..."Six friends a-staying x 2"...
Ben kept out of the limelight at primary school, preferring to stick to one good friend. But by secondary school he'd blossomed from a shy, slightly overweight 'duckling' into a mega popular, handsome and athletic 'swan'. In fact he was so popular within his new friendship group that his annual birthday parties, just before Christmas, were legendary.
On the last day of term school finished at lunchtime. I'd pick up Ben plus half a dozen friends and we'd make our way down the school driveway, car windows wide open as Ben and his friends leaned out of the window shouting "Merry Christmas!!" to everyone they saw. I'd put the old favourite Christmas songs on the car CD and we'd all sing along on the half-hour journey home.
Back at our house they'd all disappear up to Ben's large loft room, only coming down for supplies of drinks, crisps, cookies, cakes, etc and, of course, an enormous evening meal followed by the World's Biggest Breakfast the next morning. After all, they were growing teenage boys, weren't they? I was astonished at how much food they put away.
Saturday afternoon was the switch-over when we met up with the OTHER half dozen friends at the local cinema complex, watched a movie, went for a massive Pizza Hut meal (the kind where you can help yourself to endless ice cream and sprinkles, which - of course - they all did).
Then the whole sleepover process would be repeated with this other set of friends followed by yet more endless supplies of cookies, drinks, etc and an equally enormous breakfast on Sunday morning.
Phew! What a weekend. Like I said, these parties were legendary.
Ben's final sleepover birthday party took place on the last day of the Christmas term in 2009.
This time only a handful of boys came back with us from school and the party only lasted one night. They did go to the cinema, but they didn't go to Pizza Hut. Instead, they came back for a meal that Ben had carefully chosen.
By then Ben was neck-deep in the eating disorder and had completely distanced himself from his friends. Over the Christmas term his behaviour had become increasingly distressing, frightening and crazy. I could tell from those friends' eyes that they weren't quite sure what to expect.
The atmosphere was subdued to say the least.
Ben had chosen the menus. The evening meal had been slimmed down as had the breakfast. "They won't want all that," he said, "No need for this, no need for that"... Of course the boys tucked in, but Ben didn't.
That evening it was uncannily silent up in Ben's bedroom as the boys played quietly with computer games rather than jumping up and down on the bed, screeching, charging up and down stairs, and spraying each other with water from the ensuite shower hose.
They all went to bed on time which was unheard of. One boy had already gone home, phoning his mum around 9pm because he didn't "feel well"...
Just after midnight a loud noise woke us with a start.
Ben was rushing downstairs, howling like a wounded wild animal, hurtling towards the living room.
We jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs to see what was the matter.
Ben was in a terrible state: weeping, howling... ED at its most impressive...
Apparently one of his friends had made some innocent comment about something which had hit a nerve and this was the result.
The next day it was a group of silent, sheepish looking boys that slunk downstairs for breakfast, trying to make polite conversation.
It was a relief when their parents turned up to collect them. And I remember what stood out starkly, apart from their subdued mood, was how big they all looked compared to waif-like Ben. I also tried to avoid the parents shocked looks. After all, it was a long time since they'd seen Ben. It was as if they didn't recognise him.
Or maybe it was just me being paranoid.
But looks can speak volumes.