Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Dreaming of an island in the sun

I arrived in Cyprus in mid-1982 as a freshly-minted lance-corporal. My trade no longer exists, having been subsumed into something else a couple of decades ago. Back then, however, we all sat together, doing exactly the same work. The nature of the work no longer matters, but we were not just listening to the radio.

An aside: after the usual basic training – just like every army movie you’ve ever seen, think Full Metal Jacket, think Stripes – and a brief basic signalling skills course, I’d then had to pass out as another trade, before starting to learn my real job. It had meant months of learning to type, among other things. Then, yet more training, which amounted to sitting in a classroom and listening. Altogether, a couple of years as a trainee, then posted out with one’s first tape on the arm. It meant a little more pay and not having to share a room.

Anyway, there we all were. In our squadron, we were all specialists in different areas and, commensurate with normal activity/demand, worked shifts but not around the clock; there just wasn’t enough to do through the night to justify being there. We had, in total, maybe 30 or so working at the coalface. Alongside us, barely a handful working on other tasks. Next door, another couple of dozen folks juggling bits of paper.

Our less-qualified paper-juggling colleagues would get to travel the world. Apart from Cyprus, they could expect to see Germany, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Belize and one or two other interesting spots, as well as a couple of UK postings. There wasn’t much demand for our specialisation in any of those places, so we could expect to spend our entire careers in that tiny squadron. The only breaks would be UK postings for upgrading courses, or being employed as instructors, or rare secondments to mainly civilian institutions.

The probably obvious consequence was that we were a tightly-knit bunch, especially the single folks. There were no more than two dozen unmarried chaps in the squadron at any one time, usually fewer, all occupying single barrack rooms on the middle floor of an accommodation block. We lived together, worked together, played together, sported together, touristed together, drank together and so forth. The ladies, probably a smaller number, had their own accommodation but, otherwise, also lived, worked etc. Apart from anything else, as we couldn’t talk about work with anybody from outside the squadron – in theory, we shouldn’t have discussed it even between ourselves outside of the workplace – we tended not to mix hugely with folks from other jobs.

There were many outside distractions, of course, where one did mingle freely with outsiders, including people from other services, civilian employees and families, but work was never, ever mentioned. I belonged to a theatre group and a yacht club, for example, while others were avid members of everything from the saddle club to the golf club. At the end of the day, though, we always returned to our insular, not quite incestuous, community.

I was only part of the gang for less than three years; the record, as far as we know, is held by my mate Andy. He rose through every rank from private to major, a journey involving six promotions, then a commissioning (effectively, two promotions in one), then a further two promotions. It took him 30 years of service, the great majority of it spent with the squadron. Most, however, served between six and ten years in our little unit. So few were ever there at any one time, with the turnover being equally low, that we believe no more than 300 to 400 people can have served with the squadron, in total, during the last 40 years or so.

The years passed and one by one, for a broad range of reasons, we all left. As we did, in the finest service traditions, we all lost contact with each other. The exceptions were those who left and, joining the same civilian organisation, continued to see each other every weekday. All told, there are probably 40 or 50 former inmates living within a couple of miles of each other in the English countryside. So near, yet so far... One or two socialised together, but there was no serious talk of reuniting.

Then, Facebook was born and gradually, individually, many of the old gang joined. After a while, Tony joined; I remember him as a fresh-faced young officer on his first posting after qualifying. He rose to command the squadron during 20+ years of service. On discovering Facebook, he created a group for “all who were there during the golden years, especially early 80s to late 90s.” Such is the nature of Facebook that the initial slow trickle of new members was soon a stream and, before much longer, a torrent. Today, there are in excess of 200 members.

One day, three or four near-neighbours met for a beer. We could have a reunion, they said. They thought about it, realised that as many as three or four dozen, all living within a few miles, might attend. So, they decided, this is worth doing and, correction, this is no mere possibility, but a mandatory event: we definitely should have a reunion. Andy took charge and booked an upstairs room in a pub just around the corner from his home. Next step? Advertise it on Facebook, obviously: reunion to be held between noon and midnight on Saturday, 20th April, arrive and leave at your own chosen times. That was way back in October.

For those with an interest in bargains and, in consequence, subscribed to the right newsletters, the initial announcement coincided with interesting, relevant news from elsewhere. A national budget hotel chain had a new special offer: rock-bottom rates, but limited supply. Within minutes of seeing the date confirmed, I’d booked a double room in the nearest place for both Friday and Saturday nights: total price, £30. Checking back within an hour, so that I could steer others towards the same place, I found that the lowest available nightly room rate had already risen to £23; by the day in question, anyone turning up in search of a room was being charged £54 per night.

Time oozed relentlessly onwards. Christmas came and, eventually, went. So, too, did Easter. Suddenly, the big week had dawned. By now, Andy was more than slightly nervous about the potential for disaster – meaning a concern about too many trying to cram into the premises, rather than too few attendees to justify the effort. As many as 30 or 40 old comrades, had they predicted? In fact, those who had used Facebook to express their intention to attend now numbered well over 100; a few more, less intimate with social media, had made their plans known via third parties.

Realising that more than a few of the gang planned to arrive during Friday, to ensure being in situ for Saturday’s noon commencement, Andy announced a rehearsal. Actually, I think that he called it a ‘dry run,’ which would position it among the least appropriately described events in human history. Those present in town by Friday evening were encouraged to pop into Andy’s local pub for a preliminary assembling and, perhaps, a glass of something convivial.

Let us gloss swiftly over the stress of the week leading up to the event...

I arrived at the motel – it really didn’t deserve any more grand a description than that – to find that Andy and Bob had already been there, leaving a message to that effect. I sent a text to both: “The bald eagle has landed...” By the time that I was examining one of the most basic rooms in which I’ve ever stayed, my phone was announcing a reply: the boys were on their way and would meet me in the bar of the chain restaurant adjoining the hotel. I freshened up, changed and went in search of them. Two minutes later, I was with Andy, Bob, Paul – none of whom I’d seen in over 28 years – and Don, with whom I’d had a small beer last year. I’ve no doubt that I was already grinning like an idiot, and the party had yet to start. The five of us folded ourselves somehow – did I mention that Paul is at least 6’4” and somewhere north of 250 pounds? – into Andy’s convertible and headed for the pub, a ten-minute drive away.

I bought the first round of drinks, reasoning accurately that five pints of beer would probably constitute the evening’s cheapest round. Before very long, Simon arrived. And Lenny. And Martin. And Gary. And Craig. And more. And I’d seen none of them since leaving Cyprus in ’84. What a very, very strange evening it was, at once both hopelessly surreal and life-affirmingly real. As I kept saying to each new, “How are you?” enquiry, I felt more alive than I had felt in years, if not decades. I’ve not been a regular drinker in at least 20 years. Before that evening, I doubt that I’d had a total of three beers during 2013. I had quaffed precisely 4½ pints of fine English beer by closing time, more than I’d had in a single session since, probably, the late 1980s. I should have been on my back but, weirdly, it seemed to have no effect. This may have been merely a ‘dry run’, but it had attracted at least a couple of dozen old comrades. And, so, to the hotel and my deliciously empty, peaceful bed.

I strolled thirty or so yards the following morning and kick-started the day with several pieces of the Colonel’s finest fried chicken. Eventually, Paul and Don managed to rouse themselves and I waited while they breakfasted in the chain restaurant – although, by then, it was almost lunchtime. Then, into a cab and off to the venue, just down the road. A signing-in book had been provided, together with a roll of sticky paper labels and a black marker pen. Later, examining the book, Andy realised that some folks had not spotted it – there were no entries for some of the folks he’d seen during the festivities... But, 153 people had recorded their attendance. Paul might have expected to have travelled the farthest to attend, having flown in from Puerto Rico specifically for the reunion, but he’d have been wrong. Eric had clocked up more miles with his journey from... South Africa, I think, a trip of 7,000 miles or so. Yes, that’s what the squadron means to us!

Anyway, having to wait for Paul and Don to fill their faces meant that, despite my firm intentions, the event was already in full swing by the time that we arrived. Although two-thirds of the folks, at least, were strangers to me, there were still dozens of old friends who came and went during one of the fastest-passing events of my life. Dave, Andy, Mark, Paddy, Derry and Adrienne, Steve, Ian and Gill, another Gill, Nancy, Mick, Nicola, another Mark – who, between working shifts, rode a 400-mile round-trip to spend a couple of hours only being able to drink coffee – Tony, Lawrie and Sue, Tracy, Myra, the aforementioned Paul, Don, Andy, Bob, Simon, Lenny, Martin, Craig and Gary... and many, many more. During the course of the evening, I received a text from one of the guys who hadn’t been able to attend, another Paul, so I promptly called him – and my phone was then passed around, as various folks berated him for not putting in an appearance.

So, for the better part of 12 hours, what did I do? I drank and talked and, mostly, listened. I felt mildly smug to see how badly the years had treated one or two of the old gang, but reeled in disbelief at rather more of them, who clearly have pictures in their attics. Simon and Gary, in particular, look exactly the same – and I’ve checked, with some old photographs – as they did in 1984. That really shouldn’t be possible. Nancy, who must now be fast approaching 60, if she’s not there already, looked as though she’s yet to hit 40. It’s just not fair!

I may not have been the first to arrive but, when the time came for the staff to lock up, I was certainly the last to leave. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t know how much I had to drink. Curiously – and highly dangerously – it again seemed to have no impact on me. Other people were falling over and bumping into things, at least one of the chaps was rather ill in the car-park, most were at least slurring their words, but I appeared strangely unaffected. Dangerously? Yes, because I’d quite forgotten just how much I like to drink real beer and it’s a deliberately lost habit that I simply can’t afford to re-acquire, either financially or in terms of my waistline.

And then it was over and time to head back to Croydon. The next one, apparently, won’t be for another couple of years, to allow everybody time to save their pennies: it’s pencilled-in for Cyprus. I won’t be going, barring a monumental change of circumstances. Just the cost implications of attending – and the challenges are not all financial – are disheartening. It was tough enough affording 48 hours away, within driving distance, let alone jetting off to the Mediterranean for a half-week. Damn, damn, damn.

But, heck, it was fun. Except... Except...

Where did the last three decades go?

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