In which The Author says goodbye to another friend
While I’m typing this, a good contingent of Aberdare people are in Brighton. If I’d had the spare cash, I’d have liked to have gone down myself. For once, however, it’s not a trip to see a band, or any of the other excursions which my friends undertake every so often.
You see, our friend Rob Challis passed away suddenly a few weeks ago. Even though he was an Aberdare boy, he’d been living in Brighton for a couple of years. He didn’t use Facebook (or ‘the Book of Filth’, as he referred to it), so I only knew what he was up to at one remove, via his sister Nicola. He was due to be married later this month. Instead, his family and friends are laying him to rest today.
It’s left us all feeling shocked, saddened and horribly aware that another bright light has been snuffed out far too soon. There’s a terrible feeling of déjà vu about the entire situation as well. Like Stuart Cable, whose own death was unexpected and hit us all hard, Rob was also full of life. In fact, he was larger than life. He liked music, motorbikes and beer, and was always up for fun. Above all, he loved his family and his friends, and was loved by everyone in return. He and Stu had a lot in common, when I come to think about it. Rob wasn’t as well-known to the wider world, of course, but in our circle of friends there’s been a strong sense of history repeating itself on a more intimate scale.
I first got to know Rob about twelve or thirteen years ago, when the Black Lion Lesbian Official Karaoke Club and Society (or BoLLOKCS, to use the popular acronym) was in full swing every Wednesday night. I knew him by sight, of course. How could anyone miss the tall, dark, long-haired, good-looking chap with the stentorian voice, the pretty girlfriend with the unusual name of ‘Moggs’ (her real name is Morganne), and the ever-present camera? The first time we really spoke was at a karaoke night. I’d made a fairly decent stab of National Express by The Divine Comedy earlier on in the evening. Immediately after I relinquished the mic, Rob (I didn’t even know his name as that stage) said, ‘I’ll show you how it’s done,’ and proceeded to power through the same song, complete with silly Dad-dancing moves. I remember that he chose to have himself introduced as ‘Optimus Prime,’ for some unknown reason. Afterwards, we exchanged a few words and I admitted defeat. Nobody could match his performance for sheer chutzpah. We were friends from that moment on.
Rob was part of the same group of friends as Wayne, Gema, Craig, Geraint B., Gareth E., Eggy, Stokesy, Crusher, and Andrew C. He was on the edge of the skateboard/BMX crowd in Aberdare, but above all he loved biking. He was also a complete technology geek, and it was hardly surprising that when Andrew set up his multimedia company, Rob was involved from the start. He was heavily into computer games and animé films (hence his karaoke handle!), so it was a logical development for him to take. I never knew him to play a musical instrument, though. Perhaps, like me, he dabbled with the guitar in the secrecy of his home. Maybe he just wasn’t bothered – although, knowing Rob, he was more likely to have a synth/sequencer/rhythmbox setup, rather than a conventional instrument.
We crossed paths regularly over the subsequent decade or so, and there was usually some Rob-related silliness on the horizon. For some unknown reason, he kept a loud hailer in his car, and used it to great effect when he was in a silly mood. I was on the receiving end one day. I was walking into town, a few days after A Letter to the Editor 1
was published in the South Wales Echo
. From nowhere, I heard a booming voice announce, ‘Attention! Stealth Bus approaching!’ I looked round in alarm, only to see Rob waving at me from his side window.
One day he gave me a lift home, and told me that the loud hailer had nearly cost him a kicking one afternoon. He was driving through the narrow main road of the Rhondda Fawr, and passed a gang of guys standing outside a pub. He bellowed ‘Rhondda wankers!’ at them, then sped off – only to get caught by a set of temporary traffic lights a couple of hundred yards on. The enraged mob had almost drawn level with his car when the lights finally changed, and he was was able to give them the slip. Gleefully recalling the story, he made it sound like just another hair-raising motocross stunt.
When Geraint B. stood for Plaid Cymru in the General Election of 2005, Rob was heavily involved with his high-profile campaign, making videos and canvassing in the streets. Geraint didn’t win, of course (see No Future
), but everyone agreed that the campaign had been one of the liveliest and most memorable they’d ever seen. I don’t know whose idea it was to hire a pantomime donkey costume, pin a Labour Party rosette to it, and take it out on the stump. However, I do know that Rob was one half of it for a little while.
He and Andrew made dozens of videos, including a set of hilarious Battle of the Bands Newsreels for the Black Lion. He also made some hair-raising videos in Morocco, using a helmet-mounted camera when he was biking in the Atlas Mountains. I don’t know if they’re still on YouTube. They’re probably kicking around in Andrew’s hard drives somewhere.
In spite of all the times that we spent in the same places and with the same group of friends, I’ve only got one photo of him in my entire collection. I managed to find it last night. I took it at a Rap competition at the Mount Pleasant in Trecynon, when Joy still ran it (see Another One Bites the Dust
.) I managed to snap him in full flow during this terrific face-off with a completely speechless Crusher.
The last time I saw Rob was a couple of summers ago. Paula H. was down from London, and she and I had taken Sebastian (her little boy) to Aberdare Park for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Afterwards, we decided to call into the Llwyncelyn for a drink in the beer garden. We were more or less outside Uncle Pat and Auntie Vilda’s old house in Cemetery Road when a bike roared past us towards town. The rider brought it to a screeching halt and spun it around, coming to rest at the kerbside. It was Rob, out for a spin on a summer Saturday afternoon. We chatted for a few minutes before Sebastian got restless, then parted company. Rob fired up his bike, tore off towards Hirwaun, turned by the old Esso garage, and roared towards us again. As he passed, he pulled a wheelie and shot past on his rear wheel, waving until he was out of sight. It’s a fitting memory of someone who was energetic, creative, boisterous and always a delight to be with.
I haven’t seen Nicola since Rob passed away, but I know that she’s absolutely heartbroken. I sent her a message on Facebook, but words are never enough, are they? This is the best I can do in the circumstances. I can’t believe I’ll never see him again, and I’m going to miss him terribly. Sleep well, mate.