It’s 1996. April, I guess. I spent the first few months after my A-levels living in a bedsit in the village of Milton north of Cambridge, working by day testing software on the science park, suffocated by my blues at night. I hadn’t applied for university; I was in a rut, consumed by despair, living a solitary existence. When my contract ended, I returned to my parents’ home, causing them to wonder all over again, “What on earth is wrong with this boy?”
For three months, I spent my nights hammering out a novel, my mornings catching up on sleep and my afternoons daydreaming. My parents were probably in despair by then, but were remarkably patient and tolerant. Eventually, I had started making applications for university, although my father sent me back to the drawing board when he saw my initial choices. I had my heart set on going off to study graphic design in Salford, but he said I needed to get a proper degree from a proper university.
By April, I may have had an offer. I had been to various open days, travelling all over the country to evaluate my options. Bradford, my first visit, I discounted on the basis that whenever I opened my mouth that day, the completely wrong thing came out of it. The day I visited the University of East Anglia, it was pouring with rain and the campus seemed desolate and cold. On my visit to Central London, though, the sky was a beautiful blue, and I was bathed in the warm rays of the sun. Honestly, that was the sole reason I ultimately chose to study there. I considered it guidance from above.
So it was — starting to feel more optimistic than I had for months — that I decided to drop by my old college one day, intent on delivering a copy of my self-published novel to my old English teachers, thinking they’d be impressed. While there, I bumped into two old friends I had left behind, and we ended up sitting together in the canteen for a while. That’s when I decided to produce a copy of my book and pass it on. And that’s when one of those two friends decided to speak his mind.
There he sat just across from me, with my book in his hands. That book which had kept me awake at night for months on end, as I imagined myself a writer. That ode to my despair. That fictionalised rendition of some kind of reality. That exposition of what if? Flicking through its pages, he thought he recognised the characters printed on the page. One of the characters he thought sounded rather a lot like me. And the other main character? He thought he recognised that one too.
Though I insisted it was a complete work of fiction, a product purely of my imagination, he saw this an opportunity to set the record straight. I didn’t really know this friend of mine. We were acquaintances at best. That lack of closeness was probably to his advantage, for just then he’d decided there would be no hold barred. He was going to tell me the truth whether I wanted to hear it or not.
It started with him telling me that I was blind, and extremely naive. And also deaf. But he wasn’t planning to leave it there. He was about to tell me things that would knock me sideways. That was the day my friend laughed out loud at the poem on the first page of my novel in praise of that fictional young woman. That’s when he decided to tell me all about the person he was sure it was based on. That’s when he told me what was really going on, recounting the tale of a vicious plot against me.
Who could ever say if the story he told me that day was really true? Two people, I suppose: him and the person it concerned. Two and a half decades on, that is now impossible, for I have forgotten the name of my friend and have no connection with the other person at all. Had my companion not sworn at the time that it was true, I would have dismissed his tale as pure make-believe, even more implausible than the plot of my very poor novel. As it was, his intervention had had its desired effect. He had finally got through to me, a year and a half after his first attempt. Perhaps I might now move on.
What is the truth? Nobody knows. We have the Day of Judgement for that. Was I wronged? Or did my friend tell me all that just to help me overcome futile obsessions and impossible dreams? Either way, I have no interest in vengeance. Those were just moments in time, a quarter of a century ago now. Moments to forgive twenty-five years on.