The happiest days of our lives?

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The Independent Culture
SUDDENLY, my past is beginning to catch up with me. It started in the local park a few weeks ago: I was hanging around the sandpit in my usual desultory fashion, watching the kids and longing for the moment when we could go to the cafe and eat some cake, and then a slightly familiar- looking woman came over and said hello.

She clearly had a better memory than I (which isn't difficult) because the last time we'd met had been about 12 years ago, at university. Now she's living around the corner with her husband and two small boys (the same age as mine, more or less), and living in a house filled with the detritus of children, as mine is, and working as a part-time journalist, just like I try to do. I don't know what these similarities prove - nothing, probably, except that twentysomethings who think the world is wide open and waiting for them sometimes end up as thirtysomethings in a quiet suburb of north London.

Anyway, I went round to her house for lunch, and we talked about children and gardens and guinea pigs and broken nights, and, briefly, our former lives. It did not fill me with desire to be 18 years old again - much as I enjoyed that bit of my past - for it now seems so very distant. This is strange, because for the best part of a decade, most of my friends were the ones I made at Cambridge, and I still measured the years in terms of when I graduated. By the time I'd hit 30, however, it was too long ago to matter.

Since then, I've ignored the occasional invitation that arrives for a college reunion. What would I say to Hearty Harry, or Jolly Jeremy, or that peculiarly unsettling girl who lived in the room next door to me and talked to her six glass-eyed teddy bears in between an endless round of prayer meetings? And what would they say to me? Very little, I expect, unless to comment on how much older we have all become.

But last month an old friend called Marion phoned me up and said, "Come round to tea." We first met at college, where we shared an abiding passion for chocolate, and then sadly lost touch with each other (although I later heard she'd set up a chocolate mail-order company, which was heartening news). Marion told me that she still saw a few other people from university, and that they were also coming to tea. So I turned up last Saturday - and everyone looked exactly the same as before. It was quite spooky. Henry - a former revolutionary socialist - was there with his wife and two children, waving his hands around just as he used to and shouting when he got excited, only this time he was telling us about his rapidly expanding computer company, instead of how to rescue the downtrodden masses. He gives his employees free Jaffa cakes, apparently, and last year he was runner-up in the Boss of the Year competition.

Then there was Sam, another stalwart teenage leftie who seemed remarkably unchanged, except for the fact that he is also working for a capitalist computer company, and living with his wife and children in prosperous suburbia.

And Phil and Frances came too: a couple who have been together since our second year at university, and who were the first of their generation to have children (twins, who are now eight- and-a-half). I said that it must have been hard becoming parents before anyone else. They nodded, and told me about hellish holidays with childless friends who didn't realise that two-year- olds are often revolting, until a long time after, when they had their own offspring.

Strangely, what we all had in common was the present, rather than the past, which seemed to elude us. There was about 10 minutes of, "Do you remember the time when...", and then we ran out of things to say about Hearty Harry and Jolly Jeremy (not that there was ever very much to say about them). Instead, we moved on to more pressing concerns, like Power Rangers (Sam's son, like mine, is a fan of that odious television programme); and the iniquities of dog-owners who let their animals foul the parks and pavements; and the relative merits of various local restaurants with high-chairs. OK, so the conversation wasn't completely scintillating, but when was it ever so? At college, we were distracted by the effects of too much beer and cannabis; now, by the relentless jabbering of our children. (This realisation that no one else can finish a sentence, despite our university education, in itself represents a kind of contentment.)

By the end of the afternoon at Marion's flat, I was feeling very cheerful. We had peered into the murky landscape of our shared history and returned to the relative safety of the present. No one had dug up forgotten feuds; no one started snogging in the broom cupboard; and no one ran amok, which was a relief, after watching those sinister reunions that explode into violent mayhem in Sixties films about fear and loathing and repression. The only mayhem, in fact, was created by the children, who scattered biscuits and cake with gleeful abandon while their parents tried to ignore them.

In fact, it all went so swimmingly well that when I got home, I dug out a letter that had been sent to me care of this newspaper, from someone I haven't seen since I was 16. He was the handsome local tearaway, and therefore completely enthralling to a nice middle-class girl like me. Fired with enthusiasm at the idea of continuing to forge links with the past, I decided to phone him up (all right, so I'm plain nosey). We talked for a while, and he told me he still occasionally saw my first boyfriend, who is apparently now bald but rich (and possibly still unreasonable in his dealings with women). The former tearaway, on the other hand, sounded as though he had turned into a respectable member of society, so I took the plunge and we arranged to have lunch.

"How will I recognise you?" I said.

"I'm 22 stone and grey-haired," he said.

"Are you?" I said politely, not sure if he was joking. "Well, hopefully, you'll recognise me." This may prove to be a big mistake. I'm not sure if I would recognise my 16-year-old self these days, so whether anyone else could seems most unlikely. At any rate, disaster seems imminent - of which, more next week. !