How to lose friends without really noticing

I SAW him in the street, walking past me with his head down, and I knew instantly that it was him, even though I hadn't seen him for a while, even though all I got was a flash of nose, glasses, chin. For about a second. And then he was obscured by someone's overcoat. He hadn't seen me.

This was the moment, then. He'd gone past now; I'd have to shout his name, and felt a twinge of awkwardness about doing it,: not because it might not be him after all, not because of the mild embarrassment of mistaking one person for another. B; but because it was him, and I hadn't seen him for years, and if I shouted his name, I would never be able, unprompted, to get in touch with him and get something organised. Which I had been intending to do. For years. Meeting someone you've lost touch with is nice, but it's the harshest possible reminder that this is someone you've lost touch with.

'Jonathan]'

When you haven't seen someone for years, the first bit of your conversation is already scripted. for you; you have no choice in the matter. You have no choice. You talk about the fact that you recognise each other. You still have that capacity.

'It is you] I knew it] I . . . '

'My God, it must be . . . how are you? You're looking . . . '

'You look the same . . . '

The question, at this point, is: do you talk like this for a bit and then just go off? Or do you stop what you're doing and go to a cafe?

How often does this happen to you? It happens to me all the time. I get to know people, and then I get to know more people, and the original people fall by the wayside. All the time. It's terrible. It's a condition of modern life. People spend an increasing amount of time with friends they've only just met.

'Have you got a couple of minutes?'

'Well, my boss'll go mad, but . . . '

You reach a crisis point with people after a while; if you don't call them, your relationship with them will cross an invisible line, and they'll slip away into the crowded sub-world of people you no longer know, people you used to know. There's this friend of mine who I'm not going to call today, but, right now, I fully believe I'll call him tomorrow. He left a message on my answering machine telling me he'd had a baby, and I forgot about it, and that was three weeks ago. This is really embarrassing. I've been toying with the idea of not calling at all, of dropping the whole thing. That's how bad it is. For a week, I had this story ready about having been away for a week, and having only just got his message; the time for that excuse has now lapsed. Then I thought: I could call him, and say: 'Has your baby arrived?' And he'd say: 'I left you a message.' And I'd say: 'Oh, of course - it must have been on the tape that snarled up.' But I know the guy too well; he'd probably realise. Or do I?

'Coffee. No sugar.'

'Right.' We had walked across the road, not saying anything to each other, a sort of respectful silence, an acknowledgement that we had so much to say that we should wait until we sat down. The queue was short enough to continue this policy. He picked up the tray, and his briefcase; ridiculously, I said: 'Shall I . . . take the case?' We were both so respect, polite. wonder. The time for ribbing or joking had long gone. It really had been quite a while.

'How long is it?'

'Let me see . . . 1978. Fifteen years. Fifteen years . . . '

'Fifteen years. My God, we haven't seen each other for . . . '

'It can't be.'

'Wow.'

I wonder when, during those 15 years, the moment of slippage actually occurred. When, exactly, would a phone call have stopped being a normal thing to do, and begun to be rather an odd thing to do? After three years? Five? Seven? And the terrible thing is that you reach this point with somebody every week of your life. You get past the point of no return. And then you meet them in the street, years later. These meetings haunt you, telling you how disorganised and hopeless you are.

'I was going to call you.'

'I was going to call you.'

'No, really I was. Do you remember Gavin Green?'

'Gavin Green? Wow. Do you still see Gavin Green?'

'Listen, Gavin Green is going out with this girl who used to know you.'

'Who?'

And then, after about two minutes, you stop all this chit-chat, which is really just an imitation of everyday talk, the kind of talk you do when you really do know someone. What you do next is you say: tell me about yourself.

Suddenly, you have a tiny bit of anxiety - will there be bad news? Have people died? When you reach your thirties, it becomes hard, for instance, to ask after people's parents. When you haven't seen someone for a few years, pets are dodgy ground.

'So: you first, then.'

'Okay. Well, after school, I went . . . '

'William]'

I looked up. It was a girl I recognised, sitting at the next table. I had known her, but we lost touch sometime in the early Eighties. She kissed me, and sat down next to me.

'My God] It's . . . '

'Naomi] You look, you haven't changed at all]' I was in a difficult situation. This was the first time it had happened to me, this coincidence of lost friends.

'I haven't seen you for . . . God, ten 10 years]'

'This is Jonathan, by the way, who I haven't seen for 15 years . . . '

It was fine in the end. Naomi stayed at our table for a few minutes, and then went back to hers;. I heard all the news, from both people, which was like most distant news;: predominantly good, about marriage and children and wealth, or else really bad, like prison and death; the everyday grunge gets edited out. Then I put Jonathan's and Naomi's business cards in my wallet and walked out of the cafe. I promised myself I'd get in touch with both of them. Which I will, of course. I won't let it slip again. I really believe that.

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