London, 2010, winter was mild but still cold. Hardcore folks strolled down the streets in black insulated jackets and colorful scarves around their necks. Alluring glowing lights shone through building windows, as a reminder of the warmth that was to be found inside.
In one of the streets, a young beggar sauntered aimlessly collecting plastic and metal. His rugged clothes partly touched the ground; his wary eyes darted above his frozen face. From a distance, he looked like an old man but at a close range, one was surprised to realize that he was only a boy. The years had been hard on him.
Nearby outside a red brick building, Richard sat outside his school and watched the beggar walk by. He wanted to wave and shout halo but the other kids in his High School were watching him. And as a popular kid in school, that was not a cool thing to do. Still, Richard sympathized with the beggar and wondered how he survived on the streets without a jacket.
“There goes the beggar again!” one kid yelled and all the other students refocused their attention on the tramp. All the students wore fur jackets and came from rich families. Yorkshire High was an expensive school.
“Mike!” the kids yelled. “Can you do the flex thing again?” The beggar’s name was Mike.
The beggar grinned sheepishly as he put down his metal and plastic. Then awkwardly and shaking from the cold, he posed in a bodybuilding stance showing imaginary muscles. The students laughed until tears rolled down their faces.
Richard tried to ignore what was happening but his body couldn’t. Mike had been his best friend when they were kids and after the car accident where Mike’s parents had been killed, Mike had never been the same again. And that was five years ago. The doctors couldn’t quite place it and they had ruled it as dementia: a state of shock of the mind. Was the condition reversible? The odds didn’t look good for Mike.
While Richard excelled in school, Mike his best friend had resorted to picking up trash and wandering the back streets of London, day and night.
A student threw an apple at the beggar and Richard suddenly jumped to his feet. The overripe apple landed on the beggar’s forehead and exploded all over his face and clothes. The beggar just stood there looking stupid and the other students laughed uncontrollably. Then the beggar turned and walked away with dropped shoulders.
Richard instinctively wanted to go to his friend’s aide but somehow he couldn’t move. It was as though his feet were glued to the ground. The other students walked over laughing and hi fived him. “Did you see that Richard? That fool took it right in the face!”
“Bloody beggar!” another student blatantly cursed.
An ambivalent Richard half smiled at his friends but words escaped him. Any wrong comment would doom his status as the popular kid on campus. He craned his neck over the students’ heads searching for Mike but the beggar was nowhere to be seen. The air moved freely where mike had previously stood.
Mr. Williams the professor suddenly appeared and the boys scampered away.
“Stay Richard.” Mr. Williams managed to catch Richard before he could flee. Oh no, Richard thought. Not another lecture.
See, Mr. Williams wasn’t a real professor but he should have been because he was the perfect definition of one: gray hair jelled back, reading glasses without a book, an unlit pipe in his mouth. And what’s up with the left hand always in his jacket pocket?
Richard raised an eyebrow as the professor lit his pipe. “Didn’t you and that boy use to be friends?” Mr. Williams asked casually as he blew smoke into the air.
“Yes we did sir. A long time ago,” Richard said as his eyes narrowed. Had the professor been watching the proceedings?
Mr. Williams’ left hand dug into his pocket, his face was solemn.
“Richard my boy. Lemme give you some advice.” Pause. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The professor turned and looked at the boy. “You are familiar with this saying Richard?”
“Yes sir, Edmund Burke, House of Commons Great Britain, 18th Century.”
“Very good son,” the Professor showed his white teeth. And then he was quiet for a long time, probably for dramatic effect. And then he said, “You are a good man Richard. You are a good man.”
The Professor turned and walked into the building.
That night, Richard woke up sweating profusely on the linen, something was wrong and his body was trying to talk to him. He grabbed his soaked pillow, buried his head and fell back into a restless sleep. In his sleep, he saw his friend Mike.
They were sitting by the river sharing a cigarette, which Richard had stolen. They were fourteen years old and this was their first smoke, ever!
Richard coughed and handed the cigarette to a shirtless Mike. “Here, its your turn.”
Mike inhaled like a pro then exhaled through his nose and Richard was impressed. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“From the TV,” Mike replied. “I guess am a natural.” Smoking after a dip in the river felt good. The cigarette tasted awful but the whole ambience was what mattered. The boys pictured themselves driving fancy cars and looking cool.
“I wonna be a pilot when I grow up,” Mike said.
“You have to be really smart for that,” Richard pointed out.
“I’m smart. I was number two in class last semester, and this time I will be one.” A pause. Then Mike added wisely, “a wise lady once said that the only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams.”
Richard laughed. “You watch too much TV Mike.”
It wasn’t a secret that Mike was a smart kid and everybody in the little town knew that he was going to be someone important.
Suddenly, five women appeared in Richard’s dream and they were standing in front of the boys looking very angry indeed. Mike was holding the smoke. The two boys were taken back into town and beaten in front of a crowd.
“Where did you get that cigarette? Who bought it for you?” The older folks were livid.
Richard had stolen the cigarette from the store and Mike was innocent. The stick landed on Richard’s behind and he screamed in pain. He heard Mike screaming nearby. But neither of the boys talked. At one point through the pain, Mike turned and winked at Richard. Richard almost missed the wink because it was buried in a face full of pain. But the message was clear: Mike would never betray or sell out his friend.
Richard woke up and paced the room. The dream had been so clear and yet it had all happened five years ago. He splashed water on his face, walked downstairs and drained a glass of juice down his throat.
The accident. Mike had been in the back seat, his parents in front when the car rolled off the road and landed in a ditch. He had watched his parents die, heard them take their last breath.
On that dreadful day, Richard found Mike curled in the corner of his room hugging his knees to his chest, rocking himself, a blank expression on his face. But it was the eyes that took Richard by surprise. There was nothing in those eyes: no pupil movement, no light, no life. Mike had died along with his parents and in his place, sat a strange kid, devoid of everything around him.
Richard had visited Mike everyday after the accident but things got tougher because Mike didn’t recognize him. After a while and many hospital treatments, folks left Mike alone and so did Richard. Life went back to normal and Mike took to the streets. Richard went to High School and was en route to college to pursue his career.
I want to be a pilot when I grow up, Richard remembered Mike’s words with a feeling of remorse. Mike would never achieve his dream. He would forever wander the streets until fate dealt him another card.
Days turned into weeks and months into a year and soon it was graduation day. Richard was excited and as a popular kid, he was chosen to make a closing speech, an honor, which he accepted.
Graduation is beautiful, Richard thought as he stood in front of a sea of faces: professors, parents and students… colorful decorations and beautiful flowers… lots of smiles and glittering eyes … the smell of rich perfume in the air.
“As we walk out of these doors today,” Richard said in a strong voice. “Make no mistake that life will be easy. Many of us will stumble and many will want to quit. Life is a journey and we have to fight for what we believe in. A good friend once told me that…” … and here Richard choked as he remembered Mike’s words by the river… “A good friend once told me that the only limit to the height of your achievement is the reach of your dreams.”
And here again Richard was consumed with emotion and his eyes turned blurry. How was it possible that Mike still lived inside him after all those years?
The other students thinking that he had finished his speech applauded and Richard chose the moment to walk away from the podium with misty eyes.
“Good speech Richard,” a few students touched his gown as he walked by. His dad and mum hugged him and Richard looked at his mum and said. “There’s somewhere I have to be mum. Are you and dad going to be okay?”
Richard’s mum gave him one look and nodded. “Go son. Do what you have to do.”
“Hey Richard!” a student yelled. “You coming to the after party?”
Richard didn’t even look at him. He hit the double door hard and ran down the stairs. A cold wind brushed his face as he ran into the streets. He tripped on his gown and fell: his resilience wavered; he pursed his lips, rose to his feet and fought his way forward. There was only one thing on his mind, find Mike!
An hour later, he found him in an alley, half asleep, half frozen. It was dark and scary and a black cat scurried away at his intrusion.
“Mike! Mike!” Richard yelled as Mike turned and looked at him quizzically.
“Mike, its me Richard your friend. Remember? We used to be best friends and used to smoke together by the river?”
The beggar looked at him with a blank expression and said. “Be-st fri…end….. you … best fri…end.”
“Yes Mike, “Richard repeated. “I’m your best friend!”
Mike grinned and a contrite Richard noticed that his friend’s teeth were turning yellow. He sat next to him and tried to ignore the strong smell: from his mouth, from his clothes and body. A torn couch sat in the middle of the alley: broken bottles and rusted metal defined the landscape.
“Mike?” Richard said. “You probably won’t understand this but I’m sorry for everything I’ve done to you and everything I haven’t done for you. I’m sorry for being a bad friend and betraying you.” Richard was now crying openly. “You would never betray me Mike. You never betrayed me when we were kids.”
Cold air whooshed down the alley and carried the sound of Richard’s sobs away. A sadness descended into the pit of his belly as he watched Mike’s head wobble from side to side, fighting with his inner thoughts, the demons tormenting him. Richard’s heart bled for him and at this moment, he would have given his heart for just one moment of the old Mike. To hear him say his name ... to hear him laugh and talk about being a pilot … to see him wink. Here he was next to his best friend, as hopeless as the moon looking for a partner.
Richard sat with Mike for a long time and showed him his graduation gown. Mike stuttered in response. Twilight came and Richard knew that it was time to go home. He didn’t want to leave, but he also knew that the alley was no place for a boy like him. He stood up to leave but suddenly Mike grabbed his hand.
“Richard?” Mike said. The voice was soft and surreal.
Richard almost fainted. He fell on his knees and hugged Mike hard. “Mike,” he yelled. “You are back!”
Mike smiled. His pupils moved and the color was back in his eyes. “Did you mean all that you said?” Mike asked.
“Yes! Yeeees! Mike. You are my best friend and I will never let anything happen to you again. Ever!” Richard’s heart was pounding fast and he realized that he had been waiting for this moment of serendipity for a long time. The moment when he would rediscover who he was, his true identity. Not the masquerade of being a popular kid in school but … to feel again in every fiber in his body … to honor and be loyal to his principles.
Then Mike began to cry. “I watched them die Richard. I watched them die and I couldn’t save them! I… I couldn’t do anything to save them!”
Mike cried like a baby and his sobs were heartbreaking. It was as though the accident had just happened. “Shhssss…” Richard whispered as he cuddled his friend. “I’ve got you now Mike. You will never be alone again. Don’t cry Mike. Don’t cry. You are my best friend.”
Suddenly, the sound of metal clanking cut through the darkness and Mike was on his feet in a heartbeat, the wall behind him. Dark shadows appeared in the dim light and Richard stood up trembling. A cold chill ran down the nape of his neck.
“Don’t run Richard,” Mike gallantly whispered through clenched teeth. “If things get rough, we fight like we did when we were kids.”
Mike’s courage was infectious and Richard took in a deep breath and a calmness descended into his body. If he was going to die then he was in the right place, next to his best friend.
“Leave him alone!” Mike yelled at the shadows. “He’s my friend!”
No answer. Eerie laughter in the darkness: encroaching movement; yellow eyes in the night. At the height of anxiety, Richard’s palms turned sweaty as he tried to clench them.
Suddenly, a car squealed tires nearby and headlight beams blinded the boys. The car stopped abruptly and a man jumped out firing a pistol into the air. “Jump in!” he yelled.
Mike and Richard didn’t need a second invitation and the car zoomed away from the alley and into the bright streets of London.
“Professor Williams!” It was a breathless Richard who noticed first.
“Halo Richard, halo Mike?” the professor greeted casually and Richard was even more startled. “You know my friend Mike?”
The professor nodded and slowed the car down. “Mike’s father was my best friend. I’ve been watching over Mike since the accident.”
At this point Richard was capable of believing anything. He watched as Mike ran a hand over the new leather in the car. Mike looked fascinated.
“You still wonna be a pilot Mike?”
“Oh yes,” Mike replied as his eyes lit up. “But I have to graduate first.”
“You mean like me?” Richard joked.
“Yes, like you Richard, like you.”
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...