Work took me to St Albans today. I haven't been there for years, and, as is normal when visiting a place that doesn't fit the everyday routine, I found myself remembering previous trips.
One trip in particular, actually. A retirement party when I would have been about 22.
When I left University and came to The Big Smoke, I worked for one of the big London estates. The team of people managing our 200 acre patch of London was larger than the company I'm working for now, but it was a warm and cozy, old fashioned, family-based place to work.
One of our team members had joined the company fresh from University himself in the mid-fifties and worked there, man and boy. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the estate in the 44 years he'd worked there. "Have you done anything on 30 Acacia Avenue?" He would remove his glasses and draw on one arm, as if he were smoking a pipe, then say in a slow, considered way, "30 Bourne Street. Yes, I think so. Come in, Tooting, come in and sit down. Would you like a biscuit? Now then. Number 30. Yes I remember. I dealt with that building in 1964. The tenant was a Mrs Jones and her husband was a Swiss banker. They had blue wallpaper in the master bedroom, and a cat called Fluffy ..." Shortly after he turned 64 he announced his plan to retire the second he hit 65, and a ripple of panic went around the building. All of that knowledge would be lost, and a lovely man with it.
But it's with some effort that I remember all of this now. During that last year of his working life something happened that means that I will always remember him in a tragic way.
His son was 23 and had just graduated from university. He was taking an extended holiday with his girlfriend travelling around Africa, before coming home to start working for a living. Nothing usual there. In fact, at the time, it was more unusual NOT to do something like that. Mine was a quiet year that year, with my friends being scattered around the world, sending emailed newsletters from time to time.
Whilst in Uganda, my colleague's son joined a group of tourists on an organised tour of Biwindi National Park. The group of ten were all British, American and New Zealanders. Eight of the ten were shot dead by Rwandan rebels. How the other two escaped is anyone's guess. Their cause was protest at Anglo-American support of the Rwandan government; something none of their victims knew much, if anything about. They could have chosen any group of tourists. But they didn't. They chose this one.
I can remember the afternoon when this unfolded with extraordinary clarity. I can remember hearing that British tourists had been shot, then finding out that he had been with the tour company that had been involved, but no-one could find out whether he was in the group in question or not. I remember a helplessness of watching news unfold on the BBC, and not knowing whether it was personal. And I can remember sitting in the office of one of our secretaries when she took the call from her bosses wife, and hearing, in the metallic tones that you hear the other end of the someone else's phone conversation, "oh god, it's him. He's dead. What will we do?"
Later that long, sober afternoon, one of our directors came into the office that I shared with my boss. He looked at me and asked how old I was. I was still 21 then. He continued to look at me, clearly considering whether to speak the words he was thinking. After a long pause, he said, "his life and yours were practically the same. It could have been you instead."
Of course it never could have been. I was far too cowardly to have gone travelling at all, let alone to somewhere so adventurous. But all I could think about that afternoon were my far-flung friends. I desperately wanted to go out, Mother Hen style, and round them all up where they'd be safe. So I didn't reply, but excused myself and sobbed in the ladies toilet for a few minutes and then went back to my desk to email them all, one by one, a little, "thinking of you," note which only half of them ever acknowledged.
So when, at the end of that year, our colleague threw a retirement party at his home in St Albans, with his wife, daughter, and son's girlfriend (one of the miraculous survivors) in attendance, the mood was not one of celebration and well wishing, but of sorrow and pity. The mood reflected the fact that some people simply hadn't known what to say to him for so many months that it was a relief not to look at his rapidly-aged face any more. The mood reflected the fact that the thing had been so horrific that no-one had ever really known how to express sympathy without saying something crass. No-one asked how he could bear not to fill his days with work. No-one asked whether, when he looked at the girlfriend, he resented her life. No-one asked what they talked about when they were alone together. It was ghastly.
So in St Albans this morning, I found myself searching the faces of men in the crowd, wondering whether he was still living there. Then, after a time, I started to wonder, in a slightly macabre manner, if he was still living at all.
I'd not thought about him for years. My life has changed immeasurably since then, and my years at that company seem so removed from anything I'm doing now that I have to think hard to dredge up any memories of the place at all. So it was a surprise to think about that day so clearly today, and a surprise to associate the town so strongly with it. And a suprise to realise that, 12 years on, the memory of what happened to someone I never even met makes me grateful that all my friends came home to their office jobs and mortgages, and most importantly that, whilst it could have been me instead, it wasn't.
Conversations with a self
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