But I have promises to keep
Every journey starts with a reason, an impetus for movement. Particularly in winter time when it’s all too easy to stay right where you are. When our race memory counsels the storing of warmth and stillness. The necessary torpor for the season.
But when there is a purpose for movement, for the expending of energy, then routine kicks in and we make the necessary preparations. We do what we need to, we tread our well-worn paths.
I’m lost in the darkness of an infinite, cold night. I don’t know how long I’ve been here or which direction to go in. I’m stood stock still and have been for quite a while.
The darkness isn’t one my eyes can get used to. It just is the darkness, the thing itself and I’m not frightened by it. Perplexed and rather suffocated; but no, not frightened.
I breathe in and feel sharp, chill air sting my throat. There’s a slightly acrid smell in the atmosphere that reminds me of my grandparents’ coal fire when I was a child.
I edge my left foot forward and feel a change of surface. The ground becomes less soft, stonier and more formed. With my hands in front of me, I begin walking.
Each journey starts with a reason, an impetus for movement.
“Memory is the residue of thought”, one of my lecturers used to quote at us regularly in our psychology seminars. It was from Daniel Willingham apparently, describing how children learn. But I always think there’s a step before that. That is, thought is the residue of action. We are creatures of repetitive activity. We just do, often without thinking.
I open the garage door and I’m hoping the bike starts. I haven’t used if for at least two weeks, so there’s no certainty buoying up my hope. I put the key in the ignition and check it’s in neutral. I turn the other switch to run and then press the start button. The engine coughs a couple of times, then engages and the bike’s consequent roar, as always, makes me pleasantly jump.
Certain it’ll go now, I shut the garage door and I get on it. I’m already wearing my helmet, but I adjust my sunglasses and flex my hands in their gloves.
I kick up the stand, put my feet on the pegs and steer on to the road. The road that will eventually take me to the woods. The road that will eventually take me to her.
Walking has its own remembered rhythm. One foot in front of the other, legs striding and arms swinging. I’m not going particularly fast, but at least the darkness and the not knowing has become routine. I’ve always believed you can get used to anything and in any case, I have a reason to be walking.
The dark has almost a purple quality to it - a shifting colour at its edges. Occasionally, I shut my eyes to stop the darkness moving, but when I open them again, the shifting purple is still there.
As I walk further down the track, something happens to the purple. It changes to mauve, lilac and then a smoky, amethyst grey. It begins to leak into the darkness and it dissipates it, allowing me to finally see a little.
What I see confirms what I felt underfoot - I’m on a long, stony path. There is nothing either side of me, but ahead on the wider horizon, I see the beginning of woods. I catch my breath with anticipation at the thought that he’ll be waiting when I get there.
And in my mind, I hear the echo of someone else’s thought, someone else’s idea and I try to recall where I’ve heard it before. “Memory is the residue of thought.”
As I ride up the long, straight road, the woods look like they’re moving in the black and white Dalmatian light. It’s the low winter sun that’s created this effect. The sudden brightness through the trees interrupts the constant darkness, causing the spotted light in my peripheral vision.
The bike is running smoothly and faithfully and I’m melding into its metal. When it feels like this, I could ride for ever.
The breeze on my face smells peppery and spicy, like a dog’s fur when it’s been outside on a frosty morning. I have the odd feeling you get when riding in winter – that you no longer have any legs; that you’ve been clipped by a passing car and you somehow haven’t noticed. Although I know this can’t possibly be true, I take my right hand off the bars and feel down to check my legs are still there.
While I’m riding, she’s completely on my mind. More than this, she’s filling it entirely and as I turn off the main road through the woods and into the car park, I start planning what I might say to her.
The woods are finally getting closer. For a while, it seemed as though I was experiencing one of those dream tricks when you’re walking and never getting any nearer to your destination. But now, I can feel the air change to the conspiratorial hush tall, old trees engender. I can smell their damp age, their stored greenness and I feel welcomed by them.
The path underfoot is no longer stony. Now it’s loam soft and if you stop and look closely down at it, you can see individual leaves, some still whole and some skeleton ghosts of the leaves they were.
I’m bristling with the excitement of seeing him again and like the thought of his presence in the grey, I notice the sudden, bright sun occasionally bursting through the trees. The woods look like they’re moving in this black and white, Dalmatian light.
I have a memory of her dancing with her feet bare. On the beach at some long ago seaside. She’d taken her shoes off and was turning round and round, laughing and kicking the sand up. I was laughing too and some of the sand flicked into my open mouth. I remember the dry, salty crunch of it between my teeth.
I’ve parked the bike, leaving the helmet on the sissy bar and now I’m walking up the track onto the old paths of the woods. People have been walking these same paths for hundreds of years and as I go deeper into the woods, I follow the tracks of people long dead.
Amongst the trees, I greet other walkers in a way I never would in the anonymous city. We exchange comments about the weather and I pat their muddy dogs. I embrace the ancient protocol of the woods.
And finally, walking up a slight incline off the main path, I reach the end of this journey. I sit down and wait. In the trees’ high branches, I catch echoes of her, reverberating like bird song.
I’m feeling very tired and the journey has been long and hard. The woods are still and the vista between the trees allows me to notice every slight movement. The light has altered from its purple grey to a golden, out of season roundness that you’re only privileged to experience on rare, fine days in early January.
I’m aware of the other walkers, but we don’t speak. They almost scare me, these walkers, with their bumbling movements, their unknowable routes. In their slowness, they look like they have all the time in the world and I know that if I could look outside myself, I would appear no different to them.
Something makes me stumble and looking down to move the offending, brittle fern from the path, I notice with sadness what I haven’t before; that is, my feet are bare.
In my mind, she’s already taking hold of my hand. I know she’ll come, she always does.
We meet here to look for the first snowdrops once they’ve fought through the darkness and the cold earth to jut their milky, paper-white heads into the light. They’re impudent little things, bowing their heads at their own tenacity.
It’s a promise we made to each other for this time of the year; when the land is at its most dead, but when the divide between the living and the dead is at its thinnest. When promises mean the most.
We are at the crossing place between years, where the old dog days of the previous year meet the puppy yaps of the new. But I know she won’t let me down. She’s never let me down, not ever. She loves me and she will come.
He doesn’t know I’m already here. I trace my fingers over the sign on my bench. On our bench. “Amy Cartwright loved walking here to meet her son and look at the snowdrops.”
He looks tired around the eyes and I notice with surprise he’s getting older. My little boy.
I feel his beautiful, familiar features with my fingertips and he shivers at the touch he can sense without being able to see its source. I put my hand on his shoulder and snuggle into his heat and solidity, hoping futilely to benefit from both things.
I look at the beginnings of the stark white carpet of snowdrops and I take hold of his hand.