The Basingstoke Half Marathon starts at 11am. If I had my way we’d be almost done by then rather than just setting off. Dave, Mike and I mill about in the Memorial Park, counting time, ready to start. We move over to the mass of people sprawling out from under the starting arch. I lose Mike ahead of me, Dave behind. I’ll be surprised if I see Mike again. Dave might be just off my shoulder the whole distance. I settle in behind one of the 2 hours 15 minute pacers and the pack that’s grown around him. I get boxed in from time to time. Someone in front, someone to the side. I cross the road in Cliddesden in case Mum and Dad have made it to the Jolly Farmer. They’re not there. They’re back on the other side of the road, cheering and waving. There’s another fella running in blue. He looks comfortable. I think I’ll try and stick with him. At the first hill the group splits. People start to walk. I’m committed to at least trying to run the whole way. I fall in with the pacer again. We have a chat through the flats beyond Ellisfield. He’s run every year. I set off again on another hill. I find I’ve lost my man in blue, but there’s another man in yellow. We’ve been passing each other on and off for a while now. We hit the so called dippers. One rise and fall after another in quick succession. Pond sized puddles of rain have collected in the hollows. “I don’t want a bath!” shouts a voice behind me. It isn’t so bad. The climb on the other side is worse but I’m still running. I still don’t think the South of England has hills but here I am, making my way up one. From the top of Farleigh Hill I can see across town. I’m on familiar road now, a way I’ve run before. Into the last 5km. I hear people cheering my name. It’s printed on the label of my chest. Patrick gets cheers too. He’s the man in yellow. In to the last 500 meters he lets out an almighty roar. “Let’s go!” He sprints. I try to match him but he’s gone too early for me. The finish line is there in a blur of sound and colour. I remember looking at the big clock. It’s much earlier than I expected. I don’t remember crossing the line but there’s Mike. Finished already. He says something. I’ve no idea what. He goes off and comes back with a bottle of Lucozade, a banana and a Kitkat. I demolish them all. Then we see Dave crossing the line, pulling over before us to chat with his Mum. Time for the pub.
Day doesn’t break until long after I’m awake. I switch the light on in the kitchen. I put enough water in the kettle for me alone. The water roars to a boil. Hot steam meets cold air and spreads across the back wall. The heat brushes across my face. I pour hot water over black granules and stir. Coffee rises up my nose like smoke and treacle. The scent of Sunday’s start. An hour and a half after I get up, so follows the sun. I sit on the sofa in the living room, facing out the window, out East. I watch the light as it rises. Black becomes blue. I finish my drink and return to the kitchen. I turn on the radio. Stuart Maconie is pretending to be walking in a forest. All of the songs seem to have trees in their title. I dice an onion and begin to fry. I don’t have an idea, or a plan. All I know is it’s Sunday and I want something different for breakfast. This all feels somehow familiar. Feeling out echoes of another life, a different kitchen. I chop more vegetables. Everything but the pepper is home grown. Ok, the later added mushrooms also came from a supermarket. I poach an egg in butter and put everything in to a bowl. I don’t take a photo. I don’t put it on instagram. Scaling back. Shifting focus. I know I can do better, with a little time and some organisation. Once I’ve eaten I recognise the feeling. Achievement. This might be as good as it gets today. Even if I get nothing else done, I’ve had breakfast. A successful day.
Fires have been lit in the canopy. Reds and golds begin to spread. The flames of autumn ripping through the tree tops. The world unravels a little. The inevitable happens unexpectedly. A change from how things were to how things are. I lose my place a little. I’m not the only one. Life moves on. Breath becomes air for the first time since last time, earlier this year. Rain brings a cool change. The first notice of winter’s slow approach. The fresh air doesn’t make any difference to how much I sweat, jogging up the chalk ridge towards Beggarwood Park. Quiet this morning. Darker, colder. Friday. Not so much ambition. Alpine cloudscapes rest above an almost flat horizon. The rain has been relentless. Storms breaking through the night. Showers bursting throughout the day. One day of rain and the grass has returned to green. Makes you wonder why anyone would bother with a hose pipe. I start getting back in to the swing of things. A normal, ordinary routine. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 days at work. 1, 2 days of rest or play. A cycle on repeat.
Almost three years have passed since the start of the pandemic. It’s over now, in case you hadn’t heard. On our first attempt at a holiday, or a break, or a change. Rachael and I head down to Kent, to housesit for her dad, or just stay in his house while he’s not there for a week. We had all these plans of things to do, sights to see, pubs to sit in. On our first full day we set out across the White Cliffs. Walking in to the white clouds, from Deal to Dover. Thick sea fog hangs over a calm sea. We don’t see a lot and we see everything. What looks to me like a piece of debris floats out in the channel. A man on the shore tells me it’s a migrant boat, but not to worry, he’s already alerted the coast guard. Not long later, I hear the roar of a motor. Something moving fast. Later we spot the debris being towed. Were there people on it? What happens to them now? What happened to the occupants of the black dinghy abandoned on the pebbles of St Margarets Bay? I hope that not getting caught turns out for the best. Nasty politics from people who should know better isn’t stopping people risk their lives. Still they come, at least 10 boats in the one day we walked the cliffs. Desperation driving them to these shores. We catch the bus back to Deal at the end of the day. I don’t sleep in the night. Something is wrong. In the morning Rachael heads down to the pharmacy. I’ve been ahead of the curve for so long. Covid finally catches up with me and I spend the rest of our week away together on the sofa feeling sorry for myself.
Fingerprint moon. Contrails of never less than 8 planes. Pale blue sky of dawn. Air cold with teeth. Biting and finger tips and still exposed knees. I take an animal track deeper into a copse I regularly walk through. I loop around the inside perimeter of the trees. I’ve no idea if I’m allowed to be here or if this is wilful trespass. I emerge on the same footpath I left, having ducked under a thread or barbed wire this time. The hand painted private no entry sign, disappearing into the trees means nothing. In the field on my right, deer graze on the margins. They’re the only true owners of the paths I’ve just followed. I find myself walking a bit further from home. Pushing a little at the boundaries. Skirting fields I probably shouldn’t be in. Nobody stops me. I start spending less time at home too. I walk with Rachael in the Oxfordshire countryside, or along the Thames, or through the city itself. I always thought it was the city of 1000 spires. To me it looks more like 8 plus a few cranes. Truth is it actually goes by city of dreaming spires. Dreaming of more maybe. In the garden Rachael talks me through the visitors. Blackbird, squirrel, and a family of coal tits. Sometimes a fox. There’s more here than I could have imagined.
We’re returning from a frosty walk along the river. A usually quiet lane explodes with life. I’ve never heard the scream of a common garden bird before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one snatched out of the sky by a bird five times it’s size either. The sparrow, or tit, might have escaped through the bin. It must have been close. The raptor didn’t seem to see us. Laser focused on the next meal. In the seconds that followed a talon hooked in to the little bird and they land together. A magpie perches on an aerial mast. No doubt interested in what happens next. We leave the nature to run it’s course, talking between us about what we’d seen. We settle on the most likely of our winged killers; a sparrow hawk. That same weekend, the next day we go again. Different water. The River Cherwell. Cobwebs have grown into thick strings of ice. The world around us has frozen. The water still flows. Life rattles in the trees. Something catches my attention. Bird, probably. Beyond the banks I notice the wake of a duck but there is no duck. Curious. I move closer and see the dog like head of something I never thought I would see. I’d heard stories, rumours. Signs along some of the chalk rivers claim to be homes. Here on the outskirts of Oxford, an otter dives below the surface of the River Cherwell. “Look,” I whisper shout to Rachael, “an otter!” She catches its rear end ride up and its tail sink below. The trail of bubbles move downstream. Gone, and with it another year.