Suzi Feay: This is the life

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The Independent Online

If we'd had a Sorting Hat at my school, it would have divided us into Busty Girls, Nymphets, Rugger Buggers and Sensitive Types. The head of school looked and behaved like Hagrid, and we had rituals and traditions every bit as weird as anything at Hogwarts. Or that's how I remember it. I've never seen the point of Friends Reunited. Who wants to find out that all those colourful characters of memory are now middle managers in Bradford?

At university, my fellow students were busy forming themselves into fun-size versions of real journalists, real actors and politicians. What happened to the heavyset chap in glasses reading English who used to pop in once a term and inform me solemnly of the progress of his masterwork novel? Where did he go? (Now, of course, he'd be on some Granta Best Of list - but this was a time when youth on its own wasn't a quick route to a fat advance and buckets of hype on top.) What about B, who was going to make it big in television? What about P, experimental director? What about Alistair MacGowan, the great tragic actor? (I still remember his Faustus. Not fondly, but at least I remember it.)

I ran into Mr MacGowan, now an impressionist, about 10 years after that in a comedy club. He was still very saturnine, and we had a teeth-pullingly awkward conversation which ended with me saying "We must have lunch sometime," and him just looking at me with that "You fool! I'm on telly and you're not!" look on his face. Either that or he didn't remember Faustus fondly either.

At the moment, it's more like Family Reunited for me, due to a big wedding Oop North in two weeks' time. It seems strange that while rediscovering old friends is invariably mortifyingly embarrassing, hooking up with distant family members, even ones who in the past have hit you on the bridge of the nose with a tennis racket, or shut you into a wardrobe, can be as easy as slipping on an old sock.

At the moment the faintest whiff of shared DNA sets me purring. There's the sense of ease in having so much history in common that you can communicate entirely in codewords. Mutter "Blackpool!" or "Plasticine!!!" and everyone falls about. And while the decrepitude of old school friends is a cue for maudlin moping of Brideshead proportions - not to mention a bit of a personal insult - there's something lovely in the traces of time in the faces of family members. Successful families are a machine for maturing children, after all. You're expected to bud, blossom, fruit and wither in your turn. It's the deal. In the rest of life you can pretend to be an eternal twentysomething, but rejoin the clan and your place on the bus to eternity is always reserved. Grandma and Grandad have vacated the seats up front, so we all move up one.

But meeting relatives after a long absence can also cause its own specific form of pain. I overlapped with one of my cousins at boarding school for a few years. We have virtually no shared memories because I was in the fifth form, he was at prep school and I was much too grand to bother with him. We talked a little about the incredible, bleak beauty of the scenery. Then I listened, appalled, as he said, "Did you ever hear about the trouble I had with the teacher who, er, got a bit too fond of me?"

Nothing too horrible, as it turned out, and my cousin was not so much innocent as completely oblivious: if this eager chap wanted to put presents and chocolate under his duvet - which is as far as it went - he was all for it. Nonetheless, we'd probably define such behaviour these days as "grooming" - an unlovely term that always makes me think of chimps combing each other for nits.

Eventually my cousin was a bit taken aback to find the teacher lurking outside his house in the school holidays, and steps were promptly taken. "Nothing happened," my cousin said; and we could both come up with more incidents, involving other teachers and other children, in which, we were sure, "nothing happened".

So we were able to laugh off the episode as just another of those weird school things, like the doctor who always did breast examinations ("to see how you're developing") even if you had a sore foot. But I had an awful vision of myself as a self-obsessed teenager, too cool to bother with a small cousin half a mile down the road; a boy who enjoyed attention and treats from a teacher in his comfortless environment. Meet any of my teenage school friends again? I think I'd be too afraid of meeting myself.

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