It’s always good to talk about old times

The next story for my zooming writing group:

Talking about old times

It’s always good to talk about old times, isn’t it, and being somewhere like this which has so many memories for both of us, well, I guess it’s not surprising that the past resurfaces.
I stood aside to let him go through the kissing gate. He let it swing back on me, walking on without any thought to have held it open. He had always been like that. I caught up with him, and he asked if I’d seen any of the others recently. Not since the last reunion; he hadn’t been there. I can’t remember where he had been, in fact, apart from others asking me where he was – expecting me to know of course, I don’t think he was mentioned.
We had been best friends since primary school, had gone on to the same secondary and in the same class from the first year. There wasn’t year seven, eight and nine at secondary school in those days, it started again with first year, second year and so on. The year groups were sorted alphabetically, so we were in 1.3 because I was an M and he was a W.
I spoke about my recent railway trip to Cornwall, he talked over me and told me about his trans-Australian adventure, went on the Ghan of course, he said. I pretended I didn’t know what it was, just so he could brag about it, just to remind myself that he hadn’t changed, he still had to be best, to have done more, seen more, been more, earned more.
He asked again about the school reunion, and I reeled off the people who had been there, grown men now of course, some bearded some balding, some just the same – a lad’s smooth features emerging from the man’s wrinkled face, some hidden behind beards, some hirsute and some with shaved heads to disguise their receding hair lines.
“Was Saltburn there?” he asked. No, I replied, he had died some time ago. “Never took to him, didn’t like him much, bit of a bully.”
Had Saltburn bullied him I asked. He responded with a short derisive snort, “I’d like to have seen him try.”
I would have liked to see him try too, Saltburn had bullied me, but there again,, so had most people.
We reached another gate and this time I moved quickly and went through first, holding it open for him to follow me. We had gone through school and we would have been in the same classes, except I took German and he chose Latin to get into a better university. I pretended I had also chosen Latin but had to make do with my second choice. As soon as he’d told me to choose that dead language, I had secretly put it as my last choice. We were in the same Maths set, but thankfully he was rubbish at French. Yes, I had done what I could to be in different classes from my best friend.
The truth of it was that he wasn’t my best friend; he bullied me from the first day we were at school together, made my life a misery in a hundred different ways,  and making it worse if I didn’t keep up the pretence we were best friends.
I had never wanted to come back to this place ever again, but I was offered a job that was too good to resist, and in fact, when I returned, and had a family here, somehow it was different. The old grammar school had been pulled down and a splendid new comprehensive stood gleaming in its stead. There were a few people I’d been at school with in the area, but I didn’t come across them very often.
He had suddenly out of the blue contacted me. I hadn’t seen him for years, our lives were very different and although we sort of kept in touch, it was mainly so I could avoid any prospect of ever meeting him again. He suggested meeting up, visiting some of the old haunts, go for a ramble – maybe out over the salt marshes down towards the sea and then back to the pub for lunch. A bizarre suggestion, so bizarre that I found myself agreeing. We can talk about old times, he said,  talk about the old days.
We had met in the car park by the sea defences and he gave me a bone-crushing handshake – of course. I was shocked at his appearance. He had been handsome as a lad, with thick black wavy hair. He still had thick black wavy hair but I was pretty sure it was a wig, and his teeth were the pearly whites – obviously . He had the florid look of a heavy drinker, and his expensive look glasses barely hid the creases round his eyes.
As kids a gang of us used to come down here and play – less so when we were older, although in the summer we’d bring alcohol down and have barbecues. I can’t say why I always came with him and his mates, the power of the bully is impossible to explain. So why he had suggested we went on this trail down memory lane, I’m not sure.
We went through the last cattle gate, him first letting it swing back on me, and we followed the sandy track to the old rusty bridge which crossed the mouth of the small river which discharged into the sea here. He stood on the bank looking across but made no effort to cross.
To be honest I have no idea why I did it. It was totally spontaneous. I suddenly shoved him hard, my hands in the middle of his back and taken by surprise he stumbled and stepped off the grassy edge and lurched down onto the mud with a bitten off cry.
He was cursing me as he stumbled in the sucking mud, he couldn’t pull his feet out sufficiently to turn round and there was no way he could get out. There really ought to be signs, danger, sinking mud! but there was nothing to warn the stupid or unwary. He floundered about and then he fell awkwardly, landing on his side. He flailed his arms about but to no avail, he was still shouting, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
We had been down in these parts often enough as kids, he’d once – more than once thrown me into the sea, and somewhere round here he’d pushed me into the mud. The tide had been out and the sun had dried the surface to a crust, and I was a small lad and had managed to crawl out, filthy and stinking and they had laughed and laughed, and teased me all the way home as I’d limped along, my shoes lost somewhere.
It took me quite a while to find my phone, and then I dithered whether to call the police or the coastguards, or should it be the fire brigade, which would be best, what should I do? There was no-one around, no one to ask, not a single soul in sight. By the time I realised I could just call 999 and describe the situation and let the operator decide on the best service required, he had stopped moving, face down in the claggy mud.

I dialled the number, and summoned up some emotion to cry out that I needed help, someone had fallen into the mud, I couldn’t help him it was too dangerous, and I gave the location, and said I’d wait, and gave his name and described his condition, and I expect I sounded a little hysterical. He’s an old school friend, I haven’t seen him for years and years, we’ve just been out for a walk, talking about old times…

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