I first put on a pair of skis seven days after my 41st birthday and one day after my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This year I am living in the French Alps for the winter; skiing when the weather is good, teaching and writing the rest of the time. I never imagined that that surreal swollen-eyed weekend in February 2011 would lead me to this moment four years later.
From the chair lifts, I watch the lines of toddlers, wrapped in blue Club Med bibs, snaking around their instructor, legs splayed out, arms in the wrong places, skiing. Sometimes one falls over and another crashes into her and there are tears or shrieks of laughter. Then the child picks herself up and off she goes again. Down, across, on-ice, off-piste, fearless.
On skis I am sometimes fearless, sometimes fearful. For me skiing is bound up with both a determination to live and a knowledge of death. That first year I was ordered onto the plane by my mother who told me there was nothing I could do that weekend; that she and her partner needed time to process the news; that I was exhausted and needed a break (my father had also been diagnosed with terminal cancer in another part of the country only six weeks before, and I had spent Christmas watching him fight death from pneumonia). I was, both parents told me, to carry on living my own life.
So, that first weekend I skied for my mother. I was flattered by the encouragement of my instructor who got me on a green slope by the end of two days. There was sun, crisp snow, trees, and a feeling of new beginnings despite the horror of the approaching endings that I had not yet even begun to process. I rang Mum from the café on the piste and told her it was wonderful, that I was glad she had made me go. And then we had both started crying.
The next winter I skied again for my mother, now dead, and my father, who had a few weeks left to live. I was much more than a year older, having learnt things about life that I wish I had never had to know. I found out too while away on that trip that a former student had died aged eighteen, from anaphylactic shock. Everything seemed wrong but as I skied, the wind stinging my eyes despite the goggles and the air rich in oxygen filling my lungs, I felt as if I belonged to this mountainous world, far from everyday life. When I thought rationally, if I looked downslope, I would freeze, become locked in a private cage of vertigo and tension; but if I let my thoughts go, everything that was wrong left me.
By the third winter I had lost my nerve. The bad stuff had hit me, finally. And we had had a car accident on the way to the Alps: I had skidded on black ice on a motorway near Limoges, lost control of the car, spun across three lanes for over 100 metres, flipped upside down and finally smashed into the barrier. I had been certain I was about to die and all I remember from those long long seconds was wondering what form my death would take. We were both fine, only of course we weren’t, I wasn’t. Nor, not importantly, was the car or many of my books which had I had been taking to my partner’s parents for storage and had seen fit to fly through the smashed windows across the French autoroute. Speeding down icy pistes a few days later was terrifying and no amount of coaxing or teaching could get me to believe that facing forward down a mountain and sliding was safe. I knew what death was now; had seen it: the painful clawing out of the once-safe bed of life into an unknown. It had not been an easy death for either of my parents. Mortality was real.
Last year I broke my partner’s hand on the last day of skiing. We came home in plaster, both of us. On the red slope near Clot Gautier at Serre Chevalier, in my new super cool salopettes on a wonderfully luminous day, I went fast and when he stopped, I didn’t.
And yet here I am, for the entire season this year, at the scene of the crime. The day I moved in to this tiny wooden flat in old city of Briancon was the third anniversary of Mum’s death. I might perhaps have given up skiing before now, if it hadn’t been for the circumstances of my first skiing weekend. I have certainly been absolutely terrified at times, and my fear is utterly unpredictable. One day I am confident, skiing well, blissfully happy; the next I feel out of sorts, not sure if I want to be on steep slippery slopes where, if I fell, I could fall forever. I do it because I can. I do it, because when it works, when I work, the sensation of flying and of being disconnected with the corporeal world is different to anything I have ever known. It is the adrenaline of speed; the smoothness of ice-skating; the everness of whiteness and blueness. When it is good, when I am good, everything about me feels alive and sparkling which is what, I know, my mother had hoped I would feel when she sent me packing four years ago.
My former head of department at St Paul’s told me to write an essay about snow for her. I offered her Kate Bush’s ’50 Words for Snow’ which she rejected. So this blog entry, which isn’t really about snow, is for Leonie Rushforth, whose poetry you should read!