Although we were the same age, Alex was the complete opposite of me. Slightly shorter, slimmer in build with dark collar-length hair and not at all sporty, but with a quietly confident manner that signalled a degree of self-assurance, and also incredibly bright. Far more style-conscious than me, with my preferred wardrobe of faded jeans and hoodies or a battered old leather jacket, Alex was always smart, yet balanced, with a casual look. I’d say preppy: chinos rather than jeans, quilted jacket – never leather – and open-neck shirts, not t-shirts.
Alex was the youngest of three siblings, and along with two elder twin brothers had already seen a good part of the world. This was mainly due to their father being a high profile corporate lawyer, which meant that they regularly moved from one continent to the next, one luxury apartment to another, and from one international school to the equivalent in whichever country the next job took them to.
Alex told me that their last big move had been to Moscow, a city which was thriving on corporate-deal activity. According to Alex’s father, oil and gas, chemicals, mining and banking made up the majority deals that, during the last year, had hit record levels; things were happening and markets were changing fast. The deal-making potential had evolved rapidly and was becoming dominated by some successful young technology companies which had grown from nowhere to achieve international notoriety. It was this fast accelerating tech-led stuff in which Alex’s father’s firm had been playing a major part, bringing together similar businesses to squeeze out the profits for the hungry shareholders.
Alex’s father had spent the first six months of his time in Russia alone, holed up in a luxurious five-star hotel in the heart of Moscow, close to the financial district and within easy reach of big businesses and their palatial HQs. It was the beginning of a three year stay for him. As a senior partner in his law firm, luxury was a priority on foreign business assignments, particularly as the client usually ended up paying for it as part of the obscene fees they were charged. It was midway through his first year there before Alex, the twins and their mother were able to join their father.
Alex explained that although their mother was never truly happy with the lifestyle, she was content to put up with the constant family upheaval. She was a devoted mother to her three growing children and didn’t have many stresses in life other than when to do lunch, where and with whom. The fact that they were a wealthy family meant that the usual important decisions that had to be made were a lot easier; going straight for the most expensive, immediately available and the most convenient services that money could buy was second nature. Once it was clear that her husband’s role was settled in Russia, she’d finally agreed to relocate along with the children, uprooting them from the humid heat of Singapore. Prepared for the shock when the thermometer would drop well below zero in midwinter, she managed to persuade her family, including her workaholic husband, to settle in a trendy bohemian Moscow suburb, which suited her creative streak and leisurely lifestyle.
The twins and Alex were used to these moves. They embraced new schools in a way most kids would never dream of, a way that would have terrified me. For Alex, it would just be another first day at another new school, the nerves, the fear of being the outsider and the effort required to make new friends didn’t faze Alex or the twins. They all seemed to manage it perfectly well. Alex assumed this was due to the fact that most of their peers were in and out of international schooling in a pretty similar set of circumstances. Dad, or Mum, hauling the family around the globe, driven on as they sought power, money, excitement and success. So different from the comfortable familiarity of my own world when I was growing up.
Alex’s father and mother were insanely busy, he on his corporate duties, she either on the lunch circuit, at contemporary art classes or in the local health spa. Neither parent ever had enough diary space to devote quality time to the children, so they became fairly self-sufficient. The twins would make new friends and become preoccupied with after-school clubs and sport, to the point where the parents would have to intervene and refocus them with a balance between studies and recreation.
At school I always had to push myself, but for Alex studying seemed to come easy. The twins were clearly of their mother’s make-up. It sounded like for them school was a duty and something you endured before being let loose at whichever recreational pastime you chose. Alex got fed up trying to compete, preferring to study instead, and had always shown a keen interest in computers and technology.
The interest in technology got more intense when one of the twins quickly became bored with the scientific calculator they had received one Christmas during their time in Moscow. The word scientific was an immediate turn-off, so the device lay around throughout the festive break, unlike the new snow skates and toboggan from which the twins became inseparable. Preferring to be curled up on the couch in the warmth of their luxury apartment, Alex had played with the calculator, building on a basic knowledge of them picked up at school.
The maths and sciences teacher at Alex’s school sounded pretty cool; apparently he always mentioned in his lessons how he’d once taught Andrei Petranov the co-inventor of a classic 1980s arcade video game craze, when he lectured at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. He would entertain them with stories about how the prototype version of this global phenomenon was developed by his student using an ancient IBM computer terminal. The hugely popular video game challenged players to fit puzzle block pieces together into horizontal lines as they cascaded down the screen, and became available globally on a range of popular gaming platforms. After some online research Alex discovered that the classic game could be hacked using an everyday calculator, and, following the detailed workaround, became immersed in it:
First, enter a six-digit code using the calculator’s keypad. Then, press the plus and minus keys simultaneously, holding them down for a few seconds to ensure the game functionality properly activates. When activated, the calculator’s LCD screen will display “OK”. Next, turn the calculator sideways so that the addition, subtraction and multiplication buttons are nearest you. All of this should be done quickly because the pieces will start falling immediately. Place your fingers on the addition, subtraction and multiplication keys to enable you to use the addition key to move the falling pieces to the left and the subtraction key to move them to the right. The multiplication key can be used to flip the gathered pieces around. The objective is to achieve a straight line across the bottom in order to clear rows of pieces.
Alex was utterly in love with technology from this point on. Unsure whether it was discovery of an ingenious use for such an ordinary learning aid, or aspiring to be as clever as the legendary student the teacher boasted of, this is where the future clearly lay. The twins were equally amazed, squabbling over the device for each other’s turn and demanding instructions so they could both play the game and show off in class when school resumed.
Family and school life in Moscow had unfolded in much the same way as any of the other cities they’d gown up in. Alex, the twins and their mother eventually made the move back to the UK, leaving their father to complete final deals and recruit a replacement prior to returning himself, once things were running smoothly.
Home for Alex was now a sprawling detached family house in the leafy suburbs of a wealthy rural market town in England. And now having recently moved away to study at this university, technology was about to bring Alex and me together in more ways than either of us could have imagined.