A small packet of caramel Ovaltine has brought C- back to me. I remember we kept a huge jar of the stuff on the counter of the caravan we shared, and how we would make up the thermos in the morning before we went out to the vineyard where we would tie vines until late afternoon.
Throughout the day we would wrap the long vines around the wires, securing them so they would not break when they grew heavy with grapes. Sometimes we would talk while we worked. Other times we would start at opposite ends of the row and meet in the middle, our fingers raw from twisting the ties around the rough bark.
At lunch we would sit looking over at Bodiam Castle and the ducks swimming in the moat, eat our cheese sandwiches and unscrew the lid of the thermos. We passed that homely beverage back and forth, me who grew up with miles of bush cupping my existence like an old friend, and C-, who told me of how once, having tried every other vein, he had gotten a friend to hold a shard of mirror while he directed the violent plunge of the needle into the blue rivulet in his neck. He gleamed momentarily. “And I got it!”
C's road to getting clean had involved bicycling alone around France and Spain, working on any farms that would take him. He still knew some French, but his Cockney accent spread gum over all the pleasant nuances of the tongue. “To say ello you ave to say buay venu.”
It rained a lot those three weeks that C- and I shared the caravan, where we would pass the evenings cooking for each other and listening to Bob Marley and Finley Quaye cassettes. In the field we would sometimes stop what we were doing and stare skyward toward the tiniest blue patch that had erupted like a beautiful sore through the grey. We were in awe of it, like it was a gem that gleamed just for us. In the long grass our boots became soaked and they never dried, no matter how close we nudged them next to the heater.
One night I made us a roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings. I can still hear his voice: “put the pota-aes in the whoa-aw.” Later he sat, as he always did, and chewed his food with his eyes closed, his head tilted to one side. I would watch him and imagine him as a child in a damp London flat, sitting around the gas stove with his siblings, trying to feel warm.
He went back to London for the Easter weekend and while he was away I moved out from the bedroom and slept out in the main room where his bed was. When he came back he saw some of my things and asked me why I hadn’t stayed in my own room. I told him, honestly, that I didn’t feel as safe when I knew he was not there in the next room as I slept.
He stood across from me, this man who had spent 15 years as a heroin addict, who had hurt people to feed his addiction, who had been to prison. His face softened in the way it does when a moment sinks into a person, warms and hurts them at the same time. Because no one had ever relied upon his honour and strength before, had remarked on the comfort of his presence, trusted him so blatantly.
We bonded in the way people from opposite backgrounds do, an energy of curiosity and mutual respect spiralling between us. He remains one of the people in my life for whom I ache with love and affection. After we parted we wrote to each other, his pages always punctuated with flourishes of happy faces. We both moved so often that it was inevitable that we would lose touch. I sent several postcards and letters to the address of his mother, which he had given me as a fallback option. But I never got any response. Perhaps they had moved, or perhaps his father, who had banned C- from the family home years before, had intervened.
The last letters I have reveal he was working as a dustman, enjoying being outdoors where he felt more free. He also had a “small drug habit - nothing I can’t handle, mate.” :)
I have tried to google him but I know there is little hope of finding him. He has a very common name, comes from a city of millions and is unlikely to have taken to computer literacy. If he has found his way to a keyboard and has tried to find me, he would see me scrubbed out around 2005. I have changed my name too many times and my old self barely exists.
Finley Quaye is playing now. It has come on quite unexpectedly. I want to print these words inside a London subway carriage where they can be filed under poetry in motion. I imagine it being the only way he’ll ever find me, the only chance I have to say hello. Yeah mate. I miss you mate.
(What are the flavours of your memories?)
Even after all the murdering that go on
Even after all oh no your suffering sow (seeds)
You know I love you so
You know I love so and so
Even after all
You just survive soldier
And your soul is beautiful
And your soul is good