You may well have had the experience. If you haven't, believe me, there is little stranger than walking in to a situation where there are 130 people you haven't seen for 55 years! I have been to a Reunion of my college year and a few years on either side. Dear Reader, unadulterated grey hair and stooped backs is not a good look nor did I relish the realisation that I looked just like that. To be fair, my hair is not grey, just mousie and I am fairly straight backed, but there is always the jolly old stick and the tell-tale humping and heaving if I want to get out of my chair. It was a solar-plexus- shock situation, I have to say, but I fixed a smile to my face and tried to recognise the better known by extracting the middle section out of their shapes and form and concentrating on that. It helped that we were issued with name badges, although not all the women had both their maiden names and their current ones printed on them. (I was one who didn't, but then, one of the reasons I married Himself was to acquire a surname that didn't need spelling: yes, really)
I have never been tempted to attend such a meeting before. That is, I have been tempted but never given in to temptation. There was always the excuse that I was working and not able to spare the time. Well, I am not working now and I have the time. I was also attracted to the thought of lunch on a Thames cruiser. It was a glorious day and the auspices all in place, so off I went. Bus to the nearest point to the pier and then a taxi. 75 year olds don't often walk briskly from Embankment Station to Savoy Pier and I was not about to set the record. Before long, I saw a known face; not a former student but the girlfriend then wife of one I knew well. Soon, my well-known friend appeared, too, and recognised me. Then, Dear Reader, I did something I would never have had the courage to do 55 years ago, I found out where I was placed for lunch and set about changing it! Without even asking my recognised friends I had myself added to their table rather than sit with the total strangers to whom I had been assigned. I knew I would have to deal with the guilt at some later point but at least I was not going to have to spend the whole cruise a foreigner on a table of those foreign to me.
We have all seen those films and TV programmes where an effect is created by the means of Flashback. Well, you may take it from me, this is a phenomenon which actually occurs. As gradually I recognised more and more past friends and acquaintances, so a vignette of something we had shared ran over the screen of my memory. There was potential for discomfort. Not all the recall would have borne public re-telling. Looking at an elderly gentleman, lean and good-looking, sparse grey hair brushed to one side, presumably to hide a multitude of no- hair, leaning on a stick, I saw us locked in a room in his Godfather's house, lent to us for a party, going "as far as young people went " in those days, with my future - had I but known it - husband invigilating outside. I had had no idea how he felt about me until we tripped over him when we opened the door. It was rather touching, then, and strange to remember, now, because I think he may have spent much of our life together punishing me for that episode. He had been a thousand times better known than I at college. He was President of this and Chairman of that. I spent much time giving updates about his life. It was strange to be remembered, to some extent, as an adjunct to him. My daughters would not have relished that; it's not the way things are for women now is it?
The screen of ones memory must be in black and white, ideally, because what struck me most about that afternoon, was the change of colours. If, with my inner eye, I recoloured the faces in front of me, making the hair blond or brown or dark, the cheeks pink,the eyes bright then I could truly see my friends of more than half a century ago. I needed, too, to carve a shape from the middle of the forms and to erase the flesh excessive to the jaw and cheek and there they were, as they had been. On our table there were no questions about certain ones of us who had been significant at the time. Several I knew had died. Others I didn't dare ask after. Some had found fame and some infamy. The river was beautiful. But it kept moving and changing, as had all of us. There were buildings on the banks new even since I fled from Neil Diamond on to the river bus with no ticket, as you will remember if you have been keeping up. Those of us who had been helped in to the 21st Century exchanged email addresses and those who hadn't ,exchanged cards. Will we keep in touch, now? What do you think?