We’re on our third hour of walking. We’re slow, now, and I turn my face to the winter sun, half-close my eyes. I’ve reached that blissed-out state, where my steps weave, and my thoughts spin free and wide. I’ve been catkin collecting.
We’re going to run over time, but I like this spaniel, he’s easy company, and when I swing up on a gate, he sits beneath me. Pants and Dora vanish. The scrubby hill to my left leads up to the Scout Woods, the best rabbiting slope in the whole of Horley.
There’s a bank of pussy willow at the bottom of the slope, catkins wriggling pinkish yellow against the blue sky. I can see Dora, shooting up secret paths between rain-black roots.
The gate is a hard line beneath my bum bones, and my bare arms are cold. I pull my woolly hat lower on my neck, wriggle the coat tied around my waist into a better position.
To my right runs Horley stream, beneath thick bristles of cricket-bat willow. These willows do not carry catkins. I’ve known this meadow for fifteen years, and before that, there were other meadows, other gates. The best catkins are on goat willows. They’re glorious furry bunny-tail things, then they morph into a firework, all quivering silver fluff and saffron pollen. My favourite goat willow is a mile from here, down along the old railway. I once kept an early catkin from its branches for a whole year, tucked in my pocket. I would rub the velvet nub of it, very gently, with the pad of my thumb.
There are midges just before me, joy-jigging. February sun is precious.
Beneath me, the spaniel yawns, looks up at me with his spaniel eyes. Bugger off, my friend. I have thoughts to think, new things to see. But it is all new. All new and different, every time. The newness and difference are frightening and thrilling, they make me want to surge forward and still hold back. I want the newness, but I want everything to stay the same.
I would like a catkin, from the goat willow.
My feet land heavily in my wellies, I hobble to get the blood back. The spaniel huffs and follows and I whistle, one short, one long, loud, loud, loud. Catkins shiver.
Pants and Dora are back, running beside and around, checking me and the spaniel are the same. That we haven’t changed, that there’s nothing new.
What can I tell you? I say. My loves. It’s all new. Every time.