It was lunchtime. I’d been in the Jolly Sailor pub in west London for about half an hour, when I saw a man sitting by himself in a corner of the room. Although I didn’t know his name I was sure I knew him from somewhere. He had grey hair and he was looking out of the window at the River Thames.
I don’t usually go to the pub at lunchtime, but it was the birthday of one of the other journalists at work. There were four of us. I asked them if they knew the man sitting in the corner. They looked over, but no-one knew him. I don’t know why, but I just kept looking at him, trying to remember.
Finally, when we were all about to go back to work, the man turned round and looked straight at me. He knew me, I could see, because he smiled at me. Who was he? Then I realised it was someone I had been at university with five years ago. I couldn’t remember his name immediately. He looked so old. He started to get up from his chair and I walked over to him. As I got closer I remembered his name.
‘Carl,’ I said, ‘good to see you. What are you doing here?’ I held out my hand.
‘John, what a surprise! It’s been such a long time.’ He shook my hand and then put both hands on my arms. ‘It’s good to see you. You know, you’re the first person I’ve seen from university for a long time. Those were good times, weren’t they?’
It was clear that Carl was pleased to see me, but at first he wasn’t sure what to say to me. He looked so different from the young, happy student I used to know. We were the same age but he looked a lot older than me. His hair was going grey and his face had a worried look. He was also much thinner than I remembered him.
Carl pointed at the seat he had just left. ‘Let’s sit down, he said. ‘I’ll get you a drink.’ I had to go back to work, but Carl was an old friend, a good friend – we’d had a lot of fun together at university. I couldn’t say no.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘OK.’ I told my friends from work that I would come back to the office soon. They left and I waited while Carl bought two drinks. It was hard to believe this was the same man I had been to university with. He looked so white and thin. Had something happened to him? Maybe he’s just been in hospital, I thought.
Because I’m a journalist I always ask questions, but when Carl came back with the drinks, I didn’t say anything about the way he looked.
‘So, Carl,’ I said, ‘I’ve just been trying to remember the last time we met. I think it was at your wedding. That was quite a day, wasn’t it?’ Carl just nodded his head and smiled in a sad way. I didn’t know what else to say, so I kept talking.
‘Isn’t it terrible that we haven’t seen each other since then?’ I said. ‘How’s Linda? Have you got any kids yet?’
Carl stopped smiling and looked at me strangely. I knew I’d said the wrong thing, but I had to ask about his wife Linda. Linda went to the same university as us and she was beautiful. We were all good friends and we’d had a lot of fun together at university. Linda was fun to be with.