I suppose to all intents and purposes they were a gang. A gang of magnificent misfits just like any collection of teenagers is at fifteen. We met them first on the coast road outside Ayr. Us on a ride down to Girvan, them on a day out from Prestwick and pushing their bikes up the hill to Butlins. Girls on bikes. Who’d have thought?
We soft pedalled beside them, talking about nothing at all. One of them was called Edna. She laughed easily and loudly and I remember I liked that because I couldn’t. One of them was called Claire and looked like a beatific vision without even trying. Or knowing.
Over to the west Arran shimmered in the heat of a hazy June afternoon. Ahead of us the Electric Brae waited to trick us with its optical illusions. Freewheeling uphill. If only life were so easy. Later I wrote the road into fiction and cast a tone of vague hate and pain. Really it was nothing of the sort. Really it was a treasure trove of passing moments that glittered and winked with gusto like Edna’s laugh. Mementos to clutch at when times got hard. You never knew what was around the corner, right?
A year later though our paths crossed again. Fullarton woods. My own patch this time: a place I had come to so often as a child to play football on the terraced lawns with my brother or to hide and seek in the bamboo with faces so fragmented now in my memory they are all but lost to reality.
By then though, to us at least at seventeen, the woods were more a place to skim through: a punctuation point at the start and end of our everyday escapes to ride during the exam period. Should we have been staying home to study? Perhaps. But the road was an education more profound and lasting than anything I learned in school. I realise this to be unquestionably the case now, so that looking back I can pretend that we must have instinctively grasped this to be true. The reality however is that we wanted to do anything but sit indoors and study our Physics books. And who could blame us for that?
So through the woods, pedalling gently around the potholes. Emerging from the canopy of overhanging branches into the car park and spotting an assortment of girls’ bikes clustered around the grey columns: the last remnants of the original Fullarton House pulled down at the end of the 1950’s. A laugh erupting in the blue of the sky. Edna holding court, directing the gang with yelps of delight. Sparks of youthful disdain leapt from the trees; initials carved in their bark. A mark of ownership. Lives, so fragile and fluid, given root and permanence, even if only for a moment.
Of course we stopped our bikes. Of course we joined the hilarity. Them escaping the strain of ‘O’ Grades, us the pain of Highers. Joined for another moment in unity, sharing the glorious vacuum of teenage. Giggles in a shelter. Some talk of Duran Duran and Claire in a U2 t-shirt. A blink of an eye then gone.
I’m sure there were some murmours of hooking up, somewhere, somehow. I had Edna’s phone number. But those were the times of impossible calls. Sitting on the bottom stair at home, trying in vain to muster the courage to pick up the handset and dial the number. Stomping humbly back upstairs after half an hour of despair. Nothing ever happened because we never made it happen. The universal ‘we’ of the timeless tragic teenager. Something like that anyway. And besides, the bike was always there. The road never lets you down, after all, even if your body does.
Last week, some twenty six years on, I walked to the woods again. Another punctuation point, this time on a three hour walk around that town of my youth. Each time I return there the memories pinch me differently. The sorrows I have felt in the past start to evaporate and I realise the myths about wraiths being cold are just that: myths. For instead these ghosts are warm and comforting. Old friends come to tea.
This time around those ghosts were of Edna, Claire and the rest of the strange gang of Prestwick girls who were really nothing more to me than a single flash of lightning in the ongoing storm of life. But isn’t it funny how a few hours when you are seventeen can stay borrowed more deeply in our souls than ten years of working in your twenties or thirties or any other time, perhaps?
So I strolled amongst the trees, trying to picture where we had once stood, tracing the bark with my cracked fingers, searching for the marks we had left so long ago. A neat row of initials stood out. It would be the right tree, but the initials surely wrong. Anyway, I don’t know how long names carved in trees remain visible. How many years until they are subsumed into the memory of the tree? How quickly do they become obliterated by other generations’ identical urge to leave their mark?
As I walked on down the Isle of Pins road towards the beach I swear I could hear the echo of Edna’s laugh gently falling in the fields of snowdrops and the crunch of Scott’s tubulars on the gravel as we rode into our last year of hopes and promises. And instead of a tear in my eye I felt a song in my heart. A spring in my step. Life goes on, and the ghosts no longer foes but friends to love and cherish.