There are people who walk so quickly that it’s almost impossible to notice anything when you walk alongside them. Even if there’s no specific time that they need to be somewhere, the way they walk with such purpose makes it seem unfeasible that they could just be walking for leisure or enjoyment.
Then there are others who are too inherently lazy to enjoy walking, or who simply see walking as a waste of time because it would be quicker to take the bus or train instead.
Most of the time, if you get on well with someone, walking is something that goes largely unnoticed. It’s not just a way of moving from one place to the next but it’s also a way of spending time together. If you enjoy talking to someone and can decide easily on the next place you’d like to investigate together, it’s something that brings joy and adventure. But it’s not the act the walking itself that is important.
That’s what I used to think anyway. But then around two years ago I met someone who made me see it differently. Because even though he was a brilliant person to walk around with, the walking itself wasn’t easy. And to the untrained eye you wouldn’t even be able to tell. Looking back there may have been the odd grimace, a flicker of pain, but any signs of suffering were barely perceptible; the main thing I remember is laughter.
He’d notice everything – from the group of precocious twelve-year old boys conservatively drinking coffee whilst sharing out croissants to the grubby Indian takeaway that was a flea market by day but never advertised the fact – but would then call up drunk at two in the morning to confess: “I had a really good time with you... but I was in absolute agony”.
There’s a pause on the line. I can’t tell if he’s joking. Then he continues, “we walked such a long way”.
The painful thing now is that I didn’t even notice. I’m trying to recall if I’d felt tired after we’d walked that afternoon, but I’m pretty sure I went swimming later that evening. I definitely didn’t feel tired from the walking alone and it shocks me to hear him describe our walk as a long distance. He’s only a few years older than me and his legs are so long. But none of these things would be the right thing to say. Instead I ask, “Why didn’t you say if you wanted to stop?”
“Because,” he replies tentatively, “I didn’t want to. That’s the problem”. There’s no frustration in his voice, but I start to feel some on his behalf. We both know that the word I really meant wasn’t ‘wanted’ but ‘needed’, yet the slip actually makes it easier to grasp what he’s trying to tell me; that there’s a constant dilemma arising from the insuperable gap between what he wants to do and the physical limitations of what his body will allow.
Towards the end of the conversation he tells me that he has a genetic disorder, a collagen deficiency that has affected him all his life, but that certain episodes have been much worse than others. He’s ended up lying on sofas or hospital beds for months at a time. It caused the death of his last relationship. The word death hangs over us and I say that I’m sorry about the break up, which isn’t entirely true. I start to feel nervous about what I’m supposed to say next so I put on a stupid voice and say in an over the top way “please don’t die” which, conversely, I really do mean.
Using the words death and agony are always going to lend an air of drama to a late night conversation about a walk, but I don’t know how else you’re supposed to go about describing the effects of such chronic pain. I sense he’s not in it for the histrionics, that pity would be totally wasted on him. I think he’s explaining it as a kind of disclaimer. “If you want to get with me, this is the kind of shit you have to deal with.” And I’m glad that he’s telling me, because I do. I say that we should go for a walk again, but that next time, he has to tell me when he wants, I mean needs, to rest. There’s certain things that you can only notice when you’re walking, but there are other times when it’s fine just to sit still.