World’s Smallest University Reunion
Between 1989 and 1993 I occasionally attended Trinity College Carmarthen. In return for using student grants as a means to fund a hedonistic and chaotic lifestyle, the college failed my degree. I read a lot of books. It wasn't what they wanted. They failed a few of us. I made some wonderful friends there. We’ve talked for years about meeting up again. A plan was recently hatched on social media. 7 or 8 of us were to rent a cottage nearby and go visit the old haunts and catch up. In the fortnight beforehand everybody cancelled. Suddenly remembered anniversaries, recently diagnosed illnesses. Finances. Kids. A long way to go.
Except me and The Monk. This is what happened next.
“Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm movin' past the feeling
Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm movin' past the feeling again”
I'm movin' past the feeling
Sometimes I can't believe it
I'm movin' past the feeling again”
Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs”
70 miles to Carmarthen. 70 miles in the latest of the Monk’s cars, a Nissan Almeria that’s known happier millennia than this. I’ve packed an overnight bag with sensible shoes and old cassettes. The Monk has rigged the car's cassette player to play music from his phone. There’s leads that shouldn’t be there. It’ll be fine. The perfect vehicle for two badly out of shape middle aged men to travel back in time to when they were badly out of shape young men.
Nostalgia is a terribly addictive exercise, a distraction from the worries of the present. But it’s a comfort too, a happy place to go to in times of darkness. Our journey needs sound tracking, I push a button on the Monk’s phone and we get the Arcade Fire’s Suburbs album. It’s almost too perfect – songs that combine a sense of nostalgia with regret and fear. As the car passes the industrial stench of Port Talbot, a childish excitement takes over us both. The Arcade Fire’s Wasted Hours is the song that kicks in as Carmarthen finally emerges into view, our Shangri-La, our Oz, our Narnia.
Driving over Pont Lesneven and up through Johnstown. Remembering our old friend Geof (pronounced Joff). Joff was the manager of the Student Union bar, a huge fat man with a walrus moustache and a curmudgeonly reputation. But he was kind and loyal to regular customers who could handle their drink and so it was one Easter, that hearing we were in dire straits and at a loose end, Joff offered us work helping him landscape his garden.
We managed three days between us. The Monk smashed his face in falling from a rockery onto as yet uninvited rocks. I carried a cement mixer to the top of a hill. The wrong hill as it turned out. We looked at the hard earth we were supposed to dig away. We came to the conclusion that we were about as cut out for manual labour as we were for any other sort of work and were rewarded for our brief, fruitless efforts with 20 quid each and some lagers and sandwiches. Joff was a good man, far too old to be running a student bar and dealing with pricks like us. We had presumed him dead by now. We pass his house and think about calling in just in case but we decide that he’s either dead, moved or won’t remember us. Joff is dead. We’ve decided. We drive on up the hill towards the college.
Tim and Kim are definitely dead. We know this for sure. Tim had a heart attack visiting his father in a hospice. Kim had cancer. They will have to wait for college reunions.
Towns can grow fat like people. The streets you remember bisecting fields are now just veins for sprawling estates of identikit houses. We go past the college because we want to visit the street where we once lived, the first home my son ever knew. A lump in my throat needs no explanation. The street looks the same as it did in 1993. But the children who played on the green aren’t there, probably taking their own kids to swimming lessons and bowling alleys. This grass is where my son took his first faltering steps. It’s not the same grass of course, but everything beneath the surface has remained the same. You were too young to put down roots so you threw some seed around and waited for time to catch up.
The view from here is astonishing, the hills stretch away towards the Cambrian Mountains, like a set of landmarks yet to be accomplished. Graduation, marriage, mortgages. Paperwork and bills. The great unknown at the horizon.
More time travelling. Drive down to the Monk’s old house. Which looks exactly as he left it. Some fresh garden furniture are the only clues to our failing in time travel. Walk around the old streets. Ghosts on every corner. Passers by look familiar because we want them to. Half the town has been swallowed by shopping centres that have transformed it from the ugly beautiful sprawl of disreputable pubs and independent stores to a retail experience just like any other.
Let’s not drink alcohol until we can book into the hotel and park the car. Wise words from the Monk. Still only noon too. I want alcohol so bad it hurts. This town is a stranger to me. I’m not handling it well.
There used to be dozens of cafes and bakers in the town centre. Now there is a Greggs. A Greggs I am queuing inside because people prefer queues in chain stores to prompt service from someone whose grandad opened a shop in 1905. I ask for Hot Shit With Pastry. The Monk opts for Chicken Thing.
Eventually the hotel lets us in. It’s got wi-fi. Which seems wrong. I didn’t even know what the internet was when I was last here. Social media addict that I am, I notice my Facebook status from the place and time where I usually live has had some likes. I want Carmarthen to be the college town of 1990. I don’t want my mobile phone. I want my youth back. I want alcohol. I want Geof, Tim and Kim and everybody else I ever knew in this town to appear right now.
Carmarthen was an ugly town, but our eyes beheld something that people trapped there couldn't see, wouldn't see. This was the place where we lost our virginities, fell in love, had our hearts broken, discovered the things we cared about and the things we didn't. All the pubs that closed held memories, not all of them good. A vanished phone box where you gave up the name of your baby son to grandparents younger than you are now. The bench where you were first dumped. A room where a man tried to. Ah, the past.
When love is gone, where does it go?
We visit the Blue Boar. The bar staff used to live upstairs and, on one famed occasion, chucked the keys down to us so we could let ourselves in. A precious fragment of time gifted us forever.
Today a dozen or so old fellas are cheering on the Irish rugby team against England. Here is a place of disaffection.
I decide to order a Guinness.
An old fella asks us for a light.
“I don't smoke myself. Just cigars,” he says “and a few cigarettes.”
The non smoker goes outside for his non smoking fix. Me and the Monk are laughing, it's a good omen, our first proper encounter with a Carmarthen character.
To the Mansel. More rugby. A friendly but clearly nuts barmaid finishes her shift, introduces herself and leaves. More pints. They're going down too easily. My thirst is that of a 20 year old again. We spy a sign promising karaoke later. More laughter.
In one pub, a young lad comes over to talk to us. I worry immediately that he’s going to ask for cash, offer us drugs or a fight. But no, he’s young, pissed and friendly.
“Are you from round here?”
“Used to be, we went to Trinity years ago.”
“And you’ve come back? Why?”
“Just wanted to see the old places again. This pub included,”
“I would do anything to leave this town, its shit. I’ll probably join the army or something. I might get killed. At least I wouldn’t have died here.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, mate, or the town. Plenty of worse places on Earth.”
The kid points at refugees on the telly. “If only they knew eh?” and with this he smiles, shakes our hands and leaves.
We go to the Coracle chippy and take our tea to the park where I used to push my son on the swings. Some kids are playing basketball, or a version of it in which the idea is never to get the ball in the hoop. We're eating a local delicacy – a batch. A batch is a hollowed out bread roll, filled with chips and gravy and topped off with a slipper of meat product optimistically called a King Rib. My taste buds get the Proustian rush.
No sooner had the warm meat mixed with the chips touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? ... And suddenly the memory revealed itself....
A summer’s day, 1992. I’m crawling backwards away from my year old son. This is the funniest thing Daddy ever did. The basketball court is where that patch of grass, that impossibly green square of legend, once stood. Each missed throw by the disgustingly young kids is a kick to my stomach.
I close my eyes as I screw up the greasy newspaper. This is no time for tears.
The futuristic bleep of a text message brings me back to the here and now. Sean, an old college friend who still lives nearby wants to meet up for a drink. This news livens us up.
Sean turns up. He can’t stay long as his wife is ill. We chat away about old friends, who’s still in contact with who. Richard teaches in Sakhalin Island. Joe teaches in Minnesota. Stump runs a school in Dubai. We learn that everyone is teaching. Sean leaves his big news till last.
Geof is dead.
Yes, couple of years back. He’d been very ill.
Geof is dead. He really is dead. Tears sting the eyes.
I raise a glass.
To Geof. And to Tim. And to Kim. To all the old friends and forgotten friendships. All reunions get smaller. It is to be hoped that, though the numbers at reunions dwindle with time, they may be replenished in the hereafter.
Handshakes and hugs punctuate the night. Sean, glad of his own escape, makes his way back towards the now.
“Let's get fucking wrecked.”
Back to the Mansel. The karaoke is in full swing. A group of kids who probably weren't even in school the last time I drank in this town are smashing Jaegerbombs and singing Killers songs. Their youth is enviable. We grab a seat in a dingy corner and set ourselves to the task of oblivion.
“We need to do this more often.”
“Yep,,,yep....” I agree, the drink is robbing me of conversational skills.
“We last came in 1998. If we leave it another 17 years we'll be sixty...sixty two. Well I won't be, I'll be dead surely.”
The Monk is ill. Not terminally. Just ill. Just another big fella with cholestrol for blood and a broken heart trying to pump it around the wreckage around him. I'm smaller, but not much.
“Dont say that, man.”
It could all have gone downhill here but for a visit from an angel.
A malnourished Des Lynam lookalike grabs a seat next to us. His face lit by the luminous words of Dancing Queen. He mouths along with every song. Bowie. Rihanna. Buble. His face is lost in rapture, whatever joy me and the Monk were looking for, this man has found it already.
I sing Wonderful World. Steve sings Freedom by Wham. Des Lynam sings You'll Never Walk Alone. A sad looking middle aged man sings a Tom Waits song in a voice higher than expected. The kids love us all. Hugs and selfies. More drinks. More drinks. And sleep. And drunken dreams.
You don't leave a town, it leaves you. I was smuggled out one Sunday afternoon in the back of a van with the few things I owned. There were no windows. I slid around with old books and records and a locket of my son's hair as we wended our way past unseen reminders of a town I thought I'd never leave.
Sometimes I think I'm still making that journey, crashing around in the dark with memories and Pixies tapes.
Today, I'm in the passenger seat of a hungover car, negotiating badly a one way system that wants us to leave. We laugh about Des Lynam, we think about Sean, we think about all the fights, drinks, drugs and conversations we had in this town. The sun shines. Billy Ocean comes on the radio.
Carmarthen disappears abruptly in the wing mirror, the houses all gone under the sea, the dancers under the hill.