We hadn't met since we were in boarding school together more than half a century ago. The meeting was a terrible shock because I had arranged to meet someone to whom I had said goodbye when we were both 16 and had hair. Instead, I shook hands with a man with more weight than I expected in someone who had been an outstanding athlete in his youth, though at least he still had hair. His wife died a few years ago and perhaps he was less careful about looking after himself.
What he thought of this bald, squinting wreck in front of him I can only imagine, but we each told the other how well he looked and how kind the years had been.
The truth was that the meeting was a shock to both of us, a reminder of mortality, more salutary than a sermon on death and judgment. Any doctor would have said that we each needed something for the shock, so we sat on high stools and called for help and decided that there would be no more lies. Instead we began a duet of remembering.
My friend has a family of seven and had trouble remembering the names and ages of some of his grandchildren. I don't have as many proper nouns to recall but had great difficulty with simple common nouns like shower, handball and quadrangle. But when we began talking about things that happened all those years ago, neither of us missed a beat.
We were 13 when we first met. Barely out of short trousers, we were easy pickings for those a year or more ahead of us. The word bullying had not yet entered common usage: it was accepted that younger kids could be pushed around by older ones, that the seats in the quadrangle were for seniors, that you could only use the handball alleys when they were not needed by a senior. How the word shower arose, I will come to in a moment.
There was an unwritten rule that seniors had priority at table tennis and we recalled how one of our group dealt with that situation. Easily the smallest in the whole school, he was a member of a large inner-city family and obviously used to taking care of himself. Ahead 14-13 and on serve, he was told by one of his elders to hand over the bat and leave the table. The argument which followed introduced us country kids to a number of words foreign to us and ended when the little lad used his bat to draw a great deal of blood from the head of the older boy. In fairness to all sides, the matter went no further than advice from the dean to be careful when walking under a particular overhanging branch, but the juniors had free run on the table tennis tables from then on. The branch, by the way, was a good two metres off the ground. Same again, thanks mate.
Then we recalled the talk we got from the head on the facts of life. We felt sure it was harmless and full of euphemism, but there was one part we both remembered well. It referred to proper hygiene and what to do during our weekly shower; the details are irrelevant beyond saying that it was a piece of advice that would not have had relevance for any of our number who were descended from Abraham. From then on, the expression ''the top bit'' found a meaning that the head never intended. You must remember that this was in the days when parents took seriously their responsibility to never speak about sex with their children - that was what friends were for.
We spoke about our teachers and since we both spent our working lives in that honourable profession, we agreed that they would never have survived in the modern era of aims and objectives and student rights.
One of them had the habit of lighting up his pipe in class; another could not be heard above our constant talking; the English teacher sat at his desk and never got up. They were remembered for unpredictable humours and a tendency to shout.
And so the talk went on. It was all very pleasant and with much laughter but there was a sadness too. For there were many of those we recalled who could not laugh with us. We toasted as many as we could remember and if there was a danger that we might cry on each other's shoulder, the blame did not lie with the barman alone. Fifty-six years is a long time.