If you know me at all, whether in this place or, poor soul, actually and really in the flesh, you know that walking is a non-negotiable element of my life. No matter the weather, no matter the terrain, whether in town or country I walk daily and sometimes many times daily. It’s exercise, though I do other things in the pursuit of a fit and variously wannabe or actually sufficiently trim bod. It’s meditation – never having managed to sit still and contemplate my omming solar plexus for more than a fleeting matter of moments, I find I can switch my whirring brain off and enter another plane of consciousness which occasionally even unlocks a coherent thought when I walk. It’s relaxation – the time to allow oneself to just be and to saturate in whatever surrounds. I love walking in woods, in hills and mountains, on beaches, in fields and meadows, by rivers. I love to walk. The Bean and I walked literally thousands of kilometres in France together and savoured the times when HB2 was with us. When I was in the grip of my own bleakness, walking was my constant and in the end, I literally walked my way back to happiness.
At this moment, we are urged to get outside and walk as we self-isolate ourselves to flatten the virus curve in this deeply troubling and anxious reality we are all, together, living through. I am fortunate because I need no encouragement. Daily I am out with the dogs in tow or, more accurately towed by the dogs and now that HB2 is confined to barracks with me, he comes too. Some days we split up and take a pair of dogs each, some days we are a motley sextet. And the day I am about to share with you was a whole troupe day.
It was Saturday and at weekends our often habit is to drive to one of our neighbouring towns where there is an excellent field complete with skating pond which is, of course, merely pond at non-frozen times of year. Skating on ponds is a feature of life here. It is not one I will be joining in with at any point forward except to watch and admire. Sliding sports and I don’t gel well. I am somewhat Bambi-like of limb and I blame my 6′ frame and attendant high centre of gravity for my decided lack of balance and grace. The fact that my neighbour is taller than me by a margin and skis with perfect ease and elegance is something I try not to be bitter about. That and her fabulous Titian curls. Enough already. We don’t harbour jealousy in this house.
Beyond the field is a large wooded hill. In this area we are rich in conservation land. This is one such place. And it is a dog-walkers delight. The first time we went, at the recommendation of one of The Brains’ colleagues I was absolutely astonished. There were at least twenty dogs frenziedly frolicking on the field and as I approached the pond I found at least twenty more submerged but for their heads and rudder tails all conjoined by a collective bliss etched on their various furry faces. We try and go once or twice a week for socialisation purposes. The dogs, you understand. Us, not so much though it can be pleasant to chat with familiar and unfamiliar folks about such contentious issues as what anti-tic treatment you favour, where to get the best and warmest canine coats to combat brutal New England winters, whether dogs really are smarter than humans and, generally confided in a whisper this one and received with a unified torrent of relief, how to tackle poo(p) eating. Thus, we pass most early Saturday and Sunday mornings. Of course, right now, we are observing our social distance and people are not standing in a friendly knot but rather spread out and using sign language and friendly smiles around the field. When we look back at this moment, we will laugh. We really will.
We turned off the road into the carpark at 8:30 prompt. There was a rather badly parked car which caused The Brains to have to swing wider than usual and utter an attendant pithy remark about the basic inability of people to display good sense, good manners or any ability to drive a car. I zoned the remark out and gave the most cursory of glances at the car and it’s driver sitting studying something in his lap. We parked, passed the nice man who gives up so much of his free time as part of the town conservation group to tending the area surrounding the field, let the dogs run on the field a while, walked past the pond and respected our social distance passing three different ladies on their way home after walking their own dogs. We took a turn round the woods – this takes about forty minutes. We could do a longer three mile jaunt but our dogs are not yet to be trusted and the long loop passes quite close to a road and several people’s back-gardens. Having lost them to an enticing barbecue early last summer we took a wise I feel, decision to wait a while before trying that circuit again off leash. And off leash is so much more fun for the rumbustious pooch-clan we nurture. Back at the field the dogs ran into the pond and swiftly out again …. it’s March and I can attest to the fact that water is at its coldest at this time of year having stress tested the theory some years ago by falling out of my sculling boat first in early January and then in late March. Neither was what could be described as a toasty experience but the later dunking took literally a whole day to get warm from afterwards. Well exercised, dogs were then leashed and walked somewhat serenely back to the waiting car.
As we drove towards the exit, HB2 exclaimed ‘that car’s still there’. He also uttered a mild expletive but I will draw a discreet veil over it. He then remarked that the brake lights were on, indicating that the car was running. Which seemed odd. I asked him to drive past it very slowly, a creeping and not at all welcome sensation beginning to manifest at the base of our collective spines. We did and I looked hard at the driver. His eyes half closed, mouth slightly open he looked as though he was examining a map. Eerily he had not moved. His complexion was what caught my full attention and the kilter of that semi-open mouth. It reminded me of my father the day he died. Into the road and I asked to turn back and look again. We did – me with rubberneck fully extended from the passenger seat. The disquiet crept ever more harshly into a consciousness that something really did not look, nor feel remotely as it should. A turn round the carpark and we drew up behind the car.
What follows I have replayed over and over and over again til my brain has wrung out. I know I will never forget it. HB2 approached the car on foot and spoke through the open window. And then he turned to me and mouthed ‘I think he’s dead’. I was out of the car and across the fortuitously placed right next door Fire Station forecourt with the speed, if not grace of a pursued gazelle. I rang the bell, the duty officer appeared and I gave him my best and most succinct account of the fact that there was a car with a man aboard who we believed to be dead. Longer story short, the first responders were there in seconds (they are conveniently right next door, remember), the police followed. The man was taken from his car. Attempts were made to resuscitate him. The two dogs sitting in the backseat remained still and were pathetically calm. They knew. Knew their master had passed. The policewoman who took our details and briefest of statements was despatched to an address to speak to his wife. We remained subdued and I suppose shocked for the rest of the day.
You see, here we all are rightly gripped by the frightening developments all around the world as COVID19 cuts an indiscriminate and lethal swathe through populations and we forget, or at least I know I had forgotten that death being a part of life is happening all around us in the exact same way as it always has. The night before, Massachusetts, the state I live in, had reported it’s first death from COVID19. A man of 87 years old with previous serious health issues. A reporter stood outside his home, interviewed neighbours (he was lovely man, a Navy Veteran) and we all felt sad and our thoughts (and for some, prayers) went out to his family and loved ones. This man, who I believe, but must wait until autopsy results are released to know, must have suffered an aneurysm, had a stroke or a heart attack as he pressed the brake pedal approaching the junction with the road. He died the most unassuming of deaths. And he sat in his car as people drove past and walked past and tut-tutted because he was stopped in an awkward place for at least an hour and I believe probably an hour and a half. This was an older gentleman but not ancient, who probably thought it wise to take the dogs out early rather than risk meeting too many people at this time when we are told to keep contact to a minimum. I thought of his wife, who presumably thought he would be back with their dogs soon. Maybe she was making breakfast. Maybe she was tut-tutting that he was taking his time and then …. then, a police officer carrying the worst of news to her doorstep. And I thought of the policewoman and all the other officers the world over who have to break tragic news to people, to strangers. To witness and contain and comfort the rawest moments of shock and grief. I thought of the dogs. Sitting patient, loyal. Sentinels guarding their master. They knew. Dogs do. Their dignity would shame most of us. Death is a part of life. This man died the quietest of deaths. There will be no news story, no reporter urging us to send our thoughts and prayers. He was just an older gentleman who died. As we all will. My thoughts have been with his wife and his family whom I shall never meet. Their grief is just the same as the family of the first man to succumb to COVID19 in Massachusetts. The experience has left me a little altered. I suppose finding a deceased body on a routine dog walk is bound to do that. In writing this piece, I honour his life. I will never forget him though I believe I only ever passed the time of day with him. It was his car I recognised as familiar, not his face. And his dogs. Rest well, good sir. Find the place to nestle in the hearts of those that loved you and ease their pain over time as they learn to recognise that you are ever there, residing in that safe place inside them.
PS: As ever, a PS: The title is from Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Good Husband’ ‘to expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect’. It seems to me that none of us expected what has gripped the world we call ours and is running rampant and amuck amongst us wherever on the planet we live. Perhaps we should learn from this that we are not as advanced nor evolved as we pertain to be. And perhaps at the end of this, we might learn to be more compassionate, kinder, more decent and tolerant. And thus evolved, we might grace ourselves as having modernised our intellect a tiny bit for the experience. Stay safe, stay well, stay out of harms way and remember that eventually, for one reason or another, death will be part of our lives as surely as this virus will touch all our lives before it is done.
And for the sake of a little levity, here is Helen Shapiro ‘Walking Back to Happiness’ ….