The smell of lard hit me the minute I stepped off the train. There are many things that I miss about my home town, but the fat they fry their chips in isn’t one of them.
I walked to the church, smiling and laughing and turning around to take another glance at vans and shops and company signs bearing the names of families that I’m, at most, a couple of people removed from. To spend a few hours of celebration with my wonderful, ageing, expanding family. One of those very special occasions where the most distant of relatives come along to smile and nod at each other.
Afterwards – and if there’s one thing my family do well, it’s the afterwards – we all de-camped to the local cricket club for afternoon tea and lots of conversation. I chatted with people, trying to catch up on anything between twelve hours and fourteen years of news.
But there was something else I’d wanted to do, so I slipped away in the late afternoon, leaving just enough daytime for me to enjoy alone.
I walked for what felt like miles along the route of a hundred childhood adventures, meeting the river and following its wavering path along a bank that was almost all mine. Past fields and past new houses where fields used to be. Over unnecessary stiles and through gates marking out parts of the bank belonging to the biggest houses but still allowing access to pass through them.
A couple of joggers flew past, grinning because I was as half-familiar to them as they were to me. And a pair of little girls out for a picnic, very possibly less than half a mile from home, but treating the event with the same level of gusto as an evening at Glyndebourne. Without the need to ever actually go to Glyndebourne.
There’s something about the place they’re growing up in that is so comfortable and safe that few people ever really depart from it. People who need to show off. Or – even worse – people who suddenly get ideas above their station. That’s far less a criticism than something about a feeling of security. It’s a place that, in the main, keeps people close enough to not really need any place else. So little changes that it always feels familiar, and the little walk that I had this week reminded me so much of that.
Of adventures that featured little other than a box of jam sandwiches and the foot of an old pair of tights attached to a garden cane with a hoop fashioned out of a coathanger wire (and in all my years of fishing in ditches, I can’t recall ever having caught anything).
But there were other reasons for those adventures. Reasons like being able to roam freely, to eat stolen peas straight out of the fields. To forget exactly where each turning took us, and to feel the tired, aching, inquisitive joy of there being a different forever around every corner.
There was a swing. Between the river bank and a piece of farmland. And it’s still there. Or, at least, the sentimental part of me likes to tell myself that it’s still there.
In the twenty-odd years since I last played on it, it’s probably been replaced a hundred times. But the one I saw on Monday certainly looked the same. So much so that I was, for a fleeting moment, tempted.
Maybe if I’d not been wearing high shoes. Maybe if there’d been someone there to pick me up from the crumpled heap I would inevitably have landed in. Maybe if I’d had a fraction of the spirit I’d had at twelve years old.
There were never really any maybes when I was twelve. Things were mostly pretty certain. Plans and schemes depended only on the power of my imagination and weren’t at all restricted by what was actually possible. We swung harder, laughed longer and ran faster. Until the jam sandwiches were eaten and the home made fishing net had become tangled in a hedge.
Then we would walk all the way home.
Past the park and the village hall where all of our birthday discos were held, and where most of us would eventually experience our first real kiss. And onward to tea and a hosing down. And bed.
And I have no idea why I don’t choose to walk that way rather more often.