But on the other hand, I am horribly exposed. I have no safety nets. I have no close family to watch over my welfare. In particular, no children of my own.
No children... Although I feel relieved never to have experienced the pains of childbirth, and the hard work of bringing children up, and the heartbreak of seeing them wither and die (metaphorically or literally), I also feel that not having children has in some way put a limit on my wisdom - and certainly a limit on my understanding of what it is to be a human being. Yes...I feel that I've missed something very important. It's not a matter for aching regret, but I know I've missed experiences that I really ought to have had.
And consequently I've never become used to young children. And yet children are very important indeed. It's such a responsibility for an adult, to interact with children. The exchange must be of very high quality, be it ever so casual. Children see and hear and sense so much. Anything - everything - might have a lasting impact. A misplaced word, or gesture, or look, or attitude, could hurt a child, warp them. Therefore - speaking as an amateur where children are concerned - I contemplate meeting them with trepidation.
All that said, whenever an encounter is thrust upon me, I do cope quite well. But it still feels like passing some test. Well, I think I passed again yesterday.
The National Trust owns large tracts of beautiful heathland in the south-western corner of Surrey. It spills over into part of Hampshire. It's centred on the Devil's Punch Bowl, a deep valley gouged into high country - actually it was made by the gentle and gradual process of 'spring-sapping', and this is the biggest example of it in Britain.
I hadn't intended to go out yesterday - but the sun was shining brightly, I fancied a scenic walk, and I wanted to take Fiona out on a longish spin, so that I could study that mysterious humming noise in various driving conditions, pending assessment at the dealer's today. (Of which more in another post to come) So off we sped. Arriving around 1.00pm, I was very lucky to get parked: the Devil's Punch Bowl is a magnet for Londoners starved of fresh air. But I had no problem getting a modest (but yummy) tuna-and-mayo jacket potato lunch at the NT café there:
Thus fortified, I strolled out to tackle one of the marked walks, what seemed to be a straightforward three-to-four-miler. The air was pure. The sky was blue, of radiant hue. What a fabulous day for a bit of a hike! You could see across the valley, to where the noisy A3 road used to be. It's buried out of sight in a long dual-carriageway road tunnel now, leaving the valley peaceful.
And Rowan trees too, aka Mountain Ash trees, with their clusters of bright orange berries.
Walking quite briskly, I overtook some people, and was overtaken by others. Eventually I caught up with a family - thirty-something parents, one of them pushing a buggy with a baby in it, and two young children - a girl and a boy. The person I took to be Daddy looked doubtful about which path the take next. I had a NT map I'd picked up from the café, and although I'd already found it less than clear, I stopped to consult with them. We were both looking for a turn-off that seemed to be close by, but as yet out of sight.
Map in hand, I walked slightly ahead, the children walking with me, all of us looking for the turn-off. The little girl explained that she was called Christine, and she was six; her younger brother was called Josh, and he was five. She told me about their baby sister. I said my name was Lucy. I asked about their parents. She told me her Mummy's name. Oh, what was her Daddy's name? 'He's not my Daddy,' she said firmly, and added, 'My Daddy's not with us. He lives in Portugal. That man is called David.'
A potential crisis! I sensed an unbreakable bond between this little girl and her real father, that she missed him dreadfully, and that she was going to insist on being his daughter and no-one else's, no matter what. On the other hand, I knew something about being a step-parent, even if it was hands-on for only six years, and over thirty years in the past. I could see with sympathy that David was never going to win this little girl over, and at best they would have to agree on a truce - and no pretence about his true status. She would never concede anything there.
Josh, on the other hand, seemed cool about the entire situation. And that was of course his decision. His elder sister could have her own views. I thought children of their age quite old enough to decide for themselves, just as I had been.
We'd walked ahead quite a bit. Glancing back, I said to Christine and Josh, 'We've left Mummy and David a long way behind. I really don't want to get out of sight of them.' To which Christine said, 'Oh, that's all right - we're with you!' Which absolutely socked me on the jaw. So: they saw me as a parent-substitute, a completely competent and resourceful adult, someone to be trusted. What a compliment! They had indeed read me right, but on the shortest of acquaintances; and I wondered what it was in a child's perception that enabled him or her to feel safe and comfortable with an unknown person. How did they know who would protect them, and not harm them? Because children can and do pick out such adults, and run to them instinctively.
I was still pondering this when the turn-off, a path leading downhill, suddenly appeared. We stopped, and waited for Mummy, David and the baby to catch up. Then we walked down towards a stream with a plank bridge across it. Soon afterwards, a house appeared.
It was set back from the path, and looked very mysterious. Christine wondered if it was called Gnome Cottage, as one of the houses on the route back passed a building of that name. I said no, we hadn't got as far as Gnome Cottage yet. But we still agreed that this house, set in its own meadow, was a fine home, although it was hard to see how you could reach it except by walking the rough track.
Just beyond the stream, the path headed uphill, and I received further education. Josh forged ahead, but Christine went more slowly, and told me a confidence: their dog (there was a dog) had splashed her with muddy water from the stream at the bottom of the valley. Some had gone on her legs and white dress. Did I think Mummy would be angry? I said the same thing had happened to me. The mud would soon dry in the sun, and then it could be rubbed off very easily. It wouldn't spoil the dress. Mummy wouldn't be angry at all. Then she said I looked like someone 'on an adventure'. 'Oh, do you really think so?' I replied. I was wearing a longish blue denim skirt, a flowery blue top, and I had my orange cross-body bag with me. I also had my black Skechers GoWalk walking shoes on. But no hat! I wondered if this 'adventuress' or 'explorer' look had been one reason why the two children had thought me so capable as a walking companion.
Then she said, 'Oh, what are those purple flowers?' It was a big clump of heather. 'It's called heather, ' I explained. Didn't you know?' 'No, I've never seen heather before,' she said, and ran back to Mummy and David to tell them about it. This argued of course that they were a family who lived in a London suburb, on a rare outing in the country.
Then another incident. The dog was excited, and behaving as if he had never seen heather either, scampering to and fro; drunk on all the strange scents, I suppose. A worried-looking man with a teenage son approached. He spoke to me. Could I kindly put the dog on a lead, because his son was very nervous about dogs. The son, possibly as old as nineteen, certainly looked jittery about the dog running here and there. I wondered if this was a father taking his special-needs son out for a walk? I said it wasn't actually my dog, but of course I'd get hold of him, and restrain him while they got by. A look of deep gratitude flooded the man's face. He really didn't want to explain why he had to make a fuss.
And do you know, the dog obediently came to me when I called, and I was able to put my fingers into his leather collar and hold him quietly. Me, who had never owned a dog and considered myself inept with them!
Mummy and David caught up. We consulted as to where we might be on the map. Josh saw a finger post that said 'Café one and three-quarters miles'. A long hot tramp yet, then. There was a seat close by. Mummy announced that they'd have a pit stop. So I left them at the seat, wishing them a nice walk back.
I thought about how this encounter with those two children had gone. Had I passed the test? I supposed so. I couldn't see any glaring fault in my demeanour, words spoken, or things done. It was surely a boost to my self-confidence. But I was certain that easy conversation with lively, confident children was entirely different from coping with a child who had problems. So I thought of that father, and admired him for showing that beautiful valley to his son, despite all the risks involved.