Over the past few months I’ve tried to delay my relentless decline into circus-esque rotundity by taking an evening or early morning stroll around the village. Barring the occasional hard-to-spot dog turd lurking on the unkempt verge, it is, on the whole, a welcome excursion after a long day of online meetings. On the other hand, should I wake in a grouchy and uncooperative mood, an hour’s trundle in the clear morning air, when most people are still deep I their beds, has a restorative effect much like taking an invigorating plunge into an icy mountain lake. At least that’s the fantasy I like to cultivate on my rounds, picturing myself as an Artic explorer striding purposefully across the tundra instead of a grossly unfit fantasist trying not to step in another pile of dog shit.
Walking at a casual lolling pace in the pre-dawn glow it is almost impossible not to indulge such ideas, and there’s always a chance that I will see a fox, suddenly frozen in place as our eyes meet, a moment of inter-species connection in which he or she could be my spirit guide bearing some vital piece of divine, otherworldly information. I always do this. If an animal or bird looks at me for more than a second my first instinct is to immediately assume that we are connected in some ancient, mystical way. “When did this start?” I will ask myself following yet another fruitless encounter with the magpie that daily perches on the fencepost outside my office window to dig for grubs in the rotting stump. The phone is ringing, but they never seem to want to pick up.
Worse, is that this kind of behaviour irritates me when I observe it in others. I once worked with a woman called Angie who claimed that a falling feather, such as you might find on the street, was a message from angels. “Well, that’s a fucking stupid system of communication!” I would say as we tried to kill time on our joint Saturday shift at Blockbuster Video, kick starting an argument that would roll for the next eight hours.
A slave to superstition, she also refused to type three consecutive sixes on her till or telephone and would pester me to press the last six in the sequence just in case the Devil himself might make an appearance and demand to know why he had been summoned. She also claimed that the dead spoke to her and that her little dog was a highly attuned clairvoyant, her yapping hysterical barks indicating that a dislocated spirit was nearby, and for some reason had taken up residence underneath the refrigerator. Angie and I didn’t get on, but I did grudgingly accept that the dog might be psychic. Being locked in with Angie couldn’t have been easy and you could understand if the dog had, in a moment of desperation, reached out into the void for some moral support.
A full circuit of the village takes about an hour, slightly more if I pass by our local shop and decide that I have earned a treat for my labours. At one excursion I purchased a pack of Marlboros for no other reason than it seemed like something to do, and for the next few nights I would find myself a spot on one of the benches that I pass along my route to pause to enjoy a cigarette. Part of the enjoyment was the feeling of doing something illicit and out of bounds. The government had only recently declared that we were not to go outside unless it was to buy groceries or take exercise, and I wondered what they would make of me sitting there in the dark happily puffing away while abiding by the rules. A few nights later I added a bottle of beer to my list of iniquity, carried in the deep bellows pocket of my raincoat to be savoured alongside my evening cigarette. This, I thought, this will be my secret indulgence.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fantastic. Lockdown world is a quiet place, all of us drifting around like submarines afraid to get too close. Sitting on my corner bench in the local park people would pass from time to time, stepping onto the grass to give me a wide birth or otherwise steering a child away from the strange man. If anything, this added notoriety made the experience all the more satisfying, and I came to especially love the disapproving look of joggers as they flounced by. Only later did I wonder whether my flirtation with danger would have been more impressive had I not been wearing my eight foot long replica Tom Baker Dr Who scarf, its eccentricity accented by my effeminate habit of holding a cigarette like someone preparing to throw a dart or take a delicate sip from a porcelain teacup.
Finding myself suddenly illuminated by a dogwalker’s flashlight one night in early December, the gruff sounding voice at the other end proclaimed loudly, “someone’s got the right idea!” after which my twilight shenanigans lost some of their appeal. This sudden and unexpected approval diminished the experience and for a time I considered ditching the cigarette and beer in favour of a pipe and a hipflask, only to think better of it and go back to focusing my energy on achieving 10,000 steps instead.
Another reason I enjoy my walks is that I like peering into people’s windows. That’s not to suggest that you’ll find me on an evening trampling the marigolds in someone’s front garden, face pressed to a downstairs window, more that I will sneak an inquisitive peek as I pass by. There are several houses of note that cause me to slow to observational preambulatory speed, straining my peripheral radar for any sign of something interesting. The first of which is small bungalow that has all the outward hallmarks of being completely ordinary and underwhelming, but peer inside the sitting room before the curtains are drawn on a winter’s night and you will see that one wall is entirely occupied by a massive photo quality mural of the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest of the room is sparsely furnished, with just the usual accoutrements of a two seater settee and a large flat screen television mounted on the adjacent wall, which if anything draws further attention to the mural. I mean, what were they thinking?
The first time I saw it I had to walk around the block to make another pass, certain that I must have been mistaken, but no. Whatever the story behind this daring interior design decision it surely must be a good one, and reminds me of a scene from ‘Aliens: The Director’s Cut’ where Ripley is seated in a medical waiting room about to discover the fate of her daughter who, we learn, has passed during Ripley’s extended stay in hypersleep. Behind her there is a beautiful panoramic scene of red wood trees dappled in Autumnal light, which flickers and then stutters out of existence as the holo-wall is deactivated, revealing the conceit. Perhaps this is what the owners of the Golden Gate mural were shooting for, something iconic and majestic to enliven their suburban bungalow, although it strikes me as overbearing, oppressive even. Passing by at Christmas I noticed that they had erected two inflatable Santas, one stood to undulating attention on either side of the doorway like sentinels, which I also thought rather odd but somehow very much in the spirit of the bridge mural. At any rate, the investigation continues.
Next on my list is what is obviously an upstairs spare room that has been converted into a miniature workshop for someone with a fairly advanced wool obsession. From what I can see at street level, most of the room has been fitted out with floor to ceiling shelving on which are perched balls of wool, hundreds of them, alongside of which sit bolts of cloth, and a platoon of those curious cone shaped receptacles used to hold industrial lengths of thread. Ribbons hang from the door like the poisonous tendrils of an exotic jellyfish, and the windowsill is almost completely occupied by porcupines of large sewing needles and jars of beads. The collective presence of so much cosy paraphernalia makes the room warm and inviting, and I imagine that everyone in the family has something shaggy and homemade hanging in their wardrobe. Even on the coldest of nights the window is wide open, presumably because the internal Tog rating of the room must be off the charts and I’d love to call up and ask what the mysterious occupant was crafted that night.