“Time is the sound of an axe in a forest, cutting down a tree.”
I forget who wrote that, but it was probably one of the Russians – they were always waxing gloomy about deforestation. It doesn’t apply to me though. For me, time is the sound of my trudging feet and the labored rasping of my fading breath.
Every year on my birthday I take myself off for a long solitary walk, wherever I happen to be. On Monday I took to Table Mountain and plodded along the pipe track with a rucksack of roast beef sandwiches and a bottle of wine, like some elderly, degenerate Just William. It was a bright clear hot day and the sea was so still and clear you could see the sandy bottom through the water.
I was thinking about a friend I used to walk the same track with, and how we had fallen out a couple of years ago and he was dead now and I would never have the opportunity to make it up with him. I became melancholy and sad and thought about the irretrievability of lost time and wrung my mental hands and thought that I would do anything to have the chance to speak to him one last time and make it right. Then my phone rang and I looked at the screen and I saw his name.
At first I thought maybe I had died too without noticing and this was some heavily symbolic phonecall to welcome me to the after-life, and also to announce that there is an after-life, but then with a twinge almost of regret I realised it wasn’t his ghostly hand calling from beyond the grave to offer forgiveness and companionship – I had in fact started thinking about a friend who had died but who I hadn’t ever walked with on the mountain, but then the act of walking on the mountain had made me think about the friend with whom I’d fallen out, and I’d started conflating the two in my head. He wasn’t dead at all!
I was about to answer the phone with a joyful heart – my friend is calling me on my birthday! – and then I thought, “Hey, he hasn’t replied to any of my calls in two years. Now suddenly on my birthday he deigns to call me? And I should rush to answer? The nerve of this guy.” So I ignored the call and carried on walking, musing on the tricks the mind plays.
I like walking on the mountain but I don’t like walking up it. I’d never been to the top on my own and had no intention to do it this time, but at a certain point the track forks and instead of going straight I accidentally went left and soon I was heading punishingly upwards. My thighs ached, my breath rasped. I’m too old for this. At a certain stage of life, a man should know his limitations, so I climbed atop a large boulder and munched on a sandwich and looked at a lonely red-hulled tanker moored in the flat blue sea and gathered myself to head back home.
“You look very comfortable up there,” said a voice from below.
It wasn’t my former friend, if that’s what you’re thinking. It was one of those elderly men you sometimes see on the mountain, wearing old-fashioned shorts and Grasshopper lace-ups and thick socks that come to just below the knee.
“I am indeed,” I replied.
“I’m on my way down,” said the old man.
“Very sensible,” I replied.
“I was on the top.”
“Gosh,” I said politely.
“It was my 930th time.”
I blinked down at him from my boulder.
“You’ve climbed the mountain 930 times?”
“No,” he said. “1026 times, but 930 times on my own. I went up the first time when I was 54, just before I took early retirement. Now I’m 79. There are twelve routes that I try to climb every month.”
“In the last five and half years,” he said proudly, “I’ve met people from 86 different countries on the mountain.”
“Were you by any chance an accountant before you took early retirement?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Why do you ask that?”
“No reason. You’re good with numbers.”
“As you get older,” he said, “numbers become more important to you. Well, I’d better be going. It takes me some time to go down these days. Maybe we’ll meet again one day.”
And he lifted his stick in farewell, and went picking his way down the mountainside.
And I sat there, chewing my roast beef, watching his slow descent, thinking about my age and numbers and what they do mean and don’t mean, and then I sighed and closed up the wine and started walking upwards.
The Times, 9 April 2015