The seagulls perched cheekily on top of my Auntie’s fence-post in Hove. I recall her comical shooing of them away, as we left her house and turned to face the promenade and the English Channel.
Auntie Marie walked two miles every day. She lived for three decades as a widow, from the age of 63, up until her final years in an old people’s home. She married Arthur in 1951, when she was 28 and he 50. Arthur worked for British Rail, and I remember him fondly more for the things he didn’t do. I know he had a colourful sense of humour, but was also a calming presence, and a fitting anchor to Marie’s chatter-box tendencies and her permanent conjecture at our country’s “disastrous politics”. Arthur was a congenial foil to Marie’s boisterousness.
A staunch socialist (when she wasn’t benefiting from Arthur’s First-Class pass, up and down the UK rail network!) Marie would, by now, have pulled the remainder of her hair out had she been around to leaf through any of this year’s media headlines.
Her indulgence – in addition to a regular “Rocket Fuel” concoction (gin, campari and vermouth – now, I’ll admit one of my favourite drinks) she shared with her older sister, Helen (which typically resulted in hearty confrontations and heated political discourse) – was a copy of The Guardian newspaper, for which she performed her daily pilgrimage.
I stayed with her several times down in Hove after I left school. She always prepared a spread of food, which always included a pork pie and some sparkling wine. I greatly enjoyed our conversations during those times, and the grown up feeling of independent thinking, for which she was a keen promoter.
She had been obsessed with keeping my brother and I “grounded” when we were kids, and aware of our fortunate existences in the grand scheme of all things. Chastising us whenever we complained about minor things, she also took genuine interest in what we were doing with our lives – especially my brother’s passion for sports, and mine for writing. When I started to spend more time overseas, first in Uganda as a teacher and then, later, moving out to Vietnam, I relished receiving one of Marie’s letters in her familiar scrawl.
All throughout my 20s and 30s, I don’t suppose Marie ever missed a day of walking to pick up her newspaper. Buoyed, perhaps, by the salty breeze and the pastel colours of Brighton-by-the-Sea, or just stubbornly loyal to a daily routine of exercise and familiarity?
I’ll never quite know what drove her, and what kept her going, marching as she was then towards 100 years of stepping out, and being alive.
All of this year, I’ve kept my own ‘stepping out’ routine. 10 kilometres each day on average (according to my watch) I run around different parts of Saigon, typically in the sleepy, dark moments before sunrise.
I’ve been calling this my “medicine”. A tonic, of sorts, to bevel the anxieties that irksomely surface from time to time. Questions about the future, or the day-to-day pressures of freelance work – I’ve no doubt I could extrapolate, as could we all, this year.
The steps I take, it’s clear to me now, provide a purge. The reverberations of the act of running, the very visceral, physical cadence, has remedial qualities. It transpires then that the concept of “working out” can have double meaning: running, you could say, creates the time and space for clearer thinking, and the working out of solutions to any tangle of issues you’ve been incubating.
A feeling of purpose can be achieved when you run. You are doing something in a physically focused way, which allows you then to turn your energy away from the something else (working, thinking, worrying) that has so consumed you.
Another way of describing it, in my experience, is that you can be alone when running in a way that doesn’t ever feel isolating.
I wonder if Marie felt this, too? An empowered self, outside, walking the promenade, allowing her senses to be triggered and for them to curate her reality. Rather than for her reality to be managed by a journalist or a politician. Or, in our wider, collective case, by the internet’s 7 billion commentators, in one form or another.
Confinement, this year, felt across the world, has been, and remains, profound – particularly for someone of my spritely years. No comparison exists for me to the impact of Covid-19.
Auntie Marie would have been 98 years old tomorrow.
Were her dementia, a few year’s ago now, to have held off longer, I know she would be striding down Hove High Street (right at about this time of day, in fact) with metronomic diligence, to collect her copy of The Guardian (lamenting, as she surely would have done, about the latest Brexit dramas) before stealing home to see off the seagulls in her front garden and pick through the cryptic crossword.