As we begin, so will we become. Beginnings are emotionally expensive times; the faculties of heart, mind and will, all in high gear. Sometimes the past comes back in a series of sepia magic lantern slides.
Slide 1. Growing up in the doldrums of adolescence, I remember the noisy fury of boys on my first day at School. Making that awkward disrupting dance of adjustment, until I finally learned to dance along. I set about recasting myself to a distinct shape: one what I imagined was the version of myself that was expected, but getting it wrong.
The world of School had two magnetic poles: fear and anger. It was better to show neither.
My first lesson in school was the way the nuns of the order of the Sister’s of Mercy, were eager to practice their nimble expertise at violence on their fledgling charges. The fundamental distinction, was between the maker and the thing being made: the child with its ‘foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart’, was to be transformed into the saint with as many strokes of the cane as was necessary.
I also remember my last. Thus transformed, it seemed that sooner had I learned to cope with the re-formations of youth – the rules and how to break them – it was time to leave, complete with a standard-issue, working class Secondary Modern education.
Things change; world’s end. But the end of the world does not have to be The End of the World. I would be a new person in a new world, although the new me would be no more authentic than the old one. But not quite yet.
Unable to find a job, I went back to school, making a noble but pointless stand against the end of an era. When the final leave-taking of education came, armed with the youthful optimism of the ignorant, I was sure of a seat on the Orient Express of life, that would carry me smoothly and assuredly from the drearily familiar to a successful life of prosperity and ease.
Not all St. Mary’s ‘old boys’ would realise that happy state. Though memories are not records of perfect faithfulness and may fade over time, our deeds become our beaten path. Deeds have an indestructible life, which past actions determine us and much as we determine our actions. For those caught in pincer jaws of the past and the regret of unmade choices, it would be a case of ‘Where did it all go wrong?’
Before Friends Reunited became overtaken by FaceBook as the social media of choice, I received an invitation to attend one those school reunions. I could not remember having any ‘friends’ at school. But pressed so hard by a voice on the phone, who claimed such first-hand acquaintance of me, it was churlish to refuse the invitation.
The venue was The Railway Club in the town centre in Sunderland. On making my entrance, I was met by an oddly familiar sea of faces. When one of them in particular presented themselves to me, I asked him – as this stranger wanted to know – who he was. Did I not recognise him at all? he enquired.
After some gentle hints, it came to me. “Why of course” I said, “the mystery caller”. And as the perspective of the years opened up before me, I saw at the end of it, a more junior likeness of this same man in the school playground, who had me in a head lock and I said, “bloody hell, it’s Steven Chamberlain; is that you in there?” Two fingers in a v-shape, told me it was.
We shook hands on our reunited lives like friends long lost, although he just lived down the road from me and had done so for years and we must have passed each other on many occasions unknowingly. The smiling paradox of old age, is we grow old first in other peoples eyes, before coming to terms with their opinion of you. It takes a vain exercise of will and obstinacy to do otherwise.
A memory, fresh as a newly dug grave, began to clarify itself. In those distant days, we had shared a passion for the same girl, to which tug-of-love, I lost out. In an off-hand way, I was reliably informed that there was plenty more fish in the sea.
I could not help bringing up this tender subject which oddly enough still rankled, when he said, ‘and who do you think she is married to?’. “You?” I offered, in a flash of inspiration. ‘Yeah! me’ said he. ‘And here she is’. Sure enough, there she was indeed. The effects of the fullness of time had made her larger than life, for she had the ample proportions of a Welsh Dresser and was about as mobile.
All the money in the world could not at that moment, have induced me to wish it was otherwise, so much had Time ravaged that lovely face to which my young and foolish heart had pined so fruitlessly, once upon a time. As you see what the rose was in its faded leaves; and as you see what the summer growth of the woods was in their wintry branches; so she could be traced in a woman like her with her hair turned the colour of Payne’s Grey.
Steven moved toward me, as if going for another head lock, said that he would give his left arm if only we could go back to our childhood days. I on the other hand, would have given my right one to prevent it, if meant spending one more hour with him.
We talked in past tenses of childish escapades and adventures that I had otherwise forgotten and linked the past to the present in an agreeable chain – albeit broken in the middle by a margin of some forty years.
Looking around the room at the motley collection of ‘old boys’ and some old girls, it was noticeable that by their own report, all had either done extremely well (one was Chief of Police), or very badly, with no one falling between the two extremes.
This often happens. That is when talking to old acquaintances, no one owns up to being ordinary. So much so, that one begins to wonder what became of all those mediocre people we hung out with in our youth; especially when we find no shortage of them in our maturity.
And then, I found one. He was sitting in the corner with his wife, so excusing myself to Steve, I walked over to introduce myself.
His wife proved herself to be a quick and intelligent woman who rose to meet me and stood at her husband’s arm while he looked as though he was ready to bolt for the door.
It soon transpired that this erstwhile school chum, was either a bit corned beef (deaf) or he had too much beer. To be fair though, the music was a bit loud.
‘Alright Billy? I thought it was you’ I said, recognising the ubiquitous Donkey Jacket he always wore.
‘He’s asking if you’re alright Billy?’ bawled his wife helpfully. But Billy seemed to be quite at a loss to perceive any reason under the sun, why a complete stranger should be smiling, while making such a straight forward enquiry, the two ideas evidently made no connection in his mind. But he did oblige me with a reply:
‘Ah mak’ boilers mate’ he offered, looking around him with a puzzled expression as if one of the same (boilers) had unaccountably vanished.
‘He’s only a labourer you understand. He don’t make ‘em’ the wife butted in. Ignoring her, I asked the would-be boilermaker in my clearest and loudest voice: ‘are you working young Bill?’. Billy again looked to his wife for confirmation of the question over the din of Jumping Jack Flash. Although she must have know the answer, she sportingly put the question back to her husband.
‘Working!’ he exclaimed, still looking for that vanished boiler, while holding fast to my lapel and breathing his beery breath all over me.
Confidentially drawing me closer, like drunks do, Billy said and if to one remotely interested: ‘there’s nay work for boiler-makers a’rund ‘ere mate’.
Of course, I had no idea what had become of boiler making in Sunderland, or where Billy had supposed it had gone; but whatever the case, his expression told me that he seemed quite pleased about the fact and that in his opinion, boiler-making was never coming back and good riddance to them.
In fact, I detected a shyness in admitting, that human nature being what it is, when idle for too long, it has no desire to be relieved of the boredom, or to be diverted by any make-weight amusement in the form of myself.
So, being of no further help to him on the subject of boilers, I made my excuses and left him to his wife, who seemed oblivious to the fact that her husband – or ‘me partner’ as she called him – was half again as useless and lazy as when I last saw him in Standard Four, St. Mary’s Secondary Modern.
For what seemed the longest time, we talked among ourselves, as if our younger selves were dead and gone. As indeed they were. As dead and gone as St. Mary’s School, which had once been our Field of Dreams but were now gone, like tears in the rain, and all within the memory of a man.
Someone had brought in some old photographs. Don’t they always? Looking at them today, is like coming upon a box of old clothes tucked beneath the attic eaves, and upon opening it, finding the outmoded finery captures all too poignantly where, and who, we once were.
So do all things pass away, and by ten o’clock we had shaken hands all round and said our goodbyes, conscious that we were probably seeing each other for the last time. ‘See you again soon. Take care now’. “Yeah! You bet”.
We had crowded into the short compass of a few hours, half a life-time of memories and swore conscientiously to ‘keep in touch’, but breaking in my mind with that old acquaintance forever, I walked quickly towards the door and never looked back.
But I did look back. But now that remembrance can be improved upon. Turned into the actuality of the moment. For the past is a self-referring business; the dramatist valuing their own emotions. Falling in love with his own creation, but quite aware that Life would not turn out as in Literature.
Meanwhile, delivered into middle age all too quickly, life continues to ebb by. Like a piece of diplomatic luggage past the customs. Sometimes it is the smallest pleasure or pain that teaches us that Time can be just as much a fixative as a solvent.
I try to liberate new memories. Like St. Mary’s Becky Thatcher, Sheila Henry in St. Mary’s Standard II; timid and appealing, dueting My Boy with me to Acker Bilk’s Stranger On The Shore: Eros and Thanatos (love and death), never more real than in that moment sublime. And we two, eternally preserved there in time, as in Philip Larkin’s: An Arundel Tomb. Until the end.