Saturday, 31 January 2015
I think about him often. Even now, after all this time.
We'd ran together a few times on a club night, and, after I'd heard the bad news, I really should have called round. But, to be honest, I didn't know him that well back then, so I didn't.
It was a chance encounter in the street months later that led to him becoming my best friend.
'Hey. Ok?' I'd said.
He'd nodded, kind of uncertain.
'What you up to nowadays?' I'd said.
'Whatever it is you do when you've lost everything,' he'd replied, matter-of-factly.
'Still running?' I'd asked. Dumb question.
'Not a lot,' he'd answered. 'Busy with something else.'
We'd made uncomfortable small talk for a few minutes more, and he'd invited round to his place. On a Wednesday night two weeks after, I'd found myself standing in the rain, knocking on his front door.
The table in the kitchen was large. Spread upon it was a map. Ordnance Survey, Landranger 122.
'Those dotted red lines,' he'd said, running a finger over the shiny paper, then looking up at me. 'They're footpaths.'
I'd nodded, mug of hot tea in hand, wondered where this was going.
'I'm going to walk them all,' he'd continued.
Why? I'd thought, but his face read Why not?
Every Wednesday for the next three years I'd sat at that table. I'd stared at the map blu-tacked to the kitchen wall, studied the spider-lines of fluorescent yellow marker - the paths he'd walked - and listened as he spoke of weekend adventures.
One time, he'd mentioned his wife. 'It must be hard, I know,' I'd told him, 'But you can't walk away from what happened. It just won't work.'
He'd just shrugged and smiled.
'When I walk, I'm walking with her. She's with me, and it's real,' he'd said. 'The rest...' - he'd gestured around him - '...the rest of it all - it's just dreaming.'
Weeks passed. Months passed. One step at a time. He grew thin, his face more weathered. But his eyes sparkled.
The map on the wall became a sea of fluorescent yellow.
And then, he was done.
That night, over a couple of hours and a few beers, he'd told me everything. And now what he'd been doing made some sort of sense.
Before I'd left, he'd got up from the table, carefully unpicked the map from the wall, folded it neatly and handed it to me.
'I won't be needing this now,' he'd said. 'And, you never know, it might come in useful some time.'
As I'd stood on the step by the front door, he'd extended his right hand. 'Thankyou,' he'd said as I shook it.
It was the last time I saw him.
No-one knows what happened. The next morning, it appears, he put on his boots, picked up his sack, closed the door behind him and never came back.
I think about him often.
And I hope.
Maybe, somewhere, he's still walking.
Tuesday, 27 January 2015
I've never been a big fan of the telephone. Not even in the days when it lived at home, with a dial and a bell. Certainly not in its modern incarnation - a device into which you install your life in return for which it will rule that life for you.
Growing up, our house phone was a novelty one. A frog sat on a lily pad. When someone called, the frog would croak. You'd pick the frog up off its lily pad, hold it to your ear and speak into its belly.
Maybe that's what put me off phones at an early age. That, or the fact that I don't really like talking to people. Especially people I don't know very well, or not at all. I heard Josie Long - the comedian - talking the other day about a project she once embarked on, where, for one hundred consecutive days, she attempted to strike up a conversation with a total stranger. I honestly cannot think of anything worse.
In the days when I lived by myself in a flat I'd bought by a river, a mate lent me a phone because he was fed up of never being able to get hold of me. He didn't need it, he told me, since he still lived at home with his mum and dad and they already had a phone. I kept it for four years until I gave up my job, sold my flat, moved away and lost touch with him.
That phone was the coolest I've ever had. It was long and sleek and had buttons instead of a dial. It was made out of pink plastic and was see-through, like a jellyfish Swatch. Although I didn't like to use it very much, I did like to look at it.
The front room of my flat was sparsely furnished. There was a bookcase, one of those wicker chairs you can buy in garden centres, a large desk and a stool. My record player sat on the carpet in one corner of the room, accompanied by plastic boxes full of records and tapes. There were a few of those trendy scatter cushions in the alcove by the window. On the desk was an old colour TV and the telephone.
During my time at this flat, I had a brief fling with a schizophrenic, narcoleptic girl from Stoke. When you looked into her eyes, you could tell that she was mad. I found this hugely attractive. I, myself, was going slowly insane at this time, so, for a while, we were a good match for one another.
She liked to ring me in the middle of the night. This presented a problem as my bedroom was separated from the front room by a kitchen and a bathroom. If someone rang and I was asleep in bed, the chances were that I'd not even hear the phone ring.
For three months, I took to sleeping on the floor of the front room just in case the phone rang after bed-time. Some nights it rang. Some nights it didn't. One night it rang and she was at a nightclub. I'm thinking she was drunk. She said, 'I shouldn't tell you this, but I think I've fallen in love with you.' A bit drastic, I thought. Three or four weeks later, she dumped me while we were enduring a few days away in Amsterdam. I ended up spending the last day moping round the canal sides by myself playing The Beautiful South's 'I'll Sail This Ship Alone' on repeat on my Walkman. When I got home, I gave up sleeping on the front room floor straight away and took to my bed again.
One time that phone rang early one morning. It was a Friday, I think - early December. When I answered it, my mum told me that her husband had suffered a massive heart attack during the night. He'd died as she'd held him. They'd been married for five weeks.
Once, I was at the cutting edge of mobile phone technology. During the time that the Nokia 3110 was almost space-age, the market stall I ran with Our Kid creamed a good profit from the sale of fake leather cases for the new breed of handset. For a short spell, I was fluent in phone lingo. I could identify any mobile put before me - Nokia, Philips, Alcatel, you-name-it - and recommend a handy case that would not only protect it from damage but would also look mighty fine clipped onto a jeans' belt loop and dangling at your hip.
When our market business burned to the ground and we decided to become the UK's largest manufacturer of flock-lined colouring boards for children, I was talked into taking out my first-ever contract. The phone that came with it was almost as good as that pink, plastic, see-through thing I'd had years back. A Motorola Razr, it had a lid that flipped up and a ring tone that sounded like a police siren. Finding myself at the helm of a business turning over a few hundred grand a year, I'd no choice but to use it more than I would have liked. Indeed, everyday I seemed to spend all my time on the phone. It was terrible. I made sure the situation didn't last too long.
Eventually, Tammy came on board and I was able to slip into my present role as someone who runs a fairly successful company without ever having to speak to anyone on the phone. It's great.
I stopped using a mobile about 8 years ago. It was one of the most liberating decisions I've ever taken. I still have a phone. If I'm out all day in the hills (fairly good chance of getting lost, arriving late at a pre-arranged rendezvous point, breaking a leg, falling off a cliff face etc.) or taking my VW bus for a spin (very good chance of breaking down), I'll take it with me. I'll make sure, though, that it's always turned off if I'm not actually speaking into it. (Nothing worse than a long run or a short drive being disturbed by a ringing phone.) I do send texts, however. Last year I sent 20. These were:
- 'Hi mate, fancy a little run in the morning? easy 5,6,7?? Den could come too. Cheers, chris'
- 'Ha! Text as much as you like - only have the phone on about 10 minutes a week! Ten 8 sounds good. 9ish in the morning?'
- 'Hi dave, on hols now, can't get onto my hotmail, is it still 9am at cutthroat bridge? Cheers, chris'
- 'Thanks dave, see you tomorrow'
- ' Fucking hell dave, you sure you're all there?! Not seen your map, mine stayed in my pack all day! Hope you find it. Good run out today. Let us know if a night recce is on when you've spoken to mr. A. Cheers mate.'
- 'Ok? Off fb?'
- 'Just done. Long day! Ring tomorrow. Love you xx'
- 'Hi! Did you remember to buy debbie some flowers or something? X'
- 'Yeah, be glad to see you all. Legs sore today after feeling ok all week. Missed you. How was show?'
- 'Hi dave. Don'y worry, you'll be right. Give us a ring anytime. Take it easy. Chris'
- 'Any chance of picking me up an a4 page per day diary, or similar? Love chris x'
- 'O found it now'
- 'Ok - parked and ready at this end! Thanks.'
- 'Great camping spot. Nice and cosy. Don't forget my running gear in morning. Good night and god bless. Love youxx ps, the tree we're camped under in this little wood has a pentangle carved in its bark, blair witchstyle!'
- 'Just opened the tent door. Dennis has disappeared. On the mat he was sleeping on is a small corn dolly, attached to which with a hat pin is a handwritten note stating, 'you're next.' do you think i should call the police?'
- 'Fos bridge xx'
Next time you call our land-line number and the phone keeps on ringing and eventually you hang up thinking there's obviously no-one at home, you may be right, but you'll probably be wrong. It's perfectly possible that I'll be the only one in, that I'll be laid on the settee reading a book, half-listening to the phone ringing and thinking to myself, 'There's no way I'm answering that.' Please don't take it personally.
Now and again I hear folks saying that you should face your fears, do the things that make you uncomfortable more often - that doing just this will make you a better person. Sometimes I think talking on the phone more, or at least answering it now and again, will make me a better person. But then I think that life's too short, that you're free to make your own choices, and why do something that you don't like doing when you have the choice not to do it at all. So, I'm happy to demote anything to do with the phone to the pile that contains all the things I never do if I can help it - speedwork, reading The Daily Mail, watching any version of NCIS, mingling with people who drive Range Rovers with personalised plates etc.
* * * *
When I picked up this biro an hour ago, I'd got no intention of writing about telephones. It just happened. What I originally wanted to go on about was 'resolutions'.
So here goes.
I'm a bit late for New Year's Resolutions, but as I've been rambling through fields over the last three weeks, I've felt a bit guilty about not making one for 2015.
I've mulled a few over, but ultimately dismissed them for one reason or another:
1. Run every day - already do that;
2. Cook more often - not really into food enough to get excited about that;
3. Work less hours - been on that for a year now. Any fewer hours and we'll be living on benefits (not necessarily a bad thing);
4. Pioneer a new method of super-long ultra (100 miles +) training based mainly on dog-walking - more a project than a resolution.
Then, a couple of days ago, I found it.
Helen Zaltzman's new weekly podcast is called The Allusionist. It's brand new - three weeks old. Over 15 minutes she takes an interesting and irreverent look at words. In her first show, I learned something truly monumental.
Apparently, our everyday greeting, 'Hello' (it's not my everyday greeting - I tend to prefer 'ey-up mate', 'howdy' or 'alreight cocker') only became really popular after the advent of the telephone. It was Thomas Edison - the bloke that invented the lightbulb who suggested that the standard greeting when answering the telephone be 'Hello'. It quickly caught on, and, as the say on the TV, the rest is history.
But what about the chap who actually invented the telephone - Alexander Graham Bell? You would have thought he'd have had first dabs at calling the shots for the standard telephone greeting. Obviously not. And it's a real shame, because his suggestion was 'Ahoy!'
Hearing this immediately put me in a very good mood.
There's an old chap I've known for many years who goes by the name of Roy. I first met him almost 20 years ago. Me and Our Kid were on the market selling cheap shit for children. He was on the market selling not-quite-as-cheap shit for adults. Nowadays, he does a bit of business with us during the summer months. From Easter till October, he'll appear at the factory unit at least once a week. You always know when Roy visits. As soon as he pulls open the shutter doors, he's always greeted warmly by the lads on the shop floor. 'Ahoy Roy!' they'll all yell in unison. If I'm sat in the office, pretending to do some work, and I hear this salute, I can't help but grin.
You get a lot of righteous New Year's Resolutions - things to do that you think will make you a more worthy person or improve your health. I always find these a bit tiresome. What can be better, I say, than making a resolution that makes the world a happier place? Imagine how great it would be if everyone answered the phone with an 'Ahoy!'
Now, as I've mentioned earlier, I hardly ever answer the phone. (In fact, it was this 'Ahoy!' thing that got me thinking about telephones in the first place.) But I'll not let that get in the way of a brilliant idea.
My New Year's Resolution, then, for 2015 is simple:
- At least once a day, greet someone with a hearty 'Ahoy!'
It won't change the world. But it's sure to put a smile on my face. And if you're on the receiving end of an 'Ahoy!'ing, maybe it'll put a smile on your face too?
That's got to be a good thing, hasn't it?
Thursday, 1 January 2015
'For, if we think of this existence of the individual as a room—be it large or small—it is evident that most people only get to know a corner of their room, a corner by the window, a strip on which they walk up or down. In this way they have a certain security: yet far more human is that perilous insecurity which drives the prisoners in Poe's stories to take hold of the shapes of their fearful prison and not to be strangers unfamiliar with the unspeakable horrors of their sojourn there. But we are not prisoners, no traps or snares are set around us and there is nothing that should frighten us or torment us.'
Rainer Maria Rilke, 'Letters To A Young Poet'
As I start to disappear,
There'll be no more words,