It was six years ago, and my mate, Pink, had just been told he was going to die. He accepted the news with a grace I can only marvel at, but he said he’d a list of things he’d still like to do. We sat in a pub one night and read it over. Eight things? Four months? Ok. Deal.
Don’t get me wrong, he’d been pissed when he found out. Routine check up. Bit of a cough. Shadow on an X-ray. Bad. His wife had just had an all clear and it seemed particularly cruel. He told us when we were on a dig, heads in a trench, bums in the air. Dignified? Not. At that point he’d had a few weeks to get used to the news. And what he wanted to do. Never mind us wailing & gnashing our teeth. (Yeah, yeah. Very dramatic. Over it? Good.) He had a plan. A great plan. Mind that bit of pot and that jawbone. He said. I’ll tell you, over a pint.
Most of his list was easy – just things he’d never got round to – steer a boat on the Thames, visit a particular collection, see a fancy show – a few seemed harder – publish an essay, trespass, do a gig – and 2 seemed impossible – rough camp at a longbarrow, hide out in a museum. He set his scrappy list on the table and did the whole puppy eyes thing – pleeease. I’d never known a grown man could wheedle so hard.
We split the list four ways – Pink would sort two, the easy ones, duh, he said. With a snort. Jan would do two. I’d a museum pal I thought I could bribe and a boating pal in a basin on the Thames, and Tony, with a frown, took what was left and promised he’d drive.
We saw a show and ate too much ice cream during the interval. Jan’s printer mate did a fancy chap-book of Pink’s whacky landscape theory. Tony’s brother-in-law owned a pub & was willing to let Pink sing. We went on the Thames on a narrow boat and Pink lost his lunch. Six weeks in and we stayed overnight in a museum. Don’t ask which one, we pinky (get it?) swore we’d never tell. Not one I used to work in and no artifacts were harmed. We went for a rainy illegal walk, Pink mooned the CCTV. We went to a nice collection and had a nice tea.
Pink wasn’t doing so well. But he was still determined. Longbarrow. Camp. Just one night. Pleeeease. Tony and I did a spot of reconnaissance and schlepped between different sites in Wiltshire and Berks. Private land. Private land. Ancient monument. Shit. Pink’s wife phoned. Maybe just an afternoon trip, pals? I think a night might be too much. Pink though? Such a stubborn git. What do you do when your friend says one thing, his wife says another, and you can hear death knocking at the outside door? I dunno about you. We went to Wayland’s Smithy. We’d all been there plenty of times before. And walked the Ridgeway, and argued about the White Horse, cut in the hill. And discussed why hill forts are called hill forts at all. It was a good afternoon. We ate our sandwiches, drank a huge flask of tea. Walked back to the car. It wouldn’t start.
There was a bit of tarp in the car, plus a couple of picnic blankets & the portable wood stove Jan’s dad had just fixed for me. (There’d been a small accident on a field trip, best not to ask.) Tony had got half the weekly shop in the boot – it was just meant to be a quick trip. Back at Wayland’s Smithy we set up camp in the corner, far away from the stones. The sun slowly sank, the blue sky faded to dusk & then dark, the temperature cooled.
It was just the four of us, eating Tony’s bacon and eggs, feeding cardboard and bits of punk and debris into the rocket stove to keep us warm. We drank more tea and shared a packet of biscuits. (Chocolate hobnobs. The best of the best.) In the quiet dark Pink said he could hear singing. It was a single voice, singing a folk song, full of mighty deeds & beer (they’re always full of mighty deeds & beer, or dragons & beer) & eventually, its owner arrived at the site. Big bloke, big voice, big pack he dropped beside us. He was thrilled to see us. Or maybe the grub. At some point we all fell asleep. Or woke. Or slept again. I heard singing and thought it might be the moon or the stars, crooning a lullaby.
In the morning the stranger had gone, with his big pack. He’d left us each a gift, wrapped in a burdock leaf, done up with a bit of string. Mine was a hook made of bone, Tony had a skail knife made of flint, Jan had a scarf made of nettle yarn. Pink had four tiny iron horseshoes. One for each of us. Pink said. Grinning.
On the way to the car I found someone had covered a ‘strictly no camping’ sign with a bin bag. I glared, but Pink swore it wasn’t him. Back at the car, he produced a spark plug. Ahh, he said, patting the bonnet. This one was me.
A few weeks later, Pink’s wife, Tess, phoned. And even though I knew it was coming, I still wept. His funeral was full of people who laughed as they cried. Angry tears and sorrow, all mixed together. For us, as well as Pink. Tess had put the shoes on his coffin. Pink was sure you’d met Wayland himself that night, and that they meant he and the horse would come, to take him home, when the time came. Pink had died holding them. One for each of us. I thought of him, then. A man with a plan. To say goodbye.
Comment: I read this last night and it brought a smile to my face. It is the work of Electra Rhodes who published the story as a twitter thread. I don’t know why so many good writers use twitter threads for some of their work other than it being an easy and free way to self-publish. It’s certainly not the only venue open to Rhodes (@electra_rhodes).
“Electra Rhodes is an archaeolgist who lives in Wales and Wiltshire. Her work has been widely anthologised in both prose and poetry anthologies and has placed in more than sixty competitions. She’s the Prose Editor at Twin Pies Literary and teaches CNF for The Crow Collective.”
The story reminded me of a good friend from college. We were both anthropology students. He was from Peabody, Massachusetts and went on to become the state’s chief maritime archeologist. We would sometimes fence bare chested in the dorm hallways or courtyard. Even being liquored up, we had the good sense to wear our chem lab goggles.