In the Mountains, There You Feel Free / by Alex Williamson

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A photograph from Val Thorens. Savoie, France, 1992. An evening meal with his younger brother and an assortment of other children of various ages. Offspring of his parents’ friends. He was twelve, about to turn thirteen. The eldest of the group, but that isn’t saying much. Identifiable by his blonde bowl cut and burnt orange Joe Bloggs jumper. By now a competent skier, technically the best skier on the trip, including the adults in whose company he spent much of the day and to whose conversations he would prefer to be listening. Wearer of a day-glo ski suit. A fluorescent adolescent. Too cool for school. Though not cool enough to sit with the adults at dinner. Which explains the long face. Flanked by his dining companions’ gleeful gurning, amid the cluttered carafes of water and half-drunk bottles of coke, he looks utterly miserable. While others mug for the camera, he brattishly sulks.

Was this where the seeds of his future sorrow were sown? Among the mountains of the Alps? Difficult to say. He remembers the photograph being taken, his reasons for refusing to smile. Yet when he reconsidered the other scattershot memories of that trip, he was persuaded that the dominant feeling wasn’t one of permanent miserablism. That would come later.

No, he remembers certain other things. The seeping cold infiltrating his socks and gloves as he waited one morning for the lifts to open, and almost weeping at the burning sensation. A man and a woman who weren’t married locking themselves into a bathroom so the woman could read the man’s palm, trying to use the toilet and the door being slammed shut. His father’s friend, Paul Stubbs, attempting to land a jump while another skier recorded it from the foot of the slope. Watching from above, he saw Paul descent towards the jump in the schuss position, take off over the ridge and disappear, only to emerge seconds later - spreadeagled, face down, minus skis - below it. He was unharmed but somehow snapped the top off the handle of his ski pole. Watching the video later, he saw the grainy image of a man tumbling through a cloud of exploding ice, returning unscathed to his starting position whenever someone rewound the tape to watch it again.

When they returned to the Three Valleys a year later, they came by the coachload. Thirty couples and families cramped into a double decker coach from south Cheshire, bound for Courchevel. The seats folded into bunks, which meant that the driver could continue through the night while his human cargo slept soundly in their beds. It never entered into anyone’s heads for one second how incredibly dangerous this was, how in the event of a head on collision they would either be propelled to the front of the bus, strewn across the highway or consumed in the resultant inferno.

After driving onto the ferry at Dover, the passengers disembarked and the driver converted the bus interior into the mobile dormitory-cum-deathtrap that would carry them into the Alps. When the ferry docked at Calais, the re-boarded the ferry, and attempted to sleep with the feet of a stranger kicking them in the head.

This time there were two girls his age on that trip. Claire and Lindsey. Two grunge-loving teens, Claire a slight raven-haired goth, Lindsey taller, tomboyish. Both were infinitely more mature than him, they smoked and drank and had nil respect for authority. Strangely, they seemed to be particularly interested in him, the gawky, geeky boy with greasy skin. Neither seemed keen on skiing, but they spent a lot of time together watching television in the basement of the hotel, sipping illicit booze in their rooms. They commandeered the record player in the communal lounge and played Bleach and Nevermind, Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion. He got drunk for the first time on that trip, drinking two small bottles of “33 Export” and skipping giddily in the street with Claire. When he returned home, he determined he would grow his hair out like Kurt Cobain.

One wet Saturday a couple of weeks later, he arranged to meet the girls in Crewe. Not wanting to go on his own, he asked a friend to come along. They met at the bus station round the back of Argos, went to the browsing the CDs and cassettes in Omega Music and generally hung around in the noncommittal way teenagers do.

It was an odd encounter. At some point, over lunch in McDonalds, his friend decided he didn’t like Claire and Lindsey and started being obnoxious towards them. Lindsey, never one to take abuse lying down, started being obnoxious back. While he didn’t agree with his friend’s, he didn’t object either, feeling the girls were being standoffish and rude in return, When the girls boarded the bus back to Claire’s parent’s house, as the bus pulled away he flicked the V-sign at them, and laughed.

Back at home his mother called him to the phone. It’s Lindsey for you.

The Failure

Hello?

Lindsey

Hi, Claire and I just wanted to know why you did that?

The Failure

Did what?

Lindsey

This afternoon. When we were leaving.

The Failure

What did I do?

Lindsey

You know what you did! After we got on the bus.

The Failure

Oh, you mean -

Lindsey

Don’t you like us anymore?

The Failure

Sorry?

Lindsey

Don’t you like us anymore?

The Failure

No! I mean, yes. It was just a joke.

Lindsey

No it wasn’t!

The Failure

It was!

Lindsey

You were being off with us all day.

The Failure

I wasn’t!

Lindsay

You were!

The Failure

I wasn’t being off with you!

Lindsey

Yes you were! All day! Then laughing and giving us the finger when we left. Why would you do something like that?

The Failure

I don’t know. I was just -

Lindsey

Are you going to say sorry?

The Failure

Pardon?

Lindsey

I said are you going to say sorry? We think you should.

The Failure

Yes, of course. Sorry. But I really didn’t…

Lindsey

Okay, bye.

The Failure

…mean it.

What was he? Sorry? Embarrassed? Arrogant? Overwhelmed? He didn’t know.

Fluid allegiances. Fluid friendships.

Aged sixteen he went on another ski trip, this time to Tignes. Yet another different configuration of families. Lindsey was there with hers, but not Claire. Once more they stayed in a large chalet hotel, where the other guests included a group of older, better looking and more confident adolescent males. He resented them right away, and hardly saw Lindsey all week

He shared a room with his brother and a friend, a boy closer in age and interests to his brother. They were put in a twin room with a smaller room containing a single bed off it, and this small room, like a monkish cell, was where he spent much of his free time, the moments buttressed by cold, long days on the mountain and the communal meals where he rarely raised his head to speak. Sitting alone on his bed, reading and listening to some iteration of a textbook indie band. Drowning his sorrows in sound while avoiding other guests, who reconditioned the ambience of the shared lounge with their studied nonchalance and affected elan, chatting up the chalet girls and generally having a good time at his expense, poor tortured soul that he was.

How to be yourself when you are permanently at war with yourself?

They celebrated New Year’s Eve in a restaurant in town. He sat with his parents and watched people of his age convivially dining and then dancing on tables. He sat apart, sipping his Kronenbourg, drinking it all in. Observing. As if it was his duty. As if it was all he could do. At midnight, a girl from the hotel, whom he liked, lunged forward into a clinch with another boy, a boy who had simply moved into her field of vision at the given moment. He felt as if he had been kicked in the groin. Already he longed to be back in his little room at the hotel, the room which had become a sanctum, a refuge, almost a cocoon. That slim white rectangular space, with its ingrain anaglypta wallpaper and narrow bed with rough blanket and starched sheets. His books and his diary, his Walkman and a handful of tapes. Definitely Maybe. Strangeways Here We Come. Everything Must Go.

His panic room. He wanted to hide in there until it was all over.

Loneliness. The memory of it. It returned to him in the off-white colour of that little room. It was the same colour as the snow of a mountain at the close of day, the sharp silhouetted ridges fading in the advancing night. Or a mist rising from the valley, obliterating everything it touched, everything in sight, leaving just the outlines of nearby trees, perhaps the faint lamplights of a single car winding its way up the mountain pass. A world flung into silent stillness.

He was a blight on his youth.