“So, when do you think you’ll be getting better?”
This is a conversation that I did not have with the significant she in my life. But, I have sought to create her in my writing as a sounding board. My wife is my touchstone and I rely upon her no-nonsense guidance in everything I do. Strangely, I think that she loves me. Not so strangely, I think that she somewhat despairs at me being me and the one that she chose to get married to. I don’t blame her.
“What does Happy look like?” asks my counsellor.
“Good question,” I respond after a while. “I have never thought of it like that.”
“If you don’t know what it looks like, how will you know when you get there?”
“Another good question.”
Happy looks like a Sunday morning run with your wife and daughters through wooded countryside. It involves getting out of bed and pushing oneself into suitable running gear and then finding somewhere nice to run. Trail running and the like are far more preferable to road running, as they provide old-stagers like me with something to look at and admire whilst doing one’s duty to one’s ageing frame. The empty nature of nature lends itself to a feeling of innate wellbeing, a rather clichéd oneness with the countryside and a love of relative silence. It also allows a family to bond.
Well this family, this Sunday, was not so much bonding as abandoning. Our eldest was doing a duathlon in Oxford with the university team whilst our middle one was remaining indoors to do homework and to check any social media that needed checking. My wife had had a wonderfully timed learning-walk goose-step itself into her last class of the day on Friday afternoon, so she was feeling that bed was a proper place to spend the rest of her life. That left me and our youngest. Yet, I was full of beans; metaphorical ones.
In the last week I had found somebody who I thought may have disappeared off into the kingdom of Someone I Used To Be; Me!
It came as a shock when I looked in the shaving mirror and saw my old self staring back. I hummed a little Frank Sinatra tune just to check and pulled a face. To cap it all off, I did my worst Godfather impersonation (the worst and the best are the same). Yup, it was either me or an extremely good imposter. I knew that I had lost myself some time ago and I was in the process of becoming accustomed to this new me, Prozac Dad.
Prozac Dad is calm, he floats, he avoids confrontation, he is not competitive and he is not demanding (certainly not in the bedroom region). Prozac Dad is essentially dead. He may look like a proper human being but his very essence has been sucked out and diverted into a container labelled, “Empty.” This is what my life has done to me. My life has conspired with major drugs companies in order to bring me to the point of zombification. I am a walker who chooses not to feast on the flesh of the living as my chemical inhibitors stop me from doing so.
If Rick Grimes was near me now he would be sticking a sharp knife through my ear and into the useless lump that was once my brain. Prozac Dad becomes Prozac Dead. But the other morning I glimpsed ME. It was the old imperfect me who had not learnt to apologise for everything that he fell short of. It was the ME tinged with acid and willing to pick people off in public settings with his social sniping. It was me who vented anger in the fashion of a cranky old volcano. More than all of this, it was ME who had started thinking that life, as he knew it, was not all fire and ashes in a landscape of burnt earth.
So it was ME who stood before the missus on that Sunday morning and demanded that she raise herself from her stress-induced slumber so that WE, as a functioning family, could take once more to the hidden treasures of the kingdom. My wife said, “Yes.” My youngest daughter shouted, “Yes,” but the middle said, “No.” As Meatloaf would have put it, “Two outa three ain’t bad.”
The weather was miserable. Early March rain was falling in a desultory manner across the land. Being the relatively affluent market town that our address had become, meant that already the roads and common lands were filling up with runners. The roads had the odd sprinkling of those demented cyclists who never feared the rain or snow or nuclear war.
We climbed into our family vehicle and I drove out into the nearby countryside. Oh, England how I do love thee? The countryside by us is quietly beautiful. The Wolds bring with them hidden valleys and woods along with the odd surprisingly serene village that exists just because it does. In situations like this, the old ME would luxuriate in the fortune of having all of this right on our doorstep. The new ME had not reached that state of hyperbolic-bullshit just yet. Nevertheless, there was a creeping sense of reunion happening. ME knows himself and would recognise himself from a distance of a hundred miles or more.
My wife was in the passenger seat still going through the possible scenarios that malicious fortune could throw at us. She was always able to summon-up the extremely negative possibilities that could, and most probably would, happen if we didn’t sort our lives out. One of these ended with me never being able to find paid employment ever again and us having to sell the house and live in a hovel somewhere in the least desirable areas of Britain. When we arrived at the beginning of our route, a beautiful spot in a wooded valley and next to an equally beautiful church, my wife stopped for breath. The three of us put on appropriate trail shoes and shuffled into our first hill climb.
Our daughter took to the incline like a bouncing mountain goat. She had an exaggeration of leg and arm movements that announced to anybody from any planet in the known and unknown universe that she was, in fact, running. She pelted away from us. I stayed with my wife and shouted to our little daughter to slow down. She turned and shrugged.
“She’ll soon slow down,” my wife prophesised.
A light rain was still falling but the temperature was not too off-putting. We were wrapped up for the weather and some thoughtful organisation had been so kind as to re-gravel the path on which we were now breathing heavily. I have done this run before and know just how muddy and dangerous it can become during and after rain.
“I’d forgotten how much I hate running,” my wife muttered.
“Yes,” I replied turning around to take a panning shot of the valley around us, “But this is beautiful.”
“I don’t know why I bother with this sport,” Sophie added. “I never seem to get any better.”
I have been going out running with my wife for a few years now and she has been making incremental gains. Nothing dramatic but that’s what ought to be expected. I have learnt along the way that she doesn’t take to any real form of conversation when she runs. She certainly has not taken to my form of encouragement such as, “You’re doing well,” or, “That was faster.” No, it would only be a very foolish man who would dare to utter such words as he would be unaware of the very real prospect of awakening the sleeping dragon. I was about to tell her that she was doing well when memory reminded me to bite out my offending tongue and to spit it onto the muddy ground.
Just as my wife had foretold, as we approached the top of the hill, there was our youngest bent over and sucking in air as if it was something that was going to run out some time soon.
“Told you so,” I said.
“I was just waiting for you two slow coaches,” she replied between long gulps.
We gathered ourselves and set off once again.
There is something Brigadoon-like about this valley and on a morning such as this with vaporous passages of light rain mixing with reluctant mists. Brigadoon was certainly in the forefront of my mind as we crossed a small road and set about climbing once again. We were taking it slowly, but surely, whilst attempting to give our daughter some much needed advice on her running style. The top and bottom of it was that she would waste more energy if she chose to follow a path of exaggerated limb movements and it was this advice that encouraged the first signs of exasperation towards her overly critical parents. Being good parents, we then attempted to run like our middle daughter, exaggerating arms and legs to Pythonesque proportions. She soon stopped.
We climbed the hill road and entered another wooded pathway to the right of it. This was trail running with the path being dry enough not to provide slip hazards which could cause ridiculously stupid injuries such as the one that my pointy finger had defined on a previous outing. That particular incident had precipitated the curtailment of her running for the best part of a year; and it was my fault. I am very careful these days to not point out areas of beauty or of interest, so the run along this wooded trail would be testing.
I decided to run at a pace that was faster than my wife. This is not a difficult exercise, but is one that I generally avoid because it defeats the object of running with her. I have ceased to be the German Tank Commander, forever driving my charges on, and have recently entered into a place of prescription-enhanced Zen. The truth is that I like this place. It’s calming and non-threatening. It’s a place that protects me from the everyday bollocks of a society that uses the said items as currency. So, there I am at a pace faster than my wife’s and I am feeling it – no pain just the wonderful sensation of running through a wonderful wood on a day of freedom. But there are steps keeping pace with me from behind.
My first thought was that it was probably Sophie. She had found a spurt of enthusiasm and was intent on showing that she could do it just as well as me. However, when I turned to see her, it was my daughter who was racing up behind. Gone were the ungainly arms and legs and in their place was the image of a practised runner. I kept the pace constant and she kept constantly with me. We passed a woman walking a beautiful Labrador Retriever and the moment was improved. Up ahead were walkers, kitted out for a neo-arctic trek and somewhere ahead of them was another group of runners who apparently belonged to a club. Sharing the day with other individuals like this was an additional bonus that I had not expected. And my head? It was clear and present and I was reconciled to a feeling of contentment that had not been with me for some time.
Further along the trail, we waited for Mother. She was smiling. The clouds that had sat heavily upon her had gone, blown away like the cobwebs that had been hanging around us that morning.
With our breaths taking to the air around us, the woods guarding our sanctuary, and the run still waiting to be completed, we were happy.
That is what happiness looked like.