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Monday, 16 August 2010

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

We went to a birthday party yesterday afternoon. We don't usually do birthdays, but this was special. It was the 89th one of Alan who I'd first met 34 years ago. I hadn't seen him for more than 20 years, but met up with him again last October at my ex-wife's 60th birthday. (Yes it is possible, just, to remain on good terms with one's ex.).

It was a lovely afternoon and when we arrived at my ex's house, birthday boy was already there with his son, my ex wife and her girl friend. While we were being introduced to Alan's sister another couple arrived. Tony was 88 and his partner was in her mid 70's.

The Sancerre had already been seriously depleted and another had to be retrieved from the ice tub, in which, cooling off at a leisurely pace were five bottles of champagne and a couple of bottles of Cava. As Tony and I were handed a couple of glasses we chatted. I discovered he'd been at Cambridge just after the war having fought his way up through Italy with his South African unit. After Cambridge and a law degree he served his pupillage in the Middle Temple, in the chambers of Quintin Hogg, a well known Tory Grandee and Minister.

Tony went back to South Africa in 1949 - he said that whilst it was great fun in London, the general gloom and austerity of England after the war got to him. He had a successful business career, had survived two wives and was on the annual 3 months tour of Europe with his partner.  Tony and Alan went back donkey's years.

My wife took an immediate shine to Alan, but more especially to his sister - who at 83 was still giving piano lessons to two students who had been with her for more than 20 years. Either they were incredibly slow learners or, more likely, they just loved being taught by her. Until a few years back she had 40 students on her books.

She and Alan were also South African. Alan had had a successful career in South Africa, went to the States in the early 60's and then to England in the early 70's when he was recruited to a new hospital as a specialist surgeon. I first met him through my first wife who is also South African whose parents were good friends of Alan and his first wife. When my ex wife came to England in the early 1970's she again met up with them and would spend much time at their home in Hampstead.

Alan's first wife died of cancer in 1978 or 79. I remember visiting her at home shortly before she died. We kept in touch with Alan and his two kids and he married again in the early 1980's. Until last October that was the last time I had seen him. His second wife, Anne, had only recently died (of cancer) even though she was considerably younger than Alan. And now he was celebrating his 89th birthday. A recent fall had broken his leg and he wasn't walking as well as he had been but other than that he was the man I met all those years ago.

There was a huge amount of gallows humour at the table. People in their middle and late 80's can get away with it. There was also much reminiscing about old friends and adventures over 50 years ago as well as the consumption of a lot of champagne. We had a birthday cake with three candles(?) strawberries, meringues and cream and then more "shampoo" as they called it.

Sitting there in the sun, shaded by an umbrella, in a garden in Hackney, the years fell away from a group of old friends and once again they were in their 30s beside a pool in a Johannesburg garden talking about their plans and achievements. Their partners in those distant days of the 1950's are long dead as is the South Africa they knew.

In such circumstances one wouldn't begrudge them a few regrets or wistful sighs. But none of it. They've all still got plans. It's just that the time horizons are slightly shorter.

Happy birthday Alan. May you have many more.


The Sagittarian said...

Great re-telling, Barry. 89 is a good innings, may he have many more. I'm still deciding if I can be bothered trying to remain on good terms with my ex since he shot thru with one of my best mates...

Barry Coidan said...

First time seen "shot thru" used in that context.

It must be a southern hemisphere thing, my ex wife's dad left his first wife for her best friend.

G said...

My ex is my best friend. It's more than possible.