It was sixteen below the night Jase died. Poor sod didn’t stand a chance. He was stupid on drink; had no coat or hat, dressed just in his jeans and that black hoodie he loved so much. Stuck outside, he sat down and froze to death. I was a few feet from him - a few lousy feet. Indoors, in my bed, and I didn’t know. Instead, I found him when I set out for work that morning; curled on the bench, on the patio below my window, pale, beautiful as ever and utterly dead.
I’d met Jase in the September. I’d just finished a long shift on the ward and when I got back to my car, one of my tyres was almost flat. There was a place between work and home and I pulled in on the way past. They looked like they were just about to shut up shop for the night. I had to turn on my best “little girl lost” impression. I laid it on thick; poor hard-working nurse on an early shift, what was I to do? They helped me out. The manager called Jase out of the back, asked for a favour. I could see he was gorgeous, even under a shift’s worth of garage grime. He had thick dark hair, curling onto his forehead, his eyes shone, a beautiful rich nutty brown, and when he smiled, his face lit up, cheeky, boyish and dimpled. When he was making my bill up, we got talking, and even before he’d asked me to, I’d decided that yes, I would meet him for a drink.
Things were good for a while, we got on really well, and there was definitely attraction on both sides. I stayed over at his place a few times, he spent weekends at mine. But it had got to that stage, where you start to wonder what’s next and I’d been beginning to think we weren’t going anywhere. That’s when Jase had said he wanted me to meet his Mum and Dad. He was clearly more serious than I was, and for all his happy-go-lucky appearance he was really quite conventional at heart. I wanted more. I wanted to get on in my career, to work abroad maybe, to specialise and do more training, I wasn’t ready for commitment.
That night, Jase had been drinking with his mates. They never needed much of an excuse for piss up; Chris had got a new job and that was it; in The Queen’s from early doors until they were kicked out. Jase had phoned me and asked me to join them, but I was on an early at work so I’d made that my excuse and stayed home with a DVD and a bottle of wine. Sometime after midnight Jase had said he was going to crash at mine and had left the pub on his own. I’d locked up and turned in about ten o’clock and I didn’t hear a thing. No door bell, no phone call – the police found Jase’s phone buried in the snow, he must have been trying to call me and dropped the bloody thing. The show was all churned up as if he’d been kicking it out of the way. I don’t know why he didn’t shout, hammer on the door, anything, but if he did, I didn’t hear him. He must have just sat down on the bench, passed out and slowly died.
The funeral was awful. Jase’s Mum and Dad were in bits - his Dad kept saying that thing about it not being right, burying your own, and Noddy, well… she was inconsolable. Sid took her out of the chapel, he almost had to carry her. I was sat next to Jase’s Mum and she was squeezing my hand, clinging on as if her own life depended on it. They played “The Lord is My Shepherd” and I remember thinking that the Lord had abandoned quite a few of his flock in this case. I heard people say I was coping well, keeping things together, but in truth there wasn’t much to keep together. I liked Jase, he was a good laugh, but I wasn’t in love with him. He wasn’t, as my friend Shona would have put it, “a keeper”. I was supposed to be the heart-broken girlfriend but my feelings were nowhere near that. I was thinking of ending things that weekend he died; he just beat me to it.
After the funeral, Anita, that’s Jase’s Mum, started coming round. The first time she wanted to see the bench, so I took her out in the back. The bench was still all covered with Ice. I thought I’d give her a few minutes to herself and went indoors to put the kettle on. When I went back outside she was sitting out there, on the ice, rocking back and to and muttering something under her breath. I got her back indoors and her jeans were all wet, but she hadn’t even noticed. She’s never blamed me, never questioned why I didn’t let him in, why I didn’t hear him. She asked would it be OK if they planted a tree out in the back, in Jase’s memory. I said I thought it was a lovely idea but I couldn’t very well say anything else. We sat out there, in March, on the bench, whilst Jase’s Dad dug this huge bloody hole and then shoved this tree in it. His Dad didn’t say a word to me; just kept looking at the distance between the bench and my bedroom window. I’d been thinking of replacing the lawn with a bit of hard standing, so as I could get the car parked off the road, but that’s a non- starter now. Whenever she comes round, Anita goes and checks the tree. She says it’s put six inches on already. And every time she asks me how I’m doing, and I say “OK, I’m getting there”. Truth to tell, I’m fine.
Sid and Noddy, they’re the ones who’ve really found it hard. They were so close. All three of them from the same street and the same school. Noddy had lived next door to Jase for years. She would refuse to play with the girls in the street, instead she hung round with Sid and Jase, played football, went fishing, biked everywhere with them. In the end, I think they forgot she was a girl. She dressed like them, drank like them, swore like them. For a while, after he died, they’d invite me to join them when they were going down to The Queen’s, but we’d got no common ground. They had years of history with him. I’d had, what, eleven weeks. Eleven weeks and two days, from first date to death? We hardly knew each other. I bet that makes me sound hard, callous even, but look what’s happened. I’m saddled with the role of grieving widow of someone I was about to dump. I can’t just come out with it. What would it make me if I said that Jase was just a pissed up idiot who should have known better. Yeah, I know, callous.
Jase’s birthday was in May. Sid phoned me,
‘Nat, we’re going to have a do at The Queen’s Saturday night; sort of a memorial fundraiser for Jase. Will you come, bring some people?’
Again, I’m saddled.
‘Sure Sid, what time?’
‘Eight-ish…Brian’s doing some sandwiches, pies and stuff. We thought we’d have a collection.’
‘Great. Good Idea. What are you collecting for?’
‘Thought we’d get a bench, put a little plaque on it….’
‘Sid, that’s sick’
‘I’m sorry, meant to be joke, wasn’t funny…sorry.’
It was a good night in the end. Anita and Jase’s Dad came down as well, plus quite a lot of people from the tyre place where Jase worked. Anita suggested they should collect for the Guide Dogs as Jase had once done a parachute jump to raise money for them. I never knew that, but then again, I didn’t know much about him at all.
I’d been back home in bed for a while when the commotion started. It sounded like everyone who’d been in the pub was in my garden, singing, shouting and shushing each other as only drunks do. I looked out of the window, eight feet below me, Sid’s bald spot shining in the moonlight, Noddy, Duffers and Chris, all crammed onto the bench.
‘What are you doing? Shut up for heaven’s sake. You’ll wake next doors’
Too late, next doors lights were on, their dog yapping. ‘Go on, piss off home’
Sid stands up, turns round and looks up at me. He’s swaying a bit.
‘Why, if it isn’t the fair, Natalie’ he starts in a theatrical fashion, ‘Come on down girl, join us, we’re having a memorial sit.’
Chris sets off giggling, muttering about “memorial shit”, and Noddy’s singing, a surprisingly feminine voice belting out that James Blunt song. I got rid of them eventually, after they’d woken half the street up. They disappeared into the night with Noddy yelling about me being a “hard faced bitch” who never even loved him. Trouble is, she wasn’t wrong.
A few days later there was a knock at the door. It was Sid. He’d got a carrier bag in one hand and a packet of Hob-nobs in the other.
‘Something I need to do, out back. It’s alright isn’t it?’
He’d already gone through and out the back door leaving the Hob-nobs by the kettle. I filled it and switched it on before going to see what he was up to. He’d got a tin of wood-stain out and a brush. He’d put newspaper down under the legs of the bench and had started painting.
‘You don’t hang about do you? What if I don’t want my bench doing up?’
‘It need’s doing, Nat, it’s just going to rot otherwise’
‘It can for all I care. I’m beginning to hate the sight of the bloody thing.’ I turned back into the house slamming the kitchen door behind me. I paced up and down in the front room for a bit and then put the telly on. Sid never got his brew; I didn’t hear him leave.
It was a few weeks before I saw him again. He’d got Noddy with him, who’d got something she wanted to say to me.
‘I’m sorry for what I said about you Natalie, I was rat-arsed.’
‘It’s OK, best forgotten eh?’
‘Yeah, but… we want another favour.’
I’m thinking “Oh God what now” when Sid says,
‘Best just show her Noddy,’
Noddy reaches inside her jacket and pulls out something rolled in an old tea-towel. It’s a small, oval plaque of cast bronze. A scroll of oak leaves surrounds Jase’s name and the dates of his birth and death. It’s beautiful. On the back they’ve all scratched their names; Chris, Duffers, Noddy and Mark.
‘Mark Sydney.’ Noddy gestured towards to Sid with a sideways flick of her head.
‘Noddy made it. It’s good isn’t it?’
‘It’s lovely, it really is’
‘We’ve left space.’
I’m looking blank.
‘For you to put your name on’
‘But this isn’t from me, it’s from you lot. His mates’
But Noddy’s handed me some sort of tool, she’s not taking no for an answer. So I scratch “Nat” on the back and add a “x” for good measure. I make tea and watch from the window as Sid fixes the plaque onto the bench, Noddy watching him with tears in her eyes.
Later that night, much later, they’re all back again. It starts quietly enough, but I can hear them, under my window, chatting, laughing and talking about things they got up to with Jase. Then Chris gets to giggling and can’t stop and someone lets out a huge snort of laughter. I give up trying to ignore them and switch on the lights.
‘I’m trying to sleep. Piss off home you lot, some of us have got to get up in a few hours’
But Chris can’t stop it, and we end up having another shouting match, waking next doors and their bleeding yappy dog.
The next day I call round at Sid’s on my way home from work. He’s lying on the sofa looking worse for wear.
‘If you’ve come to give me a bollocking, don’t worry, I’ll accept it. I wouldn’t like us lot waking me up either…’ He gets up and heads into the kitchen. The flat is tiny, he makes it in two strides. ‘Will you have a coffee, or there’s a beer if you’d rather’
‘Coffee, please…no, actually a beer would be good, I’ve had a shitter of a day”
He hands me an open bottle and then asks if I want a glass, but I’ve already drained a big mouthful. I drop my shoulder bag onto the floor, and push it out of the way with my foot.
‘I bet you all think I’m the most miserable cow on the planet?’
‘I bet you think we’re a load of pissed up arseholes’
‘Fair enough. So now we know where we all stand’
We both take another mouthful of beer. The atmosphere is so thick you could cut it. But then Sid moves over to the bookcase, pulls out a photograph album. It’s dusty, and he wipe’s his hands on his jeans. He opens the album.
‘Will you have look, Natalie, please?’
The sun is behind him, shining through the thinning red cropped hair on his scalp, but I see the expression in his eye’s nevertheless. He looks lost, bewildered, as if he can’t quite handle the situation he’s in. I take the album from him.
There are photographs of family members, a springer spaniel, a vintage motorbike, a caravan, and then they start; two young boys on bikes, one with a shock of ginger hair, the other with those beautiful nut brown eyes. Three figures on a wall, arms thrown round each other, grinning into the camera, Sid, Jase and Noddy. They look about seven, eight maybe, grubby faced, in matching United shirts. There’s scores of pictures, mostly the three of them together; a few later ones have Chris or Duffers as well. There’s one of Jase kitted out for his parachute Jump, his Mum and Dad either side wearing Guide Dog T Shirts. And then they stop, suddenly, there’s just blank silver pages.
‘That’s the trouble with the digital cameras, you never print the pictures. We’ll miss that, in years to come. Here let me show you my favourite…’
It’s a picture I didn’t pick up on, first time round. Jase and Noddy together, it’s a party, you can make out 21st birthday banners in the background. Nothing special about the picture, two faces, a bit over-exposed by the flash, smiling, drinks in hand. I look at Sid for an explanation of what makes this so special. He understands instantly.
‘My two best mates in the world. They look so happy together, made for each other, but. the daft bastard was too stupid to see it.’
I look up at Sid and realise he’s got tears in his eyes. He’s embarrassed, and sniffs loudly, wiping his nose with a thumb and forefinger. For a minute he turns and stares out of the window. Then he looks back at me.
‘I’m sorry Natalie, we won’t come round again, not like that. It’s not fair on you’.
I don’t know what else to say. I feel as though some great gesture is required, something that will sort everything out; instead I drain the last of the lager. Stand up, retrieve my bag, and let myself out, without saying goodbye.
The following Saturday is bright and sunny. For once I’ve got the whole weekend off. I’m enjoying that feeling of there being nothing I have to do, and a whole world of possibilities of what I could do. I’m busy making plans when a white van parks opposite and Chris and Sid climb out and open the back doors. I meet them on the threshold.
‘I thought you weren’t coming round again?’
‘Charming,’ says Chris, ‘when we’ve come to do you a favour.’
‘We’ve come for the bench. We’ve had a word with Brian at The Queens, and we’re going to put it in the beer garden. No more late night sing songs on Patio Natalie’. That’s what you wanted isn’t it.’ Says Sid.
‘So what’s your problem then?’ Chris asks and he walks to the back of the van.. ‘Sid, am I on my own here, or what?’
And Sid goes over to the van and they pull out a bench. A brand new one, on which no-one sat down and died, a bench without history. They carry it round the back, place it under the window, declare that it looks grand and then one at either end pick up Jase’s bench and carry it away. I only remember to say thanks as the van pulls away from the kerb. Chris gives me a bit of a wave, a slight nod of the head, but Sid just looks straight out through the windscreen, I don’t think he heard me. I make a coffee, take it outside and drink it sitting on the new bench. It feels like something is over. Finally over and if I squint just a bit I realise I can’t even see Anita’s tree.
The winter just gone was mostly mild, apart from a light snowfall just before Christmas, which left a messy icy crust behind it. Most nights I slept with the window open a crack, and I’d listen to the sounds of the city slowing down as I drifted off. There was the odd courting cat, the slamming of car doors, the occasional rattle of a black cab’s engine. And sometimes, just sometimes, the over-loud voices of drunks on their way home.
And then one night, when the wind picked up and started whipping the curtains about I got up to pull the window to, and saw there was someone out there on the bench, sitting quietly, holding a mobile, its screen bright against the darkness. Just then my phone rang, I reached for it and saw that it was Sid calling. I pressed to answer and stepped back away from the window.
‘Sid, what is it?’
‘it’s you Natalie…’
Silence, he’s hung up. The figure on the bench gets up and heads for the back gate.
I ring him back. He stops at the gate and turns back, I see him lifting the phone back to his ear.
‘Oh shit…Nat, It’s you, It’s you I miss, it’s not Jase, It’s you…’
I end the call. He’s turned away again. I grab the handle on the window and shove it open, sticking my head into the gap,
‘SID…’ I yell, bugger the neighbours...
‘I’ll call you…I’ll call you…’
And he nods, and smiles and then lets himself quietly out of the gate. I watch him go, and then I pull the window shut, close the curtains and slip back into bed. I lie there for a while, wide awake now and finally I give up trying to sleep, and I reach for the phone to make that call.