Updated: Jul 15
This weekend was one of my oldest school friend's birthdays, he is significantly older than me and has now reached yet another milestone age. Still surprised that he wanted to hang around with me as a teenager when I was more than ten years younger than him?
Yep, Mark Franklin today reached the grand old age of 50. He made reference in his speech that when we were kids we looked at people aged 30 and thought, 'wow, they're pushing it', then those aged 40 'were ancient' and 50 well that was almost a dinosaur age and he never thought he'd get there. Lucky for Mark he's young at heart. He works very hard but you'd think with all of his Spanish facebook posts, you'd think he was semi-retired. I'm sure he's had some work done too? Dazzling!
I've been lucky enough to be Mark's friend for coming up 39 years, been his Best Man and occasionally I answer his phone calls, or I make him wait a week or two after he's left a message. He's an impressive man but then so too are quite a few of 'the lads' who knocked around together as the Class of '86 (oh, my Lord, that is another century, an age away). All of my close friends are achievers, I'm lucky they include me in their lives.
Anyhow, before I dash off topic and ooze tired sentimentality, this weekend was a Road Trip for the children and I. It must be boring sitting in the back of this old geezer's car? However, the only one in the car not bored is me. My kids are hilarious and a constant source of laughter, smiles and happiness. It's a bit of a 'schlepp' down South, a long late night journey. Our eldest was the DJ in the car; he's so into his tech now. He digitised the car, set i-phone up, organised the music on offer and all of the general in-car entertainment was sorted. We also enjoyed old-fashioned games of Eye-Spy and Simon Says, usually we tell stories too, or play Spot the Eddie. We happened upon some 'live' Bruce Springsteen, which I was allowed to listen to and after enjoying this music raw and uncut, my son, thought that I might enjoy listening to some more autistic music. Autistic? Yes, autistic, just like Ed Sheeran. Oh, you mean, acoustic ...
We'd been on the road for about an hour or so and our daughter excitedly pointed out of the car, 'look that's Willy Wonka's factory.' 'Really', was the giggling, incredulous response. 'Yes, it's huge it's where Willy Wonka makes all of his chocolate.' I then twisted her melon, 'just think of how many Oompah, Loompahs live in there.' Mission accomplished 'Oh, wow, yes, there could be hundreds and hundreds and thousands in there'. Yes, there could be, except the 'factory' is Ferrybridge Power Station which instead of being the looky-likey for Willy Wonka's chocolate factory will soon be a pile of rubble. Oh, what am I going to tell her then? Think I might need to find a different route down South.
The daughter's enthusiasm was infectious, play fight in the back of the car ensued, maybe you two need to calm down? You're a bit energetic aren't you? 'What's energetic mean' I asked? The daughter replied, 'it's a bit like, bit like, er, like, like climbing monkeys.' Never a more fitting description.
We arrived at our inn late on Friday night. Driving along the M25, the children had dropped off, so the music was mine (on low) and I was alone, trying to finish off and bring together all of the ideas for the speech to celebrate Mark's birthday. There were quite a few memories I'd wanted to share and been toying with what to say for over a week. The material I'd been furnished with was privileged; side-splitting, insider information by his three daughters (who separately and collectively are intelligent and hilarious, bouncing memories from one to the other like the lightest beach ball within a small box room), but I had struggled with how to weave it together so that the chat felt special, comfortable and befitting the man. The weirdest thoughts pop up at the most opportune moments; I remembered a lunch about a year ago with the children, we had enjoyed a hearty salad with an avocado. At the time our middle son had been learning about growth at school, so we grabbed an old jam jar, stuck cocktail sticks in the stone and dipped the avocado in this glass of water. I tended to this experiment for what seemed like six months, perhaps more. No growth, not a jot, no little root sticking out and the whole exercise seemed pointless. Every week the son asked how the avocado plant was doing? No joy, nothing at all was the standard reply. Almost four months ago, I confessed to the son that growing the avocado was futile and asked him whether we should leave it another week or just bin it. 'Have patience' said the wise seven year old child. We've talked about this moment a couple of times since. It was the best decision, it was an inspired decision, sage advice and a reminder that sometimes, you need to relax and allow things to just happen. The avocado tree is now at least 2 foot high, full of lush green leaves and so far, I've not managed to kill it. Our son, reminds me - often - of his advice. Replaying this story in my head, inspiration struck and I spent the next thirty minutes eagerly driving to our destination with the gestated speech for the birthday, fully formed and apart from actually written down, finally satisfied in this grey matter. After checking in and depositing the children one by one in their beds for the night, I sat lit by a shadowed lamp in the corner of the room, hunched over and hurriedly scribbling down every word that gushed forth from the dam that had burst in my head. At 2am, the waters had subsided and I settled and slumped into a satisfying sleep.
Breakfast at the 'bun fight corral'. It's a self service buffet! Customers should not be fighting over bowls (ran out), glasses (ran out, in a pub, aagh), mugs (ran out), bread for toast (aaggghhh), juices (aaagggghhhhh). I'll never understand how eateries don't put out, at the beginning of breakfast, sufficient crockery, glassware and cutlery so that customers don't have to bother the staff asking for inane stock items. Firstly, it just irritates customers, secondly it irritates the staff as they are then taken away from what they should have been doing which is welcoming guests, clearing tables and providing some sort of service. Oh, well. After 'breakfast' we had a little ride out and returned mid afternoon, the children were starving. The eaterie redeemed itself. Pizza and help yourself to salad and chips; we fed all four of us for less than £13. The pizza was delicious, the salad well, stock Pizza Hut style it was, simply okay but at least it was salad and fresh. We walked out just as a few lads walked in who appeared to be a little lubricated and keen to oil themselves more. Unnecessarily choice language, which I offered by the way of explanation to the children as 'hooligan behaviour'. What's a hooligan, asked sage child? I tried to explain in the long winded way I do. 'Oh', replied the same 'I thought it was an animal.' Yet again, enough said; out of the mouths of babes.
The promise to the children for the night was to go and enjoy themselves, dance, skid across the floor on their knees, eat cake, eat sweets, be children and be happy. Our daughter and I had even been practicing dancing with her standing on my toes. We'd held hands. When I said we could dance and I'd put my hand on her shoulder, she replied, 'No way, we're not getting married.' I was still hoping for a dance though. Sadly they were all exhausted, the travelling had jiggered them, no amount of sugar could hold back the swarms of dreams and heavy flickers that lingered on their eyelids. I'm glad that on the way though we at least had a family moment as Neil Diamond came on the car's sound system and we were all able to chorus 'bum, bum, bum' to Sweet Caroline.
I miss having my mates on my doorstep, perhaps I long for those days when we all hung around together, we were all in close proximity, now we seem scattered like seeds, planting the roots for our own families in areas we now call home. May be I should have achieved more than I did, at school or in life. I still miss school, but more my friends though, it still feels like I don't quite 'fit in' yet where I am. Perhaps that shows I've not quite grown up. I've even been called 'son' quite a few times by blokes at least 20 years younger than me. Some of my friends still think I dye my hair. That has happened once in my life, when I was about 16, thanks Simon Tebbett! We'd bleached the fringe of our hair, his took, he ended up with a platinum, almost white swipe against his blonde locks. Me, well I ended up with a ginger quiff. A shock of orange splashed on dark brown. Admittedly not the greatest look.
The party was brilliant though, there were loads of people who had traveled miles to celebrate with Mark, enjoy the moment with his family. His son-in-law dutifully manned the bar all night and should be congratulated for his efforts and commitment; everyone pitched in for Mark, because (I think) everyone thinks the world of him. I was able to introduce the children to my favourite teacher at school, Mr Frater. He was one of the reasons I wanted to teach, to try to inspire, sadly I never had the hard-work or commitment in me at the time to achieve this ambition. I always thought he was dead-straight, interesting and enthusiastic, if only I could talk to my 14 year old self... but many of us perhaps have those regrets. You just have to live your life though.
We stopped off at my parents on the way back. The kids just played in the back yard and I settled in to that comfortable silence you get when you are with those you trust the most. I was able to show Mum pictures of the kids and share a few videos of school plays and the like. The last photo was of a proud little girl holding up her swimming badge for the camera. Tell, your grandma, what you're holding; 'a tercificate', what? 'A tiferciket' came the corrected reply. I love asking her. She'll say the way certificate a hundred different ways, and I'm sure she does it to make me smile.
It might not have been a weekend of amazing memories but every road trip seems the same, a juggernaut of quips, conversations, smiles, laughs, tantrums all under the emblazoned banner and livery of 'family'. How lucky I am?