Copyright is held by the author.
HIS PICTURE was the first thing I saw as I walked through the door. I should never have come. I half-turned to leave, when I heard my name.
“Jeff,” he called again. It was too late. I’d been seen. There was no escape.
“Pete. How long has it been?” I smiled.
“You look great,” he said. I returned the compliment, even though his receding hairline, and protruding tummy mirrored my own. I felt like kicking the idiot who’d come up with the idea of school reunions – they weren’t a chance to relive childhood memories; they were a reminder of how old we’d become. Tammy had accepted the invite and sent the cheque shortly before she ditched me. I suspected it was part of her revenge, knowing how much I hated the idea of a reunion. But I did want the £100 dinner I’d paid for.
“Come on, I’ll buy you a beer.” I followed him into the throng, trying not to recognize, or be recognized. It was futile.
It took half an hour of handshakes, back slaps, and “good to see yous” before we clutched our beers and huddled on the outskirts of the fray. “Where’s your wife?” Pete asked.
“I’m between wives at the moment. What about you?”
“My girlfriend is over there — he pointed at a stunning blonde surrounded by the “jocks”. Even if I hadn’t recognized her from the website of a very discrete escort agency, I would have known what she was. She smiled in our direction, and blew a kiss. Pete beamed, and I smiled inwardly at the openly envious look on a nearby face. How little he knew. How little any of them knew! Dark secrets flashed fins under bright façades.
“Hey, did you hear about James?” Pete asked.
“What about him?”
“He was killed in a car accident last month. His picture’s up on the memorial wall. I swear that wall grows bigger each year. I mean, we even had one at our graduation.”
“I don’t know why we have them. They’re so depressing.”
“But you were such good friends? I thought you’d be really cut up about it. We have to pay our respects to the dead. It’s good to remember.”
I disagreed — I’d spent too long trying to forget. It was sad about James, but part of me was relieved. Matt and I were the only ones left. The only way to keep a secret was to make sure no one else knew it. I was almost home free.
“James was a good friend, back in the day, but I haven’t seen him in years.”
“You were always so tight back then. The five of you were inseparable. I used to envy you — wished I could hang out with you. I thought you’d be friends forever. I never understood what happened. You seemed to split up after Barry died.”
I stiffened at the mention of that name.
“It was terrible what happened to him,” he continued. He’d never been particularly intuitive. “What a tragic accident. He was the first on that wall. Sad.” He swigged his beer.
“I’ve just spotted Kim. I want to say hi,” I said, making my escape.
“Oh, OK. Catch you later? Maybe we can meet up for a beer after work sometime? Here’s my number.”
“Sounds good.” I pocketed the card, knowing I’d chuck it the first chance I got.
Kim was pleased to see me. I was pleased to discover there was still a bit of a spark. It died when she said she was happily married. “I’ve got pictures of the kids here,” she said rummaging in her bag. I made polite noises as she droned on about their achievements. I was looking for my escape route when Matt walked in.
He hadn’t changed. A dam broke in my mind, memories flooding out of control. “Jeff? Jeff? Are you all right? You’re very pale.”
“Just need some fresh air,” I mumbled, stumbling outside. I’d barely reached some convenient bushes when I threw up.
My stomach was empty long before the retching stopped. Wiping my mouth, I stumbled to the low wall, sitting down trying to breathe. Now that the mild film was playing — I couldn’t stop it.
The weather had been so good that year, summer starting early. We were young, carefree, and about to graduate from our sixth form, places booked at Uni, dreams of A Stars, degrees and even a doctorate filled our minds — when we weren’t thinking of girls or alcohol. Tony had suggested that camping trip. Tony. He committed suicide in his first year at Cambridge.
We’d piled all the gear into my Dad’s land rover. I was the only one who had a license, so I was driving. Tony sat up front, Barry, Matt and James in the back. They got stuck into the beer as soon as we’d pulled out of the driveway. I joined in, as soon as I took the turning to Arlington reservoir. We were past happy and well onto pissed when we set up the tents, and built the fire. We ate some crisps, drank, laughed, mucked about, talked, drank some more.
I woke beside the ashes, covered in dew, cold, head pounding. Staggering away, I found a convenient spot to relieve my bladder, rubbing groggy eyes to see a misty dawn. I snuggled into my sleeping bag, and went back to sleep.
“Is Barry here?” Tony asked opening the flap. Light pierced shards into my head. “Close that flap.”
“Is Barry here?”
“No. Piss off and let me sleep.” I pulled the sleeping bag over my head. But I could hear them calling for Barry. He won’t come — the thought surfaced, and I sat bolt upright. It was just a dream, I batted it away. But I went out, shading my eyes from the stabbing sun.
“Come on Barry, this isn’t funny anymore. Stop messing around. Where are you?” Tony shouted.
Matt and Jamie stood nearby, their shouts echoing Tony’s. When they stopped, the air was silent, their faces pale.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s Barry. He wasn’t here when we woke up.”
“What’s the time?”
“11:30,” Tony replied, checking his phone.
“He’s been gone for hours.” James said.
“We’d better look for him. I’m going to kill him if he’s hiding.” Tony muttered.
Tony and I headed in one way, Matt and James the other, scoring the river bank, shouting. In the distance, I saw a rumpled splash of colour, the red of his hoodie stark against the sand. We began to run. He lay on his back, empty eyes staring at us. Blood pooled around his head, and I couldn’t help thinking it made a gruesome halo.
“Barry,” Tony said dropping to the ground, beginning mouth to mouth. It was futile.
“What the hell happened?” he looked at me accusingly, oblivious to the blood on his hands.
The police asked the same question. It’s amazing how sobering a police cell is. They separated us, scrutinized every aspect of our story. I repeated my story for hours. When they finally let us go, I was so glad to see my dad, I cried in his arms. “It’ll be okay son.” He hugged me. In the solid warmth of his arms, I believed him.
The funeral was the next, and the last time we were all together. It wasn’t the same — Barry’s death hung over us like a pall, making us conscious of our mortality for the first time. I went off to university under a cloud. A few weeks later we heard the verdict. He’d slipped; hit his head on a rock. It had been an accident.
I came home for Christmas, and bumped into Tony in the Mall. He was thinner, his face grey. “We have to talk,” he dragged me to a quiet corner.
“I remembered something,” he said. Something about that night.”
“You need to let it go. It was an accident.”
“What if it wasn’t? Do you remember anything?”
I shook my head.
“We were teasing Barry. He was getting pissed, he stormed off, and you and Matt went after him.”
“No, I didn’t. I passed out by the fire.”
“But you were sleeping in the tent.”
“I got up during the night for a pee, then went to sleep in the tent.”
“Was Barry there?”
“I don’t remember. It’s a blank.”
“Are you sure you didn’t go after him?”
“Of course not. Besides, you know I’d never hurt him.”
“Even by accident?”
“I’m sure I’d remember if I had.”
He didn’t look convinced. The conversation bugged me, gnawed at my mind. Could I have had anything to do this? I shook the thought away.
Tony killed himself on Christmas day. I woke screaming that night, a cold sweat covering my body. I sat shaking, trying to grasp the elusive tendrils of the disturbing dream. The nightmares continued for weeks. Slowly snippets merged into scenes, memories emerged, pieced together into a coherent shape, a bloody stone in my hands. Mom made me see the doctor, get sleeping pills, antidepressants. I barely scraped through that first year.
“You have to get your act together; put it all behind you.” Dad said.
“You can’t go on like this, love,” Mom said.
How could I forget what I’d pieced together in dreams?
Second year was more intense, and I immersed myself in my work. In my third year, I met a girl. After I finished my masters, I married the latest in a line of girlfriends. The years passed, and memories dimmed. Until now. Coming here, seeing that picture, seeing Matt. This was a mistake.
“Are you all right?” Matt had found me.
“It’s good to see you. I was hoping you’d be here. I need to talk to you. You’re the only one I can talk to about this.”
My heart chilled. “Sure, what’s up?”
“It’s about Barry. I don’t know what to do.”
“It was an accident, a long time ago. You need to let it go.”
“I can’t — it’s eating me alive. You see, I remembered. I remembered everything.”
My spine stiffened, and the chill descended to my stomach. It was over. I steeled myself for the accusation.
“It was me.” He wept into his hands. “I killed him.”
“Don’t you remember? You were with me. We went after him when he stormed off. You tried to calm him down.”
“I don’t remember.”
“If I believed that, I wouldn’t be talking to you.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I never understood why you didn’t tell the police.”
“I honestly don’t remember that.” It was true. But, I did remember the bloody rock in my hands.
“You must remember. He told us he’d been sleeping with my girlfriend, Christine. He laughing, walked away saying ‘who’s the fool now.’
“I was furious. I grabbed a rock and hit him. I killed him. You just stood there, staring at the rock in my hands. Then you ran. I put the rock under him, made it look like he’d fallen. Why didn’t you just tell them the truth? I can’t live with it anymore. I have to tell them, but I wanted to tell you first.”
I sat stunned. I looked at my hands, re-examined the slivers of recovered memory I’d pieced together over the years. A great weight lifted. The hands that held that rock had not been mine.