I went for a little late-night walk in the dying hours of the winter solstice, just so I could say I did.
The idea got put in my head by two very pleasant discoveries. The old English police-surplus coat I bought way back in my student days turned up at my parents’- I hadn’t seen it in ages, and had come to conclude that it must have been lifted from my car when some fucker let themselves into it a couple of months ago and took my torch and sunglasses. The other was one-half of my still pretty new pair of sneakers, which in fact was in my car, having disappeared into said car rather than from it. I have no idea whereabouts it had worked itself down to, but when I picked the car up from its service yesterday afternoon the sneaker was sitting on the back seat. Sneakers plus greatcoat equals a quarter-to-midnight walk in the wind and the sleet, just like I used to do.
I like the cold. Cold makes me feel clean. There’s a passage in the first of Fritz Leiber’s Nehwon stories where Fafhrd the barbarian is told by his mother to stay in the snowy north where it’s cold – cold is cleanliness, cold is purity, and she compares the hot and humid cities of the south to rotting sores, festering in their feverish climates. I get that. I love the scrape and sting of the cold wind and the way my blood hums, or the quiet grey of a windswept late June day with the weight of the coat on my shoulders and my breath puffing in front of me. I’ve had arguments with friends because I think being able to see my own breath in front of me in my own lounge room is cool. A sure sign that we’re having a particularly severe winter is when even I start feeling oppressed and sapped by the cold instead of invigorated by it.
(It’s a function of a fairly privileged life to be able to treat it like this, of course. There are plenty of people around who don’t get to treat freezing weather as a novelty or a thrill even here, let alone in places that experience real cold. As in, places where you pack thermal clothing in your car because otherwise if it crashes or stalls on you outdoors you’re quickly going to die, just to pick one example D had presented to her recently from someone who’d lived in North America.)
I wasn’t out for long, but long enough to take in the night. Normally walking at night makes everything feel closer and more intimate, turning the streets into a series of little vignettes. This time I went up the rise behind my block and looked down the length of the road that runs north out of town, and it was a very different experience. The eastern part of town, mostly light industry between the road and the treeline, was brightly-lit from the floodlights set up on the warehouses, workshops and machinery yards, and the light bounced off the low, frozen cloud to give the whole town a close, roofed-over feel like a movie set. White light from the yards and orange from the streetlights. The echoes and the quiet amplified what sound there was: somewhere there was heavy machinery running and a truck rig was slowing down coming off either the highway or the old coast road, I couldn’t see it to tell. The effect was a shifting chorus of deep howls and moans echoing from out of the mass of lights in counterpoint to the wind buzzing in my ears. When the sound of the rig became clear enough to definitely be an engine and brakes it was even more surreal, filling up the utterly empty street as though I were hearing the ghost of a rig that had driven through there and was long gone. There were trees all around where I was walking but I don’t remember hearing a sound from them, no rustling or creaking, and certainly no sound from within them, no birds and no animals. Even the ‘roos I’d half-expected to see loitering around the stump of the dual carriageway weren’t there tonight. Probably further up the hill in the trees, bedded down somewhere against the wind.
The long, long walks I used to do all over town in my twenties were the times when I’d try and use the movement of my legs to churn through all the boiling sludge in my thoughts, of which there was a great deal in those years. My evenings tend to be slightly calmer now but it was still wonderful to be able to just decouple from my thoughts for a while and let my senses talk to me.
For an evening of total regression to age 24, I suppose I should have come back, watched an execrable horror movie off a battered VHS tape, then gone to bed and brooded. Well, maybe some things are best left back in the nineties.
Next post will be that long-overdue Derby report, as soon as I get the pictures off the other camera.