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Friday 2 December 2016

David Diebold: I've a secret to tell at my school reunion...

David Diebold
David Diebold

IN the 1997 film Grosse Point Blank, John Cusack plays a trained assassin returning to his small home town for a 10-year school reunion.

It's a clever comedy with a brilliant '80s-themed soundtrack and I've been thinking about it a lot, not just because Cusack's character and I seem to have left school around the same year, but because tomorrow night, my wife and I are off to our own milestone - 30-year school reunion bash.

It's every grown-up former schoolboy's daydream, when he finally meets up with his old classmates, that he'll be the one looking the best, with the coolest job, the killer John Cusack character of the room perhaps.

But, as our old school pals arrive in from as far apart as Paris and Seattle this weekend, I can't help worrying how many might observe, between checking out who still has hair and whose belly is bigger, just how unexciting my life might now seem to them.

And so, while my wife has spent the week preparing with crippling gym sessions and rifling through shoes, I've been taking inventory. Just how 'small town' am I?

When we first moved back from abroad, some 17 years ago, I remember stumbling into the local pub and pulling up a stool at the bar where a short row of men sat in sudden silence.

It wasn't long before one of them piped up: "Great deal you got on that house."

"Oh?" I said, a little beer spilling out of my mouth and down my shirt. Not even I knew how much we'd actually parted with when the deal had finally been done.

"Aye," said another, "not bad at all," and they all chuckled into their fists.

I wasn't sure from this whether I'd paid too much or too little, but I duly introduced myself to what turned out to be the postman, local plasterer and the man who trimmed the town's verges.

It was my first experience of small town living, in what would turn out to be not so much a little pond, as a goldfish bowl where everyone knows you and your business.

All these years later, I'm not only used to this, I've come to embrace the fact that a five-minute walk up the main street to get something as simple as milk must factor in extra minutes just to return the hail of 'hellos'.

This is all very well until, on rare trips to the city, I find myself, out of sheer habit, saying hello to strangers at traffic crossings, or tipping a wave at a passing car, something at best greeted with bafflement; at worst, like I've just announced that I am, in fact, a trained assassin.

And this, I'm beginning to realise, is about as close to being John Cusack as I'll probably ever get.

Back in the goldfish bowl, when it was all still so new, I probably fancied myself the mysterious stranger for some time, dressing in black and trying to strike a suitably enigmatic writer-type figure around the place.

An epiphany came not long after we took over running the local paper; a sudden realisation that taking yourself too seriously in a goldfish bowl is a sure and well-deserved recipe for ridiculousness.

One day we took a phone call that a number of young swans had somehow washed down the mill stream all the way to the beach. Their mother, now streets away, was 'inconsolable'. As articles go, it was hardly Woodward and Bernstein, but I duly trudged off to investigate.

Down near the shore, the eight fuzzy, lanky things had already decided to waddle home and I suddenly found myself playing traffic warden, in my ludicrous black shirt and cowboy boots, a half-baked Clint Eastwood in a Mother Goose tale, guiding them around beeping cars as spectators gathered.

"Quite a man for the birds," yelled someone from a window, as we made our way up the main street, me ushering my flock like some sort of bizarre conductor, until they decided to take a detour into the local SuperValu and I had to fight automatic doors to keep them from being guillotined.

"Sorry," said one of the checkout ladies, holding up a hand, then stifling a grin. "No pets."

Sweating and cursing silently, I herded the cygnets up a side road, trailing a growing crowd of jeering teenagers, across a field and back to the pond, where the mother swan seemed quite unperturbed as all eight promptly hopped into the mill stream again and sailed off back to the beach.

I'd been taken for a ride, or rather a very long shuffle, and whoever called me up in the first place probably knew the drill.

It was an absurd lesson of parable proportions. Weeks later, I was still 'the bird man', and realising I'd probably never be taken seriously again, I ditched the cowboy boots, and the attitude, and never looked back.

As small town hazing rituals go, I'm sure I got off lightly. I didn't end up inside a burning wicker man. Or I haven't yet.

So, fair to say, I probably won't be John Cusack tomorrow night, or close.

Hands up, I'm about as small town as they come these days. But where else would you find yourself the leader of your very own impromptu home-town parade? Probably not Paris, certainly not Seattle.

Thirty years on from those heady school days, I can think of no more suitable swansong.

Oh, and I've invited anyone from the reunion who wants, to hook up back in my town the next day, just so they can see for themselves.

The only condition is they allow considerably extra time to return the hail of 'hellos'.

That, and the possibility of a long, slow detour to the mill pond.

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