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Character building exercise

Even with no-name sunglasses on I recognised him. His grey hair, cut close to his scalp was raven-black back then, worn always a little longer than school rules allowed. I watched him worming slowly through the overfull train compartment with hunched shoulders. Back then they were hunched too, but in a punk-like fashion, daring and cocky. He sank uneasily into a seat next to an overweight  woman, which made his lean frame seem even smaller. For a few seconds his long fingers clenched the silver railing beside him, and on his knuckles I saw the faded blue letters: h-a-t-e. I think back on those same fingers gripping a ball-point pen, copying homework from a mate in a scrawny handwriting. There were no tatoos on those knuckles back then, just the names of girls on the inside of his wrist, away from teachers’ eyes.

Last time I saw him was in Hillbrow almost thirty years ago, and he was wearing the same earring he has now - a large black dot with a silver dollar-sign in the middle. Now it contrasted sharply with the hole in his oversized, faded red pullover. It showed a bare elbow as he lifted his arm and took off his sunglasses. I sank deeper into my seat and attempted to look away, scared he'd recognise me. He didn't. Perhaps it was because the lids of his left eye was stitched shut, and the other was bloodied and half-closed. 

Even in his sorry physical state his chin was held high, his mouth slightly open in a half-smile. He got a sharp look from the lady beside him when he drew up his left leg and placed a worn, once-white sneaker onto the seat opposite him. He sat like that in the school bus too, except then he wore the standard fare - dusty brown Grasshoppers. 

He fumbled in his jean pocket and brought out a crumpled pack of cigarettes. Again, the same ritual as the one in the school bus, and again, Texan plain. He slowly removed a cigarette from the pack with two brown-stained fingers and put it behind his ear. His fingernails that were once cut short and into the flesh - by a teacher, I recall - were long, chipped and dirty. He looked so different from how I remembered him, yet, so many things were the same.

I'd been staring at him for ten minutes before I saw the dog-eared paperback resting in his lap.  The book's faded cover faced away from me, but I recognised it straight away. Louis l'Amour, Sackett’s Land. I wondered if he'd scratched out my name where I'd written it on the inside cover, not long before he stole it out of my school bag. Or, was it still there, a sort of memorial to both our misspent youths?

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