Yesterday afternoon found me in Sussex, paddling in the sea, finishing off a 99 Whippy ice cream with a very dear childhood friend I had lost touch with a number of years earlier. We’ve recently found each other through Facebook, and since then we’ve chatted online, written on each others walls, and exchanged messages. But yesterday was the first time we’d actually seen each other in the flesh for an unbelievable 20 years!
Craig and his wife are now not only parents to three grown up children, but also have two grandchildren as well.“How on earth did all that happen?” I asked as we effortlessly slotted back in to the warm and open friendship we had always shared. "I think it's called breeding" he replied, giggling and teasing me just as he used to in the olden days.
I first met Craig with my friend Tanya, back at the beginning of 1981. I remember the date because it was the first time that she’d come over from her home in Australia. Tanya, you’ll remember, had been my best friend since we met on the first day of my new school when we were just nine years old. Both of us were naturally talented artists, and before our first encounter we had always been used to being top of our respective classes during art lessons.
So on that first day at school, when the rather prim Miss Smythe announced we were to have an art lesson in the afternoon, I felt quietly confident that I could win some approval from my new classmates. I remember painting a marine scene, including ships, seagulls and the most tranquil of seas. It wasn’t my best, but I decided I was still getting a pretty good result and it was certainly better than the rest of my table. So I breathed a sigh of relief. I was alright then – my art would still be able to carry me through.
As I started to relax and allow a smile to work its way across my face, Tessa, a very tall gangly girl with over-sized gapped teeth and long wiry hair worn in long plaits to cover her ears, put her paintbrush down and tutted at me. “Tanya won’t be happy about that!” she’d said, causing me to prick up my ears and stop in my tracks. “Why not? And who’s Tanya?” I’d responded as Tessa looked past my shoulder and nodded.
I turned around to see a strikingly beautiful girl edging her way towards me. Her long brown hair was tied back in a high ponytail, accentuating her huge brown eyes and delicate features. She held her paintbrush in her hand and her head cocked to one side, one eyebrow raised as she looked me up and down. Circling each other like sharks, she finally moved to face me and gave a sideways glance at my work. “Hmmm…” she sniffed “It’s alright I suppose” her polite smile flashing a set of perfect white teeth before she flouced back to her table, flicking her ponytail and straightening her shirt on the way.
This was all being watched, of course, by the rest of the class. So I put down my paintbrush and went straight over to her table. “Let’s have a look at yours then!” I’d said, wearing my best smile. I’ve always found directness is the best approach, even when I’ve been scared. Her painting was very good – I was impressed, this could be fun! The fact was that I’d never found anyone who could match or challenge me at art, so that in fact I often felt embarrassed by my natural talent and would sometimes deliberately paint to less than my ability. So I saw that Tanya’s unquestionable skill could be a good thing for both of us. “It’s really good!” I’d said. And then added “Do you know I’ve already been learning French for a whole year – we started earlier in my old school” before giving another smile and turning back to my table.
That seemed to do the job. She smiled, nodded, and this was to mark the beginning of a deep friendship that survived her family’s emigration to Australia some five years later and eventually spanned nearly three decades until her untimely death.
So it was in January 1981 that she was staying with me in Sussex. We were both 16 by then, and were beginning to make the move from girls to women. Well, in truth, I was struggling with the transition while Tanya had embraced it wholeheartedly. She was already sophisticated and ladylike, while I on the other hand, was much more of a tomboy and certainly wasn’t very interested in boys! “Oh come on!”she’d implored one Saturday morning “You can’t look like a scarecrow all your life! Make yourself look pretty and let’s go out!”
Well, Craig was one of those boys. Kind, genuine and amused rather than offended by our teasing, we all instantly became friends and started to hang around together at every opportunity. We'd regularly meet up in our local pub, The Castle, where we'd sup on orange juice, learn how to play pool and jostle for attention and acceptance among our peer group.
Just three short weeks after that first meeting my mum died very suddenly. I was left an orphan and my life was changed for ever. We had to move out of our home to live with our guardians. Out of our home and 11 miles away from the thriving village community I'd only just discovered. And so Craig became part of the rich and colourful gang of friends who supported me and helped me through the next few difficult days, weeks, months and also years.
So, you see, we've seen a lot together, Craig and I. We decided early on that we should always stay as brother and sister, and to never ever be anything more than that, so that we could preserve our friendship and make it last for ever. And so that's the way it was. We could confide in each other about anything at all, and would spend hours discussing life and philosophy. His family also accepted me with open arms and, a couple of years in to our friendship, when my little sister and I were suddenly thrown out of our guardians' house less than a month after my eighteenth birthday, Craig was one of those who offered to have me come and live with his family.
The years went by, and life, careers and marriage got in the way, and slowly, somehow, he and I drifted apart. There was no specific occasion. Nothing happened. It was just one of those things that perhaps we took for granted. Something that can then fade away so slowly you don't even notice until it's too late.
So to find each other again after so many years was just magical! Making up for lost time, and remembering the innocent fun times we used to enjoy all those years ago, our first call was to hire a motorised pedalo at the seaside boating pond. Roaring with laughter as we scudded across the water I felt the years, fears and tears all melt away. The simple harmless joy of two adults behaving like children took centre stage from the unwelcome stresses and strains that have been my constant companions of late.
And so it was that we found ourselves, two middle aged people, fully clothed and up to our knees in the sea, eating our ice creams and engaged in animated conversations liberally peppered with guffaws and snorting laughter - much to the amusement of the swarm of children who continued to splash about and climb the rocks around us.
We shared our stories, our ups as well as our downs, and marveled at the similarly parallel paths our lives had taken. I'd forgotten just how much I used to enjoy Craig's company, and how I'd always appreciated his straight forward approach and simple words of wisdom. Experience has taught us both many things, and at certain times could have crippled either of us it would seem - yet the essence of who we were back then has remained. I choose to explore things deeply and in my own way so I can learn and develop through difficult situations. Craig puts it this way:
"Life's like this I reckon. You can wake up in the morning, see a beautiful flower and smile. Then spend the next few hours analysing how it came to be, and thereby ruin the rest of your day. It's not difficult is it? I find moments when I can sit back, enjoy the moment, and say to myself - 'it doesn't get much better than this!' - and that's all there is to it!"
On the way back, we decided to drop in to The Castle, the pub we all used to frequent during our teenage years and early twenties. We sat in the back garden nursing our drinks, and once again sharing memories and updating each other with stories about the people we used to know back then. We covered happy, sad, uplifting, poignant and downright tragic accounts of what had happened to members of the old village gang.
"Like I said, life's pretty straightforward really" said Craig, after an amusing but sad anecdote about one of the lads who at the time we all thought was the coolest dude in the area "I know that success isn't about the money anymore. I don't know exactly what it IS about, but I do know it's about feeling happy"
We left the pub and as we got back into his van Craig suddenly made an announcement.
"Mel, you KNOW you're on the right track and everyone else knows you CAN do this - the only person left to properly convince is yourself"
I smiled, tears of gratitude pricking my eyes as I squeezed my old friend's shoulder while we drove away from The Castle.
"Hey, you know what?" I thought to myself "It doesn't get much better than this!"