I arrived in my old University town of Norwich on Wednesday afternoon. There it was lovely walking around old familiar streets again. My knowledge of them never entirely went away: I only had to spend a little time using google maps to help me navigate on this trip.
I think Norwich is a fine city. Indeed, numerous signs on the roads approaching the city proclaim it to be so. It’s certainly historic, with the greatest number of medieval churches of any city in England; it has a castle, a cathedral and an open market that are each nearly a thousand years old. When I was studying there I barely noticed its cultural attractions, I was mainly interested in the drinking scene. It’s only since I left that I’ve returned occasionally on these trips to explore previously unknown sights. Like a lot of other English cities, it has a warren of narrow paved alleyways lined with funky independent shops and cafés in the centre that one could get lost in for days and not mind one bit. The mixture of history, independent spirit in the number of non-chain shops and restaurants that appear everywhere, and the proliferation of fine buildings all combine to make it a very pleasing place to spend time in.
Every time I return to Norwich I’m greeted by memories of the past on practically every street corner, and it was no different this time. The memories are ghosts who live there permanently. My ghosts. Some of them are good, some bad. Although I didn’t move to Norwich until I was eighteen, it’s where I did all my growing up, and the three years that I stayed there now seem like a crazy, unforgettable film. Some of it’s so strange to think about now it’s like it happened to someone else. It definitely wasn’t the me of 2016 who did some of those things. My experiences in Norwich between 2001 – 04 are alcoholism encapsulated. When I return now it’s good to know I’ve made my peace with it.
At the hotel on Wednesday night I decided to download Grindr to my phone again, for a laugh. I’d be alone in Norwich for the first couple of days, and it didn’t seem like a bad idea to look at the local talent. I had a suspicion that I might see some familiar faces on there: it was always a small gay scene, with many of the same faces living in the bars and clubs year after year. I thought in the age of Grindr it would probably be no different. Once I’d logged on I was able to laugh at how many faces I recognised: four within one kilometre of the hotel. One of them, R (a Norwich native), had been a good friend in my last year at University, and before long we were chatting again after twelve years of no contact. It was initially strange to pick up the friendship where we left off as if the intervening years hadn’t happened, not least because I had changed in so many ways since the last time I saw him, and he didn’t know anything about those changes. It might need a lot of explaining. In the end, though, it was absolutely fine. I could tell him that I wasn’t the promiscuous alcoholic party animal any more and he accepted it – he too had mellowed somewhat over the years, though he was still a fairly regular visitor to the gay bars.
We arranged to meet for coffee on Thursday. Chatting on Grindr is one thing; holding a conversation in real life with someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since I was 21 might prove to be another, so I was nervous as I walked to our agreed meeting spot at the train station. Not for the last time during the trip, I started to feel a bit like that 21 year old again, as I was doing something he used to do all the time: meeting a friend at the train station. It’s a good meeting spot in Norwich if you’re planning to do the gay bars or visit the house of someone who lives nearby. As I stood there and waited I couldn’t help but quickly go through all the things that happened during my years there, and all that has happened since. It’s like I can’t quite believe all of it – my visits to Norwich are the only time when I can take stock and feel surprised at all that’s happened in my life.
When R arrived I was secretly miffed to see that he hadn’t aged very much in twelve years. He told me I hadn’t aged at all, which was nice of him, though I couldn’t believe him. Inside I sometimes feel I’ve aged a hundred years since I left that place. For a few minutes I wasn’t sure what to talk to him about. If I started reminiscing about the past we might easily spend the night talking about all the drunken debauchery I used to get up to; a conversation that might have been fun for him but not so much for me. R asked me about what I’d been up to in the last decade, so we talked about careers and travelling for a while, and the topic of drinking was safely avoided. Later on we began to talk about modern music and how it wasn’t as good as it had been in our day. A pleasant, enjoyable conversation blossomed and I felt like I was with a friend who’d never gone away. I was comfortable.
After a few hours I didn’t want to leave him, but I’d arranged to do a Skype call with my sponsor back at the hotel, so that we could do some more step work together. The miracle of modern technology means you don’t need to be in the same country as your sponsor to work the steps; it also means that when you’ve made an appointment to Skype them, you have no excuse not to. I left R agreeing that we might meet up again on Saturday night at the gay pub on the hill, a place that is a key part of my history, for it’s where all these things happened:
- I first came out as gay there
- I met the man who I lost my virginity to there
- in fact it’s there I met many of my early sexual partners
- it’s also the place where I started drinking alcoholically
I’ve been back to the pub a few times since leaving Norwich in ’04, so I knew that they had refurbished the place and that it wasn’t really the same pub any more. The power of nostalgia remains strong, though, and with an invitation from an old friend, I felt drawn to go back again.
P arrived in Norwich on Friday, and I enjoyed showing him all the sights on his first day. I tried to imagine what it would be like for him, as someone who’s never been there before, but imagining was impossible. The streets and buildings of Norwich are as familiar to me as those of London now. I can never see them with new eyes again.
P was impressed with everything I showed him, including the gay pub where I took him that night. I wasn’t averse to the idea of going there two nights in a row, and neither was P. On Friday night it would just be us; Saturday, with any luck, we’d meet R there, and two previously unrelated worlds would collide. Friday being a bank holiday, it was unusually quiet in the pub. The bars in London would undoubtedly be heaving in comparison, and I enjoyed making the comparison between two very different cities. In places like Norwich, people seem to prefer staying at home during religious holidays, a concept that is alien in London, a city that never sleeps. Also in places like Norwich, people’s behaviour is noticeably provincial, in the nicest possible way: they’re laid back, polite, friendly. I felt perfectly unthreatened by the other people in the bar there, whose reaction to any stranger walking in appeared welcoming (on the surface at least). That’s in contrast with London, where anonymity reigns, facial expressions and body language between strangers remain permanently blank and uninviting.
We spent a couple of hours at the pub, chatting over soft drinks and picking favourite songs to play on the video jukebox. The last time I put money in a jukebox anywhere was prior to living memory, and it made me feel altogether young and carefree for a while.
On Saturday, things turned a bit sour between P and I, as they often do when we’re on holiday together. As usual he was on Grindr from first thing in the morning, reminding me of how bad it can get and why I’m better off not having it on my phone. I needn’t have asked him if he was going to meet any of these men that he was chatting to – of course he wasn’t. His politeness and ignorance of the city’s geography bound him to spend all his time in Norwich with me, but he couldn’t put the app down for one minute. His addiction to the attention was too far gone. A few times I pointedly asked him if he was planning to meet someone, my tone indicating that I thought he was wasting his time, but he didn’t pick that part up, he just kept saying “probably not” before returning to the app.
I’ve made it clear to him on several occasions that I think it’s a waste of time, so he should have known what I was really trying to say. Yet he continues to act as if he’s blissfully unaware of the problem. He won’t even put it down for five minutes and consider life without it. He needs to hear that intoxicating pepper grinder sound, he needs to see that message box light up; it’s like air to him. His insistence on acting like it’s normal is infuriating, as is his habit of finishing every conversation by going back to his phone. On Friday night he was just being polite by not spending the whole time on Grindr. By Saturday he felt he’d done his bit socially, and there was clearly no point in trying to engage him.
Every ten minutes or so he’d look up from his phone, say something that had popped into his head in a superficial attempt to appear courteous. Yesterday afternoon I gave up responding to these half arsed attempts at politeness. It would almost be better if he just forgot I was there altogether. Then I could at least go off and do my own thing without feeling bad. It would definitely be better if he actually made one of these men that he was chatting to come out and meet him. Instead of doing what anyone else would do he just wastes all day talking to people he’ll never have any real interaction with, all the while pretending to still be with me. By today I was thoroughly sick of it. I don’t know if he noticed my tone hardening whenever I chose to respond to him; probably not.
Over dinner last night there was a minor incident when we were seated next to a family with kids in Pizza Hut. The noise of a crying child next to our table distracted P momentarily from his Grindr conversation; he looked in the parents’ direction, tutted quietly and gave them a dirty look several times, all to no avail because, as everyone else in the world knows, you can’t make a child be quiet if they don’t want to be. I almost laughed as the child continued to cry, oblivious completely to P’s annoyance, but I didn’t laugh because I knew P would snap and say something ill considered about children in restaurants.
After dinner I didn’t particularly want to go to the gay pub any more, I just wanted to go back to the hotel and read and not talk to P, but I was committed to going as I had said to R I would see him there. It would have been nice to see R again – apart from giving me the chance to escape from the drudgery of P’s sole company for a few hours, it would be another chance to experience that nostalgia for the past. Sadly, we waited two hours and R never showed up. I couldn’t take any more of sitting there watching P on his phone, so I announced that I wanted to leave. Outside the pub we crossed the road and started walking in the direction of the hotel in silence, getting our umbrellas out to shelter us from the rain that had started. After a few minutes, on the other side of the road I saw R walking towards the pub. I could have stopped, gone across to him, chatted for a few minutes before saying goodbye possibly forever, but I wasn’t in the mood by then. He hadn’t seen me, so I carried on in silence, hoping he had some other friends to meet at the pub.
This morning I still didn’t want to talk to P, but I knew I’d have to if I didn’t want him questioning me about what was wrong. It’s got to the stage where a day wouldn’t be enough time to explain to him all that’s wrong in our friendship. So I had to spend the morning pretending to be normal whilst not being too enthusiastic or encouraging – I need to start letting this friendship go at some point and I can’t do that if I’m acting like his best friend. It’s a tricky position I’ve gotten myself into, isn’t it. I ought to be able to say something to him, tell him what’s going on, give him a chance to change or walk away amicably, but every time I think about that conversation I see him going through stages of irritating confusion followed by pleading and lying about how he’ll change, do anything to keep me as a friend. I don’t want to hurt him by killing this friendship without an explanation, but I don’t want to sit down and spend hours talking to him about it either. It would probably take that long to get through to him, thanks to his most grating habit of all: disagreeing with everything I say. His response to every opinion is “yeah, but”; when I’ve brought up the subject of Grindr with him before his reply has repeatedly been a variation of “yeah, but I like it.” You can’t talk to someone who refuses to listen.
Our train was due to leave Norwich at 2pm which gave us time for lunch in town after checking out of the hotel. I wasn’t surprised to find the restaurant we chose full of families with kids like the one we’d visited the night before, but P clearly was surprised, doing his passive aggressive tutting every few minutes as we sat down and listened to screaming toddlers being themselves.
Of course all of this was my fault for inviting P in the first place. When I booked the holiday I just couldn’t help it. Inviting P on holidays is a natural reflex these days. So there’s another reason why I can’t sit down and talk to him about how much he bugs me. He can throw the fact that I’ve willingly included him in so much of my life back at me.
I’ve put off making a final decision about the friendship so many times because it’s lasted for so long, and I’ve wanted to give him plenty of chances. Now that I’ve felt this hopeless about it for nearly a year, it must be an indication that I need to start letting go with love. Just how does one let go with love? Is it a gradual process of drifting away, of not accepting a succession of invitations, of cutting down on communication little by little? Over the years I’ve found it so easy to do that with so many people, but I know it won’t be easy with P, because unlike everyone else, he needs me in his life, more than I need him. So it would be cruel to do it to him. But I have to wonder, what’s the use of putting myself through ten more years of friendship that isn’t going anywhere? Even if it would be cruel to cut ties and leave him with no close friends in London, I’d make myself unhappier and unhappier by prolonging things. And he’s not a child, he’s nearly fifty years old. He’s going to have to learn to make other friends at some point.
Maybe it’s partly true to say that I don’t like him relying on me so much and that’s why I don’t want the friendship any more. Well, I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m not getting anything meaningful from the friendship any more. The weekend wouldn’t have been any worse had I been on my own in Norwich throughout. Maybe there’s also partly fear of the future involved. A fear of specific things in the future that I would have relied on P’s help for including:
- when it comes to getting a mortgage, relying on his advice because he’s done it before and I haven’t
- when I have my own flat, how to book painters and decorators
If I let P go then all of my friends will be in AA, which is a slightly scary thought in itself. I’d have no back ups: my life would be entirely dedicated to AA. Not a bad thing on first consideration, but I can’t help questioning what would happen if I go through another period of being anti-AA. I hope I don’t, but one can’t predict these things. If at some point in the future I choose to leave AA again I wouldn’t have any friends outside. It could get lonely very quickly. Plus there’s still no one in AA that I trust as much as I have been able to trust P over the years. I can’t think of anyone who I’d be able to ask for help with that mortgage stuff when it comes up.
I need to have faith that I’ll get friendships like that in AA one day, or else there’s no point in going on with the meetings. That’s what I’m ultimately in AA for anyway, to find that kind of connection with someone.
On this afternoon’s train home there was a bunch of kids behaving badly, roaming around yelling at people and being a general nuisance. When one of them walked up to P and arrogantly demanded his train ticket, P quietly said “no” like a timid mouse and went back to staring at his phone. The kid stood there incredulous for a few minutes, asked P for his ticket again a few times, before giving up and running off to bother someone else. For a moment I found myself feeling sorry for P: I could imagine him saying “no” in the same timid way to the playground bullies when they were picking on him all those decades ago. I experienced a moment of deeper understanding and sympathy for my friend, who hadn’t asked those kids to embarrass him in front of the train carriage. Luckily I was in the window seat, hidden away from the aisle where the kids were roaming, so they didn’t notice me. Had mine and P’s positions been swapped, I’m sure I would have reacted in the same way. I’d like to think I could have given a sarky, biting response like some of the other adults on the train, but deep down I’m still just that timid little boy that wants to be left alone.
In P I’m presented with a harsh mirror of my own worst behaviours. I too fear being bullied by juvenile members of the public; I too get hooked on Grindr when it’s on my phone, I too crave the attention of men.
Still, I can’t carry on pretending that I’m happy with things the way they are. I have to let go with love. I’m committed to our annual Spanish holiday in July, so I can’t make a real break before then. I can however be strong in the meantime and start winding down our meetings. If I weren’t to see him between now and July that would be perfect, just to see if I could live without him in my life. Sadly he’d notice me avoiding him and I wouldn’t get away with turning him down every single weekend for the next four months. He’d want to know why I’m doing it, and it would make for a lot of awkward conversations in Barcelona.
Were I to be brave and avoid him completely until then, causing those awkward conversations in Spain, I guess that would be my deserved punishment for encouraging so much friendship in recent months whilst feeling secretly unhappy. Were this summer to be our last ever holiday together, I know I could do future holidays on my own, because I’ve done them before. That wouldn’t be a problem. Travelling with a friend is obviously always nicer – but it would need to be a new friend next time. Someone who’s not P!