Sorry, that was a pretty crap start, I'll try again.
I had a friend at school called B. We went to our secondary school together, that's from twelve until about sixteen, then we went to the same college too, for another two years. He came from a seemingly decent middle class background, his parents were divorced and he had a half sister through his Dad but he lived with his Mum. B was a regular sort of guy, but regular in an extremely brainy way. He had a certain cleverness about him that was different to the usual boffin's cleverness.
You know the way we all went to school and had to deal with those brainboxes in our class? Those ones who were good at everything but also had no hint of badness about them, the teacher's pet types. The sorts who didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't snog girls behind the art annexe and got turned on by algebra and verbs in the way I now get turned on by, well adjectives and drums.
B wasn't one of those types, he was different. He was as bright as Java's eyes after he'd managed to straighten his arm enough to get that doob to his lips, he always did well in academic things, yet there was an edge to him. He had a kind of streak of badness there, a streak that would often make him the instigator of a joke or the first person to make a smart arse remark to a teacher. With hindsight I can say that he was a natural leader, or at least had some very strong leadership characteristics.
We became great friends, me and B. I went to his house regularly and he used to come to mine. As I type this I've just remembered that he was the person who introduced me to PG Wodehouse, not personally but in a literary way. We went together to a one man Jeeves and Wooster play at the Riverside Theatre in Hammersmith. B was quite the Wooster aficionado then, at the age of about fourteen. I didn't have a clue, I didn't know the difference between a Fink Nottle and an Aged Aunt, but became a firm Wodehouse fan from that moment on.
I remember that he asked me if I wanted to go and see a newish up and coming band with him at the Hammersmith Odeon, this must have been 1979 or 1980. I said no, not knowing much about the band and being into more heavy rockish things than B was at the time. He was very into punky and new wave bands, not my thing at all and even the free ticket didn't sway me.
He came into school the next day raving about the gig, how the band played all the new album and the big hit at the time, a song called "Message in a Bottle". I don't think staying at home and listening to Hawkwind in my bedroom that night was one of my best decisions, to be quite honest with you.
As we got older we both became big tennis fans and for about three years in a row we'd go to Wimbledon to watch the action. Those were the magical days of queueing and standing room on the centre court. The very British banter in the five hour queue in the morning was often more fun than the tennis itself and the feelings remain with me somewhere deep inside of me, underneath my skin. There was a group of satellite people that would go with us but it was always B and I, every year.
Then the two years at college saw us drift apart. We carved out different peer groups, remaining friends but only nodding hello at each other type friends rather than let's have a laugh about your stupid trousers type friends. We did go to Wimbledon in that first year but then totally separated.
After leaving college we lost touch entirely, the occasional accidental meeting would happen but we didn't contact each other proactively. It wasn't a fall out, there was no argument or disagreement and it was just one of the many sugarcube schoolday friendships that fell into the water of growing up and slowly dissolved. We've all had them, I'm sure B did too.
For a few years after that I'd bump into old school or college friends every now and then, we'd get to talking about other ex friends and B's name would come up. I can't remember exactly when it was but I recollect seeing coverage of Wimbledon one year and play had been rained off. One of the audience had jumped onto the centre court and started juggling, to the amusement of the crowd as well as the BBC TV producer, who gave it a fair bit of coverage.
That juggler was B, I recognised him immediately and the fact he was at the centre court at Wimbledon came as no surprise.
After that I heard nothing more than rumours about him. The biggest one was that he had somehow become a tramp in the locality.
There I was, on Sunday, doing a bit of last minute shopping in Richmond. It's time like these I wish I was a proper writer, for I'd have figured out a way to keep you in suspense, rather than this way, in which you all know exactly what's coming next.
I walked along the main high street thing, wallowing in the very glorious beauty of Richmond on a hot summer's day. All the glamorous chavs were out, every make of designer sunglasses was being showcased and everyone had their summer T shirt on. The normal people were trying to look sexy and the sexy people were trying their hardest to look normal, in a sexy way. The ugly people were in Hounslow.
I saw a tramp outside Tesco. I would imagine, though I'm no authority, that Richmond might be a decent place for a tramp to do trampish things. It's a fairly wealthy borough and all, though I guess that doesn't necessarily equate to good pickings. Then, I walked along and passed another tramp just setting up his place on the street. He had four or five jugglers balls and was getting ready to do some juggling and pick up some money. I walked past him and carried on with my perusing.
Some time later I walked past the spot again. The fellow was still there, sitting on the pavement, roll up dangling from his bottom lip and juggling at random intervals. He was unshaven and dirty, probably hadn't been receiving much in the way of manicures recently and he had less money in his hat than I had just spent on the designer T shirt in my bag.
Something made me glance twice at him. I'm glad I did.
It was B. At least I thought it was.
I stopped and asked him. Maybe I was naive, maybe stupid, maybe just mad. I haven't yet read the book "How to talk to a tramp for dummies" so wasn't sure which approach to take. I wasn't even sure whether it was B, and even it if was B, he might have been a drunk or dangerous type. Or totally normal or mad, or any combination of the above.
"Excuse me, is your name B?" I asked.
"Yes" he said, quite normally.
"What BN?" I asked.
"Yes, that's me" he replied, still perfectly normally.
"Ah hi, my name's Rhythmic, I used to go to school with you". I held out my hand and we shook.
I said it as if I was talking to a child or an old person, as if he would have forgotten because of the plain and obvious fact that he was an alcoholic drug riddled tramp who wouldn't remember what he hadn't had for breakfast, let alone a bloke he went to school with. I was wrong, I felt guilty immediately as he answered.
Of course he remembered me. I crouched down beside him on the pavement and we had a chat about old times, the things we got up to. He asked me what I do, where I live and all sorts of questions that seem quite normal. I told him the answers, then realised that they aren't so normal and I was stuck. I told him I was recently divorced and he told me that he didn't believe in marriage anyhow. Fair enough I thought but it seemed a strange thing to say.
Then I was well and truly stumped. What do you ask a down and out? There were ten thousand questions going through my head, from "how did you turn out like this?" to "what does your family think of your lifestyle?" to "do you live like this by choice or was it circumstance?". With all the possible probing and interesting questions that I could have chosen I went for the one question that was just so downright stupid that it would probably win prizes.
"So where do you live then?"
Before the word "then" had left my lips I was thinking "fucking pillock" in my head. But I'd asked the question, it was out there waiting to be answered.
"Errmm, well I sort of live around the area, you know". He said, rather kindly letting me off the hook. We carried on chatting for a few minutes. I felt a whole rainbow of emotions, from the red of danger to the blue of compassion to the violet of gratitude, the gratitude that it wasn't me in his position. I knew that I wanted to give him some money but wondered how he'd take it. Would he be insulted or would he feel grateful, would he be angry or happy?
I wished him well and asked him if it would be okay if I gave him some money, I told him that I didn't want to insult him or anything but that I'd like to help.
"Sure, just put it in the hat" he said.
I gave him some folding money, feeling mixed emotions. I'm sure it was a lot of money compared to his normal takings, but it was nothing to me and that didn't seem right. He took it like a gent, telling me that he'd put it in his savings and putting it in his pocket. We shook hands and parted company.
Meeting B has made me think so much about life, about the cards we're dealt, or perhaps the way we play them. In so many ways that could have been me sitting there juggling and begging. He was bright, middle class and seemingly had the world at his feet. It's not even fair to ask what went wrong, for he might be as happy as can be. Someone said to me that it's like the reverse of someone who went to school with Barrack Obama, looking now and being amazed that he may be president of the USA. I actually think it's more amazing. It's a kid who could have been Obama who's now at the other end of the scale.
As I sit here writing this I wonder about B. Should I have given more money to him, should I have tried to offer him some more help in some way? Next time I see him, if I do, I'd like to offer to buy him a meal or something. Yet, the shallow me worries that I wouldn't be able to take him into a restaurant, that I'd get too many looks if it was allowed.
I feel guilty that I'd made all those assumptions when I saw him. Was is wrong of me to worry that he might be drunk or stoned or both, that he might attack or shout at me? Was it wrong that the first thing I did when I went home was to wash my hands?
Was it wrong that a little bit of me felt pleased that it was him there and not me?