My son and I are standing outside a shop when a man I’ve met a few times stops to say hi.
“Hello!” I reply, and we chat for a little while, and just as we’re saying goodbye, I pick up my son, and I say “OK, say bye to Stephen!”.
“Bye Stephen!” says my son, and I see a flash of concern pass across Stephen’s eyes.
Wait! I think it’s because he’s not called Stephen!
“Richard,” he says, flatly, and I flush.
He’s called Richard! Of course he is! I knew that!
“Ha!” I say, a river of sweat on its way. “I mean Richard. Richard is what I meant!”
Richard is clearly mortally offended. He has decided I have told him I think absolutely nothing of him. He is filth to me; no better than a hot dog I’ve found behind a bin.
“Why did I say Stephen?” I say, laughing lightly and shaking my head, like I’m just so silly sometimes, and looking at my son instead of at Stephen.
I mean Richard!
“Doesn’t matter,” says Richard, sniffily.
But it does matter, doesn’t it? Hence the ‘sniffily’. You don’t get someone’s name wrong. It’s better not to use any names at all than to get someone’s name wrong.
But relax: I can get out of this. I have a technique.
“It’s because I saw a guy called Stephen earlier,” I lie, nonchalantly.
“Oh,” says Richard.
“Yeah,” I say. “I saw him earlier, and I’m seeing him again later, weirdly.”
This is a good lie. Convincing. I’m telling Richard he’s pretty much bookended by a world of Stephens, so obviously I’ve got the name Stephen on my mind. My whole day is Stephen. Plus, it’s a very boring lie, so he’ll have no questions and we can just move on.
“Who’s Stephen?” says my son.
“Huh?” I say, thrown, then: “Stephen? Oh, Stephen is a friend of mine.”
“What friend?” says my son.
What is he doing?
“I used to play tennis with him,” I say, staring, not daring to look at Richard.
“Do you play tennis?” asks my son.
“Used to!” I smile. “Used to.”
My young son accepts this, just as he’d accept it if I told him I used to skydive, or teach classes in aggressive street dance. It’s sorted!
“Hi Richard,” says my wife, coming out of the shop. “How are you?”
“Good, someone knows my name!” says Richard, laughing.
My wife makes a confused face and looks at me.
“It’s not that I didn’t know his name,” I say, reassuring her. “I just called him Stephen by accident.”
“Stephen?” she says, like it’s impossible to get a Richard and a Stephen mixed up, like instead of “Richard” I’d said Abegunde or Bingwen.
“Yeah, because I saw another Stephen earlier,” I say dismissively, moving on.
“Dad used to play tennis with him,” adds my son.
“Tennis?” says my wife, wrinkling her nose, because she knows I didn’t used to have a tennis partner called Stephen, or a tennis partner, or even play tennis. “Stephen who?”
“Stephen,” I repeat, nodding. “Oh, what was his last name?”
Quick! Stevens? NO!
I literally cannot think of any workable surnames other than Stephen Stevens or Stephen Wallace.
“Can’t remember,” I say. “Long time ago. Before I met you. He moved away.”
I still can’t look at Richard.
“But he’s back?” says my wife.
“Hmm?” I say, playing for time and raising my eyebrows, in a way that I hope secretly communicates the following message to the woman I love most in the world: shut up!
“He’s back?” she says again.
“Yeah,” says my son. “Dad saw him this morning.”
My wife knows this is not true. Not unless I’ve been sneaking off at the crack of dawn to meet men I’ve never mentioned I don’t play tennis with again. But now I see she understands. She gets it. I’m doing this to make Richard feel better! She will help me, this angel!
“That’s the guy with 12 kids, right?”
Shut up again! This is an awful woman. But I’ve got to go with it. I say “Yeah.”
“Twelve!?” says Richard, and my wife has pushed it too far. Richard was just about to believe I didn’t think his name was Stephen and now she makes up 12 kids.
“Something like 12,” I say. “Maybe four.”
“Anyway, how’s life?” asks my wife, and it is a general question to Richard but feels like she’s specifically interested, and Richard tells us all about his life and we listen intently, and by the end Stephen is forgotten and I have gotten away with it.
“When can we see Stephen?” asks my son as we walk home.
“He’s dead,” I say.
Unusual storage solutions
Tom Carroll was wandering around Birmingham trying to find a shop that sold bikes, rugs and ironing boards – when he spotted that someone was selling a Chester Draw. Which sounds less like a chest of drawers and more like a Fifties variety entertainer.
Ian Harris was in Berlin, where either they see George Clooney in a very different light or their jewellery’s so fancy they’ve named the shop after what everyone says when they check the prices.