We were having coffee on London St in late spring sunshine. She fingered a screw head in the centre of the table, a little tumulus of metal, with a cross forged in its summit. "If you could press this button," she said, "and revert to being his age," and here she nodded at a youth across the street, "would you?"
I had already noticed the youth. He was maybe 18, handsome, unlined, as lean as youth should be, hair so thick you could hide a puppy in it, and with the buoyancy of gait and general tautness that come with youth and can't be faked or bought, though millions spend billions trying.
"Do I get to look that good?" I said.
"Does it matter?"
"Yes," I said. For surely it does. To be young is one thing but to be young and beautiful is something else. To find that people are drawn to you on sight, to walk into a room and sense eyes turning your way, locking on, drinking you in, wanting more of you. To be the adoree rather than the adorer must flip the world on its head. It may not be good for you but it must surely make life seem, if nothing else, easier.
But then again I think of three men I know who were breathtakingly beautiful as youths, with all of whom I fell in love to some degree. One is now happily suburban with a swarm of daughters. Both the others are alone and less than joyous, with a single child between them. Beauty may not be a curse, but neither is it necessarily a blessing.
"You only get to be yourself again," she said. "Same flesh, same looks, same place and circumstances, with the chance to start over, to have another stab at forging a life."
"I'm not sure that I ever did much forging." I said. "Stuff happened. I went along with most of it. I may have nudged the rudder from time to time, but by and large I sailed with the current of what happened to happen."
"Well this time you could steer."
Joe Bennett: Juggling chainsaws for a living can be dangerous
"Do I keep what I've learned? Do I get to start at 18 with 62 years of experience?
"No," she said, "you don't. Not that it would do you any good. What do you know at 62 that you didn't know or couldn't have guessed at 18?"
"Well," I said, and I paused to think a bit.
"Enough already," she said. "Are you going to press the button or not?"
Across the road Adonis had stopped to chat with friends. Something made him laugh. He threw back his mane of hair. How good youth seemed.
And yet, and yet, I've got diaries from that time in my life. I haven't read them in a while. It isn't just the style that makes me cringe - though it does - it's the obsession with self, the emotional self-indulgence. To read them is to be reminded that youth isn't quite as we like to remember it.
And besides, a do-over undermines the whole shebang. Time's arrow flies only one way, and you fly with it, so every choice you make to do or not to do a thing, to act in this way or in that, is a choice for keeps. You're saddled with the consequences. To have another go would not seem right.
So "no," I said. "I wouldn't press your button."
"Okay," she said, and shrugged and raised her coffee cup and ran her finger over the screw head.
"What about you?" I said. "Would you go back?"
"Like a shot," she said.
"Got a few regrets, have we?"
"A few? I've got more regrets than whatever the opposite of regrets is - egrets, perhaps. No, they're birds. Did I ever tell you about my first husband?"
"Yes," I said.
"Eight years I stuck with that dork. Eight bloody years. It would be nice to undo that, at least."
"And the kids you had with him?"
"Oh I wouldn't undo the kids."
"But those are the rules."
"Oh, no, that's unthinkable. Not the kids. I couldn't cancel the kids, I just couldn't."
And she lifted her finger from the screw head as though it were the nuclear button.
Across the road the golden youth moved on. I watched him turn the corner onto Oxford St and head downhill, already 15 minutes older.