I was in the queue for the zoo this week when a situation arose. A little boy – maybe six years old, with orange freckles – reached out and held my hand.
It was unintentional, I presume. This lad was American and we'd never met. He'd merely reached up vaguely, found a hand, presumed it was his father's and grabbed on. Had he looked up, he would have seen a columnist with a battered cap and a long beard – and that would have been that; he'd have unlinked and moved on. But he didn't look up. And so that was us. Me and this pleasant young chap from the States. Hand-in-hand. Queuing.
I'm a big fan of holding hands. Always have been. I used to love it when, at small school, we were asked to hold hands. Off we'd waddle to some nearby pond or spinney, two-by-two, all holding hands, and I found it very reassuring. As we approached crossings and dogs, the teachers would reiterate that we must hold hands but I really didn't need telling. Sinead Cahill, Tom Clarke, whoever I was linked to – I was in my element. I was also one of those small boys who would gravitate towards dinner ladies at playtime and cling on to their hands for dear life. I guess holding hands, at that age, makes you feel safe.
Whether you are actually safer holding hands, I don't know. I'm no scientist. But I imagine more people perish while they're not holding hands than while they are. I've certainly never met anyone who's died holding hands. If you're plummeting to your death in a dream you can wake up and prevent the impact, and I sense that hand-holding might have similar powers. I know if I was ever lucky enough to join the Army I'd be constantly nagging other soldiers to hold hands. I'd feel much safer, and we'd still have enough spare hands to wield a gun and a shield.
These days I don't get to hold hands as much as I'd like. I've got my nieces and nephews, of course, and I will hold their hands when I'm helping them cross a road or if they've found something interesting to balance on. I'll also hold my mother's hand if we are out walking. I'll hold my agent's hand, and my accountant's hand and, if I meet someone famous, I'll hold their hand for as long as possible. I once held hands with a guy from Hot Chip for perhaps 20 minutes across a table in a curry house. But what I've found is, as I become older, there are less opportunities.
A lot of my friends are less into hand-holding than I am, and they tend to flick me away with their fingers. My Dutch friend Jelson, for example, doesn't like it. But I do, so what do you do? Nowadays we use a stick. It's a compromise that he certainly finds more acceptable. It's about 18 inches long and we hold an end each. He's happy because I'm not touching him, and I'm happy because I feel like I'm not going through life on my own.
One day I'll settle down with someone who has as great a thirst for hand-holding as I do. Historically, I have found girls are open to the prospect of hand-holding in places like bluebell woods and cinemas, but I've encountered problems when I've been trying to hold hands with them while they cook, drive or shower. One day I hope to find my hand being held unconditionally by a girl who wants to make me feel safe and who doesn't have any other commitments or interests that need two hands.
Until then I'll take it where I can get it. And that's why I didn't mind my young American friend reaching up to me.
It wasn't until we were at the penguins that his mother noticed her young son's mistake. She laughingly unhooked him and they headed off towards the pigmy hippos. I walked around not knowing what the hell I was doing for a bit, and then grabbed a middle-aged lady's hand, and after an exchange of views we went and had a look at the camels.