Steve was always tall. His ears stuck out slightly, and he had a cheeky smile that could crack melons. Even though we were in the same primary school class, our paths didn’t cross for a while. He was quiet, and I hung out with the girls, playing hopscotch or just talking.
And then they decided it wasn’t cool to have a “boy” hanging round and I found myself friendless. A village school playground in 1971 was not a good place to be a loner, especially when the common game was a variant of bulldog. I could never see the point of chasing girls around the playground.
Steve and Brian were also outsiders. Steve remembers the two of us hanging around by the goal in football lessons, neither of us wanting to get involved unless we were shouted at. I couldn’t kick for toffee and, despite his size, Steve was supremely disinterested in the game as well. We would plan out our next set of excavations with cars in the sand, or some madcap board game to be invented in Brian’s house at the weekends.Somehow I got the impression that my Mum wouldn’t approve. Steve’s Dad had died a couple of years before, and he had a sister with disabilities. Despite Mum, I went to his house, in the estate in the corner of the village – the wrong side of the metaphorical tracks. I remember his huge trays of Lego, and the paint-by-numbers picture of the Laughing Cavalier in the hall. Given his surname, of course that picture was apt. Of course he was keen for me to stay – he needed me as much as I needed him. I was usually late home, and hated myself for lying to Mum about why.
Then I went to boarding school, and had longer holidays, and we drifted apart.
About 30 years later we got in touch again. Friends Reunited was a marvellous thing. Of course at the time I was trying to do mental gymnastics around transition. We met in his flat in Winchester, and spent a couple of hours reminiscing and catching up. He learnt about my new business, and I learnt about his property empire and his work to stay in touch with his son. But I wasn’t being completely honest with him.
Nor, it turned out, was he with me. When I emailed to say that my name was now Helen, he emailed back and asked whether it was ok for him to tell his husband. That was his nature – he never presumed. When he talked about me going pink, I said no, it was more a greeny-pink – I couldn’t think of two colours which didn’t go together more. The name stuck.
I met his husband Jules, and his dog Harvey, and his son Jon. In fact, when Jon walked in, my breath was taken away. He was like a slightly older version of the schoolboy Steve I remembered. Steve laughed. At dinner, Steve looked at me quizzically, and then said that most kids aged 6 and 7 were finding out how to interact with the world, but I must have been learning to hide from it. At a rocky time in my life, I knew I had a haven.
We stayed in touch through Facebook. We shared a love of Scotland. It’s just that he had a flat there, while I was reliant on hotels and the hospitality of friends. His joy of relentless travels and visits to coffee shops was evident.
Then, one day two weeks ago, his husband posted the news that Steve had died in the night. I should have seen it coming. Steve had been looking more gaunt in the recent pictures, and his comments had dried up. And so I sat in the London restaurant alone, in floods of tears, much as I am now in writing this.
Today was his funeral. The chapel sat about 50, and had space for about 30 more standing. In typical Steve style, about 150 people turned up. The various speeches just showed how much his character was the same as it had always been. Open hearted, looking for excitement, surrounding himself with love and bemused when nastiness tried to find a way in. A big hearted man, in the same way that he had been a big hearted boy.
And the song which did for me right at the start? When I was 7 years old – the age we were when I first knew him, when he’d lost his Dad.
Enjoy this adventure, big man. Our hearts will never be the same. Thank you.