He had a coffee; I had Earl Grey. His was frothy and a bit cold, he told me; mine was too hot, so I blew on it, not that it made a whit of difference.
“From England? You’re walking the whole way from the North of England to Santiago?”
“Yes. The one in Spain, though, I’m not walking to Chile.”
“Are you bringing that?” I pointed to the guitar nestled into the seat beside him. “You’ll be like Laurie Lee: the stars as your tent, the earth as your bed.”
“His was a fiddle, not a guitar.” (I gave him a mental black mark for correcting me. Pedant.) “And wasn’t Lee going off to the war? Mine will be the peaceful, contemplative walk of the Camino. I’ve always wanted to, it’s on my bucket list – what’s on yours?”
I was under-slept, stupefied with a thick tiredness such that I could barley focus on his face, never mind ponder the nightmare question. But there it was: the bucket list. It’s right up there on my list of pet hates along with: lists of pet hates, the song ‘Christmas Wrapping’, and end of year round-robin letters. (Pet hates can grow exponentially and become quite irrational when one is tired – please send me your round robin, I’ll love it, honestly!)
His face was open and earnest and kind. I really ought try to come up with a coherent answer for a reasonable question – I thought to myself. The problem is, my bucket list is always so immediate (and therefore boring), with things like: I want to get nine hours unbroken sleep tonight. Instead, I found myself saying, “Well, I have this big container of furniture in a field somewhere back in Ireland, emptying it is on my bucket list.”
He stared at me, then spoke slowly, “Do you understand what a bucket list is?”
“Course I do, it’s a to-do list before you kick the bucket.”
“Mmm, not quite. It should be a bit less mundane than that. So, for example, another thing on mine is to take Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island too. I’ll go to Coney, and eat Baloney in a roll, in Central Park I’ll stroll.”
A fresh wave of tiredness knocked me over and with it a hit of charmless irritability. “Why are you quoting Elephants to me?”
“How’s your Early Grey?”
“Bitter, I don’t like it when it stews for too long. How’s your coffee?
“Cold. Did you say you’ve to be somewhere at 5? It’s getting onto that now.”
We parted, amicably enough, without me having cracked my bucket list. Unless I have just inadvertently pin-pointed the heart of the problem: that there is a huge crack in my bucket list; nay, a hole, from which has flowed all starry and wide-eye ambition to see the seven wonders of the world. I don’t want to go to the Galapagos, to climb Kilimanjaro, or to swim with Orcas at Hahei Beach in New Zealand. Oh, I will dream my dreams – of course I will – and maybe I’ll live to fulfil some of them. However, I suspect the hole in my bucket is more likely to be mended by being alert to those close-flung days tramping the nearby beaches, scrambling up local hills and reaching contentment sitting quietly in one’s room.
Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop (abridged)
There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.
– For if those streaks, those mile-long, shiny, tearstains,
aren’t waterfalls yet,
in a quick age or so, as ages go here,
they probably will be.
But if the streams and clouds keep travelling, travelling,
the mountains look like the hulls of capsized ships,
slime-hung and barnacled.
Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.
– And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:
‘Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?
Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there… No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be? ‘