I had an email a few weeks ago from one of my oldest friends: Chantelle, one of the wildest people I think I’ve ever met, a supernova of a human being. She emailed me a link to a story she’d had published on Route 57, her first bit of creative writing to appear on the interweb. Getting an email from Chantelle is rare and it took me a while to click the link, thinking it must have been a round-robin sort of email (which I tend to ignore), or spam scam, some Nigerian tricker after my bank details. But then I noticed it was just for me.
She’s a woman now, living in Sheffield, but Chantelle was a girl back then - when I first met her - a cool Indie kid locked into the cool London scene at the height of Brit Pop. Right from the very first moment I set my eyes on her, bounding into Ewen and Gillian’s living room in her Indie outfit, a PeeWee wave to each of us as we sat on a tired sofa, watching The Simpsons on the VHS - you could tell she was a star. We ended up living upstairs from her a year or so later, Chantelle getting me a job at the Notting Hill Housing Trust where she worked. Neither of us got paid much (this was before tax credits), only enough to pay the rent, live of pasta, and spent what was left going out to clubs (light on the drinking but heavy on the dancing).
Working for the Trust was one of the few jobs I ever had that had nothing to do with climbing: running stores that sold old clothes, the stores in three bands: expensive shops (things selling for £20), cheap (£5) and pound shops (you can guess). Working in all these shops meant you could be working on the King’s road one day; watching rock stars and the rich rifle through other people’s junk, then somewhere poor like Clapham Junction, where people looked for a discount when buying three suits for three quid. We used to work in shops that sat on opposite sides of a junction, me doing the pounds her doing the fancy stuff five times the price (I think we were profiled to appeal to different markets). For Chantelle it was a business in chat and being nice, having regulars and flirting with granddads, where I was more a labourer of rags: chucking them out into rails from plastic bin bags as fast as I could. It wasn’t a bad job, but it was also a job I didn’t want to do for long.
When I moved to Sheffield: to get away from London, I persuaded Chantelle to move to, a big fan of Jarvis and Pulp, it seemed like a good plan. It’s funny looking back at what unknown influence you have over people, the force of your personality like an unseen root that lifts some up and makes others crumble. I’d told Chantelle once how she should go interrailing by herself, interrailing - like pen pals - probably a thing of the past, budget airlines and cheap holidays the death of such threadbare adventures. Anyway, Chantelle bought her ticket, a few weeks wages when you’re on minimum wage (before minimum wage came in), and set off with her backpack, the whole house waving. And two days later she was back, smiling as usual, but not in the same way, the experience sad and lonely, Chantelle a person who thrived on people, on grannies who knew she’d listen, old men who’d enjoy the chance to flirt one last time, for crazy people to just be themselves. Chantelle was not like me, and it was me who had wanted to buy that ticket and run, not her, and it turned out moving to Sheffield was no different.
And so it goes that once we moved we moved apart, her life going one way, mine another, crossing rarely. When it did she seemed the same, PeeWee on crack, that same old smile and laugh, always doing something, always up, on the go, on her way, but I failed to see it was all an act. Maybe it took thirty, maybe forty years of living to see people for what they are, not what they want to show, Chantelle one of those people who are like a 3D image projected on a cinema screen, looks normal until you take off your glasses and see it as just an optical illusion.
It was maybe seven or eight years ago I got an email from Chantelle, telling me she’d written something, was interested in creative writing and could I read what she’d written, saying yes like I would. But what I got was not what I expected, not something light and fun and fair, no PeeWee, but a curse of sorts, a curse wrapped in a confession, the dark places she had been, the dark places I had brought her to, away from London and to trouble in the North.
Everyone has problems. No life runs smooth. But some are hit harder than others, but that’s OK as long as you’re not damaged from their fragments, but when I read what Chantelle had written, her story, only a page long, I felt a star had been shattered and I was to blame. The second I read that piece my glasses came off.
It’s so easy when you’re living your life, and things are good, that you forget that other people’s lives may not be so rosy. Worse still is when you imagine people’s lives are not moving, time still, that they stay the same. A few years ago I ended up tracking down my old mate Justina who’d I known in Hull, finding her down some dirt road outside of Santa Cruz, living in a white trash cabin, the only thing missing Tom Hardy sat with a shotgun on the porch. I’d not seen her for a good twenty years, and when she showed me in there was a teenager sat there in a baseball hat, a lad who I imaged would be called bubba or something, but who had a Northern accent. “This is Tom, my son,” she said, making me laugh like she’d have a son. “No who is he?” I asked, thinking maybe she’d had a home invasion (very popular in the US) and was trying to give me a sign. “He’s MY son” and then the penny dropped, she wasn’t nineteen anymore, and neither was I, twenty-odd years a long time, time enough for many children and many lives.
But that’s me all over, too down on my own shit to ever look around, or back, at what’s going on for others, my life really fucking paradise to theirs. Maybe that’s the reason why that you can compost your own past and turn it into words, but really you’ve got your head stuck in decomposing shit and ignoring the garden.
But one thing I’m good at, getting better at, is being brave in this world, saying sorry, asking why, even being angry, kicking back, fighting even when I’m wrong. The other day some major player in the outdoor business complained that they were not as successful as I’d made out in a blog by offering to send me their accounts. At one time I’d have felt terrible about upsetting someone, sent back a grovelling apology, let the guilt hang around my neck, but not so much now. Instead of an apology, my reply was basically a ‘Why the fuck are you NOT making a shit ton of money, you should be ashamed’. Was I right? Who cares, but it’s better to have egg on your shoes than creep around on eggs shells.
Anyways, I did carry some weight around from what Chantelle had written, but also some respect that its impact proved she could bloody write, writing one of the few forms of creative expression that can make you cry, make you laugh, think, make you lift and fall (and all in a page or two). Show me another form of human expression beyond speech that can do that (painting and sculpture were designed for a time when people couldn’t read!).
Then two years ago we crossed paths again, at my ex-wife’s wedding, at the do afterwards, her with her partner. As ever she was the same, an act may be, maybe the truth, all our glasses are worn on such an occasion. She was PeeWee smart and funny as ever, the conversation revolving around Captain Kirk and the Klingon language. Her partner seemed slow to warm up at first, be soon we were talking shit, and it was only afterwards when someone said “Oh my god you’re such a flirt with that woman Chantelle” that I got why, defending myself, that we were old mates and stuff, but then when I thought about it I guess I was. I’d always been a bit in love with her, the reason being how could anyone not love someone with so much life? Also, we were never really that different at all in some things, different sides of the junction but still facing out, her PeeWee me Paul Calf, playing parts to fit, too hide the parts from others and ourselves we thought best to hide. The idea that there had been someone in my life who meant so much, and was ignored by me - something I found easy - stuck.
One about that job at the Notting Hill Housing Trust stuck with me. It was that old clothes had a six-week cycle, starting in the fancy shop for two weeks, the unsold down to the medium shop, then ending up at the pound shop. After six weeks the ragman came and had a black bin bag of clothes for £1. Unless your careful life can end up feeling a lot like that, all your dreams and ambitions, bright and full of joy and colour one day seemingly worth almost nothing the next, life nought but rags.
And so I emailed her, so say that I carried the guilt, emailed her because it’s easy to be brave with your fingertips tapping. I can’t remember what I wrote, but it was an apology of sorts, that I’d let her down, someone who meant something - more than most - who I should have been there for - not just let slip through the gaps in life.
And this was her response:
It was ace to see you the other night.
I’m still feeling guilty for making you feel guilty so to alleviate my guilt and to make sure you no longer feel guilty I apologise once again for writing something that caused you to feel guilty. I can only think I wrote the offending piece when I was being visited by the dirty monkey of depression who hitched a ride on my back and made me wear his shit smeared glasses that made everything I looked at appear shit smeared (including the past). Now he’s no longer on my back and I’m no longer wearing his glasses I see that actually everything isn’t shit smeared and I would like to thank you for being an ace kind of guy who has a special place in my heart. I love your sporadic and chaotic visitations into my life and the fact that you always make me laugh. I love that I always come away from meeting you with a warm fuzzy feeling because your a dear old pal who I have the highest affection for. And I love that beneath all the humour is underlying wisdom and truth that you’ve always kind of had but that gets deeper with the passing years. But most of all I love that even though you’ve done oh so many other amazing things you’re not up your own arse. And you’ve never let anything dull your shine: you’ve been married had kids, got divorced but you never grew up, you kept that naughty sparkle that all the best people have - a curiosity and enchantment with the possibilities that life holds. In short lovely Andy, you’re a top kind of guy who’s (whose?) company I always enjoy.
Now then, enough with the guilt.
I look forward to the next time we meet x