Back in secondary school Ernie once clambered up onto the flat school roof, forty feet above the ground, carrying a large cardboard box onto which he’d painted wheels at each corner and rockets that spouted red flames.
He parked his cardboard vehicle near the edge of the roof, giving him a clear view of his field of play, and next to a pallet of bricks left behind after some building renovation work on the old bell tower. Then he started to rain bricks down onto the yard below where the quickly gathering audience of teenagers and teachers scattered to the safety of the bike sheds.
‘I can’t achieve lift-off,’ he shouted. ‘I must get rid of the ballast!’
The bricks fell intermittently for an hour or two, until there were no more, at whch point two burly firemen climbed up and persuaded him that this particular cardboard rocket was never going to achieve orbit.
To the cheers and applause of the student body he came down quietly, and was taken away. Everyone else was quickly ushered back into lessons, no-one having bothered to go to class before then.
There was a certain randomness in his madness; it was a benign sort of lunacy. Like the time, some years later, when he ate 42 chillis after a night out, and then was as sick as a dog for three days. It was a small, personal, craziness.
But despite this he was excessively neat and fastidious, wearing smart suits when he started work and carrying a soft leather briefcase, and he had the most fabulous memory for facts and trivia, especially about pop culture and the nuances of 1970’s electro-Kraut rock. I asked him about it once, how he was so neat and organised; ‘I have to be,’ he said, ‘I have to have structure and order and routine because, if I don’t, everything quickly descends into chaos and anarchy.’
‘And then I break down,’ he said with a smile and patted me on the shoulder as though to say it wasn’t a thing anyone should concern themselves about.
But it was.
It’s eight years since he last broke down, since the chaos took control, took permanent control, and I still miss him. I miss his wacky conversations and his deep knowledge of music and art and 1960’s TV programmes. I miss being able to call him up and ask a random question, knowing I’d get an answer and an hour’s conversation out of him.
I wish you’d called me, Ernie. I wish you’d called me and said you needed help.
You were beautiful, and I miss you.