“Let’s climb that hill” isn’t something that anyone ever really says – unless it’s some kind of figurative hill – but I’m pretty sure Tom said those exact words. It was that sort of day. Any sophistication we possessed had dissolved into last night’s booze and evaporated in the day’s heat. I didn’t think of it that way, because back then I was living a life, I didn’t have the time or inclination to test the safe working loads of creaking metaphors, I just, like, did stuff. We all did. It was cool.
We’d all slept strewn about the floor of someone’s flat on the Brighton seafront, slowly awakening to a picture postcard day. Rachel and I were up and about first, sipping coffee and talking quietly, as much for our own benefit as everyone else’s. Eventually the others began to move and make breakfast noises, and we staggered down to a greasy spoon up an alley somewhere, where we demolished the best full English ever. Of course every full English is the best full English ever, as you only go for a fry-up if you’re hung over, ravenous, or both. It’s functional food, where quantity matters more than quality, and I get to disgust everyone by ordering extra black pudding.
Martin, Karl and I went to get our cars out of hock, dying inside slightly as we paid the overnight fee at a carpark under one of the swish Regency squares butting up against the seafront road.
If you don’t know what a Citroën 2CV is, it’s the Tin Snail, the Upside-Down Pram, a magnificently agricultural piece of French engineering which barely changed throughout its forty-two years of production. Roger Moore had a yellow one in View to a Kill, Richard Dreyfuss drove one in American Graffiti, the same powdery grey-blue as mine. A 600cc opposed-twin engine (smaller than my first motorbike’s), comically boingy suspension with about two feet of travel at each corner, gearstick poking out of the middle of the dash operated with a slide-and twist motion like a broken trombone, air conditioning courtesy of a wide flap that hinges open below the windscreen (“Steve!” said my friend Bharat, “That’s outside, man!), a roll-back roof and heating that seems to work by diverting the exhaust into the cabin.
If you think of it as a car, it’s terrible, but if you think of it as a means of transport, untouchable.
The ignition barrel was bust on mine so I had to fiddle with the wires every time I wanted to go anywhere. I enjoyed the absurdity of rummaging under the dash and the spit of sparks as I hotwired one of the least theft-worthy cars on the planet. I never used to lock it; if I was ever stupid enough to leave something in there, I’d have preferred the tealeaf to just open the door and help himself rather than inflicting any damage. In the early days, before the barrel broke, I once left the keys in. Someone took the car, put fifty miles on the clock and brought it back, parking a few places further up the road. No thank you note though, thieving bastard.
So mine was the blue-grey one, Karl’s was a Beachcomber, white with a blue wave along the side, and Martin’s was a Charleston, a rather baroque maroon-and-black number. The three mighty engines thundered into life and we rocketed out of the carpark in tight formation. Faster than a tall building!
Back at the flat we picked up the others and with only the vaguest of shouted plans we headed inland, tackling the climbs, drops and twists of the South Downs. Local Karl lead the way with Sarah passengering, Martin, Tom and Chris followed and I had the honour of driving Rachel and Louise. We whirred along with the sardine tin roof peeled back, in the absence of a radio the girls sang, the sun shone and I felt pretty smug.
Our ultimate destination was a pub, one of those middle-of-nowhere places that’s rammed full every weekend. The garden was wide and sloped down to the base of a hill. We lolled on a verge. As a designated driver, feeling fairly compos although probably still over the legal limit, I refused the hair of the dog and had a pint of Coke. Bubbles bubbled and ice cubes rattled about, jostling a huge chunk of lemon. There was no hedge, fence, stream or any kind of boundary between the beer garden and the hill, the lawn sloped down then abruptly angled upwards, a clear run to the top. We looked at it.
“Let’s climb that hill,” said Tom, and jumped up and started running down the garden. Chris and Martin were close behind, while the rest of us continued lolling, watching as their run slowed to a hands-on-knees slog towards the peak. Greatly to their credit, when they got there they jumped up and down and waved at us. We waved back, the last pearl of an ice cube melted on my tongue, and everything stopped.
This wasn’t my usual crew, they were friends from university and friends-of-friends who all had a bit of spare time in the early summer. We had these same stupid cars but we weren’t there for any petrolhead fun, we were The Slow and the Curious. This wasn’t a Don Simpson experience, there were no helicopters and the coke didn’t come in lines served on hookers’ silicone breasts, it had a capital C and ice and a slice. We were not on a boat. Not my best friends, nothing extreme or even greatly out of the ordinary, just a sunny day, some fools leaping about on a hill and that last melt of ice. It was perfect. Just right, just then, and I knew it. How often does that happen?
Nobody had a camera. Remember when cameras weren’t telephones? You held them up to your face and looked into them, and that click was the sound of real mechanical movement, as the curtains were flicked aside and a sensitive pane that had spent all its life in darkness was suddenly exposed to the outside world, and changed forever.
That was well romantic, wasn’t it? Anyway, nobody had a camera, so now I’m pressing the shutter, taking a Polaroid of a scene from fifteen years ago. Clunk, whir. Shake it, baby!