Wednesday 22 July 2015

Task 50: Track down old friend Neil Simpson for cocktails in Knightsbridge

You may be wondering who Neil Simpson is, what's prompted me to track him down and why I'd be suggesting cocktails in Knightsbridge? All very reasonable questions of course! So here's a bit of background for you....

Neil was one of my older brother David’s best friends when they were students at Oxford.  When I was 16 I had a massive crush on him, and although it was unrequited (after all, he was gay, although I was completely oblivious to such things at the time), he was very kind to me, even to the extent of taking me to an Oxford Uni Eights Week Ball (just imagine the kudos I gained in the Upper Five that year).  After leaving university (and in my case nursing studies), David, Neil and I shared a flat for a while in the posh environs of Knightsbridge, and during the long hot summer of 1976, with none of us yet in permanent jobs, we had plenty of spare time to visit Wimbledon, go to all night horror films, narrowly miss getting caught up in riots at the Notting Hill Carnival and throw an infamous toffs and tarts party (which resulted in us having to write grovelling letters of apology to various titled and thoroughly unimpressed neighbours the next day…..) Here are a couple of photos taken on my 21st birthday (Snoopy is sitting between Neil and me in the first one and my friend Jane is by my side in the second one).

Neil and I lost contact after Andrew and I moved down to Sussex and started producing babies. But I often wondered how he was. And then lo and behold, four years ago I was watching Breakfast News on TV when an item popped up about a controversial building project in Kensington and to my amazement, the person being interviewed (Chair of the local Residents’ Association I'll have you know) was none other than Neil. By then I hadn’t seen him for 35 years. I was beside myself with excitement and tried to track him down through various search engines - but after several attempts I had to admit defeat, and the years continued to pass by.

Until, that is, I was walking dogs with my friend Gillie one morning back in March, got into a conversation with her about what other tasks to add to my then embryonic Sixty at 60 list, and it suddenly occurred to me (yes, another of those light bulb moments – I really must calm down) that finding Neil would be an important and special challenge to include.

So two weeks ago, I duly rolled up my sleeves and started a new Google search – and this time, I actually managed to track down an address listed on a Directors’ Register that seemed to fit the bill for Neil. I penned a hard copy letter to him (just as I would have done 39 years ago), enclosed several photos, stuck down the envelope, took a deep breath and popped the letter into the postbox. Then I waited, heart pounding, just like a lovesick fifth former all over again. I realised that it might all come to nothing - perhaps he wouldn't remember me at all?  Or perhaps our friendship simply wouldn't have meant as much to him as to me? Or perhaps he'd moved? Or.......or.....

But guess what, two days later an email popped up in my inbox - and yes, it was from Neil. Do you know I actually jumped up and down on the spot - another of those fifth-form moments!  We arranged to speak on the phone the following day and when I heard his voice. the years just rolled back. 

I should explain that amidst the happiness of our conversation, I learnt that over the last 18 months Neil has been through a period of very serious ill-health and has had to endure surgery, radiotherapy and two courses of chemo, the second of which he completed just last week.  It's clearly been a torrid time for him but he was incredibly sanguine about it all (that's Neil!) and is rejoicing in the fact that life is beginning to return to some kind of normality again. Needless to say David and I have arranged to meet up with him for those cocktails (NB in Pall Mall rather than Knightsbridge - do hope you'll forgive that slight tweak to the task), so think of us on 7 August - I can't wait....

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