When I was about seventeen, I started walking. It was good to get out of the house, for a lot of reasons. At first I just wanted to be alone, then after a while I found I enjoyed the walks for the fresh air and the exercise as much as anything else. I didn’t live in the countryside so there wasn’t anywhere nice to walk, so I started walking around the places where I lived, in the suburbs, instead. It’s something that I’ve got back into now I’m my 40s and it goes like this.
There’s something comforting that I’ve come to find about walking again. It brings back all those familiar sights and familiar sounds. I’m not walking in the childhood streets where I grew up anymore; it’s a shame in some ways, because it would be nice to go back and see how little or how much things have changed, but in other ways it’s probably for the best because in all the streets where you’ve ever lived there are ghosts that wait around every corner, whether you want them to be there or not. These are new streets, and there’s a slight thrill about walking down a road that you’ve never been down before. It’s like driving to a new town or landing in a new country; this is a blade of grass that I’ve never stood on before, or, more likely, a patch of asphalt.
You notice the texture and the colour first. Suburbs are overwhelmingly grey and beige, with notes of pink and brown; at night, they become more interestingly lit by amber sodium streetlamps, although these are being phased out for the less sepia tones of the LED light and the whiter bulbs. Garden fences add a splash of green, or darker tones. But you are suffused with these earthy, dull, safe colours. Faded yellow bricks. Dark brown bricks. Pink bricks. Grey streets. Shades of grey in tarmac and asphalt. Grey stone kerbstones. New black sticky tar.
And everything is harsh and sharp. The walls are sharp and scratchy. The street furniture is metal, or the old cracked wood of a telegraph pole. Iron gates. Stone walls. Barriers. Metal. Broken glass. Everywhere you could stumble and fall is anything but soft. Everything is angular and broken, and will break you. Nothing is calm or rounded. Pebbledash walls would scratch your skin. Stone cladding, rough to the touch. A breeze block in cement grey.
You walk, because that’s all you’ve got to do, because that’s all you have, because although you’re going to end up exactly back where you started from, you have somewhere to go, and you have the luxury of time, a brief fragment of time flapping in the breeze, to find a path from one place to another, and back to where you began, via anywhere, somewhere, just a place that looks pretty much the same as everywhere else. Walk. Get one foot in front of the other. That familiar rhythm you can manage without thinking. And yet you are thinking. As you walk, you can transport yourself to somewhere else, anywhere else, somewhere that doesn’t look like this, or maybe this place, in another time, with another you doing the footsteps. A better you.
Houses move past slowly. All around are barriers to these little patches of property that people own and rent and buy and sell and work in order to afford. Gates to stop you from walking in. Fences. Doors. Front doors. You become obsessed with front doors, the little differences: from the painted doors of the 1930s semis to the plastic double-glazed doors on the front of newbuilds, each offers a little view into someone else’s world; there’s a buzzer or a bell or a knocker you could use to see who lives there, or a letterbox. Letterboxes with springs, and furry brushes to keep out the air and dirt; letterboxes with NO FREE PAPERS written sternly above, or NO JUNK MAIL. All these little ways you can get in, all blocked off to keep you out and keep the people inside safe.
Windows. During the day, the odd glimpse of net curtain. Sometimes, a closed kitchen blind. A murky glimpse into a dining room, smudged figures walking about in the background. At night, it lights up and becomes more intriguing: a whole room lit up to present itself to the outside world; bright colours scorching through yellow or red or blue curtains – windows glowing like eyes in house-faces. A flicker of light from a back room. A sparkle from an upstairs bedroom.
A shining street after a sudden rainfall. In summer, the water steams off into the air. Droplets cling to privet hedges and lavender bushes. Bumblebees stir noisily around among the flowers from first thing in the morning. A blackbird croaks into life. Someone starts a car. There are footsteps as well as your footsteps, but you don’t feel in any danger, never in any danger: these are the suburbs, where nothing happens and where no lives are ever taken; it’s always quiet, and reassuring, and no one will ever hurt you. No one will ever do anything else to you, either.
Sometimes, when it’s colder, the roof tiles sparkle in an early frost. Car windows shine and crackle. The bare moon glows down, lighting everything in ghostly white outlines. Your breath spirals up around you, and into the air, up into the clouds, where a plane quietly comes in to land over head, green and red lights winking.
But you are always alone. Always alone. All these other lives, somewhere around you, and you are always alone. Mock tudor beams look down at you, or a spray of yellow lichen on a rooftop or a chimney, but no one else does. Someone else might glimpse you as they close their curtains and go to bed, or walk past, or drive past you, but it’s always just a glimpse. This isn’t walking out in the country, where people say hello or goodbye or attempt friendly greetings: this is just the nowhere that you go to be nowhere, to be no one, to blend into the pebbledashed background, to become part of the nothingness that is everywhere, comfortably everywhere.
You keep on walking. You can hear your own footsteps, a radio from a room where someone is painting, a distant conversation, the screams of the playground of a nearby school. You can hear it all, but none of it penetrates, none of it stays with you. It all just passes a moment you spent but will never get back, a time when you were somewhere, heading nowhere. A moment in time.