The International Writers Magazine: Life's Journey

The Journey
Mark Cunliffe

Some things in life remain with you for always no matter how far you've come. One of the things that remain constant in my life was my friend, Stuart. My best friend.

Stuart is the reason why I, Danny May, am stood at an ungodly hour on a train station platform waiting for the Manchester bound train on what surely has to be the coldest day in London ever.
You see? For friends you will do anything.
Finally the train opens and I board. Taking my seat I place the gift bag safely to one side and peer out the window as the train chugs along out onto its journey. Back to my home, Manchester, the city I spent my formative years in before leaving to become a journalist for a music magazine, the city where Stuart still lives.

We had first met at the tender age of four at infant’s school and have remained close ever since, no mean feat considering we are both now in our mid 30s. Not as close as we would often like I guess, but then that’s life, and ours certainly took to its path. And now as the train moves along I recall the many steps we both took to get to where we are today. Our destination.
For Stuart, his destination is fatherhood.

That’s right, Stuart has just become a dad and I am pleased for him, though also a little scared as this means that we are grown up. I mean, dads for me are cough sweet sucking, leather driving gloves wearing men who would pick Stuart and I up from the school disco where we would wear our finest Morrissey quiffs to entice the girls, which of course, never worked. We never ever thought we would end up like that, yet now, Stuart no longer wears the quiff -nor do I, can you believe my hair is actually thinning?!-Instead, and far more seriously he will no doubt wear the driving gloves, now he is a dad.
A traitor in the mist.

We were pretty much inseparable throughout school, the terrible twins as our teachers would often term us. We would walk to school and walk home from it as kids, play football on the cobbled streets by the arches and, in our late teens play in a band, hanging around Manchester in the hope that we would be spotted by Factory Records, home of our ‘Madchester’ idols. Perhaps unsurprisingly we did not get the call, we were frankly, awful. But like most young kids we dreamt about escaping the grimy grey landscape and achieving sunkissed fame and fortune. At least those thoughts would keep us comfortable against the cold swishing beaded curtain of rain that seemed to fall upon us daily. They certainly didn’t dampen them.

And then, our wish for escape of sorts was granted as university came, and like The Smiths and The Happy Mondays before us, Stuart and I split and went our separate ways. I went to Birmingham and him to Salford, down the road. Well I told you it was only an escape of sorts. I berated him for his lack of nerve at not getting out there and experiencing life away from the cosy family, but Stuart said he couldn’t leave his dad, and I, never on the ball, failed to understand what he was saying and moved on out. There was a new life waiting for me at last and what’s more, it was populated by girls! And they filled the friendship gap in my life with ease.

Dads. I look out of the window at the quickly passing hedges and motorways as the train moves forward and I delve back to remember Stuart’s dad. Mr Aaronovitch, a kindly old man with, yup you’ve guessed it, driving gloves and cough sweets. It was he who was the reason why Stuart didn’t stray from Manchester. He was a Polish immigrant from the war and spoke with a marvellous accent. It was hard for Stuart at school sometimes where he was deemed an outcast by thick headed, skin headed kids for his funny sounding name and dad’s odd voice. It was up to me as his best mate to look after him as best I could when the bullies got too much and jeered stupid remarks like ‘go home’.

I remember how his family, just him, his mum and dad were so close knit and loving to each other, and I remember how shocked I was when I heard that Mr Aaronovitch had died, seeing the obituary in the local paper that my mum had sent up to me in the post with a note to ring Stuart. I must have read the small print in front of me several times, making out the word ‘cancer’ and finally understanding why he remained so near to his home.

Later that day Stuart rang me, and I braced myself for the tears to come from him, yet they did not flow. He never said a word about it. He presumed I had not heard and was too numb to tell me himself. Instead he rattled out the old jokes and told me the gossip, who was dating who and all that. I was, pathetically, too embarrassed to tackle the subject, the words ‘Stu I know’ could not form on my lips. I guess it was just too grown up to talk about.

The train jolts into a station and I recall when Stuart finally spoke of his dad’s death. It was a month or so later, when I returned to attend someone’s engagement party thrown in their house that we met up and he faced up to the truth and told me, over a bottle of wine in the quiet corner of the kitchen. The table strewn with cards, bottles and overfilling ashtrays, we held hands across them as he fought back the tears and we once again swore to always be around for each other. It reminded me of those years before at school, when he finally confessed to me in the canteen over our packed lunches that he was being picked on by the school racists.

The following day I was there for him, as we made our own little pilgrimage to his dad’s grave and sat and talked for hours. There were many more engagement parties and the like to come and I was glad of them as it meant we could both meet up and behave like the old times, taking the night and reclaiming our youth back, having fun before we returned back to the normality our new life was becoming.

After leaving Uni with an English degree I stayed on in Birmingham with the first of many attempted serious relationships and had launched myself back onto the music scene, this time writing fanzines and reviews of band gigs. I would hear from Stuart back home from time to time were life was not as easy for a graduate, for despite gaining a good degree in I.T. he had found himself on the dole queue, living on benefits and looking after his bereaved mum.

Looking back I feel terrible now as those years were great for me, racing up and down the country almost every night of the week, living the closest thing to the rock and roll lifestyle that we always imagined, whilst Stuart was still where I left him, on our old street and finding life grinding. On the rare occasions I could make it back to town, with a succession of new girlfriends in tow, much to the eternal despair of my own parents, I would only see him for as little time as possible, finding his circumstances too dull and depressing for me I’m ashamed to say. Like melting icecaps we began to drift apart once more.

Life I believe comes in ascents and descents, and shortly after I was in the latter. I had moved to London to be nearer to the music business with a girl I firmly thought of as ‘the one’ only to be proved wrong yet again when I caught her having an affair with some yuppie type. I felt sick, lonely and angry. The big city did nothing but get me down, I felt like an outcast at the best of times and having my girl walk out on me proved the final straw and I missed my family and friends, I missed Stuart. One SOS phone call home to my parents brought me the news that Stuart was in the ascent, doing well for himself, he had finally got a job in computers and was with a nice, new girlfriend called Sophie. What’s more, they were even thinking of getting engaged. After I hung up, I looked out of the window of my rented hovel at the rainy red light flashing soulless city below, and found tears forming in my eyes in a strange mix of joy for him and despair for me.

Parents are wonderful. One word from my mum to Stuart saying I sounded a bit down and he was on the phone to me practically ordering me to come back home for a little while. I did and it was a train journey very similar to this that reunited me with him. I stayed for a couple of months and it felt good to be back home, seeing Stuart and meeting Sophie, a really lovely girl. It was also great to see Stuart improved, with a good job and a lovely girlfriend who clearly adored him he was happy again and in turn this made me happy. Suddenly we were both in the ascent and never more so than when I got a call from a top music magazine in London saying they liked my work and wanted to offer me a staff post, I was ecstatic and ready to face London again, but not before Stuart and I had a big farewell drink in the local pubs.
This was all a couple of years ago now and as I look out of the carriage window I see I am almost there, the past catching up with the present. Shortly after I moved back to London to live out my dream of rubbing shoulders with my pop idols, Stuart got engaged to Sophie and his own dream settled into place, a comfortable life with a good job and a good woman.

The journey into adulthood continued for the increasingly adult Stuart with the news soon after that he was to be a Dad. I was very pleased for him as I think he is old and responsible enough to be a great father. Something I am not as yet, as my own mum and dad bemoan yet they are pleased that I am in my own way making steps into proper adulthood. I have a girlfriend again, and I smile to myself as I remember her waving me off at the station earlier today. She is a nice girl called Imogen, and although it is early days I do not think she is ‘the one’…I know she is.

My other forward push into the world of grown ups has come thanks to Stuart and Sophie, I am too be a godfather to their newborn baby girl, Laura. I smile and look down at the bag as the train is about to pull in, and make sure the teddy bear that is housed inside is tucked safely in.

And now as I step off the train I see my old friend Stuart stood at the gates with Sophie, both looking tired but happy, with Laura cradled in her arms. It is the first time I see her and they lift her higher up and point at me, calling ‘Uncle Danny’ as I move towards them. Laura looks beautiful as they hold her, their prized possession, their future. I shake hands with Stuart and smile broadly, glad that I have had this journey with him.

© Mark Cunliffe May 2006
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