Walking is hard when your thoughts run ahead

Walking is hard when your thoughts run ahead

My ambitions have wasted away like unused muscle over the past year, dwindling so now my only daily goal, occasionally achieved, is 10,000 steps. I put a lot of stock in a number said confidently. I like this one – fat and grand and to all appearances completely arbitrary; the kind of number given by a child asked how old Grandma is. How many steps a day does one need to keep healthy? “Well, it’s virtually impossible to stay fit without…” Yeah but say we can’t do proper exercise because we’re… not lazy exactly, but imagine like a very weary person made of Flump marshmallows… “Loads then. Thousands!” Ballpark figure… “TEN THOUSAND.” Fine, was that really so hard? Jesus.

So each morning I trot down to the woods, panting with purpose and high on spring. Except, for all my attempts to concentrate on the ripe glory of a magnolia tree or the smell of cut grass, my brain gets in the way, intruding on my feelings like knotweed. Will it not let me have one pure thought? I’ll show you. Let me guide you through the undergrowth of my mind; let me take you on my walk.

I began the day chuckling at a clip from The Simpsons, where Lisa becomes obsessed with the vegan frontman of a band called the Snuffs. I thought of it again as I entered the woods. The wild garlic is out, the banks of the brook dense with it, and I collected some as is the law round here, carrying it like a stinking bouquet.

I tried to lean into the glory, the fluorescent blossom, the allotments with their drunk tulips and turned-over soil
Inspired by Lisa, as I galloped along the stone path I listened to Morrissey’s old Desert Island Discs, where he and Kirsty Young flirted in the most exquisite way, and I was reminded of a simpler time when I could listen to his music and hear just the songs. Idly, I stood in the nature and checked my phone to see whether Morrissey had commented on the Snuffs and, of course, he had. It was racist, he said, complaining the episode showed “the Morrissey character with his belly hanging out of his shirt” (when he has never looked like that at any point in his career).

Standing aside to let two joggers sweat past, I realised this was the second time in a week a celebrity had shown what really incensed them was the idea they may be seen as fat. The other was Patrizia Reggiani (who served 16 years in prison for contracting the murder of her husband, Maurizio Gucci), saying she was “offended” by the way her family have been presented in Ridley Scott’s film about the Gucci family; disgusted by Al Pacino’s “fat and ugly” portrayal of her grandfather.

I stood aside again for an old man and his dogs and, looking up at the trees, thought of “crown shyness”, the phenomenon which sees their uppermost branches growing with ribbons of empty space left between neighbouring trees to avoid spreading disease. As I looked up, another jogger swerved, calling a cheerful, “Sorry!” as his elbow knocked the garlic out of my hand. On these mornings I carry two opposing thoughts in my head, the first being undiluted joy at the sight of other people, their presence signalling a world reopening; the second being an itchy fear of their walking infections. The two thoughts wrestle for the last remaining chair. But I looked up at the leaves, performing their ancient dance of social distancing, and thought, if that gnarled old tree can do it then so can this one.

I slowed down to enjoy a narrow stretch of sun and, squinting up, saw a meeting of parakeets, planning their next coup. Then I heard a woodpecker – a woodpecker in the suburbs, chiselling away at a tree as if knocking through to extend the kitchen. I’m doing it, I whispered to myself, I’m enjoying nature, I’m being in the moment and to celebrate I smiled at the next jogger to pass. A gift. “What?” they yelled, removing their headphones.

There is an open space here where a playground creaks with ghosts and after a warm weekend the bins are surrounded with supplementary rubbish. Then I was thinking of stories about how the pandemic has led to the enforced segregation of parks, with new laws closing certain green spaces at night and increased policing.

I tried again to lean into the glory, the fluorescent blossom, the allotments with their drunk tulips and turned-over soil, but I was distracted again, because on the gate was a flyer. A sketch of a woman kicking in her telly, the slogan, “And just like that, the virus was gone.” Round the corner a sticker proclaimed masks actually “hold in toxins, therefore increasing the risk of illness”. The suburbs of the internet, stuck to a wall.

As I approached home my app told me I was 4,000 steps off, so, after a pause, I began circling. Maybe that mimosa tree will be in flower, I told myself, plodding on, scrolling back. And then I was on a story about Pepper the robot, who’s been programmed to express her inner thoughts as she performs commands. Half-admiring the bluebells shivering on the path I thought, poor Pepper with her inner life laid bare in all its anxiety and rhythmic bother. Poor sod.

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