Friday, 11 July 2014

School Reunion

This is a short essay about the time I went for a drink with some people I knew from school. For the Doctor Who episode School Reunion, please follow this link and then develop an interest in something more appropriate to your age group, maybe read a book or something...

'Are you sure about this?,' my mother asked as I headed out of the door. She seemed amused by my determination, although it was a reasonable question. She hadn't enjoyed her own school days, and had perhaps accordingly developed a certain independence. It wasn't that she'd ever been antisocial so much as that she had never felt the need to be forever surrounded by friends or family as so many seem to. These were qualities she had apparently passed on to me. I hadn't really enjoyed school either, and yet here I was heading off for a reunion of people from my year.

'Yes,' I replied firmly for my own benefit as much as anything. I was cycling the thirty miles from Coventry to Shipston-on-Stour, which I guessed would take maybe three hours or so. It seemed admittedly ambitious, but would be less aggravating than taking at least twice the time to get there by a succession of ambling rural bus services. Twenty miles by bicycle was no big deal, and this would only be a little further, albeit towards the dubious goal of sitting in a pub with people I'd barely known thirty years before.

'Yes,' I said, understanding that it was too late to back out.

They had all laughed at me, but who would be laughing now blah blah blah...

A few years earlier, having a bit of a slow evening, I'd signed up with Friends Reunited, a social networking website predicated on the notion of our all being secretly curious about whatever became of that kid at school, the guy who used to set stuff on fire, whatever he was called. I submitted my details, and then considered the list of names associated with the school I'd attended from 1977 to 1982. I was surprised and a little saddened by how few of these people I was able to remember, but then nearly three decades had passed since I left Shipston and I hadn't really kept in touch with anyone. That said, there were some vaguely familiar faces, and even if I wasn't falling over myself to rekindle any acquaintance which had been tenuous even in its heyday, it was at least nice to know they were still alive.

Ethan Rock though - what the fuck? I wondered, squinting at the screen and scouring deep into the more ancient wrinkles of my brain. There had been no-one at our school by the name of Ethan Rock. If there had been, I would have remembered because his life would have been a living hell. Ours was a comprehensive school, home to all the kids who hadn't proven themselves sufficiently refined for the grammar school in Stratford-on-Avon. There may well have been a few bright sparks, but there were also farm kids who'd been raised by wolves, or else by parents who were in their own way not lacking in lupine qualities. Anything above possession of suspiciously elaborate shoelaces marked you out as flamboyant and therefore a legitimate target for playground justice. Ethan Rock would have lasted about a week.

Anyway, I signed up, and in August, 2008 I received a message which read:

Lawrence - you always helped me with my art. Glad to hear you went further with your art. You drew some fantastic drawings! Hope life is good, from the girl who threw stuff at you all the time in our art lessons with Miss Davis.

It was humbling that someone had remembered me after all this time, but embarrassing that I wasn't quite sure who this Shirley had been. The name was familiar, but nothing else came back, at least not immediately. We exchanged a few further messages, and the wheels of my memory began to turn, creaking and groaning and churning up material which had remained more or less untouched during the most recent half of my life. She had been a little rounded but sort of cute, or at least cuter than she'd probably realised at the time judging by her own less flattering description of her younger self. I distantly remembered that she had been one of those pupils who were forever being caught smoking behind the music room during break, which meant I probably would have been terrified of her, partially because she was a girl, and partially because I was terrified of nearly everyone.

But what does this mean now?, I wondered.

I tend to distrust anyone claiming that school accounted for the best days of their life, but mainly because I just don't understand such a viewpoint. Junior and infants school was fine, at least so far as I remember, but the five years of secondary education were difficult in most respects. So far as at least a few of my generation were concerned, Shipston-on-Stour was the middle of nowhere, and our future prospects entailed working either in some local shop, up at the Norgren Engineering plant, or with one arm inside a cow. I didn't want to do any of these things, but neither did I wish to leave the town in which I'd grown up. The outside world seemed to be full of explosions, and it was a long way away and looked quite scary. At one point Miss Davies - our Kate Bush-esque art teacher - arranged for a few of us to nose around a design studio in the centre of town, just above the flats next to the toy shop. This, we learned, was the creative wellspring which had given unto the peoples of the Earth the red and yellow heraldry of the Bird's custard powder packet. Being of artistic inclination, this was to be my future if I played my cards right.

Some of the kids at our school were fairly bright, despite having failed to get into the grammar school at Stratford-upon-Avon. They worked hard, and did well, and they seemed to enjoy doing so. Others, having learned how to strip down the gear box of a Massey Ferguson before they could even walk, might not have had much to say on the subject of Geoffrey Chaucer, but probably wouldn't have too much trouble finding work once they left. The rest of us were either just plain lacking in academic potential, or couldn't summon the enthusiasm, or we had other things to worry about. I was probably somewhere in the middle. I could draw and paint, and I quite liked English even if I wasn't very good at it, submitting essays which now read like the work of a promising chimpanzee; but in most other respects, I found it impossible to engage myself with anything I didn't find interesting or didn't understand. It felt like a waste of time.

Additionally, I was aware of being not entirely stupid, and that my appreciation of art might be deemed weird by some, not least in troublesome combination with my hatred of games and team sports - which from my point of view mostly seemed like an opportunity for the tougher kids to legitimately batter anyone who they thought seemed a bit gay, that apparently being the whole point of rugby football. I spent a lot of time laying low, trying to blend in, to avoid association with academic high flyers, the squares who actually liked school. It wasn't because I believed myself to be better than anyone else - although I probably did on some level, and probably wrongly. I just didn't want enemies, and aspired to a quiet, uneventful life without having either my head or my trousers flushed down the toilet on a daily basis. I just wanted to be left alone.

I finished school with the impression that at least a few of the kids regarded me as a bit odd and therefore suspicious. Unfortunately, Shipston-on-Stour was then a fairly small market town and as such felt both isolated and slightly claustrophobic, or at least it did to me. It was difficult to go anywhere without running into someone who viewed me with some measure of apparent hostility. I recall, for example, that I had got on reasonably well with Shane Perkins at school. He was no rocket scientist but otherwise he was okay, a massive and amiable red-faced kid with the pudding basin haircut of a mediaeval serf and a school uniform previously worn by at least two elder brothers; then we all turned sixteen and he was transformed into a denim-clad smasher of looms blocking pub doorways and laughing hur hur hur hur as you walked past because you were either gay, a loser, or a gay loser, or you thought you were lush but you weren't, or whatever.

Now I was cycling thirty miles to hang out with these people, or at least some of these people. The thing that bothered me most was that I, having moved away from Shipston as quickly as possible and not having been back since, might be viewed as believing myself some sort of big shot, one of those prodigal sons you always hear so much about, still full of shit after all these years.

'Greetings peasants,' I would chortle in the voice of Stephen Fry, riding into town on my huge, white horse, scattering gold sovereigns to local crones I would recognise as once having been dinner ladies. 'Let me regale you with tales of my amazing life in realms most distant, Chatham, Coventry, even that London, far off lands where the people go around naked and have their heads set below their shoulders...'

I'd had brief online conversations with at least two ex-classmates who seemed to assume that we were better because we had escaped, and that I too probably hated all those thickies with whom we had been at school. Unfortunately I didn't hate anyone, and the assumption that I might have done helpfully identified anyone who had believed as much as a tosser to be avoided in future. The thing was, I never really liked the town, particularly once I realised it was just one option of many. I personally couldn't understand why anyone would still live there, having grown old enough to move away. It was difficult for me to regard it as anything other than a strange choice. I've never been in the position of passing someone with whom I was at school on the street, and it always seems odd when it happens to my wife or other people that I know.

On the other hand, I'd never presume to know what was best for anyone besides myself, or claim to have made the superior choice; and in part I admire those who remain in touch with their own geographical roots, because they have something I've been lacking for most of my life. It's not that I've enjoyed moving around so much as that it's simply taken me a long time to find anywhere I really want to be. All of which adds up to the question of why I was doing this, who this was for? I wasn't rolling into town grinning look who's back and expecting congratulations. I've never liked the man who assumes that everybody in the next room is talking about him, and hope someone will have the wherewithal to give me a slap if ever I go down that road.

I guess I wanted to find out just who I had been at school with, now that we were all old enough to talk about it without playground politics getting in the way. I wanted to be sure that I actually had been to school with these people, because it was all so long ago that it no longer seemed real.

As I approached Shipston, my calves were beginning to feel the distance, but the thirst for novelty carried me forward as I recalled sights I'd passed every single day as a child and yet had not seen in three decades; and the incongruities, like an emu farm where once there were cattle, houses newly built where I remembered fields, and all the other subtle changes. I cycled through the town, then out the other side to a bed and breakfast on the A3400. I'd called ahead to arrange for a room. The place, when I arrived, was unfamiliar - an old converted farmhouse just off the main road, less than five miles from where I'd lived for almost a decade, and yet entirely unfamiliar to me, which probably says something about life in Shipston, or at least my life in Shipston.

I settled in, made coffee on the machine that came with the room, watched some television, and felt oddly as though I was in a film. This was my land, the land to which I was born; I had come home. This was how I believed I should have felt, and yet I didn't. It was nice to be here, but aside from that, it was just strange.

Rested, I saddled up once more and cycled back into Shipston for something to eat. The layout of the town was so ingrained in my memory as to make it feel like I'd never been away, except half of it was all wrong or different. The Chinese takeaway was still there at the end of West Street, although I'm not convinced it was called the China Kitchen in my time, all those millions of years ago.

Shipston-on-Stour in the late seventies and early eighties wasn't exactly what you would call multicultural. Out of the six-hundred or so kids at the school, a mere seven were anything other than ethnically white, and Alan Ip and his elder sister were the only Chinese. I didn't know Alan particularly well, but we shared some of the same friends so we got on okay, at least well enough to find that the occasional takeaway was on the house because you friend with Alan, as Alan's dad would explain in fairly poor English. I guessed that he appreciated the occasional relatively friendly face. I'd heard horror stories of older kids riding motorbikes into the takeaway and sitting there, revving up whilst smecking away with hur hur hur hur Mrs. Yip - fuckin' yellow cunt. Apparently that sort of thing is really funny if you're a useless inbred lump of shit with brain cells numbering in single figures, and may possibly indicate some of why I was glad to move away when finally I did. I suppose there's no place on Earth without it's share of useless tossers, but in a small town you tend to be more aware of them and their little gang of followers all stood around belching hur hur hur hur good one Baz.

Anyway, some things had clearly changed because opposite the Chinese takeaway there was now an Indian restaurant. This seemed like a good sign, so I went in and had a curry - not the greatest curry I've ever eaten, but it did its job. We were all supposed to be meeting at The George, a pub in the square, at seven or thereabouts; and although The George served food, I had a nightmare image of myself cornered by Shane Perkins wanting to know what business I thought I had showing my face around here again after all this time whilst I sat immobilised by the arrival of my pie and chips.

I was worrying too much.

I paid the bill, took a walk around the square being as it was still light, then a deep breath and into the pub. There was no-one there, or at least no-one I recognised. I bought a pint, and immediately realised I was stood about four feet from Julia Goulter. She looked different and yet the same, which was strange. We had hardly been friends at school, in fact I don't recall us liking each other at all, but it was suddenly obvious how long ago it had all been, and that life was too short for bullshit. Her face lit up, and I expect mine did too, and we talked like old friends, or at least like old friends who hadn't really known each other very well. I vaguely knew she had spent some time in the fire service and asked about that, and hearing her talk about it made me feel strangely proud to know this person, somebody who had saved lives, who had really done something.

More people turned up, faces which took a second of processing before I could recognise them, and the odd one I couldn't bring back, there being no good reason why I should remember them or why they should remember me. Half of their number I had almost entirely forgotten or hadn't expected, because word of mouth had brought them to this place, a call spread out into the real world from the facebook page which had been my own main point of reference. It soon became confusing as they piled in, numbers doubling, and I found myself at a table with Tom Pike and Fiona Morris.

Tom had been my best friend for a few years back at junior school, but we'd drifted apart as people often do when the friendship is based on the sort of crap you get up to when you're seven. Our friendship was based in part on games played in the fields at the back of his house in which Tom was Captain Kirk and I was a Cyberman from Doctor Who, which I don't remember ever working quite so well as we had hoped. When I told Tom that I was about to have a science-fiction novel published, he asked if it was based on any of the games we had played, which is to date probably the best question anyone has ever asked me on the subject or writing.

Fiona sat opposite me during art lessons conducted by the previously mentioned Miss Davies. I seem to recall that she had spent at least some of the time pulling long-suffering faces and rolling her eyes at my more ill-considered observations. This would have been contemporary to Shirley pelting me with bits of paper, and as it all came flooding back, I wondered whether it could be possible that I had been a little more popular than I remembered, or at least funnier. Distracted by the thought, I somehow encountered difficulty with my attempt to become seated, and mumbled something about how after all this time you would think I might at least have got the hang of basic chair operation.

'You haven't changed.' Amused, Fiona pulled a long-suffering face and rolled her eyes in testament to my general incompetence. She and Tom were now married, which seemed like a good match, but which also seemed quite strange as nothing I could recall from school had foreshadowed their eventual union, and so it felt a little like Beryl the Peril turning up in a Spiderman comic.

Others found places at the table in the room we had occupied with the enthusiasm of a Normandy landing, faces coming into focus with great big dabs of memory sherbert popping off left and right. Laughing, Guy Loveridge took Tom's spectacles and tried them on for size. 'You must have fucking good eye sight to see through these things!'

You never really forget a name like Guy Loveridge, but I still couldn't reverse engineer the face back to whoever he'd been at school. Maybe he was one of Jason Roberts' friends, I decided. Matthew Gibbins and Alan Newman looked completely different, and yet I knew both of them straight away, marvelling at the changes. Ringing not one single bell, some woman turned out to have attended our school only for the last two terms of the final year, but I guess she lived in the area and had known most of the others for a while, and was probably less the imposter than myself. It was getting confusing, and I made my way to the bar just as another bunch wandered in.

'Chewie!' I hadn't even considered the nickname in thirty years, let alone its owner, but here at last was someone I immediately recognised without my internal lens irising in and out to compensate for the passage of time. I never found out why Mark Nason had picked up the name Chewie, but I suppose he was roughly on the husky side, and we were one of the Star Wars generations.

He smiled, embarrassed. 'Sorry, mate.'

It wasn't him, but a doppelganger who happened to be in the pub on the night of the reunion. It was quite a coincidence. Stranger still, the cheer that had greeted his arrival was for another of his party, Darren Bell.

Darren had been a small angry-looking kid, or at least one who didn't seem to smile much. He'd been the only mixed race boy at the school, and so he'd stood out. Keeping in mind that I was eleven and didn't know shit, he had looked like trouble to me, so we'd hardly spoken to each other. Once during assembly I felt a weird plucking sensation at the back of my neck. I turned to see Darren Bell and Michael Sumners, both seated in the row behind, leaning across to pick something from the shoulders of my uniform, like they were plucking a chicken. They ignored me, going about their work and muttering to each other as though I wasn't there. I still have no idea what they were doing. I think I would have remembered having fleas, and although my dandruff had been fulsome, it didn't exactly feel like the primate social grooming it resembled. Maybe they were just trying to freak me out.

Talking to Darren now, I began to wish I'd been less of a coward at school. He chuckled, explaining with a trace of the Tom Jones how he was doing very well with his own business and living somewhere or other in Wales.

'You don't remember me, do you?'

'I've really no idea.' He laughed again, because it was admittedly an absurd question. 'I'm sorry, mate, but it's been thirty years, you know?'

I bought myself a drink, and realised now that I knew some of the people in the public bar, those who were here because it was a pub and it was Saturday night; and I'd been stood right next to one of them for the past couple of minutes.

'Richard Benfield!' Yet another one of those name that hadn't crossed my thoughts in a long time.

He didn't seem too enthusiastic. 'You here for this reunion, then?'

I nodded. 'You too?'

He shook his head and shrugged. 'No-one told me.'

He gave a quick account of the story of his life. I'd always thought of him as one of the hard kids, an associate of Darren Bell and Michael Sumners, although we got on okay, and he never seemed like he felt he had anything to prove. It turned out that we'd led similar lives in some respects, many years spent holding the shitty end of corporate sticks for the sake of a wage, a great deal of sweat from which someone else had made a ton of money. It was oddly comforting to know we had ended up with more in common than either of us could have predicted, and as we were talking, another piece of jigsaw puzzle slotted into place, specifically someone I'd noticed lurking in the background for most of the evening, someone resembling Mick Jones of The Clash. He'd been watching us, but hadn't spoken to anyone. Now realising he'd been spotted, he conceded a sly grin. 'I was wondering how long it would take.'

'You should have said something.'

'Oh I don't like a fuss. You know me.'

I did, or at least I used to. His name was Chris Adams, one of the bunch who had turned up on facebook recently, memorably reporting that he now had four children of his own. You've been busy, I told him and he didn't seem to mind. Chris had always been the calm sort at school, and I don't recall ever having seen him get upset or angry over anything. In this respect he hadn't changed, and so we stood talking for a while about life, family, Shipston, bowling - his sport of choice, and anything else we could think of. It was the umpteenth old face conversation of the evening, and yet I don't recall having to repeat myself.

'You should have let me know you were coming along,' Chris told me. 'You could have slept on our sofa. We've got so many in the house, one more won't make no difference.'

Tom had made the same offer, and it was touching. I hadn't expected either this sort of welcome or such generosity from anyone.

'So I've got to ask - do you remember Ethan Rock?'

'Don Timms.'

'Holy shit.
Don Timms? Really?'

'He went to America and reinvented himself. I don't think he was ever very happy.'

'But Ethan Rock - of all the names...'

Chris chuckled, but not unkindly.

Don Timms had been an average, likeable kid. It was really difficult to imagine him so unhappy as to want to change his name. The evening had been one revelation after another, and I would need some time to take it all in.

Last orders approached and we all cohered within our commandeered room for the inevitable group photographs. Even more old faces had shown up. It seemed like there were hundreds of us. Stewart Ward bundled forward from the group, grinning. He'd been another one of the hard kids, like a smaller, tougher version of the singer from Showaddywaddy. He'd also been very funny at least some of the time, even if it was mostly the sort of funny you had to be there to appreciate. His finest hour was, as I recall, trapping Michael Sumners inside the tall cupboard at the back of Mr. Stanier's technical drawing class. Mr. Stanier was elderly and not well equipped to deal with living versions of the Bash Street Kids.

Let me out, the cry came with muffled thumps as Michael attempted to punch his way out of his wooden prison. Mr. Stanier eyed the four boys stood respectfully in front of the cupboard, but apparently didn't feel up to telling them to get back to their desks.

'Oh dear. What have you done with Michael?'

'We don't know, sir.'

Thump thump thump - I'm in here, sir, Make them let me out.

'This really won't do. Have you got Michael in there?'

'No sir,' and so on for the next twenty minutes. Eventually Mr. Stanier returned sadly to the blackboard and resumed chalking up a load of angles, reasoning that they would eventually get bored and let their prisoner go, which they eventually did.

Stewart no longer resembled the singer out of Showaddywaddy, but looked like he'd spent the years since school lifting concrete blocks for a living.

'I fucking love this bloke,' he growled happily and grabbed me in a headlock with an arm that could easily have punched holes in the hull of Popeye's boat.

'I like you too,' I squeaked, surprised to remember that I did.

An hour later and full of just the right amount of beer to compensate for my fear of cycling along pitch black country lanes without lights, I headed back to the bed and breakfast in the pouring rain, happy in an entirely unexpected way.

There were still people I'd had no chance to talk with, or to whom I'd said nothing, having no idea what to say and feeling awkward. There were people to whom I had probably spoken for the very first time that evening. There were some who probably regarded me as a wanker, and others who didn't; yet they all felt like my people. I had come along not really knowing what to expect, with all of my bullshit and assumptions, and none of it had mattered in the least; and strangest of all - at least to me - after all those years, it genuinely felt like it had been an honour to have gone to school with such a fine bunch, and I only wish I'd been better equipped to appreciate that at the time.

No comments:

Post a Comment