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Always playing catch-up

Can you imagine me at twelve? I was a bookish child, glasses, quiet with a tendency to drift off from whatever was going on around me. My favourite things were reading, writing and sci-fi and other worlds were often more enjoyable than the real one.

At this age, my mother and step-father decided we were a Healthy Family and we would go Walking. Oh readers, not just walking to the shops, or down the road with the dog; not even walking, gently, round the local lakes. No, serious walking, with a rucksack, map and compass, sensible walking boots and, depending, camping gear (on our backs).

I remember enjoying buying the boots. My square little feet. usually so awkward in shoe shops, seemed made for the little square boots meant for serious walking. I took this as a good sign (note: I am no longer one of those people who trusts in signs).

And off we set, up hill and down dale! On every day off, come rain or shine, we'd pack our things into the car, find some godforsaken part of the Lake District and lug it all out again for the sole purpose of carrying it with us as if we were primeval man.

My main memory of these walks is watching as my parents vanished up the path ahead. The dog was already dancing along in front, insanely happy at all this exercise. My parents, in the fervent grip of Healthy Living, would set a good pace, rucksacks seemingly light-as-air on their backs and walking sticks angled gaily as we made our way through the hills of Mordor.

Me? Well, having torn myself away from my latest book (left, longingly, on the back seat of the car), I would be trudging along behind, my rucksack feeling like it held the pony we should have brought with us for the trip and my feet already hot.

Any sunshine was sent to blaze into my face, or make my hair sweat or as an early alert system for the midges who adored me. Any rain found the gap in my waterproofs, especially that sad and secret place at the back of the welly-boot where one drop of rain can feel like a waterfall as it passes down your leg on the way to your foot.

Any puddles masquerading as dry ground had been warned I was coming and any entertainingly deep holes, full of muddy water, also waited. Other people stepped lazily over swampy ground, foot to grass clump, with the ease of the mountain goat. My feet stood on the same clumps and the whole thing became like a scene from Labyrinth. I would not have been surprised if evil fairies leapt out and took me off for supper.

Throughout this tortuous experience, I would still be left behind. The back view of my parents, faces raised to enjoy the scenery, voices coming back to me, full of laughter, with the occasional wary look behind to see if I was still moaning as much as before (I was). No matter how much I protested, I was still brought out (we know you'll enjoy it) and I was always left behind.

I remember going up to a local beauty spot to see yet another waterfall (you can tire of them). The path was rugged and steep, you had to hold onto tree trunks to get up the hill and there were leaves and dead tree bark all over the ground. It was hard going.

Halfway up, as usual, my parents waited for me. It took a few minutes for me to catch up, then off we went. No time for me to have a rest, or even a breather. As soon as I caught up, they'd speed off again, up the rest of the hill. Then repeat, as they waited at the top just long enough for me to catch them again.

It always seemed as if I was catching-up but never quite making it. I had the idea that if I kept at it, if I was continuously subjected to this inhumane treatment, then I would become hardier and fitter, more able to deal with it and keep up to their pace.

It never did work out that way. However light they said my rucksack was, it always seemed heavy to me. No matter how fast or slow I walked, I was always left behind. If I walked slowly, they waited and then I got no rest as we set off again. If I speeded up, so that I was almost matching their speed (but never quite), they walked even faster, thinking I had finally got the hang of things.

The only respite was the picnic, which meant that me, my parents and the midges could all settle down for a bit on a bench or a rock and find out whether the tea had leaked into the sandwiches. Sometimes it hadn't and even burning my mouth on a tin cup couldn't take the shine off finally sitting down, dreadful shoes off and be-socked toes crying into the fresh air.

I've often thought back to those times over the years, partly to sympathise with myself, sometimes to sympathise with my parents for having to put up with my incessant and proficient whining. Mostly, though, I think back to it when life is getting away from me again, the rucksack heavy on my back, the way ahead full of grass clumps and swamp and my quiet solitude left behind somewhere.

Readers, it doesn't matter if we carry a light pack compared to other people - to us, it might be heavy and shift about unpredictably as we struggle to keep up. Having the right equipment doesn't always help either: what do the shoes matter if all we can think about is the sun in our eyes or the rain down our back?

Mostly, none of this is important if we are always left behind to walk alone. We might deserve it for being a moan, or too slow, or too lazy or just not willing to jog along with other people. Occasionally, we might be way back on the path because none of what we are doing suits us like it does other people.

For anyone who is ahead and always seems to be looking back, please wait for us and, when we catch up briefly, wait a little longer. Just because we are standing next to you doesn't mean we are ready to start walking again. Sometimes we need a few minutes to remember we are not walking alone and that you are willing to wait a while.


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