Thick green avenues run wild alongside footpaths. The space between beech and hazel trees has filled out with life. Tracks I used to take around the trunks have been swallowed by nature. Falling down fences line Laneways behind houses. Ivy spills over the tops. The gnarled limbs of an apple tree spread over my head. The first, small fruits already sinking into the concrete surrounding my feet. I wonder how old the tree is, how long it took to establish, whether it produces enough apples to brew 5 litres of cider. Only then do I remember the tree spreads from behind a fence. In someone else’s garden. Somehow that sets me off, or maybe my mind was already going there. Snow capped mountains rise, boots crunch through ice. The heart stopping chill of melt water streams. A distant dream consigned to the past. I grew up here, walking these streets to school, to houses of friends. I didn’t dream of mountains then. I never imagined you could walk the entire length of a country. I don’t even know when I learned New Zealand existed. Now this country is a part of me. How long for? Forever I hope. I wouldn’t still be free if I had stayed. I’d have gotten a room, a job, a cage of my own building. Nothing good can last. At least this way my continued existence is being subsidised. With apologies to my Mum and Dad who are once again dealing with the consequences of their actions. As we all should be. The mountains may be long gone but their impact doesn’t have to be. Life is for living. Maybe not in the immediate future, but once again. This window remains small on the spectrum. The mantra I carried with me remains. Take the time that needs to be taken. Let life play out. It is what it is, what will be will be. I click the accept button on a website. Not for cookies but for a conditional job offer. Call off the search. Remove my C.V. from the internet. Unsubscribe from job alerts. The future has been determined. After almost another full year off I’m going back to work. It’s been both a long time and no time at all. I started looking at the start of May. Three months later I’m done. Another three weeks and another block of my early retirement comes to an end. A weight lifts. A contract gives me room to breathe. Time to figure out what next, and what now?
The day broke only an hour ago. Already a few heads bob in the Channel. I could join them but I don’t. I pound the promenade almost all the way to Sandbanks. I used to say if I lived somewhere nice I’d run more. Now I run because it’s nice to do something. Move first. Worry about the rest of the day later. There aren’t many places better to run than the edge of the sea. Out of town. Maybe on the trail rather than road. The world hasn’t fully woken up yet. A few dog walkers. A handful of other runners. A couple of hours from now the crowd will begin to unpack. Tiny half-tent shelters. Wind breaks and deck chairs. I’ll be gone by then, hidden away on the first floor of a block of retirement flats. Later, much later. Once the crowds have moved inland towards the carparks, the takeaways, the trains home I return to the beach. Detectorists sweep the sand. The sea turns through all the shades of cooper. Orange through green. Chalk fades purple then grey. I walk this time down to one of of the groynes further from the chines. On the cooling sand I strip down to my shorts and plunge in to the sea. The first wild swim back at home and already, probably the last of the year. The rivers tempt me but I make excuses. Anything from the temperature to the toxicity.
Summer does the decent thing and waits for me to start work before it ends. Heavy grey skies. Clouds full of rain. I drive to a car park on the edge of the city. I ride the bus in to the centre. Nobody answers the door when I ring the bell. I call the boss of my new boss who lets me in and leads me to a room where I spend the next three days. Being in the city of Winchester feels like a holiday. The castle remains, a cathedral. Cobbled streets. I hope to drag out the honeymoon as long as possible. None of it means as much to me as the Itchen River. Crystal clear, flowing as glass. Mats of green dragging in the current. A splash and a ripple reveal life below the surface. Twice already I’ve taken my lunch beneath the boughs of a willow tree overlooking the water. As I sit I notice a young woman slide into the waters of the Itchen. There’s nothing here to say you can’t swim but I’m surprised still. Impressed even. I don’t see her get out but I don’t imagine she was in for long. The clearest water I’ve seen in a river in this country rushes some 17km away towards Southampton and the sea via the Solent. Peace. Away from the crowds of the high street. Away from the screens of my future. A bubble of paradise. Even in the rain, nothing heavy and not yet winter, the drooping branches of the willow offer some shelter. A grey wagtail joins me for lunch. He bobs along the river’s edge. Pied wagtails used to be common at home. This is the first I’ve seen of any variety.
The Itchen is the second of our rivers to start winding through my life. A shard of glacial ice explodes from the willow leaves. Quietly, to myself, I call the bird by its name. “Kingfisher,” I whisper. I’ve seen fewer than a handful in my whole life. I barely saw this one. A lightning flash above the murky waters of the River Thames. It could be years before I see another. The sighting lifts my spirits. A good start to the day. Birds still have this hold on me. Every time a Red Kite floats overhead I find I’ve stopped. I’m staring straight up. Stupid grin on my face. From the distance of the ground, they appear deceptively fragile. Gliding with grace across the wide open blue. A chattering of jackdaws on a college lawn. A fight breaks out as if they were no different to the human students living behind the walls. They t’chaw at one another. Grass fades to desert brown. A symptom of the second heatwave of the summer. I think of the tomato plants I pruned at the weekend. Now abandoned to the relentless heat. Plants aren’t that much different to animals. If you want to own one, you have to be able to take care of it. Be there for it. Or get someone else in to do it for you while you’re away. The bracket containing my hobbies appears to be expanding. No bad thing. A woman steps off the pavement on to a bicycle and is swept away with the traffic towards the centre of Oxford. I follow in my own way, on foot to the station. Back home again. Rachael already makes my life significantly better than it was in those dark years between Australia and New Zealand. There is now someone to look forward to. We can work on things to look forward to. Do something. Do nothing. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. This isn’t an excuse for apathy but the only reason to do anything at all, because why not? What’s the worst that can happen? Nothing, which is all there is anyway. Choose something, or don’t. It doesn’t matter. Not for the next two years anyway. Things can start proceeding towards a normal person’s idea of normal. A regular, functional routine, just in time for winter.