I met Jay at school, aged eight or so, when he took a punch for me. I still don't know why he did it—we've spoken about it and neither does he—but from that day we became best friends. We had our first beers together, went on holiday together. We even went to the same university. It was no surprise then that we both became involved in activism.
Over the years, side-by-side, we marched against illegal wars and student fees, corporate greed and corrupt politicians. I thought we cared about people, society, the railroading tactics of government, standing up for those who can't protect themselves. I was proud of our friendship, our principles, our shared vision. I assumed we'd always be friends.
It's hard to pinpoint when the problems began. I'm not saying Jay was violent, but at some point he started adopting the more militant folderol to do with activism, masking his face, graffiting glass-fronted offices, cosying up to the jackboot brigade. I always asked him why he couldn't just embrace a cause for what it was, and his stock response—there's nothing wrong with having a bit of fun—never sat well with me. But it wasn't until that that day in October that I realised just how far Jay was prepared to go.
We were picketing an oil depot in Skelmesdale, The energy company was exceeding carbon emission limits, and the regulators were struggling to be heard from their place in the CEO's back pocket. A dull and drizzly morning, the high pressure in the atmosphere matched the tension on the ground, and news had come the heavies were on their way to clear us. For me, this was the time to go, to leave the hooligan element to partake in their tedious bitch fights. I wasn't expecting Jay to come with—he liked to stick around—but what I didn't expect was for him to lift up his denim jacket and show me the knife slotted in his belt.
I asked him, in no uncertain terms, if he was out of his mind.
"For show," Jay said. "You know these pussies."
"I don't. Neither do you."
I grabbed his sleeve to pull him away, but he shrugged me off. "Head down your allotment," he said. "Water your spuds. Leave the real stuff for the real men."
As Jay lifted his skull and crossbones bandana over his nose, some battered transit vans pulled up and spilled out grim-faced goons.
I couldn't leave Jay—I wanted to make sure he didn't pull that knife.
As the rain came down, the standoff turned ugly. Within minutes the macho grunts became shoves, and it wouldn't be long before punches were thrown. No one noticed the white Fiesta pull up, or the pale, slight man holding a clipboard and wearing an orange high-visibility jacket who climbed out; later we would find out a utility company sent him over to check some insulation. He tried to speak to one of the lads at the gate, to see if he could get in the depot. When the fighting started, he was dragged into the middle. I saw him slump against Jay.
Afterwards, sitting on the floor of Jay's flat, the curtains closed, a bottle of vodka and an overflowing ashtray between us, he said, "It was an accident. Someone pushed him into me."
"Why did you have it out?"
"How was I supposed to know he wasn't one of them?"
"Does it matter who you stabbed?"
Jay shrugged and downed his drink. His expression became tight, as if he were struggling to decide how he should feel. When he offered me a coy smile, I shook my head and told him he was a joke. He poured another round. I got up and left.
The man's name was Nigel Bentley. He left a wife called Nancy and three-year-old twin girls. All week the news repeated the same interview from their home where his wife sobbed while the girls read at the table, as if their lives were as normal as before. Their home looked warm and inviting. Family photos lined the walls. Across the bottom of the screen ran a number to call if you had any information.
I asked Jay to meet me in Heaton Park. He came in a heavy green parka with a fur-lined hood that hung over his face.
"Sentimentality is your weakness," he said.
"Good," I replied. "I'll be weak."
"There'll always be collateral damage."
"He wasn't involved."
"The whole world is involved!"
"Bullshit. You killed an innocent man."
A jogger sped past.
"Keep it down," Jay hissed. "It was an accident."
"Wait," I said, and put my hand on Jay's arm. We stopped. "I think… I think you should turn yourself in."
Jay dipped his head so I couldn't see his eyes from under the hood. "No chance." Behind him, the sky was grey. Spots of rain came down.
"It's the right thing to do," I said.
"Do you want me to go to prison?"
"Tell them what happened, how it was an accident. You never meant—"
"What kind of friend are you?" His face became tight and I flinched.
Jay pushed past me. He headed over the grass towards the Bury Old Road exit.
"Please," I called after him. "Think about it. It's the right thing to do."
On the occasions when I managed to sleep, Nigel Bentley starred in my dreams. The mob surrounded him as I screamed myself hoarse. Then I'd wake before dawn and think about his sobbing wife, their lovely home, his two girls reading at the table.
I thought about my twenty year friendship with Jay.
I remembered one time the headmaster found a joint in my locker. Even when his mother came into the classroom and slapped him in front of everyone, even when he had to sit through weeks of detention, to attend drugs counselling, his record blotted by my mistake, Jay never gave me away.
But it was no good. This wasn't a bit of weed. He had killed an innocent man. He had destroyed an innocent family.
A week later, I met Jay in The Woodthorpe. Hunched over a table at the back, he looked tired, tense. He drained a double vodka. Staring at the glass he said, "What about me? Where do I fit in to your precious ideals."
"What about the two girls whose father will never come home?"
"Keep your sob story," he snapped.
In my pocket, my phone felt like a dead weight. I asked Jay what he intended to do.
"Keep things in perspective," he said.
I got up. "I need some air."
Jay grabbed my forearm. "Through this whole time you've not once asked how I am. All you care about is some bloke you didn't know."
"I didn't need to know him. He was the kind of person we're fighting for—a normal person trying to lead a decent life."
He shoved me away. "You've never fought a day in your life."
I put on my coat.
Jay glanced up at me. "Please, Simon," he said, "don't." The look on his face brought tears to my eyes.
"Don't worry," I said, and then, after a pause, held out my hand.
"It doesn't have to be like this," he said.
But he took my hand anyway, and we said goodbye.