An old friend emailed me  to say that he felt he has been replaced in my affections by Rocky.  My friend, my oldest friend,  had asked me to do something for him, a rather trivial thing that was  unlikely to take up too much of my time. I had emailed back to say that of course I would do this thing for my best friend. As is the way with men, my declaration of affection for him and the acknowledgement of the longevity of our friendship was conveyed in a slighly jocular tone and not without a  little sarcasm.

The ability to convey tone in an email may sound improbable,  but we have been friends so long that our emails are as if we are speaking to each other. It has been that way between us, this jocularity and sarcasm, when we express affection for each other, since we were boys. Indeed, come to think about it, not much has changed since we were boys in the shape and even the particulars of our friendship. We have absorbed our histories. We know each other’s disappointments. And our fulfilments.We have changed of course and yet we are those boys and what brought us together a half century ago, holds us together even now. We are on the same road to wherever it is we are going, though we may be travelling there at different speeds. There are times when this is not a happy thought. I think almost as often of the mortality of my friends as my own.

This is the context in which I received the email from my friend, funny and self-deprecating and sarcastic and memory-filled, accusing me of being more enamoured of Rocky than of him. He reminded me of the things we shared when we were boys–cadet camp at Puckapunyal where we slept in the rain under leaking ponchos for we were the Assault Pioneers whose job it was to set up camp and dig the trenches into which we would climb and wait for the enemy to arrive, smoking cigarettes at lunch-time at school down by the Yarra River, the girls we pursued, pursuits in which he almost always was triumphant–or so he says. He asked whether Rocky, about whom I have been writing at what he said was exhaustive length, is capable of delivering me such shared experiences and memories?  He ended with this question:`Will he pick up your shit the way I have?’

I thought about this question as Rocky and I prepared for our morning together on the beach and I thought this was not a rhetorical question. Nor was my friend’s suggestion that Rocky had supplanted him as my best friend entirely free of jealousy and perhaps even pain and regret, for my friend and I, truth be told, are busy, he in particular, for he is devoted to his work, full of energy and optimism and mad creativity, a world leader in his field but as eager as ever to make new discoveries. We are busy and we see each other irregularly.

Rocky on the other hand, is not busy. Rocky and I are companions whose relationship is made up of daily routines, unchanging routines and habits. I spend more time with Rocky than with my friends or even my children, but more than that, day in and day out, our day, mine as much as Rocky’s, is structured and determined by our togetherness. Rocky wakes me in the morning and goes to bed at night in the same bedroom I do. Our morning routine is unchanging and our hour or two at the beach, mostly before dawn in winter may be full of new discoveries and thoughts and memories, but it is nevetheless routine. When I leave him in the morning, he looks devastated, abandoned, even if my wife is at home with him and when I come home, he greets me with great exuberance which I take to be joy-filled.  I am joy-filled as well I must say.

All of this is true. No friend, no wife or child could offer such companionship, but to say that Rocky is my best friend would be absurd and yet my friend was not entirely joking when he said Rocky had supplanted him and my friend is no soft-minded sentimentalist. Friendship is mysterious. It has none of the certainties of family–blood and genes and continuity and a belief  in life after death. In some ways, friendship is like marriage, kept alive, as the writer Brian Doyle argued recently, by the knowledge that it can end at any time. There are friends with whom I am no longer friends. Mostly those vanished friendships were not ended because of any dramatic rupture, though that too has happened, but more often because, through time, we lost whatever it was that connected us. These friendships ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Friendship, I think, is a creation of modernity. It  transcends tribal and religious and ethnic ties. It is a secular relationship, a tie of love and like all forms of love that are untethered to blood or faith or tribe, is open to the possibility of impermanence. It is doubtful, given what we have overcome, absences and resentments and each other’s short-comings and the business of our lives, that my old friend and I will drift apart, doubtful, but not impossible. Friendship is fragile. What resentments, I wondered, lay behind my friend’s question about whether Rocky would ever pick up my shit the way my friend suggested he had done for half a century?

Those friendships that  ended with drama and abruptness when each of us had been convinced that the other had been the instigator, the betrayer, what was left when these friendships ended? Even those friendships that had finished with a whimper, long ago, so that when we meet, those former friends and I, there is a sort of awkwardness between us and sometimes, a feigned sadness, must have ended with disappointments and resentments and even something approaching betrayal.

None of this can be repaired or taken back. But as I woke this morning to Rocky’s inevitable and wholly predictable urgency, his sniffing at my face, his quiet and yet urgent whimper, Rocky almost certain, but not wholly so, that within minutes I would start our morning ritual and that soon we would be heading for the beach together, towards that place beside the grassy park where he would be unleashed and free to dash across the sand to the water’s edge,  I thought that this bond between us, because there was no danger of it ever being broken–either abruptly or by just fading away– was not one that my oldest friend needed to fear. There was no chance that one day, Rocky, rather than my friend, would be the one to pick up my –metaphorical– shit. Metaphorical for the time being at least, for who knows where the road we are both travelling on will lead us?

I have resolved this morning, in light of my friend’s email, to ask him whether I have failed in some way to pick up his shit and if I have, whether he can suggest the way in which this failure of mine can be rectified. I am pretty sure that this will surprise him and that he will suggest, in quite robust terms, that this thing between Rocky and me has driven me half-mad. He will say that he was joking of course and he will pretend surprise that I would ask him such a question. I think he will nevertheless be pleased. How could he not be pleased at such an expression of fidelity?