Forty Years Ago
by Tom Murtha
You asked how it began.
The First Time.
The first time I met him was in my room at Raymont. I was standing on my balcony smoking. It was a sunny afternoon in early October 1972. The day before I had returned from a holiday in Spain with a broken relationship, a sun tan and 200 Spanish cigarettes. My Mam and Dad had just left, bursting with pride that their son had gone to university. My door was open and the strong pungent smell of continental tobacco drifted onto the corridor. He walked by, smelt the air and walked in.
He said his name was Alan and asked for a cigarette. He said he was from Southampton and had arrived earlier. I remember his long hair and the smell of Old Spice. We talked about nothing, anxious to fill the void. Trying hard not to show that this was all new and that we were strangers in a strange land. That Raymont Sunday feeling was already filling the room. Do you remember them? Those Sunday afternoons that seemed to last forever where nothing happened.
We stood on the balcony, smoking and talking, and watching the other newcomers arrive. I can still hear his soft Southampton bur. I can still smell the burning tobacco. I can still feel the sun on my back. He said he had found a games room and suggested that we play table football. I followed him thinking that he did not look like an athlete or someone who would be interested in games. The room was empty. The football table stood at its centre. There was a slot for payment.
I can not remember how much it cost or who paid but as the afternoon wore on we played many games. I was wrong about his interest in games. He was very good. The more we played the more competitive we became. He pressed hard and I refused to be beaten. He once told me “above all things be gentle but never confuse gentleness with weakness”. His gentle strength was revealed in his playing. Subtly stroking the rods, like the fret-board on a guitar, until he was in a position to slam in a goal. When we finally finished, the score was even. I looked at him and smiled and he smiled back. That is where it all began. It was a Raymont Sunday afternoon, nothing had happened, but my life had changed.
You asked how it ended.
The Last Time.
The last time I met him was in March 2007. Some of you were there. We had driven from London to an old barn near Glastonbury. We were going to meet to say goodbye. We knew the cancer had returned and that he would soon be gone. Throughout the long journey, we had laughed and joked to hide the pain and the anger. When we finally arrived he greeted us all with a hug. He was already slightly drunk and unsteady on his feet. I sat quietly at the table watching and wondering if it was the alcohol or if it was tumur that was beginning to change him. We all got very drunk. He eventually fell over and was carried to bed. He had a little “accident”, a reminder of that other illness that he had endured since we first met. He must have suffered so much in his life, yet it rarely showed.
The next morning he was Al again, sharing time with everyone. He told us that the barn was owned by the man who wrote “Yes Minister”. He had been happy for us to use it as he, too, was suffering from cancer. We discovered that the barn was huge and it had a games room with a football table. The temptation was too much. He suggested that we play. We went to find the room just as we had done all those years ago. There it stood in the centre of the room, the football table. We started to play. It was uncomfortable to watch. The tumor had taken its toll. His hands were unsteady and he found it difficult to concentrate. He knew that I was not trying and he got angry. I rarely saw him angry before his illness. We played for some time until he tired. I suggested that he take a rest before lunch. He seemed pleased to find an excuse to stop.
That afternoon after a rest and a massage he said he felt better and suggested that we play again. I was surprised as we had both found the morning difficult. The game started and we were immediately back in Raymont again. Two young men enjoying the first flush of friendship. He was transformed. The shakes had gone. He was totally focussed on the game. This time I did not hold back and took an early lead. The score fluctuated as we played on. Each time I took a lead he came back with a goal. We always played to 10 and I began to wonder if I could get there first. I slammed in the next goal to make it 9-7 and began to feel a little easier. Alan scored again to make it 9-8. The tempo increased as we each pushed for the next score. Alan stroked the ball to his front rods and slammed in the goal, 9-9. The scores were even and we were both tired. I was preparing to play on when Alan stood back from the table and looked into my eyes and said, “Let us leave it there, shall we? Until the next time”. I looked at him and felt the hairs rising on my neck. Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I stepped forward and hugged him and whispered in his ear, “until the next time”.
He died on 1st May 2007. I was in a hotel room when I heard the news. As I put down the phone I looked at the bedside table. On it was a card from the hotel. On the card was the picture of a football table.
Earlier this year I was tidying some books which I had not touched for some time. I found one that he had given to me in 2001. I had never read it. I opened it and found a note from him. I did not know it was there. It answered a question that I had been asking myself ever since his “funeral”.
Nearly 30 years eh ?! ( 28 3/4 to be exact )
Your friendship and quiet kindness have been so important to me.
It is no exaggeration to say that you, and Vish, have been part of
some of the happiest moments of my life.
What can I say?