My son and I returned from our road trip on Wednesday. One week and over eleven hundred miles had taken in a visit to a friend I’d known for a dozen years but never met in person, a chance for us to catch up with Rogan's cousins and my siblings, a gathering of people I went to school with and haven’t seen for thirty years, and a stop-over with blogging legend, Pat.
It was a journey packed full of memories, both nostalgic and melancholic.
Brixham, in Devon, is a fishing and tourist town, and Rogan loves it there. For him it is a place to be with my side of the family, which has only really happened a handful of times over the years, and most of those times have been on these road trips where it’s just the two of us away together.
For me, it is a place I spent the tail end of my youth in a drug-addled haze, suffering from Depression, feeling my life was going nowhere and never would, in the company of other stoneheads who would do nothing with their lives. Although I escaped from the town and that lifestyle when I was 21, when combined with the loss of my mother to cancer eleven years ago, after my parents moved back to Brixham, a grim sombreness pervades my mood when I’m there. I find I am torn between wanting to spend time with my brother, sister, nephew and nieces, and a desperate desire to run as far away as possible from the town, as quickly as I can.
With my kid sister and big brother
The Family - Season 4 begins this Fall on HBO...
We moved to Devon shortly before my 15th birthday, but despite living on the outskirts of Brixham to begin with, local authority boundaries meant I went to school in Dartmouth – a slightly more upmarket tourist town 3 miles in the other direction. As well as the bus ride, the journey to school also required a trip across the River Dart in a passenger ferry. That watery boundary became as much psychological as physical. In my head, Dartmouth could easily exist in a different country rather than just down the road. When we all left school, aged 16 (there was no 6th form at Dartmouth), I visited on and off over the following year, but then it ceased to be a part of my life.
The 30-year School Reunion was an evening of strange and mixed emotions. I don’t have particularly fond memories of my school days, but I was curious as to how some of these lives, that I shared 2 years with back in the early 1980s, had turned out.
Dartmouth was not a big school – there were no more than 80 pupils in our year. 25 or so turned up to the Reunion, many of whom were not the ones I hung about with much, meaning in some cases there was a great deal of brain stretching to try and figure out who they were. And even when I did have clear memories, it wasn’t always easy to overlay the image of the skinny, floppy-haired teenager with the overweight balding, middle-aged man standing before me.
The 30-year Reunion
"Anyone remember Jeremy’s party?"
The woman opposite me turns bright red.
"Is that Carmen? Bloody hell, she doesn’t look any older than 26. She must have had surgery!"
"No, it’s genetic. Her mum always looked really young too."
Time has not been so kind to everyone. I know everyone there is 46, but looking round the room you would guess they ranged from 26 to 66.
"Oh look! There’s Gary!"
Gary... Gary... who the hell is Gary? "Where?" I ask.
"Just there – the tall guy!"
Nope. Doesn't look familiar. Sigh. Another one. My glass is empty, I’ll get another pint of soda water.
"Gary!!!" I say with a big smile and a firm handshake, thinking I still have no idea who he is.
"Do you remember when you, me and Brian used to listen to Heavy Metal in your bedroom?"
Suddenly Gary loses 30 years, 20 pounds and sprouts black curly hair. How on earth could I have forgotten Gary? Brian, him and me sitting in my bedroom, listening to Black Sabbath and ACDC and moaning about how pathetic the pop charts were, full of pappy synth music.
And as the evening goes on, more memories creep to the surface, although there are 2 or 3 people I still cannot place. I hear tales of love and loss, triumphs and tragedies, embarrassments, accidents and suicides. Promises are made to keep in touch and friend requests on Facebook will be honoured.
At the end of the evening I have a car full of people needing lifts home who noticed I wasn’t drinking alcohol. One woman, who should have been the last to drop off, I detour several miles to get her home first. More than a little worse for wear I fear she might throw up in the car, or worse, pass out before we get there, as I have no idea where she actually lives and am reliant on her giving me directions. Fortunately she stays conscious and the contents of her stomach remain inside her.
Maggie thought I was completely insane to even contemplate going along to a school reunion. She can’t think of anything more hellish to endure. Why would anyone seek out the company of people they’ve been actively avoiding for decades?
For me, though, it was part curiosity, part nostalgia and partly an opportunity to reconnect with a couple of people I did genuinely have good friendships with, which I hope will now continue.
But I realise now, the main reason I wanted to go, even though I didn’t consciously realise it at the time, was I needed a benchmark.
My life has gone in many different and completely unpredictable directions. However many guesses I might have had, aged 16, about how my life would turn out, I would never have come close.
We moved a lot when I was a kid. My father would never stay somewhere long before itchy feet would make him want to see and live somewhere else. So I don’t have a hometown as such – a place where I spent my whole childhood, full of extended family and school friends. My life has been such a random journey I’ve not been able to gauge any sense how it compares.
So taking a slice of time – meeting up with people my age who I shared a point in history with three decades ago – gave me the opportunity to assess my own progress.
Although it didn’t really. How much can you find out about a class full of people’s lives over a few hours in a pub? And what would I compare against? Number of children? Number of partners? Financial success? Size of car? Ability to consume a large number of drinks and stay upright-ish? It was a bit stupid to think I would find any kind of resolution. Perhaps, though, it lays to rest the ghost that it’s actually possible to find that sort of resolution. I think I can let go of it, for now, at least.
The following day we left Brixham and headed up to see Pat – a soothing salve to the emotional turmoil of the previous few days. The size of the spread she laid on for lunch when we arrived made me wonder if she had also invited the local cricket team to join us. Over the next 24 hours she was the perfect hostess and warm and wonderful company. As always, next to her elegance and charm I was aware of my own slovenly appearance – "Mr Odorous Crumpled at your service, ma’am" – but she was polite enough never to comment on it. Walks, meals out, meals in, a drive over Exmoor, bacon and eggs for breakfast, lots of talking and a few photos, and we left Minehead in high spirits.
Pat, now in her 80s, looks younger than one or two of my classmates at the reunion
On the way back to Scotland we detoured via Chesterfield and spent the night with my father, puling out the old photo albums so Rogan could see what I looked like when I was his age, and what his grandparents looked like at his age too. Family resemblances are there, although no one else had a Mohawk like his...