It was fortunate that we had arranged our first mini-reunion in Brighton for November 7th, considering how low I felt.
I felt awful. I had stomach cramps. I looked like shit. I sobbed halfway down the motorway.
But there was never any question of going.
I knew I'd be alright when I got there.
And I was.
Even though it took me a while to let go of everything and relax.
I sat there all tense, knowing that there was no need to ... but refusing to stop hugging myself regardless ... like a tightly spring coil ... lest I cracked and all my hurt came tumbling out, making a mess on the restaurant's table.
It was probably half an hour later - fully immersed in the company of these old schoolfriends, that fit like your favourite faded blue Levi's ... it's just so easy, familiar, you really KNOW each other - that I noticed the tension had left my body.
Gossip, banter, laughter, sharing secrets.
Food, drink, Marlboro Lites.
Easy, safe, comfortable.
Some of us, myself included feel the need to bare our souls. And we do because we can. It's a safe, guaranteed environment. No fear of being judged.
And the vow of Omerta is not the Mafia's alone ... ask any boarding school child.
After dinner, we head back to Debbie and Gary's. When I walked in their home, I felt completely chilled.
More food and drink. More laughter, more fears and dreams shared.
I confide in Sara ... and I have to say that even when she's shit-faced, she gives the best advice. Solid, grounded, rational. My shoulders feel as though they have lost their load. I am lighter.
At 04h00 we pile into a cab and head for the car park where I've left my car.
Can't find the car.
Sara and I try to ascertain if it's the right car park, whilst Lionel falls about laughing at my inability to remember where the car is. Martin keeps telling me that whilst he has always loved my sense of humour, he thinks it's time to stop joking ... is that yours? is that yours? is that yours?
It's the wrong car park.
Walk round the corner into the correct one, and go straight to car.
Martin tells Sara to get out and sit in the front.
Five minutes later we're en route to Sara's hotel.
Which way, Martin?
Whatever you do, don't turn left.
I turn right and drop Sara off, then head to Martin's to drop the boys off, finally heading home.
Two hours sleep.
Cold, freezing cold. Snuggle into dogs' warmth.
Run round like headless chicken, smoking.
Shower, mop floor, try to start Cliff's van .... splutter splutter ... shit! The man who is imminently due, and has driven all the way from Portsmouth is not going to be a happy bunny when I tell him the battery is dead.
Freak, smoke, calm down.
Run next door.
"Help ... can you jump start the van please."
Five minutes later the van is purring on the drive ... and they roll up.
Ten minutes later they have paid me.
I'm handling this pretty well, mainly because I like the man's son (who the van is for). They are both lovely. Normal. Friendly. He's got a personality and he makes me feel at ease.
I realize that my soul is happy for him to have Cliff's van.
Because Cliff would have liked him.
I can't help myself. I have to stand on the drive and watch him drive it away. I have to. I wave. He keeps waving instead of focussing on reversing safely, much to his father's chagrin.
And then ... a last glimpse of white. And it's gone.
I quietly shut the front door, fall to my knees and howl.
It's primal this loss is. It's also physical. I feel like I'm losing it, but force myself to slap on some makeup, get back in my car and head back to Brighton to meet everyone for lunch.
As soon as I'm on the road, I'm fine, but I know without a shadow of doubt that I won't be when I park on the drive later ... and I am right.
But for a few hours though, respite. I am back in the fold.
I am soothed with them.
And I don't want to say goodbye when all go our separate ways ... till the next time.
Thanks to Martin for the photos ... here they are: http://www.flickr.com/photos/martin_thomas/sets/72157622760702336/