In search of a perfect moment

A family walk at Sutton Hoo.

A family walk at Sutton Hoo.

Lucy Etherington organises The Family Walk . . . sort of

I always imagine everyone else’s family walks being jolly, ruddy cheeked affairs, with muddy wellies and waggy dogs and sparkly eyed children running up with pine cones held in their mittens. “Look what I’ve found, Mummy!”

Mine are a peculiar kind of hell that, for some reason, I keep repeating.

They go roughly like this.

It’s Sunday, no one is dressed, there’s a build-up of sticky inertia in the house, and everyone is happy playing computer games or reading papers. I, however, cannot relax, because I am possessed by this idea that every other family in the universe is outdoors in the bracing winter sunshine being wholesome.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I say in a voice that isn’t really mine (I think it’s my late Great Grandmother, Cross Country Champion of Glamorgan), pulling back the curtains and letting light pour on all the screens and swirling dust motes.

Everyone hears The Crazy Voice and does that thing when a mad person enters the room of pretending they’re not there. Which, of course, makes the mad person madder.

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“Come on! It’s a lovely day!”

The 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (note: “solitary”), “I have never thought that a man’s freedom consists in being able to do whatever he wills, but he should not, by any human will, be forced to do what is against his will.”

I entirely agree with him. However, I’m possessed by a Fun Nazi running a Country Magazine Lifestyle Bootcamp, some residue of early childhood brainwashing. The word ‘family walk’ lights up a neural pathway in my brain that orders me to stride madly up some sleet-whipped ragged mountain until my feet explode.

My husband doesn’t have that. Childhood ‘walks’ for him were more field trips. You only go outside to look at something specific, like a deer or migrating swallows, then get back in the car and go for a Kentucky. He’s easily affronted by any weather that isn’t controlled by air conditioning as it reminds him he’s not indoors. Naturally, he’s the only one of us who was born and raised in the countryside.

Then there’s my 14-year-old daughter, born with a cynically arched eyebrow, who has been going through the ‘phase’ of not wanting to be seen dead with her family since she was around eight.

She doesn’t do wellies or coats, and likes to walk about three miles behind us, pretending to the world that she’s actually heading in some other direction on her own, which is why she is wearing pink DMs and a crop top, and looks murderous if we try to broach her. I realise that used to be me, glaring from under my eighties fringe at my triumphant parents at the top of some fell, cragg, seat or pike with my backcombing all awry, but I’ve conveniently forgotten all this.

Finally there’s my son. He genuinely loves walking. In the absence of an actual canine, he is the family dog. He will run to and fro, fetching sticks, even if he does point them at our heads and make exploding noises. Yet finding wellies that still fit him and that haven’t been left at school takes a few hours, usually ending with him wearing trainers and coming back looking like a mud fondue, as does trying to get my daughter not to dress for a night club while verbally psychoanalysing me with such brutal precision.

“We are only doing this because you are insane.”

We finally get out the front door at the moment the sun disappears behind a cloud, an icy chill slams us in the face and clouds rumble. We set off, my husband ambling while reading football scores on his phone, my son running through trees gunning down imaginary zombies, my daughter trying to kill us with her stare, and the spitty rain doing the rest.

I’m far ahead because my wellies have been cursed (by my Great Grandmother) to stride like seven league boots.

If we were walking with friends, we’d naturally adjust to each other’s pace. But there’s a will to individualism in the family that makes us look like angry toy bunnies run on different batteries all going off in different directions.

An hour or so into the walk, we may all come together, mostly to argue about which direction to take.

Every time, I vow never to do this again. But, you know Freud’s theory of repetition compulsion – where we helplessly repeat self-destructive patterns thinking they might actually be different this time?

Also (usually in the last five minutes) there might be a ‘moment’, one for the Rose-tinted Family Memories album. One was my daughter on Holbrook Bay calling a curlew “magical”. Another where my son says “I love woods”, eyes bright and cheeks aglow. There’s one involving den building at Thorndon – at least I think that was my memory: I could have been wistfully admiring another family while my own beat each other with sticks.

For a brief instant we become that ruddy-cheeked wholesome family – until I try to capture it on the phone camera . . .

Lucy Etherington writes regularly in Suffolk Magazine

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