Life is full of contrasts, but rarely are they so stark. Travelling back from Oban yesterday morning on the majestic West Highland Railway, I looked across a beautiful snow-covered landscape, thankful that after much dithering, I had decided to book this last-minute trip north. But it was here, in this winter wonderland, that I learnt of the tragic and untimely death of my good friend, Kris Benbow.
McDonald’s isn’t the first place you’d expect to establish a life-long friendship, but this was my good fortune. I don’t remember the first time I met Kris, but I recall returning to the restaurant after my first year at university and being surprised to find him wearing a manager’s shirt. You see, Kris was never one to take the job seriously — few did — and he was often at the centre of various jokes and pranks. But likeable and smart, he knew how to have fun and get the job done. Not only that, he instilled that same attitude in others. Later promoted to the same position, I soon discovered that supervising teenagers in an environment peppered with health and safety risks was incredibly stressful and not the least bit enjoyable, which only made Kris’ abilities all the more impressive.
Thankfully, my memories of Kris aren’t limited to him being a manager. Having completed my degree, I postponed finding a full-time job and continued working part-time at McDonald’s (alongside my first attempt at freelancing and a quickly abandoned Masters degree). We both took on early morning shifts to accept and pack away deliveries, and through this fast became friends.
Every summer, a group of us would head to Dolgellau in Wales. The stated aim was to tackle the Red Bull mountain bike course at nearby Coed-y-Brenin, but over the years this trip devolved into something less adventurous; pitching our tents around a campfire, drinking beer and barbecuing meat. For Kris, a man known for his fondness of creature comforts and the easy life, this wasn’t as appealing; he’d much rather spend the weekend at a health spa, or better still, at home, surrounded by various gadgets.
So, it was quite the shock when in 2003, he and Fordy announced they had quit McDonald’s and were headed for Sydney! Intended as a means of getting over ex-girlfriends — jumping out of a plane hadn’t achieved the desired result — their trip would include a brief stopover in Bangkok; it took Kris several years to admit to a particular experience that took place there! They had suggested I join, but in the end I decided to visit for just five weeks instead, on what would be my first holiday abroad. With the Rugby World Cup being hosted in Australia that year, we got to see England crowned champions in a city packed full of upset Aussies. How we made it back to our hostel in one piece, I’ll never know. Here, we got to know our fellow countrymen, and would later enjoy several Glebe reunions in Bristol, Bournemouth and Wimbledon.
But most of the fun took place closer to home. Enjoying curry nights in Bridgnorth. Weekending in Torbay. Biking in the Wyre Forest, on Cannock Chase and over the Tissington trail (before camping atop a cold, rain-sodden hill). Swimming most Wednesday evenings at Oak Park. Playing ‘Cheddar Poker’ in the George. Chasing after Mandy with Super Soakers. Chatting after a ‘close’, either in the restaurant over left-over McNuggets or at a nearby greasy spoon. Losing Lee on his stag night even though we’d tied him to a lamppost. Driving all the way to Holyhead at two in the morning, only to turn round and come back again…
Between leaving university and embarking on my career, the intervening years (and quite a few after) were witness to so many stupid and silly exploits, yet made for the most enjoyable period of my life. Kris was there throughout. Ever the supportive friend, he was on hand to listen to my latest complaint or dilemma, often reminding me that a career at McDonald’s would be a terrible waste of my talents.
Taking this advice on board, I eventually left Walsall, but we stayed in touch. A shared interest in technology — myself sat within Apple’s ecosystem, Kris within Google’s — meant this was a frequent topic for debate. On Twitter, he would gently mock my attempts at being environmentally friendly, readily roping in others. #doingmybit
With memories of someone so cheerful and relaxed, the manner of his passing becomes all the more difficult to reason with. I was planning on visiting Walsall to see everyone, but delayed for lack of an excuse. Now, in the most horrible of circumstances, I have one, though without Kris’ usual offer of a place to stay.
This news comes just over a year since the death of my friend James. Indeed it was Kris, knowing that I would be missing the updates posted to Facebook, who told me about him being moved to a hospice. All of which puts my dithering about whether or not to spend a weekend in Scotland — and more besides — into perspective. Once again I’m reminded that life is not only short, but unpredictable. That time with friends should be treasured. That if I want to go somewhere, I should just go.
Fuck it, let’s go to Australia!