I have an Auld Lang Syne earworm, a hangover from a New Year I didn’t even celebrate. I usually eschew the Hootenanny and head to bed at 10.30, shove in earplugs and wait for the firework-loathing dog to slink in, poke his bony elbows into my kidneys and breathe his foul kipper breath over my face. My signature New Year cocktail is three parts relief to two of fomo with a smugness garnish as I wake early and contemplate stripping the house of every glittering shred of festivity, a prospect somehow as appealing as decorating it a few weeks previously. (I revert to puritanical zealot instantly after New Year, grimly relishing the dark months of fingerless gloves and gruel, while my French husband tries in vain to make his decadent, continental epiphany happen, with its greasy wodge of almond galette, filling-menacing charm, and paper crown.) Even so, something about that “old acquaintance” part is stuck in my head, displacing my usual involuntary theme tune (Kung Fu Fighting – you’re welcome).
I think a lot about “old acquaintance” at the moment. Partly, it’s because returning to my home town three years ago means I live in a nostalgia minefield, everywhere liable to detonate a tiny, usually benign, charge of emotion. The waiter from the pizzeria we went to when my mother couldn’t face cooking is still waitering a few hundred yards away; my biology teacher is teaching my son biology; my schoolfriends’ parents still live in the same streets. At choir practice a woman I did not recognise came over with a card with a cat on. “Do you recognise this cat?” she asked. I didn’t, but it was a birthday card addressed to me, with a 1980s postmark. It had, she said, been kicking around her house for decades, and she had no idea why. I would have run a mile from that feeling of being held in a web of connectedness even a decade ago, but now it’s comforting to be seen and known.
But it’s also the times, I think. Isolation, pent-up boredom, a hunger for humans other than our cohabitees and that wave of lockdown nostalgia for a time before LFTs and social distancing, back when QR codes were still as ridiculous as Google Glass, have conspired to make “absent friends” an urgent project rather than a vague regret. Surely it’s no coincidence that last year saw both the Friends and the Sex and the City reunions: we’re hungry for reassurance that even when we need reading glasses and HRT or end up looking like Matt LeBlanc, ressembling a benign, slightly confused Irish uncle, we still remain ourselves, that we can still slip into well-worn grooves of connection.
For the ones that really matter, send the awkward message; share the cringey reminiscence
A university friend, a primary school classmate and a former neighbour made contact last year, conjuring names I did not know I remembered until I heard them again. I have found myself thinking about my own ones that got away: schoolfriends and colleagues from crappy jobs, doomed dates or group therapy fellow travellers. My new phone backed up recently to a contacts list that is a blast from the past in itself: I scroll through it in baffled wonder. Who was “Liam’s Dad” or “Matthew handyman”? Is Elke still working in Brussels airport? How is my son’s speech therapist from 2008 doing, or the dogsitter from 2010 who sent me a picture of the dog on a sofa eating pâté on toast for Christmas dinner (no wonder life with me is a grave disappointment for him since)?
I don’t think we necessarily want, or need, to rekindle most of these relationships. They were often a product of geography and circumstance that has shifted. It’s more about exploring the tendrils of connection and reassuring ourselves that we are still social creatures. In 1993, anthropologist Robin Dunbar set a figure for how many meaningful relationships our neocortex can maintain: 150 (though Swedish research last year argued we can manage far more). I doubt many of us are maintaining anywhere near that many IRL connections at the moment, but our “Dunbar’s number” is bolstered by memories and virtual connections we nourish. Remembering getting so drunk with Caro that I had to leave the Woman in White after 10 minutes, or sprinting through Barcelona airport with Nic when we spent too long buying cakes (is that the equivalent of Robbie Burns’s “ran about the braes”?), feels comforting, like turning on lights in a half-empty house. That was Burns’s point, I think: the not forgetting matters; the “brought to mind”.
But if there is an old acquaintance you think about a lot or a missed connection you regret, perhaps don’t assume they will drift back into your life when, or if, it’s meant to be. I got a message this week that Fred, an exuberant, intermittent presence in my life from 10 or so years ago, a warm, flawed, funny man with an irrepressible appetite for creating quotidian drama, had died. Of course, the memories are still there, but for the ones that really matter, send the awkward message; share the cringey reminiscence. For Robbie’s sake.