Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick | 7th January 2017

…In which, as we enter a new year, our friends and collaborators look back on the past twelve months and share their moments;

I think it was him suggesting we reverse into a ravine that really pushed me over the edge. We’re returning to camp after an afternoon playing silly games in a river that marks the border of Catalunya and Aragón. The road is nothing more than a wheel-beaten track and its viability has already been compromised by an earlier stunningly impressive weather event that saw marble-sized hailstones batter the once-dusty, scrub-like, terracotta-coloured terrain. We are no more than 50 yards from the main road and an easy passing point, but the stubborn Spaniard and his mute back-up parked just behind him are not forwards in going backwards. Instead, he gestures us towards the edge of the track into a sliver of space bordered by a drop of a good 10 feet. Getting the manoeuvre wrong would result in instant car loss and perhaps serious injury. The frustrations and anger I appear to have been bottling up over the last six years combine headily with my disbelief at this man’s patently unreasonable behaviour and before anyone can do anything about it, I am out of the car gesticulating like a demented Dervish and shouting as many obscenities as my meagre command of Spanish can muster. It has no effect, unless you count a look of bewilderment spreading across our dogmatic path-crosser’s face. I run out of vocabulary pretty quickly and have to return to the car, fuming and no longer able to express anything but silent dismay in any language. We come within inches of tumbling over the precipice as we finally relent. Our two adversaries pass us by, waving breezily as if in thanks for the entertainment. My fellow passengers look at me in disbelief. I’m so completely disturbed by the whole affair, I’m practically shaking.

None of this would have merited much of a mention were it not for the fact that it ultimately resulted in me having what seems to have been the pivotal point in a year that brought more joy than I was expecting. That was the moment I let go of several years’ pent-up bitterness in one vaguely bilingual outpouring. The pressure valve had been released. Steam might well have come out of my ears. And when it was over, almost everything had changed.

Yet to happen this year was the idiocy of Brexit, the thanklessness of redundancy and the seemingly long-term injury to my left shoulder caused by diving into a river the depth of which I did not fathom before I leapt. The spectres of a spectacularly bell-ended Labour leadership contest and the election of the monomath Trump were so far off, they didn’t register. What did register was being told shortly after the incident by a softly-but-firmly-spoken woman to calm down. Calm down. Had it been doled out by a Liverpudlian, I’d have laughed; that it was delivered by an Italian was an irony too intense to ignore. In fairness, people have probably been telling me the same thing for years, but I never listened. That this time it came from someone with whom I was quite evidently smitten appears to have made it more audible. So I heeded the advice. I stopped being angry about everything almost in an instant. Just like that.

The tests to this new-found Zen-like state came immediately and regularly throughout the rest of the year. A delayed, uncomfortable coach journey resulted in a potentially expensive missed connection in Paris, but I smoothed it over with some atypical sang-froid. Idiotic driving by users of London’s roads I waved away with insouciance. Asinine piffles at the office I brushed off with uncharacteristic indifference. I had it made. When unemployment came to call, I barely batted a bothered eyelid, excited by the opportunities that knocked instead. All the while, the ‘must calm down’ mantra lived with me. It made almost anything bearable. It still does. While clearly driven by the desire to impress at first, it’s morphed into something I’ve since recognised has made a vast difference. To me and by extension to those around me.

I’ve by no means got it mastered. Plenty of things have riled me to the point of ranting, though thankfully these episodes have been limited to online outbursts. I’m not proud of them, but sometimes – especially if you’re operating in isolation as I have been for some months this year – sounding off on the internet feels like all you can do. Though I’ve since discovered that’s mostly bollocks as well and that it is quite possible to effect change no matter how small it seems at the time.

Where I seem to have made no headway, though, is in matters of the heart. No real surprise. Anyone who’s read my previous annual reviews will know I’m no expert, to put it mildly, but this year I’ve surpassed even myself. It’s one thing to fall for someone younger, better looking and more intelligent than you – I suspect we’ve all done that in our times – but it’s quite another to make things even more unlikely by making the mistake of them living in another country as well. I haven’t even factored in the likelihood she’s not remotely interested; the whole thing’s so risibly far-fetched as to make that crucial consideration almost redundant. What sets this year apart is that I’m viewing this predicament with much more detached amusement than I was capable of in the past.

Out of some genuine highs 2016 has given me, the Catalan stand-off was probably the pinnacle because of what resulted from it. I’ll look back on that moment fondly and the rest of this year as one in which I’ve grown, learned, adapted, wandered, progressed, been more resolute and found a bit more peace. Though I do wonder what would have transpired had the bloke just reversed back to the main road like I’d suggested in the first place.

Ben McCormick on Caught by the River / on Twitter