‘It’s so hard to find the beginning. Or rather, it is hard to find the beginning and not wish to go further back…’ Wittgenstein
An old friend calls from Bangkok. He has hepatitis, a clot in his lungs – 40 years of chain smoking roll-ups, drinking tequila by the litre. ‘I’m coming home,’ he says, then laughs and coughs, ‘whatever that means.’ He hasn’t lived in Bristol for over thirty years; his parents are dead; he has no siblings. Three weeks later, I drive back to the city where I was born, through Saturday afternoon traffic, to the BRI, take the lift to Ward 11, and walk past his bed. He waves. I turn to see an old man with yellow skin and cavernous eyes, his top two teeth missing. He speaks haltingly, in rasps and whispers. He came home, he says, as he didn’t want to be embalmed, ‘Mummified,’ he says, ‘looking like this!’
Two days later, rain drills the windscreen as I drive along the M4, dialling between radio stations. A presenter talks about pilgrimages. Walking and religion, she observes, share a common vocabulary of symbolic gestures, hardships and reward. The programme cuts to a man with a thick German accent (whom I later discover to be the German film director, Werner Herzog). He describes a walk he made one winter from Munich to Paris, to the hospital bed of his friend, Lottie Eisner, ‘Our Lottie,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t let her die.’ I flick stations, needing music. November is bleak, barren with loss. I am driving home to an empty house. Sarah has flown to Melbourne – furious our attempts at reconciliation have failed. Tom and I agreed, before setting off, that it would be easier for Tom to move his things out while I was away – meaning, it would be easier for him. I press my foot to the hard rubber, the engine picks up a notch.
I buy a map of Brighton & Hove, an OS Landranger 198; its lovely spiny lines sprawl across a city of grey boxes. Red tentacles bleed to a sudden curve of blue sea. I like the thick smooth feel of the paper, the sharp creases I iron flat with my palm. Beyond the city’s grey boxes, spiny coral contour lines bunch tightly and broken green lines zigzag left to right. I set it down on the floor. In one stride, I can walk from Newhaven to Worthing. Is a map a rehearsal?
The rooms are empty of Tom’s furniture, a chill set into the corners. Heartache is the ultimate liminal space, a tender bruise, a glowing wound, a vacancy between past and future. I tell friends, colleagues, Sarah (when she Skypes), ‘I’m going on a pilgrimage.’
‘To where?’ They say.
The night Tom left – in a blazing row, raining debris down on us, I felt the loss of him, of me, of our family, in swoops and dives as if the ground was dropping away while my feet stood solid on pine boards. He left his keys fanned out on the kitchen table. I threw them in the bin. Later, I fished them out, washed off coffee grinds under the tap, and put them in the blue jug on the dresser.
Tom has moved to Eastbourne, a flat near the station – I cannot imagine it. When I think of him, it is in this house, standing in the bedroom doorway, or at the kitchen table, his hands cupped around his black Habitat mug. He communicates (about Sarah, the house) by email which I consign to trash with a click of the finger. If I ring him, it goes to voicemail. Now, as I step into a bath, he calls. My stomach lurches. He says his patience is exhausted: ‘We have to move on, sell the house, share the equity.’
A few days later, an estate agent with a buzz cut, tight jacket and drainpipe trousers leans against the kitchen cabinets. He calls it a project house, ‘Am I suited?’ he asks, the words ridiculously Dickensian on his tongue.
A young couple with two small boys, who squabble in the hall over a plastic dinosaur, buy the house. I cry the night we exchange, sitting on the step down into the kitchen, holding a bottle of Budvar. I think of Sarah, waking to the heat of a Melbourne morning, Tom, in his flat, without furniture, Werner Herzog’s soft German lilt as he talked tenderly of ‘saving our Lottie.’
The housing market is buoyant, heating up, hardening off. Frenzied bids at stupid prices beat me to the door.
‘Rent,’ Tom says, when I complain about money, ‘it makes sense the way the market is.’
My world shrinks daily: Bookcases, wardrobes, beds, chairs, lamps, bedside cabinets go to e-bay, or the YMCA. I move temporarily to a flat in Hanover, offered by a friend who is travelling around South America for six months. I watch seagull chicks hatch on roofs, fledglings waddling along ridge poles flapping their wings, readying themselves for flight.
Pilgrimage. From the Provençal pelegrin, pilgrim, crusader, adapted from the Latin, peregrinus, foreigner or stranger. I roll the words on my tongue: stranger, foreigner, itinerate. I grind them to pulp until I can swallow them whole.
The Camino de Santiago is a network of rocky path across northern Spain towards the Cathedral of St James. Photographs of pilgrims shine weekly from the Sunday papers and TV. ‘Come with us,’ friends say, ‘your stuff is in storage, what better time to go?’
A restless ache, tender to the touch, has lodged in my ribs. At night, I hunch over my laptop flicking through pictures of craggy mountains, fountains flowing over stone, shuttered villages, tavernas with plastic chairs. What do these have to do with me?
To walk back to the beginning, to unknot and unfurl time in a straight line. This is what I want.
A brown house, (carpets, doors, kitchen cupboards), wedged between narrow terraces in Kemp Town. A Coronation Street front door opens directly onto the street. Someone else’s blonde hair is matted in the bedroom carpet; someone else’s cigarette butts are ground into the drain outside the kitchen door; someone else’s scurf rings the enamel bath. I wash. I shower, but the bath defeats me. Christmas comes and goes. Each month I pay rent to a management company in Newcastle. I cook, I hoover. I shower. I stare at the stained enamel bath. I cannot bear the thought of my naked skin touching the enamel; it is an intimacy beyond me. I remember how Josef Beuys was carried over American soil on a stretcher, wrapped in felt to insulate him from the country – to be in it without having any physical contact with it; how he sat for days in a room caged with a coyote to articulate this complicated relationship with an alien state. And, suddenly, I understand the reason for my procrastination, my inability to walk; it is luminous, brittle with paradox. To take a journey and return, one first needs a home to set forth from; to be of, to belong. With Sarah’s flight to Australia, Tom’s departure, and the family home sold, I feel confined rather than liberated – as friends insist I should feel – foxed by doubt, soft, vulnerable, without a shell. It is precisely the not having a home rather than the home that prevents me from leaving. That night, wrapped in a dressing gown, sitting at the kitchen table, I make a list of all the houses and flats I’ve lived in, churning up addresses, bricks and mortar, mould-speckled kitchens, echoing stairwells, feet pounding on stairs.
I count 23 from memory.
‘Walking? To Bristol?’ Albert says. We’re sitting in Costas. Other people’s children slide under tables, across the black and white tiles around us. He stirs his cappuccino, ‘What’s wrong with a train….?’ He looks up, his eyes crimped into a frown, ‘Seriously, why Bristol?’
‘It’s where I was born.’
(To walk back to the beginning, to unknot and unfurl time in a straight line.)
‘How very Orwellian of you,’ he says.
A vernal equinox. Equal daylight. Equal dark. I imagine the world transected into two perfect halves. I am delaying. Doubt creeps in. Sarah has moved on to Sydney. ‘You can’t even read a map,’ she says.
I drink too much wine. I ring Tom, wanting to surprise, to impress.
‘You should buy somewhere,’ he says, ‘the market has bottomed out.’
The elms shed their leaves. The pavements grow thick, slippery with mulch. My friend from Bangkok dies. Standing by the kitchen window, hearing the news, I think of Bruegel’s painting of Icarus, tumbling into the sea with barely a splash. I drive across town to view flats, purpose-built maisonettes, high-rises, dank basements, terrible conversions with sun-tunnels for windows. I shake hands with estate agents called Hayley, Hunter, and Curtis.
The flat is a probate sale. A two-bed flat near the sea; part subterranean, musty brick; it feels fitting to stay close to the ground. I Skype Sarah who answers walking to work in sunshine while night clings thickly to the sky outside. Words echo and click, bouncing between satellites. We repeat ourselves. We leave gaps. We are in touch, but we cannot touch.
‘What about your walk?’ She says,
I don’t talk about walking anymore. Friends have stopped asking.
Men sit outside pubs shirts undone. After months of gusting rain, spring arrives suddenly in 22 degrees; brilliant sunshine bounces over the sea, flashing at windows, bleaching the skyline. A solicitor’s letter, creamy and official, drops through the letter box. It sits on the kitchen table for days unopened. It is from Tom’s solicitor. It contains the words: Decree Absolute. I walk into town and buy a pair of walking boots, brown leather, yellow laces, heavy treads cushioning me from the ground. They hold my ankles fast.
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
Albert sent me this excerpt after I showed him my new boots – still in the box, to return if I choose. It was written by William Hutchinson Murray in his 1951 introduction to The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. Murray was captured by the Germans in a failed Allied campaign in North Africa during WW2, and wrote his seminal book on mountaineering whilst interned in a prisoner of war camp in Italy. The book was written on toilet paper – paper being scarce at the time, and was confiscated by the Gestapo and destroyed. Undaunted, or bloody minded, Murray began again, dredging each word from memory, refusing to give up. A man with tenacity, and patience, honed through long years of climbing the Scottish Highlands, who understood the frailty of beginnings; the adamantine faith needed to coach them to action.
I set a date: May 3rd – chosen for its arbitrariness, lack of association or significance.
May 3, 2014
A beginning is always imagined; heroic in inception; form from chaos, light from dark. I pictured friends, picnics, a jollying on the way. The reality is quiet, solitary; a square of sunlight creeping over the bedroom wall as I snap the clips on my backpack: T shirt, thermal, underwear, washbag, waterproofs, Compeds, paracetamol, maps, phone. My life reduced to 6kg. I rinse my cup under the cold tap, and hoist my bag onto my back, adjusting my balance, recalibrating the new weight of myself. In the doorway to the kitchen I pause. I have not thought about Tom for days, possibly weeks, but now acting on a whim or instinct, I retrace my steps, take the blue jug out of the cupboard and slip his keys into the pocket of my trousers. I will lose them on the path, casually, randomly, to the soil or water; element to element, freed from meanings of key or home, or two people who hefted their weight together once and made a child, inside walls of brick and doors with locks.
On the way out of Munich in 1974, Herzog stopped by the Pasinger hospital to see a friend who read his Tarot. He was walking on a compass, and worried about crossing the river Lech. The cards were no bigger than thumbnails. There was the devil and a hangman hanging upside down, but his friend had lost the instructions explaining how to interpret the cards. Sarah would say these are good cards to walk on: The hangman symbolizes surrender and the devil too much restraint.
The backpack cuts my shoulders. Despite its weight, I feel light, insubstantial, cut loose from the familiar; adrift. My left boot rubs the heel. I turn left onto the Old Shoreham Road, which runs due west out of the city. The early morning sun warms my hands, my feet pick up pace. I have begun.