Anthony could never remember the circumstances of our first meeting, but for some reason they always stuck in my mind. It was about three days into the first term, and I was on my way from the 'B' block lecture theatre to the coffee bar. As I shambled through the institutional double doors leading into the Students Union I was accosted by a pale, grinning, rake-thin individual, whose shock of blonde hair and billowing, moth-eaten Oxfam coat gave him the air of a genial scarecrow. When he spoke, it was with the clipped Home Counties vowels that until a week earlier I had only heard on the repeats of Dad's Army that my dad would chortle along to in our suburban living room in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
'Hey- aren't we in the same French class?'
We went for a coffee together, and within five minutes were lifelong best friends.
By the fourth year we were living ,along with a girl called Claire who never seemed to be at home, in a shared house in Tattenhall. Every weekday morning we would traipse through four miles of drizzle to get to our 9AM lecture in time. On the way we would pass through some rum neighbourhoods. Once we were walking down a terraced street when a man leapt out of the front door and onto the pavement in his shirt and underpants. He proceeded to put on his shoes and trousers, which he was carrying in an evidently-hastily-assembled bundle, then headed off towards the bus-stop, whistling merrily to himself as if this was an entirely commonplace way to start the day. Another time we were passing a phone box, and heard ringing from inside. I answered, and a voice growled, 'Hey- is that John?'. 'No- but I'll just get him for you', I replied, and handed the mouthpiece to my giggling companion. Eventually the mytery caller realised he was not talking to John at all- but only after Anthony had brokered a deal to have 'fifteen pounds of the very best shit' delivered to 'the usual place' the next morning, 'and no funny business, by the way'.
Impromptu telephone negotiations with small-time Black Country drug barons notwithstanding, they were innocent, carefree times. The third year was the most carefree of all. In an unforgettable act of benevolence, the Polytechnic and Local Government Authorities contrived to send us on a year abroad, with several thousand pounds of British taxpayers' money in our pockets and next to no academic responsibilities whatsoever to trouble our delicate intellectual sensibilities. Making the most of our freedom, we jetted up and down the Mediterranean coast on the high-speed trains that joined my city-centre apartment in Valencia to Anthony's equally cushy rural retreat outside of Barcelona. One summer Catalan weekend the arduous routine of drinking giant, ridiculously cheap bottles of San Miguel on the sun-scorched back yard while playing a football game of our invention that we were hoping to get into the upcoming Olympic Games involving three tennis balls, a trestle table and a plastic tube had begun to pale- so we resolved to spend a week following the touring British band The Wedding Present around the Iberian Peninsula. In Valencia we spent a drunken hour trying incompetently to chat up a beautiful indiepop girl who turned out to be the singer's girlfriend, and we ended the night of the Barcelona gig by roaming hopelessly disorientated through the city streets, eventually falling asleep on a park bench as dawn rose.
I am giving the idea that we were somehow interchangeable, but we weren't. We may have looked the same (I had not wasted much time in exchanging the Chrissy Waddle hairstyle and pastel BHS sweater I had sported on the day of our first meeting for the trademark indie-pop get-up of floppy fringe, Marks and Spencers button up cardigan and Oxfam coat), but we were different- if complementary- characters. Throughout the four-year run of our double-act I played Dudley Moore to Anthony's Peter Cook; while I shambled around in the drizzle looking for my contact lenses and falling unrequitedly for a series of Girls Who Didn't Know I Existed, Anthony, with his genteel vowels and easy-going manner (the family had only emigrated from Australia to Kent when he was eleven) glided from Freshers Week to Graduation with an insouciant air, and a succession of willowy-limbed female undergraduates of every nationality dangling decoratively from his snake-like hips.
Fast forward now, to June 1993. Three years have passed, and having spent two of them teaching English in Spain (it was the default career choice of Modern Languages graduates in recession-hit late-Thatcher Britain, in much the same inevitable way that adolescents of my grandfather's generation swapped school-desk for pit-face), I have decamped to Manchester to complete a one-year postgraduate degree in Secondary School Teaching. Having somehow survived a hellish teaching practice in inner-city Gorton (frankly, I'd rather have been sent down the pit), I am sitting in a sparsely furnished room in a towering shared house in Victoria Park, watching the Champions League Final on a flickering black-and-white screen. It's the classic one-sided final where an AC Milan at the height of their powers strip Barcelona of all their dignity, the scoreline only staying near to respectable because, having run in four effortless goals without reply, Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkaard take pity on their hapless opponents. I should be engrossed- but I can't bring myself to empathise with the hapless Catalans, because I've got troubles of my own- I'm too busy dreading the knock on the door, which will tell me that Anthony's hire car has arrived.
I've been dreading this three-day visit ever since it was arranged, during a painful telephone conversation a few weeks earlier- during which my college soulmate had made no effort to disguise his lack of enthusiasm for incorporating a trip up to Manchester into his yearly visit home (he had joined the Spanish exodus as well, and made a better go of it than most, rising quickly to become Head of Studies at a private school in Murcia). It had all gotten a bit prickly in the end, at least by our ever-jovial standards.
'So, are you coming up or what?' I had ended up asking.
'Well, I suppose we will do the usual thing', was the terse reply.
I suppose at this stage I should come clean; that Easter, I had failed to attend Anthony's wedding. It wasn't that I dissapproved of the union- quite the opposite. Sonia, the beautiful Murciana who had replaced that succession of willowy-limbed undergraduates to become my best friend's permanent companion, was a lovely, bright, funny girl, and we had got on famously during our handful of meetings over the last couple of years. But I just couldn't bring myself to get the plane to Murcia. For a start, I was broke. But more crucially, I was half-way through that hellish teaching practice and gripped by nervous exhaustion. Most nights during the Easter Holidays I was up half the night grappling with lesson plans- lesson plans that I already knew would bear no resemblance whatsoever to the actual lessons, which would descend into anarchy within the first ten minutes and end with me fighting back tears of frustration while attempting to clear the battleground of debris (pens, rulers, flick-knives...an onion) before the bell rang for the next pitiful excuse for a class. My self-pity was such that I was on the point of giving the whole teaching lark up and heading back to Newcastle to sign up for the modern-day equivalent of the coalmines-a junior filing job at the DHSS offices in Longbenton. The thought of climbing on a plane and going to Spain for a society wedding just seemed impossibly decadent.
Still, it seemed Anthony had forgiven me- he was coming to Manchester after all. But as I sat watching the minutes tick away in the Milan/Barcelona, I couldn't get the end of that cutting final sentence -'Well, I suppose we will do the usual thing'-out of my head:
After what seemed like an eternity, the final whistle put and end to Barcelona's misery and just as it did, the doorbell rang to signal the start of The Visit. My forebodings, as it turned out, had been entirely accurate. Quite simply, the boy was a fucking nightmare from beginning to end. On the first night we headed out on the town, ending up in the Granby. It was the sort of place Anthony always loved- a ramshackle, raucous booze-soaked, after-hours Manchester institution, where indie-kids, ravers and late-for-tea office-workers who had got caught up in the merriment danced their cares away to an unpretentious mix of The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees and The Smiths. But that Wednesday night he stood sullenly on the edge of the room, responding with only the faintest nod whenever one of my Manchester friends (I had brought a few of them along for the ride, figuring I would need the support) attempted to engage him in conversation. By the end they had given up, and you would have thought Anthony was a stuffed dummy, except for the way he coughed pointedly every time a whiff of cigarette smoke got near his nose.
But the night in the Granby was a joy, compared with the day out in Liverpool. This time I had brought my sister Abby along for the ride, as well as our Wolverhampton friend Charlotte (yes, that Charlotte- we had stayed in touch since graduation, but not yet become an item). We had all of us more or less given up on the sullen Anthony by this time, so spent the afternoon in a pub by Albert Dock attempting to talk to Sonia. Only it wasn't easy, as Anthony wouldn't let the girl speak- he would interrupt his wife's faltering attempts to converse in her second language with petty grammatical corrections. By the time a discussion of the popularity of The Beatles in provincial Murcia became bogged down in a painstaking dissection of the pluperfect tense we'd all had enough. Charlotte, quite sensibly, finished off her drink and climbed on a ferry in the general direction of Europe (this was why our courtship took five years- we would go out for a drink together then Charlotte would get on a boat to Spain- I think they call it 'playing hard to get'), and the rest of us climbed back into the hire car and prepared to be lectured on the correct use of verb endings ('no, we would say The Beatles have had a great influence on popular music- but Paul McCartney has had mixed success in his solo career) all the way back to Manchester.
The following morning Anthony was leaving town, and I was looking forward to returning to the blissful life of an unemployed schoolteacher Geordie summertime bar-fly. As the hirecar sped into the Victoria Park sunset, me and my Abby looked at each other. It was my sister who who spoke first:
'Well what the fuck was all that about, do you think?'
'I sure as hell don't know. But I wish I'd said something. I mean, what an absolute pain in the arse'.
'You know what you should do- send him a fucking letter. Tell him what you think of him'.
'I bloody might. I bloody might, an all'.
The next afternoon, I bloody did.