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40 Years On - Meeting An Old School Friend

13/12/2016 13:52

On the telephone, he had not mentioned the beard. "Have you still got some hair left?" I had asked. "A few strands" he replied. "I don't use Brylcreem any more."

"How about you?"

"You'll know me because I'm squat, broad-shouldered and a bit tubby"

"You always were. Still got your own teeth?"

"Most of them."

I'd just arrived in Durham. The London to Newcastle Express was pulling out of the station, I had rounded the railings on the station platform, and our eyes met. Mine grey-green (so I am told) and his blue, with the same slightly rebellious, almost insolent look that used to exasperate the masters at the grammar school we both went to in Kent. For a split-second we looked at each other. The he leapt from the bench, pointed an old Pentax at me, and squeezed the trigger.

"You ain't half gone grey" he said.

"Well, I am six months older than you" I said.

"That accounts for it, then" he said. "But your eyes look familiar."

It was our first meeting for 40 years. The lanky Ted, with his sullen good looks, was once my best friend. Strangely, we had little in common except a strong rebellious streak, a bohemian lifestyle and a love of the open air. We used to go bird watching together, walking miles into the wildest countryside Kent has to offer - estuaries, marshes, that sort of thing. Waders, sea birds, etc. Lots of LBJs too (birdwatch speak for Little Brown Jobs).

We swam in the sea together, too. One year we took a monthly dip at Herne Bay for 12 consecutive months, braving icy waters throughout the winter. John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just become president of the USA, Vivien Leigh was divorcing Sir Laurence Olivier, the Everly Brothers had a huge hit with Cathy's Clown, and the legendary Flying Scotsman was still in service. Now, on a crisp spring morning, I had alighted from Kings Cross on a rather nondescript diesel to meet a man I had not seen for more than half a lifetime.

The last time I'd seen him, his spindly legs had been trailing out of short trousers, and he had barely started shaving, if at all. Now, as I walked along the platform it was the beard I had seen first, framed between the phone box, the railings and the overhanging roof of the station. In fact, for a moment that was all of him that I could see. The rest of his body was hidden from view, but there was just a glimpse of a huge, straggly but quite magnificent grey beard. No other facial detail yet, but I knew, instinctively it was him.

Yet during our telephone conversations prior to meeting, me in West Sussex, him above the Arctic Circle - it had never occurred to me that he'd be sporting such an all-consuming thatch. But as soon as I saw it, I knew. Why would such a rebellious spirit, living in the Arctic Circle, ever bother to shave?

"If we run out of conversation there's a tomb at Durham Cathedral we can sit on" he had said.

"You're not allowed to talk there."

To be charitable, Ted looked every inch a Viking. Six feet five inches, to be inexact, for my old school chum reckoned he had shrunk at least an inch. To be uncharitable, he could have walked away with the part of Rip Van Winkle.

"Let's find a restaurant" I said, studying him more carefully. "That beard doesn't do anything for you" I said, noting that beneath it was the handsome face of old that I knew so well.

Ted was living in a place called Stora, not far from Narvik, close to the Swedish border. He was briefly back in the UK to visit his mother. When I went to see him on that special day 10 years ago, he even sounded slightly Norwegian.

Our school song was "40 years on when afar and asunder, parted are those who are singing today, then it may be we regretfully wonder, what we were like in our work and our play."

Now, here we were in Durham, chatting away as if only 40 minutes had passed since we last met.

Before I knew it, it was time to go.

Time to go, and we'd hardly started! We parted on the bridge across the river. I wanted to hug him, but I didn't want to embarrass him. To my surprise, the great Kentish Viking leaned across and wrapped his arms around me. "Take care of yourself" he said.

And that was the last I heard of Ted. Now, 10 more years later, maybe it's time for another reunion. I wonder where he is?

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