A woman parks her car on the edge of a forest in the late afternoon. Opening the boot of her car, she pulls out a pair of walking boots that she proceeds to change into. Then she lets her dog out and sets off on a walk.
This image has stayed with me for twenty-five years. At the time, in my twenties and on holiday in Norfolk, I barely gave this woman a second thought. But now that I am somewhere near her age, I find that now and then she comes into my mind. She could, it strikes me now, have walked her dog around a suburban block. But she didn’t. She could have kept her normal shoes on, kept her dog on a leash, and followed the dirt road next to the forest. But she didn’t. Instead she pulled on an oil-skin coat and strode out over a field after her dog in the late autumn light.
When I think about what it’s like to be grown up, adult, the image of this woman is as close I as get. For all I know she’d just been fired from a longstanding job and needed to clear her head. Perhaps she was mulling over whether to leave her husband. But I don’t think so. There seemed a comfortable normality about the way she set off on her walk, despite a blustery autumn wind.
At the time, in my twenties, I didn’t think I’d ever be the kind of woman who changed her shoes before walking by a forest with my dog. To me, this woman seemed sensible, unglamorous, almost fusty (she folded a scarf into a triangle before putting it over her hair and tying it under her chin). And, yet, she also seemed to know something about life that I didn’t know.
I couldn’t have asked her what she knew, of course. She’d have looked at me, bemused. Laughed awkwardly, perhaps. She probably had no more idea what would happen to her the next day, than I then did. But I liked her vigour, and her striding out. And I liked the checked rug thrown across the boot of her car to protect it from her dog and muddy boots.
I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right. I now have a pair of boots that live in the boot of my car for changing into before walking my dog. I too have an unglamorous jacket that keeps out the wind, and stops my thoughts from getting cold. I even have a small environmentally sound hatchback car. And a checked blanket for my dog. And I live in Tasmania, not unlike Norfolk in some ways, in order that I can do this.
And you know what? In all the bustle of my life it feels like a small island of sanity and beauty to say good morning, or good afternoon, to my day with a walk through a forest. Often I’m not alone. But these days I know that one day I will be. And when I finally am, I hope that I still change my shoes at the edge of a forest before walking my dog late afternoon.