Viewpoint: Walkers three

Take note – story published 7 years ago

The arrival of the snow in Latvia brings all sorts of changes. Warm coats and mittens - infinitely superior to mere gloves - are retrieved from wardrobes and drawers. Summer slick tires are pulled off the cars, deep hatched treads and lacerating spikes are levered into their place.

Most of these changes mix a certain regret with a certain pleasure. The regret comes from the admission that warm sun will not be felt again upon your skin until the end of March. The pleasure comes from the anticipation of white, bright landscapes, sledges, skis and the strange exhilaration one feels on the very coldest days.

Another change comes too, but this is one I am fairly certain is only noticed by myself: the walkers stop walking.

It is necessary to explain who the walkers are. There are three of them, and I have given them names. They are: High-Visibility Man, Umbrella Man and Running Lady.

I saw them many times before I properly noticed them. I see them on the same stretch of fairly remote highway, perhaps three kilometers, or a couple of miles, from the nearest small town. Presumably this means they all live somewhere nearby. But I never see more than one of them at a time.

High-Visibility Man wears a high-visibility vest. He is elderly and spends hours every day simply walking along the road in a ponderous, but highly visible manner. Whenever a car comes he pauses and scrutinizes it intently, as if he suspects it may be mechanically defective, until it has passed and he carries on walking. My guess is that High-Visibility Man may be suffering from dementia. His stamina and the intensity with which he inspects each passing car is genuinely impressive.

The Umbrella Man, as you may have guessed, carries an umbrella. However, I have never seen him open it. Nor does he seem to use it as a walking stick. He just carries it. Only on clear, warm days, never when it is raining. He wears a long, heavy rubber coat on both the warm days and the rainy ones. The Umbrella Man is if anything, even more enigmatic than High-Visibility Man.

I do not believe Running Lady is a Native American, despite the name I gave her. Her story is probably no more complex than the fact she is some sort of health nut. A lady comfortably into later middle age, she is always running. Her bobbed blonde hair ripples with every stride, looking from behind like some golden jellyfish sucking the rest of her body six inches into the air then blowing her back down again.

The great thing about Running Lady is that as well as always running, she is always smiling. She doesn't jog so much as bounce along the road, and she emanates a tremendous sense of vitality-in-age that makes you feel lazy and claustrophobic as you grunt past in a car. 

As I have mentioned, all three of these remarkable people inhabit the same stretch of obscure highway, but never together. It is as if they have some carefully-planned rota in operation to make sure someone is always on duty to offer a tiny taste of the extraordinary to those of us passing by.

Sometimes I think of them as figures on a great town hall clock who emerge at one side, parade past as the chimes strike and disappear through a flap in the far side to the general, if minor, delight of the townsfolk. Their presence means the intricate clockwork mechanism of the universe is still working.

This is why I dread their disappearance when the snows come and remain in a state of some anxiety until they start walking again in the spring. 

Probably at this point in this essay it is necessary for me to say that I really should make an effort to talk to them, in order to head off criticism from readers who think I am viewing these individuals in a patronizing manner. But I don't think it is necessary to say that. I like them.

I like them a lot more than most people we see on the television. They seem to enjoy and be good at what they do - walking/running - and do not interfere with other people as they pursue this pastime. They look quietly content with patrolling this particular corner of Latvia in their own particular ways.

In any case, what would we talk about? I could never catch Running Lady in the first place and the weather is a conversational subject of such boredom I wouldn't dream of inflicting it on someone I esteemed as highly as The Umbrella Man.

And I have actually spoken with High Visibility Man. Rather, he spoke with me. I stopped at a gas station that is one of very few buildings along the forgotten highway. High Visibility Man man was on the other side of the road. It was early so the road was quiet. There were were no other cars to impede his progress and demand his scrutiny. 

He crossed the road. He did a lap of the gas station. He came over to where I was filling my fuel tank and did a lap of my dilapidated car. He smiled.

"Hello," I nodded to him. I was anxious to hear what he had to say.

His smile grew wider.

"Ha!" he said. Then for emphasis he added: "Ha!"

The gas station attendant came out of the kiosk and shooed him away as if she had done it many times before. It didn't bother High Visibility Man in the slightest. He crossed the highway and ambled off, waiting for the next car to come. 

In any case, I thought he had summed things up rather well.

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