Like a lot of really bad ideas, it seemed like a good idea at the time. We were 14 and he had been annoying me. For months.
There was just something about him – the relentless questions and fantastical speculation, the obsession with science fiction, the otherness. In retrospect I suspect he was simply making me anxious about my own deficiencies. But whatever the reason, right there in Class Music, as we waited for the teacher to arrive, he felt like a legitimate target.
It was too easy. As he sat down I pulled his chair away from under him. He landed on his backside, hard.
There was a moment of stillness as he felt the shock and shame, and then he was up, his hand on my throat, shoving me back towards the wall. I laughed, amazed that I was about to be killed by a seething child in glasses, but I stopped laughing when he pulled his fist back a long, long way.
He put everything behind that punch – I was groping at his shoulder and could feel it bunch like a coiling spring – but I didn’t stick around to see the results. I ducked, and he hit the wall as hard as anyone can hit a wall. He screamed, cradling his hand, ran out of the room, and went home.
I spent the rest of the day swallowing dry panic. When he came to school the next morning with a heavily bandaged hand I felt sick, and when he marched up to me and handed me an envelope – “from my mother” – I wanted to faint. At best it would be a doctor’s bill; at worst a lawyer’s summons.
I opened the letter. It was an apology. She was sorry that her son had behaved badly and tried to hit me.
I had never felt like such an utter shit.
This weekend, as I pulled up outside my 20-year school reunion, I wondered if he would be there and if I would be able to make a sincere apology amid all the music and laughter. Besides, there would be other pressures to negotiate. I had been ambivalent about going. Hollywood had persuaded me that I would be confronted by a jaded, older version of The Breakfast Club: a room full of faded jocks, princesses, brains, basket cases and criminals. Which one was I? And did I have the self-esteem to deal with the conversation that always happens when old acquaintances find out that I write for a living? “Oh wow! What have you written that I’ve read? No, I haven’t read that. What else? No, not that one either. Or that. No, doesn’t sound familiar. Oh well, it’s been cool catching up anyway .”
For a moment I wondered why I had come. What was I hoping to find? Had I been brought here by a nasty kind of voyeurism, a desire to see bright young things tarnished by the compromises of adulthood? No, it wasn’t that: I knew I wanted to climb those steps to discover that everything had worked out well for everyone, because this felt like a kind of end and I wanted a happy ending. So perhaps it was simply a desire to recall a bizarre time when we were all herded through the educational dipping pens and soaked with arbitrary knowledge. I knew why I had come. I wanted to rub noses with the other cows and moo for a while about nothing in particular, surrounded by the eternally greener pastures of childhood.
He wasn’t there. (I hope that’s because he is somewhere exotic, being happy, and not because he’s in a soundproof basement putting the finishing touches to a pit called Eaton’s Despair.) But there was also no sign of any movie clichés. Nobody claimed to have invented Post-its. As far as I know there were no charming assassins rekindling old flames before heading off to gunfights with Dan Aykroyd. Instead there was a room full of people who had turned into ludicrously good-looking versions of their 16-year-old selves. I had thought age might tarnish them. Instead it had made them beautiful, the way a forest is more beautiful than a hillside of saplings. The jocks and princesses had made peace with their ungovernable bodies and had softened and found the capacity to mock themselves. The brains had learned that making mistakes is not the end of the world. The basket cases had done the hard work and climbed out of the basket, or realised that they had never been in the basket to start with. And the criminals, well, they were just great company.
I hope that boy has grown up into one of the people I saw at the weekend. I’m sure he has. But I’m also content to let my regret linger on, perhaps until the next reunion. It will give me a reason to go.
First published in The Times and TimesLive