About a week before Christmas last year, a pal of mine rang me from a function he was attending.
“Hi, it’s me. You won’t believe who I’ve just met at this party. Hold the phone …” he continued before I could get a word – let alone a query – in or protest, “… I’ll put him on …”
And thus I found myself talking to Chris, a fellow with whom I had been at school almost fifty years ago, had a number of dealings with subsequently, but (as far as I could tell, upon an instant delving back into my brain) hadn’t set eyes upon or spoken to since about 1985.
We duly chatted awkwardly for about a minute – he seemed to have fond memories of our past times together – and I gave him my email address. Thereafter we swapped phone numbers etc. and arranged to meet for lunch yesterday for a one-to-one catch-up.
From my side – and possibly my vintage had something to do with this – it was a somewhat chastening experience.
Apart from our collective misty-eyed recollections of times at school, it appeared that we had studied together at a college in the City afterwards. I say that because, in one section of our three-hour chat, Chris reminisced about a series of ‘students on the loose’-type incidents of which we had either been the instigators or full-committed playing members within our study group of twenty or so individuals.
He obviously found them entertaining – he admitted that in the intervening decades he had often dined out on the re-telling of one or more of them – and, to be fair, I had to agree yesterday that they sounded bizarre or amusing enough that, had I possessed them in my memory’s hard drive, I might easily have deployed them myself in situations where, for example, I was trying to bond with nieces, nephews or friends’ children by demonstrating that in my youth I had also got up to similar japes and diversions to those they were enjoying in 2015. Or even 2016, now we’re into it.
But then I must share a confession with you.
As Chris embarked upon tales of these student times together, whilst a light bulb of ‘times recalled’ did occasionally flash for me – for example, I could recall (now he mentioned it) that we had studied together not far from Liverpool Street railway station. However, I could not remember a single incident – still less any part that I had played in it, either as described by Chris or at all – that he was recounting with such glee.
It was a trying conversation in some ways.
As Chris went on, pursuing the “Do you remember when we …” theme, with (for example) a descriptions of the time he was on holiday with some friends in the South of France. At its conclusion I had apparently flown down to somewhere near the Spanish border and we had then driven in his two-seater sports car into Spain on a five-day jaunt … and then all the home to the UK from the Spanish border in a single day, via the Calais-Dover ferry (because at that time there was no Channel Tunnel).
I had absolutely no memory of this at all. He could have been talking about someone completely different, or even a fictional character, for all I knew.
Our animated conversation continued with me resolutely ‘on guard’, trying to get a handle on the past times that Chris was recalling. Relaxing when I could get a fix on the place, or the time, or even the people involved … but, just as often, listening out in vain for a reference-point that I could ‘capture’ or recognise.
The experience was marginally unsettling, to be honest, especially when he drew upon his memories of spending many happy times at my family home in the country, going sailing with us and so on – plus his very positive memories of my father.
As I’m standing before you now, I don’t remember him ever going sailing with him, or him visiting my parents’ house in the country, and certainly not him staying there for weeks at a time, as he claimed.
There was another sobering aspect to our meet. Chris had gone on from the days when I had studied with him to a varied and evidently successful career in the City. Judging by the several successful children he described, the houses both in town and in the country and the joys of grandparenthood, he was a man of substance and style. He still works as an elder statesman within a City firm but is looking to future not too far away when he retires. In contrast I have done little in the past ten years.
“… And what do you do with your days …” he asked at one point from his perspective as a man contemplating retirement and worried as to how he would fill his days.
This is a query that I always dread because, inevitably, compared to those who have worked without a break for forty years (and are still doing so) I do a lot of not much. Naturally, in the privacy of my own head, of course, I get up every day and hardly have time to grab a sandwich or a comfort break in the frenzy of activities I undertake from dawn to sundown. However, if I were to describe them in any detail, to someone of Chris’s background in the City they would probably have come across as not dissimilar to the daily grind of an odd-job man now down on his luck who was swilling cider from a can under the railway bridge down by the canal.
I don’t want to under-sell our meet yesterday because we got on famously. That said, I sensed that I was having to press the bull-shit button more than I would have wished when, in response to his cascading tales of company mergers, takeovers and clashes with the regulatory authorities (with the names of famous merchant banks flying around the pub walls) I then had to give an abridged version of what I had been up to career-wise over the past four decades.
For me, there was certainly an undercurrent to our session in that my companion seemed slightly puzzled at the different paths our lives had taken. I could be bigging myself up here, but it was as if – for all his career successes (still continuing) – he could not quite believe how little I had achieved in comparison.
He said at one point “But I’d have thought you’d have known every old boy of our school of our era was doing, you were always the central hub of everything that was ever going on …” – this perhaps borne of a sense on his part that in our youth he and I had effectively been equals in intelligence and potential … and that therefore, from his perspective, if he could achieve the degree of success he has had in the City with his self-effacingly-described meagre talents, as night follows day I would have achieved similar (or possibly even greater) success in any field of human activity upon which that I had chosen to embark.
But life’s not like that is it?
Some people who appear destined for greatness in their youth and end up doing very little – and some who seemed listless, rudderless and hopeless in their teens or twenties then end up running the world.
I find it all quite comforting really. Things would be pretty boring if we all spent our entire lives in the same place and set-up as that in which we were born. Life is just a game of Snakes And Ladders … and then you get old and die.