I can't remember how the conversation with Ben had started -- perhaps it was inspired by song that came on the stereo, or by an offhand remark I'd made about his plaid shirt -- but after a few minutes I really wanted it to stop. He talked in a solid stream, seemingly without drawing breath, and before I could back away had told me more than I'd ever wanted to know about the recording of the Pixies' debut album Surfer Rosa. I'd only been at university for a few days -- most of my personal possessions were still in boxes -- but I'd already learned that there were some friends that I really didn't want to make.
He eventually stopped and asked me what my name was. I told him it was James, in the hope that this would inspire no further comment. I dread to think how different my life would be if he'd found out we had the same name. While he was digesting this piece of information and fiddling with the ringpull on his beer, I frantically scanned the crowd at the party for someone I knew.
I say it was a party, it was actually just what happened when a party had failed to materialise. I had set out that evening with a backpack full of beer looking for a party -- I'd made a few friends so far, but I'd not really clicked with anyone yet. I knew I wasn't the most interesting person around, but I figured that a man with a backpack full of beer is rarely turned away during Fresher's week. There weren't any parties to be found, however; the first few evenings had seen a few flats get trashed and no-one seemed willing to let a massive army of random strangers trample into the delicate social arrangements of a newly established student household. As the evening had progressed the various groups of wannabe-gatecrashers had coalesced into a small mob in the green space between two of the housing units. Someone had stuck their speakers out of an upstairs window, and an intermittently-functioning security light gave us enough light to see each other. It wasn't exactly buzzing, but there was beer and people to talk to.
So far the closest thing I had to a friend so far was my flatmate, Doug -- a lanky metalhead with a hundred-word vocabulary who hailed from the exotic suburbs of Guildford. He wasn't there, but I did spot a face I knew -- the flatmate of one of his friends from secondary school, a small kid with glasses and unkempt hair. We'd spoken briefly at the pub the previous night and he seemed interesting enough. John? Tim? Tom!. That was it. Someone shouted to Ben and he looked over his shoulder to see who it was. The light conveniently shut off at precisely that moment, plunging us into darkness and allowing me to make good my escape.
When the light began to warm up again I saw that Tom had moved slightly, revealing the person he was talking to. At first I thought it was a child, but as the light intensified I realised it was a very small woman. I hesitated at this point, I didn't really know Tom well enough to feel comfortable interrupting him while he was putting his moves on a lady. However, it was that or learn more about the microphone placement philosophy of Steve Albini, so I figured it was worth the risk.
The girl, as it turned out, was called Sarah, she was about three years older than me, and American. I'd never met an American before, at least not socially, so I was curious. I didn't realise at that point just how many Americans there were at Kent. If Tom was annoyed by my sudden appearance he didn't show it. We were all a little drunk, Sarah a little jetlagged. I don't remember what we all talked about, but I remember laughing a lot. As the crowd broke up in the wee small hours of the morning we discovered that we all lived in the same part of campus, only a few doors from each other, and walked back together.
The next evening Tom came and knocked on my window to ask if I wanted to come out to the pub. On the way we stopped off at Sarah's house, where we were introduced to her flatmates (who were all American). We put on our best English accents and said 'Jolly Good' a lot. They seemed to like us. One of her flatmates came with us to the pub. She was much taller than Sarah, with a shock of curly bleach-blond hair and a noticeably different accent. Her name was Kristen, she was from South Carolina. We spent most of the evening drunkenly arguing about something really trivial, I think it was whether Abbey Road was released before or after the White Album. Even though our first meeting ended with her calling me a "patronising asshole", she apparently enjoyed my company.
In later years I'd often see Ben around campus. He dated a classmate of mine for a while, and was in one of my lectures in the second year, but I never spoke to him after that first night. He will live his entire life completely unaware of what an incredibly important influence he had been on my life.