And I missed him. Here’s how it happened, and the innocuous (or so I thought) comment that felled a friendship.
True, I was tall for my age, towering an inch higher and wider over my comparatively slight and less cumbersome peers. Witness the humiliation meted out by Bob, our biology teacher, calling us by name to the front of the class, one by one, to step, bare-footed, onto scales and be weighed.
“Six stone seven pounds; seven stone two pounds; seven stone four pounds;” and then me: “eight stone seven pounds.”
“Fat bastard,” is breathed by more than one. Red-faced, I slunk low into my seat, persuading nobody the laughter was not for me.
Neil had not seemed to mind. Taller still, but slim, athletic, like a greyhound, with the oh-so-important skill of catching a ball, and throwing it too, that’s necessary to be accepted by one’s peers at that age. Eleven when we met. Eleven when we became best friends. Eleven when we were inseparable. Eleven when we were no longer friends. Things change very quickly when you’re that age. Empires come and go in the blinking of an eye. The old men and women, talking big words about big ideas that matter to parents (economy is mentioned, and taxation too) stay the same, endlessly talking before the football, or the film (James Bond, perhaps, or Logan’s Run) and the things they are in charge of, the great long words that mum and dad worry about, even cry about, think of selling their house about, seem to have nothing to do with our lives. Not at that age, when what’s important maybe seems trivial, but often there are friendships at stake, bullies to avoid, essays to hand in, and such things are monumental in their influence.
The first day, unschooled, I waited, silent in the hall of screaming voices, all children of the same year, all new to the sweet, sickly smell, and the sight of the hall – long, thin, wooden-floored – the sound of heels clacking, echoing, and the feel – cold, draughty, the hall that would seal my fate so many times during the course of the next few years, its tiles worn thin by successive throngs of exam candidates and leavers – but this – this was day one, page one of chapter one. This is where it started.
“Quiet!” A sudden silence as authority pushes open the swinging double doors and steps inside. Grey suit, grey hair, grey skin under the eyes, like one of the men loved or loathed by mum and dad who run the country and do tax to other people and agree or disagree with their prejudices. Here is authority, and the hundred or so eleven year-olds are silenced by the onslaught of grey. Registers are in his hand. He knows none of us, not by name nor by sight, nor which of us are good, bad, clever, stupid, nor anything in between. Yet his role now is that of St Peter at the gates of heaven. Sorting, sifting, a general admin job, keeping the books and ticking off names.
His voice, firm, gravelled, is all we hear as a random collection of our names are read out, and the children, soon to become my peers, identify themselves, matching up to the Damiens and the Alisons and the Garys on offer, and forming a line whilst the rest of us namelessly wait.
Four rows are formed, each one accorded a different fate – in the form of another name, as we are told to whom we belong, and where our masters are to be found. Following the grey, tall amongst the half-way people, we march up the concrete steps, feet not in step, scuffling, shuttering, clomping, the painted walls enhancing the sound until we reach the corridor where we are to sit for the next year and fill our heads with multifarious learning.
Before we stepped inside the classroom I had not noticed him, and it is purely by accident that we now sit as neighbours on a tandem desk, one long seat meaning that we must both either sit or stand, with no negotiation in between. For now, we sit, and he makes an effort where I had been too scared.
He is Neil, and for a long moment this is all I need to know, because already we have sought one another out and that is sufficient for a friendship when you’re eleven and in a strange institution surrounded by strangers with no idea what is about to happen to you.
Grey has disappeared but he is soon replaced by the man who identifies himself as our form teacher. Satisfied that we are all sitting in the right places, our timetables are handed out, and with Neil, I learn subjects such as physics, chemistry, information technology, that I never thought credible or could even have defined, religion being another to add to this list.
Not a long time goes by, after the exhausting few weeks of a new school, and Neil (whom I have been hanging about with at lunchtimes) invites me to his house one weekend to stay over. I go and his mum makes hot chocolate and it tastes better, sweeter, chocolatier than how my mum makes it, and he has miniature soldiers in the garden on the vegetable plot and a computer inside. I have nothing like that much fun at home and I don’t want to leave. Encouraged that I seem to have found a friend, my mum tells me I must invite Neil to stay with us. At the time I say I think he’s the best friend I’ve ever had, and she’s relieved to hear me say that, as almost everyone else at that strange institution I catch a bus to every day remains a stranger. That I am not entirely alone encourages her, and softens the blow of my disparaging comment about her hot chocolate-making abilities.
All that matters in those days is held in my school bag – which is square and black with thick handles. Books, jotters, unopened sandwiches, a pencil case, a games kit (how I learn to hate the rugby shirt, and how quickly that and the shorts become too small and I can’t wait to see the back of them) – everything I need to cope with life and meet the expectations of every teacher are immediately to hand, and the bag becomes another limb, slung over my shoulder like a hump, and some days I walk slumped forwards, wearing in my shoes too quickly in a way that will soon have me sent to see a foot specialist.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Having made the confession/concession to my mother that I had a friend and I considered him above reproof, I doubted the veracity of what I had said in my own mind, and had a troubled sleep that night (this was my version of the economy that kept my parents awake) and I wondered if I could match up in Neil’s estimations my high regard of him. After all, I was too big, and graceless, and wore in my shoes too quickly. I swotted to avoid trouble and would rather have been bullied than bully. I had no computer, nor soldiers in the garden and my mum was rubbish – rubbish – at making hot chocolate.
Inviting him over that first weekend I felt I was letting him down. All he had was my company, and I found it wanting and was sure he did too. To fill in time before Neil’s mum picked him up we helped my dad with chores in the garden. Red-faced, I failed to hide my shame as Neil, relieved, saw his mum’s car in the road and downed tools. With a curious eye his mother looked at our house, apparently impressed, and the garden front and back. True, it was bigger than Neil’s house, but I was eleven years old and to me a house was a house and a job was a job. What I failed to notice, Neil had noticed, as is often the way the other way round. It was all right for me, he told me, as my parents were rich. Whether or not they were rich I had no idea as I had nothing to compare it to, but Neil betrayed no such uncertainty or temerity with labels – he was poor.
Less after that time we hung around at school, as more friends Neil made, and made no beeline to sit next to me in classes as other friendships grew like vine around my own, which, wilting, slipped away, and the long-promised resumption of that happy weekend, playing soldiers and swimming, and watching scary films, was postponed still further until any expectation of it withered and died. One thing I was certain of – my lack of a computer was threatening all possibility of any meaningful and sustained friendship, and that year it was placed at the top of my Christmas wish list, double underlined and in a larger hand. The hint was not taken up upon, and I wondered if my parents were poor after all, as my dad kept claiming when the grey suits on the television spoke in apocalyptic tones about the state of the economy and manufacturing, as I waited impatiently for the Man from UNCLE to come on.
“You’ve not invited Neil around for ages,” my mum said. I was in no mood to face the brutal facts, which I poorly understood, about the death of the friendship, that, like a tulip, had so briefly bloomed and enjoyed the best of weather before too soon the petals fell off and nothing of value remained. Not having a computer, I had nothing to entertain him with.
“Go-karting!” from across the table, spluttered along with semi-masticated toast and jam, and butter too. My father’s idea arrives violently in our ears, as well as on the table, unwantedly colourful.
Whatever else I may have thought about my father’s ideas in general, or his theories about what young people ought to be doing and saying and planning for the future – this seemed like a good one, a rare beacon of insight amongst an ocean of higher, greyer concerns. It had the seductive allure of risk, and being but children, driving was something done only by authority figures, in grey, or on the television, in helmets who sometimes crashed spectacularly and ran from their vehicles away from the flames. There was no way Neil would have returned to my house to help in the garden again or lament the absence of a computer, but maybe he would if a day of go-karting was involved, and then maybe our friendship would exist again and then maybe (oh, how my mind raced – I was dizzy with the possibilities) he would sit next to me in the biology lab. Happily I agree, and my dad, revelling in having had a good idea, celebrates with another round of toast and a chorus of rich and fruity belches.
I am suddenly reeling as I hadn’t really expected him to. Unexpectedly more so, he’s free the following weekend, and the date is set. A concession is made and he seeks me out in the dinner queue and sits beside me, and we tell our peers that we are going go-karting and they are impressed, assuming it to be Neil’s idea.
Too busy am I revelling in the recrudescence of a friendship that had seemed lost that I scarcely notice my dad’s black mood blacken further as the important grey suits, the politicians, the people who talk at length and do such a boring job of it, bring bad tidings for manufacturing in our country, and tense, muffled conversations between him and my mum take place across the kitchen table, where the injections of bad language, the flourishes and admonitions, signal that these words are not for my ears, and I take my books from my black bag and stay upstairs, homeworked to exhaustion.
The day before the big day is a Friday, and I can scarcely wait for the schoolday to be over for then it will be go-karting all the way.
My father is unusually sullen as he drops me off at the bus stop. “Remember to tell Neil to bring twenty pounds with him for the go-karting.”
My fingers freeze on the door handle as the bottom drops off my world and the colours in the park beyond the car turn from reds and greens to grey. “What?”
My dad is irritable. I tell him he never mentioned this before, and that it will probably prevent Neil from coming. I ask if he can pay for us both and there is a minor explosion next to me, as I unwittingly lit a spark next to gelignite, and all the pent up anger at what the grey suits had been saying before the Man from UNCLE pours angrily from his mouth in words I don’t understand, but there is no possibility of the go-karting going ahead unless Neil brings with him twenty pounds.
It is a long ride in to school, and my mind frits between deciding to tell him the whole thing is cancelled, and maybe robbing a bank to secure the extortionate sum of money required in order to keep my friendship alive. I dilly and dally the whole day, only facing up to the horrible twist in the go-karting day when Neil creeps up behind me and taps me on the wrong shoulder, though it’s an old routine and I look the right way.
“Are we still on for tomorrow?”
Now or never. What do I do? “Only there is one thing,” I say. Neil stops. He’s looking at me.
“It’s twenty pounds,” I blurt out, watching as Neil’s face dissolves into an ironic pose that cuts me like ice.
“I can’t go,” he says. “Sorry.”
There I should have left it, and decided to call the whole thing off, only I know if I do this both parents will be angry, especially my dad, whose idea the whole thing was.
“What if I pay for half of it for you? I have ten pounds,” I say, although I don’t have ten pounds. And there, unwittingly, in the long corridors outside the physics lab, as the bell rings and dozens of pupils rush past, channelling around us, a friendship, with the minimum of fuss, and with neither of us saying so, though both seeing it in the other’s eyes, quietly dies, never to be rekindled, never to recover from that last, monumental, mortal blow. That cowardly, sanctimonious offer to help out financially, that last damning statement that my parents were richer than his parents, despite my dad’s rants against the suits in power, but the proof, in the sizes of our houses and in the sizes of his mum’s car compared to my dad’s car, proved a chasm too deep to see down and too wide to jump across. Promising to do something another time, but both knowing that we never will, we walk our separate ways down the corridor, me meekly, limply, and even the outside air is stifling.
Later, grieving, knowing all is lost, I revel in telling my dad that Neil can’t make it, and the go-karting is duly called off and the money and the hedonism reeled in and pickled. I spend the Saturday instead, unhelpful as possible, indoors, the garden coiffured by dad alone, in my bedroom, the black bag supplying me with an endless stream of excuses, none of which I finish, knowing now that Monday must be faced friendless, and back in that resounding hall, unnamed, waiting to be given an identity, a stranger amongst my peers, and with nothing but the knowledge of mistakes to help me next time.
I am eleven. My answer to all of this is to step up my demand for a computer – the ultimate buyer of friendships – the honey pot to attract the bees. So pathetic is my bleating that, in the face of the greyness spreading over the entire country, my birthday greets me with a much-coveted gift, and I am one step closer to being less alone, though no wiser, and no less obnoxious. And never again do I get to sit next to Neil, and never do I go-kart. Whether he go-karted ever, or not, remains a mystery, though the twenty pounds that separated us then still looks, and sounds, and feels in the mind, as large an impediment to friendship as any grosser betrayal I could merely imagine.