Out In The Cold

Shutterstock / Marie Hein © Border Collie dog is holding a leaf with his mouth

It really is never too late to grab that second chance in life…

I never used to feel the cold, but my eyes are watering today in this wind.

Here am I, an old man to anyone else, laughing at my own bobble hat and thick woollen scarf, tucked in all around my ears and under my chin.

The sky has that calm, blank look about it that means snow could well be on its way.

Still, as my old mum used to say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.

I used to think people who wore this many layers were too used to central heating; since I passed sixty I realise that it’s my own central heating that seems to have slowed down.

Bounder, my collie cross, is scurrying ahead, sniffing and turning, thrilled to be out in the scattered leaves and irresistible scents, rummaging for rabbits.

I don’t know where he gets his energy from, chasing off down the river bank with that daft grin, panting happily.

My overgrown puppy stops automatically at our usual bench.

I’m glad to rest a while in companionable quiet, him sniffing the air as I sip hot, fresh-ground coffee from my Thermos.

I’ve learned to stop a while when I need to and let my mind wander about instead.

I remember one winter, I couldn’t have been more than twelve, and I had to struggle through snowdrifts to get the papers delivered.

The Sunday round was always the worst: one full bag on either shoulder, slung at diagonals to balance me up, and a third bag balanced on the handlebars of the pushbike.

It was important to complete the round that day, because it was also the week to collect the paper money, yet I also knew that no-one expected me to make it.

In a thin hand-me-down coat I had persevered, even walking my bike for two miles to reach the most remote village, following tractor trails through a still, grey landscape.

Sitting here with the chill wind this morning reminds me how cold I felt that Sunday – yet also how triumphant at having succeeded.

“Bless my soul! It’s the paperboy!” the Brigadier had said when I’d knocked on the door at the big house. “I can’t believe it, lad – come along in!”

I had my first taste of ground coffee that day and I’ve loved it ever since.

A taste of the high life, my mum would have said. “Ideas above your station.”

That was the same winter that I collected five pounds for my Christmas box, five whole pounds of tips from my paper-round customers.

“Mother Nature’s son,” our mum used to call me. Out of the six of us, I was the one who was rarely indoors.

She meant it affectionately – not like Goodliffe, my old schoolmaster. When he said it, it was an insult.

“Edwards, you need to shape up – and fast. Mother Nature isn’t going to educate you; I am.

“You’ll never amount to anything, boy. You’re a loner, you run wild and you’ve no idea how to apply yourself.”

Funny – Goodliffe thought you measured ability by exams.

I wish I’d told that surly schoolmaster how much mental arithmetic was required when collecting paper-round money, and how I’d done a paper-round from five o’clock every morning for four years and never a day missed.

Didn’t know how to apply myself?

I learned the names of every tree, bush and plant on my walks in the Warwickshire countryside, could recognise animal tracks and mimic birdsong so accurately that they sang back to me.

I never did understand why anyone would choose to sit behind a desk when you could be out on the weir break or blackberrying.

“Edwards! Stop daydreaming out of the window and get your nose back in that ruddy book!”

No need to worry about daydreaming now – I’ve done all the work I need to and my time’s my own.

Look at that river, where it opens up into the estuary, the tide pausing and shifting, mixing currents, making patterns. What could be more fascinating than that?

Part of my stubborn self wanted to leave school and never go back.

But the rest of me, the part that won, plugged away at my books, determined to prove myself better than they said.

How quickly life goes.

In due course I got a job, got a girl, got married, and had three children.

Then I seemed to lose about twenty years in a blur of workdays and weekends, my fresh air confined to woodland walks and Sunday gardening.

“Bob, why don’t you take the kids out with you?” my wife Caroline used to ask. “Or why don’t we all go out for the day? It’s a lovely day to go to the park, or the seaside. What do you think?”

“Yes,” I’d agree, “but today’s not good, maybe next time.”

Then suddenly, they were teenagers and they weren’t interested anyway.

I remember once, asking Stacy just to nip out before it rained and fetch in my tools from by the oak tree.

“Which one’s that?”

“Stacy, you’re sixteen years old and you don’t know which of our own trees is the oak tree? You’ve lived in the countryside all your life!”

“Dad, plants and trees don’t have labels growing out of them, you know.”

Then she’d stopped, given me a look that I’ll never forget and said quietly, “Perhaps if anybody had ever taken the time to teach me, I might have learned.”

Always was fiery, that one.

There’s Bounder, looking at me as if he knows I’m thinking of something sad.

Sitting here, feeling so at home in nature, it seems unbelievable that I’d not share that with my own youngsters but it just never seemed to happen.

Without even moving, I can pick out oaks, horse chestnut and silver birch, I can hear jackdaws and a robin.

I can even spot a rabbit burrow on the far bank. The best classroom of all, Nature.

What’s he seen? Bounder’s sensed something, running off, tail wagging.

Here they are, right on time. Stacy and Freddy, both in wellies and overcoats.

Freddy’s only five years old and the image of his mum at that age. They’re stomping and singing along the river path and now Freddy’s running to find sticks to throw for Bounder. That dog’s living up to his name, all right.

Even though we do this every weekend now, I still look forward to my walks with Stacy and her boy.

I love the hugs when we meet, I love catching up on the week’s news as we walk to the coast, taking turns to choose the route.

Freddy’s getting very good at our game of who can name the most trees or hear and identify the most birds. He’s got birdsongs on his tiny digital music device and a little pocket book where he notes everything down very earnestly, just like his mum.

Mind you, he’s always got a thing or two to teach me about the sea. Young Freddy has grown up by the coast so he likes to show off the cormorants and seagulls, crabs and sea bass and rock-pools.

These parts of the landscape still feel new to me, as Caroline and I only moved here last year.

Stacy had gently persuaded us that we needed to be practical, so we finally swapped our three-storey townhouse for a neater place with a level garden, ten minutes from where she lives.

It’s a far cry from Warwickshire but I’ve grown to love the cliffs and the fishing boats, the gulls and the harbourside.

The sky has lost its blankness and is colouring up. There’s a hint of spring on the horizon.

It’s taken long enough, but they say you’re never too old to learn.

Mother Nature’s Son has become a grandpa and probably a better father.

It’s like having a second chance and I’m grabbing it with both hands.

Next year, Freddy says he’s even going to teach his grandpa how to fish and how to dig up bait at low tide. I’ve never fished in my life, but now I’m rather looking forward to it.

Imagine that… sixty-one and being taught by a five-year-old. I wonder what Goodliffe would have said about that?

We’re sharing a selection of uplifting winter-themed short stories from our archives, every Monday and Thursday during November. Look out for the next one – and pick up My Weekly magazine for lovely new short stories every week. Subscribe here and you’ll receive a free gift too!