This week, having just finished Charles Dickens’ collection of essays on walking, I am operating on his maxim that, “even my idlest walk must always have its appointed destination.” Today I am heading for my parents’ flat in Hove.
I leave the swimming pool in central Brighton with clammy legs and a sweat on despite the chill. I have not been swimming myself, rather I’ve been immersing my almost seven month old son in water especially heated for babies. Like me, he appears to be a fan of taking a dip. He emerges from each submersion wearing a gummy smile, shouting at other parents with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Changing a baby after a thirty minute swimming lesson is a logistical challenge for which I was wholly unprepared when I first started two months ago. Now I have become adept, drying him swiftly but carefully, packing clothes in the order they are meant to go back on, before racing to get myself ready in an attempt to beat the inevitable meltdown. On the latter count, I always fail.
Ten submersions in half an hour, combined with the chill of the fresh January air, seem to work their wonders as we step outside though. He is asleep immediately, leaving me to find a way to stretch out what would normally be a 20 minute walk into something slower, more leisurely. An hour should do.
I drop my usual stomping pace and pass through the centre of the city I have called home for two years. A bitterly cold wind is blowing in from the west, emptying overflowing bins. Scaffolders cling to their handiwork as they look down on the narrow streets of North Laine.
I stop briefly and search the pockets of my winter coat for my headphones, hankering for some aural company. I can’t find them. I walk up the busy shopping streets of North Street and Western Road, carefully swerving the buggy as pedestrians staring into their phones fail to spot us coming. Sleep is still upon us and we’re over halfway to our destination, just 10 minutes in.
I pick a quiet spot to fix my shoelace and rearrange my scarf. A shop once belonging to a local charity has become an outlet of a major U.S. fast food chain. Smaller businesses advertise closing down sales. A Big Issue seller on the other side of the road does swift business outside a high end supermarket.
I set off again, pushing the buggy carefully around dog mess, waiting patiently at crossings, bemoaning potholes that cause tiny eyes to open in surprise before settling once more into sleep. We have reached our turning. I keep walking ahead, instead turning down Brunswick Place and into the magisterial Brunswick Square. I drop my phone on the ground while checking the time, causing another brief wake up. I step into the afternoon shade of the Regency homes and look out to sea. Waves thrum against the shore at right angles, the same westerly pushing them up the English Channel and away to Hastings, to Dover and beyond.
I decide to brave Hove promenade, walking east. With the wind at my back, the wheels of the buggy make speedy progress across the scuffed up Tarmac, its rough finish rattling through the plastic frame and up my arms. A haze of sea spray obscures the horizon, the piers a washed out brown against the brilliance of the blue winter sky. We have been walking for 45 minutes.
We pass beneath the i360, Brighton’s hubristic up yours to the sea. It is closed for maintenance. The plastic sheeting cloaking The Grand Hotel slaps loudly in the wind. We walk up a slope onto the main road and turn back towards Hove. There is an immediate scream of annoyance. I fight to place the rain cover over the buggy, promising it has special, wind blocking powers. It doesn’t. He knows.
I up the pace and push on into the insistent 30mph gusts, babbling incessantly about lunch plans, our proximity to warmth and comfort. I peer in and get a look of despair that make me wince. I am almost running now, racing against the wind. We turn inland and the breeze immediately drops. The crying abates. We have been going for 53 minutes. I reach for the buzzer of the flat, my appointed destination. Frazzled, alive, legs dry, breath heavy. A rested and hungry baby to attend to.