‘Charlie, move over and let the gentleman sit down please’.
I smile at the woman and wink at the young girl as she shuffles along the faux leather bench to make space for me. Her eyes never leaving mine, suspicious, she searches for her mother’s hand. The mother smiles back and draws Charlie closer.
I don’t recognise anyone in the waiting room. A man peeks up from the carpet and vaguely in my direction, but quickly looks down again, just in time. He’s wearing a bow tie and I do a double take, he does look familiar but do I know anyone who wears a bow tie? I pick up ‘Cumbrian Life’ from the coffee table; it feels expensive and informative in my hand but I can only see the main strapline. I pretend to read for a couple of minutes and put it back. Shall get my reading glasses from the car? I’ve got time before my appointment. It’s snowing outside, but not ‘real snow’, not like when we were kids.
The thin cane meets little resistance until it draws another fine red welt across the fingers on my up turned right hand.
‘ That’s six,’ said Mr Roberts, as if I would lose count.
He looked down at me, his hands and the weapon held guiltily behind his back, my left hand was still held behind mine. There was a curtain of moisture hanging over my eyes, but I meet his gaze and tried to look in control.
‘You’re not going to throw snowballs at buses in the future are you, Loftus?’ he said softly.
‘No sir.’ Through gritted teeth as tears ran down my face, but more from shame and relief than from the pain.
He placed the cane next to the mortarboard on his desk and opened the door for me. His gown billowed in the draught from the corridor, I stepped through the opening, my left hand hugging the right. The draught blew my hair into my face and it was comforting, it hid my damp piggy eyes from any potential piss takers passing by.
‘Right, Ian, back to French and good-luck tonight.’
At the sound of my Christian name and the thought of playing rugby later I turned to thank him, the painful digits almost forgotten, but the headmaster’s door was already closed.
Mr Roberts was a good Headmaster, so I can only imagine he was ashamed of his actions that day but he was right, I never did throw snowballs at buses again.
I kick the toes of my shoes against the surgery doorstep to shake off the snow and return to the waiting room. The man with the bow tie has gone but replaced by a young woman; holding a child, rocking it gently. I sit down and put my glasses case down beside me on the bench. No one speaks so I search the floor for a piece of carpet to claim as mine. An errant snowflake has attached itself to my shoelace. Last week we had ‘real snow’ again, flakes the size of slices of French bread, Wednesday a metre overnight, each snowfall displayed layer by layer on the chalet roofs like the age circles of a tree.
With skis over my shoulder and heels digging in the snow long before my toes did, I walked John-Cleese like off the piste and into the car park. Our chalet in Morzine was only a minute from the Pleney Gondola but on the flip side it was on the corner of two fairly busy thoroughfares. Outside our kitchen window was the main bus terminus to Avoriaz. Every evening as the piste emptied, families and groups of skiers would come and go as the buses ghosted silently up through the snowy grey tracks, and left with a whoosh as they started up again to continue the silent run down the ‘rue’. In between buses, the passengers would stand beneath our kitchen window, discussing the ‘rouge’ and the ‘noire’ they’d conquered that day.
I crossed the road and turned left, goose stepping down the side of the chalet.
A bunch of French teenagers between thirteen and sixteen seemed to have spilled onto our terrace from the bus queue and were having a late afternoon snack. Some were sat in the snow with their backs to the wall eating and laughing. A couple were having a snowball fight, and the rest tried to look into one of our chalet windows.
I turned left again and went through the garage under the chalet and into the dry room. I eased my ankles out of boots that were a dominatrix dream. It seemed I was the last one back. My socks started to soak up the melted snow left by the other boots warming on the heaters. I heard giggles from upstairs and followed the happy sound, leaving a soggy splodge of footprints up the marble steps. I was wrong, none of the adults were back and I could see why the kids outside were trying to look in through the window. Reuben, the youngest of the English chalet defenders, was wearing an England Rugby shirt; the red rose on the front his pride, the tiny Saint George’s cross on the back was his rallying symbol, and he had a mop bucket full of snow.
The French kids had jumped to their feet, food and drinks forgotten. Although there was an abundance of snow they had a mad jostle to grab fistfuls. Almost in unison, a hail of snowballs hit the balcony above me and I heard Reuben scrambling to find protection. I placed the tea towel over my arm like a waiter, grabbed the shopping list and pen from the counter and opened the terrace door.
‘Monsieur Dame. Vous desirez?’ My accent was less than perfect.
All motion on the terrace stopped, I felt just like the stranger who’d entered the saloon in an old cowboy movie. Suddenly, the French kids got the joke and I only had time to put the tea towel on my head before the next barrage of snowballs hit me and the chalet.
The waiting room door opens and a young man walks in closely followed by a woman with a face like fried fat, I assume she’s his mother. He’s got his arm in one sleeve of a duffle coat and the other in a makeshift sling, I can make out the words ‘Typhoo Tea’ and realise his sling is really a tea towel. Beneath the coat he wears the black and white rugby shirt of the Newcastle Falcons. He’s very slight in build and doesn’t look like a rugby player so I wonder how he’s hurt his arm. However, when I think about my physique at the same age, I realise looks can be deceptive.
‘Great tackle, Loftus’
Mr Baker the rugby teacher beamed at me, my pinstripe fingers had long been forgotten. At aged fourteen that was the life; I played for the school first fifteen, had permission to leave school early, and, the last two periods that day were Maths. Result! It didn’t get any better than that.
‘Loftus, take a piece of orange and pass them on. There’s only a quarter each mind.’ Mr Baker thrust a plastic bag into my hands and I dug in.
A man in a long grey coat came over from the far touchline.
‘That was a fantastic tackle, young man.’
I wasn’t listening; the orange was the most exotic thing I’d ever seen. I’d tasted nothing like it before.
‘Are you talking to any of the clubs locally?’ He dipped into Mr Baker’s bag of oranges.
‘No sir. Did you know that’s an orange?’
He smiled at me and sucked the flesh from the orange skin in one go.
‘What’s your name, son? He spat out a pip.
‘It’s Ian, Ian Loftus sir’
‘I’ll remember that,’ he said, and walked back to the other touchline.
But I didn’t listen, I was only fourteen, Mark Bolan and T Rex was a zillion times more important than rugby and I’d just eaten my first orange. Later that year I swam a mile in my pyjamas, had my first pint of bitter, got to third base with a girl called ‘Hedgehog’ and believed I could leap tall buildings in a single bound.
‘Great tackle Loftus’
I moved too quickly and winced at the sharp pain in my neck. The rugby teacher wasn’t booming at me, he was shouting at my son. Despite the pain I remembered well that feeling of exhilaration playing rugby; I made my own contribution to the noise.
‘Low and hard, Dom, low and hard.’
‘Hi. Are you Dominic’s dad?’ A large lady breathed garlic in my face and I took an involuntary step back. I nodded enthusiastically, not breathing in.
‘Thought so. I saw you with him at parents’ evening. Has he made his GCSE choices yet?
Despite her huge frame, her bright red ‘Dare2B’ ski jacket was still two sizes too big and I could just see her little Gortex fingers poking out from the bottom of the sleeve.
‘Yes, he’s quite keen to…’ I started to breathe out.
‘He’s a lovely boy, and my Robert said he played a blinder at Queen Elizabeth Grammar last week. Anyway, nice to meet you, Bye.’ She waddled off down the touch line, her legs and her own breath laboured at the effort. I breathed in the freshly mown grass of the rugby pitch. Her ski jacket didn’t see the pistes again for another season!
‘Excuse me, have you got this in a medium?’
The sales assistant took the XXL from me and expertly flicked through the rail and pulled out a medium within seconds.
‘Medium!’ she says, and handed me the Berghaus jacket in such a way that I felt like a careless school boy who’d misplaced his pencil case. She gave me the ‘Typical man’ look and started up a conversation with a female customer further down the aisle. She said something and they both looked at me, nodding sagely.
‘Excuse me, aren’t you Susan’s husband?’ The customer moved closer in my direction.
‘Yes.’ My name’s Ian.
‘I’ve seen your picture in the paper. You’re an Eden District councillor, aren’t you?
‘Was! I did my four years and left.’
‘Ah, the snake’s pit! You either survive or you get eaten alive,’ she nodded sagely again.
I half agreed, ‘Yes, but I just didn’t feel like I was making a diff..’
‘Nice jacket. You off skiing then? She spoke over me, not really expecting an answer that engaged her politically in the ski shop.
I felt the cool vanilla roundness of the snowball again as I moulded it to the shape of my hand. A French boy’s head and shoulders bobbed up and down above the chalet’s perimeter wall. My snowball meets little resistance through the thin air, it splattered harmlessly against the wall and he ducked. Laughter sounds the same in any language, and I scooped up another ice cream cone of snow. I looked around thirty-nine years later, and double checked that Mr Roberts wasn’t watching the Portes du Soleil bus route. My aim wasn’t good, but Reuben’s snowball connected with one of the French invaders every time. They knew his name and shouted,
‘Rudy, Rudy, monsieur Rudy’
‘You’re Reuben’s dad, aren’t you?’
‘Yes.’ I said too quickly at the unexpected voice. Yes, I am Reuben’s Dad but my name’s Ian, Ian Loftus. I placed my pint back down on the bar, ‘Do I…?’
‘You don’t remember me, I can tell? But it’s okay.’
I looked hard at her face but she was right, I didn’t. Angling my head to one side, I feigned faint recognition.
‘Why would you? I was fifteen; you were twenty-five and some kind of a god.’
I looked harder and vaguely recollected her eyes,
‘You had that beautiful white car with two doors, what was it now?’
‘It was a Ford Escort, one point one popular.’ I tried to make it sound grander than it was; she encouraged my memory with another teaser.
‘My mum was the barmaid in the Gloucester and I waited on tables at the weekends?’ She looked for some level of recognition from me. I was in the bar every weekend with my friends, but I couldn’t remember her face; in fact, I couldn’t remember some of my friends’ faces.
‘I tried to talk to you but I couldn’t breathe, especially when I got close enough to speak. You never saw me.’ All the time her eyes never left mine.
I searched my memory banks for a potential asthmatic stalker; our eyes had held for far too long and I started to admire this straight talking middle-aged woman. Despite her fond and flattering memories, I didn’t think she could remember my name.
‘Ian Loftus?’ The surgery assistant has appeared at the door.
‘That’s me.’ I whisper to myself.
I stand up, but no one in the waiting room looks up from their patch of pattern on the carpet. I look at Charlie, one hand now tucked under her leg and her head in her mother’s lap. She looks up at me, I must seem like a giant to her from that angle, she presses herself against her mother on the bench. I catch her eye, start to smile but stop myself.
‘Yes, that’s me.’ I answer. Ian, Ian Peter Loftus, I’ve got a badge for swimming a mile in my pyjamas. Still no one looks up.
I wink at Charlie, she lifts her head and lets go of her mother’s hand, I walk towards the door. I’m almost level with the assistant when I feel a tug on my jacket.
‘You forgot your glasses, Ian Loftus.’ Charlie reaches up to me holding the case in both hands her suspicions gone. With a wink so is she, back to her mother’s side searching for the hand again and her eyes never leave mine.
Even compared to my stature, Dr Arora is a petite woman, ‘What can I do for you this morning, Mr Loftus?’
‘Do you believe in miracles, Doctor?
She sits back in her chair, her eyes dart to the big red panic button. She humours me,
‘It depends really, why?
‘After all these years, I seem to have regained the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound.’