I am always late for everything. Dave, by contrast, is always early; early arriving for things and early leaving, early to bed, early to rise. When he comes to visit me he texts me at 10am saying “I’m here” while I lie in bed contemplating a shower, wondering how long it will take me to run the hoover round and make up the spare bed. The next day, he rises at seven (old habits die hard, and they can’t be broken just because it’s the weekend) and lets himself out. By the time I wake up he’s long gone and usually back home, with the solitary exception of the time he locked himself in my bathroom by accident.
So it’s no surprise when I make my way to the train station, all packed for the holiday, juggling a wheelie case in one hand and a polystyrene tray filled with coffee cups, sugar and stirrers in the other (a peace offering, to say Sorry I’m late, again) to find him already there, sitting in the departure lounge, bag all packed, tickets all bought, not quite out of patience but nearly there.
He looks thinner than I remember; diagnosed with high cholesterol like me, his doctor didn’t offer him a pharmaceutical easy way out the way mine did, and he’s been on a fun free diet for months. It shows. I think he’s thinner than he was when we were at university together. This rankles with me, because I am meant to be the one who’s lost weight. But there are consolations: early to bed, early to rise, no cheese – if that was my life I don’t know how I would cope. But then Dave loves his little boy, and I couldn’t cope with parenthood either.
Funny how we are so similar in so many ways, but the fundamentals of our lives are very different. I don’t know what the pair of feckless nineteen year olds we used to be would have said, if you had told them that almost twenty years later they would be going on holiday together, sharing a hotel room, drinking in the sunshine and talking about their respective ailments. Even back then I had ailments, I was a trendsetter in that respect. “Mate, it’s just a headache” he used to tell me. “You haven’t got cancer.”
Our holidays are often nearly scuppered by a last minute health scare. A few years back his son came down with chickenpox and we had a nerve-wracking run-up to our departure date, waiting to see if his wife would get it too leaving him stranded at home. This time the days leading up to our trip have been marred by Dave’s bout with explosive diarrhoea, something he tells me all about - in far more detail than I needed to know - as the coach trundles down the motorway. As he does so, the informative screen at the front tells me that we’re passing Windsor Castle, and that it’s the largest inhabited castle in Europe. I make a mental note never to tell anybody that fact at parties. I make a second mental note that there are very few people you can discuss your bowel movements with. Perhaps that’s what friendship is; it’s as good a definition as any.
“We’re going to be sharing a bedroom and bathroom for five days.” I tell him. “So I think we need to lay down some ground rules. No wanking. Not even in the bathroom. Not even in the shower.”
“Trust me, it’s going to be preferable to the stuff I’ve been producing in the bathroom over the past few days. Ebony or ivory – take your choice.”
This turn of phrase, I realise, is one of the reasons why I love him.
In the airport, we do all the things we always do before going on holiday. We hand over our cases and swear faithfully that we’ve packed them ourselves. I want to say “I packed it myself, but my wife printed off a checklist for me because she knows that without her I’m hopeless” but I don’t, because I want total strangers to retain a modicum of respect for me. We fold our coats into plastic tubs and watch them go through the x-ray machine, awkwardly putting on our belts when we get to the other side. That’s usually the point when I realise that it’s real and I’m going away, that soon we will be in the air and all this will just be a dot on a map, growing increasingly distant.
We look round the duty free and I spray my wrist with fragrances I have no intention of buying. We grab a bite in an Italian restaurant and talk about plans for our destination – where we’ll go, what we’ll eat, what we both want to see. What Dave doesn’t necessarily realise is that I’ve been on my own for half a week, the flat full of absences. Her books, unread on the bedside table. Her clothes, not yet taken down, hanging on the clothes horse. Her pile of CDs next to the sofa, never tidied away. Everything I see has reminded me of everything I can’t see, and the silence at night and in the morning is something I cannot make myself like. And so seeing Dave, and knowing that we will be like an old married couple for the next five days, makes me happier than he knows. If he wants to describe his toilet habits in detail, I for one am happy to let him.
“The worst thing is that I’m on Imodium” he tells me, fortunately after we’ve finished eating.
“Why is that bad exactly?”
“Because it’s feast or famine. Eventually I’ll go to the toilet and then it will play havoc with my haemorrhoids.”
Ah, the perennial topic of Dave’s piles. I remember the first time he told me about them - we were sitting outside the café in the sunshine, and I reassured him because I knew exactly what he was talking about. I never used to; piles were always a source of hilarity, something that happened to other people. I remember the time I went to visit my dad and found a shopping list written on the whiteboard in his study: Bread, milk, Anusol. I distinctly recall sniggering about it. I remember, too, that when I was much younger my friend Dan suffered with them and when we all took the piss out of him he turned to me once and said “What you don’t understand is that there are two kinds of people; people who’ve had piles, and people who will have piles one day.” If I was still in touch with Dan, I would probably tell him he was right.
The thing I could never get over about having piles is that moment when, after straining in agony on the porcelain, you look down into the toilet bowl. Based on the ordeal you’ve just gone through, you fully expect to see a bunch of rusty keys clanking in the water but instead, it just looks like the product of any normal visit to the lavatory. There aren’t even serrated edges. I remember telling Dave this when he first complained to me about having piles.
“I told my doctor that thing you’d said about the rusty keys.” says Dave as our minibus scuttles across the tarmac to our waiting plane.
“Yes. He laughed like a drain. ‘I’ll use that when I talk to patients’, he said.”
“Charming. Haven’t you brought any, you know…”
“…Arse bullets? Yes, of course I have. I just hope I don’t have to use them.”
I know that Dave’s bag contains suppositories and enough Gaviscon to fill a bath. I know that I have cholesterol pills, and pills for my acid reflux, and Gaviscon tablets, and painkillers, and Nytol in case I can’t sleep because my acid reflux gets bad and I worry that I’m going to die before I wake up. I know that we are the youngest looking old people on this or any minibus. I know I can tell him that I worry, because I know he will understand.
“I told Andrea that we’re going to be wandering round Lisbon like two old men, complaining about all our ailments. She was so sweet. ‘But you won’t look old’, she said to me.”
That’s very kind of her, and it may have something to do with the fact that I haven’t seen her in ages.
“You know what the worst thing about piles is?” I say.
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s the packaging for Preparation H. If you look on the tube, in big letters, it says Three way action. Honestly, it does. Look at me: I’m 37 years old and my only chance of three way action is sticking ointment up my arse.”
Dave laughs. Even after nearly twenty years, it still feels like an achievement when I get a laugh out of him. I know he feels exactly the same.
“Shit, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Just out of interest, how bad was your diarrhoea?”
“Put it this way.” he says as the minibus comes to a halt and the double doors crank open. “There was one point at the weekend when I could have jetwashed an entire patio.”
I get that feeling of revulsion and pride again. Dave will start getting jittery soon; he’s scared of flying, an irrational fear which has got worse as he’s got older. I in turn am working on an equally irrational fear of having a heart attack while the aircraft is in mid-air (it’s not enough to die in a screaming fireball along with all the other passengers, I have to be special). We haul our hand luggage and our neuroses up the steps – I don’t really know which weighs more - and prepare to board the plane.
I stop at the top, fish out my boarding pass and I think to myself My, what a wild week we’re going to have.