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Jo entered the field of rough pasture following the footpath signs; the bus revved up negotiating the bends on the way down the hill behind her; then, silence, and the wind in her ears. She looked up at the low clouds and breathed deeply, leaning into the wind, relishing the flecks of rain on her face.
She recollected her husband’s words – “Why on earth do you want to go for a walk on a day like this?” – as if, of course, she was mad to think of it. She knew why, but found it hard to explain.
In the corner of the field an old grey horse shook his mane as if to scatter the moisture. Low grey clouds, chivvied across the sky by a sharp wind, changed shape as they went, fickle as hopes, formless as fears. She trudged up the slope, observing that the field was full of weeds – like those rooted in her marriage – as if fit only to turn an aged workhorse out to grass. Despite her hood the wind lashed hair into her eyes. At length, coming over the rise she was rewarded by the prospect of a green valley, with gently sloping fields bordered by trees. There must be a stream down there, she thought, though as yet she could not see it. Grateful to stretch her eyes over the landscape, she began to assess her route. Once, she had viewed the landmarks of her future – work, marriage, homebuilding, children – as part of a colourful journey laid out before her. Now those milestones were passed, her path seemed less clear.
The going would be easier on the downhill, she thought. But nothing was as easy as it looked. Negotiating prickly entanglements with some brambles, she pulled away, identified the muddy path, and sliding and slipping made her way down to the cover of a sighing wood. As she went, incidents which galled her sprang to mind, one after another.
“Why go out all the time?”
“Because I’m suffocating at home!”
She realised she was shouting. A quick glance around reassured her that no-one could have heard, except for a flicker of feathered rush to a further tree. She spied the red breast of a robin, pertly observing her from a safe distance. With one foot she scraped aside some of the dead leaves carpeting the ground. Then, from a dozen paces away she watched quietly, as the bird returned to forage in the exposed earth. She caught herself planning to tell Ray about the robin on her return.
She pictured him reading the paper, watching afternoon TV, while she attended her art classes, her voluntary shifts at the hospital shop. Activities which it never occurred to him to question while he was working, now had to be justified in an inquisition, belittling, by implication, her friendships and pursuits. Stung, she had once replied, “You should do more yourself, might take off a bit of weight,” and left the room to avoid seeing his face. Hating herself, and yet bursting with irritation, she wondered whether the task of understanding and accommodating their diverse requirements was always to remain hers alone.
Where she sat was sheltered, but the tops of the trees danced, as wildly as teenagers in a night club. She smiled at the memory. Ray had been a real mover; at seventeen, she had been bowled over by his grace and energy. He had not needed her then, with so many admiring female eyes upon him. But now – how could Ray possibly manage without her? Was she staying with him for pity then? Resolutely, she faced the fact that this was hardly adequate for an onward journey.
There was a rich, mouldy smell to the air; branching fungus grew on a long-fallen log. The smell of autumn she thought – a smell of sadness, or perhaps wistfulness; winter lay ahead. Pigeon feathers lay between the path and a low stone wall – the result of a tussle? Or a kill? She rose, finding that her hips ached for a while until she again settled into her stride, through the wood and out into the fields of grass and mown stubble.
Beyond the moving clouds she could see patches of blue sky. Suddenly the world brightened as sunshine turned the mown field to gold. She pushed back her hood and enjoyed the light breeze in her hair and the sensation that unexpected pleasure could still attend her journey.
At the next stile she sat for a moment in the warmth of the sun, watching the patchwork of rainclouds in their steady procession above, and then at the low hills ahead, still in shadow. Beyond them she knew the valley descended hundreds of feet before she would reach home. Now, reluctantly, she faced the fact that she must choose, whether to continue the long walk onward, or cut short her journey, turn back up the path and get the next bus. At a juncture like this Ray would normally reach a rapid decision and head off at a smart pace without waiting to see whether she were in tow or not. She thought about future journeys, and realised that it might be easier to take them on her own. The path passed under a solitary oak, her gaze wandering from the aged limbs spreading in unconstrained vigour to the four winds, up into the glimpsed heights of its rustling crown. Had she reached the heights, or perhaps the breadth, she was capable of?
She had almost decided to abandon the walk, turn back and head upwards, to regain the road before it rained again. She would choose a new path, another day. But she could hear the rush and trickle of hidden water. Beyond the stile, the grassy path ran alongside the stream, sunlight patterning the stones in its brown depths, reminding her of children with nets and jars; of Ray, patiently directing investigations, towelling shivering feet, retrieving slimy waterweed from the brook and setting up a tank with a water pump for the tadpoles in the kitchen. The grandchildren would soon be old enough to enjoy such expeditions.
Ray had spoken of making a pond in the garden. Charming as the tiny frogs had been, and magnificent their leaps out of the tank and onto the lino floor – occasioning shouts and screams in the chase for recapture – she thought a pond might be preferable to the kitchen for future hosting of amphibian life. Maybe other creatures would come, damsel flies and dragonflies. She pictured the dart and dance of shimmering wings. Ray loved invertebrates.
Perhaps in spring… She walked on, and the sunlight came and went. Soon she would again be in gloom. As the path began to ascend once more towards the lip of the valley, a spatter of rain against her face presaged a coming shower. From her pack she checked the map in its plastic cover, traced again her homeward route, and took out waterproof trousers, prepared as well as she could manage, for the rest of the journey.