One winter a legendary amount of snow fell and school was closed and the phone lines in the village came down but when we picked up the phone at our house there were sometimes strangers instantly there on the line. During the same epoch in British history adverts were broadcast during the intermissions in films and sport coverage that I stayed up late to watch that told you about phone lines where you could chat to strangers, just about stuff, nothing obviously dirty. In the adverts the strangers always seemed to be happy and having parties with balloons and fizzy drinks, and would let you join in, we were told, for a fixed rate of pence per minute. But the strangers who were on the phone when I picked it up after the snow didn’t charge you a fixed rate of pence per minute to speak to them; you didn’t even have to dial a number to get through to these strangers, and you could talk to them for free. One day after school, before my mum and dad were home from work, I picked up the phone and two girls were on the other end of the line. They said they were a year older than me and from Bulwell, seven miles east of where I lived, which at the time seemed far away without being at all exotic. I talked to the girls for around an hour and they teased me with questions that seemed advanced, even next to some of the stuff I had heard discussed by the girls in my year at school, who were what I have since realised was quite advanced themselves, in the grander context of late 20th Century adolescent sexual knowledge countrywide. The girl whose phone it was asked me if I had any nice friends because the boys in Bulwell were all shit and I said I did and she gave me her number. I told Lee about it the next day at school and he seemed excited too, even though he hadn’t met the girls and had no idea what they looked like and I had passed on minimal information about their hobbies and personalities, so I gave him the girl’s number, and both of us were on a bit of a high about it for the rest of the day, but neither of us ever did call the number. The following week in Biology I noticed that someone had scratched it into the desk with a pen, quite deep.
One winter I discovered that winter is the perfect time to listen to unvarnished British folk songs that get down to the stark bones of what it is to be human and since then in winter I have never stopped discovering the same fact.
One winter on a much longer walk in hillier country I looked across towards a hedge and saw a strip of black binliner caught in the top of it, which is a concept known in Ireland as “witches’ knickers” but in this case did not look like witches’ knickers. It looked like The Devil, reclining amongst the thin twigs, idly watching my progress through one hollowed out eye.
One winter I got utterly, fantastically lost in the TV series Box Of Delights to the extent that each time an episode of it was on I forgot my name and where I lived, and spent the cosy curtained early evenings on either side of it covered in glitter making Christmas decorations and cards with my mum, never realising it was the last winter in history when I would ever still feel properly like a child.
One winter I saw you on the path near town by the river, where I’d last seen you, in summer, when you’d smiled and said hello and, because I was talking on my mobile phone at the time to someone close to me about their hospital appointment, I’d not responded in the way I felt instantly compelled to. And now – we were heading in the opposite directions to the last time, in twice as many clothes, but in almost exactly the same spot – I did say hello, and you did too, and we both smiled and reduced our walks to slow motion for a split second as we passed and for some baffling reason, not even shyness, I didn’t stop to introduce myself and, even though I’ve decided lately that I don’t have regrets, that the experiences they normally centre around are life’s most strengthening and character-forming, ultimately rendering them redundant as a concept, I know that’s not quite true, because four days later I am an unchanged person and still regretting my decision to keep walking.
This piece was inspired by the Nicholson Baker essay One Summer, from his 2012 book The Way The World Works.
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