Sunday, August 23, 2015

Old Friends (Tim)

I am a big fan of the theatre of traditions. One of my favourite was the ringing of the bell at the end of our last day of high school. Each boys name would be read out quite slowly, so it would take some time. There were 147 in my year. 1000 (mostly younger) boys, and the staff, would sit in silence and listen as the young man whose name was called out would file out of the hall, walk to, and ring the bell. A double ring would signal the end. From outside, would come the sound of the leavers linking arms and shouting a final school war cry. You listen to this at the end of four each of four years, and then it is your turn. Then you go out into the world.

I have two older brothers, and so grew up with them and their buddies experiencing these traditions ahead of me. I have very fond memories of their various antics. They kept up a good facade of being very wise and worldy. I could learn from their triumphs and mistakes. To this day, I still drive very cautiously. My brother had a crash on the day he got his licence. His friend Tim, one of my witty favourites, managed to write off our garage door in a spectacular early driving leason. Cars, they taught me, were dangerous. But that was just one of Tim's stories. This is another.

An older, wiser Tim, and his younger old friend, Steve

Old Friends
Tim Casteling

'Yes'm, old friends is always best, 'less you can catch a new one that's fit to make an old one out of.'
Sarah Orne Jewett

I've almost never been lonely. Maybe it's the circumstances that I've been in, but I inevitably make new friends wherever I go. After school there were new friends at Rhodes, and then in Queenstown and back in Durban selling CDs at Rythmic Beat, and then teaching English in Taiwan - both Taichung and Taipei. And when I moved to China after 10 years in Taiwan, I had an instant set of new friends in my department. Now, again in Seoul, I find that I'm making new friends. And yet, the vast majority of these friends will never become old friends. Nice people, certainly, but for one important reason they'll never take on that quality of comfort that you get from an old friendship. That reason is simply time and shared experience. I'm talking about friendships that go back about thirty years, to a time when I was just becoming aware of myself. These men (almost funny to think of them as men with thinning hair and beer boeps) are not just buddies, they are a part of the furnace where my identity was forged. I share so much with them that I can't think back on my formative experiences without their ugly faces floating into view.

Since we have scattered across three continents, we very rarely see each other. We have our own adult lives filled with careers, wives and children (to varying degrees). And yet, when we get together, either in person or online, we don't need to make small talk about the rugby, we have an instant connection. We don't need to be polite or talk about the weather because we can skip straight to our favourite form of conversation - abuse. Each of us has his weaknesses, and we are all fair game. There are no sacred cows, partly because there's no risk of ruining the friendship, but mostly because we've always done this, and we always will. Outsiders might think we harbour old grudges that make us so malicious, but nothing could be further from the truth. This kind of banter is exactly what reinforces our bond. I would love to get the old gang together for a drink, and I can't imagine not teasing Neil for his height, or Andy for his. I can't get my head around not ragging Grant about the girls he used to smooch, or not having Steve complain about how I wrecked his car.

It might sound morbid, but I have imagined my own funeral with a smile, not because I'm morose, but because I like to imagine my oldest and dearest friends quoting from Monty Python and making fun of the foolish things that I've said and done, clinking their glasses and having a laugh at my expense. Rest assured, Boys, I would do the same for you!
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