“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” moaned F. Scott Fitzgerald once, smooth tongued salesperson of exquisite melancholy.
Well this weekend, I’m upping oars and letting myself get swept back in time.
I’m having 3 days in Swansea with Harvey and Henry, my two best friends from school who are variously married & studying for a PhD, and happy father of 2 boys.
On the train to Marple to meet Henry, some teenage girls, fighting a fashion tug of war between chav and hipster, are laughing at the very idea of walkmen and cd players.
“The bit that snaps off and you can’t close it!” they snigger, “so shit!”
This makes me feel old, very old indeed. Thank God I’m spending the weekend with two people who have the same cultural references as me.
I remember when the first walkman came into my parents house. It happened to coincide with my mum’s Buddhist phase, and it appeared at the same time as a small white statue of an ugly squat man that she had bought and placed in reverence in her study.
“Have you seen the walkman?” my mum asked shortly afterwards.
I shuddered, thinking of the creepy glazed man, wondering if that thing walked of its own accord.
“N-no, and I don’t like it,” I said.
Anyway, I digress. Within minutes of our school reunion, our old triangular dynamics are reinstated:
- Harvey turns his eccentricity up to 11 to give Andy ammunition to ridicule him.
- I oscillate between laughing at Harvey to share Andy’s power, and defending Harvey on principle as a fellow weirdo.
Our love/hate triangle conducts the Alternating Current of youth. Being a teenager is like a fox hunt where you keep switching from fox to hunter: desperate for the safety of the clarion call to normalcy but also the animal individualist, scampering away at the sound. Or something.
We’re staying in the halls of residence where Harvey and his Japanese wife are living. The floors are covered with that abrasive synthetic carpet you get in all student accommodation.
‘That’d give you a nasty carpet burn,’ I think to myself, shuddering inwardly.
I end the evening with an impromptu wrestle with Henry in the halls Harvey is staying in.
“Shut up!” hisses Harvey as we grunt and holler in the echoey living room. Then as quickly as the impulse came over me, to let out 15 years of unspoken rivalry in one messy sprawl, it ebbs away and I peel myself from under him and go to bed.
I wake up with a sore elbow. I lift it up to the pale morning light.
I was right about the carpets. A three inch elbow patch of skin has been scraped clean off. It kills.
We walk off our second hangover in a row with a walk in beautiful Victorian Cwmdonkin Park, round the corner from Dylan Thomas’ house. There’s a pagoda with a plaque that says ‘Dedicated to Dylan Thomas,’ and underneath it are the remnants of a teenage boozathon; cans of beer and empty bottles of cheap vodka parade slidshod over the benches. A fitting tribute.
In the café next to the tennis courts, there’s a green velvet jacket hung on a nail.
“Does this belong to you?” the sign next to it says.
“Why yes, yes it does,” I want to say, and slip it on like a glove of immortality.
I picture desperate teenage poets drinking babycham from thimbles until dawn, their poems strewn over the bowling green, waking as the park warden drops his keys near the public toilets, climbing over the fence and crawling through their bedroom window before oblivious parents wake them up for Sixth Form, and only later realising that they have lost their jacket as they loll on the fetid common room sofa.
Bookending my trip two days later, there are some sixth formers on the train home laughing at emails.
“Emails? Emails?” they crow, “Who sends emails!?!”
Well, me actually.
It’s the weekly humiliation/comedy of the Mindfulness class.
“Today we’re going to start by looking out of the window,” the Kirsty Wark lookalike therapist tells us as we arrive.
We cluster near the oversized Victorian casement.
“We’re all going to focus on something out there for the next 20 minutes,” she says.
As we stand there in silence, I can feel myself swaying from side to side, unaccustomed to standing without leaning against something. My eyes keep wandering, thinking there must be something better to look at. After a few minutes I force myself to zone out.
Then I make the mistake of imagining what we look like from outside. I picture myself walking past and happening to look in. We are a room full zombies- deathly silent, slack jawed, and swaying slightly. I have decided that the collective verb for a group of mindfulness patients is a Zombie.
I have to clench every muscle to stop laughing out loud.
“So how was your homework?” Kirsty Wark asks when we have sat back down.
“I can’t stand the ways she says things on that cd,” says an annoyingly loud woman-child, “She says ‘doing’ instead of ‘do’ and ‘thinking’ instead of ‘think.’ It drives me mad!”
I pipe in.
“That’s right- everytime I listen, I make a mental note to look up what the hell that tense is-“
“It’s a gerund,” she says, finishing my sentence, “a bloody gerund.”
At least I learned something in this madness.