My friend Simon Ricketts died yesterday and even though I’d known it was coming and we’d had time to say our goodbyes and brace ourselves, it still hit me like a half-volley to the solar plexus when I received a text message confirming the worst. I was at Vicarage Road, and it was half-time. The tears gathered in the corners of my eyes and I knew I had to leave the stadium and get home so I could let them roll free and seek solace in a warm hug.
The reaction on social media to Simon’s death from cancer has been overwhelming and shows just how many lives he touched, sometimes in seemingly small ways, sometimes from afar.
Simon helped me so much in the 25 years I knew him that I cannot possibly do justice to him or our friendship in a few hundred words. I could tell dozens of stories to show just what a funny, talented and kind person he was, and I may do that in time, but for now I’ll share one memory which will always make me smile and which, to me, epitomises his generosity and his humour.
We were young journalists at the Watford Observer who’d been promoted to the sub-editing desk – some might say too early – thanks to a round of redundancies. For those who don’t know what that entails, it was our job to draw the pages – positioning the columns of text and photographs and subbing the copy to fit. We corrected errors, tried not to introduce new ones, polished and buffed a bit here and there and wrote the headlines.
It was a brilliant job because we had space to experiment, we worked hard, were enthusiastic, learned from our mistakes and encouraged each other. It was through that work that our friendship developed. Although we weren’t paid well the money really didn’t matter until it ran out a few days, or sometimes a week, before pay day.
Then we’d run up a tab in the office canteen, settling it when our wages landed, before the whole cycle started again.
One day, a few days before pay day, Simon asked if I wanted to go into the town centre at lunchtime.
‘There’s no point,’ I said. ‘I’m out of money.’
‘Me too,’ he said.
‘So what’s the point of going?’
‘Well, it’s better than sitting around here isn’t it? Come on.’
On the way, Simon announced he had to pay the minimum balance on his credit card bill or else he’d get another penalty.
‘How are you going to do that?’ I asked.
‘Something will turn up.’
‘How much is the minimum payment?’
When I think back now, the difference in our demeanour that day said a lot about our respective characters. I was sulking at the unfairness of it all and chiding myself for failing to manage my budget better, Simon was acting like he hadn’t a care in the world.
I guess that was also because he already had an ingenious solution in mind.
We headed to the bank, where he withdrew £50 from the cash machine using his credit card. Then he strolled into the branch and paid the £30 minimum balance off the very same credit card bill with the cash he’d just taken out of the wall. Finally, he emerged brandishing a crisp twenty pound note between his finger and thumb like a triumphant lottery winner. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll buy you a burger and chips.’
And so we went to a burger place and had the lunch of kings and for half an hour or so didn’t have a worry in the world.
When people talk about the meaning of friendship, or just want to convey what a decent person someone is, they’ll say something like, ‘He’s the sort of guy who’d give you his last pound.’
Well, that is more or less what Simon did that day. He got one up on the bank – for a little while, at least – and shared his ‘winnings’ with his friend. Over the years, he gave me so many metaphorical last pounds that our friendship made me feel like a millionaire.
* * *
One of Simon’s many nicknames was Monkey Man. I’m not sure how it came about but he embraced it and it summed up his playfulness, his mischievousness, his reluctance at times to live anywhere other than in the present, and, yes, the fact he had quite a lot of body hair.
For Christmas, Simon and his partner, Andrea, gave our three-month-old daughter a cuddly monkey. I had worried I’d not be able to introduce Simon to our daughter because she had a lingering chest infection shortly after she was born and we were advised not to take her near vulnerable people. So we waited until it was safe and, fortunately, were able to take her to meet Simon a few weeks ago. There was a beautiful moment when they looked into each other’s eyes and she smiled. It’s a moment I will treasure for the rest of my days.
And although our daughter won’t remember that meeting, we’ll have Uncle Simon, the cuddly monkey, to remind us (not that we’ll need prompting) to tell her about him and to encourage in her Simon’s values of love, fairness, empathy and great, great humour.
Thank you, Simon, for everything.