As a young girl I loved going for walks in the woods with my dad and my younger brother. It was ritual which started like this: On Saturday mornings, my dad would make a ‘fry up’ which consisted of everything you would expect of a ‘full English’ breakfast, including tinned tomatoes as well as grilled ones, fried bread, giant whole mushrooms and even cod’s roe (I know, I can’t believe we used to eat it, and smothered in ketchup too, yech!).
This cooking of the Saturday breakfast was pretty much the sum total of my dad’s contribution towards helping with the housework, and of course he would leave all the washing up for my mum to do afterwards, but as a kid, what did I know about all of that? All that mattered to me was that weekends meant I had my special time with my dad because after we had finished with breakfast, he would always take us out for a long walk in the woods (while Mum did the dishes in peace, you understand).
On the way out, Dad would always grab an apple from the fruit bowl and I would be fascinated at the way he would ‘polish’ it first of all on his coat lapel before eating it. He was one for ritualistic habits which I observed quietly as a child. He also had a ‘thing’ about us having clean hands and would regularly inspect them, telling me off if my nails were dirty or chewed (which they frequently were). It was the way he was, just one of his many ‘quirks’.
Dad loved to tell us stories. Every evening, when he came home from work, my brother and I would leap out of bed and rush downstairs to greet him. He would scoop us up in his arms, smother us with kisses and as he tucked us up back into bed, his stories would begin. He never read to us, his stories were always made up and designed to make us giggle with joy but also squeal with fright as he embellished them with sounds like creaking doors and moaning ghosts. Not conducive to a good night’s sleep (nothing like winding the kids up right before bedtime) but we loved it!
It was the same when we went for our walks. Every creak of the timber all around, every snap of a twig beneath our feet and every rustle in the leaves above became part of his stories.
But what I loved more than anything about these walks was that it meant that I had my dad all to myself. Even then, as loving and as ‘hands-on’ as he could be, I was quite aware that there was always a part of him that I couldn’t reach, a part he kept hidden from me, from us, that was distant, untouchable and emotionally distant. There was a restlessness about him and always something within distracting him from the task in hand – and from us – and I didn’t know then or understand quite what it was. Sometimes I wondered in the inner quiet of my childish musings if my dad really did love me. What had I done so wrong? Was it my fault?
I already knew that I had competition. I’m not talking about the kind of competition which arose out of childhood jealousy when, at family gatherings, all the other kids wanted to play with my dad – “he’s my daddy, not yours!” – but the kind that was elusive, the kind I couldn’t quite put my finger on, the kind that took a part of my daddy away from me and which was silent, insidious, secretive. My competition came from inside a bottle.
I was quite used to the pacing up and down, Dad waiting for the pub to open which cut into time spent with us. Silently I would plead but wanted to cry out, “Please daddy, don’t go! Stay home and be happy with us!” But it never happened. Dad always left for the pub and then, when he came back home, there would be the arguments. Our peaceful family life fractured, bit by bit.
How the long arm of a father’s addiction reaches out to grab away a child’s innocence.
Yet, for me and as strange as it may seem, the smell of alcohol on Dad’s breath was comforting, familiar and safe because it was my dad’s smell and it was all I knew.
So I hold on to the memories of our walks together in the woods and to what my dad did give to me, when he was sober and ‘with me’ when I was a child. In his stories he birthed in me an imagination filled with a magical wonder and a love of nature and wildlife (even if with a slight tinge of menace), opening my eyes to the simple beauty of the created world all about me, a gentle, peaceful world that he tried so hard to show me.
All this in such stark contrast to the chaotic life he was to go on to live, a destructive, obliterated life fuelled by his alcohol addiction and which led to him spending the best part of his adult life in and out of prison.
It is no surprise, then, that when I entered a short story competition (400 words) for Prima magazine last year (and was thrilled to have it published in November’s edition!), I based it on my memories of these walks with my dad and the sense of mystery that he would create.
I share it here with you now.
Shards of dappled light cut through the canopy of trees, remnants of the late afternoon sun. The young girl and small boy followed the man as they trudged their way along the overgrown path in the woods. All around them ancient trees creaked and groaned, like old ships straining against the tide. Tired from their long walk the girl nevertheless was very alert and as she walked she turned at every noise, sharp eyes nervously piercing the ever-darkening shadows closing in around her.
Then, as always, it happened. The man stopped in his tracks, putting up his hand signalling the children to stop, which they immediately did with quiet gasps. The man began breathing in the air deeply, eyes closed. “He’s here, I can smell him!” he said with a quick rush of excitement. That was all the girl and the boy needed to hear. They rushed over to the man, huddling close together, excitement and fear all at once consuming them. “Shhhhhh,” he whispered, “Keep still, he’s very close.”
Not daring to move, they waited, still as posts, straining for every sound and looking for any movement nearby, hoping beyond hope that at last they might see ‘him’. Minutes passed, seemed much longer, but nothing. “He’s gone,” said the man, no longer whispering. “He beat us again but I know he was here. Maybe next time. Come on, let’s go home.” Disappointment weighed down the little group but the girl never gave up hope of seeing ‘him’.
The girl grew up and she always fondly remembered those walks with her dad and brother, although it never failed to amaze her that they never did find ‘him’. The years passed by and at last, whilst driving home one summer evening, she did. In the middle of the quiet road just ahead of her he arrived, completely unannounced. Childhood excitement she thought was long-buried surged up inside her as she quickly braked.
He looked up at her just long enough allowing her to admire his beauty and magnificence, although he was much smaller than the mythical creature she had long imagined. He allowed that much before darting into the nearby hedgerow, disappearing, gone. Breathing out a whoosh of air as she flopped back into her car seat she smiled, incredulous that she had waited so long for his appearance, that illusive, mysterious fox.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. ~John Muir