One of the boys in this photo is now dead. Today would have been his 45th birthday.
Why do I remember something like that? I didn’t know him particularly well. As it happens, his family moved away when we were in 2nd (or 3rd, or 4th?) year of High School, so I never saw him after we were (at most) sixteen. But I know that he lived in the house at the end of our street – I visited him there, may even have been at a birthday party – and he had an older sister, whose name escapes me; and that 16th December was his birthday. He was killed in a motorcycle accident about ten years ago.
How well did we know the friends we had when we were that young, before our personalities fully developed? Beyond anecdotes, what could I tell you about most of the other boys in the photo? Probably little. Yet I spent so much time with them between the ages of four and eighteen. After that point, if not before, I lost touch with almost all of them. I don’t know what they’re like as people now, or even what they were like at High School, not really. But I could tell you the birthdays of almost all those boys, of the boys in the class who aren’t in the photo, and of most of the girls too.
The photo shows the Newburgh Primary School football team (such as it was – I think we only played one match) from year 1985-86. My friend Will – alive and well – is also in the shot. There were only boys in the team, which wouldn’t be the case today, and arguably shouldn’t have been the case then, either. The picture was taken in the playground by the headmaster (Mr. [David] Hunter) shortly before our match against the team from the nearest village, the-considerably-more-famous-than-Newburgh Auchtermuchty¹. I think we won the match, but the details are hazy². That’s me, front row left.
My brother sent me the photo, though how he came by it I don’t know. As soon as I saw it, I immediately remembered two things: how itchy those jerseys were, and that ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Doctor and the Medics was Number 1 when it was taken.
There are people I’ve known for a longer time, or known better – friends, work colleagues, whatever – and with whom I’ve also long since lost touch. When I remember them, sometimes their existence – or at the very least the nature and depth of their relationship with me – seems almost unreal. People in whose houses I’ve been, whose partners or families I’ve known who now exist just as a hazy sketch: a forename and some other quality. A photo of them would maybe only confirm to me their appearance, and trigger no recall of anything else from the time we shared.
There are a few tiny, shared moments that I remember with the boy in question – just chat, on the school bus or in the playground – where no-one else was present. It was just me and him, and so only I now have any memory of them. And, likely as not, there are many such moments I have no recollection of at all, and are lost.
Some memories have deep roots but shallow beginnings: we’ve no idea why we remember them. Yet, other moments – crucial, life-changing, intense moments – may be lost, or transformed by the act of recall.
I’m not sure what my point is with all this, other than “isn’t memory weird?”, which we all know anyway. I guess this is just another example of that weirdness at work. We all have similar – probably even more profound – examples of this sort of thing. There are things we’ve forgotten, which we don’t even remember that we have forgotten. I’ve written before about the Proustian nostalgia rush. But there are things that we seem to forget forever, and which no amount of prompts will recall to the conscious mind. And the birthdays of my Primary school fellow pupils is write-protected in my head for no reason I can fathom.
¹In whose team was a boy I would later only know vaguely at High School but became friends with at Uni, and through whom I met my wife. Funny old world, isn’t it?
² I do remember giving away a free-kick because I picked the ball up thinking it had gone out for a throw. Naturally, that sort of mistake goes down really well with 12-year-old boys.