Very few footprints could be seen at that time in the morning. Ordinarily, I was the first up and around the neighbourhood save the white haired man and his identical dog who used to wave and say hello to everyone he passed. I did not know him but I waved and said hello when he walked past. There were one set of footprints, criss-crossed with dog prints, on the pavement and I assumed they were his. Here and there were little groupings of three-pronged impressions, were no doubt small birds of one description or another had hopped around getting cold feet. It was a Sunday and I walked on per usual.
Sundays were something of an interruption to the rhythm of the paper-boy week. Sunday papers came later than on the other days. On a regular day I would have clocked my last Express through by seven at the latest, but those waiting to read the football reports might well be checking their doormats and porches until nine come Sunday morning.
This was not the only thing different about Sundays: the whole dynamic was different. The route was shorter but the papers bigger. A lot of houses were still reading their Saturday paper, or thought it wrong to read on a Sunday, or went for a walk, or in any case did not get a paper on Sunday. Many papers did not publish a Sunday edition at all. However, those that did certainly stepped up to the proverbial plate.
I do not know who designed letterboxes to be the way they are, and I do not know whether they are meant to keep draughts out, or to prevent burglaries, or to afford finger nipping dogs less of a chance, but I do know that they were not on the whole designed to accommodate a Sunday Times or a Mail on Sunday, at least not in one go. That I know for sure. Prized apart by icy numb fingertips, gutted of their supplements and free CDs and exclusive guides and Princess Diana calendars, these papers required careful, graduated delivery. I did not enjoy the freezing juggle of parts, and more than once I ripped pages, snagged on the edge of letterboxes in my haste and miscalculation. I regret nothing.
On a normal Sunday, I collect my papers from the shop at the bottom of the hill. Most everyone orders the Times and, if they’re up, say good morning as I speed off. Number 14 on Braybon are my Observer customers; I have to be careful not to forget. Bloody Kim usually calls in sick, every bloody Sunday she does this. I’m thinking of drafting a complaint. I’m usually not that kind of person, but it’s getting ridiculous. She barely shows up on Sundays which I wouldn’t have a problem with, if she didn’t hoard her paper route. I would have no problem with her frequent absences if she let me take her route; I want those papers. More papers means more money, and new bikes don’t pay for themselves.
So, as I get the papers and I head out, I adjust the weight of the bag and I put in my headphones. I’m awake now, I was always awake by the time I had got to the bottom of the hill. Only my stomach is still sleeping, and this is a good thing. Some people were out. I can see them now. A few call inside for boiling water for their cars. I’m going to be late for work, they shout. The house shouts back: you can’t drive in this, you’ll never get it up the hill, call in.
This is just background to my memory though, because I am thinking of a particular morning and yes it snowed and I had the green bag and all that but really, behind this scenery, I am thinking of a girl. Of course, of course, of course I am thinking of a girl. What else would I think about?
Claire walked with her toes pointed inwards. Everyone said it was something to do with her shoes. But who could care about her shoes with her angelic face that was carved by Michaelangelo. I always had some stupid quick way of putting it, like saying love was conditional in her home in a way it wasn’t in mine. That’s what I said to my dad about her when she came to the front door with damp red eyes. He shook his head and said she could stay as long as she liked. The way I spoke about her grates me now. Sometimes I think about it and it jumps at my throat like a rabid dog.
She would come and walk with me for the second half of my route most mornings. I took the odd side of the street and gave her the even. I’d pile the papers up in her arms until just the peaks of her blue mittens were poking out from underneath. There was a woman who always left me a toffee wrapped in gold plastic on her doorstep. I let Claire have it because I didn’t like the way it got stuck to the back of your teeth. I could smell it as she chewed whenever we walked side by side. After the last paper was delivered, she’d lead my hand inside her jacket pocket and squeeze it and walk me to the end of my road. Then she’d go all the way back the way she had came to get ready for school. Sometimes I’d stand and watch her as she walked away, with that inward gait. I loved her.
Isn’t it strange what we remember of a face? Blue eyes and dimples and a bright smile and I could be talking about anyone this side of the Atlantic. Those blue eyes though, large, far too bright for human beauty standards; that tangled, straightened dirty-blonde hair; the way she didn’t always rub her foundation in near her ears; these could belong to someone else. But I see her! Time takes from us the familiar and rolls it gently in hand.
This morning, this particular Sunday, she did not come walk with me. She had been out with friends and stayed over. I got a message with the address. It said: come over after your round, you can walk me home for a change. I ran faster than Usain Bolt.
She came to the door and closed it carefully behind her. They’re still sleeping, she said, you will not believe what happened last night.
She kissed me, her mouth warm and wet against my cold, torn lips. My God, you’re freezing. She rubbed my arms and pulled me close to her. I was the taller, but that didn’t matter to her. I don’t know what we talked about. What were the topics? Who were the friends? It had definitely snowed. That I know, that I know.
On that morning I walked home in the middle of the road, blue-tipped fingers in my pockets, bag lapping gently against my side, cars for the moment a memory, back towards my road with its bare oaks and dormant lavender, back towards a house where I was still young, where the wooden boards of my life had yet to creak.