I can’t believe it’s only two weeks since I was blithely posting about 2019 being a better year than the previous one. I can now say with some certainty that it’s not.
7.30 last Friday morning and I’m just out of bed and in the bathroom, staring at my phone, blearily checking emails and catching up on social media, like I do every morning while my brain (I call her Braine, it helps me keep on top of the things she does to me, you’ll get to know her) comes to terms with the idea that my body has to be up and about. While it was getting up to speed, Brain recognised a name from my past: Daniel Oulton.
Braine authorised a brief shot of adrenaline. I hadn’t seen or heard from Danny for years. He was an old friend from my university days – in fact, we were somewhat more than that for an all too brief period, but we had lost touch after drifting off into the world. Still, good memories; thanks, Braine, what’s Dan up to?
And then Braine twigged that Danny’s name was attached to the phrase “In memory of” in the title of a Facebook group, and all hell broke loose. Mouth fell open, lungs gasped, stomach lurched and a number of expletives escaped before Brain could recover the situation.
I tapped on the link while Braine went into disaster recovery mode. Keep calm, Braine insisted, it could be nothing. Could be a different Daniel Oulton. Coincidence. Mistaken identity. Fake news. But deep down Braine knew it wouldn’t be, and a post from Dan’s brother confirmed it. A road accident. Only 29. Here one second, gone the next. I felt the blood drain from my face. Immediately Braine decided to reindex all her memories, making little snapshots of the ones with Dan in them. I’ve heard it said that when you’re about to die, your life flashes in front of you; I didn’t realise it happened when someone else died too.
A knock on the door startled me back to reality. “Y’alright in there? I heard a gasp and then lots of swearing, then it went quiet.”
It’s weird how when I left university in 2012 I was so keen to move on and concentrate on my career, yet now it’s drawn me back like a magnet, to the point where I’m sharing a flat with one of my old uni friends and now suddenly sitting on the toilet sobbing over another.
Pulling myself together as best I could, I finished my bathroom business and opened the door to find my flatmate Gabi looking at me quizzically. It was quite apparent that I was not alright. I tried to form words, but Braine had a lot to process and wasn’t responding, so I just showed Gabi my phone.
“Oh fuck!” she said, putting the situation into words better than I could. We looked at each other for a moment, then collapsed into a hug.
Bless her, Gabi didn’t have the luxury of working from home like me and had to get ready to go to work, but she took charge of the situation. “Hot, sweet tea,” she said, dragging me forcibly towards the kitchen. “You’ve had a shock. We’ve both had a shock. We need tea.”
Over tea, we talked about our first day at uni, when the three of us were thrown together with a couple of other random people we’d never met and told to build a robot out of Lego. I was painfully shy but trying really hard to contribute and make people like me. Gabi, it turns out, was also shy but had gone to the other extreme, and spent ages afterwards worrying that she’d been too loud and overbearing and had alienated people, including me1. In the middle was Danny, a soothing breeze of an Australian who just seemed to glide through everything with minimal fuss. Even at times of great stress – and God knows there were plenty of those in our first year at uni – I don’t think I ever saw him flustered. He was an oasis of calm, always positive, fiercely intelligent but never aloof or arrogant, always ready with a suggestion to solve a seemingly impossible problem, or a joke to defuse a difficult situation. He was fantastic. And I loved him. I fucking loved him.
Of course, so did everyone else, and being the useless, timid shambles that I was a decade ago, I convinced myself that I never stood a chance with him. But still I tried. By God, did I try.
I knew there was no point in going in all guns blazing; it would have been like holding up a bank with a potato gun. Instead I started to seep into his life by just always being there. Whenever I walked into a room where Dan was, I would force myself to sit next to him, or near him, or at the very least acknowledge him, even though Braine was screaming at me to take the easy option and sit as far away as possible so I couldn’t embarrass myself in front of him. But Dan was so easy to talk to, even for a social incompetent like me, that it would have taken more effort not to be friends with him.
So we were friends, and after a while I realised things had swung around and he was beginning to seek me out, choosing to sit with me whenever he saw me sitting alone. By the time we were approaching the end of first year, we were pretty close friends, but that was it. Summer came, the door slammed shut on the friend zone and we were both trapped inside.
Over the summer break, Gabi would express amazement that there was nothing else going on between us – as I recall, “The way he looks at you, my God, how can you not see it?” was the phrase she used – but Braine had been working flat out just to get me into the friend zone in the first place. If Dan was interested in being anything more than friends, I needed him to make the first move, and he hadn’t. Still, Gabi’s words were a huge confidence boost, not that I could do anything about it; I didn’t have his number, or even an email address, and he didn’t seem to be on Facebook (I’d checked). Never mind, I had the whole summer to recharge Braine so that when we went back in September, I could have a go at taking things to the next level.
Danny didn’t come back in September.
I was there on the first day of second year, fired up at the prospect of meeting up with Danny again and planning how I was going to make my move. I’d rehearsed my spontaneous chat-up lines, I’d paid attention to my appearance, which wasn’t always something I felt like doing, I’d even had my hair done, and he wasn’t there. I’d never felt so deflated.
Over the next couple of days, news began to trickle through on the grapevine: he’d been offered a work placement in Glasgow for the year, so he wouldn’t be back until at least the following September, if at all. Glasgow was only an hour away, but with no means of contacting him, he might as well have been on the other side of the world. And because he was such a lovely guy, I had no doubt that he’d be seeing someone else by the time he came back, if he ever did.
This was a low point, but things soon began to swing back in my favour. A month or so later, Dan showed up on Facebook – not that I’d been regularly Googling his name at least once a week since May, of course not2 3. This was perfect, because Braine has always been much happier interacting with people online than face to face or, even worse, on the phone. Even so, it still took me half an hour to work up the courage to send him a friend request. He wasn’t online very often, but over the next couple of months we had a very slow moving conversation on Facebook about everything – why he had taken a year out of uni, what he was doing, what I was doing and, in a late night Braine lunge at the keyboard, how much I missed him.
You’ve all had brain lunges, haven’t you? When you’ve been bottling something up for ages and your brain just finally goes “Fuggit, what’s the worst that could happen?” and says it. They tend not to end well, in my experience, although this particular one didn’t go too badly: Dan said he missed me too. It wasn’t exactly a declaration of love, but it was something.
So, now that I’d found a weak point in the walls of the friend zone, could I stick a crowbar in it and lever them apart? I had to try. In early November, Danny made one of his rare posts on Facebook. Did anyone want to come with him to see The Wedding Present in concert in December?
I almost sprained my wrist in the rush to say yes before anyone else could. I didn’t even know much about the band, but I fired up Spotify and started ploughing through their back catalogue. They were good. In fact, they were really good. Why hadn’t I listened to them before? Anyway, I bluffed my way through a quick discussion with Dan about the band and confirmed that yes, I really wanted to see them and I’d been a fan for years, didn’t he know? December 2nd? A Thursday? Yeah, no problem, I mean, I’ve got an exam the next day but it’ll be fine, I’ll get the last train home after the gig, no worries. Yes, you’re right, it is a pity about the exam the next day, yes, I could have stayed over at yours after the gig, yeah… Wait, what? What did I just talk myself out of?
I now had the best part of a month to fret about what I’d done, what I was doing, and what was expected of me. I thought about very little else during that month, to the extent that I began to dread the date – was it even a date? Braine spent the rest of November carefully examining every possible scenario and its potential outcomes, so by the day of the gig I was mentally exhausted.
That day I was as anxious as I’d ever been. I was able to pass it off as exam nerves, pretty much everyone at uni had those, but I wasn’t thinking about that. As soon as my last class of the day was over, I was on a bus to the railway station and then on a train to Glasgow. Braine didn’t know whether to go for a shit or a haircut4. She wanted the train to go faster, but at the same time she didn’t want me to actually get there because as soon as I met up with Danny, Braine would surely mess things up for me somehow.
In fact, it turned out to be pretty much the perfect evening. Danny was waiting for me at the station and gave me a huge hug, we went for pizza and then got a taxi to the gig, which was a lot further out of the city centre than I had anticipated. Braine became increasingly worked up during the twenty minute taxi journey and began to wonder if I would actually manage to catch the 11.30 train home after all. It would be a close run thing.
The gig itself was fantastic. The band opened with some of their less well known songs, including a rocked-up version of the theme from “Cheers” which was great fun, and then played their “Bizarro” album in full, which was great because in the short time I’d been mainlining their back catalogue on Spotify, that had become my favourite. I’d even bought the CD, if you can imagine such a thing now. Dan bought me drinks, did his best to shield me from the more energetic moshers in the crowd, and was a perfect gentleman all night, even when I was bellowing the chorus of their song “Take Me” at him – “Take me, I’m yours; we might never have this chance again.” He wasn’t very good at taking hints. Still, I would quite happily have stayed there forever, suspended in the moment, but the gig ended, we retrieved our coats from the overwhelmed and understaffed cloakroom and stumbled out into the night, our ears still ringing.
Anyway, without going into too many details, I did manage to miss the last train home – by accident rather than design, believe it or not – and I ended up staying over at Dan’s place, where I had to practically beg him to stop being such a gentleman and join me in his bed instead of sleeping on the sofa. I was sure it was the start of something beautiful; I was on such a high I even passed the exam! (Just.)
Of course, such things never go to plan. I only saw Danny once more after that. We met for coffee just after Christmas: me elated and bouncy, him somewhat subdued. Over coffee and reduced-for-quick-sale mince pies, he told me he’d been offered his dream job and he wanted to know if I thought he should take it. The problem? The job was in Australia.
Of all the thoughts that I’d had about Dan since we’d met, and there were many, the idea that one day he might go back to Australia had never entered my mind. But of course, now he’d said it, it seemed perfectly obvious. As much as I wanted to handcuff myself to him, take him home and keep him in the airing cupboard, I couldn’t stand in his way. To say no would be horribly selfish of me, and would probably spoil the beautiful friendship we already had. There were tears, of course, and an enormous hug that seemed like it might last forever. But nothing lasts forever. “Go out and get ’em, boy!” I told him, as I walked off to the station, got the train home, and locked myself in my room for a fortnight.
We promised we’d keep in touch, but of course things just sort of fizzled out over the months and years. Dan got on with his life, I got on with mine, and soon our dalliance was just a treasured memory, to be kept in its ceremonial box and taken out on special occasions. This, I’m afraid, counts as a special occasion.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not looking for sympathy, and I know the loss I’m feeling is nothing compared to what Dan’s family must be going through. And I’m sorry this is such a long post, but I started writing and it all just came pouring out. I mean, it was eight years ago and although it was one of the best times of my life, it’s not something I really think about in detail on a regular basis, but once I started really thinking about it and trying to tell the story, little details I thought I’d forgotten started coming back to me. Then I realised that I’m now the only person who remembers these details and I started to get scared that if I didn’t write everything down, it would get forgotten, and I couldn’t bear that.
If there’s a moral or anything uplifting to be taken from this, I suppose it’s that you should live your best life, because you never know when it will be taken away from you. And you should always keep in touch with your friends. Do it. Please.