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Old Friends - Guy Clark

Yes, I've been away for a few weeks, and then taken another week to recover from my last journey and the emotional exhaustion that ensued.

It may have emerged previously on these pages - or there again it may not - that I was born on a desert island, specifically Bahrain in the Arabian Gulf. Just three weeks ago, I made a sudden decision to join a large reunion of ex Awali teenagers, in other words, a gathering in Bahrain of a bunch of us who had grown up there.

Like the rest of their fathers, my dad used to work for the BAPCO, the Bahrain Petroleum Company, then owned by American oil company Caltex, although nowadays it is owned by the government of Bahrain.

I was born there and then spent the best part of twelve years on the island, living in the "oil town" of Awali, until I was "sent away" to boarding school, a fate which awaited me and all of my contemporaries, looming in the future as sure as death, because at that time there were no English speaking secondary schools on the island. After a couple of years of summer and Christmas holiday returns to Bahrain, my father left work there, retiring after 20 years' service, and I never went back, except in my dreams.

When, after 50 years, the opportunity to return came along, I stalled, not sure whether I wanted to go back for fear of seeing the dreamland of my youth changed beyond all recognition; or maybe I was afraid that a child's memories, when put under the microscope of adult scrutiny, would not survive intact. Or perhaps it was just that I feared I could not afford it. But I knew in my heart that this was possibly my last chance to go back. So, with less than a week to go, I made up my mind. I signed up, booked the flight and hotel, had the jabs, packed the case and off I went.

Bahrain was changed almost beyond recognition: what was once literally a desert island of 246 square miles, is now 50 square miles bigger and covered in endless suburbs, stretching mile after mile south of the once isolated capital Manama at its top. Manama itself was changed, land that was once sea is now supporting a succession of flashy high-rise office blocks and hotels. I was mortified that the island I knew was no longer there.

But the journey was worth every penny, and more. The unexpected delight was meeting up with my old classmates, two in particular:

Simon Lean was my best friend from nearly as far back as I can remember, at least from 5 years old to when I left at aged 14 or so. We are as different as chalk and cheese, he's Australian, has spent all of his working life in the army, most recently working as an IT teacher in the Aussie forces and I've worked in the arts and local government for most of my life; he had dark hair, and I was fair although we're both grey now. But we clicked just as though we'd been playing together out in the desert just the evening before. Simon's wife Jenny said it was uncanny.

And then another guy we knew from our class, now living in Canada, Martin, (Chilly to us), almost immediately remembered how he and I had once laughed for what seemed like two hours, he couldn't remember what at but, he said, he's never laughed so much in his life. And seeing these two, and spending time with them over the week, remembering lots of little moments from our childhood, that was what made the trip worth it for me. It's special when you go in search of gold, and then, out of nowhere, find a treasure you weren't expecting, a treasure much more precious than the fool's gold that's lying all around.

Here's Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris, who knew a thing or two about old friends:

"....old friends, they shine like diamonds

old friends - you can always call

old friends, Lord you can't buy 'em

you know it's old friends, after all."

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