I started writing about that awful word “bromance” after the launch of Auckland Libraries’ Dark Night festival exploring sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen. Our guest speaker, Dr. Pani Farvid, introduced the movie Shame by pointing out that it many ways it wasn’t about sex at all. Its topic was addiction, and more broadly than that, the ways in which society disciplines all of our feelings, not just our sexuality; telling us that these are the permissible ways in which to have and express emotions.
In the pub afterwards, we talked about how heterosexual men define themselves as much through their relationships with other men as those with women. And after that, I knew I would spend this week of Dark Nights writing about Mike, and Jules, and J. That, if I could write about sexual relationships of varying intensity and duration, I could do the same for three varieties of “bromance”.
It turned out I didn’t really know Jules all that well, in the end. He was a Computer Science student back in my undergraduate days. They had a programme at Queen Mary, University of London where you could study a language alongside linguistics and computer science – it sort of made sense in theory, with all the grammar and structural diagrams in common, but in practice it was a great way to frazzle the brains of eager students, torn between three disciplines and three departments of the college.
I came back from my year abroad in September 2001 for the final part of a four-year degree in English and Spanish. All my mates from English Lit had finished the previous year and gone their separate ways. My girlfriend was still around, and I kept in touch with the people who were still in London, but I was kind of lost until the linguistics geeks took me into their fold.
We were a tight-knit bunch that year, a real A-Team. An arts student through and through, I was shocked to discover a passion and talent for syntactic structures, Chomskyan tree diagrams, and the mysterious world of the Critical Period Hypothesis. A handful of us grew close and became increasingly devoted to our badass professor, Jamal Ouhalla.
Every Thursday we’d meet for two hours over coffee and do Jamal’s assignments together, arguing about constituency and dependency grammars, fiddling with Do-substitutions and filling pages with spidery sketches of sentence structure. A half-dozen or so linguistics nerds, we got so into the subject that Jamal agreed to run a special advanced class just for us. The only available slot for these seminars was first thing on a Friday morning, so I would go to class at 9am, read the latest issue of James Robinson’s Starman at the comic book store afterwards, then do yoga and catch up with my girlfriend at lunch.
Jules was “smart as”, as the Kiwis would say, but laid back about work. Someone else was always finishing his Computer Science projects for him. On Fridays, he would rock up for Syntax after the rest of us, plug his mobile phone’s charger into the wall socket of the seminar room, then lay out his books on the desk – almost angelically innocent of the fact that he was, one again, an hour late for class.
Jules was Irish, but had been raised in Spain by ex-pat parents. His cultural references always seemed a bit dislocated, a bit 1970s, because of this – I guess because his folks were his only connection to an English-speaking culture. He jokingly idolised his lounge-singing namesake Julio Iglesias, and we would laughingly contemplate Jesus Gil, the controversial president of Atletico Madrid, as a role model.
Jules was a runner, tall and skinny; he used to piss his girlfriend off by circling her like a hornet as she jogged through the park. He always had tall stories about teens in southern Spain, where he grew up, being paid cash to sprint from speedboats to the end of the beach carrying suitcases of drugs or money to the smugglers’ waiting associates. And he had plans to join one of the dragon boat crews on the Thames, which never quite came to fruition.
After we graduated from university, the Syntax gangs all kept in touch but I didn’t see so much of Jules. News came at second hand from Wednesday afternoon meet-ups with my friend Sol: Jules had a new job in the city. Jules was drinking too much.
He emailed me asking to catch up one Tuesday after work, but the day got away from me and I had to stand him up. A few of us did the same to him around that time. It was no big deal, just one of those things.
That April, my grandfather died unexpectedly and I flew to Spain for the funeral.
While I was there, I got a phone call from Jules’ girlfriend Ana. Jules had hanged himself.
My mum and brother were in my grandfather’s living room as I took the call on my mobile. My head was full of grief and funeral arrangements and the bits of Spanish I’d hauled out to deal with various insurance people and police and officials about the death. I gave Ana some kind of condolences, and then Sol called to give more details about the funeral.
I gabbled. I overpromised. I wouldn’t be back in time for the service, but there was a Julio Iglesias tape sitting on my grandfather’s stereo system; my eyes alighted on it as I took Sol’s call. “I’ll send it to you, you can play it at the service or something,” I said like an idiot. Of course, I didn’t send it.
The Syntax gang drifted apart. Jules’ girlfriend had found his body. There was a note. “Apparently, he had lots going on that we didn’t know about,” a friend told me. Ana didn’t share. She finished her degree, moved abroad, found her way back to something resembling normal life. She was amazingly strong.
Sol and I stayed in touch. I’d been in a terrible relationship for a while and she’d been there for me, every week, Wednesday afternoon catch-ups shading into late night pub sessions.
She and I always say we’ll go visit Jules – his other friends from Computer Science make it up there regularly, but although Sol goes to the cemetery in North London, I’ve still never been. The nearest I got was a picnic trip to Highgate – I saw Marx’s tomb, and put a pen in the pot on Douglas Adams’ grave, while I was trying to score with this Methodist chick who was all into King Arthur and possibly bisexual. (It turns out that writing bespoke La Belle Dame sans Merci fanfiction will only get you so far with the ladies).
Jules and I were never that close: his death showed how little any of us knew about him. But he was there, every week. Late for class, happier in the pub, rhapsodising over Shakira’s hot bod, or telling a story about some girl from back home called ‘La Pistolera’, because her wide hips jiggled like a cowboy’s holstered guns.
I know we didn’t mean that much to each other. I know I’m laying it on a bit thick if I pretend this was some life-shattering event for me: I should be writing Ana’s story, honouring her strength and love in the face of a cowardly act that hurt others as much as Jules himself. And as for mourning: I barely know anyone now who hasn’t lost a friend or a peer, lost more, lost worse, and they all bear it with so much more grace and less navel-gazing than I’ve shown here.
Still, I wish we could just go for a pint at the New Globe on Mile End Road. We’d chat and take the piss a bit, nothing world-shattering, then go our separate ways. Not every friend has to be your BFF for them to matter, for you to wish they were still around, doing their thing.
I was in Copenhagen last year when I finally caught Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I adored. The closing montage (spoilers!) blends bleak-as-shit resolutions with Julio Iglesias’ disco crooning. It’s camp, and overwrought, and steeped in memory, and it even has a bit of twisted bromance in it.
How inappropriate. How appropriate.
Miss you, Jules.