The Snowflake Collector – 8: It Was, in Every Imaginable Sense, a Disaster

No matter how Yanosh tried, no matter where he looked and what he put in his search field, the world did not seem to possess for The Snowflake Collector an answer. Innumerable were the sites and video clips that explained how to preserve snowflakes on microscopic slides or small sheets of acetate, using either—as he had been doing—superglue, or hairspray, or an artist’s fixative; and they all arrived, going by the evidence Yanosh could find, at results similar to the ones that The Snowflake Collector so far had reached.

But this, Yanosh knew, for The Snowflake Collector had told him, would not suffice. He would need, The Snowflake Collector had said and determined, a way of collecting his snowflakes in the fullness of their dimensions. And while it may have been the case that in their majority these snowflakes seemed, at first glance, so flat as to fit neatly within a thin layer of superglue trapped between two small plates of glass, The Snowflake Collector knew that this was nothing but a deception. A deception and a crass simplification by the lazy mind.

In reality, all these snowflakes—even the flattest among them, but most certainly those that came in the shape of short studs or even, as often they did, in a formation of nearly flat hexagonal structures enjoined with, or indeed by, short column shaped ones—were miniature crystals of infinitesimal complexity. To squeeze them between two glass plates and store them flat in a wooden case, no matter how carefully crafted, was, to The Snowflake Collector, as looking at the world and declaring it a disk off the edge of which one might fall…

The Snowflake Collector knew, then, that he would have to develop his own substance. He would have to acquire some knowledge, and applying this knowledge he would, through a process of trial and error and elimination, have to come up with a liquid, a gel that would have just the right consistency, that would be clear as glass, and that would dry, at habitable temperatures, with untarnished translucence and would keep the shape and the intricacy and the character of the snowflake he would encase in it, in three dimensions, for the relative eternity he or any other human being could envisage; not an eternity, then, perhaps, but a lifespan of civilisations: the extent of a physically appreciative intelligent presence on this planet.

A deep crisis of confidence soon engulfed him, for Yanosh’s extended research online remained fruitless. The Snowflake Collector now even undertook his rare and adventurous journey two or three times, by yellow bus and little red train and larger green or white train along the lakes into the biggest of any of the cities in his country, and to the enormous library of the university there, to study the properties of chemical solutions at different temperatures and their reaction to coming in contact with ice.

But hours and days and nights and weeks and months of toil both in theory in the city and in practice at home in his valley did not yield up to him any liquid or gel or substance of any kind that would catch a snowflake and leave it intact and absolutely unharmed, suspended in a glass cube in three dimensions, one inch by one inch by one.

The Snowflake Collector sensed the end of the season draw near, and with it he felt this abyss of despair once more gape open before him, calling him to fall, drawing him close to surrender, willing him to give in. He did not feel, The Snowflake Collector, that if in this undertaking, as in so many others before, he failed, he would find the strength, the courage, the spirit to pursue it again the next winter. Or any other endeavour. He was now, he felt certain, exhausted, spent. He had given the universe his all, and the universe had, once more, rejected his offering. Yet again, crushed by defeat and destroyed by his own, maybe lofty, ambition, he had exerted himself, but he had not excelled. It was, in every imaginable sense, a disaster.

The snow melted. The stream, where he had a small plot of land on which he planted two young fir trees for each mature one he cut down, had already swollen with the water from the fast disappearing masses of white that had covered the meadows and the sharp inclines of the mountainside, and The Snowflake Collector was no more. He had ceased to exist, his purpose evaporated like the miserable puddle of water left on the window sill from the erstwhile snow, with the warm morning sun. The devastation was drawn into the furrows of his troubled forehead, and when Yanosh now came to sit with him outside his hut, their silence was one of sadness and loss.

The stale stench of failure now clung about him, The Snowflake Collector knew, and he felt despair not just for himself but also for Yanosh. This friend. This loyal lad, still growing up, still becoming a person. Had he not let him down terribly too. Had he not drawn him into his project and made him a part of it, and did the ruins of it now not lie scattered before his innocent eyes, his young heart cut and bleeding; for what? A delusion? A whim? A fantasy? For a false and forever frustrated illusion that there could be such a thing as meaning, as purpose, as friendship and love?

Tears ran down The Snowflake Collector’s face and fell on the cold folded hands in his lap and he felt he was already dead. Yanosh could not bear to look at him. But he sat still by his side and bore with him his pain. And thus they remained, awaiting in silence the dread bounce of spring.


< 7: Every Day Brought New Gifts Now

9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder >


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

 

The Snowflake Collector – 7: Every Day Brought New Gifts Now

Every day brought new gifts now from the universe. There was Alison and Cassandra. Timothy, Lou and Lysander. There was tiny Frederick and the majestic Cassiopeia. It snowed for several days, and each day The Snowflake Collector got up with a spring in his step and, before doing anything else of significance, went outside with three glass plates prepared, no fewer, no more, to welcome these snowflakes into his world. Lavinia. Esteban. Roswitha.

He had no system, no method; he had a passion and a beating heart, he had no words to describe these snowflakes he so collected, but he gave them names. Balthasar. Emilio. Blossom. Alexander. He realised that it was easier to let them settle onto dry cold glass plates and then fix them with just one drop of superglue, than it was to catch them into a drop of glue that was already there on the glass before it dried out. He learnt he had best cool down the glue too. Once or twice he made a mistake and instead of a single snowflake ended up catching a cluster, and sometimes he damaged a snowflake he had caught while applying a dab of glue to it, but with nothing else occupying his mind, and little else making demands on his time, he soon perfected his technique and sharpened his eye for the snowflakes that wanted to be part of his life now, accepted his invitation.

He learnt to be at ease now with his calling and considered it an invitation he extended to these snowflakes, a welcome, and not a trap. Not a prison. And before long, the first of the sturdy wooden cases he had made began to fill up, and when Yanosh came to visit him now, and nodded his wordless ‘hello’, to be answered by The Snowflake Collector in kind, he found on the table in The Snowflake Collector’s very small kitchen, and on the window sill and on the short shelf, these glass plates which had in them indescribable treasures: imprints of crystals, characters written by nature. And Yanosh brought along now not just his smartphone but also his camera for which he had bought a second-hand macro lens online with money he had been given by his mother Yolanda’s employer, the inn’s landlord, for a few hours’ work every week in the kitchen, and he took these glass plates and photographed them, finding new, better ways of taking his pictures each time.

When Yanosh showed The Snowflake Collector the pictures he took of his snowflakes on the display of his camera, The Snowflake Collector felt a well of love surge through his heart: a love for Ramira, Zahir and Kamala, but also for Yanosh for capturing them in their utter perfection and for taking the time and for having the care and for witnessing what he was doing, and for allowing him to share.

He had not, in years, maybe decades, felt a love such as this, for another human being, a friend, or for the world and that which was in it and for the soul that infused his existence.

And he was grateful. More grateful, more gracious, more humble, for it. More whole, he sensed, than he had ever been. Yes, he was able to say to himself now, looking at the pixels in which a snowflake he had captured was recaptured and re-rendered with such exquisite clarity and detail as his eye alone could never have seen or let alone shown, I am thus become The Snowflake Collector: it is so.

No sooner had this thought formed in his mind, this sensation expanded into his body, this certainty grown in his presence, than he also was sure that what he was doing was wholly inadequate. He almost felt a rumble of anger thunder up through his chest, but since anger was so alien an emotion to him, so futile, so unnecessary, he allowed it to disperse into simple dissatisfaction: it will not suffice to do this, he said to himself, and to his unending surprise and the even greater surprise of Yanosh too, he said it out loud: ‘this will not suffice.’

‘These snowflakes: they deserve better. These glass plates that I have cut for them and this case I have built: they are wrong. I cannot flatten these snowflakes! They are not created in two dimensions. I have to find a whole new solution.’

With this he went around his kitchen and he took each one of the glass plates he’d cut, into which he had already preserved all the snowflakes that made up his collection so far, and he looked at each one and apologised. Anna. Matthias. Rodrigo. Filomena. Lucas. One by one he held them up before his eyes and bade their forgiveness. ‘You have all been wronged,’ he told them, as he put them away in the case he had built for them with wood from a fir that had grown on his land by the stream, and he breathed a sigh of deep sorrow and said to Yanosh: ‘I will have to start over again. I shall keep them, of course, they are now collected and to destroy them would be sacrilege, even though I have wronged them.’ And he took all the glass plates he hadn’t yet used and sat down at his kitchen table while Yanosh was watching in silence, and he started cutting them up, twice each again, and began to assemble them into cubes.

After an hour or so The Snowflake Collector had made maybe a dozen simple, clean-edged glass cubes, one inch by one inch by one, fixed and closed on five sides, with the sixth side left open. ‘I will have to,’ he said to Yanosh, ‘find a liquid, a gel. Something that will preserve these snowflakes just as they are, that won’t flatten them, won’t deprive them of a dimension.’ Yanosh nodded in quiet agreement and said, ‘I’m going to look it up for you.’


< 6: A Snowflake Not Unlike Him

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


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

The Snowflake Collector – 6: A Snowflake Not Unlike Him

Some of the snowflakes came down in clusters, others in twirling jumbles, and others still in flighty twists, but he knew he needed a steady snowflake that was on its own, a lone snowflake, disentangled, unburdened, unencumbered, free: a snowflake not unlike him, a snowflake that had been gently descending along its unspectacular way through the world and was now ready to leave its most particular, most individual mark.

Such a snowflake soon caught his eye, as it approached, a little slower than some of the clumpier ones around it and a little faster than some of the ones that didn’t quite seem formed yet, and he held out his bare hand with the glass plate on it, and as if a little curious, as if attracted, as if called by this strip of translucence in its path, it settled, and lo: it stayed. Like a bed made for it, like a throne on which now to sit, like a home that was primed now and ready for it there to live, the snowflake accepted this destination and delivered its presence onto the plate, its intricate shape, its form, its identity kissed into the fast drying liquid.

The Snowflake Collector looked at his treasure in sheer wonder. My dear good friend, I can’t presume to know you, but may I name you Ferdinand. The snowflake did not object to being so named, and The Snowflake Collector solemnly took him inside, looked at him closely, as closely as he could with his bare eyes, under the light, and he dabbed one more drop of superglue over him to fix him and then lay another glass plate on top of Ferdinand, to protect him. Also, he realised, to encase him: his bed, his throne, was also his tomb.

A deep pain and anguish drove through The Snowflake Collector’s heart at this moment: am I committing a crime, am I stealing Ferdinand’s soul? Should he not have been allowed to ease himself onto the ground or the bench or the table, among his companions, and then melt away with the sun, seep into the ground, dissolve into his watery molecules and find his way back into the rhythm of the universe? Is my keeping him captive here now for as long as these glass plates will last not depriving his spirit from turning into something else, something different, but equally wondrous? Is somewhere in the cycle of nature something now missing, because I have named this snowflake Ferdinand and declared him mine own?

This so deeply troubled The Snowflake Collector that he spent many hours sitting at his table in his very small kitchen, not eating anything, not even Bündnerfleisch, and barely touching his Chrüterschnapps, wondering how, if ever, he could atone for this act of appropriation. Who am I, he thought, to claim such a beautiful thing? How dare I deprive it of its link to its past and its future? Is it not insufferably arrogant and presumptuous of me to make me his ‘master’?

He felt the abyss of despair open up its gaping void before him, and the urge to throw his third, his successful case for the snowflakes into the fire overcame him, but he felt no power to let go of Ferdinand. Could it be, he wondered, in passionate silence, that I am already in love with him? Has making him mine already made me his just as much, am I already—only hours after capturing him—entirely under his spell? And this is only one, my first one, how will I bear adding to him? Will he and the power he has over me not become so overwhelming as to be meaningless? Will he and his fellows, his peers, entirely take over? Will I succumb to their unbearable potency?

The Snowflake Collector did not go to bed that night. Slumped over the table by the flickering flames in the stove, he sat there, clasping the glass plates between which he had immortalised—by, he felt, killing—his snowflake friend Ferdinand, and when he woke up in the morning, the blood from his thumb where the sharp edge of the glass had cut into his flesh had encrusted his hand and the table and also the glass, and a drop of his blood had seeped in between the two glass plates, and so together with his first snowflake there was now preserved there also a drop of himself, and he said to himself: so be it. I shall surrender to the will of the universe, and if it is not the will of the universe, it is the frivolity of my imagination I shall follow. Ferdinand will forgive me. Or maybe he can’t. But I shall make his agony worthwhile: I shall share him with the world. And that way, maybe, he too, not just I, can have a purpose beyond our mere existence.

He put Ferdinand in his pocket and, still not having eaten anything, made his way down to the inn on the edge of the hamlet, an hour or so from his hut, and there introduced him—holding out his still unwashed, bloodied hand—to Yanosh.

‘Look,’ he said; and Yanosh took the plate from his hand and held it up against the light, and his eyes lit up with equal awe. Yanosh, after a minute or two of examining him took out his smartphone and photographed him with the light shining through him, and handed him back and asked: ‘what name did you choose?’

‘Ferdinand.’

‘I like Ferdinand,’ Yanosh said. ‘I’ll have to get hold of a macro lens for my camera, so I can take better pictures.’


< 5: He Had Abandoned the Notion of ‘Hurry’

7: Every Day Brought New Gifts Now >


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

The Snowflake Collector – 4: And He Had Many Memories

The Snowflake Collector was a lone man, but he was not lonely. He had in Yanosh a friend and in Yolanda a friendly face, and he had many memories, some solidifying like ice that is formed by the weight of the snow in the glacier, and others fading like snowflakes alighting atop a meadow too early in the year, or too late, and melting away with the first rays of the sun, much as the first snow in October had already melted and was now no more, and no less, than a harbinger, that had been and gone, of what was to come. And also of what was to go: it would come and cover the earth and the path and the mind for much longer soon, throughout the winter and into spring, but go it eventually would.

But during those cold months this year for the first time, and in all coming years left him for as many times as were in the gift of his existence, he would now collect snowflakes. The cows in the meadow he could see from the very small window in the very thick wall of the inn, which had already been covered once, briefly, with snow, looked forlorn now, a little, but also quite safe, because they were already near their barn and soon they would disappear in there for the winter.

He considered, while Yanosh went online with his smartphone to look up ‘how to collect snowflakes’ on the connected brain of the world, how each snowflake was perhaps like a memory, and that there would be, in a lifetime, as many memories as there were snowflakes in a season, though what these memories were—much as what these snowflakes would look like—depended a great deal on the era, the region, the weather, of course, and the altitude, and the many, maybe innumerable, larger and smaller contributing factors, both literal and metaphorical, such as the overall climate and topography, the circumstances and constellations, the chemicals and the particles (be they natural or man-made) in the air.

If every memory is a bit like a snowflake and every snowflake therefore a bit like a memory, then I shall collect these snowflakes like memories, and like memories they will be an artifice in my collection, much as pictures in an album are a curated but also distorted reflection of memories, and they will be an artifice because in nature snowflakes will either solidify into ice and form layer upon layer of no longer distinguishable single delicate structures but the body of matter that is the glacier, or they will melt away with the sun, sometimes maybe having served a purpose—such as providing a surface for skiers to glide down the mountainside on—but more often not.

‘It’s really easy,’ Yanosh said after just a few minutes of such contemplative silence, during which, The Snowflake Collector noted with some delight, it had started gently snowing again outside already, ‘you just need some superglue or hairspray or something to fix them onto your glass plates with; you freeze down the glass plate first so the flake doesn’t melt, then you dab or spray on the fixing agent and you put your snowflake on it, or let one settle: what you get in effect is an imprint of the snowflake, then you cover that with another glass plate to protect it, and you’re done.’

The Snowflake Collector breathed a silent sigh of relief. He had not expected snowflake collecting to be difficult, but he knew, from many long years of experience—as he felt he’d experienced them, though they weren’t that many, and they had not been any longer than any other years, except for the leap years that fell in between the ordinary ones, which had been just one day longer—that sometimes the simplest thing can turn out to be fiendishly complicated, and conversely sometimes the most daunting and difficult task can simply ebb away and turn out to be nothing more than a thing that just needed to be done.

So finding, upon the reliable research carried out by Yanosh on his behalf there and then, that snowflake collecting was ‘really easy’ came, to The Snowflake Collector, as a relief, and as confirmation—though no such confirmation was needed—that he was on the right track, that he had found his calling, that the universe, at least this universe that he believed himself to be part of at this moment, was welcoming him into—perhaps even bestowing upon him—this role; and since he had already determined, as irrevocably as could reasonably (or even quite unreasonably) be maintained, to be The Snowflake Collector, this meant that he and the universe were not now at odds but in tune with each other.

And for that thought alone, The Snowflake Collector felt immeasurably relieved but also grateful and calm; almost happy, although he did not, by and large, entertain any notion of, or great desire for, ‘happiness’, finding it to be so very unreliable and unsound a concept, but certainly, and this was the realisation that cheered him so greatly, in tune with the universe. Had he not longed so long just for that, to be in tune with the universe.


< 3: I Need to Know How to Collect Snowflakes  

5: He Had Abandoned the Notion of ‘Hurry’ >

 


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

 

The Snowflake Collector – 2: His Task Would Be Immense

At first he didn’t know how to collect snowflakes; he did not even know whether it was possible to do so at all. All he knew was that if he were able to preserve and collect snowflakes, then he would have something meaningful to do for the rest of his days, because there would never come a day when he would chance upon a snowflake that would be identical to any he already had in his collection, and so his collection would never be complete.

This, he also already knew, would be both infuriating and reassuring. There would be times when he would feel like throwing out all the carefully crafted wooden cases, into which would slide all the cautiously cut plates of glass, upon which would rest—for the relative eternity of any civilisation in existence being conscious of them, let alone able to appreciate them—the snowflakes in their time-frozen state, and burning the lot in a bonfire. But he would not do so, he was certain, for deep down he knew how precious his collection would become, and how singular, how unique.

The wood for the carefully crafted cases would come from the firs on his land by the stream. Since he heated his hut in the cold months with wood from his land by the stream, he planted two young firs to replace each mature one he cut down, and this way, he thought, the balance in the valley (and therefore in the universe) would stay intact, even tilt a little in favour of trees, with his presence.

He knew well how to craft wooden cases, even intricate ones as these would undoubtedly have to be, because they would need to have slits in them at regular intervals, just so spaced and so fashioned that a small plate of glass, in size about one inch by three, would slide easily in and out of the case, but stay firmly in place once stowed. The cases would have to be sturdy and each have a handle, so they in turn could glide effortlessly—apart from their weight, which would be considerable—in and out of a larger box, and this larger box would need to be stackable, because he knew that over time he would collect snowflakes enough to fill many of them. He would have to, he realised, build a shed. And he would build that shed from the same fir trees that stood on his land by the stream.

It was clear to him now that his task would be immense. Because not only would he have to carefully craft wooden cases, and for these wooden cases make strong wooden boxes, and for these boxes build a formidable shed, he would have to cut glass into regular plates, one inch by three, on which he would capture the snowflakes.

And he would have to catalogue them. He felt unsure about how to catalogue snowflakes, since he had no experience or expertise in this, but as with most things that he had ever attempted in his life before, he also thought that he would find a way. What didn’t appeal to him was the thought of giving his snowflakes numbers. Numbers, he felt, when they are not being used for elegant thinking, are not poetic, certainly not poetic enough to record snowflakes. No, he was sure, from the very first moment, even before he had gone out to collect his first snowflake, that he would have to name them. And since—as everyone knows and he knew—each snowflake would be different, he would just have to find a specific name for each one.

As he sat down, that evening, outside his hut, having so made his decision to collect the snowflakes—not all of them, only some—and contemplated the great task ahead of him, and experienced the tremendous delight in not knowing which snowflakes he would catch and collect, and which snowflakes would elude him, and therefore what names he would have to find for those snowflakes he would keep, he felt a deep glow of happiness fill his heart.

This is who I shall become, he thought to himself: The Snowflake Collector.


< 1: Barely the End of October

3: ‘I Need to Know How to Collect Snowflakes’ >


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

 

The Snowflake Collector – 1: Barely The End of October

Up at the end of the valley, the far end, before it yields to the glacier which reaches down from the mountain pass, slowly receding now with growing temperatures, lives an old man who looks at the world still with wonder.

He is not as old as he seems at first glance, and much older than his years all the same, for he knows. He knows, deep inside, what holds the universe together and what tears it apart, and what being these molecules, what being that energy means. He knows it but he can’t express it, and so he won’t.

He won’t talk about it, he won’t, in fact, talk about anything much, he appreciates silence.

When he was young he used to meet up with friends for a drink and a chinwag, and then it began to dawn on him that much of what he was being told, and even more of what he heard himself speak, was an array of variations on themes: things he’d heard said and had spoken before, in this way, or that, or another. Self-perpetuating reiterations of what everybody already knew and keenly agreed on, or hotly disputed, as was their whim.

And so he let go, he let go of his friends whom he loved but could no longer bring himself to like, and let go of the circuitous conversations that did nothing but remind everybody that they were still who they thought they needed to want to be.

He was tired. And being tired he got old, older than his years, older than his looks, older than the oak tree in the oldest garden. And he moved, once or twice first, then twice or thrice more; and each move took him further away from those whom he had been, had made himself feel, acquainted with. First to the country, then to the coast, then the foreign lands, then the mountains, then the valley, and then the end of the valley, in the mountains again: the remotest place he could find.

It was not that he was happy here, it was just that he was content. Content not to need to desire happiness any more. And here he sat and walked. Sat by the house he’d bought for very little, and walked over the fields and the meadows and up to the vantage points from which he could see the peaks and the woods and the villages, in the very great distance. He liked that distance: distance was space, distance was calm, distance was perspective. Unencumberedness. Distance was good.

Winter came to the valley, and it was barely the end of October, but going for walks was harder now because everything was covered in snow. And this being the far end of the remotest valley he could find, nobody came to clear the snow or pave the paths or even the lane that led up to his hut. So he was stuck, in a way, and he liked being stuck, it meant, in a way, being safe. Safe from visitors, safe from the desire to go out, safe from choices. The persistent demand of decisions, abjured. Simplicity. He’d craved that. And now, he had it.

What he was able to do still was to sit on the bench in front of his hut and watch the world go by. Except the world didn’t go by here, it stood pretty much still. Or so it would seem. And he knew, of course, that this wasn’t true, that nothing stood still, that everything was in motion, always. He found it comforting. Disconcerting too, but comforting; and he had said so. He’d said so and had been quoted as saying so too.

With each day that passed, winter became more present and more unreal: the snowflakes tumbling from the skies like clumsy, half-frozen bumble bees out of a freezer up in the cloud. There was something in him still that reminded him of the kindness of people, and he let one or two of these snowflakes alight on his hand, and they melted and ceased to exist. How sad, he thought to himself, how just and, yes, how poetic. And he recalled once upon a time being a poet, and that’s when he decided to capture and keep them. Not all of them, obviously, only some. And to collect them. To preserve them.

He knew this was futile and went against nature, but therein exactly lay the exquisite sensation of thrill and deep satisfaction. To do something that was futile and that went against nature, but that would be indescribably beautiful.

That was more than existing, that went beyond breathing and eating and sleeping and defecating and shaking in anger and dreaming and imagining and sitting and thinking: that was living. That was imbuing the accidental presence of clusters of mass-manifest energy in this constellation with something that surpassed everything, something divine, something purposeful and profound, something quintessentially and incomparably human: meaning.


2: His Task Would Be Immense >


Read The Snowflake Collector in Paperback or as eBook

12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In my multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say, ‘yes.’

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’

Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and I gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case; and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night.

As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well.

At some point we conspire to lose them or they us, and we suddenly find ourselves alone again and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly, and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else.

We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, and so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself—nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me—to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work, and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half,’ when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, or me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time to do so, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed anywhere in my brain yet. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’d been in my job for six months now, it was my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story as I do?)

What do we ever really know…