It’s Tuesday, early evening, and I’m in the supermarket. It’s just gone six and most of the shoppers weaving up and down the aisles are irate and moody – stress is emanating off them like steam from your urine when it’s half-time in December up at Goodison Park; hitting freezing; it is nil-nil and it’s grim and the pre-match pints are flowing out of your system like dirty bath water spinning down the plughole after a weekend at a summer festival without a proper wash. Unlike these shoppers though, I’m not irate or moody. I push my trolley eagerly to the booze section and triple check the WhatsApp group I’m in for this Friday’s get-together. Tommy’s having Estrella. Seagull decent red wine. Smiffy bottles of Becks. Big Chris Desperados. Nev’s bringing his own rum and Coke Zero. And Paul loves his cider. I messaged him asking if Scrumpy was okay, and he replied yeah, so I select four cans of Scrumpy Jack for £4.00, placing them in the trolley with all the other lads’ orders.
It’s Thursday, late evening, and I’m in bed. It’s just gone eleven and the Doris and kids are asleep – me, I’m even more elated regarding the next forty-eight hours – anticipation is rising like a brightly coloured balloon bobbing in the summer breeze – the thread of material attached to the knot is dancing as it goes across towns and villages and over fields of red poppies and green hills – I’ve got four days off work – and the weather forecast is perfect – I sleep soundly, I awake early Friday, I fill the kettle with water and fish the coffee percolator from the top tray of the dishwasher – I rub sleep from my eyes and try and piece together the dream I had about balloons of all colours filling the sky as they floated where the wind blew them. At 08:30 the kids get picked up for school, Kerry takes them every morning – a God send. I fill a rucksack with a water bottle, my book, my tatty Willian T-shirt, a pair of boxers, a pair of socks, a bag of crisps and an energy bar. I close the front door behind me. Worthing Pier is about eight miles away. I decide to go for a run, attempt 5K or so, and then walk a bit. I’ve got four hours before I meet Seagull Si who is arriving at Worthing train station at 12:36 with a map to guide our walk to take us to our camping destination. We’re gonna walk to the site where we’re staying tonight. He reckons it’s six miles. We’ll see. It means I’ll be completing at least fourteen miles today, and I can’t wait, I need it – I need this.
Back in April I ran about 2K, then 3K a few times, then 5K, then 6K. Inspired by the focus of Nice Guy Kenny I decided to build myself up to 9K then join him on the 15/07 to run 10K in solidarity with him. He’d run in West London. I’d run on the South Coast. His determination to raise money for Leukaemia research is admirable. Like anyone in their forties who hasn’t exercised properly for a decade, I’ve had groin strains, migraines, lower back pains and sweat stains. I stopped after 5K last week because my right calf felt like it was on fire. For three days I compared it to a hundred elastic bands stretched into a tight ball and then my Doris told me to stop being so dramatic. Earlier this morning, I covered myself in factor thirty Piz Buin. The scent of the cream took me back over twenty years to a holiday one August in Tenerife with Jervo the Pervo and Ravishing Rachel. (She swore by Piz Buin.) I could feel my toes in the pool. I could see my fading football shorts. I could smell the disinfectant. I could hear the ice clinking in glasses. I could taste the rich fruit in splendid Sangria. I can remember the lady swimming up to me one morning and asking if I was English and when I said I was, she told me Princess Di had died.
I set off in twenty-degree heat. It felt hotter. After running less than 1K my calf was screaming at me. I thought sod it, I’ll just carry on, what’s the worst that can happen, I’ll get a bus to Worthing. I thought about Kenny and his family. I thought about their lion-hearts. I thought about their courage. I thought about a lot of things, and I kept running. I ran for one hour and fifteen minutes, all the way to the end of Worthing Pier, where I took a photo. To my left I could see Brighton. To my right I could make out Bognor Butlins about sixteen miles away. I’d run eight miles, nearly 13K, the most I’d ever done. It felt amazing. But I felt bad I’d done over 10K before the 15/07 – the whole point was that I’d build myself up slowly to 9K, and then do 10K on the fifteenth. However, I’m sure Ken won’t mind. I lay down on the beach, looking up – it was as if God had thrown a rich, blue blanket over the South Coast. I ate my crisps and my energy bar. I drank a 500ml bottle of water. An Irish lady walking past me asked me if I’d had a nice swim. I realised the sweat was dripping off me like I was on my honeymoon. After a brief chat, (I don’t think she paused for breath), the friendly Irish lass with a straw hat and cut off jean-shorts directed me towards a caff she recommended. I struggled to get up. Calf and groin screamed at me. I hobbled to the caff and sat in the corner, it was shadowed and cool. I resisted the temptation to have a pint and had a de-caff coffee instead – I’ve still got half a day of walking with Si – plenty of opportunity to have a drink later. I opened my book and immediately got lost in it – ‘A Rose for Winter’ by Laurie Lee. It made me pine for Spain – which was stupid because mentally, I’m in the most adequately serene place here.
My one mile walk to Worthing train station was a painful one. Slow. Coming off the promenade and into a side street was as if I’d crossed a boundary. Dog-ends and discarded rubbish abounded. It really was a line – a line in the tarmac, not a line in the sand – or like the white lines on a pint glass where the froth left its declining marks after a quickly-necked lager. It mirrored the top of the shingle after high-tide – you can trace where the sea advanced to and peaked – froth from the lager, froth from the sea. Where the road meets the promenade, the line is drawn. The beach-cleaners sweep up the promenade but go one step further and you can see the tarmac, kerbs and paving stones are littered with cigarettes butts and crisp packets, newspapers and sweet wrappers. The double-yellow lines are faded and patchy like old dust-cloths; the paint on front doors are flaking with tiredness and exhaustion; inside the abodes, the kitchens are weary with damp and neglect. High up supporting the roofs, guttering is desperate for a pointed shovel to dislodge weeds and leaves, twigs and detritus, mulch and mould.
Seagull Si texts me that his train is running twenty minutes late. It’s gone midday. I duck into The Grand Victoria Hotel bar opposite Worthing train station. I feel shaky – slightly faint, even. I order a coke. My anxiety rises because of my giddiness. It’s like a slap across my cheek. I imagine waking up with tubes in me, my family by my side, my arteries clogged from years of fry-ups and smokes and having to look into the eyes of my daughter and the eyes of my son and tell them I don’t know if my heart will pull through – I say sorry for the grease and the fat, the tar and the chemicals – I snap myself to attention and I ball up these thoughts like an old piece of paper to toss into a fire – I select a table in the corner and sit down; pulling out my phone I open up the memo app and type away to describe my surroundings in the saloon bar of the Grand Victoria Hotel and it takes my mind off utterly ridiculous thoughts about doom.
I’m surprised at how busy the pub is. I try and stretch my calf. It hurts. I bend my knee. I circle my foot clock-wise hearing clicks of bone. I observe widowers sipping pints and reading newspapers. I try to stretch my calf again. It’s tight. Like Sellotape on a Christmas present that you can’t get off; sealed too tight. I picture brown parcel tape wrapped firmly around a second-hand jiffy bag. I smile. The tape is sealing a book inside that I recently packaged up myself – a novel sent to my friend Julie. A hundred and twenty pages or so of treasure. The book is titled, ‘I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, and I think that I walked out one midsummer morning – this morning. Now here I am, looking at a fruit machine positioned behind an old boy with white hair neatly combed. The machine has a name; a title – Baking Bad (instead of Breaking Bad) and it’s such an awful play on words it makes me smile. Its multitude of buttons are flashing like a hundred zebra-crossing lights; blinding orange; a thousand car-indicators with their hazards on; a New Year’s Eve party down any boozer you can think of; disco beams twisting and turning as another year ends and another begins – it might be your last year, who knows, live generously; keep the peace; cloak yourself in wisdom; put on and button-up a garment of praise.
A song comes on the big screen – the intro to a Tears for Fears classic, Everybody Wants to Rule the World. The barmaid is nodding her head in time to the beat, her left hand on her hip, her right palm clutching a pint glass that fills up with swirling amber liquid; she sings the opening lines: “Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back.” I wonder how old she was in 1985 when it was released. I was ten. There’s no turning back – only going forward. The lead singer has a coloured polo on – it’s dim in this pub, plus the TV is on the blink – I can’t work out if it’s peach or salmon or whatever and then I realise it doesn’t even matter because there’s no turning back – only going forward. I don’t want to rule the world. Everyone would tweet me what a bad job I’m doing; there’s no way I’d sleep at night.
I study the red leather seats in this bar – The Grand Victoria Hotel. I look at the carvings on the legs of the tables and the World Cup promotions on offer on a card on top of the tables: Five vodka shots for a tenner. I admire the large windows and the pillar in the middle of the pub with a stained glass – a sign simply saying BRANDY in a wild-west style font hangs on the wall. A chandelier catches my eye; I wonder if it spins in the wind when the pub door opens on a stormy day; the light from the bulbs catching the coloured panes; shards of reds and yellows like lightening zig-zag on the walls, the tables, the carpet, the bar-top; the widowers taking in the show; getting sentimental; pining for yesteryear; longing for the loneliness to cease; wondering if there’s an after-life where they’ll greet once more their lover; shaking the pain away; offering a stiff upper lip; shuffling to the bar and ordering one more. Glancing at my phone, I realise it’s time to meet Seagull Si. I pick up my glass of coke; I notice that all the ice has melted.
(Simon and I walked 8.8 miles (mostly countryside) to a pub in Findon. It was 9.8 miles for me, as my tracker included the stroll to the station from the pier. Around 3.45pm, Big Chris picked us up and took us the few miles to our campsite for the evening. Smiffy had cycled down from SW15. Tommy and Nev came in their cars after work. Paul came with the tent, the BBQ, the food, the booze I’d bought and dropped at his earlier in the week.)
The tent went up on the lush, green grass by a quick-running stream. It was a delightful spot, as if someone had placed traffic cones to seal off the pitch with a sign saying reserved for Walts’ birthday camp. Paul passed me a large white plastic container where I fitted in as much of the booze as I could. Bottles of Estrella, Becks and Desperados – and of course, four cans of Paul’s Scrumpy Jack. I lowered the container into the stream and wedged one corner under a branch that had fallen over the water to the other bank in a storm from back whenever. Nature had positioned it in such a way that it served as a gymnast’s beam to balance on to cross the stream. Our outdoor fridge was in place. I took a photo.
The cool running fresh water would in turn cool the drink. Paul was saving his cider for later because he was driving in a bit. The pub we go to every year, a five-minute walk away, was seemingly shut for good. We only found out that afternoon when Smiffy had cycled there and sent the group a WhatsApp that is had closed down. A drive to nearby Storrington to the pub was in order (Paul offered) to watch Serbia v Switzerland and then back to camp for the fire-pit, conversation and drink. By the time we returned, Paul had been longing for his Scrumpy for hours.
I was getting logs for the fire while someone went to the stream-fridge to pull out a bottle for everyone. The cans of cider though, were missing. Had some kids nicked them? Had the cans risen to the top and floated away? I grabbed a torch and went upstream, hoping they’d floated along with the current and got caught in a snag. Nothing. The sound of the water was soothing; the quickness of the current caught me by surprise. Paul, who’d been waiting for a long time for his ciders, tucked into Big Chris’ Desperados. Big Chris, who had been swaying since half-time during the football, was wedged in a tatty blue camping chair, arms folded under his armpits, head down and eyes closed – the flicker of the yellow flames reflecting off his cheeks and nose as he dozed. He was wearing a pair of glow-stick ears that Nev had given him. It was a magnificent spectacle.
On Saturday morning, a couple of the lads went in search of the Scrumpy, again hoping that the cans of Jack had been trapped in foliage or roots, nice and cool ready to be swept up out the water and cracked open – but it wasn’t to be. As we sat eating breakfast and reapplying sun-cream to arms, torsos and backs, we mused over how far the cans might’ve travelled. We fell into silence, chewing on crisp bacon, squirting ketchup onto spicy sausages, slicing egg yolk with a blue plastic camping knife and watching the rich, yellow yolk spill onto over-buttered bread; mixing in with a purposeful over-abundance of fried mushrooms and baked beans.
I’m guessing that the source of the stream flowed from the Downs near Amberley. The water would then make its way, along with many other similar streams I suppose, to the River Arun near Pulborough. If the tide was going out, the water would flow for approximately thirteen miles, weaving through villages to Arundel, and then onto Littlehampton where it collides with the English Channel. I pictured teenage boys out fishing early on a Saturday afternoon – they spot a can and then maybe another, maybe another. Cautiously one boy wades in, sweeps his net expertly to capture his prize. I look around at Nev, Chris, Paul, Smiffy, Si and Tommy. I’m about to break the silence by telling them about my thought of lads fishing and finding the cans when Big Chris pipes up: I hope whoever finds the missing cans has a blinding afternoon on us. We all nod in agreement.
God Bless the cider drinkers, especially those that sip a surprise find of four cans of Scrumpy.