Tim Key: 'You rarely plan to skim stones, and yet you still end up skimming every three years'

  • @timkeyperson

I found myself indulging in one of life's greatest pleasures this week. A real soul-cleanser. After a hearty meal, and a brisk walk to a local lake, I found myself – initially with just my friend, and then with my friend and an old man – skimming.

In my experience, skimming is one of those precious things in life; it always arrives unannounced and it's always very welcome. You very rarely plan to skim, and yet you still end up skimming about once every three years. I challenge anyone to say, hand on heart, they've gone more than, say, five years since they last skimmed. I'd had a couple of fallow years myself, and so it's no surprise that I found myself pebble-in-hand on Tuesday. My time had come. We hadn't discussed it over lunch, or googled places nearby where it was going on, or even seen posters. We – that is myself and my Dutch friend, Jelson – just waddled down to the lake and became aware that our feet were planted on potential missiles. From there, the transition into two lads doing half an hour's skimming was, like the stones we began firing across the lake's surface, incredibly smooth.

Until the old man came along, I have to say our session was a real delight. There is an innocence to skimming – you revert to your trouble-free infant self as you sling your efforts out towards the sunset. It's hard not to imagine yourself as a 17-year-old once more. As I scuttled around looking for the next pebble, I pictured myself in my 1986 Liverpool tracksuit, cap on, riddled with freckles and barely weighing anything. It was only when I picked up my next stone that I would look down at my fat, ink-stained hand and be reminded of the chubby columnist I had become. Even that didn't deter me more than momentarily, though, as we slung low and flat, out towards the distant fishing boats, refamiliarising ourselves with the art, our stones bouncing eight, nine, 10 times before the plop.

The old man must have been lurking. He ghosted in as if from nowhere. Hovered next to us, watching with a snarl. Me and Jelson did our best to get on with it, but it's difficult when there's an old man, and both of our averages went down under his scrutiny. He wore a cowboy hat and off-white eyebrows and did not respond when we said "Hello" or muttered "Weirdo". He appeared to have us in his thrall, though. Our pebbles stopped skimming altogether and began sinking on the full. And then he began to skim.

It was abundantly clear that this old drunk (he reeked of whisky, gin and Ruddles) had done this before. Maybe he secreted himself nearby, awaiting Londoners to eyeball and then shame. His manner felt choreographed – sniffing out the smoothest pebbles, pursing his lips, dusting off the sand and shining them on his flanks. Who was this terror? Was he local to the beach? Was he English, even? Or simply some tough-skinned citizen of the universe? Either way, when he did eventually pull his arm back and fling his pebble, the results were a farce. It bounced upon the lake I would say 35 times and hit the flank of a fishing boat.

We dropped our pebbles and nodded and he nodded back. Everything was already ruined before he took his clothes off. He folded them into a pile and the three of us stood there looking out to the lake. Then he moved forward. Felt his way across the pebbles and into the shallows. He turned to look at us, his eyes dead, like he'd been hypnotised by the lake. Finally, he was in up to his waist. The cold drew a gasp from him, the first noise he had emitted since his arrival. And then in. Front crawling out towards where his pebble had sunk. Possibly to retrieve it.

Jelson and I watched him go. Jelson whispered "OK". And we backed away up the beach, turned, and walked quickly to the village. We'd skimmed enough for now. We'd leave him to it.