They turn a slight bend up ahead, and apparently vanish. As we close the gap between this vanishing point and our destination beyond, it seems clear that they have slipped through the fence and are now lying on the ground beyond the thick hedge which separates us. We hesitate, aware of their movements a few feet away whilst they remain oblivious to ours. What to do? Move on to the folly, foolish men! So, on we go, thinking our own thoughts, no doubt along much the same lines. In my case it involved memories of brown legs, touched with down, stretching it seemed all the way to the ceiling. Of pleasures long since past, where Venusian deltas unlock the mysteries of their dangerously sweet yet alien landscapes. Of…but enough! Here is the folly built, it would seem, with the sole intent of being looked at from the distance of a gentrified house nestling in the valley below. We feign interest, take snaps, and circumnavigate it. But our minds are really only on one thing.
In Citizen Kane, a character – now very elderly – who knew and worked with Kane as a young man, recalls a moment in his life to a visiting journalist. He describes watching a girl who he had never seen before, nor indeed since, for barely a fleeting second, but this moment and the remembrance of it haunted his life, and haunts it still. Until this day on the downs, I had not understood what on earth the old man in the film was talking about. Now I know, and know only too well. It describes the arc of advancing age, where most has gone and little enough remains. Now I too have had my Kane moment.
Wherein, therefore, lays the ‘mystery’? Not, I may suggest, in the experience of the young lady (she with the endless legs), and her afternoon intimacies. There was no mystery for her; an urgency maybe, for an itch to be scratched, affection to be offered and quickly taken, and maybe even confidences to be exchanged in the autumn sunshine. No, the mystery was entirely one-sided, my-sided, and of my own making. It had to do with the way she and her legs moved, with the promise of continuing delights through someone else’s autumn, spring, winter and summer, and the cold, hard fact that these things I would probably never savour again. Above all it had to do with her absolute and rock-steady insouciance to the effect she was having on me, and my speechless companion. This was both the mystery and misery of life passing us by, one sunlit September afternoon, high on the downs.
On our return down the path, with the thick hedge alongside, AP strides ahead. I hang back, peering with my expensive new toy through the undergrowth. A brown thigh flashes, the camera snaps its jaws. The insect is caught. As a picture it is really meaningless to all but AP and me, now nearly in the safety zone of the car. But perhaps now you have heard my little tale of middle-aged angst, it may mean something to you as well.