I have just been spooked half out of my life. Really and truly. Like this:
As I write, I am still in Chamonix, where I’m taking an extended break. Chamonix is a bit of a gathering place for people of all nationalities, and one of the local sports – for me anyway – is to sit taking coffee outside the patisserie in the main street, and to see whether you can work out the nationalities of those walking past. It can be quite hard to do with fellow mountain-lovers. The gear tends to be pretty similar wherever you’re from,, although a few nations have more fashion-victims than others.
Sometimes the Brits are unmistakable, and this was the case this time. Down the street came a prematurely grey-haired guy, wearing an old blue Berghaus jacket and blue jeans. His slightly shambolling walk, one hand in one pocket, the other tucked under the strap of his rucksack was that of climbers and walkers hanging out in a mountain town on a wet day anywhere in Europe. And this was a wet day that could have been anywhere in Europe. What really caught my attention, though, was that this was a familiar figure. It was the walk that gave it away. Forgetting I’d not yet paid for my coffee and bun, I shot out into the street and greeted him: “Hello Steve!”
And as soon as the words had left my mouth, I knew I was wrong. This wasn’t Steve (name changed). Steve had been a work colleague the best part of twenty years ago. He was, I think they’d have said then and now, a “singular” individual. An amazingly talented guy, hugely well read; the first person I ever heard talking about what we’d now call open data (yes, even in the 1990s); gifted with a mathematical brain I could only wonder at. He’d built his own house, travelled all over the world. And, if you had the knack, he was a wonderful conversationalist. Not many had that knack, so most found him taciturn and remote. Happily, he and I hit it off greatly. It was a time when I was spending several months each year in northern Italy and the Dolomites, and I know Steve was envious of my opportunity. He joined me on one of the hut touring/via ferrata climbing holidays I used to lead, in a small group of a dozen people, but such was his experience of other parts of the world, that I actually think he was a bit non-plussed with the Dolomites. One of very few I can say that about.
No, this wasn’t Steve I met this afternoon. Because Steve had been killed in about 2001 in a stupid minibus accident somewhere on the other side of the world. There was no UK funeral, and no service of remembrance. Those who knew Steve never really had a chance to grieve for his passing. To me, his life has always been the epitome of the Dr Seuss saying “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” I actually only came by that quote a couple of years ago, and it filled several gaps in my emotions. The one relating to Steve in particular.
I was immediately prepared to die of embarrassment in the street in Chamonix. I could see now that the face and hairline were slightly different. I’d made a classic gaffe, and was hoping the guy was also Brit, so that we could laugh it off together with no language barrier. I was singularly unprepared for what happened next.
“No, I’m not Steve. I’m John. Steve was my brother but he’s been dead a few years now. Who are you?”
I think I almost forgot who I was. I felt like someone had just hit me with a hammer. I gabbled out a semi-coherent apology-cum-explanation. We looked at each other, and then both exploded into laughter, with me also trying to fight back some very genuine tears.
“Steve would have loved that just then” said John. “You know, there’s not a day goes by when I don’t miss him? He was ten years older than me, but we were very close.”
Steve had been the sort who had never let on that he had a brother, close or not.
We sat and had a brief coffee. Brief, because John was on his way to catch a train somewhere, and we did what you do in such circumstances, and shared some tales of the guy we knew. Then John left for his train. I walked back to my apartment, numbed beyond belief by what had happened.
It was only when I turned the key in my front door that I realised I’d not swapped addresses with John. I’d no idea where he was living and no means to contact him. I began to feel that I’d had an encounter with a ghost, and that the whole thing hadn’t happened. But it did, just over an hour and a half ago.