by Mike Fox
Our living room walls, orange up to dado height and pale lemon above it, are bright from the low autumn sun. The ghost of a sage incense stick, wafting down the stairs, makes me pleasantly conscious of my breathing. Above my head sounds of chanting taper then abate. A singing bowl chimes. It’s seven-thirty, and Josie has finished her morning practice.
I have set the table and prepared our statutory breakfast: berries, seeds and yoghourt, with a pot of mint infusion for Josie—coffee and toast, with an element of fragile optimism, for me. However it might end, our day begins predictably.
Josie descends the stairs, smiling beatifically. I can see she has achieved what she describes as ‘imperturbability’, in my experience a short-lived state that results from meditation but fails to survive the ensuing hour. She greets me with Namaste and a kiss, flicked from her fingertips, then takes the window seat, which faces mine.
‘How are we today?’ she enquires.
I should explain that shortly after Josie left hospital, and roughly at the point her flat was about to be repossessed, she moved in with me.
‘Let’s live together,’ she said. ‘It would make sense.’
So, for the time being at least, we have turned into friends who behave like a couple.
‘I was wondering if I could get away with another day working from home,’ I reply now.
‘Why ever not?’
Josie has posed a question, but a dialectical discussion is not on the cards. In her current mood, free will is a given, and the obstacle course of life has temporarily been replaced by a splay-legged glide down a water chute.’
‘What does your day look like?’ I ask instead.
Josie pours some infusion into her Siddhartha mug.
‘Two hours, plus or minus a comfort break, sitting bare-assed before a circle of paint-daubing gawpers at the Slade, then a repeat at Hornsey in the afternoon.’
Since her recovery, Josie’s week has gained a new shape. On Mondays she poses as a life model at various art schools. On Tuesdays she volunteers at the neighbourhood food bank. On Wednesdays she oversees the allotments at a therapeutic garden centre. On Thursdays she teaches Tai Chi, then yoga, at the Age UK round the corner. Her Fridays, as far as I can tell, are mainly spent plundering the locality for foraged items, before trading them on eBay.
‘It’s important not to scatter your energies,’ she explains, every now and then.
Sitting opposite her, I can see why an art college might enlist her services. Wispy post-chemo curls tangle towards her shoulders—she decided early on to take a principled stance against straightening—and light falls arrestingly on the contours of her face, still somewhat diminished by weight loss.
‘I’ve started reading the Aphorisms of Patanjali,’ she mentions, tangentially, through a mouthful of berries. ‘It confirms what I’ve been thinking.’
Josie remains keen to share insights she gained in the Intensive Care Unit where, high on medication and temporarily deprived of speech and hearing, she found herself visualising a giant pyramid-like structure.
‘I realised straight away what it meant,’ she explained later, making geometric shapes with her hands. ‘I knew intuitively that each level had a different significance and a different frequency. It told me that human experience exists within a system of octaves, and that life is effectively a spectrum of possibilities. Once you know that everything changes.’
Change is a word I have always associated with Josie. In the light of her new understanding, for example, she has taken a vow of chastity, with no specific time limit, though it’s possible this decision stems from matters more interpersonal than spiritual.
‘Women let you down, and I’m not even five percent bi,’ she muttered, with a pout, shortly before her discharge, when it was clear that none of her old flames intended to visit her.
‘It might not be as personal as it seems,’ I’d suggested. ‘Some people just get spooked by hospitals.’
I found myself on the end of a withering stare.
‘Since when is abandonment not personal?’
Fair dos. In view of my own relationship history I felt bound to concede the point.
The table we sit at this morning is decorated with jars of the tiny wildflowers she seeded earlier in the year, and now reaps when the mood takes her from the grounds of the municipal cemetery at the bottom of the road. My eye strays from them to the fireplace, and I notice her collection of rocks and crystals has been augmented by a sizable lump of chalk.
‘What’s that?’ I ask.
Josie looks at me knowingly.
‘That, my dear, is the Edge of England.’
‘The Edge of England?’
‘Exactly—don’t you remember? That’s why Cornelia Parker likes chalk—it makes her think of the cliffs on the South Coast, and they’re on the very edge of England.’
It is almost a year since I visited the Cornelia Parker exhibition on Josie’s behalf, but clearly the imprint has lingered. Now she goes to the fireplace and returns with the lump of chalk, placing it reverently on the table between us.
‘Actually you’ve reminded me,’ she says, stroking it. ‘I’ve been thinking of a pilgrimage. It will probably take us three or four days to walk.’
‘To where exactly?’ I query, hearing the note of resignation in my voice. I never quite grow used to Josie assuming my involvement in her projects.
‘To the south coast and whatever we happen to find. I’ve a feeling something special could happen.’
Having spent more time there than I would wish, I struggle to foresee an epiphany near the likes of Birling Gap. Apparently Josie doesn’t. Like life itself, her recovery appears to be a thing of metaphors.
‘Pilgrimage is an act of intention,’ she continues, ‘as well as a process of becoming.’
‘I suppose so,’ I mumble.
‘We’ll need to block off some time.’ She benefits me with an accommodating smile. ‘We can talk about it this evening.’
When Josie has gone to work, I occupy myself briefly with a mood-scale of my own invention. It ranges in ten increments from “equanimity” to “dread” I come out somewhere near “foreboding.” I realise it would probably be wise not to Google South Coast pilgrimage routes, but find myself doing it anyway.
In the event this proves less unwise than irrelevant. That evening, dinner consumed, we sit together on the sofa, Josie perched so she can warm her terminally cold feet against my thigh.
‘All we need is a compass, a tent, and provisions,’ she says, winningly. ‘We start from outside the front door and simply head south.’
‘But isn’t the whole idea of a pilgrimage that you have a route and a clear destination?’
‘Well just about everybody, as far as I understand.’
‘Sweetheart, there were no routes until somebody wanted to get somewhere. Between us, we can be that somebody.’
Once again I’m undone by Josie’s logic. I try another tack.
‘Then wouldn’t Sat Nav be better than a compass?’
‘And lose the thrill of discovery?’
Thrill is not a word I naturally link with discovery, but I can see the wind is in Josie’s kite. It’s best to capitulate.
Nevertheless I worry a bit. She’s not quite the person she was before her illness. Is a fifty-odd mile trek advisable? I do some further Googling then visit the chemist to compile a DIY, multi-contingency health kit.
On the morning of our departure, Josie leads me in a solemn moment as we stand with hands linked in preparation for our odyssey. She is looking sportif in new walking boots and an assemblage she refers to as Oxfam chic.
‘May the dawn be our brother, the dusk our sister, and the road our true friend,’ she intones.
‘Amen,’ I say, I hope appropriately.
The October morning is bright, the dew still clearing. Not far from where we now live we pass the streets of my childhood—the small shops re-bricked into homes, derelict land that’s now lived upon, a sense of things hidden that were once apparent. I find my head is starting to buzz and glance at Josie.
‘All my past is coming up—it’s weird.’
She gives my arm a squeeze.
‘Keep moving, it’s only a phase.’
She’s right, but the feelings make me realise how much my life has contracted in recent years. I’ve gone out less, and then not far. Perhaps after her illness Josie feels the same. Perhaps together we’re walking through barriers that grew without us noticing.
We continue, east or west where roads dictate, but always ultimately south. It seems strange to be carrying rucksacks of military proportions through an urban area, though no-one seems to notice. When I point this out, Josie nods sagely.
‘I can tell you why—I’ve been counting. Of the last forty-three people we’ve passed, twenty-nine were on their mobiles and two more had head phones. That’s what we’re leaving behind. We’re creating space. Space is a receptacle for opportunity.’
Josie’s epigram settles itself around my shoulders, somehow adding to the weight of my rucksack.
But, as the outer suburbs merge into countryside, the gentler air seems to have a calming effect. Despite the difference in our heights our steps have synchronised, and we are quiet together. I’m forced to admit (to myself) that the grunge trail down the coccyx of England I’d feared is not actually materialising. At Josie’s behest we stop for lunch in a pub garden then walk on through the mild afternoon. Although my pedometer was confiscated early on, I sense we’re making good progress, and soon enough the Surrey Hills begin to rise before us.
But before we reach them, a small church appears, standing alone amidst a cluster of graves. Even in the near distance it looks abandoned, and when we draw closer I see the guttering has failed, and the walls are stained with damp and algae.
‘Let’s see if we can go inside,’ Josie whispers, despite there being no-one else around.
The porch doors are set within a low gothic arch. They have been secured with a hasp and staple, from which the padlock is missing. I lay the flat of my hand on the heavy oak panelling, shove, and the left hand door swings open. Josie goes before me and I follow.
Inside, a pair of carpenters’ horses stand obliquely on the stone floor, which is strewn with debris. The high walls are of ancient exposed brick, and a smell of mould mingles with the lingering taint of melted wax. Josie sniffs the air, then takes off her rucksack and walks over to where the altar would have been. I wander round for a minute or so, trying to imagine the absent past, before joining her, only to see a tear is tracing down her cheek.
‘You have to heal yourself over and over,’ she says, almost to herself. ‘It never stops.’
For some reason her words make me remember the two of us sitting in a café over egg and chips, and the times early in our friendship when she had to be coaxed to leave her home.
I put my arm round her and she rests her cheek on my shoulder.
‘That’s a great thing to know,’ I say, kissing the top of her head. ‘Perhaps we all find that out sooner or later.’
We stand together for a moment, each silent with our own thoughts, then quietly disentangle and turn to pick up our rucksacks.
Outside, the autumn dusk is beginning to fall and Josie becomes brisk and practical.
‘Better higher up than lower down to camp,’ she says, scanning the rolling grassland in front of us. ‘And better somewhere that’s not too exposed. I think if we head for that copse we should be alright.’
We settle for a flat, dry area not too far from the trees. I assist Josie in erecting the tent, by which time the evening sky is a mix of pink and purple. Once our efforts meet her satisfaction, she produces a small gas stove, and we sit cross-legged in the early dark, eating reconstituted rice and lentils.
‘We might as well settle down, then be up first thing,’ Josie states, there being nothing else to do.
By now there’s a chill in the air, and we slide gratefully into our sleeping bags. Aware of the heaviness in my legs and hips, I soon begin to doze, until I feel a gradual snuggling sensation behind me, then small, happy grunting noises. It is Josie taking ruthless advantage of my body warmth, and the last thing I’m aware of before morning is the gentle rise and fall of her breathing.
‘Karma is just a succession of inevitable consequences—things that happen because of the things that happened before them.’
Bridle paths, holloways, chalk streams, watercress beds—North Downs then South Downs: it’s the fourth morning of our trek, and Josie is no longer looking at her compass.
‘I fail to see anything inevitable about human behaviour.’
The blisters on my feet are making me more than usually sceptical of Josie’s belief systems.
‘It’s not a linear thing—it’s a mistake to look at it like that. And it’s not crime and punishment either. It’s really no more than saying one thing leads to another, although I admit there’s often a time lag.’
‘Large stretches of my life have been a time lag, to be frank. It’s just the joined up bit I don’t get.’
We are sodden from a short fierce scat, and smelling of our journey.
‘There are times when it’s apparent and times when it’s not. Oh look—there’s the sea!’
Suddenly enlivened, Josie ups her pace. She looks strong and well, and I realise I’ve not even thought about our health kit. As she moves ahead I suddenly grasp the truth of her words: that the present has its own inevitability, that what is happening at this precise time and place was always going to happen, however unlikely that might once have seemed.
In less than twenty minutes we are standing on the chalk cliffs, on the very edge of England. Both sky and sea are deep turquoise, with no perceptible horizon, no distance other than infinity. We stand silently, a little apart, the day now utterly still. Gradually a thought makes itself known through a sensation in my chest: that this moment is somehow the crux of my life. Time passes unheeded, until eventually Josie extends her arms, palms upwards, as if to embrace what’s before her, her features radiant with reflected light. I look too, trying to see what she sees, but find myself instead thinking of a winged figure in a story book, and of the heart’s unseeing trajectory, towards the sun.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have been nominated for Best of Net and the Pushcart Prize, listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50), and included in Best British Stories 2018 (Salt), His story, “The Violet Eye,” was published by Nightjar Press as a limited edition chapbook. A collection of new stories is being prepared for publication by Cōnfingō Publishing in 2023.
Learn more at www.polyscribe.co.uk.