Exhaustion can make you believe that a flat pavement is a steep hill. Or, if you live near the middle of the Hilltown, it may seem as if a mountain looms in front of you when you begin to climb from the bottom. Getting a bus or a taxi isn’t an option, because that would seem too lazy. So, you continue to climb the impossible climb. Puffing like Thomas the Tank Engine. Your chest is tight; your legs are heavy; and the further you get the lighter your head feels, until you are so dizzy you expect your head will float away any second. So, you stop and rest, swaying slightly from side to side.
A woman wearing a psychedically bright purple jumper speeds up as she passes by, clutching the hand of a small child. The woman looks at you suspiciously. I’m not on drugs, you want to explain. I’m just exhausted. But you don’t say anything – because you have no energy to talk. It really is a very steep hill. There’s a cool breeze. Blue sky spins. Are you falling? You shudder and hold yourself upright. Stagger a bit. Then, you walk on, up the hill.
Recently, for a few days, I had to stay at home, recovering from a kind of exhaustion that hits me from time to time. It’s not coronavirus. It comes about through not sleeping and worrying too much, and inexplicably forgetting that I am allowed to rest. I felt dizzy, but not as dizzy as I would have been if I had walked up the Hilltown when I was too tired. I made that up – including the bit about the ‘psychedically purple jumper’. Sometimes, some imaginary things, if you imagine them clearly enough, can feel as if they are true.
Exhaustion can make you imagine lots of things that are not real but seem to be as real as cold rain hitting your face, or – swaying from side to side on the Hilltown, thinking you are just about to fall over. Have you ever imagined you are tripping (no, not the mushroomy kind of tripping: the falling kind) and then you realise, with a shudder, that it was only a thought? ‘Only’ a thought, but it can be strong enough to almost topple you.
A long time ago, I remember actually tripping, over some loose stones: the kind of small, squarish stones you might see on railway lines, under the tracks; which was appropriate because I was walking on a disused railway line to Seven Arches bridge. The rails and tracks had long gone, but some of the stones remain. It was a beautiful, sunny day. High banks of jumbled grass and bushes; hidden birds singing; and a sudden flutter of grass at the edge of the path – when a rabbit appeared. It sat for a few moments, watching me, with it’s nose twitching. I was trying not to move, but swaying about slightly from side to side. I was never much good at staying in one place for any length of time. Eventually, the rabbit got bored of me, and fur and long ears flowed effortlessly into the grass, vanishing.
I walked on towards the bridge. The high, scrubby banks on both sides of the path became lower and lower the further I went; and the blue sky grew larger. For a few minutes, I walked along at the same level as the fields of long grass on either side. To my right, in the distance, I could just make out the hazy blue River Tay with a lighter blue sky perfectly balanced on top.
Soon, as I walked higher, the banks on either side began to grow larger again, but not rising above me as before. This time, they seemed to grow larger from my feet downwards – to the fields below. By the time I arrived at the great, stone bridge, my eyes were level with the top branches and leaves of tall trees.
Sometimes, on a walk to Seven Arches, if I was alone, I had a peculiar feeling. I became light-headed, but not dizzy, and if I looked out over the treetops to the distant blue horizon, I felt as if the day would always exist: me inside it, and it inside me. And, I thought: I bet, years and years from now, I’ll remember all of this. And I can, sometimes. Not completely, but almost. A day when the blue sky was so bright it sparkled and dazzled, and I had to rub my eyes when I looked at it for too long. And, in the breeze was the scent of the River Tay -far out, becoming a sea; and, although I’d have to walk a mile or more to get from the bridge to the beach, my feet felt as if they were just inches away from setting down on the sand, in my scuffed white trainers, where I would hear the seagulls calling above me, and watch the slow, low waves spreading across the wet sands like a delicate fan opening and closing.
On days when I am recovering from being ill, from exhaustion or just from feeling down, I often think about memories. Maybe because it’s easy to get there, especially in these days of travel restrictions, lockdowns, and the seasonal: “I’m not going out; it’s bloody freezing!” It feels good to go back in time to moments you thought long ago would always stay around; and find out that bits of them have. Echoes. Similarities. A rabbit’s nose twitching on a distant day; and the cat’s nose twitching this morning, as she prowled the garden searching for imaginary prey. (She runs away from most real creatures.)
Memories can switch on unexpectedly. A memory of sunlight on the top leaves of tall trees can suddenly illuminate the darkest night with radiant green; or a sparkling blue sky or a sparkling blue river can appear in a day of grey clouds. And sometimes, memory gets mixed up with dream. A face turns in the sunshine and grins at me. Andy Armstrong, wearing a huge purple jumper. A ginger eyebrow is raised just a fraction, as if to say: “I bet you’re going to write about this.” Well, yes, I probably will. And maybe, some other day, I’ll write about a memory or dream yet to be born – finding an old mask, and thinking about one cold day, when I was tired but not too tired, trudging up a very steep hill.