Friends like these, p.1
Friends Like These, p.1Danny Wallace
About the Author
Danny would like to thank…
About the Author
Danny Wallace is a writer and television presenter, who wears glasses and used to have a cat. His first solo book, Join Me, was described as a ‘word-of-mouth phenomenon’ by The Bookseller and ‘one of the funniest stories you will ever read’ by the Daily Mail. His second book, Yes Man – in which he decided to say ‘Yes’ to everything – is currently in production with Jim Carrey in the lead role. Both books were Sunday Times bestsellers. The film rights to his latest book, Friends Like These, have also been sold to Miramax. Find out more about Danny at www.dannywallace.com
My best friend
And in memory of the
great and loved David McMahon
‘If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable
of understanding truth and beauty.’
‘I think you should get a will,’ said the man.
‘A will?’ I said. ‘I’m only twenty-nine!’
‘Doesn’t matter. You’re nearly thirty. Statistically, most people die above the age of thirty.’
‘Do they?’ I said, horrified.
‘Statistically, yes. Do you own a house?’
‘I’ve just bought one!’ I said.
‘Do you have a wife?’
‘Only a small one.’
‘Doesn’t matter. You should get a will.’
‘Do you have a will?’ I asked.
‘No,’ said the man. ‘I’m only twenty-eight.’
This was just one of many similar conversations I would suddenly be having on my way to turning thirty, during a time in which I’d begun to question the way my life was going. I’m not saying I was unhappy – I wasn’t, I was very happy – but I was beginning to feel unnerved.
Growing up is a strange thing to happen to anybody. And it does. To almost everybody. And for me, the way to cope with it became quite simple – to look back.
I was worried, when I wrote the following pages down, that you might not be all that interested in the people I met. That perhaps they might be too specific to me for them to matter to you. But then I realised – the more specific I was being, the more general everything was becoming… childhood, for example, and adolescence, and hopes and wishes, and friendship, and maturity… but if they don’t strike any chords, there’s a car chase and some ninjas for you, too.
The people you’re about to meet are some of the people I grew up with, in ordinary schools, in ordinary places, in ordinary times. Wherever possible, and in the vast majority of cases, I’ve kept their names and details real – on those rare occasions where someone’s asked me to change a name or detail, I’ve done so, and in one case in particular I’ve taken the decision myself, in the interests of privacy. Sometimes I’ve also had to move a date or event around a bit, but this is just so that you don’t get bored and fall asleep too easily. I know what you’re like.
Hey, wow – I’ve just noticed – what excellent shoes you’re wearing. They really set off your eyes.
This, then, is the story of a summer in my life that came to sum up all the summers of my life, and perhaps prepared me a little for all the summers to come.
I still don’t have a will, by the way. But I think I did find my way.
See you in there.
Augsburger Strasse, Berlin, September 2007
In which we experience an earthquake…
THERE ARE MOMENTS in life when you come to question your actions. Moments of outstanding clarity and purest thought, when you look around you, you take in your environment, you work out what brought you here, and you decide that something is wrong.
For me, it was happening right now.
Right now, right this very second, in the middle of a harsh and sparse Japanese countryside, a little over a week before my thirtieth birthday, past a town I didn’t know the name of, full of people whose names I couldn’t pronounce.
My address book – a battered black address book with just twelve names in; an address book that had taken me around Britain, to America, Australia and now here – had proved useless this time.
It was four o’clock and I looked around me. I took in my environment. I worked out what brought me here. And I decided that something was wrong.
Here I was, standing in a rice field under a mountain in the afternoon sun, a Westerner in the far, far East, wearing grubby trainers, mud-flecked jeans and a T-shirt with the face of a small Japanese boy on it.
And I was lost.
I dug into my pocket and pulled out the document I’d brought with me.
I looked at it.
An Investigation on the Influence of Vitreous Slag Powders on Rheological Properties of Fresh Concrete
I stared at it for a moment, then put it away again. It wasn’t helping.
But there – there, in the distance, just beyond a scattering of houses and a girl on a bike, I saw something. A hospital. A vast, bright white block. This was what I needed. This was what I had come for.
Because in that building – in that hospital – was a man I needed to meet. A man I had travelled ten thousand miles to shake hands with. A man who went to my school for six months in the 1980s, who I’d last seen twenty years ago in a McDonald’s in the East Midlands, and who had absolutely no idea whatsoever that I was currently tramping through a Japanese rice field a quarter of a mile away to meet him. A man whose face I had on my T-shirt.
In the past few months I had met royalty. Rappers. A man who thinks he’s solved time travel. I’d dressed as a giant white rabbit and I’d fought off a ninja.
And now… now I was going to meet Akira Matsui.
And I was going to meet Akira Matsui whether he liked it or not.
My decision to track down a Japanese man I hadn’t seen since the days of Spokey Dokeys and B.A. Baracus, of Autobots and Optimus Prime, of aniseed balls and Raleigh Renegades, started with a text message, six months earlier. A text message telling me there was some important news. Important news I could only be told face to face.
I didn’t know it then, but it was going to be quite a week for important news.
I’d moved house. Only a few miles on a map, but in London terms I had moved to a whole new world. No longer was I in the East End – an area I’d lived in for six years, where I’d become slowly and subtly used to the deafening thunder of the trains and the police sirens reminding you every few minutes that somewhere not too far away someone’s been naughty. I was no longer living in the shadow of the council blocks which hid the sun from me four times a day but stood guard over me all the same. No longer a short walk from one of the nicest pubs in London, where Wag and Ian and I would spend long and lazy Sunday after
I knew I’d miss it. And I was right. I missed it. I’m just not sure I knew I missed it.
For the time being, I’d been seduced. Seduced by a smart new area of north London. An area which was going places. An area where people did brunch, and drank lattes, and dined at Latvian restaurants, and drove long, silver cars, and wore Carhartt hoodies to make people think they were urban, and put everything apart from their house on the expense account. Where the men wore media glasses and the ladies wore skinny jeans and ate croissants and read the papers on a Sunday morning in a place with a battered leather couch before having a walk around middle-class antique stalls, with their thimbles and spoons. And everyone was married. Everyone! I liked it, but I found it laughable – this row upon row of cliché I had inadvertently stumbled into. What must they make of me here, I said one Sunday morning, over brunch, to Lizzie, my wife.
‘What do you mean?’ she said.
‘I mean, what do you think they make of me here?’ I giggled. ‘Of us?’
Lizzie put down her newspaper, and I tore off another piece of croissant. I dipped it gingerly into my latte and raised my eyebrows. I was a bloody maverick.
‘These married clichés,’ I said. ‘These thirtysomething mediaglasses-wearing clichés in their Carhartt hoodies and their skinny jeans?’
‘You’re wearing a Carhartt hoodie,’ said Lizzie, with a smile.
‘Yes, I’m wearing a Carhartt hoodie, yes, but I imagine I’m doing it ironically. Anyway, I’m urban, aren’t I?’
She wrinkled her nose.
‘You’re not very urban.’
‘You’re also nearly thirty and you’re wearing media glasses.’
‘These are not media glasses. These are merely glasses that are shaped like media glasses. At least I’m not wearing skinny jeans. I could be wearing skinny jeans! Then I’d be a cliché.’
‘I’m wearing skinny jeans.’
‘Yes. You are. That’s true.’
I shifted around on the battered leather couch.
‘Shall we have a walk around the antique stalls?’
‘How do you ask for the bill in Latvian?’
The changes had started to happen without anyone noticing. But like the birds escaping the trees at the first fraction of a distant earthquake, the signs had been there, for anyone to pick up on, from the beginning. Just small things. Like the day I’d had to look up the number of a builder to do some work on our new little house. Looking up the number of a builder is the first step towards actually employing someone. I would be in charge of someone. A man. A proper man, with paint on his fingers and stubble on his chin. I’d be a boss. He’d probably call me his gaffer.
And then there was the morning Lizzie witnessed something terrifying.
‘What are you doing?’ she’d said, wide-eyed, as she watched me walking to the kitchen.
‘I’m just taking this mug to the sink,’ I’d said.
And then, as we realised what was happening – what that signified – how that was the first time in my life I had ever taken a mug to the sink within two days of finishing my tea – I stopped dead in my tracks and we both simply stared at each other in horror.
We had felt the first tremors of the earthquake. It was getting closer.
Soon, the evidence of impending adulthood began to pile up. The fridge was our early warning system. Gone were the Herta frankfurters and processed cheese of just a year or two before – replaced by skimmed milk, and hummus, and baby carrots, and fresh spinach. We’d gone organic, we were buying fairtrade, we had crisp white wine instead of cans of Stella. Clubs had become bars, nights down the pub had slowly morphed into intimate dinners with close friends. I ate low-fat pretzels with crushed rock salt where once Wotsits would have done. How had this happened? Was it the move? Or was it the fact that I was twenty-nine? On the brink of change? On the brink of finally, undeniably, irrefutably becoming… a man?
But I wasn’t a man. I was a boy. I had a silly job, for starters. A job I’d entered into quite without meaning to, through a slightly odd set of circumstances. A job which gets strange looks. A job I’m slightly embarrassed to tell you about. A job which changed title every time I completed a new piece of work, but which, at the moment at least, you could sort of describe as ‘very minor television personality’ if you were being kind, and ‘quiz show host’ if you were not.
I told you it was silly.
Since I’d started popping up on shows, asking questions and providing answers, my friends had started to think of me as someone good to get on a pub quiz team – despite the fact that I have never in my life won a pub quiz. People texted me questions set by trivia machines in burger bars, hoping I’d help save their last two quid by telling them who in 1970 was signed by Hull City to become one of the youngest-ever managers in football history. Cabbies asked me to settle bets. I’d become recognisable on the streets, but only to people who thought they’d gone to school with me or met me at a wedding, or actually had gone to school with me or met me at a wedding. I was especially recognisable to them.
But it was fun. It was a different me, though. I had to pretend to be confident and in control and knowledgeable, but I felt a little like a fraud. Sometimes I wondered if I knew who the real me was. But still, it left me with a great deal of down-time. Down-time like this summer. I knew in the spring I’d be tackling a big new project, so for now I was happy bumbling about, writing the odd piece for a newspaper or magazine to keep the bills paid, seeing Wag and Ian when I could, and trying somehow to convince myself I was able to handle DIY. It was time I should have been investing wisely, to be honest. And yet I was doing nothing to stop this constant slide into domesticity…
So for weeks the rumble got louder. We’d started buying fresh bread. We’d visited a farmers’ market and bought some olives, despite the fact that very few local farmers have ever actually farmed an olive. I wanted to talk to Lizzie about what was happening, but she seemed so comfortable, so at ease with it all, so in her element, that it never seemed the right time. She brought home display cushions. She bought some sticks which she stuck in a jar and convinced me were a ‘dramatic focal point’ for our living room. She bought the box set of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s critically acclaimed Trois Couleurs trilogy, which she assured me would explore the French Revolutionary ideals of freedom, equality and brotherhood and their relevance to the contemporary world, and I’d smiled and hidden the copy of Kung Fu Soccer I’d bought that afternoon in HMV.
But these were all foreshocks… mere tremors before the main event. The day the earthquake threatened its arrival proper was the day my phone, sitting above the very epicentre of it all, jolted violently around the table, in controlled, measured spasms. Either there really was an earthquake, or I’d had a text.
Come round to ours on Friday night! It’s a book launch! And we’ve got something we’d love to ask you…
It was from our friends Stefan and Georgia. Two names which prove, even more than a casual dunk of a croissant in a latte, that we were now operating in a whole different world. Were we still in the East End, I have no doubt that that text would have been from Blind Eric and Jimmy the Lips, inviting us out to throw traffic cones at cars.
The Friday arrived the way Fridays do, and we’d gone along to their vast Highbury mansion to find that Stefan, a chef, had prepared an elaborate spread of unusual dishes. It was all in aid of his latest cookbook, and felt very fancy and posh and middle class. Now, Stefan is a man who likes his food slightly odd. I know this because I once ate some soup a
I opened a beer and found the food.
In front of me was a plate of odd meat. Stefan joined me with a fine wine in hand.
‘What’s this?’ I said, pointing at the dish.
‘That’s donkey sausage,’ said Stefan.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘And this?’
‘That is herring sperm.’
‘Right. Good. Herring sperm,’ I said. ‘Where did you find that?’
‘Up a herring,’ said Stefan. ‘We’ve also got some crickets for later. I picked them up in Beijing.’
‘You have to be so careful these days,’ I said, but it seemed from his expression that Stefan had actually picked them up on purpose.
Half an hour later, in the crowded garden, Lizzie was being kicked by a small child called Owen, and I was finishing my Pot Noodle.
‘Georgia said they’d be over in a minute to ask us that question,’ said Lizzie. ‘I wonder what it is?’
Owen had started to kick me now. I tried my best to ignore him.
‘I dunno,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Maybe he wants to know where I source my excellent Pot Noodles. Or maybe…’
And then I looked down and noticed that Owen was rubbing a donkey sausage into my shoes.
‘Christ. Hold this…’ I said to Lizzie, who had never held a Pot Noodle in her life before. She looked at it and pulled a face that was completely new to me, but which I imagine must have been one of wonder and intrigue. I don’t want to make you jealous, but life with me is full of magical new experiences like holding Pot Noodles.
I got a pen and paper out.
‘What are you up to?’
‘I’m going to get rid of this little numbnut.’
Friends Like These by Danny Wallace / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes