Last weekend I was in car being driven to a service with my family up in the North, my aunt’s home. There was snow on the ground and we drove slowly, cautiously, even. The snow was thick and white and beautiful, (they had more than we got down South) but it was in a city so it was dirty on the margins, piled up or cleared out, compacted and stuck down on the pavements. I like this type of snow. It’s like a real snow, snow that exists on the same plane as us, beautiful but flawed and cold and somewhat annoying. Perhaps people are like that in a way. But the point is, I like old snow. Fresh snow is obviously fantastic and lovely, but crushed ice-glass footprint old snow is less pristine. It’s been stepped in, it’s been picked up and thrown, it’s been slipped in, it’s been scooped up. It’s a reminder of life in a way.
As we drove slowly through the snowy city I was also aware of how little I knew the city. I knew where my Gran lived, and where my aunt lived, and the shopping centre and the nice friendly restaurant and the central areas, but the suburb which contained my aunt’s house? I’d never seen it really, so I took the opportunity (the car was silent) to look at the surroundings. It wasn’t the most picturesque place. No Florence, no Oxford, no Paris. It had an aura of life to it though, especially with the hard-working people trudging through the snow. The views of kids smoking on benches, men heading to the betting shop, people in suits marching to their cars, old ladies with more scarves than neck carrying their shopping and the rest, was a snapshot of an ordinary but meaningful day.
I guess there were a couple of reasons I was being particularly mournful and soulful and think-y. Firstly, no one was talking in the car, so I could sit and stare as much as I wished. I got a few stares back from passers-by, but I didn’t care. I was trying to work out which of the Chinese restaurants was my aunt’s favourite, or who might recognise her if she was to walk down the street. Because that’s one of the great things about these little town suburb things, especially in the North, (can I say that?) is that you can make friends and see friends and chat so easily. My Gran knows the majority of the city I am convinced, because she has barely left it in decades. It’s always the best feeling I think, to be doing some activity out in town, perhaps alone, perhaps with friends, and see someone else and have a chat. It’s just nice to know that you’ve made a mark on the city in some way – plus outside of the environment where you met the person, they still want to talk to you. And also you know that however big and bustling the community might be, filled with other people you don’t know and have never met, the people you have met exist too and are living and working just like you. They may even only really be acquaintances, but hey – pleasant social contact is always a win.
What’s even better than that, though, is if you are in town with friends, and the friends that you’re with don’t know the other person, because then as well you look like someone who is particularly popular and interesting and someone who knows people, and that’s always fun. It’s not cool to be on the other side of that, I admit, (“I came into town to see you and spend time with you and now you’ve chanced upon another person and are going to chat to them for 5 minutes? Oh fine. I’ll just stand here and wait until the in-jokes finish”) but if you are the mutual friend you don’t care because you look cooler. Which is Aim in Life #1, as every teenager knows.
That feeling though, that you know a person enough to stop them in the street when you see them is always nice. Sometimes our cities are so huge and overwhelming that I think people feel lost. The raised-eyebrow nod is not a replacement for a genuine, interested chat.
This makes me sound like I’m king of my town and see people all the time. I don’t. Perhaps that’s why I think it is one of the great joys in life – chance meetings. Long distance ones can be the strangest and brightest though. My dad has encountered old clients eating at the same restaurant in Tenerife. When you see someone who you haven’t encountered for a long time, and they are busy and you are busy but your paths cross, it just makes me excited about all the worlds we live in, where our lives lead us in wildly different directions, naturally towards new people but also away from old ones. I’ve had it a couple of times with old close friends from years gone by, seeing them in the shops they work in or the town they’ve moved to. Those aren’t as nice, of course, especially if I’ve gone to uni and they’ve stayed put. The truth of the matter is it’s only really nice to encounter still current friends. It’s rare to enjoy fully meeting people you were once so close with, because you know that that’s sad that you’ve lost something. Sure you might have replaced them, and they’ve probably replaced you, but now you meet and chat for 5 minutes (or less if it gets awkward) in a WHSmith and that’s them out of your life again. Who knows, they may not even come back. That’s life.
Still, people are exciting and they are one way we can make our tiny but real mark on the world. But I admit I wasn’t thinking as logically and deeply as this in the car. I’ve also digressed from explaining the second, and of course, far, far, far, far more important reason for my soulful pondering in the car. The reason, too, that I had a lump in my throat, one of the great burning ones that fill your mouth and eyes till you have to clamp them shut and you feel yourself shuddering. The one that makes silence hard, makes it hurt, but makes it wholly entirely necessary.
I’d been doing quite well, I suppose, at keeping that feeling in during the journey, pondering which was my aunt’s local pub, until our big black car followed the hearse into the crematorium. Then the tears started flowing, as they did all through the service. Because obviously driving slowly through the high street looking at my aunt’s local area trying to decide who would know her was a stupid question. It was really denial, because everyone who did know her was at the service, packing out the crematorium.
Saying a tearful goodbye.