It was a chilly morning in September eight years ago when I last saw Heath. My dad had left an envelope on the mantelpiece, behind a photograph of me aged eleven and stood on a beach somewhere on Anglesey. The money inside was for Heath, a hundred quid, if Dad had paid a professional to decorate the hallway he would have paid twice that. I met him while I was working and handed over the green stuff. He was putting it to good use. It was for a van. I helped him to fill it, he was not taking everything he owned, and the sunbed that my mother had given to his girlfriend lay in the drive. We said our goodbyes and I am not ashamed to say we cried before agreeing to speak soon. I never saw Heath alive again. I was twenty-three at the time of his passing Heath was thirty-six.
I took the call while I was working, walking up Eastbank Street. When I read the name on the screen I was not going to answer, I wish I never had as if by not answering and allowing Matt to pass on the news it may never have happened. Heath was found dead in the gutter. Why did he not call me? Heath had uprooted from Southport to save money. He could afford a two-bedroomed semi in Birkenhead for what he was paying for his flat, and he would not have to share the toilet with that deadbeat from downstairs.
Heath and his girl had rowed; this was not unusual for them. They were volatile, he drank and she was very young, too young really. Tilly, my wife can remember Heath crying over the girl on our sofa, more than once last summer. I had been working. I was always working. She had kicked him out. He had gotten the house, the washing machine, the deep fryer that she thought would make her life complete and then she kicked him out. He went to stay at his old mans. Eddie and I have only met once, I liked him, he was a little rough around the edges but he made me smile.
Eddie was eighty when we met, and spent his day rolling cigarettes and complaining about everything. He had plenty reason to complain too, Eddie took sixteen pills, four times a day, every day and had done so for as long as he could recall. He took tramadol for arthritic pain and rohypnol for his insomnia and he used a nebulizer for a chronic case of asthma. After Eddie’s third wife, Emily passed away Eddie was put on forty milligrams of citalopram a day. However, by the time Heath who had recently put away a gallon of homemade vodka got his hands on Eddie’s pills, his dad was taking two hundred and seventy milligrams of venlafaxine every day.
Heath had taken hold of the three pill boxes, and had been hiding in his room garnering the courage to take the easy way out. Eddie was in the kitchen frying bacon, he had pushed the boat out for his prodigal son. As Eddie stood over the skillet licking the fat that spat out onto his thumb, his son stood upstairs crying, silently into his father’s shaving mirror. He had written a note. Didn’t they always? Heath had placed it in his top pocket with a photograph of his eldest boy, which he did not want to dirty by forcing it to share a space with the blister packets of his father’s medication. Heath made his way downstairs passing framed memories of his mother on the way. He never stopped once to peer in at them, Heath never wanted to know her, she had left before he could say her name. Heath opened the front door and stepped out into the dark, wet evening. He pulled a folded hood from behind his neck securing it under his chin. He thought that he had heard his father calling him; it was not enough to tempt him back in.
Heath’s heavy footsteps hit the pavement at exactly the same time that the bus turned the corner of his street. Heath raced to the stop, but his legs tied themselves together and he fell awkwardly. The alcohol in his system prevented him from putting out his hands in protection and his face hit the curb. The bus’ driver was Elwood Delgado, a twenty seven year old father of three. He had married his childhood sweetheart Kim Pearce, and she had given him three beautiful daughters while he chased his dream of becoming a pop sensation. Elwood could boast minor success in local pubs and clubs, but Elwood made his money driving busses and although he saw Heath fall, he never stopped. It was in that gutter Heath swallowed the cocktail of his father’s medication he had stolen. It was in that gutter that they found him.
Elwood read the local newspaper the following afternoon while he drank unsweetened black coffee from a flask, a habit picked up from his grandfather. He would have stopped he told himself, if there was any way he could have foreseen what was to become of the man who fell in the gutter, he would have helped. He had been driving for eleven hours on that fateful day in September and Elwood wanted to be home with his family. His girls lived for their bed time stories, and dad told them better than mum because dad did the voices. Although Heath displayed no outward sign of wanting to end his life, underneath it all, Elwood felt, or so he told the freelance journalist, that something was inherently wrong.
Heath had intended to put some distance between him and home, but instead decided to free the tablets from their packets whilst they were still in his pocket. He fumbled as a result of the alcohol, and Heath knew then that once he began to chomp down on handfuls of medication his suffering would soon be over. The powdery tablets left a behind a foul taste, but for Heath that never mattered in the least. Eddie figured that his son must be sleeping and allowed his bacon sandwiches to cool on the kitchen table, as he sat down to watch mindless television, not knowing the true fate of what was happening to his son just yards from his front door.
My best man, the former Heath Lawler of Birkenhead Merseyside watched as his life danced before him, with his hood knotted tightly beneath his chin and his knees bleeding through the stonewashed jeans he wore. He watched as the police took his son down from the courtroom. He had been desperate to become a father, so proud, but he could never forgive that one for getting behind a wheel in that state. He cried out, as now in the recesses of his mind he now watched, from his own eyes, as a child the lady struggle through the door with her suitcase, dad was sleeping on the sofa. The woman never even mouthed goodbye, she just held a finger over her lips. Heath as a child had remained quiet, as if saving his mother from the torment of her husband and only son. He watched as she closed the door on that chapter of his life. Heath could now see two boys running in the street, the very same street he was lay in dying, but not now, it was daylight, still raining but Heath could make out the ford Sierra that turned into the street. He could hear the car’s engine working hard, but the boys appeared not to notice. He called to his fourteen year old self and screamed at Kenny but the two friends couldn’t hear him. He again watched his best friend step out from behind Dicko’s van into the road. Heath saw his own innocent face shatter, as he was overcome by horror.
Again outside Dicko’s front door, somebody lay in the road. The photograph and note remained safe in his shirt pocket, but the empty bottle of vodka rolled under Dicko’s van. On this night nobody ran to his aid, Kenny wasn’t there to raise the alarm and repay his friend. Heath lay alone, struggling for breath, cold and wet. Not until our friend Elwood returned to this street did anybody see him there, dying. Elwood had made the decision to drive two miles out of his way, unsure why, but when his headlights rested on the man lying in the gutter he could feel some relief. Although my friend had passed away, Elwood had been compelled to return. Elwood jumped out of his vehicle and straight to Heath’s side, but even before he reached out to check for signs of life, he knew. The dead lose colour, and this is still evident under the light of a streetlamp. When his father identified the body, the marks from the curb could still be seen on his sons face. Elwood called for an ambulance, only because he didn’t know what else he should do. He considered climbing back into his car and driving home to his girls, but instead Mummy had to read the next chapter of the BFG.
In his fleeting moments, Heath had suffered pain and panic, and that is not something that I would wish on anybody; I know now that even if you choose when it is time to go for yourself, there is no easy or dignified way to go about it. I also know that my friend was no longer suffering, he is at peace, whether that be upstairs or down, the baton of anguish he carried has now been passed on to us poor souls who mourn him. I once remember seeing him cry real tears during the Trooping the Colour ceremony, a real sucker for pomp and ceremony he was. Our former boss drove my wife and I to the funeral, he wore his military uniform because that would have pleased the soft get. Heath wore a suit every Sunday, and came to my place to iron my uniform if I was on duty and he not. I still have the tiepin he gave me. He was buried in that Sunday suit of his.
I was glad for Eddie’s company. I helped with the funeral arrangements, no parent should ever have to bury their own child particularly in circumstances such as these. We helped each other, forming a shield around one another that became almost impossible to pierce. I would have gotten through without him because you do, don’t you. I have my own family, but somehow Eddie being there made things a little easier. Eddie, in his broad scouse accent called me “Kidda” and told me more than once “we’ll be alrigh’” and we were until the cancer got him, it gets most of us in the end. Two years he lived on after Heath left us, but I’m not sure he ever fully recovered from the shock. Elwood, who had remained a great friend to the both of us, sang at his wake, The Last Rose of Summer.
“I’m moving mow, we found a place,” Heath had told me. I recall being upset, realising I wasn’t going to be able to call on him anytime. I was a good friend though, I know I was, and so I was dutifully pleased that things were moving for him. They had struggled against the grain for so long. Afterwards I spoke with my brother Madoc. He had been trying to cope with our mothers fall into alcohol dependency alone. I was consumed with grief, and had missed what was going on around me. My mother had changed; she was a ghost of her former self. Madoc suggested Pastor Paul. Tilly and I were not sure. Paul had a reputation locally for taking people when they were down, removing them from the world, taking their money and belongings and transporting them seventy miles away to dry out, a sort of cold turkey. The thing is that when people come out on the other side, they appear a little cuckoo for the Lord. We decided to wait and see, not even sure, that Mother would comply anyhow.
Time had marched on; eight years have passed now since Heath passed. Time stops for nothing, for no man. I told people that I was doing well. I believe that that is what a man is supposed to say after all that time has passed.
When that day in September rolled around, Tilly had forgotten the date. I would never hold that against her; it’s not something that you would write on a calendar. It is more personal than that. Heath had been my friend not hers. Tilly found me in the bath crying, and I couldn’t explain why. I don’t think anything clicked for Tilly and that is okay. She needed to pick up after me more often now; I started leaving empty mugs and plates about the house, something I had never done. Yesterday’s clothes became todays and then tomorrows. Tilly had to remind me to shower for the first time this past October; neither of us could quite remember just how long I had gone without. We laughed about it at the time, just a little stress we agreed. If I screw up my eyes as tight as I can and think hard I may just be able to remember my thoughts growing duller, my mind misting up a little bit for the first time. However, the truth is that I would be lying, making it up. I know that the last book that I read was The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it had remained on my bedside table ever since. I no longer had the concentration levels required. My “to read” pile on the window sill had remained static also, gathering dust deftly was Kurt Kamm’s Red Flag Warning. Heath never wanted to be cremated.
Mother never went to see Pastor Paul, she swore she was fine and I told myself the same. Other people had stopped asking me how I was, or perhaps I just no longer heard them.