It feels like a minor miracle these days, whenever I manage to convene a group of friends from my time as a PhD student. This is what happens when you are friends with academics. You spend a few years with brilliant, talented people from all over the world who have descended on the same institution – and then they scatter again.
We had the luxury of four uninterrupted days over the Easter weekend, to spend hiking in the Brecon Beacons (or Bannau Brycheiniog – the national park was renamed after our visit). Obligingly, given that I had a column to pitch during the journey home, nothing went to plan.
Three hours after beginning the drive to our Airbnb, we were at the emergency vet. Our friend’s dog had jumped from the car at a service station and dislocated a toe. She seemed distinctly unbothered to be padding around with a bit of her paw wobbling at a right angle; we were less so. So off we went to find a Vets4Pets in a retail park near a motorway junction, whereupon the toe popped back in of its own accord before we’d taken our seats in the waiting room.
At the Airbnb, the dog’s toe popped out again. The country vet who came to our aid over the phone this time was characteristically relaxed, and reckoned it would work itself back in again. It did.
Minutes into our first hike, the dog’s toe was jolted out, yet again, in a patch of bog. Off we went back to the Airbnb to leave the dog – her toe now safely relocated; she abject with abandonment as we tramped away.
We managed to summit one whole beacon before the next injury. One of our party pulled a muscle in the last few steep steps up to the trig point, although thankfully not badly enough to stop us making our way back down. Nor enough to dim the gorgeousness of walking past wild ponies drinking from waterholes in the heather, and taking in a view of what felt like most of Wales in one direction and the Black Mountains in the other.
The next day, two of us set out for gentler terrain while our friends tackled another summit. While I enjoy wandering above a sea of fog as much as the next romantic, there was something intimately lovelier about our lowland wandering.
[See also: How Nan Shepherd shaped modern nature writing]
We walked through oak and ash woods carpeted with moss, ferns and wood anemones to a cascade of waterfalls. As we climbed out of the valley towards fields of stocky, wag-tailed lambs, the hedgerows appeared a strange, spectral grey from a distance. Up close they were covered with lichens. By the time we reached a village pub via a meadow of celandine, we were lightheaded with happiness.
On the return leg, we were led by the map first to one footpath, and then onto another that was unexpectedly cut across by a barbed wire fence. We turned around, and retraced our steps to the village – determined to keep up our cheerfulness. We ended the day on a verge in a layby, drinking vodka out of a hip flask, as we texted our friends our location and waited for them to come and rescue us.
Four days together, and it felt like we barely scratched the surface of catching each other up on the details of our lives. I wonder how different our situations will be again, by the time we can next spend this long in each other’s company. Since my move to Nottinghamshire, one friend has taken a job in Cardiff, and two are planning to move to Montana. It seems inconceivable that we once held leaving parties in honour of moving out of the same house-share and to different sides of the same, small city.
I didn’t quite make it home from my holiday, though. My poor mum has injured her knee and is more or less immobilised. Walking downstairs, she heard a snap, and just like that our lives are both on new – and, we hope, temporary – trajectories.
I’ve moved in to care for her while she recovers. There is a particular kind of panic at seeing your mother, for the first time, with a Zimmer frame. And there is a particular kind of fear at seeing a parent in severe pain. Momentarily, I feel in our two very different, connected ways that we’ve both been pitched into a new stage of our lives far sooner than we’d anticipated.
It never stops surprising me, how quickly pain recalibrates our expectations. All I want is for my mum to be comfortable again, to get back to the lives we’d planned. For the minor miracle of being well.
This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown