We met one cold January morning in the library. He was looking for a copy of a historical text, and I knew I had seen it on the next shelf. I remembered because I had questioned at the time who had put that book there.
I didn’t think it would be one of the many librarians on the campus, they’re usually so efficient about that sort of thing. Probably, I had thought at the time, some careless student who had taken it to study and once finished, replaced it on the nearest available shelf, such was their haste.
So why not put the book back in the right place, if it bothers you that much that it’s in the wrong place, I hear you ask. Quite simple, it wasn’t my job.
Besides, if it hadn’t been for that misplaced book, I’d never have spoken to this young man.
Ben he said his name was, short for Benedict, not Benjamin. He asked my name, and after glancing at the surrounding texts, I alighted on Richard.
Ben was trying to complete his doctorate on the Plantagenets, hence the need to find this particular text. Wasn’t the information online, I hear you ask. Well, some of it, but not the detail. Not the nuts and bolts of what he was studying. For that you need to go back to the original documents. Besides, don’t you think those old books smell so much better than a laptop? You get a real feel for the period from those books. Especially these old texts.
So, that’s how Ben and I met, chance meeting in the college library. I was studying too - anthropology.
At lunch, Ben came up to me, said thanks for finding the book for him. No problem, I said.
Fancy a coffee, he asked. I had no friends at that time, so thought why not? Wouldn’t be any harm in it, would there?
So, we went for a coffee, chatted. Nice guy, Ben, really took to him. He told me of his mother, father, sister. Really family orientated.
He asked about my family. I thought a bit before replying. My father, I told him, my father was a scientist.
And your mother? he asked.
I was quiet for a bit before I answered. I don’t have a mother, I said eventually.
Oh, I’m so sorry, he said, and he looked it too, genuinely sorry, though why he should think it his fault I do not know. Do you mind if I ask what happened to her? I thought that strange. I mean, if I said Yes, it would leave an awkward silence. If I said No, would he then repeat the question? I thought for a moment and then realised that he was trying to be curious and polite at the same time, curious to know about my mother, but giving me permission to say I didn’t want to say what had happened to her.
Eventually I told him I didn’t know what had happened to my mother, that my father had never said. He again said he was sorry for something that was not his fault.
Later I went to see the man I had named as my father in his laboratory in the basement, asked him about my mother.
He carried on with what he was doing, not even pausing to acknowledge my presence making me wonder if he’d heard my question. But he had, because he eventually said, I’d never had a mother. Or a father. He wanted to know why I asked.
I told him. Because my friend asked me.
This made him pause. He asked me since when had I acquired a friend?
Since today, I replied. And I told him how I met Ben, short for Benedict not Benjamin, how I was now called Richard, and why, why hadn’t he given me a name before he sent me out in the world, and how Ben and I went for coffee. I told how he spoke to me about his family, his mother, his father, his sister, and how he’d asked about mine.
The man before me paused, unsettled by my words I think, by my tone. Eventually he said because I was what I was, I didn’t have any of those things.
But I need them, I protested. If I’m to work in this world of humans, I need to be able to answer these questions, same as I needed a name which I’d had to decide for myself.
He looked thoughtful at this, paused in what he was doing. Leave it with me, he said. We’ll discuss it tonight.
That evening I arrived home to find he had prepared a meal. I am able to eat, to drink, though in moderation. Later I will empty food into a biodigester specially constructed so it can be converted into energy I can use.
After we had eaten, he said that he was my father, in a way. He was certainly responsible for my existence, but he wasn’t my father in the biological sense. I suggest, he said, I suggest you say you were adopted. I suggested your mother was my cousin, a single woman who died shortly after your birth. She had cancer, refused treatment when she realised she was pregnant, wouldn’t name the father. As her closest relative, I adopted you. He also said I should say I had been home schooled, to get round any questions about which school I had attended and to explain my social inadequacies around others. I was, after all, not used to having friends.
The following day I spent in the library, looking at what the literature had on adoption, cancer and the treatments thereof, especially where the unborn foetus was concerned, and the methods used in home schooling. I wanted my back story to be sound should I be asked.
Ben came in later, saw me, said Hi. I said Hi back. It was nice to have someone to say Hi to, I decided, someone who took notice of you as a person. We went for a coffee again at lunchtime, chatted.
My father tells me I’m adopted, I told him. My mother was ill, died shortly after my birth. I left it at that. I thought it better not to divulge all the information at one time. If he wanted more, he would ask. He said he was sorry again, and I think I’m learning that this is empathy rather than a feeling of personal responsibility on his part.
We chatted some more, and Ben asked me if I would like to join him and some friends for a drink on Friday evening. More friends, I think. That would be nice.
I speak to my father that night. Why, I say to him, would Ben ask me for a drink on Friday if we’d already been for drinks at lunchtime.
Ah, he said, that’s because there’s drinks and drinks. At lunchtime he asked you for a coffee didn’t he?
Well, yes, I answered, but then coffee’s a drink isn’t it?
Yes, he replied, but when someone asks you for drinks as your friend Ben has done, he probably means alcohol.
I asked if I could process this alcohol.
He said he didn’t see why not, though I shouldn’t overdo it and only drink in moderation.
I wondered at first what he meant by ‘don’t overdo it’, but as Friday evening arrived and progressed, I began to realise. Alcohol, it would seem, made people react in a loud distorted way. There was one guy even fell over and had to be carried out. Why would people want to drink something that made them react like that? I could see I would need to research alcohol carefully. But the hum of the increasingly loud conversation was interesting, and I met some new friends; Robert, Callum, Mike and Adam.
I discarded the alcohol when I got home – I didn’t know what effect it might have on the biodigestor and thought I ought to do more research first.
Over the coming weeks, I began to experience other things with my new friends. We went to a football match that they seemed very enthusiastic about. I found it rather disappointing, ninety minutes of kicking a ball from one end of the pitch to another, and not a single point scored. But their reaction as the game ebbed and flowed was something to wonder at. Studying football, I noticed that there were other sports available, though none as prominent as football. I watched some rugby, cricket, tennis, snooker. All these relied on points being scored, all more likely to have points scored in them. In some, the match wasn’t over until a certain number of points had been scored
There were other sports I watched. Athletics, where the winner was the person who ran the fastest, jumped the highest, threw the furthest. I watched combat sports, boxing where the winner was the best fighter. Yet football, where there were often no points scored at all and at the most very few, was the one that gripped the nation. Strange.
We went to watch live bands. Very loud, and I wondered at the sense for having it so loud. Not good for the ears, surely. But I must say I found the beat and the rhythm in the place rather pleasing. I moved and swayed with the rest of them so as to fit in.
We went to house parties, where people drank even more alcohol. It was at one of these parties that Ben met Rhonda.
Rhonda was a pleasant looking female, and I noticed as the evening went on that she and Ben were getting closer, kissing, looking deep into each other’s eyes. All Ben could talk about the following Monday at lunch was Rhonda. I decided to investigate kissing and discovered that this could lead to all sorts of behaviour, some apparently very pleasing. That would explain why Ben was always smiling.
I asked my father about this. He said it was best I didn’t study this side of life too deeply. After all, I didn’t have the equipment to have that sort of relationship. Well, I did; it just doesn’t function in that way. Tell them, he said, if anyone asks, tell them an accident made you impotent. Or tell them you just have no interest in sex. Which is wrong because I am interested. But this, it would seem, is one human experience I am to be denied. Just watch, my father said. Watch your friend Ben, but don’t make it obvious.
So that’s what I did. I watched Ben as he and Rhonda got closer. I watched as they argued, fell out, cried and came back together. I watched as they came to the realisation that there was no other. I was sorry about that, Ben was my friend, but I learned that Ben was many people’s friend, but Rhonda was his love. Others too paired off, though some only for a short while before moving onto someone else. Some women showed an interest in me, but I managed to put them off. Some men too, which confused me for a while.
Ben finished his studies, got a job, he and Rhonda bought a house. If I cannot have a mate, I asked my father, can I at least have a house? I had by this time completed my studies, and got a position as a lecturer, so I had a good income. Even without a partner, wasn’t a house of my own the next step? After some thought and discussion, a way forward was agreed, and I bought a modest apartment. I had no need or desire for a garden.
Ben and Rhonda married, and within five years they had two children, Lewis and Kate. These were curious little creatures, and I found them fascinating. As they grew, they learned to call me Uncle Richard. I had not experienced a family first hand, but I could watch this little family unit and how it functioned.
Over the following years, I made many friends, but Ben was the best, the most interesting. It wasn’t until many years later as the children grew up and left home that Ben remarked that I hadn’t seemed to age. I looked at Ben anew, compared the image I had of him to that as he was as a younger man. It was true. He had changed, grown a little thicker round the middle, lines had appeared on his face, his once black curls were now shot with silver. Just lucky I guess, I said. He seemed to accept this. Good genes, he said, nodding sagely.
Lewis and Kate both married – they too had children. Ben and Rhonda were grandparents and seemed to relish the role. Again I could look at the young in a family unit, the differences in the individuals.
Then one day Ben died. It was quite sudden – his heart – and so final. I had experienced death before. The man I knew as father had died after a long illness as an old man. But he had been my father, and he knew what I was. He was not Ben, not my friend.
And as I left the funeral, a man who had not really aged since I had met Ben, short for Benedict not Benjamin over fifty years before, I eventually understood what it was to be human, to truly love someone and then lose them. Rhonda accepts it with sadness; she too is getting older and will at some point die herself, as will Lewis and Kate, and their children. But I cannot die, so I now spend my days researching, going through my father’s research which is so vast, trying to find someone who will find my off switch. I too wish to be laid to rest.