Woods

There's a satisfying crunch you get on frosty mornings when the grass is frozen into brittle bristles that crackle underfoot. It was just such a morning in late November that I want to tell you about now. I had suddenly become all Christmassy as I stomped through the fields, with the white trees coalescing out of the haze before me and a tiny yellow sun trying to pierce the mist. The blanket seasonal advertising, the Christmas music and the glitter and baubles that had tried their best to infiltrate my consciousness over the previous month and a half had singularly failed to make me festive, but this glorious morning appeared to have done the trick and I very nearly whistled a happy tune to myself. I didn't, of course - that would have been weird. But I very nearly did.

I didn't often walk this route. I usually take a stroll most mornings, so long as it's not raining, but I didn't normally come this way. Too many hills. On this morning I must have felt a little more energetic. Also, maybe a touch nostalgic. You see, I had lived around here when I was a kid, and as I walked I noted the various places where I used to play: the little stream where we made a makeshift bridge out of a log; the tree where the rope swing used to hang; the old quarry where we smashed up Owen Hargreaves' bike. We never liked Owen Hargreaves. Apparently he's a local councillor now. Figures.

Through the fields, over the stile, to the main road. No pavement here, so I plodded along the grass verge, crunch, crunch, crunch. I used to come home this way from school, daydreaming to myself, wondering what the future might bring. Funny to think that I was following in my own footsteps all these years later, wondering where it all went. I recall having an idea - back then when I was young and spotty - that I might be able to reach back from the future and let myself know that everything was going to be okay. You know, contemptible adolescent stuff. I was reminded of this particular fantasy at this point because up ahead I saw a bus shelter. I remember thinking that if I could fix a point in space then I could come back to it in the future and visit the younger me. Sort of like arranging a rendezvous with myself. The mechanics of the time travel bit was something I wasn't clear about, but I reasoned that someone would have it figured out sooner or later.

It was still misty as I approached, but I could see well enough to deduce that this wasn't the same bus shelter. The old one had been wooden and rotten and had 'Owen is a plank' written on it - somebody else evidently didn't like him either. This new shelter was all metal and glass, and quite possibly graffiti-proof, which was good news for Owen, at least. There was someone stood there, waiting for a bus. Good luck mate, I think they only run once a week now. As I got closer, I saw it was a young lad and, because I'm an old person, I considered saying something about how modern music is rubbish and that this all used to be fields, just to wind him up. This is what you do for entertainment when you're in your fifties. But I didn't have an audience, so I didn't bother, and instead I just nodded politely as I passed and hoped he wouldn't beat me up.

"You?" I heard him say behind me as I moved on. Not in a threatening way, but in a puzzled, perplexed sort of way. Actually, in a kind of comical way, since his voice was breaking and it came out all squeaky.

I turned. "Pardon?"

The young lad tilted his head and quizzically half-closed one eye. "Sorry, I thought... You looked familiar. I thought I knew you."

"Ah, no problem," I said, but I was kind of unsettled because I seemed to think I knew him. "Perhaps I know your family. I used to live around here." I gestured up the road, but the mist had grown thicker and we couldn't see a thing. It felt oddly quiet, like there was a thick blanket around us, muffling us. I didn't like it one bit. I looked at him again and was about to ask his name, when I suddenly recognised him.

"Oh my god, it's you! I mean, it's me. You're me!"

You probably guessed who he would turn out to be, back when I first described him waiting at the stop. I mean, you probably saw where this was going, but I was actually there and, I can tell you, it was a bit of a shock at the time.

"Okay mate, whatever," the young lad said.

"No seriously, you're me from the past." I realised how mental this sounded, but I was convinced of it. I didn't need to try hard to persuade him - it looked like he was realising it too.

"No, I'm me from the now," he said slowly. "If anything, you're me from the future." He looked at me closer. Both eyes were narrowed now. "Bloody hell, you really are me! Wow! Christ, what happened to you?"

The euphoria of mutual recognition quickly passed. I wasn't accustomed to being spoken to like this. Certainly not by myself. "What do you mean?" I replied, somewhat offended. "Nothing's happened to me."

"You could have fooled me, mate," said the younger me. "How come you got so fat? And what the hell happened to your hair?"

I sucked in my gut and my hand unconsciously went to what was left of my hair. "Well... I mean... Well look, I didn't get fat, did I - you did! All those burgers and chocolate biscuits you were eating while you were slumped on the end of your bed playing with your Xbox had to go somewhere."

"What's an Xbox?"

"All right, your Super Nintendo or whatever it was I had when I was your age. I can't remember." I felt I was being side-tracked and so I struggled to steer the conversation towards something more productive. "Anyway, the point I'm making is that if you take care of yourself, you won't end up - "

"A fat mess like you?" my younger self completed for me. "Fair enough, I'll bear that in mind, porky."

You know when people tell you that you're being too hard on yourself? Well, I don't think I really understood what they meant until now. I certainly felt aggrieved that I should be giving myself all this self-abuse. The way I saw it, I ought to have been more grateful that I was here to give myself the benefit of my advice. I should, in fact, have had a little more respect for my elders. There, I've said it.

"Don't you think you should be making a little more of this opportunity?" I told him. "Do you not think I might have advice for you? Listen to me and I can make sure you never make the mistakes that I've made." I faltered slightly over that last sentence, since at the back of my mind there were all sorts of worries about causality and paradoxes and all that sci-fi stuff that stopped you interfering with the past. Still, this wasn't sci-fi, this was real life, so I guessed it was worth a pop.

"You?" This was the second time he'd said this to me, though on this occasion it was all sneery and snide. "And why should I listen to you?"

"Because I know the future," I said, quite reasonably. "And let me tell you, there will come a day when you will regret your decision to leave school and get a job in a biscuit factory."

"Get real," he sniped. "I'm not going to work in no biscuit factory. I'm going to be a famous drummer."

I smiled wistfully. I remembered when I thought I could be the next John Bonham or... I don't know, some other drummer. My younger self, however, took my dopey expression to be a signal that I was mocking him.

"Oh yes," he asked petulantly, "and why can't I be a famous drummer?"

Two figures

"Because you're crap," I replied. I felt I could be blunt with him since it was a truth that I had long ago come to accept - I was a crap drummer and I still am. It seems that he was already aware of this.

"I know," the younger me replied. "But in the future that won't matter, because it will all be done by machines."

I started to say something and checked myself. He had a point but I didn't want to admit it, so I quickly skirted the issue. "What you need to do is concentrate on getting good grades and make sure you get a place at university."

"Ha! Qualifications - what use are they?" he replied.

"None at all," I agreed. "But if you get to the right university and rub shoulders with the right people, then maybe you might just get a break, instead of winding up working for minimum wage, delivering sanitary products for a company in the East Midlands."

This shut him up, but perhaps not in the way I intended it to. He looked at me curiously and for the first time I noticed the wispy smudge of fuzz on his top lip. God, I remember that - the time I tried to grow a moustache. I shook my head at him and snorted. What a dickhead, I thought. Then I remembered it was me that I was looking at, and I started to feel confused again.

"Sanitary products?" the younger me said softly. I didn't say anything in reply, but my expression must have told him that I had said too much. "You deliver sanitary products?" he said, and now it was this pimpled teenager who was snorting with derision. "So this is what I have become, is it? A fat, balding washout, pootling around in a clapped-out van delivering sanitary products for peanuts."

"Well, I - " I started to say, but he was clearly on a roll. I don't remember being that gobby when I was his age.

"And I'm supposed to listen to you, am I?" he continued. "A failure? Take a look at yourself. How can you be me? Don't you remember wanting to be more?"

"I remember," I interrupted. "I remember being a farty little adolescent with my head in the clouds, terrified of the big wide world and not knowing what was to come."

"Terrified, yes, and excited because anything could happen," my younger self countered. "I could do anything and be anything. But no, you want me to go to university and meet the right people and then possibly, just possibly, instead of driving the van for a sanitary products company, I could be a junior sales executive for a sanitary products company, with my own desk and a telephone that I only have to share with three other people. At what point did I lose my ambition? Tell me that much, at least."

"That's all very well," I said. "But the real world is very different. You need to - "

"Real world?" he scoffed. "What do you know of the real world? You're talking to yourself in a bus shelter. When did you stop being me and start being you?"

Every so often you have to ask yourself some searching questions, or so I've heard, and here I was doing just that. The thing is, I couldn't remember. The answer to his question - I couldn't remember when I had become dull and predictable. Thinking back, this volatile young man that I had once been just seemed to have gradually melted into the fat lump I was now. I was looking down at my own shoes, thinking about tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that and finding it all so safe and comfortable and so deadly dull.

"I think I've gone wrong somewhere," I admitted quietly. I looked up, but he was gone. There was just the thick mist all around me, the bus shelter and a soft but persistent buzzing in my ears. I blinked a few times, thought I saw patterns in the mist, but no - maybe he'd never been there at all.

Bus shelter

I sighed. I wanted to go home now, so I turned to retrace my tracks and found myself face to face with someone new. It was an elderly man, probably in his seventies or older. His skin was wrinkled and blotched, tufts of white hair sprouted from his leathery scalp and he looked frail and unsteady. He also looked slightly familiar.

"You?" he said.

"Me?" I said.

"It's you," the old man said. "I mean, me. You're me when I was younger. Listen, I have to give you some important advice about the future."

"Oh fuck off, granddad," I said. I really wasn't in the mood for another talking to. I walked right through him and was out of there.

 

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