“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – the Story of a School Reunion

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If you’re a depressive, like me, there are loads of things you can do about it.  You can drink the blues away, only for them to come back in spades.  You can mope and feel sorry for yourself, only to make the blues turn ‘orange’.  You can feel that life’s not worth living, only to realise you’re not brave enough to take it away.  Or, you can say it is worth living, let’s look on the bright side of it and let’s be pro-active…

You can join a gym and conjure the magic of endorphins.  You can apply for jobs and tell those in a position to engage that you are there and you’re not going away and you’re interesting and yes, engaging.  You can look at things that are so easily taken for granted – your home if you’re lucky to have one, your talents if you’re blessed, and your nearest and dearest if you pause to consider you’re so much richer for having them.

Or, you can have a school reunion…

Since last September a beautiful woman and I (with the help of a few other special people) have been meeting, discussing, debating, planning and staying awake at night thinking about how nice it would be to meet those we schooled with 38 years ago.  How great it would be to get as many of them as possible in the same room, to see how they’ve done, how they now roll, and indeed how they now look.

So allow me to indulge and embroider the back-story, which for me and this story is vital – it provided some salient and profound “station stops” on my travels both geographical and psychological.  Loyal readers will know that last year was spent for the most part living on the Ottermobile, travelling (or often breaking down in) various parts of the UK.  I enjoyed and endured highs (seeing beautiful scenery and meeting wonderful people to write about) and lows (running out of tobacco and being attacked by a couple of hooded knob-heads).  But during that time a beautiful woman contacted me via Linkedin and we ‘chatted’ a while, not least about our school days together, and one day she suggested it might be a good idea to have a reunion.

So I said yes let’s chat more and gave her my number.  Some weeks later I was heading for North Wales and arranged to call in on her in Cheshire, where I took her out to dinner.  As we drank wine and reminisced, I mentioned the time I asked her out at school and she said “no” and that was the story of my life.  But anyway we of course stayed in touch and the issue of reuniting with our peers, ignited some weeks before, was now beginning to burn.

In the months to follow, with the aforementioned “committee” and social media playing their part, the fire burned ever more brightly and, last Saturday night, 60 or so of us convened for the Nantwich & Acton Grammar School Class of 1980 Reunion.  And what a night!

I realise that many of you readers are not NAGS Alumus but I want to describe some of what happened because for me as a writer it was fascinating, for me as a person it was enormously significant.  Of course there was music and food and lots of booze in a room crammed with people, but the room was also crammed with a great deal of laughter, reminiscence, wit and bantering exchanges of story, and above all love.  The buzz was incredible and the  energy amazing, proving that for those of us in our fifties there is still life, still action, and still the ability to behave like kids.  Inevitably some of us might’ve been nervous at first, or even scared, but these negative emotions soon gave way to joie de vive as we danced the night away and finished up linking arms and belting out Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  And inevitably, as with every party, there had to be someone whose role in life is to be the class idiot or drunken dad-dancer or dubious town-crier…

For me as a writer I prefer to hide behind a script, but for me as a person I felt bound to say a few words, such was my enthusiasm and drunkenness and propensity to make a bloody fool of myself.  But it was all genuine, all meant, and all-important to say what I truly believed.  Yes I probably spoke too long, more than probably repeated myself, quite possibly tried to be funny and more than definitely slurred my words.  But more than definitely they were genuine.

Talking of which, there has been an entertaining and heartfelt aftermath on social media and to illustrate the point I’d like to borrow the words of one of my school-friends, which I think beautifully sum up how I and many other people now feel…

So here we are. It’s Monday night and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Saturday night. I was scared at first, but then overwhelmed to see everyone, then [I felt] euphoria. Mandy, Mark, Kay and Dave…thank you for a fantastic night, you have no idea how much you have touched me. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough…. you found me when I didn’t know I even existed. So many wonderful people to meet again. I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to speak to you all. I regret not spending more time with those that I did. 48 hours on and I have an overwhelming melancholia because for now I can’t see you all, crazy to learn after 38 years that I miss all of you so much. All that I ask is that we see each other sooner rather than later and that life treats you all well until we next meet. There is a big hole in my life that you all fill and I didn’t realise it until now. I wish you all only the best of life and hope to see you again very soon – D.

I am touched by D’s words, and even more touched to glean that in all the aftermath there are ongoing stories and sub-plots in development, stories and sub-plots that began nearly forty years ago and will unravel for years to come.

As I say, school reunions and the descriptions of such are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I needed to post this because it was such a massive deal to me after such a difficult year and it was great to see that so many people looked so well, behaved so well and have clearly done so well, and that being 54 doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, nothing left to say and nothing left to do.

So thank you for indulging me because it really did me the world of good.  The year has started well, I’ve been pro-active, I’ve joined the gym, my career does look like it’s being rekindled.  But that isn’t all the story, because I have a confession to make, a sub-plot to bring to the surface…

I had an ulterior motive in giving my number to the beautiful woman, because I wanted to ask her out again.  And this time, after 38 years, the answer was “yes”, and that’s the greatest and happiest reunion of all.  Because this is a story not just about nostalgia, or about celebrating and looking on the bright side of life, it’s actually a tender and profound love-story.

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The Stray

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Dog Training in Redcar

I was right; Steve didn’t turn up for that pint.

In other news my stars for September read well.  Apparently I’m going to be moving house, and as long as the Ottermobile’s wheels turn round that’ll be true.  They also say I’m coming into money, so I guess that translates as a few quid to buy a new bucket to shit in.  If I’m lucky.

***

After two days in Saltburn I wanted a long walk, so I packed a lunch and set off down the sands to Redcar.  It would be another tick, another postcard for the mosaic and another lungful of fresh sea air.  It’s a fair old trek and by the time I got to Redcar I was gasping, so decided to get a bottle of water in a cafe.

It was a bustling little place and as I queued for my beverage I noted one of the ladies serving had two black eyes.  There was obviously a story here, but I dare even the most intrepid reporter to ask how she got them.  Well, the Otter is the most intrepid reporter.

“You’ve been in the wars,” I said.

“That’ll be a pound,” she said, unsmilingly, of the water.  As I coughed up, knowing I wouldn’t get any change out of her, I left the cafe and found a bench seat on the prom, known locally as The Stray.  As I sipped my water and rolled a ciggy, mulling over the possible story behind the woman’s black eyes, I was joined by a man of about forty, dressed not unlike me in combats and T-shirt.

Bidding me good afternoon, he asked if I minded him joining me for a smoke.  I wasn’t apt to say no and, though I was a little nervous at first, we soon got into conversation and I mentioned the woman with black eyes.

“Yea I’ve seen her,” he said, “Looks like there’s an husband handy with his fists.”

“I thought the same,” I said, “but when I asked I got nothing.”

“You asked her?!”

Confirming, with a touch of shame, I explained I’m writing a blog and needed stories.

“You’re a writer?” he said, “Well if you want a story I’m your man.”

It always amazes me that when someone learns you’re a writer they want to give you material.  Like if a comedian reveals his profession, the listener wants to tell him a joke.  So how come it’s not the same with other professions?  For example would a carpenter be offered a piece of planed four-by-two?

But I digress.  My new friend did indeed give me his story, which I’ll condense here.  Hailing from Doncaster, he’d never married but for many years lived with his girlfriend and two sons, he thought happily, until the day she told him to move out.  He’d suspected for some time that she’d got someone else, then found a text on her phone to prove it.  She confessed and said it was over.  He had a job at the time but spiralled into drink and drugs.  One day he went into work and they smelled alcohol, sacking him on the spot.

“I pleaded innocence,” he said, “told ’em what had gone on and asked for compassionate leave.  They said no.  Even Human Resources turn their back.”

“Human Resources are only as resourceful as the humans in charge of it,” I said.

“I said exactly the same,” he said, unconvincingly.

I confess that while I listened with interest, I couldn’t do so entirely because throughout, there was a bogey hanging off his nose.  This had happened to me before and I remember not knowing what to do.  Does the intrepid reporter tell the person?  Does he try not to look and find it impossible?  Or does he just wait for it to drop off of its own volition?  Anyway, his story went on, bogey or no bogey, and I was moved to hear he’d fallen into debt and was now just drifting.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

“No.  I live in my van.”

I was amazed – at last I’d met someone very much in the same boat as me.  Or at least the same van.  Shaking my hand, he said exactly what I was thinking; that it’s nice to know you’re not alone, it’s nice to know there’s some normality to this, and it’s reassuring to know you’re not completely barking mad.  Plunged into this newfound camaraderie, I opened my packed lunch and offered to share.

“Just cheese and bread,” I said.

“You’re a gent,” he replied, “I’ll return the favour some day.”  But I knew that wouldn’t happen.

So there we were, a couple of strays, a couple of tramps, he the Estragon to my Vladimir or vice versa, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that we’d each found a kindred spirit, someone to bounce ideas and story off, someone in whom to confide the bouts of loneliness, depression, laughter and hope that there’d be more to life than this.  And amid the shared lunch and halved optimism, the bogey finally dropped into his lap and bounced away, to where I’ll never know.  I could only hope it missed the sandwiches.

He was a nice guy David, as I learned was his name, and we swapped numbers.  Like Steve the night before, I wasn’t entirely sure this would happen, but you never know.  David was certainly genuinely grateful for a bite to eat with me.  And he was genuine when he said I was a nice bloke and I’d be OK.

When we parted, I returned to the cafe and sat outside to write up my notes, and saw that the lady with two black eyes was still working, and now smiling.  I only hoped that David and I were wrong about the violent husband handy with his fists – perhaps the door she’d walked into was real.

As I sat, thinking about a couple of strays on The Stray, a couple of women began a demo of how to train dogs.  I watched, fascinated, thinking how wonderful an animal it is.  I’d never been a doggy person but had met a few on my travels and even wondered if I should consider a canine companion.  How obedient they were, how responsive, loyal.

“This one was a stray,” said the lady.  “She was starving when we found her.  We fattened her up and trained her.  She’s very happy now aren’t you, Lucky?”

“Woof,” said Lucky.