Catching Up with an Old Friend

This post is the result of a request, so is a bit different than my usual Church or techie postings, and is being posted as a result of the friend we spent New Year with in Plymouth asking why I hadn’t mentioned them on the blog, my answer was that I’d half written something, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d actually post it as I wasn’t sure how they’d react – their answer was that they didn’t mind if I did, so here goes…

The trips down to Plymouth this Christmas were probably one of the most nerve wracking experiences of my life. I’m one of these people who values consistency, and really don’t like change – however silly it may seem with hindsight, it did feel a bit like a step into the unknown, and at the very least a bit of a gamble!

St Marys Rickmansworth Sponsored Psalm Sing

First off, a little bit of history. Much like many people in church choirs, I started young, and sang in the choir at St Mary’s Church in Rickmansworth – you can see a couple of pictures of my time there on Flickr. Anyway much as with St James now, there was a continual need to replace choristers as voices broke and the young people moved on, so periodically we would recruit new young people from the church school. One such recruitment drive in September 1985 brought in two sisters, Gina and Susan, recently moved to Rickmansworth from Chesham. What I didn’t know until a few days later when I was introduced to her at the school Junior Choir practice was that there was a third sister, Tracey, who hadn’t initially joined the church choir. I can’t really remember much of the conversation, but the upshot of it was that after we’d met at school she joined the church choir too.

I won’t go much into details, but myself and Tracey started dating. We had our ups and downs, and at one point split up totally, only to get back together again a couple of weeks later. Most of our time together was at church things or at school, rather than dates as such – and I think we probably walked most paths around Rickmansworth at one time or another. After about eighteen months or so we were starting to get pretty serious about each other.

Then in summer 1987, it all came to a crashing halt as Tracey’s father walked out on the rest of the family. This left her Mum with pretty well no options, and nowhere to live – so her Mum did what probably most people would do and went home, deciding to go back to her parents in Plymouth, taking Tracey and her sisters along too. It all happened so quickly, indeed I can barely remember anything about it. We didn’t really split as such, it just sort of ended. Tracey sent a letter to me shortly after they moved, which I replied to, but nothing came back. I wrote again, still no reply. Then there was just one really awkward phone call and Tracey apparently saw me and recognised me when I was on Going Live a year or so later, but that was it. I guess I wondered what had happened to her, wondered whether we’d ever meet again, that sort of thing, but largely I just got on with my life.

Roll on twenty years, and we now have the internet, and perhaps one of the best known of the UK sites, Friends Reunited. I’ve been a member on the site on and off since it started, and I’ve caught up with various old school friends through the site. There is a feature that allows the site to keep a watch for particular people, and Tracey was one of the people I added to the list back when I set up my account. I’d largely forgotten about that until back in October, I got an alert from the site that Tracey had created a profile.

This was one of these odd moments when you really don’t know how you feel. On the one hand I was now happily married and settled, and I certainly didn’t want to jeopardise any of that, but equally with the way things had ended with Tracey I had a whole load of unanswered questions. Thankfully I am truly blessed in having Beth, who whilst she could have thrown a fit, didn’t do so, instead being exactly the opposite, and a massive support. So after a couple of days I sent a short ice breaker e-mail and waited.

I’d largely given up hope of getting a reply when a couple of weeks later I got an e-mail back from Tracey.

I’m not quite sure what I expected – usually peoples lives have been a bit of a mixed bag, some of the things they wanted to do at school they’ve done, others they haven’t – but in general things are pretty positive. Tracey’s e-mail was very much a shock in some of what it said.

One of Tracey’s talents was her music. Alongside singing in the choirs she played several instruments, was a member of a marching band, and being very much of a perfectionist, produced marks in her music exams that were way better than anything I ever got. She’d come to Rickmansworth School after her Mum had basically made a real pain of herself at the local council – ultimately despite there not being a place, the council had eventually let her in, one of the main reasons for her mother fighting to get her in being the music department at the school. The one thing that Tracey really wanted to be was something involved in music, probably a music teacher.

When she went down to Plymouth, that just hadn’t happened. The school she had ended up in, the people in the music department said they couldn’t take her through the grade five clarinet exam she had been working for up in Rickmansworth, so she’d gone through the school doing music where she could and ended up initially working in offices, and was now working as a nursery nurse. She’d joined another marching band in Plymouth and had taught some of the junior players to play there, but certainly wasn’t doing what she had wanted before. As an aside, for part of her GCSE English exam, where she had to debate a point with an examiner, she chose to discuss the abysmal state of music teaching in Plymouth. She’d also been the person who had sung the Once in Royal solo at the school carol services, and had even been up to Exeter Cathedral to sing, but from my point of view it was just massively depressing comparing it with the multitude of opportunities musically I’d had at Rickmansworth.

What was more of a shock from my point of view was the rest of her life. I’m not going to go into details, suffice to say she’d been through a number of failed, sometimes violent relationships, and was currently in what was classed as emergency housing being a single parent with two children aged 9 and 12. She was getting by, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

Maybe that sounds a bit odd that it would be shocking, but I guess I have a positive outlook on life, and that tends to reflect on how I thought how her life would have gone, and I probably thought of Tracey more along the lines of happily married rather than the reality. Also hearing some of the things she’d been through it was stuff that I just couldn’t conceive of doing to a partner.

Don’t get me wrong though, she’d be the first to say that it hasn’t been all bad – but I guess from my point of view comparing what she’d wanted with what had happened it was very different.

Anyway, after a couple of e-mails back and forth I added her MSN user to my friend list, and we started talking online, and started answering each others questions about what had happened over the past twenty years, and especially what had happened when they left and went to Plymouth. What is interesting to note is that she hadn’t received any letters from me – from her point of view she had written immediately she’d arrived, and then had heard nothing until the awkward phone call. Then much the same as me she had got on with life. I guess it will always remain a bit of a mystery quite what happened, there are some suspicions maybe, but it’s all somewhat academic now.

I’m not quite sure who actually suggested it first, but we pretty soon decided that her and the children and myself and Beth should meet up, and as Christmas was coming up, and we all had time off, that seemed like a good time. Eventually we settled on meeting for New Years as from our point of view we had few commitments at Church at that time.

The real worry from my point of view was actually what it was going to be like meeting again – it’s all very well chatting online, but it would be different face-to-face. Beth was going to be there as support, but still it would be a nerve wracking experience. Along with the wondering what had happened to her, and what it would be like if we met again, it was all questions – what would it be like?

As a result I decided we needed to do it in stages. Initially the idea was that we’d just drive down to Plymouth and have a look around, but once we got to Plymouth I thought that we couldn’t really come all that way and not tell Tracey that we had been and at least give her the opportunity to meet up if she wanted. I have to say that I chickened out at this point, and with us parked up in a car park about half a mile from her house, Beth phoned Tracey rather than me. After the initial shock, plus telling me off for having surprised her Tracey invited us over and we drove to the house.

We’d already seen pictures of each other, and established that we looked largely the same as we did before. Talking online we seemed to have much the same outlook as before. I think the one slightly difficult thing is the difference in height. When we had last seen each other we were about the same height, but she is still 5ft 2 as she was when I last saw her. I on the other hand had subsequently had my growth spurt and am now 6ft 1 – so it was perhaps a bit of a surprise when I walked in.

Having said that, after all the concern, actually meeting was fine. She and Beth got on well too, which was another concern on my part, and for me it was just like chatting to a friend – Tracey has described it as being as if not having spoken for twenty years just didn’t happen. On that night we sat and chatted for a while whilst we waited for Tracey’s daughter to come home, and then just went out for a meal. After that it was back on the motorway to get home – the ice having been broken.

With hindsight, that initial meeting made it an awful lot easier when it came to our trip over the past couple of days. So this last Sunday we headed down to Plymouth, checked into a hotel, and got to know Tracey and her children a lot better.

On the Sunday night when we arrived, the vote was to go ice skating. It’s worth saying at this point that it seems the Canadian definition of “not being very goodâ€? is a bit different from the British definition, as Beth was literally running rings around everybody despite her protestations about not being very good. During the day on New Years Eve we took them off Geocaching, up near Tavistock, and then in the evening Beth and myself had dinner at the hotel, and then headed back over to Tracey’s house where we saw in the New Year accompanied by the sounds of the ship horns in the nearby Devonport Dockyard. On New Years Day we walked down along under the Tamar bridges, and then they took us on a tour around the city centre and up onto Plymouth Hoe.

Beth and Tracey

What is quite interesting is that in many ways Beth and Tracey are remarkably similar – indeed at times they even seem to think the same way – particularly when it comes to teasing me it has to be said. There were a couple of occasions over both trips down that I didn’t know who to glare at first! We also both get on with Tracey’s children really well – indeed Beth and Becky get on like a house on fire, with Beth teaching Becky how to line dance on New Years Eve, and us being invited to one of her dance shows in the summer. Tracey’s son was somewhat at a disadvantage in that we didn’t meet him on our first trip down, but he did seem to enjoy the Geocaching, and also being introduced to Fluxx, which seems to have become our New Year’s party game of choice now.

Whilst saying that you saw in the New Year with your wife and your ex-girlfriend does sound like a lot of peoples worst nightmare, it was anything but. Although it was a nerve wracking experience meeting up first of all, I certainly feel it was worth the effort, it was a bit of a gamble in some ways, but I’m glad that I made the jump and contacted Tracey. In Beth’s case she now has a new friend, and I’ve renewed an old friendship. Of course we do have that little bit of shared history, which did maybe make everything a bit more difficult, but ultimately what Beth and I have got now are some really good friends – indeed Tracey’s children are already asking when we’re going to be coming back again…

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