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Map Reading

by Petrus Ursem


My daughter was right, of course. Why did I waste my time – everyone’s time I guess – saying things that weren’t all that amusing and didn’t need to be said? She had suggested before that I should instead set up a website and air my jokes there, something like dad-joke-dot-net, where I could form a community with others of my ilk and where all of us could harmlessly wallow in the sheer delight of our feeble attempts to entertain.

‘I apologise, Harry,’ I said. ‘Sincerely! I shall try to keep them to myself.’

‘At least give them proper scrutiny first,’ she said. ‘You always tell me to think before I speak, so you should too.’

‘Yes, OK,’ I said. ‘I admit, nothing funny about more-than-ham-instead. It’s just the faulty wiring in my brain that makes me think that way. Do you still want to go?’

‘Think it, dad, but don’t say it. Of course I still want to go. If you try not to drive me up the wall.’

‘I’ll try,’ I said. ‘I’ll do my very best. I’ve been looking forward to this for three decades. Let’s look at the map. Give me a minute.’

I flew up the stairs to my study, where I kept the paraphernalia from my previous existence, from my life before April. Strictly speaking, this seriously torn, sweat-soaked-and-dried Dartmoor map was no part of that previous life, as I bought it three months after I had first set eyes on April, but at that time, thirty years ago in July, we weren’t together yet. In fact, April was in a relationship with my best friend, Julian.

‘What do you mean, three decades?’ Harry wanted explained when I returned with my treasure. ‘That’s twice my age. That’s when, 1990? You didn’t even know that I would exist.’

‘Well, I didn’t, clearly. I had only just discovered that your mother existed. But I always imagined having a daughter like you, someone to go camping with, have adventures with. As you know your mum isn’t too keen on that kind of thing. You were a promise I made to myself, something I really wanted to happen. You could have been a boy, I suppose. A son would have done too, but as you turned out to be a lovely and wonderful girl, that suited me just as well.’

Harry stuck a finger in her mouth and simulated a throwing up sound and motion.

‘Hang on, you can’t have it both ways. When I try to be funny you tell me to shut up, and when I’m serious you pretend it makes you feel sick. Which is it to be?’

She simply growled. I unfolded the map on the table between us.

‘Let’s see,’ I said. ‘We start at, hmm… More-ton-hamp-stead. At the time I hitch-hiked there from Exeter, but on this occasion your mum might drop us off, perhaps even with sandwiches thrown in, at least for our first day.’

I looked over my shoulder to check if April was listening in. She was busy in the kitchen with that same energy and lust for life that I had experienced for all years of our co-existence, even when applying herself to the every day tasks.

April and I had met in May that year. Julian first spotted her as a young music workshop teacher in his school and had dared to ask her out. I won’t go into the details of how things unfolded. What matters is that Julian’s relatively short-lived liaison with April was the springboard for me to visit them in Exeter – Julian had temporarily moved in with her – and shortly after that start my trek across the moor. I was a romantic then, always have been, I guess, always looking to lose my soul in nature’s magnitude and solitude and, at that time, find a cure for a broken heart. Dartmoor seemed just the place to nurture my sensitive, creative spirit, yes, possibly even test my resolve against the cruel fact of my singularity.

How was I to know that, shortly after that sentimental journey, my life would turn a corner? I had bought a map, logically, and despite my emotional lockdown had become excited about the road ahead, the multitude of available routes to cross the moor from east to west, and the detail provided by the Ordnance Survey cartographers to help me stay on track. But a map is only a map. It is not the road. You can’t know the impact of your steps until you’ve made them, and even then it may take years before you recognise their significance.

There were three moments during my days of slogging over the moor that I remember as if they happened only yesterday. The first one came at the end of my second day. I had walked for two solid days and covered a good amount of miles. It really was a brilliant summer that year. Backpacking on the moor didn’t feel all that different to the summers I had spent roaming Italy and Greece. The good weather helped me battle my poor mental state of dejection. I resolved not to be too hard on myself, that I would set up camp early rather than late, so that I would still have evening warmth and light to read or even draw in my sketchbook. I had found an ideal map location, a clear field close to a church outside a small village. The church would provide security and was remote enough to be left at peace at the end of the day, or so I guessed.

Ha! My chosen field turned out to be the graveyard. I considered for a moment or two to stay but thought better in the end, lifted my rucksack and walked on, eagerly searching but not finding a friendlier camp location. I finally trod down a wooded valley and, too tired to continue any longer, put up my little tent somewhere at the bottom near a stream – the direct opposite of what I had wished for. I felt exhausted and cold. It was soon too dark to make any progress on my Dostoyevsky and a light flickering between trees in the distance disconcerted me. I only half convinced myself that, if I kept quiet, they wouldn’t be able to see me. I crept into my sleeping bag, zipped up the tent, and slept an uncomfortable night on the uneven surface of the forest floor.

It must have been around five in the morning when I woke up with a jolt. I instantly knew that I’d been found out. I could hear them rummaging around my tent, pulling on its lines to draw my attention. Were they humans or ghosts, the bodiless creatures that glide on the wisps of clouds drifting between the trees? As a boy my strategy in such situations was always to lie still and pretend I wasn’t there, but I knew that wouldn’t work this time. After a few nervous minutes I braved opening the zip of my tent and found myself eye to eye with a sizeable badger. He was there with a mate, sniffing out what goodies my humble camp might offer. To my enormous relief the pair were nothing unearthly and, even more startled than I, chose to retreat and disappear swiftly.

The second experience happened that following day and related more to faith than to fear. I had been so impressed with the accuracy of my new map and hugely enjoyed my ability to constantly determine my position and track my physical journey on the scaled down paper version, but I was flummoxed to find at one point the marked public footpath through a farm yard mercilessly blocked by a six foot high brick wall. I checked the map and checked again. The path should run in between the farm pond on the right and a stable block on the left, but, if that was correct, it ran straight into that wall. Had the cartographer been asleep, drawn the footpath in the wrong place? What other options were there? Could I circumnavigate the barricade and rejoin my chosen route later? I checked the map one more time against reality and only then noticed the ladder against the wall. Really? I grinned. The map had been right all along and my map reading skills were spot on. My chosen path went up and over.

For many people an experience such as this may be irrelevant, something soon to be forgotten. To me, however, it still is significant, a couple of minutes in my life bursting with meaning, giving me a message of faith, of order perhaps, of things being in the right place.

More difficult to grasp, at least at that time, was what happened two hours after I scaled that wall. I had come to a small pool, rainwater collected in the cupped shape of a deserted quarry. I was hot and sweaty, so I stripped off and plunged in. There was no one around. In fact, I had hardly seen anyone all day, so after my swim I didn’t immediately step back into my clothes, but instead laid my body down on a large hot slab of stone to soak up the sunlight with my skin. Just for a few minutes, I thought, but the effort of my third walking day, added to the previous poor night sleep, got the better of me.

And as I lay sleeping I had a dream. I dreamt of a girl, perhaps three of four years old with golden blond hair and an irresistible smile on her little face, and she was my daughter. We were on a beach, playing in the sand. She was running away from me, laughing loudly, giggling, looking over her shoulder to see if I came chasing. She called out to me – ‘daddy, daddy’ – and with those words she woke me up.

For a moment I struggled to realise where I was and how I got there. The tightness of the skin on my face suggested that I had perhaps exposed myself to the sunshine longer than was good for me.

The dream stayed on my mind for the rest of the day. Where had it come from, I wondered. Would it not be more logical, for a broken hearted man of nearly twenty-five years old, to dream of old or even new lovers, rather than of fatherhood? I told myself that dreams are not the place to look for logic and that surely I should not deny myself the message of hope that was sent to me in this way, when I least expected it.

It took longer before I really understood the power of the dream, the potency of the message it contained. When, after two more weeks of backpacking through the South West by myself alone, I returned to Exeter for a brief catch up with my friends, it was clear that the passion between April and Julian was waning. At first I found it hard to imagine, perfect people as they both were. Then something in me unlocked. Hope returned, the future had found me.

April and I got together by the autumn of that year. We married the following spring.

April brought a sensational turnaround to my life. Whatever shards I had left of my previous ill-fated romances, whatever remains I carried of my sentimentality and longing, it was soon swept clean out of sight by the novelty and adventure of the life we started building together. The search was over. It’s true that, like many others, I too experienced the hurt of accepting that. The exaltation of finding is always paired with the pain of giving up looking. They say that for every door that closes another one opens, but the opposite is equally true – for every threshold you cross there are others that you don’t. In my case it wasn’t a big deal. The path of love and discovery that April and I had taken together was too good to stray from.

One of the wonderful things that she brought into my life was music. Not that there was none before we met, but my musical choices originated mainly in the popular genres and were selected on their ability to match my emotional state of being. It wouldn’t be fair on the artists I played to name them here – they were a miserable bunch.

In contrast, April was a musical being throughout. Alternating between teaching and composing, her skills in music were without boundaries, her interests more selective and sophisticated than mine, although she did never openly reject my choices and was at least willing to hear out my heartfelt explanations of why the popular stuff was so good. I was not totally unfamiliar with classical music, but had never listened to it in the way she seemed to. Early on in our relationship she treated me to three CD’s of music that I still treasure – Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aneas’, Sibelius’ Violin Concerto and Fauré’s Requiem. She must have been able to see right through me from the start, listen to my heart as I had hardly ever been able to do myself, and nurture it with what it needed. Purcell’s masterpiece tapped precisely into my bare sentimentality, expressing it with such power and beauty that it still sends shivers through my spine every time I hear that stunning music, those great lines: ‘Peace and I are strangers grown…’; ‘Great minds against themselves conspire…’ The Sibelius Concerto aligned perfectly with my romantic outlook on the world and the passion with which I pursued that in my paintings. And the Requiem.., well, if there is any purer expression of the spiritual nature of our existence and the solace of acceptance, I’d like to hear it. Those key ingredients of my humble being – sentiment, romance, spiritual sensitivity – April must have recognised them from the start, acknowledged them and respected them.

I guess that I was good for April too. With every day our relationship grew richer and stronger. Even when we noticed that potential offspring or our togetherness was not urgently knocking on our door and when, a couple of years later, the medical experts explained that was unlikely to happen without their intervention, our union was not put under unbearable stress. We both felt that whatever might happen had to happen the natural way, that we didn’t want doctors to interfere. I in particular held a belief that a child can not be ordered, that it was no right but should be a blessing, that no doctor should decide who would win the race. And we both still felt happy, not short changed by not having something we’d never had. I can’t remember if at that time my Dartmoor dream was still present in my mind.

Twelve years later April received a bursary to write a string quartet. The material she had chosen for inspiration was a Henry James novel, set in Venice. She had booked two weeks in the city to compose it. My recent evenings had been put to good use learning Italian and I was therefore allowed to join her for the first week, naturally with the understanding that I would not get in the way of her work. That was no problem. While April spent her day time wrestling with four instruments I roamed the Venetian streets and piazzas, visited the Accademia or the Guggenheim, treated myself to cappuccinos and gelati whilst recording my observations in my pocket-sized sketchbook. I practised my Italian wherever there was opportunity. In the evenings I took April to the authentic Italian restaurants I had located in back streets, seated her at tables I had reserved earlier, translated the choices on the menu and ordered her food and drink, all with a level of Italianate style and charm that, although most likely still basic, was way beyond what I ever held myself possible to produce. Without hesitation or map consultations I then guided April through the Venetian labyrinth back to our marbled studio apartment in the Instituto Canossiano San Trovaso, a still functioning convent, now partly hired out to tourists to help the nuns make ends meet. Despite a modest feeling of guilt about breaking the celibacy still so present in the calm and holy atmosphere within this building, we celebrated the wonderful time we had together. April also made good progress with her composition work.

As planned, I left Venice before April did. When, a week later, she joined me back home, she was physically glowing. Her music was ninety five percent finished and she had enjoyed her days alone equally well as our week together. She was happy. Two weeks later, still looking brilliant, she told me, hesitantly, that she was overdue, longer than ever before. An hour later the test I had hastily bought at our local chemist confirmed what we both already embraced – that at 42 April was pregnant. I grinned. April smiled.

‘We’ll call her Theodora,’ I suggested. ‘God given. After all she was created in a convent. Or Henrietta, in honour of the great author who called us to Venice.’

‘What makes you so certain it will be a girl?’ April said.

‘How far do we get the first day?’ Harry asked.

My finger followed the dotted line that I marked on the map thirty years ago to the triangle drawn to indicate my camp location.

‘Look, this line is where I walked,’ I said, ‘and this little tent marks the end of our first day. Twelfth of July 1990 – that’s a long time ago. It may have changed a lot. We’ll have to find out.’

‘How long will it take?’

‘Depends how fast we walk. You see these squares? Every one of these is a kilometre. That helps you work out the distance. I reckon it’s about twelve kilometres for our first leg, but with your rucksack it may feel like twenty.’

‘Fine by me,’ she said. ‘I’m not scared, as long as you don’t start being silly.’

‘Have I told you my story about the ladder against the wall?’

She sighed, but ignored the question, and pointed to where I had marked ‘sw’ along my route.

‘What does that mean?’

‘Swimming. Only if it’s warm enough, but you must take your costume.’

April came in from the kitchen

‘You won’t make her jump into a cold pool, will you?’

‘Someone as precious as she? Definitely not,’ I said. ‘Unless the gods demand a sacrifice or the lady herself insists.’

I winked at my daughter, but Harry was studying the map intensely. I realised she was more familiar with using her smartphone for way-finding. My brain was already looking for a suitable quip.

‘This is cool, dad,’ Harry said. ‘It’s like a treasure map.’

‘Too right!’ I said. ‘A treasure map, but no treasure app.’

I wished I had bitten off my tongue.

‘Just a map of course,’ I added hastily, ‘but you’re dead right. Treasures to be found. You’ll never know where it takes you.’

If you have enjoyed ‘Map Reading’, perhaps you would consider making a small donation, e.g. £1