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Janet Watson: Haunted by teen spirits

  • by JANET WATSON
 

HAVE you ever wondered what it would be like to go back to your teenage years? To your first love? Close friends? Not just as an idle thought, but to really immerse yourself in those years, actually talk to those people and see whether their memories match yours?

Dusty Springfield sang about Going Back – the song was played at her funeral – to “the things I learned so well, in my youth”. I carried my story with me for many years but what was it I learned back then? When I started writing notes for a memoir, I knew I too had to go back.

Moving away from home was something we all did after school. In the sixth form we were a close group of nine friends, sharing the boredom of school days, giving way to the excitement of the sort of nights everyone must remember from those vivid, growing-up years; high on the future, bonds strengthened by alcohol, and a new awareness of selves and sexual power.

The pub was ours, the streets, the church on Christmas Eve when we giggled through midnight mass after too many ciders, and afterwards, lying on our backs on ice-dusted pavements, holding hands and staring up into the night, even the stars were ours. We were discovering love and life together, invincible.

Then it was university – new lives, friends, marriages, children. But I never forgot the feeling of belonging I had with those friends. Had they felt it too, those three girls and five boys? And when a tragic death ripped the heart out of the group, could we ever be together again and feel the same?

I was lucky, as I wasn’t relying on memory alone. I had my diaries, written every night between 1974 and 1986, from age 11 to 23. I’d sometimes contemplated getting rid of what my mum had called my “emotional props”. I was so glad I hadn’t. I stopped writing in 1986 when Mark, my first love, was killed. That event so twisted my life out of shape that, for years, choices I made were unconsciously rooted in that loss.

More than 20 years after we’d set off on different paths, I went on a road trip south from my Edinburgh home to visit each of my old “gang”, interviewing them ostensibly for the book but also because I needed to be with them again, to recreate teen me. The “interviews” were some of the best times I’d known, slipping back into relationships that had stayed strong. I drove across England tired, hungover, and happy.

Sian used to yawn when anyone played an Eagles record, but said she’d not heard one since our schooldays without thinking of Mark, and then me. Julie recalled us all cycling in the dark during that first magical winter together in 1979, “memories I can feel, breathe and touch”. Nick remembered how Mark hated dancing, would only do it “at the end of the night … a lean-on dance!” Adrian couldn’t bring himself to go to the funeral in Hull, our home town. “I wanted to remember the good times. Funerals are horrible sad things.” For Gary, Mark was the brother he never had. “There’s no doubt I’m a lesser person for him not being around and I think about him every day.” Every day.

For some, Mark was more than just memories. Mandy said: “I was driving home and really, really tired. I heard a voice saying, ‘Wake up Mandy, don’t fall asleep. It was Mark, his voice, very clear.” Tony saw him. “I bumped into him once, on the landing in my parents’ house. He looked just as he always did, and I shouted at him, told him off. Called him a bastard and said how much he’d hurt everyone. It didn’t feel like a dream.”

I learned, while talking, that my version of my teen self – clumsy, gauche, ugly even – jarred with my friends’ memories of a pretty, flirtatious yet aloof girl, and I left each of them with a new picture of myself that I really liked. I’d forgotten some of the bad times we’d had – when drunken pairings had led to fallings out, rifts which had confined one or other us to watching telly with our parents and wishing we could be lying on a bedroom carpet, surrounded by laughter and meaning-of-life chat, while Meatloaf belted out Bat Out of Hell.

But my enduring image of going back is the night we were all together, passing round a bottle of Laphroaig, sitting in an entangled heap on a hotel room floor, passing round my diaries and laughing like drains. How had I lost sight of the “things I’d learned so well in my youth”? Trust and love. Simple yet priceless. I brought them home with me into a better future.

• Nothing Ever Happens in Wentbridge, by Janet Watson, is published next week by Route, priced £9.99.

 

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