The discomfort of old friends

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The Independent Culture
IT'S TOO late now, too late to duck into the butcher's shop or the newsagent, too late to pretend I haven't seen him. He's walking his slow, loose-jeaned shuffle towards me, and he hasn't waved, but there can be no turning back now; neither of us can pretend not to have seen each other. Of course, I suddenly think, as he comes close enough for me to see something of the calm, unruffled expression on his face, it's he that should worry, he that should be ashamed of himself. But that's not entirely true - it is me. It's me, too.

As usual, his appearence makes me slightly uneasy, ready to doubt my own; next to him I feel overdressed, smarmy. He looks like Jesus: long hair, centre-parted, gathered in a pony- tail at the back, beard untrimmed for perhaps two years, layers of ancient smock and dungaree, weathered boots. My striped shirt and deck shoes feel awkward, the garb of a hostile, moneyed tribe. The money I paid him - pounds 175 - meant more to him than it did to me. But not much more, and certainly not as much as we both pretended.

People say to me: how can you pay an old friend nearly pounds 200 to make you some bookshelves, and not do anything about it when he doesn't make them? How many years have to go by before you demand the money back? Naturally, I don't know the answer. For a start, there wasn't a definite, recognisable moment when the shelves ended their theoretical existence, a point before which they were definitely being made, and after which they definitely weren't. There were just reasons why the shelves would take more time to make, followed by reasons why neither of us wanted to talk about them. The shelves stopped being shelves, and started being unpalatable truths about ourselves; about his slackness and laziness, about my financial vanity, my desire not to be seen as somebody who would worry about two hundred pounds, or who would demand it from someone so much poorer.

And everything was so simple at first. He came to my house - a house I have long since left - to take measurements, and we sat drinking and talking about our lives, which had diverged so immeasurably. I had, like an increasingly small proportion of my generation, moved into conventional employment; he, like many others, patrolled the fringes. His beard was about the size of his head. At this stage, the shelves were a certainty, would be ready in a couple of weeks. And naturally, when they weren't, it hardly mattered. - this was a chance for more fine-tuning in the area of design. Rushing the shelves, we both felt, would be a big mistake. Also, it was nice to see each other. And these trimmings he was suggesting, the specific shade of French polish - that sounded great.

I can't remember when he stopped coming round for professional consultation about the shelves, and just came round for a chat. But for a while it became clear that neither of us really wanted to talk about the shelves. They had, in a way, brought us together again as friends, and I could see how difficult it must be, as a hard-up carpenter, to make yourself work on something you've already been paid for by a rich friend, when you could be staving off debt. And then, after a few months, the visits more or less stopped.

I didn't see him for months, except for a picture he inexplicably left in my kitchen, a picture, taken for the local paper, of him holding up a prize vegetable. And when I met him in the street, we talked rather tensely for a few minutes, neither of us mentioning the shelves. And then he blurted something out at the end, an excuse to do with a mild personal hardship he'd suffered, and I wished he hadn't - hadn't mentioned the shelves, that is, not hadn't suffered.

And where could it go from there? Two months went by. Were we avoiding each other? On about the first anniversary of the payment we met again, him much less awkward. I could tell this as soon as I saw him, his face animated by something new as he crossed the road towards me. 'I'm sorry about the shelves but I've, you wouldn't believe it, but . . .'

'What? What?'

'Somebody tried to burn my house down.'

It was true - somebody had broken into the farm cottage he rented, and poured paraffin over the furniture, and set it alight, and, later, there was another picture of him in the local paper, over a caption of his unfamiliar full name. There he was, beard as big as his head, giving details to the reporter. Temporarily, our relationship was restored - something had come between us and the shelves.

Months later, on a cold day, I saw the beard again, in the distance. He was smiling. He said: 'I'm a father]' He was jubilant. And I knew that things would be better for a while, during the time when making the shelves, taking on a bit of extra work, would be most difficult - the early days of celebration and worry, the weeks of being woken up at odd times. I shook his hand, and told him: 'Congratulations. Brilliant. I'll buy you a drink.'

How long ago was that? How many months? Right now, looking at him as he walks towards me, I can tell this will be difficult. Also, I wonder: what is the chance that the shelves will actually get made? I realise that I have, subconsciously, not bought enough bookshelves over the past couple of years, just in case. He's within smiling range, and grins, sheepish, shrugging. We talk about his daughter, about our families. Maybe we've outgrown the shelves. I smile, and ask the time, but neither of us has a watch. I've a train to catch, so I take a single step backwards, a move preliminary to disengagement.

He says: 'Look . . .'

I know it's coming, that we can't get away from it, the discussion of these objects that have never existed and probably never will.

How do I feel? Hopeful? No.

He says: 'These shelves . . .'

And we smile at each other, a knowing, complicit smile. As I start to run for my train, he calls after me 'I'll be able to start work on them soon.'-