I met Ben when I was 11. My family had recently moved from the south coast to Suffolk for work reasons, I had moved from a Grammar school of 450 to a Comprehensive of 1200. It's always difficult to join a class mid year and I did what I thought best, keep my head down and mind my own business. There were the same assortment of social groups in my class, the "in crowd" of good looking, tall athletic types with their girl friend hangers on through to the thugs, in this case Baz Reynolds and his side kick Dogger.
I only knew Ben by sight at that point, he'd nodded to me once or twice as we passed in the corridor but I recognised him as being one of the main "in crowd", handsome with a swimmers build and a pleasant, quiet manner.
I had brought my racing bike with me, used all the time on the Hampshire lanes and hills, but it wasn't much good on the woodland trails and farm tracks I now had to ride over so dad and I went to one of those Police Auctions and came back with a recovered, nearly new BMX. I touched up all the scrapes where it had obviously been mishandled when stolen and polished everything else until it looked virtually new. I then rode it to school. Mistake one. Apparently, according to Baz and Dogger, if you had a new bike you were both queer, a pouf and fair game for a beating. I gave them two fingers and ignored them. Mistake two.
Leaving the cycle park one afternoon after a rugby practice -where I handled the ball at least once while Ben and the other guys, whom I'd loved to have been like, took charge of the rest of the game- I felt a hand round my throat and I was pushed up against the Science block wall hitting my head hard. There was Baz staring into my face. I lashed out as best I could and even kicked a bit but he tightened his grip and gobbed on my face while Dogger snatched the bike and tried some violent donuts on the shingle dropping it in the process. He knew what he was doing too. I felt his fingers feeling for a pressure point before I went limp and slid down the brickwork, the scene before me fading to black.
A few seconds later I began to recover only to see Baz bent double with a trickle of blood on his face, then swearing loudly as he ran off, and no sign of the sidekick anywhere. A hand pulled me upright against the wall again and held me there. I waited for the blow to hit me but instead Ben asked if I was ok. The sun was in my eyes and I didn't at first recognise him in sihouette. He told me not to take any more shit from those two losers and was pretty sure I wouldn't have to from now on. He'd come to collect his bike and thought it his moral duty to kick Bazzer's arse as no one liked him, and anyway Ben had a few scores of his own to settle in that direction.
I muttered some thanks, totally incoherent as I think back. I was embarrassed that I had to be rescued but there was something else as well. Stronger than all the other feelings, sort of grateful but more so. My gut was churning but I didn't at the time realise why. Mixed up with all the other emotions of the minute, anger, fear, embarrassment, gratefulness, I wanted to grab Ben and hold on to him. I'd never experienced anything like it before and it took me by surprise. I wanted to get away, as if that desire was printed on my face and I didn't want him to see it. He picked up my bike and wheeled it back to me.
"It's a bit scuffed I'm afraid" he said.
"I can see to it" I answered looking at the damage but not really seeing it.
"You ride much?" he continued.
"I want to," I began, "but....."
"But you don't know where to go and you don't care to do it alone?" He finished it for me.
"You live in one of those places set back from the road near the top of Thorpe Hill don't you?"
I didn't know how Ben could have known this but I said yes.
"If you're free on Saturday I'll come past and meet you, we can do the medium length trail, that'll be enough for you if you're not used to it," Ben smiled as he spoke.
I agreed without taking a breath. We parted then. He rode off whilst I grabbed my back pack from where it lay on the gravel after Baz kicked it and wheeled my bike out of the school grounds in a bit of a daze.
I made myself a quiet promise that when out on the bikes at the weekend I would definitely not show Ben that I wasn't used to it, even if it killed me, and I had an overwhelming feeling that everything felt right all of a sudden. That feeling has held good in the thirty years since.