∞² Revival

I resolve to dive in. Not the water – that’s way too cold for me, this time of year, early summer, just after the solstice and before the sea has been warmed by long days in the sun – but into the experience of it all. There, inside the experience, may lie a clue. If not a clue, then perhaps an insight, a truth. It could be random, it could be real. My research has yielded nothing. I have spoken to cafe owners and life guards; to beach goers and hut holders. To dog walkers (where they’re allowed, the dogs) and to joggers. Hoteliers, I spoke to, two of them. And two police officers, one a young woman, the other a young man, both attractive, both friendly, both clueless as to the origin of this tradition that is still, after all, fairly new; but a tradition nonetheless. Age has no bearing on the soul of a matter, be that a culture, a person, a people, a place: roots burrow deep, far deeper, we know, than the living thing that we see may suggest.

Everybody, of course, has a story to tell. Most of them charming, some of them harrowing, all of them sad, in a way. I’m surprised to find that is so. No matter who I talk to, and for how long, there is always, always a moment of sadness. How did I miss that, in my perception, and for so long? How sadness seeps through the seasons, irrespective of who you are. Here, many remember, with a scarred sense of fondness for how it all brought them together, the Solstice Spectacle several years ago now, when two youths had set fire to almost all of the beach huts along the seafront in the most brazen, most wanton, act of arson anyone could recall. Nobody refers to it now, as some ‘newspapers’ did at the time, as a ‘massacre’; and few people, though the sadness over the girls does prevail, the twins, who’d perished, aged five, having been put to bed in one of the larger huts, while the parents were sharing a rare moment of intimacy, just outside, in the twinkling night of summery stars, are weighed down now by sorrow.

So into each other, so absorbed by their bodies, the parents were at that time, that they didn’t notice the bangs, or the heat, or the flames from the beach in the distance at first, or the smoke: they took it for fireworks in the sky, for being at one with each other for the first time in ages; and the chain lit up so quickly, by the time the Calor gas bottle exploded and they’d rushed back to their hut, just a few yards, a few steps really, no more, it was way too late. The devastation still registers in the young mother’s eyes; the young father holding her hands, as they sit, outside their new hut, overlooking the sea. They are no longer young now, these two, but they do have a son and a daughter, aged twelve and fourteen. They are not happy, but they’re content. And they have no anger now in their hearts, and no hate. Then, they did, they tell me, they wanted them dead, the two youths who had done this to them, who had taken their daughters. Now? Now they feel a kind of resignation, and calm. Life is like that. ‘Life is like that,’ the young father, no longer young now (maybe a little young, still), but proud of his son whom he shows me a picture of, after he’s shown me one of the twins, and before he shows me one of his daughter too, ‘life goes on; has to, really.’ The young mother, who I know, although she doesn’t tell me, feels guilty for having left the girls in the hut while stealing, for the first time in weeks, maybe months, a bit of time just with her man, to enjoy, to inhale, to taste and to have him, in the freedom of the seaside air and after the long struggles for daily survival, in and out of the sun, smiles a wan smile of undying regret. She could have saved them, her eyes – though they be adorned by kind lines after all – tell me, pleading for my forgiveness. I have no need, nor do I have any gift of forgiveness for her, it has nothing whatever to do with me: I only feel love for these people, and thank them their honesty and their trust. ‘Thing is, we couldn’t have saved them,’ her husband, squeezing her hands, so in tune he senses her anguish without needing to ask any question, tells me: ‘it was just too quick. When this kind of catastrophe strikes you down you have to, if you can, just get up again. Kids die in accidents. In a car crash. If we’d been lying there with them, and had fallen asleep, we’d both be dead too?’ His voice inflexes a question. The doubt. The ‘catastrophe’. It sounds a little incongruent now, but true. Maybe he wants to be sure, more sure than he is. Who can blame them. I salute them, I wander on.

‘Boscombe & Bournemouth has had its fair share of tragedy,’ the old lady tells me, ‘maybe more than.’ She sits further down the beach, in front of her own hut, that is hidden a little, tucked away behind a bit of a bluff, and she nods at me sagely. I expect her to go on, but she doesn’t. There’s something in my memory that I can’t recall that makes me think that I know what she’s talking about, but the look that she gives me suggests that the time isn’t right. And so I don’t ask, and she doesn’t tell. Some things are best left unspoken. Yet for a while. 

And so I take the plunge. The Boscombe & Bournemouth Nude Beach Stroll. I have never been naked in public. I’m innately shy. People don’t think so, they think I am confident, bold even. I’m not. It’s the last Sunday in June and I’m curious: will it happen. And how? The weather is glorious, hot: more than thirty degrees. I shower, smear sun cream all over my body, wear shorts and a shirt and flip-flops; the near compulsory hat, and the shades, and head out. It’s just gone lunch time and I expect to be disappointed. For a while it looks like I might be; and then, suddenly, unnoticeably almost at first, then more and more obviously and quite naturally, it happens. Here a naked person, another one there. A couple, a group, some talking, some smiling, without exception all sunning themselves and their bodies in the luxurious heat, they are strolling along the beach. As I get there, they are vastly outnumbered by clothed people, but the clothed people don’t bat an eyelid, with the exception perhaps of the odd tourist. I am on my own and I don’t know how to do this now, where should I stop to undress? I feel lost, I must look it, too. I need not fret, it turns out. A big burly man with a lot of hair on his chest and a belly protruding far over a very small penis beams at me baring the broadest of grins: ‘you look just like someone who’s come to stroll in the nude.’ For the duration of half a thought I want to say, ‘sorry? Who? Me? Oh no, don’t worry about me, I’m just looking for a place to buy ice cream.’ But his friend smiles at me too and I like her for that. She’s generous, kind. Their mutual friend, I assume, seems to be thinking about something, but he too gives me a nod of encouragement, and so I say: ‘Yes. I am.’

‘I hope you’re wearing sunscreen?’ the big man, who steadies my arm as I step out of my shorts asks me, and his friend cocks his head a little as if to comment, not strictly approving, but not dismissing either, my soft cotton trunks. I take them off too. And the shirt, and I put them all in a little backpack I’ve brought along for this purpose, and I step back into my flip-flops and put on my hat and say: ‘thank you. My name is Sebastian.’ We shake hands and they tell me their names and I put on my shades and we stroll.

The Snowflake Collector – 9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder

It was a miserable Easter that The Snowflake Collector encountered, and Whitsun was worse. Day after day the sun rose, but not he, not for hours. Most days, he barely made it onto the bench outside his hut, and since he had no appetite, he didn’t eat, and as he didn’t eat he grew gaunt, and the listlessness in his heart turned the skin that hung off his bones grey and painted his spirit all bleak.

There would have been butterflies to colour his mind; there would have been cute little crocuses. The meadows turned yellow with dandelions and green with fresh, rich grass and there were the multitude of insects with their implacable buzz and their hum; and the cows returned with their picture book bells that lent the valley its melodic chime in the distance.

The Snowflake Collector cared aught. He went not on his walks and he neglected his wood by the stream. He missed Yanosh, whose visits had become sparse, but he could not bring himself to wander down the path to the inn, an hour or so from his hut, to nod his silent ‘hello’ to him there and ask for an ale from his mother Yolanda. There was no point now to any of it, the pointlessness of it all was complete.

It was an unusually sullen day in June – after a month of May full of sunny disposition, bordering on the obnoxious – that The Snowflake Collector was sitting on his bench outside his hut when he saw Yanosh climb up the path at a pace. He was in no hurry, Yanosh, since he, much as The Snowflake Collector, had eschewed the notion of ‘hurry’, or rather had never embraced it, but he was a good and energetic walker, and he was young and so wherever he went, he went with a stride.

Yanosh sat down next to The Snowflake Collector on his bench, but today he didn’t even nod a ‘hello’, nor did he say anything, he just sat there, apparently more than a little perturbed. The Snowflake Collector did not speak either, but he looked over at him, to find his friend staring ahead of himself, at the ground. Something, The Snowflake Collector surmised, must have happened, most likely something to upset him, perhaps something that his mother Yolanda had said, though more likely something a teacher at school had remarked or something his inadequate peers had done; but to ask, The Snowflake Collector felt, was to pry, and it was not in his nature to pry, nor was it in Yanosh’s nature to expect him to.

Thus the young lad who wasn’t quite as young as sometimes he seemed and the old man who was nowhere near as old as he felt sat there in silence for an hour or two, until something occurred that took them both by surprise. It started to snow. They were in the mountains, at the end of the valley, near the glacier now slowly receding, just above the tree line, so snow in June was not unheard of for Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector, but although this had been an ill favoured month, they weren’t expecting it now.

When Yanosh and The Snowflake Collector now looked at each other, they both burst out laughing. They had no good reason, it was just that they cut surreal figures in a picturesque setting at the onset of summer when it had started to snow, and at this precise moment, for the first time, they realised this. The Snowflake Collector got up and with a few moves cleared the wooden table outside his hut, then he went into his kitchen and brought out a box that had in it the glass cubes he’d made. He brought out the bottles of liquids that he had bought and mixed and experimented with throughout the winter, and he stood at the table outside his hut, Yanosh watching him in fascination, and, noting down ratios and combinations with a heavy pencil directly onto the heavy table, he began developing new solutions, one emerging from the other, building on any progress he was making and discarding any failures without grief.

Three hours and forty-odd minutes went by in this manner before he needed a short break for comfort, and he disappeared momentarily, leaving on his table three cubes, each with a marginally different solution in it, and maybe he forgot or maybe his subconscious willed him to omit laying any kind of cover on them, but Yanosh sat and watched in an astonishment that unclenched his own heart how a gorgeous snowflake eased itself directly into the cube in the middle, and stayed.

Yanosh got up from his bench, slowly. Carefully he advanced on the miracle he was sole witness to and hesitantly, reluctantly lest he should undo it, lest a shake or a wobble or the hot breath from his nostrils should disturb it, he, holding on to the weighty wooden table, squatted down and watched, and watched. He didn’t notice that The Snowflake Collector had long since appeared behind him and in turn observed the scene, from just a little distance, also so as not to chase away its wonder. Then The Snowflake Collector became aware of another fat snowflake making its way just about straight into the same cube and he darted forward and caught that one with his hand, while with his other hand supporting himself on Yanosh to avoid knocking the table. Softly now he covered the cube with its purpose-cut lid and squatted down beside Yanosh to examine its beauty.

It was perfect. The liquid, in which the snowflake now floated was completely clear and the snowflake was still intact: minutes after immersing itself, it retained its shape, its intricate structure, its delicacy. It was miraculous. But could it last? The temperature outside on this day was just a few degrees above freezing. Would the snowflake, once brought inside, now melt and dissipate into its ether? The Snowflake Collector barely dared touch it, but he fixed the lid to its cube now with a permanent seal of glue and left it standing there. Time would tell. Snowfall in June doesn’t tend to last very long: soon the sun would appear and subject his experiment to the most unforgiving of tests.

Yanosh went home as he usually did around this time when he had come to visit during the day, and The Snowflake Collector went inside his hut to lie down. He was exhausted. And although he had no certainty yet and certainly no evidence that this latest effort of his would bear fruit, that it worked, that his snowflake would still be there in the morning, he already sensed the unbearable burden of sorrow ease off his chest. Each breath of air he took in filled him deeper with reconciliation and for a moment he remembered that he hadn’t named this snowflake! No matter, he thought, as his eyelids grew heavy and he slowly surrendered to sleep: it can wait. If the snowflake is still a snowflake next time I wake, it shall have a name.


8: It Was, in Every Imaginable Sense, a Disaster <

> 10: George


The Snowflake Collector – 3: ‘I Need to Know How to Collect Snowflakes’

While he knew well how to craft wooden cases, and for these wooden cases build sturdy boxes and for the sturdy boxes – many as there would be – construct a formidable shed, and had the tools in his hut and the fir trees on his land by the stream to make all these things, and while he also possessed a diamond glass cutter and knew where to find good solid flat glass to cut into precisely dimensioned plates of three inches by one, over time in very large numbers, The Snowflake Collector did not know how to collect snowflakes.

He had never before given any thought to the possibility that he might one day decide to collect snowflakes and thus become The Snowflake Collector, but now that he had determined to do so – as certain and as irrevocable as if it had been set in stone, and yet, of course, from a wider, much longer perspective, as transient too – he felt compelled to research the matter, in detail.

It would have appealed to his great sense of distance, which he so had sought out and which he so cherished, to undertake a long journey and walk down into the valley and from there take the yellow bus to the very small town and from there take a little red train to the nearest small city and from there a bigger and faster and greener or whiter train to the bigger (though still fairly small) city and there go to the large stately library kept by the university and ask a bespectacled and certainly not hostile but perhaps slightly weary librarian for a book on Snowflake Collecting, but he knew that such an excursion, which entailed the expense of time and resources, was an unnecessary and therefore wasteful exertion, and while he did not believe that time could really be expended any more than it could be kept in a jar, he nevertheless found any temptation that might have drawn him from his valley and into the city, overpowered, readily, easily, by the comfort and safety of his mountains.

So, instead, he walked down to the inn, an hour or so from his hut, in the outpost hamlet some few miles from the village, and there he was greeted with a smile by Yolanda, the waitress from the Ukraine. Yolanda had come from the Ukraine to find work here as a waitress, and she liked the landlord, because the landlord was not interested in her, he mostly spent time with his mostly young friends. Like everyone else, Yolanda knew The Snowflake Collector, although she, like everyone else, did not know yet that that’s who he was. She greeted him with her smile that she never needed to force and started pulling a dark ale for him because in all the years she had known (or thought that she’d known) him (for nobody really knew him at all), he had never wanted anything other than a dark ale from the tap.

‘Is Yanosh around?’ he asked her, having thanked her, as she brought the heavy beaker to him at the table in the corner with a small view out of the square window onto some very brown cows.

‘He is, I can call him for you if you like?’

‘When he’s not busy.’

The Snowflake Collector knew that Yanosh would not be busy now, because Yanosh was Yolanda’s son of about fifteen, and he didn’t like his peers down in the village too much, so he mainly kept himself to himself in his room, playing games on the computer or writing songs which he never played to anyone, or fantasising about travelling back in time to the past or forward into the future, or being naked with an actress he recently started to fancy.

Yanosh came down directly when his mother asked him if he would, because he liked The Snowflake Collector, and although he didn’t know yet that that’s who he was either, he, unlike almost anyone else in the world, sensed that he did know him a bit. They both knew each other, a bit. And they liked each other for knowing each other a bit, but not more, and for mainly leaving each other alone but when necessary being able to spend time in each other’s company without ever having to say or do anything.

Sometimes, when he felt particularly bored or lonely or uncertain why he was even here, or just wanted to be out of his room, but not anywhere where there were people, but also not anywhere where there were none, Yanosh would stomp up that same path that The Snowflake Collector had just come down now, and simply sit outside his hut, in the sun, or if there was no sun, then in the rain. It didn’t matter to Yanosh whether there was sunshine or rain, or no rain but clouds: he liked sitting outside The Snowflake Collector’s hut, because here he could sit in absolute peace with no demands being made on him and simply watch the world go by, which it didn’t, up here, because up here, the world stood pretty much still; but Yanosh, much as The Snowflake Collector, knew of course that nothing stood still, that everything was in motion, always, and while Yanosh did not find this either disconcerting or comforting – he had little need, in his life, yet, for disconcertion or comfort – he nevertheless found it soothing. And sometimes The Snowflake Collector would already be sitting there too and they would nod at each other and perhaps mutter ‘hello’, though with hardly any tone to their voice at all, and then sit there; and sometimes The Snowflake Collector would not be around but would find him there and join him, and they would similarly nod at each other or, not expending any unnecessary breath on words, perhaps mutter ‘hello’, perhaps not even that, but sit there in great silence, which they both so greatly appreciated, Yanosh quite as much as The Snowflake Collector.

Over the years that Yanosh had come to sit with The Snowflake Collector, there would have been the occasional short conversation, sometimes perhaps inside the hut, over a glass of Chrüterschnapps or with a slice of Bündnerfleisch, and so The Snowflake Collector knew that if he ever found himself in need of any information at all, the person to ask was Yanosh, because Yanosh spent most of his waking hours – when he wasn’t sitting with him here in front of his hut or in his very small kitchen – on his smartphone or his computer, and he therefore had access, any time night or day, to all the knowledge in the world, if perhaps not all of its wisdom.

Yanosh sat down and they nodded at each other their familiar nod that did not demand any words, and The Snowflake Collector said, to the querying glance of the youth, who in spite of his pain never once betrayed any sorrow:

‘I need to know how to collect snowflakes.’


2: His Task Would Be Immense <  

> 4: And He Had Many Memories


5 Youth

Talking to the man who doesn’t need to shave fills in me a well of melancholy, sudden and post conversation. The conversation features the most delightful frog in short film history (yet to be made) and many things that give me mirth and pleasure, not least looking into his silvery eyes. Unlike most other young men of an age at which they don’t have to shave, he holds my gaze, steady as a hypnotist. His eyes are memorably shaped, as if they were placed in his face upside down, just a little. Silvery grey.

The sadness sets in after I’ve left the party at which we spend a couple of hours or so talking as the sun goes down over the back garden. It’s more of a backyard than an actual garden, with wild grass growing all over and a neighbour’s dog actually digging up his there hidden bones. I’d never seen that before, other than in comic books (and I’m not an avid fan or consumer of comics). It’s not his youth that brings on my deep sorrow verging on despair, nor anything he said nor the fact that he is bright and well spoken nor let alone that he doesn’t seem to need to shave. I reckon I must be close to twice his age but luckily not as old as his dad. His dad sounds ancient and excellent, formidable in one field or another. By age though, I could be his dad. This casts a pall of umbra over my otherwise sanguine disposition.

I know! I’m having my midlife crisis. It’s plain and perhaps just tadwise banal. I am projecting my discomfiture with the impending calamity of fifty onto the part of my mind that clings on to diversion for dear life. I make believe. The irksomeness of my situation begins to creep up on me, like a nebulous mist. (Tautology.) I have made it to midpoint completely unnoticed: I am invisible to the naked eye. 

And the next few days will have been cataclysmic, so small wonder I’m having an existential wobble. But the good thing is that this time I did not fall in love: not with my friend on the South Bank (though that would have been easy), not with the young man who doesn’t need to shave. (Easier still.) Most certainly not with Poshvoiced Hoodie and, no, not with the man in a blue shirt at Clapham Junction, should you wonder. (Have you ever noticed how many sprucely scrubbed men, tender in years and wearing ironed blue shirts, stand at any given station on any commutable morning… – It’s a rhetorical question?)

As well as being unfamous I am also perennially poor. My chosen path of professional endeavour has so far yielded no hint of a fortune. This has the advantage that I remain unencumbered, I suppose, by wealth’s weight: what I don’t have I can’t lose and I know more than I care to reflect on that the things I own own me quite as much. Take my laptop for instance: without it I am nought. I have dislodged myself to the continent’s end but my Mac is still here: I find that reassuring.

I will the straw in my drink to suck up one more residual sip of tomato juice laced with vodka and it complies with a gurgling sound, which attracts the attention of a boy sitting two tables removed. He gives me a look of aloof disdain and in his eyes, which are the colour of mine, I detect a familiar glint that I cannot put name to nor nature, no. He seems to consider disapproving of me but stops short of a sneer and his very fine lips instead curl into almost a smile. I’m so surprised at this, I put down my glass and smile back at him, which changes his demeanour to a tinge of distaste.

He, much like the young man who does not need to shave and whom I am yet to meet, has no facial growth and his lightly tan skin looks fluffdown soft. He appears as out of place here as I do, and quite as at home. Wherein lies a paradox that tickles me and I catch myself grinning just to myself.

The boy lets a few moments pass in contemplation of his plate on which there appears to have been a kebab or salad, as if to decide whether or not he should scrape the remnants of whatever it was with his fork or knife or even fingers (though he doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who, given the choice, would use his fingers to scrape up anything, let alone food); or maybe he’s versed in the mystical art of reading the scraps. As far as I can tell from where I’m sitting (and without ungainlily craning my neck) it looks unlikely that the plate is going to yield up much insight. He appears to come to that same conclusion himself and now looks up, but not at me or at anyone in particular, but into the generality of the world straight ahead, a little bemused and distracted.

I feel like I know him already but clearly I don’t. I have no idea. I have a looming sense of foreboding.