I don’t really know why I never said hullo to Lionel. It was partly because on the first couple of sightings I wasn’t sure it was him. His face looked familiar without matching a name or place; then I thought I recognised him but wasn’t sure until I had seen him a third time. It was almost thirty years since we had hung out together and he had aged more than most guys I knew, with hair that hadn’t receded but grown thin, bags under the eyes and the hint of a stoop in his walk. He looked knocked about by ill health, and when I decided it was him I wondered if he had picked up some bad habits over the years. I also realised that I didn’t know his real name. When we were younger everyone had called him Lionel because his surname was Blair – this was years before Prime Minister Tony got himself noticed – and although I once asked someone his real name I don’t recall any straight answer.
That was one of the things that made me uncertain about approaching him, but it was daft because we had got on very well with each other. There had been two years or so over the line between teens and twenties when we knocked about with the same crowd. Most of the nights out were about boozing, banter, shouting about football and chatting up girls, at which neither of us were masters but with enough hits to keep our pride intact. We often fell into conversation with each other on the fringe of the group because we had more in common – Derek Jarman movies, Gill Scott-Heron albums, George V Higgins novels, even the occasional trip to the Tate Gallery – minority tastes for working class lads chasing girls in disco pubs. Away from the group we went to a couple of gigs together but not much else; I was studying a lot in the evenings and I think he had an alternative circle of friends. But I always liked him, believed that he appreciated my company, and kept thinking that sooner or later we would do more together.
Then he disappeared. At first I wasn’t sure why, then someone said he had moved out to the suburbs with his parents, nobody had a phone number and he clearly wasn’t inclined to show his face or give anyone a call. I hoped that he would show up again, but after a while I became tangled with a girl who get me excited until she dumped me for a guy she had been with berfore. I stopped giving any thought Lionel and nobody mentioned his name. He became someone I used to know.
Until those uncertain sightings at work. It began when the firm I worked for was gobbled up by a larger one who moved us in with them, inside a big building with half a dozen companies and several hundred people. Most were anonymous, some had faces that I noticed more often than most, and a handful began to smile after we crossed paths a few times. I didn’t get into any conversations. I had been there around six months when I realised a guy of my age looked familiar, and a few more weeks before I told myself it was Lionel. He always looked busy, entering or leaving the building quickly despite his stoop, either with company or talking loudly on his phone. I only became sure it was him when I heard his voice from behind me, reminding someone of “that Peter Greenaway film with all the food”. It was enough to make me turn around but he had veered away and we didn’t make eye contact. In fact we never made eye contact.
I thought about saying hullo, but I didn’t know which company he worked for or on which floor of the building, and on the occasions I used the cafeteria he was never in sight. There were periods when I didn’t spot him for weeks on end, then would notice him coming into the building as I left, or going down an elevator as I went up. He always looked to be intent on getting somewhere, never dawdling or looking around for the sake of it, and we still never made eye contact.
For a while I wondered about attracting his attention the next time I saw him. But I didn’t know if he would still respond to ‘Lionel’, still didn’t know his real name, and wasn’t sure if it would be one of those awkward occasions when only person remembered the other. Along with that was the fact that I had done the thing of finding old friends online and most of the time it had come to nothing; not many lived within easy reach and gaps of twenty-five years tend to eradicate a lot that youngsters have in common. I wasn’t convinced that we could pick up again as friends, and worried that I might felt uneasy if that happened. But I resolved that I would say hullo when the moment was right, that soon there had to be a time when we would notice each other and it would all come naturally.
Then my mind got tied up in the job going downhill. I had never got on with the people in charge after the takeover, never fitted what they described as ‘company culture’ and I regarded as a lot of pretentious arsing about, and had come to dislike sharing an office with some of my colleagues. There were arguments and stand-offs and I began to regard the building as enemy territory. It was no surprise when they told me our part of the business was being reorganised and gave a lot of money to go away. I was glad to see the back of the place and didn’t give much thought to not running into Lionel again.
Ten years later I was scrolling through Twitter when I came across a retweet, a comment that said ‘Lovely Guy’, and a photo of Lionel. And beneath that was a link to an obituary of a man named Colin Blair, the real name I had never known. I clicked, saw the piece had appeared on a national news site and been written by someone who had known Lionel through supporting a charity. It said he had gone into advertising and built a reputation as a star copywriter with a sharp wit and a flamboyant manner with clients. Then he had got involved in a couple of charities, one to help kids from poor families go to concerts and theatre, another to stage art exhibitions in empty shops in high streets. He had been an evangelist for getting people to raise their cultural sights and experience stuff they would usually ignore. The writer said Lionel had a talent for involving people by making them laugh, whether it was through a clever line on a poster or injecting a spontaneous crack into a meeting. He knew how to make people like him and give his proposals a go. He made a difference in the world, won admiration and made plenty of friends. And he did it all while suffering from a muscular disease that withered and killed him before he reached sixty.
I had things to do but after reading the obituary I couldn’t get on with them. I read it again and gazed at the photo, Lionel pointing with a stick to a screen with a Powerpoint slide and the message ‘Don’t believe a word that I say’. He looked older than when I had last spotted him, more stooped with a drooping eyebrow and an odd turn of the lower lip, but there was a grin on his face and a touch of fire in his eyes. It was clear that however he had gone downhill physically his mind was still living it up. I sat back for a while, didn’t try to think about anything else, then acknowledged that I had missed something. He had clearly been a character worth knowing as he got older. I had a chance to do so but didn’t take it.
I didn’t lose any sleep but it lingered in my mind. It wasn’t a tragedy in my life, but a regret, the feeling of an opportunity that could have been enjoyable but was wasted. I think I’d been held back by the curse of middle aged men, sticking to what we’re comfortable with and missing good things. I should have gone out of my way to say hullo.