Just before Valentine’s day, there was a heavy fall of snow, a rare sight in the East of England. I had a childlike urge to play in the snow and so did the next best thing, I wrapped up and went for a walk. My usual walk is by the sea but I wanted to sink my boots in the snow that blanketed the fields around me. I knew that there were cross country walks but despite numerous attempts in summer months, I had been unable to find the footpaths. So, I set out in good faith with a plan but no idea how I was going to achieve it.
I headed for a likely starting point, the cricket club. Beyond the clubhouse were fields and in the distance a church spire marking a neighbouring village. A couple of children tugged a sledge up an icy slope. Their mum followed, looking like one of the children wrapped up in winter clothing, her face barely visible between hat and scarf. I asked if there was a walk and she gave me two options. Then, helpfully she walked me to the start of a path.
There was no footpath to follow but someone had gone ahead of me their prints still deep in the snow and so I planted my step alongside each of theirs. I had no idea where the path would take me, only that I had to head in a certain direction across one field, around another, and so on. The footprints were my silent companion and I gave myself up to the beauty of the morning.
The situation I was in reminded me of a time when I had travelled alongside a young blind man as he made his way into work. He was a fellow commuter and so I knew something of his routine. His mum would walk him to the station and when one of the other commuters stepped forward to assist, she would leave him to get on the train. On this particular morning, I was that person. As my friend left me to walk across the concourse and up an escalator assuring me that he didn’t need my assistance I was impressed by the way in which people came to his aid seamlessly as though they were waiting to perform a flash dance. Just fellow commuters, like me, quietly providing reassurance and making sure that he got safely to his destination.
I stomped on through the snow unsure of where I was headed, if it wasn’t for the footprints I would have questioned if I was on the right path. Eventually, I came to a gap in a hedge. My directions were to head towards a hill but my imaginary companion had taken a different route. We were the only two people to have walked this way as the snow was thick and even. The road less travelled looked a little daunting and so I put my faith in the person who had gone before me and made two footprints four.
My mind wandered again and I remembered a printed card I had bought as a souvenir from a cathedral visit many years ago.
I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you. From a poem by Mary Stevenson 1936.
Thinking back to that walk in the snow it was perhaps a message that I needed to hear.
The world was still as though wrapped in cotton wool, the snow muffling any sound. Nothing for miles but swathes of white. East Anglia is known for being flat. Apart from a gentle slope that my guide described as a hill, it was like an expanse of ocean restful on the eyes.
I had been walking now for forty-five minutes and my face was numb from the cold. There was a little copse of trees ahead and I wondered whether I was approaching civilisation. As the scenery changed, I was excited to see what lay ahead – whether I was close to another village and if I would have to retrace my steps or find a circular path. The footprints approached the copse. I followed them despite the terrain being slippery. If my companion went this way then so would I.
The young couple cuddling under a tree look startled to see me slipping and sliding down into their little den alongside a brook. I tried to creep by being as unobtrusive as possible but it was tricky. I did not know how my companion had crossed the brook. The boy, he looked about sixteen, said, ‘I don’t think it’s safe to go that way. The water’s covered over and I’ve heard down that there are deep snowdrifts.’
I clambered out of the dell wondering what had become of the other footprints. Maybe I had missed a turn.
‘You can take another path that goes in the same direction. Do you want me to show you?’
I gratefully accepted. The boy pointed out which way I was to walk. Then I saw another set of footprints coming from that direction. ‘I’ll follow those footprints,’ I said.
‘Those are mine,’ he replied.
So, I had followed the girl to their secret meeting place. No wonder they were surprised when I blundered across them. It was February 11th so a lovely Valentine’s tale. The boy’s footprints led me to my father’s care home. I had no idea that this was where my journey would lead.
I phoned reception and asked if I could sneak in the gate to look at my dad through his window. I knew that he would be sleeping but I just wanted to see him. He had been unwell and restricted visiting during lockdown meant that any sight of him would have been a joy. Although I was given reluctant permission the gate was locked so it was not to be.
My father died three days later on Valentine’s day. Maybe now there will be just one set of footprints in the snow as I am carried during this time of mourning.
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