LATE afternoon on the longest day. A man parks in a cul-de-sac and gets out to shake off his journey. He stands and looks at the house. Like much else in life, the house is the same but different. The car-port has become a garage and the empty space above has been filled with another bedroom.
The gate at the side is open. The man is remembering the space between the walls of the two houses. When he was young he liked to climb up that gap, feet pushing on one side of the brick canyon, back leant against the other.
The man wonders if he should say anything, introduce himself and perhaps mention 1964 when the house was new and the front garden was a pile of mud. He can hear sounds from the back garden and windows are open, so someone is home. But no one comes out and he feels that ringing the bell would probably be foolish, so he gets back in his car and continues his journey, driving along old streets and past old sights, and he feels as if he is running his finger over a crinkled photograph.
That man is me, naturally enough, and the house at the top of the cul-de-sac in Cheadle Hulme is where we once lived. Around 15 years for me if you include the home-and-away university years.
I am back for a boys’ night out where I grew up. An old school friend lives in Canada, but winters in Mexico, all of which is a long way from Cheadle Hulme and Moseley Hall Grammar School. He is here for a week and a few of us are meeting for a drink at the pub where we used to go on a Friday night for the experimental purposes of under-age drinking.
The pub is called the Church Inn and at a glance it hasn’t changed at all, at least not in the main bar. The room out the back, the one that acted as an impromptu common room for pint-holding sixth-formers, is now a restaurant.
We turn up in ones and twos, starting with Paul and me. Stories are caught up with, gaps are filled in, children and partners are mentioned, and two pints of Robinsons apiece are soon drunk. Canada and Mexico are squared off against York and, well, York. Food is eaten.
After that the others start to arrive. For some reason, we all look different than we did in the early 1970s. It’s fair to say that hair gone missing is a theme. Someone who hasn’t seen me since the crazy afro days says: “Hell, that’s a pretty radical change in hairstyle.”
And, yes, we look older because we are. But once the stories start, the years dissolve and everyone seems the same again; different but the same.
We spend most of the evening outside, sweltering as the longest day sweats it out. Names forgotten are summoned from the past. That’s the thing about a group: you all remember different things, and remember them differently. Most of us remember the first Knebworth Festival in 1974 (Van Morrison, the Allman Brothers, the Doobie Brothers…) and a few of us recall seeing John Martyn at Salford University around then, too.
Less pleasure is summoned by thoughts of the rain and cold of the Buxton Festival – “Electric Light Orchestra,” someone offers with a shudder. “Steppenwolf,” I say. “Didn’t your dad drive us there?” says someone else. I’d quite forgotten that.
More beers are drunk and I am teased for sticking to four pints – around twice my comfortable level, but the night is hot. We leave the pub at 11.30pm, five hours after I arrived with Paul
One of the old gang – unmet in decades – is putting me up for the night and a taxi navigates the half-remembered route, and the hot sludge of the longest hottest day. I go to bed full of beer and memories, but sleep proves elusive, so I read for the best part of an hour, then sleep from 1am to 6.30am – not bad for a part-time insomniac.
Heading home, I drive past the old school – gone now in name – but don’t go up the old cul-de-sac again. Instead I point the car through the sclerotic south Manchester traffic and return to a more important house: the one in York where I live now. But it was good to step back for a night.