FOOTPRINTS IN THE SNOW
“If you don’t call round for her,” said Marco, with his usual braggadocio, “I will.”
It was the winter of 1991, and we stood beside a railway line that ran beside a secret footpath leading to Devil’s Ring, a circular tree-haunted ditch in what was then an uncultivated territory of Sinfin Moor.
“You won’t,” I said, “you wouldn’t dare.”
“Just watch me.”
This challenge grated me, for although I was reasonably strong among the boys of our school year, there was that chance that Marco was stronger, and the fact that he was my friend would have added to the humiliation, not only of losing a possible confrontation, but of losing a girl to him, a girl whom I had grown quickly and inexplicably keen on. When I say “inexplicably” I do not quite mean it, because looking back it is clear to me that my shy fourteen-year-old self was helplessly charmed by this girl’s unabashed and carefree manner.
Her name was Louisa and she had approached me two weeks earlier in an under eighteens nightclub called The Ritzy, which served Coca-Cola and played the pop songs of the day. I was sitting on a stool, leaning with my back to the wall, feeling contentedly unapproachable, when Louisa appeared out of nowhere and sat down beside me. This in itself caught my attention. The banality of what she said next has been etched on my memory ever since:
“Hiya. Like me turn ups? Had me tooth out the other day, look,” and she opened her mouth and pointed into it. She was attractive, and I would have been tentative to talk to her but for her totally playful and unselfconscious approach. When a girl says such things on an initial encounter, what does it matter what is said in return? I don’t recall what I did say in return; perhaps I smiled at her ways as she continued in coquettish fashion. She might only have graced me with her presence for a moment. All I know is that it was sufficient to hold me captured for such time as determined that I find her and speak to her again.
And here I was, two weeks later, standing on a railway line in the misty snow, at a point which seemed central to some journey, if only because that railway line reached for eternity in either direction, and I was here and it was now, and I was a short distance from Louisa’s lit pink-curtained window, which lay on the other end of a small park beyond a thorny hole in the fence. I knew she lived there because, by felicitous coincidence, a boy in my school form lived on the same Glengarry Way.
Marco did, as it turned out, call for her the next day, but neither to my detriment nor to his advantage. Whatever his intention, it merely served as an enquiry into the possible attraction on either side between Louisa and me.
“Now would you just call for her,” he had said, “she likes you and is flattered by your attention. I can’t stand on this bloody train track for much longer, with you every evening waxing lyrical and then chickening out from doing anything.”
“All right, but not now. Tomorrow.”
Marco sighed, shaking his head and shivering.
“If you don’t,” he said smiling, “I’ll set Jacob onto you.” Jacob was his mad Irish cousin, fuelled by Celtic fire, who liked nothing better than brawling. I smiled back at the mock threat, and we started our separate journeys homeward, which for me was longer, for I walked three miles just to get there.
Next day after school I was back again, trembling on the train tracks under black branches shackled with snow, rubbing my hands so that the blood swam back into them momentarily, until the light drained early in the winter sky, and with it everything else, including the brilliant snow, grew dark. The bushes and the shaggy trees loomed and bent their shoulders, bristling their spiky and twisted haunches, and the quiet snow ticked and beaded and blinked. Again the now familiar sight of the endless railway lines, at that crossing between holes in the fences, possessed the unanswerable visage of eternity staring back at me, goading my puny fate into action as each exhalation of milky air rose and wispily dispersed into the overarching and indifferent constellations. I caught sight of twin lit eyes in the misty distance that were soon accompanied by a faint and faintly ominous rumble.
“A good time to move,” I muttered to myself, and stepped off the rail and down the stony bank that flanked the tracks, then over a slippery ditch and through a hole in the fence while behind me the oncoming train roared and shuttled by at great speed. I slid down the frozen slope on the other side and crossed the road into the park. Louisa’s lit pink curtains rosily bloomed at the far side behind a climbing frame. I sat on a tyre-seated swing for a few moments until I thought I saw a corner of Louisa’s curtain edge open and then close. My heartbeat altered. I must act now, I told myself.
When I knocked on the front door there was a knocking on my ribs.
“Are you Jim?” her mother asked. I nodded. “Do you want to come in?” I shook my head.
Louisa appeared beside her in the door frame, dressed in pyjamas that shimmered like watery silk.
“I’ll come out. Give me a minute.”
I walked away from the eye-line of the front door as I waited, shuffling in the crunchy fallen sky. Perhaps a part of me wanted to go, to disappear, as I would do on a whim at crucial times in my life, like when on exam days for compulsory courses I would instead disappear into the fields and recite poetry to myself or go birding. However, on this occasion destiny compelled me to stay. Five minutes later Louisa reappeared at the door.
“Smie-yull!” She almost sang the word, the homely accent bending and pulling at the word and at my affections. Again her relaxed manner eased my nerves.
“Hi,” I managed, obliging her with a smile.
“Hello again, dimples. Sorry I made you wait.”
“That’s okay. I’ve been waiting some time.”
“I know you have, I’ve seen you on the park with that boy from your school. What made you take so long?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure you wanted to see me again.”
“And why do you want to see me?”
We were now walking side by side, turning the corner.
“Because I like you.”
“But why do you like me?”
I had been focusing on the foot-crushed snow before me, and when I looked at her I lost the procession of thoughts. Her dark hair curtained her green eyes that looked casually back into mine, her pillowy lips parted and heart-shaped.
“I don’t know –”
“You don’t know much, do you?” she goaded with a smile. “Come on, I want to know.”
She answered this by raising her eyebrows. Apparently I wasn’t adept at this sort of talk.
“I find you attractive and fun, and I find you easy to talk to.”
“Clearly not,” she said, “it’s like trying to get blood from a stone,” though I could tell that my first admission pleased her. She slid her gloved hand into mine, and I felt instantly warm inside, and consoled that words were not the sole conveyors of feeling.
“Well, I like you too, Charlie Brown. I think you’re handsome and I like your voice. A little weird perhaps, but I can live with that. You write poetry, so your friend said, and all poets are a little weird.”
I forget what little we said that day, the words have been snatched from me by time as by a fleeting wind – though however trivial it seems to me now it may have opened to me then vistas of unfamiliar feelings. All too soon Louisa had to obey her curfew, as her mother’s belling tongue yelled her name from the front door around the corner and she disappeared.
Many were the days I went back there, crumping through snow whose every powdery grain sparkled with promises and possibilities, on days when I was still idealistic enough to think the lift in my heart would be eternal, as if the snow of that winter of 1991 could never thaw into its common substance.
It must only have been a fortnight afterwards that I called round for Louisa and two of her friends were there. This made me slightly uncomfortable, because one girl is surely more than enough to contend with. One, Karen, was especially brash and, when sitting on the swing beside the other, said to me as I stood before them with Louisa:
“Why haven’t you kissed her yet, Jim? You’ve been seeing each other for two weeks now and you still haven’t kissed her. What are you waiting for?”
I didn’t know how to answer this. I had never kissed a girl before. Louisa, for once, said nothing.
Again there was a prompt, a goad:
I made no motion.
“Look, we’re hardly going to do anything with you two sitting and watching.”
“Exactly,” said Louisa.
“Go on,” urged Karen. “We won’t watch. I tell you what, we’ll close our eyes and count from ten, and you have to kiss her in that time, okay?”
I sighed. But without awaiting any agreement they covered their eyes with gloved hands and slowly began counting.
I turned nervously to Louisa for some sort of confirmation. They were, after all, her friends, and she should know how to deal with them.
There she stood, with her dark hair loose about her neck and shoulders, her feet shifting slightly in the angelic snow, with lips parted and a look in her eyes I hadn’t seen before.
Her friends sniggered slightly, peeping through the cracks between their fingers. It was like the countdown of a rocket launching into stars.
I cannot remember who stepped towards who, but some irresistible gravity beckoned us.
“One!” they exclaimed, and suddenly we were one, and what had filled me with hesitation and foreboding seemed as natural and easy as anything in the world. My lips, that had felt chapped in the December cold, met hers, warm and soft and plush.
I walked home that night singing songs, feeling like a conqueror, indomitable, initiated. The snow twinkled without apology. The star-struck tarmac of the winter streets, the slush of curved car tracks looping the corners, all seemed jewelled and faceted as I improvised songs and sang them to the dark trees, caring nothing if they hid wise owls suspicious of my broadcast sentiments.
Sometimes I would just explore Louisa’s vicinity. She lived next to Grampian School and at the foot of the schoolyard was a narrow and low pathway barbed with brambles – what we used to call a jitty – that stretched the distance of the school like the looped tunnel of a warren. Grampian School was a junior school whose roof I would climb onto to still be in close proximity to Louisa after her mother had told me it was time for me to leave for home. I always climbed onto roofs in those days, before my fear of heights began, though this roof required no fire escape access or rusty ladder tangled with wire to climb through. One night I kicked my way with steel-capped Doc Martens through one of the plastic domes that let in the light. Always excited by the illicit and the criminal as a teenager, I dropped down through the shaft onto the floor below. At once I looked up and noticed a red light pulsing on a contraption fixed to the ceiling, though no alarm sounded. Suspecting it sent a signal somewhere, it gave me brief moments to explore the place in darkness, much relieved that the push-bar opened the exit door. Once I had hauled myself over the fence and out of the grounds I peered through the boundary woven with bushes and watched the place swarm with rozzers with torches and dogs, and I smiled with relief and fascination.
The looped tunnel at the foot of the school opened into unkempt fields where I used to play truant, miles though it was from my own school. There I used to sing songs of my own invention in the fields and hurl rocks at the sun, which seemed as far away as the realization of my dreams. One night I invited several friends to join me there to spend the night dossing in the fields. Years before satellite navigation, I am surprised now how we always seemed to find our way, without maps even, as if homing in on some electromagnetic lure.
Clad snugly in sheepskins and donkey jackets, we spent the night in a field beyond a waterlogged realm where each gulping clutch of muck tried to claim us, and made our bedding on unkempt hay, keeping our spirits high by drinking stolen beer and cherry brandy, stoking giant fires we’d set ablaze from ripped and sundered upholstery that had been abandoned. I took my gang, the Oyboys, back along the pathway to lob mud and gravel at Louisa’s bedroom window, because she had vowed to appease our self-imposed discomfort by providing a loaf of bread and a battery-powered radio. Our hungry efforts failed to rouse the girl to her window, when suddenly at the next window appeared the ghoulish mask of her disgruntled mother and we bolted with silent exclamations into the moonless shadows and weaved a route back to our camp. What urban urchins we were! When we set fire to the fields there was a redolent acoustic medley of rising cinders and logwood cracking in cascading flames, the black smoke coiling skyward. The old furniture burst its bonds and revealed its scorched and blackened inner springs.
It was the coldest winter in memory and long afterwards, whenever I walked winter streets, I would see those nights reflected in the laminating frost. In mirrors too I noticed that something akin to a brilliant brittle substance that compels refractive light had thawed and vanished, had left my eyes the day Louisa left my life. I became as ashen as a bloodless flower. I even had a tooth knocked out by that ex-girlfriend’s boyfriend, and for years I could click my false tooth out with my tongue as a party trick. The flesh of youth is as brief as snowfall in the scheme of things, yet still I remember the songs I penned and sang in homage to my icy initiations into romance:
We built the structure, the spells of joy were cast,
We dreamt about the future
Like I now dream about the past.
Commitment collapsed, pride murdered every word,
Routine was smashed
As temptation wrecked my world.
Oh, I’m still here, still standing where you left me.
Oh, I’m still here; I still walk as you once walked beside me…
Heady, saccharine, adolescent stuff. But though my callow memories may be intermeshed with coruscations of melting snow, though the template for chaotic passions might imprint us when we’re young and impressionable, though I have been abandoned by the fabled goddesses of love, I still wonder what became of that dark-haired, green-eyed girl who ensnared me so artlessly in the breaches of ice brash, in the fractured glassy fragments of surgical snow. I have sought her feminine manifestation in others, even in the signals and hieroglyphs of nature itself, but she has become a fading apparition, like so many other memories.
We only went out with each other for nine or ten months, which in your mid-teens is a lifetime, the defining relationship which we naturally assume will never end. Why did it end? Perhaps the fault was mine. Perhaps we are flawed from the start and life is merely the echo of our imperfections. Perhaps Louisa matured into her prime, the way girls suddenly do, and outgrew me and my wily rebellious ways – who knows? But somewhere lost in time we are wedded in those castles of winter, and there is a frozen chamber of my heart that only she has the charm to dissolve and unlock. In those parallel lives we resemble those Sinfin railway lines, eternal in either direction, running alongside each other and uniting in the distance, a vanishing perspective which is also a point of origin and the horizon of uncharted departures, disappearing into the glowering Guinness-black sky like the exhaled vapours of our hearts, visible for a moment, and then gone.