers, which brought stirrings of unease, mixed with rising boredom at the associated banter. We were ‘lads’ again, it seemed. That hasn’t held any appeal for me since my twenties, as much as anything because marriage and fatherhood had seasoned me. Now, in the pub, especially, the loudest voice and sharpest wit started to punctuate conversation. Whenever I had something to say, it would often be interrupted, edited or simply overruled in favour of a laugh or louder point of view. Schoolyard stuff, and I didn’t enjoy school. A smouldering store of resentment began to build.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was skiing. Steve and Tony had the time and money to take weekends away. I had neither, couldn’t ski, and took pains – with some shame – to point that out. Quietly but firmly. On multiple occasions. Then they introduced a plan they had hatched. I could, they reckoned, get myself some skiing lessons somewhere up near Northampton. Fast-tracking myself into full musketeerdom. As they went through the details, I knew it was parachute time. They simply hadn’t listened. Or hadn’t taken me seriously. Or knew better. From any angle, that’s a lack of respect.

Relationships develop a momentum of their own, and this one had careered away on an unforeseen, uncomfortable track. I had ‘chucked’ other friends before, as the relationship lost its balance. Maybe there is some kind of averting action I never learned?

Don’t get me wrong though. The friendship included memorable moments. Steve took me for a ride on the back of his motorbike on the very fast road from Braintree to Stansted airport. We hit 147 mph at some stage. Everything was one thrilling, trembling, existential moment away from death or maiming. Tony took me to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for a 2007 World Cup game between his beloved Wales and Japan. Introduced me to cycling in the countryside, and lent me money in some precariously tight situations. I’ll always be grateful for these and other memories.

But friendship is a choice. Not an obligation. If you are my mate, you get permission to tell me anything at all, and not be judged. Unless of course you have ventured into child organ harvesting or the concentration camp business, without cutting me in on the proceeds. I promise to respect your confidences, and listen hard so that you go home expunged. And I want all of that back. Let’s keep tuning in, intimately, by sharing, listening and laughing.

I bumped into Tony a couple of years ago and we shook hands, no hard feelings. Which was one of my few ‘bucket list’ wishes. I’d love to do the same with Steve one day.

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