Cool light slants into the kitchen. The windows onto the lane are wet with condensation. Looking out, I remember the winter we moved here. I was standing in the same spot catching flakes of a conversation between my small, blond son swinging on the gate and an unfamiliar, elderly neighbour passing with a spaniel and a welcome note. Nearest beach? If I were you. Path. Stones. Blackberries. Pond. Walk. Invitation. Biscuits.
Her house was warm and carpeted quiet. My son squeezed between the low tabletop and the publications underneath Flora Britannica, Running Late, Waterlog, a dictionary, Crepuscularo, the parish magazine, a creased OS map. I pressed him with my foot to stop picking his nose while we talked about local walks and our love of Roger Deakin and Richard Mabey. As we left, she took my hand and said, I'm so pleased that we have mutual friends'.
For six years our neighbour and her dog passed daily to take the green lane to the village. She has always walked her own line a distinct but private presence preferring the cover of hedgerows to tarmac. Occasionally we'd join her circular walk past a towering black poplar and dark burrows, across turf fields and onto the old path between oak, clambering bramble and bindweed, field maple and blackthorn that led to the church. Then over a slumped wall to the village shop, across a broad field to the stream, simmering dung heap, gnarled apple trees and home.
Conversation was easy in stride with one another, unselfconscious and evenly paced. But she was not a chatterer. We shared silence that allowed the landscape to speak. Over a couple of miles, life felt redrawn to manageable scale, one step at a time.
Then the dog grew reluctant and our neighbour, stooped and less adventurous. Today we choose the same walk to take her a flint arrowhead from the path that she has shown us. My swift, angular boy lopes beside me, his stride now longer than mine. The morning is still. The temperature lingers just above freezing. A delicate mist settles on our woollen hats, suffuses the sun and haloes the trees. The perimeters of the fields have disappeared leaving only immediate markers and magnifying sound rooks kaah, a fugitive white feather floats on a puddle, dead umbellifer and teasel heads point into the softness, a screech of gulls loiter on the levelled field. At half a mile, sodden rolls of hay and a discarded plough. Fox scat. A Coke can. Sixty footsteps further to the hedge, a few dripping, red hawthorn haws, ivy and a robin's full-throated song. A quarter mile of dark path and mud. Then a muted clearing of silvery reeds and browned loosestrife. Nettles. A yellow cupboard door. A grey horse. The church steeple. Through a field of glimmering spider webs and over the rushing stream. Eighty paces, (ninety for me), and we have smoothed two trails in the wet grass that merge, separate in the orchard and join again at her back door.
Our neighbour moves slowly to greet us. Now she is alone and confined to the view from her kitchen window and a door opened to the garden. We step inside to carry a pot of tea to the drawing room and add our gift to the collection on the mantelpiece a fossil, acorn cups, a rabbit skull, curls of paled lichen remnants of her conversations with the land around the house. She sits on a plump chair surrounded by her books piled and ready to be packed into boxes. On top is a photograph of her smiling inside a circle of flint, on the South Downs. I already miss her and the possibility of another walk and know that soon we won't be part of this moving world together.
Outside again, the winter morning feels indelicately alive. Our paths of flattened grass are fading but still catch the light. Now they are crisscrossed with rabbit tracks and traces of other passing creatures; a matrix that extends out from all of us into the eternal present.
Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits