Comment: An uneasy encounter with my past

The year's most boring man had been recruited as a spy, while my friend Philip was now a Belgian
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MY FRIEND of 30 years stared at me blankly. Sorry, he just couldn't place me. Surprised that time had taken such a toll, I pointed to the name badge on my lapel. My friend of 30 years shook his head. Nope, sorry, nothing. Then he frowned, as if a wisp of memory had passed before his eyes. "Horses?"

I had made it back to my college reunion at Cambridge, and already it had begun to seem like a bad idea. When I had gone to collect the key to my room, charts showing the table settings had been placed outside the Porter's Lodge. With brutal elitism, those contemporaries deemed to have been a particular credit to the college had been placed on the top tables near the Master or one of the Fellows.

On three of the four other tables, stickers bearing the names of guests had already been placed. Most of those I remembered were already snugly surrounded by other pals, but luckily - or unluckily, as it later turned out - my friend of 30 years was free, and I placed our two stickers on the fourth table. I made my way to my room in New Court, just across the corridor from where, with brisk efficiency, a French girl had relieved me of my virginity many years ago.

Why go back? My Cambridge career had not been distinguished. Hooked on horse-racing at the time, I was more likely to be found riding some no- hope novice chaser at Uttoxeter than attending lectures by Tony Tanner or Patricia Beer. Too late, I had discovered that the books I was obliged to read were of real interest rather simply being prescribed work, a means to pass an exam. Tentative and semi-detached, I had drifted through my three years at Trinity in a fog of post-adolescent confusion and gloom.

So there were ghosts to be laid to rest. Before dinner, we gathered for champagne, a din of male voices echoing around Nevile's Court. The terror that none of us would recognise anyone else soon receded: the shape might have swollen, the hair might be in retreat, but invariably something - a walk, a look in the eye, a way of laughing - revealed the 20-year-old within a 50-year-old body.

There was talk of those who were too grand, too busy, too embarrassed or too dead to be here. We caught up on one another's news and felt pleased with ourselves. With the casualty-strewn details of love and career edited out for reasons of brevity or taste - where the hell does one start? - the progress of a life can seem clean and direct, a straight line between purpose and achieved ambition.

Dinner in Hall brought back memories, but not of my past. With its succession of courses, each accompanied by absurdly wonderful wines, its toasts to the Queen, to the college, to the Master, and its somewhat camp musical intervals from a choir in the gallery, I was reminded of the feast scenes from the TV series Porterhouse Blue.

Speeches were made, their references to college characters, rituals and events of which I had never heard greeted by affectionate laughter. Apart from my now former friend of 30 years, I was surrounded by architects, lawyers, farmers and the inevitable computer scientist with a funny voice and an outsize Adam's apple. The year's most boring man, I discovered, had been recruited as a spy. My friend Philip, a wise and kind accountant, had spent his adult life in Europe and was now, to all intents and purposes, a Belgian.

We ate, we drank - and with alcohol came clarity. Some people are natural grown-ups, even when they are children - comfortable with themselves, apparently at ease with the world. Others are not, and probably never will be.

In Identity, Milan Kundera suggests that the only reason for friendship is to provide a mirror for you to contemplate your image from the past. These people, now more acquaintances than friends, were doing just that, and it was not an entirely comfortable experience.

The next morning I sat having breakfast with men who, now out of their dinner jackets, were less their past selves than they had been the previous night. They talked about new markets, the kids, Radio Four, the cricket world cup. They exchanged business cards.

I had to get out of there, away from Cambridge with its smug, trim lawns and its stately, oppressively beautiful buildings. As I checked out, a man in a grey suit stood alone in New Court, staring, lost in thought, at the room where he had once lived. I hitched my dinner jacket over my shoulder and, with that old feeling of relief, drove off, back home to write it all better.