I wrote this letter upon finding out that a friend who I had met in Scotland in 2014, passed away. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost a year, but I was nonetheless gutted when I heard the bad news. I never found out how he actually died, but it doesn’t really matter.
Besides my fond recollections of our very brief (eight day) friendship, I feel a small twinge of guilt. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort to keep in touch. I am aloof at the best of times and downright antisocial sometimes. A small effort on my part all those months ago may have averted whatever fate befell him. Who knows?
All I have left are memories. He was quite a character.
19th November 2014
So I hear you’ve gone and died. Well that’s just bloody inconvenient. I was hoping for a boozy night in Oxford with you sometime in the near future, but you’ve gone and ruined that now. Oh well, I’ll just have to be content with a few shots of nostalgia instead. So here goes, Alan, you selfish ass.
You bumbled into existence on a sunny day in Edinburgh. I first saw you while lining up at the counter of the coach tour headquarters on the cobblestoned corner of Blackfriars Street and The Royal Mile. The office was crammed with backpackers and backpacks of all shapes and sizes. You were sweating profusely and reeked of unbrushed teeth and whisky. Our bus was the number 10, going to the Orkney Islands.A lot of tours were operating that day, so it was necessary for us to keep our assigned bus numbers in mind. When it came time to embark, you had already forgotten yours, and thus, were roundly chastised by our driver. He was a middle-aged Scot with a salty disposition and a sailors tongue, hidden behind grey smokers teeth. His name was Alan too. I felt a little sorry for you as your face turned beetroot red and you began to stammer out an apology. I felt even worse when the long line of young attractive girls behind you sniggered and rolled their eyes, as though amused by the blundering antics of a jester or town drunk. You were a little bit of both, so I made a mental note to befriend you, kindred spirit.
As we settled into our bus seats Driver Alan stood in the aisle and introduced himself. He then read out the passenger roll call, and when he got to your name his eyes and voice lit up. He looked around for his kindred Alan brother, only to be sorely disappointed when you sheepishly raised your hand. ‘You ... Out of the thirty odd people on this bus, it had to be you,’ he said with mock dejection, to a chorus of chuckles and titters. I had never seen a face as red as yours that day.
On the road out of Edinburgh I watched you, out of the corner of my eye, take huge, leaky sips from a giant water bottle as Driver Alan regaled us with tales of Scottish heroism and English villainy, pointing to you as the only Englishman on the tour. You, the Butcher of Culloden, Edward Longshanks, Grand Moff Tarkin, just stared out of the window at passing cows and shook your head with a smile. I thought you took it pretty well,
At the first stop we introduced ourselves to each other. You had a jolly, stuttering Oxfordian lisp and a face like a less ravaged, younger Jeremy Clarkson. You told me that you went on a bender the night before the tour with one of your friends in Edinburgh, a red-bearded giant of a man, who laughed in your face as he drank you under the table, before dumping your comatose body on the steps of your hostel. It explained the malodorous cloud of cheap deodorant and whisky that surrounded you.
I was surprised to find out that you studied Literature at Oxford University and worked in one of the libraries there. You wanted to be a writer, just like me, and you were twenty-six years old, as I was. From then on, we began to regard each other as old mates, as though there was a complicit understanding between us, an invisible something that compelled us two anomalies to stick together and find humour in the fierce Scottish nationalism that infected Driver Alan, and the tragicomic folly of our own mortal shells, slowly disintegrating in the various pubs and hostels of small Highland towns. Budding writers were we, unwittingly creating content for our future scribblings, on a mutual tour of ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing with my life’.
On the two nights we spent in Inverness, we would walk from our hostel to the Hootananny Pub in the chilly evenings along the main highway leading into town. On several occasions during our transit, you informed me that Inverness was named so because it sounds like ‘In the Ness’ (referring to Loch Ness, which was close by). I thought that this was utter bollocks. I later learned that this somewhere near the truth - Inverness means 'mouth of the River Ness' in Gaelic - but it sounded so wrong
While dining on cheap roadside Indian curry, (dry chicken cubes smothered in dull pink gravy) I learned, to my surprise that you had travelled the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu the year before. I imagined you, a soft, bright pink, foppish man-child, puffing and cursing, polo shirt drenched in sweat, with a wet towel on your head, dragging your feet along a narrow mountain pass, frequently imploring your fellow travellers to stop for a minute. Perhaps this vision was just an amalgam of my prejudice towards you and my own experience in Nepal the previous year, where I went on an intense, all-day trek among the winding foothills of Bandipur, and discovered just how doughy my flesh and spirit was.
At the crowded pub we stood in the corner with our pints, by a game machine, after being politely moved on by the bar staff from a reserved table. While we waited, I looked over at the picture on the game machine: a bearded man holding a phone to his ear, with a half-smile on his face. I imagined him saying, in a thick Scottish accent, “Honey, I’ve lost all my money, please come and pick me up”. I don’t know why this amused me so much. I took a photo of him and you burst out laughing. In between your puzzled chuckling you kept asking ‘why?‘ and then laughing some more. One of the bar staff walked past, laughing just as hard, and said, ‘you know, I’ve never seen anyone take a picture of Noel Edmonds before’. This made you laugh even harder.
After a few more pints, we spilled out onto the street, chuckling with tears in our eyes. We stopped to take photos along the Young Street bridge, lined with pretty hanging flowers across the River Ness, but dissolved into bouts of knee-weakening laughter, almost running headlong into traffic. This is why I don’t remember too much of what Inverness looked like, Alan. At that moment we couldn’t give two shits about the church spires on the riverbank, or the majestic rose-brick castle looming on the hillside. All that mattered was Noel Edmonds holding a phone to his ear on a cheap, shitty game machine.
You slept through most of the journey along the winding cliffside roads of the green Orkney Islands. Since you sat adjacent to me, my only view of the vast North Sea was obscured by your curly, snoring head, occasionally banging against the window, jolting you awake.
Even while heavy rain poured down on the foggy Kirkwall streets, you would take your camera and your stumbling feet out on long mysterious rambles across town, while the rest of us stayed in the hostel watching DVDs and mingling. I don’t know why you felt so compelled to go out in such abject weather. Perhaps this futile sense of determination is a uniquely English thing. I remember watching a documentary from the 1970’s about Englishmen abroad, and there was one bloke on holiday in Spain ordering a bunch of children to dig holes on the beach because they were “lying about, doing nothing”. Strangely, I do admire this work ethic, although less so when you stumbled back to the hostel with a broken camera, reeking of booze and picking fights with the exasperated girls on our tour.
Remember when you had an argument with Michael Rooker that very night? That’s right, you had a go at that bloke from The Walking Dead, who happened to be on our tour with his family. You stumbled into our shared room at about 1am, muttering and cursing the Scottish. Then, you started an argument with Misha the schoolteacher, who only wanted you to be quiet and go to sleep. Then you spilt your giant water all over the place. Then you resumed your argument with Misha and told her to shut up quite loudly. Then Mr. Rooker gently asked you to go to sleep. Then you started an argument with him. Then you fell asleep and snored away like a jackhammer. I must say; you really made an ass out of yourself, Alan.
Mr Rooker was very nice about it all.
When Driver Alan was told about the incident the next morning, he took you aside near the tour bus, cigarette in hand, and gently chided you with a slight smile on his lips. ‘Now, I’ve been informed that you’ve been causing quite a ruckus, young Alan.’ He stopped to draw from his cigarette. ‘Ye canna be doing that…’ You know, for all your Englishness, I think he came to like you in the end. Perhaps this former bass guitarist, this bohemian old Glaswegian saw a bit of himself in you: a bumbling, directionless nihilist. This is what I liked about you as well.
We didn’t talk much on those grey isles. Perhaps we had run out of things to say to each other. You would wander ahead of the group alone, taking photos with your iPhone, disappearing and reappearing among the many ruins and stone circles we visited. We still stuck together for the most part, taking photos for each other and snickering like schoolboys on a field trip.
Do you remember how heavily it rained on the paddock trail leading to the Tomb of the Eagles? I could just make out your lumpy, hooded form in the distance through the thick blanket of mist, trudging and occasionally stumbling through the mud.
We arrived back at Edinburgh and said our goodbyes with a short, manly hug and promised to catch up in the near future. A day later, I received a message from you, whilst on my road trip from Edinburgh to London. You wanted to know if I was driving past Oxford, and if I could swing by for a quick drink with you. I couldn’t, as I had to drop off my rental car before the office closed. I regret that decision now.
When I was back in Australia, we kept in touch for a few weeks, and then drifted apart as people tend to do.
Alan, things have been rough for me over the past year. I experienced great heartache, I had epiphanies and revelations about my life, and I descended into bouts of anxiety, self-loathing, insomnia and depression. I made the potentially ruinous decision to pursue a career in writing after becoming thoroughly disillusioned by my lowly sales job at a heartless, right wing corporation. I fled to a studio in the inner city to be amongst fellow exiles and planted myself in more fertile soil in order to grow.
Alan, I’m so sorry I didn’t think of you throughout all of this. I didn’t think of a lot of people. I had to look after myself for a little while.
I guess we won’t be meeting up when I return to England in the future, but let’s just have a few drinks in the afterlife instead. It could be in a while, or it could be tomorrow.
If you'd like, you can tell me how you actually died and we can have a good laugh about the Noel Edmonds game machine.
Rest In Peace, Alan.
Your friend always,