OPINION: Keeping my friend's spirit alive has helped 20 years after his death

Nick Richards remembers friend Jake Stephen

Nick's friend Jake died 20 years ago today. He says keeping his spirit alive has helped him enjoy good times and get through bad times - Credit: Nick Richards

I'm sure you've had a period in your life when you've been juggling so many things that you don't know how you are holding it together. My time was 20 years ago. April 2001, a month that tops it all for me.

My desire to be a journalist had led to a job at what is now the Ipswich Star as a trainee reporter. I spent the first four months of 2001 at a journalism training centre in Hastings.

I was learning shorthand from scratch, completing law exams and I was trying to pass my driving test all of which I needed before starting work for real. I was renting a house in Norwich, paying rent on digs in Hastings and I'd just bought a house in Ipswich.

I didn't know where home was, although towards the end of March, I had three to choose from when I could hardly afford one.

And then just a few days before Easter I was given something else to contemplate. My best friend died.

I'd met Jake 15 years earlier when I'd changed schools in the summer of 1986. It was goodbye to the innocent country lifestyle where I went to school not caring what I wore or how I looked and hello to an inner city Norwich school where image was everything.

Boys wore gel in their hair, girls were caked in make up and class mates already sported stubble.

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I stood out like a sore thumb, but found a friend in Jake, who was about to turn 12 and was a bit of a misfit too.

He was funny, quirky, tough and resilient.

Perfect friend material.

We bonded over bikes, music and football. On a Friday I'd leave school and arrange to meet him the following day. "2pm, RLB," was our code. It meant the red letter box on St Stephens Road outside the old N&N hospital.

We'd worked out it was half way between our houses. Every time I pass it now, I still think of him.

We went to Carrow Road together from when we were 13. He bought an inflatable canary when they were all the rage and called it his goal detector.

He'd follow me around the Barclay End terrace bouncing it on my head when he thought Norwich were going to score. It was incredibly annoying at the time, but now a treasured memory.

We were at the first game after Hillsborough together, we saw some classics - the 4-4 draw with Southampton and the 5-4 loss, also to Southampton. I was next to him when Norwich played their first game in Europe, I was next to him when Norwich played their first game of the 21st century.

Norwich City v Southampton, September 9th 1989 . Robert Rosario celebrates..

Nick fondly remembers watching Norwich play Southampton in 1989 with his friend Jake - Credit: Archant

He loved records, buying hundreds of rap albums and 12" singles from Soundclash and loved bikes too.

We had adventures - in the summer of 1994 we set off on a mission to ride the Peddars Way, taking a train from Norwich to Thetford with only a small tent, a camp stove and a couple of packets of filled pasta, sleeping in the middle of Thetford Forest and in a field at Castle Acre along the way.

He'd been to university in Liverpool and later worked for the East of England Ambulance Service, but had been complaining of headaches more and more around the turn of the century.

I last saw him in the summer of 2000 and with communication not what it is today, we lost touch for a few months. I struggled to get hold of him and, with so much going on in my life, I never got to speak to him again or to fully understand that he had a brain tumour and was seriously ill.

A few days after April 10, 2001 - 20 years ago today - his dad phoned me. I knew when I heard his voice that this wasn't going to be good news. He'd died at the age of 26.

My head was spinning. I thought of all the good times we had together, the stuff we went through, the times when as a teenager you need a mate to just do teenage things with. Jake was it for me. And now he was gone. I went to his funeral at Earlham Crematorium and remember smiling at the rap music being played over the speakers as the congregation gathered.

How does it feel to lose a good pal at such a young age? Well it inspired me. All those times in my early journalistic career when I had the pressure of going to a murder trial and having to file accurate copy over the phone before a tight deadline or doing the dreaded 'death knock' when you have to visit a relative of someone who has died and try and get them to pay tribute to their loved one. All those times I thought of Jake and did it for him.

And 20 years on, I still often thing of him.

I suppose we've all thought about death more in the last year as we've all potentially been closer to it than ever before. I'm not sure how you are supposed to process losing a friend so young.

It seems unfair and weird and crazy and wrong. All those things put together.

But for me I dealt with it by having Jake's spirit with me when my own times were tough. If I had to dig deep at work or when running a marathon or even when going through something daft like a spell or turbulence on a plane, I would have him in my thoughts.

I did treat him to the good times too, the holidays, the great Norwich wins and the long bike rides, all of which he would have loved. He was mentioned in my wedding speech too.

I knew him for real for 15 years and for 20 years I've kept his spirit alive in my mind.

I think that, as a friend, that is all you can do.