|'What a handsome fucker!' exclaimed the Pixie happily.|
I leave Newbold, Warwickshire around eleven, cycling a zig-zag path heading east along the smallest country lanes I can find in the hope of avoiding anything you'd call traffic. Sue has offered to give me a lift from Halford, reasoning that it's a long way on a bike and Sunrise Hill will probably kill me. I've told her I'll be okay because I need the exercise and enjoy cycling.
'I scoff at hills,' I roared laughingly in the manner of Brian Blessed, but not out loud. My laughter was internal. I hadn't heard of Sunrise Hill, but I've cycled up other hills, and surely it couldn't be any worse than the one outside Wellesbourne; and people who cycle less than I do always seem to regard the smallest speed bump as a giant escarpment; and other reasons, probably...
I cycle from Newbold to Halford, then on to the villages of Oxhill and Upper Tysoe, at which point I come to Sunrise Hill; and unfortunately it is indeed a bastard. Fuck you, I mutter to my inner Brian Blessed, conceding defeat after about a hundred yards and getting off to push the bike the rest of the way. I stop to catch my breath three or four times, and after about ten minutes I'm at the top of the hill. I follow the road into Shenington, along what turns out to be the edge of the escarpment, dipping right back down to my original elevation and then back up again three or four times, up-down-up-down-up-fucking-down and rarely has such agricultural language been directed against a single geographical feature.
After seventeen miles I'm in the next county, Oxfordshire, and specifically I'm in Banbury. My guesswork regarding travel time has been a bit out and I'm late for Tom and Fiona's barbecue.
Tom probably isn't quite my oldest friend, but he's the first I visited on a regular basis. He lived in an old farmhouse in the village of Darlingscote, Cotswold stone, exposed wooden beams, and uneven floors. I found the place magical. The main thing we had in common was, as with all children, probably that we were the same size, but we shared a sense of humour and we both liked Star Trek. We'd play in the fields at the back. He was probably Spock, which I'm guessing from the fact that he'd keep calling me Jim, and somehow, despite this, I was a Cyberman from Doctor Who. The logic of these scenarios probably doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, and the continuity is all over the place, but I guess it worked for us at the time. My assumed identity for such childhood roleplay tended to be one chosen for its silent implication of terrible power, which unfortunately didn't necessarily translate well when the point of the game was in pretending to be captured on an alien planet or whatever. Tom didn't seem to mind, or possibly even to notice that my Cyberman was a fairly boring choice of persona; although I distinctly recall Sean objecting to my electing to be the Mighty Thor on the grounds that Thor was never really known for jumping around all over the place, unlike Spiderman.
Somehow we drifted apart about half way through secondary school, our respective peer groups polarised by divergent relationships with pop music and the automotive industry. Years later we ran into each other at a school reunion, having both reached an age at which what differences we had cultivated no longer seemed to matter; so that was nice; and amazingly, he was still very, very funny. Stranger still was that he'd married Fiona, with whom I had shared a table during art lessons for most of the fourth and fifth years.
I've been to see them once before in Banbury, back in 2015 during a previous visit to England, and this time they're having a barbecue. My road map doesn't extend into Oxfordshire, so I've scribbled directions on post-it notes copied from what I could find on the internet. I don't know Banbury at all, despite having lived nearby for the first twenty or so years of my life. I asked my mother about this and she told me we'd simply never had any good reason to pass through Banbury. It wasn't on the way to anywhere we ever went. This might partially account for why I'm already lost. I stop to ask directions, and happily it turns out that I've been heading the right way, and that Tom and Fiona's house is only a little further. Tom calls my mobile just as I turn the corner into his close.
'Where are you, Loz?'
'I'm right outside. I think I can see you,' but the bloke pottering about in his back garden seen through two panes of glass is someone else. I've been here before but none of the houses look quite familiar; except maybe one of them does, sort of...
I lock my bike, shove it down the side of the garage, then pass down the side of the house into the garden, greeted by a chorus of jokes about where I've left my horse. I'm wearing my stetson, so I only have myself to blame.
Nathan, son of Tom and Fiona, crushes me with a bear hug and a grin.
'Hello, Nathan,' I wheeze.
He lifts a glass from the garden table to show me with some pride. 'I can drink beer now!'
'Blimey,' I suggest, doing the mental arithmetic and realising he must have passed eighteen since I last saw him. 'I'm surprised you remember me. I was only here for an hour or so, and that was two years ago.'
'I remember you.'
Sue is already here. 'I told you I'd give you a lift,' she sighs.
Tom works the barbecue, flipping burgers and hot dogs, and Zoe is here too. I haven't seen her since school. I vividly recall thinking she was the blondest girl in the whole universe on our first day at Shipston, and she is still lovely as ever. It seems almost scary how little we've all changed, and mainly because we obviously have all changed but it's hard to tell, so I'm probably losing my marbles.
I pull up a lawn chair and we get down to the important business of talking complete bollocks, catching up with the last thirty years of business.
Paul Betteridge is definitely dead, we conclude. The facebook account has to be someone using his identity for reasons best known to themselves. Sue remembers his demise quite well, and with good reason given his attempt to brand her with a lump of red hot metal, fresh from the furnace. I don't remember him being such a bad lad - really more of an inventive nutcase, but then he never tried to brand me. This at least means that I haven't just imagined him ending up in a coma after crashing a stolen combine harvester into a haystack, or whatever it was that happened.
We discuss who has had a sex change, mostly referring to sons and daughters of people we knew at school, or daughters and sons depending on how much time has passed since I wrote this. It's difficult to imagine how such a conversation would have gone one generation past, but in 2017, none of us seem that bothered by the idea. It's weird and out of the ordinary for sure, but I guess we're all too old to give that much of a fuck about someone else's business.
Fiona and Sue talk about work, which opens out into a wider discussion of the joy of telling people we don't like to either piss off or stick it up their respective arses. We talk about Nathan, the kids, and even a few grandchildren who've been buzzing around at the periphery of the conversation, what they will do, what sort of world they will live in, the usual stuff.
The strangest development of all seems to be that Tom, Fiona, and Nathan are one of those ballroom dancing families you hear about, all three of them, and they're probably fairly good at it because they keep winning prizes. Tom invites me to inspect the shed he's built at the foot of the garden. It's bananas and yet brilliant - a stroke of genius. It's his own tiny dance studio, complete with the mirrored wall and all the trimmings; at which point I notice he's lost a spare tyre since I was last here. I guess it's good for him.
We eat burgers and hot dogs, and Fiona and I compare notes about diverticulitis which she recently contracted. Thankfully she's getting better now.
I hit the road about four, reasoning that I want to be back in Coventry before it gets dark, which I just about manage. I've covered one hell of a distance on just two wheels, and it's been knackering but absolutely worth it. I've spent an afternoon in the company of people I never really anticipated seeing again once I'd left school, and not because I ever had a reason to avoid anyone, but because we all seem to have shot off on different paths; but meeting up again, I realise that we probably all have more in common than we did first time round; and that we've made it to fifty without turning into arseholes, which is nice.