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Death of a school friend

The first time I encountered Robert Jackson, as a seven-year-old in the Sandown Primary School playground, I hit him in the teeth and made him howl. This was ironic in that during our respective school careers I was a first-class wuss whereas Rob had a reputation as something of a fighter. The second irony was that in due course we established a firm friendship that would endure for more than three decades – right up until last Sunday afternoon, in fact.

Over the years, Rob and I spent our time together playing table tennis, soccer and, later, pool in a nearby pub, watching videos or sport and devising games and ratings systems for international tennis players. We also formed a music group of sorts – called The Holy Godfathers – with me on piano and Rob bawling his own highly distinctive lyrics into a tape recorder. Towards the end, though, we simply met every few weeks at a pub near his Blairgowrie flat and talked. We did so yesterday, after which I dropped him back at his flat and went home. A couple of hours later, I was contacted by a paramedic who had gotten my number through his mobile. Rob had been hit by a car, and was in a bad way. Did I know how to get hold of his next of kin?

I could not help, though I made several fruitless calls later that night. The following day, a family member called to tell me that he had died that night in hospital.

In retrospect, there was a distinctly valedictory feel about our last meeting. We felt more comfortable with one another, chatting more easily than had, in truth, been the case in more recent times when we had begun to struggle at last to find common ground. On several occasions, Rob told me how much he was enjoying being with me – he had never put it that way before – and for once it was he who dispensed some advice about how to conduct my life. The next time we were to meet would be at my home. At long last, Rob could actually get there himself, since he had finally obtained his driver’s licence and, shortly after that, his own car.

It is of some comfort that Rob, in his mid-forties, broke through what had been a demoralising psychological barrier to pass his driver’s test and gain that crucial measure of independence that comes with being mobile. He had even put down a deposit for a house, and was hoping to be granted a bond. I don’t know whether this would have heralded a positive new beginning to a largely rootless, disorganised life, but at least at the end he was feeling positive and forward-looking.

The older they get, most people rarely think, let alone speak, about their school days. What was so real and intense at the time becomes less and less relevant in negotiating the newer, more prolonged challenges of adulthood. In the end, it is almost entirely forgotten, reduced to a handful of core memories often much altered by the force of hindsight. Rob was not like that. For him, the school days we shared were perpetually fresh. He would frequently speak of incidents that had taken place over thirty years previously as if they had occurred quite recently. Rob never shone as a scholar, but he had a formidable memory. As for me, much of the desolation I now feel comes from having lost a vital link with those formative years.

Rob was someone who always trod his own, distinctive path in life. It was his determined nonconformity that largely brought us together, myself being likewise an obvious non-conformist. He paid a very high price for this, though. For all his talents, goodness of heart and popularity, he was unable to find an enduring place for himself in a society that continually demands compromises, sacrifices and general obeisance of its members. He was a gifted tennis coach and a useful player, but was never able to commit himself long enough in any particular area to realise his potential. Over the years, he was continually upping stakes to do temporary coaching stints overseas, with the result that he would have to pretty much start all over re-establishing himself on his return.

Rob keenly felt that he had under-achieved in his life. During our last meeting, he spoke wistfully of his failure to ever win the school tennis championship, even when he had been the obvious favourite. A more recent disappointment he dwelt on was the considerable investment – professional and emotional – he had put into training a talented young player from the Czech Republic, and how, for various reasons, it had come to nothing.

But Robert was not a failure – far from it. I will always remember him as someone who was always true to himself, no matter what convention demanded of him, and who never ceased to yearn for and dream about attaining something more than the safe, materialistic lives everyone around him were settling for. As a friend, he was unfailingly loyal, and as a human being, generous, sensitive and totally without malice. He was always a religious believer, albeit non-practising. I can only pray that G-d will forgive his inevitable misdeeds, reward him for the essential goodness he displayed throughout his life and grant him everlasting peace.

As for me, the finality of it all really hit me this morning when I looked up his number on my phone and pressed the ‘delete’ button.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.