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At fifteen, I had spots, a permanent erection and couldn’t do anything with my hair. Every attempt at self-discovery resulted in humiliation. But resembling a stick insect with toilet brush for a head never stopped me from trying to look cool.
That Christmas, I wanted the latest style: a donkey jacket. Did I say wanted? What I mean is, my life depended on it. For those not au fait with catwalk minutiae, a donkey jacket is an item of navy blue felt work-wear with a leather panel sewn across the upper back and shoulders.
What did I need this labourer’s coat for, you may ask. Was I, perhaps, involved in construction work or highway maintenance?
You ignorant heathen.
I needed it for skiing; a non-waterproof jacket with no zip, no hood and no elastication at the waist is essential for downhill descents from 8,500 feet. And, of course, I knew I’d be the only lad on the slopes in such daring couture…
Christmas day, 1984: Wham!
Also, I got the donkey jacket.
I put it on. Touched the leather. Caressed the buttons. Pouted in front of the mirror. Did it again with my shades on. Whatever the word for awesome was back then, I was it.
The Weisshorn; a forbidding, windswept peak looming over a quaint ski resort in Switzerland. Ripped, skin-tight jeans? Check. Raybans? Check. Pack of Camels? Check. Hair like copper turnings? Check. But that was no problem because I had a hat.
Most importantly, I had the donkey jacket.
It was snowing and a layer of powder already clung to me. I took the chair-lift up to the main slopes, smoking ostentatiously and generally owning the entire world. By the time I’d skied down to the first drag-lift the wind had knifed through the donkey jacket and my snow-dampened jeans had set like a thin layer of concrete. I couldn’t feel my face or hands.
I waddled into the queue, trying to suppress the chill-shudders arising from the very core of me.
The T-bar is a bit like a snow escalator; a series of inverted T-shaped frames drag skiers to the top of the slope. The bars are spaced at intervals of about ten metres on a giant spool of cable. To get on, all you have to do is ski-waddle into position before the next T-bar swings into place, catch the shaft and slip one half of the T under your bum. The drag line plays out and the ascent begins.
It’s all very simple.
But if there was ever a venue where a shy youth would feel paranoid and awkward, the queue for the T-bar is such a place. Crucially, would I be able to avoid sharing the ride? If not, would I get a loud, opinionated German or a scathing, dismissive Parisian? Worse, a vivacious Italian girl I’d be too terrified to speak to? Most unthinkable of all, would I miss the T-bar as it came round and keep everyone waiting?
The queue narrowed. My stomach fluttered. I approached the front.
My turn and I slid into place without a single wobble. Even better, no one wanted to get on with me – I had the T-bar to myself! Slight problem, though; the T had only partially engaged my skinny buttocks, hovering around that dubious territory where some gentlemen choose to wear their trousers these days. But that was okay. At least I hadn’t buggered myself with the tip and fallen over in front of everyone
The drag line payed out, yanked when it reached its limit and I was away up the mountain. I had the gear. I had the look. I was a man, at one with the piste. I transferred my ski poles to one hand and fumbled for a cigarette. I even managed to light it.
The T-bar slipped.
Just an inch. Maybe not even that much but suddenly I wasn’t sitting on it any more; it was beginning to slide up my back. Once you’re out of sight of the hut at the start of the lift, the controllers can’t see you if you have a problem.
I was out of sight by then. And I had a problem:
I was wearing a donkey jacket.
If I’d been in ski gear, the T-bar would simply have slipped off me. I’d have abandoned the ride and started again. Instead, the ‘T’ – perfectly curved to accommodate arses – slid up the back of my outer layer like a hook. I was a human trout.
Falling off would have been embarrassing enough but I could feel the amused gaze of the people on the T-bar behind mine and the one behind them and of everyone else joining the lift every few seconds.
While I struggled to stay upright and keep my skies in the well-worn grooves, I poked myself in the chin with the lit end of my cigarette. Slapping it away with gloved fingers made my body jiggle and the hook slid further up inside my jacket.
I was now bent almost double with ski poles in one hand and the other flapping at the bar behind me. Trouble was, the force of the lift was too great to overcome and I couldn’t get a hold on the frame. A penguin would have had more luck trying to scratch its back with a flipper.
I considered deliberately falling over. That would have been fine if I detached myself in the process but what if the hook didn’t come out and I was then dragged up the mountain on my backside? What if I lost my skis?
This is not happening, I thought. Not to me. Not in front of all these people.
I began to fight.
Imagine a snagged Marlin resisting the reel of a deep-sea fisherman. Then take away the grace and magnificence of such a creature. Replace that with a skinny, spotty, ungainly ginger adolescent who, despite the subzero temperatures, is anything but cool.
I managed to get a hand to the base of the bar and push. It was like putting myself in a half-Neslon and hurt like hell. By now, the morning’s snow had soaked into the donkey. It had the texture of Kevlar that’s just taken several rounds from an AK-47. In the end, that worked in my favour, as I gradually worked the hook back down and out of the frozen material.
Despite that minor success, however, I was too exhausted to push the bar back under my bum. All I could do was hang on to the lift like a water-skier. People glided downhill on either side and, in some places, crossed the T-bar’s tracks. Some of them looked at me long enough to almost have their own accidents. Others, like a passing caterpillar of ski-schoolers doing snow-plough, just pointed and laughed.
My entire body ached with exertion but I managed to cling on, staggering and wobbling all the while until the hut at the top of the slope came into view. I almost cried with relief as I made it to the exit and skied away, knowing that everyone who’d seen me would recognise me for the rest of the holiday – that idiot in jeans and a coat designed for a building site.
As I accelerated away from the lift, hoping that next year my family might decide on a staycation, I heard shouts. Cringing, I slowed down and looked back up the hill. It was only then that I noticed I was missing a ski pole. The other one was still attached to the T-bar and was now making its way back down the mountain.
What did they do? They stopped the lift.
The controller came out of his hut with a long stick and spent excruciating minutes unhooking my ski pole whilst a line of disgruntled skiers that stretched all the way back to the bottom of the mountain looked on in impatient disgust. He finally handed it to me with a few loud, staccato words of Swiss, the gist of which was hard to misinterpret.
The following year’s ski wardrobe was already taking shape in my mind by then, though. With anonymity as my new fashion buzzword, all I’d need to add to the outfit was a balaclava.