The train pulled out of Bremen Hauptbanhof and our party of 7 revellers settled into our seats, already in party mode. We looked around at each other, nobody wanting to be the first to ask. Except for Billy.
“Is there a fucking bar on this train?” He eventually broke the silence. He wasn’t the type to stay quiet. Investigations were soon underway and after failed attempts to find a catering carriage by the good old fashioned method of walking around for a bit and hoping, it was time for some googling auf Deutsch. I’m far from fluent in German, but in a crisis of this magnitude, I’m able to string a few words together.
“Alkoholfrei Reisen” were two of them.
Billy, his partner Des and I were the Irish contingent among our little group and were naturally horrified. The problem must lie with my German language skills. Surely such a thing as ‘Alcohol-Free Travel’ couldn’t exist. Our tongues suddenly turned to cardboard and we were plagued by a thirst never before known to mankind.
“SANDRA!!!” My message in our Whatsapp Group shouted, “Does this mean what we think it means?”
A screenshot of the Train Company’s information page followed. Still firmly in denial, all 7 of us were convinced a mistake had been made. Even Zoe, 8 months pregnant and not interested in availing of any bar, was disgusted on behalf of the rest of us. This was a party, after all. It was time to get it started. What else were we going to do for over two hours on a train? We’d just flown from London and successfully navigated our way onto the correct train heading for Sandra’s home town of Norden, not a drink between the whole lot of us so far. It was already lunchtime. It must have been some kind of miracle.
“I think you’ll be fine.” Sandra assured us.
She was right. In fact, we were far more than fine. The party was epic. Every drink we might have ever wanted was spread out all around the house along with plenty that we didn’t want, but we drank anyway. Sure how else would we mark Sandra’s big birthday? Wasn’t this the reason she had invited us to the party-to-end-all-parties at the home she had grown up in in Northern Germany?
Surrounded by Sandra’s amazing family, her friends from all over the world and her life-long neighbours, we felt welcomed with a warmth that came from somewhere other than the shots Sandra insisted we drink in her honour. Well, how could we refuse?
The following day we bore headaches with the good grace they deserved. We ate and laughed around Sandra’s family table. We wandered along pretty cobbled streets, ate ice-cream and spent time in very excellent company. It was perfect. Or almost. There was just one thing missing.
“Fuck it,” Billy eventually said, once we had mopped up a delicious meal Sandra’s mum had prepared for us. He got up from the table and went out to the tent used as part of the previous night’s shenanigan’s. That’s where the beer taps had been set up. He came back carrying five or six full glasses in his hands with all the skill you would expect from a man with years of experience in the hospitality industry.
Despite the hangovers and the protests, they were finished off. As was the next round.
With heads still fragile the following day, we caught the train back to Bremen, the home of Becks Beer. Well, we hadn’t travelled all that way to not drink it. Such a thing would surely be sacrilege. We sat under the April kind-of-sun in the city’s central square and drank tankards of golden German beer until it was time to head back to train station to collect our luggage. We needed to make a move. Our group had flights booked back to London and our individual ‘real worlds’ that night.
As we wandered closer to the station, Billy and I fell behind everyone else. He caught my eye and had full command of my rubber arm the moment he nodded towards a dirty green sign above a dingy door. “Paddy’s Pit”. Des fell back with the kind of telepathy developed over the twenty-whatever years they’ve spent together. Their lifetimes.
“It’s Happy Hour” Billy convinced everyone. Sure there were two-for one offers on shots and everything.
“Fuck it” we all agreed and followed him into one of those pubs that claims to be Irish because everything’s green, but you know it isn’t because the beer is warm, the shots are pre-poured and there’s no auld fella in the corner, misty-eyed as he gets lost in whatever Christy Moore song has reminded him he’s far from home. Not one of us gave a shit and we ordered as if our livers were invincible. Poor Zoe and her bump would have been perfectly justified in wanting to drown us all in our tepid drinks.
We still made our flight with time to spare. Like homing pigeons, Billy and Des flapped around a bit before settling at the bar near our gate and when we landed in Stansted, we were exhausted for all the right reasons. Billy insisted on dropping me to the Tube station to make my trip home across the city a little easier. Unnecessarily worried about the reliability of the Northern Line, he carried my bags to the barriers, checked that I hadn’t missed the last train and made sure that I was ok before he’d let me out of his sight. We hugged, kissed and promised to rope Sandra into a London night on the town soon to dissect every detail of the weekend.
A few days later, my world turned on its head by a sudden spinal cord injury. My new ‘real world’ was shocking. Broken and useless, I was promised a lifelong hangover that, for once, I hadn’t brought on myself. What could be worse?
That question was answered a few weeks later when Sandra called in tears. Her words were chilling.
Billy’s prognosis wasn’t good.
Their friendship was 27 years old. He was her partner in crime. Her heart was breaking. I refused to let mine break for him or for her. Not yet. I was in a neurology ward, surrounded by patients with brain tumours who had successful procedures. I refused to believe anything else was possible. There had to be hope.
As long as I have been friends with Sandra, there has always been her Billy. Her constant. When I first met him just a few short years ago, I could see exactly why she chose him as her best friend. His fun, his impulsiveness and his “Fuck it” attitude made Billy Billy. Thinly concealed behind all of that, though, was a kindness, thoughtfulness and caring that he wasn’t shy to share. He was one of the very first supporters of Rambling Ruth and followed all of my journeys with enthusiasm. On more than one occasion, he spurred me on when my interest waned. He was, quite simply, a good man.
Suddenly, my troubles were so small.
Billy didn’t make it.
Early in the hours of yesterday morning, he departed this world for the great Irish Pub in the sky, where the beer is perfectly chilled and it’s always happy hour.
He died as he lived, surrounded by love. Des, Sandra and his nearest and dearest were around him for the final hours.
I know that a number of readers have had Billy in their prayers after I mentioned his surgery on the Rambling Ruth Facebook page. Thank you all. I’m not much of a prayer, but I drew long forgotten words from some hidden place and said a few for him.
I’d recently promised him that if he hadn’t already been inundated with bottles of holy water from Knock, he was welcome to one of mine. I was keeping it safe for him. He messaged me back just hours before he closed his eyes for the last time. He simply said “Thank You” followed by a loveheart. It was the perfect final message and I’d like to think that it meant those prayers, the holy water, the kindness or voodoo or whatever good intentions were sent his way helped him to wherever Billy can forever be Billy.
Bremen was my last adventure before the injury. I feel grateful to have shared the experience with him. I haven’t had the pleasure of a beer since then, but when I do, it’ll be a pint of Becks and I’ll raise my glass in happy memory.