It's funny how a name can take you back, revive forgotten memories, put you in touch with a simpler, more secure time. It normally happens unexpectedly as well, puts you off your guard. Take this morning. I'm coming down the stairs ready to head off to the office, the recent rumours of redundancies bouncing around my head. I walk into the kitchen and my wife is sitting at the table, over a cup of coffee, poring over the local paper.
"There's an article here about someone from our school,” she says, with a slightly shocked tone in her voice.
"Where's that,” I ask, walking over.
"Here.” She looks up at me, her glasses perched on the end of her nose. "Look. Richard Black. You knew him, didn't you?”
I look at the article.
"Yes I did," I say. "I certainly did.”
Let's put it this way. He never wanted to work, Ritch, that was his problem. That’s what all the teachers said, anyway. Not that he cared, or even took the slightest notice of them. They just weren’t on his radar. He used to waltz around the school like he owned it. It wasn’t that he was tough. He just managed to avoid any trouble by being himself and doing his thing in his own unique, flamboyant way. He was his own boss and the hard nuts respected that. I never thought about it at the time but, thinking back, I suppose that must have been the case.
Ritch was the first person I saw in a tonik jacket. He turned up at school in it one day, worn with narrow jeans and a button-down Brutus shirt. He had the customary feather cut and I have to say he looked the business, as he strode up to the gates with his hands in his pockets. Of course, it didn’t stop him from being sent home. But that wasn’t the point. He had worn those threads and that was what counted, as well as doing a short day, which I suppose was an added bonus. I remember seeing him walk out of the assembly hall after having been chastised for his appearance, head held high with a big grin on his face, like he didn't have a care in the world, which I suppose he didn't when you come to think about it. A few weeks later, he clocked another first by dying his hair red and doing the Ziggy Stardust bit. He lost out on being the first punk in town, though. That honour went to yours truly.
But I'd lost touch with him by then. Back at school, the teachers had written him off as a ne’er do well, to use their language.
“The day you die,” said one, “no one will notice.”
Ritch shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
"Let's just see, shall we,” he said, staring his adversary in the eye until he walked away.
Anyway, we knew different. What they didn’t count on was his charm and the fact that he was clever, the cleverest person I ever met, in fact, quite apart from his front. I remember once a rumour went round that he locked a teacher, Mr Jenkins, in a cupboard. I had to feel sorry for old Jenkins in a way. He was a timid sort of chap and lacked the confidence to stand up in front of a class of hooligans and keep them in line, the sort of confidence that Ritch had in droves. I was off with flu at the time so I didn't see it happen. But, as legend has it, Ritch just got up from his desk during a lesson and led old Jenkins towards this stationery cupboard, pushed him in and locked the door. Then the class left for the rest of the lesson. He got away with it as well. It was the rest of the class who got the blame.
When we got a bit older, you'd see him in places like The Queens and the Dog and Duck already getting involved in dodgy stuff. He was always with the best women, naturally, the likes of Steph Gardner, Debbie Johnson and Kelly Stapleton. He’d had them all, at one time or another. I remember the Steph Gardner episode, when one of the older kids had a house party because his parents were away. There was a boy in our class who had been after her all night. Then, in walks Ritch, uninvited naturally, who stands silently pulling on a filter tip and watching. After he’s finished, he puts the cigarette out and simply nods his head to her in the direction of the stairs. She follows, of course, much to the disgust of the lad who had been chasing her. I had to smile to myself. That was the way things were.
He was the first to leave school. He didn’t want to be in the world of fools, that’s what he said. Soon he was into all sorts of things, driving round in flash cars and buying quality clothes. He didn't get a proper job, unlike the rest of his class who ended up in factories and supermarkets and, if they were very lucky, in offices. Ritch didn't do anything like that. No one knew quite what he did, except that he was off down to London all the time. Some said he was into something dubious, others that he was working for a rich uncle. He left everyone else standing. He hung around for a couple of years but not much longer. None of us saw him much after he turned eighteen. Rumour had it that he had joined a band and become a model for a style magazine. Some said he went abroad, Spain or Italy I think it was. Others said he had gone into politics, which many of us couldn’t quite believe.
Then we heard that he’d married into money. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? If anyone was going to become a member of the landed gentry it was Ritch. He met her in Chelsea so they said when he was living down there.
Of course, they were different times, confident, more carefree. There were plenty of jobs about for a start and a welfare state to catch you if you fell. That said, no one expected today’s news. I stand in the kitchen and look at the article, over my wife's shoulder.
“Well,” she says. "Fancy that. Someone from our school found dead.”
“Poor chap. Found in a derelict flat, abroad somewhere. Cause of death unknown it says here. Looks like he'd been sleeping rough, though. Do you think?”
"Looks like it.”
"We knew him as well. Do you remember? Who’d have thought it? Richard, the first of our lot to go. Oh well.”
Steph shrugs her shoulders.
"I don't suppose any of us know, do we. From one day to the next.”
Then she folds the paper, gets up and leaves to drop the kids off at school. I leave for work.