The walking shadow

It seems to me that I’ve been walking my whole life, and yet I have no memories of when it all started. I doubt that I was precocious on any of the developmental milestones so eagerly recorded by today’s mothers, but once learned, walking is difficult to ignore.

My earliest memory of mobility was incapsulated in a harrowing tale that lived more in my parents’ memories than mine: it took place on a sandbank of the Fraser River. We were having a family picnic on the shore, and I was running around on the sand and started throwing it at the seagulls, and then at my parents. I apparently wanted to go in the water, and was ‘acting out’ as my mother used to say. I couldn’t have been much more than two years old because the only thing I can recall was my grandfather drawing a line on my leg below my knee and telling me I couldn’t go any deeper than that. There was a large bridge nearby, so I suppose the river must have been quite wide and deep there and he was being careful. I wasn’t, though, and for years my mother’s face would go pale whenever she told anybody about it.

The story grew in detail and suspense as my childhood progressed, and by the time I was a nerdy teenager, it had become a Family Saga that she always told at dinner parties whenever she’d had a few drinks. The final iteration involved my being swept off my feet by the wake of a passing boat and then captured by the river’s natural current, augmented by a particularly large spring tide. I apparently tried gallantly to stay afloat, but had never actually found a similar need in the bath tub, and so in the wink of an eye, disappeared beneath the surface.

My father, so the story goes, panicked, stripped down and started swimming towards where my head was last visible. He dived under the surface but the water was so turbid there, he couldn’t see his own nose. But, with a serendipity worthy of the Arabian Nights, managed to snag a foot on a desperate lunge. Fortunately it was my foot and not his, so we both surfaced, but far downstream. We were spotted by a passing tug boat, and after being wrapped in warm blankets and given a hot drink, were deposited on the same sandbank with my father being given a stern warning never to take me there again.

You’d think I’d remember more about the adventure than the line on my leg, but I was an unusual child who often wandered out of his depth. I effortlessly transitioned from the perils of drowning to learning how to run away from playground bullies after insulting them. It’s all a matter of never  running in a straight line when you’re short -zigzag like a rabbit and they can never catch you. Actually, when you get good at it, you can even taunt them on zags that are just out of their reach. In fact, I gained some measure of classroom celebrity for my clever use of atypical epithets on those occasions. I suspect that was the beginning of my life-long love of legs -even my own.

Anyway, legs have been such a feature of my life for so long that I can’t imagine not wanting to use them -especially now that I’ve retired and don’t have to commute anywhere in particular. My friends, however, have aged, and with that have come multifarious excuses justifying their inactivity. Perhaps I didn’t notice it at first, because the venues which we usually frequented were coffee shops, and usually some of them would have arrived early to commandeer a booth. Inevitably, therefore, my memories tended to be of them comfortably ensconced in their seats, their mouths and donut-laden hands the only visibly active part of their personae.

Well, I suppose that’s a bit reductive -their eyes constantly flitted about the room like hopeful teenagers; I suspect they weren’t searching for meaning, however -they were more on a rheumy journey of wishful-thinking.

I can’t say I didn’t harbour any of the same hopes, but mine seemed to be as singularly unproductive as the group’s; they seemed perfectly content to nibble away at their cuds in whatever coffee shop we found ourselves. Eventually, I began to see it as a sort of crowded existential Hui Clos -without the Sartrian guidance.

At any rate, one day I arrived rather late and only three of the usual crowd were huddled around a rather large table in the corner of the food court they’d chosen. I think it was because Harjit finds booths rather problematic with his mobility scooter, and even more so if he parks it outside somewhere and decides to switch to his walker. Of course, Jeremy also finds it hard to fit his ample abdomen into a booth, and Arthur says it’s hard on his knees.

Anyway, Jeremy and Arthur were arguing as usual, and Harjit was shaking his head, evidently unable to calm them down. I had a plus ça change moment.

“Don’t you guys ever agree on anything?” I said, rolling my eyes to show them I was only joking.

Harjit smiled enigmatically, and then sighed. “It wouldn’t be the same if they just sat there with their donuts, G…”

I suppose he had a point, but it did make me wonder what their home lives were like. If they weren’t arguing with each other, they were complaining about their wives not listening either. Each had been married for decades, I knew; maybe complaining was just what guys are supposed to do after a few years. I’ve obviously lived alone far too long.

Anyway, I sat down at their table, but they just kept arguing and it began to get on my nerves -Harjit’s too, I could tell. “Tell you what, guys…” I said it in a rather loud voice, I guess, because all three of them suddenly stared at me -only Harjit politely. “It’s a beautiful day outside…” I waited for a reaction; they waited for me to make my point. “Why don’t we all go for a walk along the ocean?” The Park Royal Shopping Centre sits on the North side of the English Bay, and there’s a delightful walkway close by, just west of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. I thought maybe seeing the huge tankers anchored far out in the Bay with the tiny sailboats sniffing around them like dogs marking the corners of buildings would distract them. There was a stunned silence.

Jeremy was the first to respond. “Well, I did it a couple of weeks ago with my wife. We do it every month or so, but we’re getting older, eh?”

Arthur, for his part, smiled condescendingly. “And Jer and I need to some get some stuff off our chests. Sort of therapy, I guess… And of course, you know about my knees.”

“I take it that’s a ‘no’, then?” I tried not to sound disappointed, but I’m sure my expression gave me away.

The two of them smiled, looked at each other and nodded their heads as if they were simply following the stage directions for this week’s production of their play.

Just then, I felt a tug on my sleeve. I suppose I’d rather forgotten about Harjit -he had legitimate mobility concerns. “I’d like to go for a walk, G,” he said, all smiles.

I brightened up at that, and looked around for his scooter. “Where’s…”

“Amoli drove me here,” he answered before I could finish my question. His smile completely filled his face. “I’ve got my walker, though… if you don’t mind going slowly…”

I squeezed his hand. “We can see more if we go slowly, Har…”


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