It was good to, once again, feel the beat of my unburdened footsteps. The car had become a millstone, grinding at my tolerance and my wallet; the garage could do what they wanted with it. A car is for getting from here to there, from A to B, rushing to do this or to do that. The car is full of purpose and necessity. Being free of it gave me a lightness of step which I hadn’t quite expected. I was allowing myself time to slow down. With each step, the distance became sweeter and sweeter. If I were to keep walking, I could end up barefoot on a beach somewhere, as I had in my past. My toes longed to be free from hot trainers and tarmac.
I would need to be Houdini, however, to truly escape from all that I have on. Straight-jackets, chains, cuffs, girdles, and ropes of expectations, necessity, family, work and social engagements are constraints that I constantly labour to be free of. This town and all I have in it – all the things I try to make – were, at that time, closing in on me with a near suffocating claustrophobia of intense energy. My own. I had to slow down. I had to break free. At least for a day. Beaches and oceans hold appeal in their expanse. In their nature they are so opposite to the controlled, contrived and constrained lives we lead. Beyond the lip of the shore the sea is beyond our control and in relinquishing this control, by giving in to the sea and turning our backs on the land, we opt for simplicity, we opt for the notion of unbound opportunity.
It was barefoot on a sun-baked beach that my son learned to walk. Having been barefoot for seven months, living in a campervan, the expanse of North Queensland’s Mission Beach was an ideal stomping-ground. The moment is captured in an overexposed photograph from a broken camera – streaked red, yellow and orange. We are both smiling. He is standing in my shadow, holding on to my tanned shoulders as I strip a coconut of its husk, with the blue Pacific behind us with its endless possibilities. He is partly what I am turning my back on now, what I need a break from, perhaps only for a day. It’s been a while since we brushed the sand from between our toes.
Walking barefoot on a beach, we can clearly see the impression we make on wet sand. A fleeting legacy to be swept away by the last life of a wave generated so many miles out to sea. The footprints of others can be met with welcome or they can be met with jealousy, fear or derision. Crusoe’s discovery of a single footprint – toes, heel and every part of a foot – filled him with such dread that he forgot his faith in fellow man; he forgot his faith in God, who had shown to him such Providence on his desert island. He shut himself away for years, deep in solitude with a fortified shell around him in which he armed himself and sunk.
Was it possible that Defoe could have himself known the fortifications such as I have built around myself? Did he too build porcupine defences to keep the world at bay? This prolific writer, imprisoned in Newgate for his satires, would surely have sought the solitude that he created in Crusoe. Perhaps that was his escape. His legacy is inescapable for me. His name – flashing at me every day of my early years and flickering again as memory – was given to the street in which I once lived: Defoe Avenue, under the shadow of the Public Records Office in London and under the flight path of Heathrow.
It is hard to read Defoe’s feelings about Colchester though. Despite the writer’s choice of setting, Moll Flanders offers little in the way of revelation. In his 1722 travel writing Defoe shows little care for comprehensive detail nor does he show any sense of judgement other than the town’s state of disrepair with its batter’d walls… breaches in the turrets, and ruin’d churches. His delineations of the town are cold and disinterested. They carry no sense of what the town meant to him. The only area he seemed to take more than a cursory glance at was that of the Hythe, where I was – by degrees – gaining distance from my millstone car and all that it represents.