‘I’ll tell you what’s just happened,’ he says. ‘Someone’s taken my wife’s skis’
It is Wednesday afternoon, and I am skiing through some trees in the French Alps. Because I am one of a group of nine friends staying in two adjacent flats, I am relishing this moment alone. The snow is pristine, the sky is a bright chemical blue, like screenwash from a petrol station, and I am ahead of everyone.
I stop at the base of the lift, just at the back of the queue. A man about my age pulls up alongside me.
“You English?” he says. I don’t answer because I’m not sure he’s talking to me. Why would he be?
“English?” he says. I look up. He is definitely talking to me.
“I speak English,” I say.
“I’ll tell you what’s just happened,” he says. “Someone’s taken my wife’s skis.”
“Really?” I say. “Where?”
“Just up there, he says, pointing up the hill. “Some stupid woman, she’s picked up the wrong skis, and left hers, which are about a foot shorter.” He is very angry. I think: what does this have to do with me?
“So she’s gone off, oblivious,” he says. “Meanwhile I’ve lost two hours of my holiday!” He raises his voice, as if to address the larger crowd heading towards the lift, but his fury is having the opposite effect: the queue parts around us, and re-forms up ahead.
“What a nightmare,” I say. “It’s happened to me before, so I…”
“It’s happened to you?” he says. His tone is disbelieving.
“Yes,” I say.
“What did you do?” he says.
“I can’t remember,” I say. “It just sort of worked out.” He doesn’t like this much; I think he thinks I am trying to normalise his plight and deny him his outrage. He starts to tell his story again, even louder. One of my friends arrives, skiing past us into the queue. I allow myself to slide backwards in his direction.
“Well, nice to talk to talk you,” I say to the man, even though it wasn’t.
“What did he want?” my friend says. I tell him.
“At first I thought he was accusing me,” I say. “But I guess he just needed to unload his frustration on someone, and I happened to be standing here.”
“Have you just got that kind of face?” he says.
“I hope not,” I say. “I always thought I had the other kind of face.”
“Who does something like that?” shouts the man, somewhere behind us.
I forget about the man for the rest of the week. Because we are a group of nine 50-somethings, we mostly discuss our various injuries: bad knees, strained backs, damaged feet, bruises from being ploughed into by strangers. Many of our conversations centre on how thoughtless and awful other skiers are – idiots in large packs, wearing moose antlers instead of hats. The hatred is immensely satisfying.
On the last day one of my friends, Fran, returns to the flat with news.
“It turns out I’ve been using someone else’s skis the whole time,” she says brightly.
“Since when?” I say.
“Three days ago?” she says. “I don’t know. They belong to some woman. I got an email.”
“Aren’t they a different size?” I say, counting backwards on my fingers.
“That’s the thing,” she says. “They were much longer, and I didn’t even notice. I think I actually skied better.”
I review my encounter with the man at the bottom of the lift. Had he seen me having lunch with Fran? Was he trying to frame an accusation, which I simply failed to notice? I recall the incident many years ago when I got the wrong skis. Was I actually the victim, or was I the culprit? If you can’t remember, I think, then you were almost certainly not the wronged party.
It takes a few more questions to establish that Fran took the wrong skis in a very different part of the resort from the place where the man’s wife lost hers. This sort of thing must happen all the time, I think. And I must just have one of those faces. I need to do something about that. Our friend Alice comes in, covered in snow.
“Apparently I’ve been using someone else’s skis all day,” she says.