The Empty Seat
It won’t be a long one this week. It can’t be. It’s been a long week. It’s been a tough week. Last Saturday, after spending a thoroughly brilliant day at a wedding, Sam and I got back to our hotel and logged online to find out one of our closest friends had died. Since then, I’ve either felt numb or angry most of the time. We knew he hadn’t been well for most of this year, but the lymphoma resurfaced on Saturday afternoon and he passed away in his sleep.
Since then, every little standard annoyance has made me want to scream. The presence of every single person who frustrates me has felt like a slap in the face. They are here, my friend is not. I know it’s weak and pathetic to talk about the word ‘fair’ in a case like this, but I can’t help it. In the same way that I can’t help my ever shortening fuse. I can feel myself dipping in and out of manic moments. I’m either upbeat and joking or I want everyone around me gone. The worst thing about this petty sort of grief is that it is no way a reflection of Rupert. He would never have wanted people to feel like this. If anything, he’d have done anything to make sure you were okay. Even his way of keeping to himself when he was ill was partly so he wouldn’t feel like he was a burden to his friends.
He was quiet, intelligent, kind. When I first knew him, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. He worked in an insurance office and a bank for a while. Even when he drifted, he did it with grace. I still remember him coming into The Works on my last day there and, when someone tried to complain about my attitude, they assumed he was my manager. I couldn’t blame them.
He loved to travel. In particular, eastwards. He spent a few holidays going solo to Japan and then he started to talk about moving there. That evolved into a plan to teach English in China. It meant studying at university for a long time. He got a masters’ degree before he packed his bags and went abroad. After that, we would only see him occasionally. He worked almost constantly. In China and at home. We’d maybe get to see him for a night here or there, as he would spend the rest of his time back here preparing for the next year or co-ordinating with the local university.
Recently, there’d been talk of him coming home full time. We were going to get to see him more than twice a year. It had felt like we were getting our friend back, until he fell ill. He spent some truly bleak months in China, where the doctors were struggling to treat him, before he came home. After that, he did his best to keep his illness contained. He didn’t want people fussing over him. He didn’t want them worrying. He just wanted to get better and then see his friends.
He invited me and Sam around to his house the week before we left Rugby. He seemed okay then. Maybe not fighting fit, but he was his old self. His constantly present wit. His compassionate interest in his friends. His bottomless knowledge of all things geeky. As we set off that night, we told him that once we had the spare room sorted he was more than welcome to come and stay for a few nights. He was going back into hospital the week after, for the next round of chemotherapy. As much as I knew it was going to be hard for him, things felt positive. They felt positive right up until last Saturday night, when his brother told us that we’d lost him.
Since then, any sort of happiness has come with a sting of guilt straight after it. Any memory of him has felt painfully heavy. All around me at work, people are gearing up for Christmas. I can’t begrudge them any sort of festive cheer, but it catches on my nerves. It provokes me to feel worse.
Although, as bad as I feel, I can’t imagine how my closest friends are feeling right now. They’d known Rupert since school. They’ve grown up with him. I met him through people, after I had moved to Rugby, when I was in my late teens. In the short time that I had to spend with him, I found a kindred spirit. A man who, under his warm smile and his spectacular impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger, kept a lethally sharp of sense of humour on standby. A man who delighted in playing computer games with his friends, if only to kill them over and over again. One of my endearing memories of the guy will always be watching him teach our friend Matt how to play Stars War Battlefront in multiplayer. He gave him every control he needed to steer Matt right into the path of the AT-AT he was driving. He strode right over him. One nil in less than two minutes. The Jedi clearly felt that one.
For all of those memories, though, I will always feel like a bit of tourist compared to some of my other friends who knew him for years. His death has hit them far harder. They went through so much with him and I don’t think any of them would have guessed they’d lose him so soon in their lives.
Rupert was always such a strong personality. He was such a positive influence in people’s lives. The word that people have used over and over again to describe him since last Saturday night is gent. He was a true gentleman. When you have someone like that in your life, you know they’re rare. You’re lucky to have just one.
Since last Sunday, I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I’d gotten to know him better. Wishing I’d ignored his wishes and gone to see him in hospital at least once. Wishing we’d had just one more round of Bad Taste Musical. Wishing I could play just one more game of pool against the man and watched him effortlessly beat me, knowing he wasn’t even trying. He got me into so many great things. Crazy old Kung Fu movies. Army of Darkness. South Park. He listened when you were down. He did his best to heal every rift he saw in the friends around him. He was the only man I ever knew to apologise to the bouncer as he was escorted out of a club. I wish we’d had time to do all of that again. I wish I’d taken the time to speak to him every time he’d phoned just as I was going out or we had people over.
Back in the 90s, whilst I did my method acting impression of mopey teen with a drink, he was always too good a friend to me. He would let me vent for a while and then he would make me laugh until I didn’t care about whatever molehill my hormones had got in my way. My friends would all go to a grungy little rock club after the pub and Rupert had no issues with a dance floor or a bit of ironic head banging. I always found it strange he was such a Nirvana fan, but he was the first person I knew who had ‘From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah’. He took such delight in videos of Cobain fighting with the crowd or diving past his own security. He also had an overwhelming love of anime and anime soundtracks. Many the night, he’d blow my mind talking about some of the truly strange stuff he was watching or the haunting music he was listening to alongside the occasional blast of late 90s grunge. Some week nights, when we all met for a drink, I remember him sitting with a pen and a piece of paper, focused on creating yet another Guyver.
Goddamn it. I miss my friend.
Last night, I went to see the new Star Wars movie. It was a great night and an epic piece of movie making. I’d had the tickets booked for a couple of months and, naturally, I’d talked to Rupert about it the last time we’d seen him. He was annoyed he couldn’t see it in a cinema on opening night. He couldn’t risk being in a room full of people with winter colds whilst his immune system was struggling after chemo. That said, he was already planning to get to see it in the new year, probably in a daytime showing. If I remember rightly, we then talked about the insane price of Star Wars Lego sets and reminisced about the good old days, when we’d thought the prequel trilogy was going to be good.
Back when Episode 2 came out, I fluked a ticket to a midnight staff screening. Rupes came to see me the next day at work. We were seeing in that night, but he wanted to know if I’d enjoyed it. Like an sleep deprived idiot, I let slip about the sudden death of a character he was looking forward to seeing on the big screen. The look on his face made me want to drive under the counter for cover but, Rupert being Rupert, he just shrugged and laughed it off. By the way, that night, he was first guy I heard joking about Jango’s head falling out of the helmet his son was clutching.
Thanks to some evil stomach bug that’s doing the rounds, we had a spare seat in the cinema last night next to me. As I sat and watched the movie, beaming like a little kid, I kept catching myself looking to my left. I know it’s stupid. I know it’s not like he’d been coming with us, but there was no denying his absence there last night. This is the first Star Wars movie I can’t talk to my friend about and, trust me, he’d have found plenty to say about The Last Jedi. Some of it good, some of insightfully critical and some of it downright hilarious.
I want to say that it’ll be okay because I have so many memories of him. I want to say that any of the bleaker side of my grief can leave now, because it’s not what he would have wanted. I want to say that I’m lucky that I got to see him laughing and joking one last time, at home and happy. I want to say that none of us should feel guilty for the things we’re about to do without him, because we carry our memories of him with us now. Only I’m not ready for that. Not yet. I miss my friend. I miss my friend and it’s going to take some time before I’m ready to let that pain go.
Rest in peace, mate. With all the work you’ve done, all the lives you’ve changed and all the times you’ve shared with your friends and family, you’ve truly earned it.