THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE. I knew it was going to be THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE even before I opened my eyes that morning. It might not sound promising to anyone else, waking up in a cramped caravan on the South Coast of Wales. Waking up to that familiar drumming sound on the roof that any person who has ever braved a caravanning holiday in Britain will be all too familiar with. I was miles away from my house, my friends, my school, the shops, the park. It was misty, gloomy and best of all: POURING WITH RAIN.
At this point you might wonder what could possibly make this the best day of my life. Most 12 year old kids love sunshine, friends, playing outdoors. Most of them would despair at the idea of a rainy day in the middle of nowhere with no friends and no access to computer games or DVDs. But I, being what most family members politely called an ‘unusual’ child, looked outside and inwardly did a small victory dance. I found myself smiling and hopping lightly out of bed at a reasonable hour in a way I could never seem to manage on sunny days.
As a kid, my greatest joy in life was reading. I loved spending the whole day wrapped up in a book. Preferably while reclining on a cushioned surface with a steady supply of snacks nearby. Needless to say I was more than a little chubby. This, combined with an outstanding lack of coordination and a tendency towards clumsiness which earned me the nickname ‘Mr Bump’, discouraged me from attempting to do much with my body. I passionately hated sport. I would grow to hate it even more in a few years time when my P.E. teacher, who everyone agreed was a dead ringer for Ricky Martin despite being neither Latin American nor male, would shout at me on the sports field ‘CHARLOTTE WRIGHT! Get yourself a sports bra before you give yourself black eyes.’ A sports bra was something I wouldn’t aquire until I was 19 and in charge of my own wardrobe decisions. Pre-19 I sported a selection of dodgy specimens purchased at seconds stores and supermarkets. My breasts moved helplessly in opposite directions throughout my teen years, unable to sit still or cooperate with each other. I would often look down at them and whisper the same advice that my mum gave my sisters and I through gritted teeth: play nicely. But until the day I finally got a handle on them through the use of structured underwear, they remained nothing but trouble to me. During this time, I quietly took my own childish revenge on my P.E. teacher by singing ‘She Bangs’ under my breath whenever she walked into the gym.
But back to THE BEST DAY EVER. On this fine morning, I stood in my pajamas feeling the joy and anticipation dance along my spine and inside my stomach. I tingled all over at the propect of a day of uninterrupted reading. Rainy days usually meant staying in the caravan, dad with the newspaper, mum with Mills and Boon and me with a novel, usually involving murder. As I mentioned, I was an unusual child. I couldn’t wait. I wandered to the cupboard where the books were kept and picked up a stack. I sat down and started reading the backs of them. I began almost drooling, as if I were a fat kid (well, that part was true) in an ice cream shop, staring longingly at the flavours and feeling torn about which to try first. I began by looking at the covers. Taking in the images, the gorier the better. I read blurbs skimming for my favourite key words ‘murder’, intrigue’ and ‘scandal’. My eyes skipped over the first few pages. Did I feel hooked? Was this book ‘the one’. I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice. I wanted mystery, death, action. Something I could really get my teeth into for the day.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The parents came in to the caravan with my cousins Lucy and Ben. The four of them wore raincoats and wellies, I could instantly tell that this would not be good news. Both cousins were pouting. All four were already drenched from the rain but the parents were both wearing idiotic false smiles. They looked too happy. Too excited. This was the face the parents used to convince me to do things that I did not want to do. The faces they used to try to inject fun and joy into the most tortuous activities.
‘Afternoon Charl,’ my dad smirked sarcastically, despite it being barely 10 am. He always did this to emphasise how lazy I was for always waking up after him. I rolled my eyes as usual. Our ritual morning exchange out of the way, I looked back down to my books hoping to avoid whatever horrors they had dreamed up for today. But it wasn’t to be.
‘Charlotte Wright! STILL in your pjs?!’ Mum sighed dramatically. Again, my standard eye rolling response. I was waiting for the punchline.
‘You’ll be pleased to know, we’re going for a walk along the coast!’ Dad again. He looked at me grinning, knowing I would be anything but pleased. My family speak sarcasm as a first language. I have been fluent since the age of around three when I learned to tell my sisters to ‘keep on dreaming’ anytime they made requests to my parents which involved borrowing the car or staying out late. I have always been a fast learner.
I put the books back in the cupboard and looked longingly in their direction. My cousins’ grim expressions matched my own. We knew resistance was futile. Once the adults had decided we were taking a walk, there would be no stopping them. Any protests would be met with ‘But it’s good for your health! We can spend time as a family! Enjoy the outdoors!’ They could not be reasoned with. All we could do was get on with it and pray it was over as quickly as possible. Just then my little cousin Adam waltzed in leaving the door open behind him. The wind blew and could feel some specs of rain settle on my arms and forehead. His little eyes were shining.
‘I’m going shopping to Cardigan with mum and nanny’ He stuck his tongue out at us as he said it. Now I really hit rock bottom. Not only had my parents ruined what was shaping up to be THE BEST DAY EVER, my smug, spoiled little cousin was going to Cardigan. One of my favourite places due to its second hand book shop which always stocked Agatha Christie novels and other muder mysteries at a price of 10p each. I could have stocked up for months at that price. But instead I put on my wellies and mac and followed the parents.
Visibility was poor. We walked along a river in single file, hoods up and heads down trying (and largely failing) to keep the rain out. I was stomping my feet heavily in a steady rhythm. The grim death march, as it has become in my overly dramatic and somewhat morbid twelve year old mind, already felt like it had gone on for an eternity. But in reality we had been out barely an hour. I knew that this was not enough to satisfy the parents. In their mission to get me fit and encourage me to use my body (and lose weight) they had taken to forcing some physical exertion on me, in the form of long walks. This did not sit well with me, a child who would rather have forgotten that she had a body at all. I prefered to read, think and daydream. Anything that allowed me to live inside my own mind and ignore the wobbly bits around it.
I heard some rumblings from the parents up ahead. The beginnings of an argument. My ears pricked up. Maybe they would fall out and we’d all head back. I silently willed it, but it wasn’t to be. I overheard a few snatches of their dialogue and suddenly realised what was up; we were lost. My mood became several shades darker. This could go on even longer than I thought. My parents turned to us.
‘Right kids’ Mum said brightly, ‘What we didn’t tell you is that this is an ADVENTURE WALK. So we might have to do a few adventurous things. There’s a dead end up ahead. I think we need to cross the river.’ We looked down at the gushing water and the rising level of the river. We looked up at each other. My dad pointed to some rocks ‘Ben! You’re a big strong lad. You can help me throw a few of these in to use as stepping stones.’ Ben was barely a year older than me and definitely not what you would call ‘a big, strong, lad’. Ben was what I called a ‘puny bully’. He had the opposite problem to me. He was small and skinny for his age. But with a cockiness and mischeviousness that my family loved. He was a performer. He sang, danced, told jokes. Did fairly accurate impressions of Micheal Jackson. Showed off with a confidence that I could never imagine possessing. His chest puffed out at my dad’s compliment. He nodded seriously at him and began to lift the rocks. A few minutes later we had a series of stones on which to cross the river. Lucy, who was a bit of a princess and a year younger than me, delicately picked her way across them shrieking and wailing whenever she slipped. She made it. They all made it. Then my turn; I slipped in. My cousins laughed. Then, strangely enough so did I. I was about as cold and wet as you could get. I was in a river. I was lost. For some reason, suddenly it all seemed so funny. My bad mood lifted and I laughed and laughed. Dad helped me out and we continued on our walk. Instantly we were reminiscing about the events we had just experienced. Ever noticed how this brings people closer together? And so it did with us. We bonded over congratulating Ben and my dad on their stepping stones, my mum on her new plan and on laughing over Lucy’s wailing and my fall. Soon we were singing songs. We crossed back and forth over the river many more times that day. Each of us slipping, falling, getting wet but always laughing. Ben stayed driest the longest. He proudly stood on a stepping stone in the middle of the river proclaiming how he’s managed to keep himself dry. I looked at Lucy. We giggled and picked up a rock each, launching them into the water near where he stood. The water made an arc and hit him at knee level, soaking his trousers, socks and trainers. We laughed again.
When we finally arrived home there was barely a patch on any of us that was dry. We showered, changed, put on the fire and laughed some more about the ADVENTURE WALK. Word of it got around the caravan site to my other cousins. My little cousin Adam came knocking several times that week begging to be taken for an ADVENTURE WALK. My parents never did admit that they were simply lost. But I knew the truth. They insisted the adventure had been planned all along. They told Adam they couldn’t plan another adventure so soon. Adventures had to be taken in moderation.
THE BEST DAY OF MY LIFE is the first day that I remember ever feeling any genuine warmth for phsical activity or the outdoors. It sparked an interest, however small at the time, in adventure. The first time I had been interested in adventure for myself, rather than just reading about it in books. I didn’t know it then, but my parents were planting the seeds in me for a life long love of adventure, which would later lead me abroad to Australia and South Korea and into many bizarre situations for which books hadn’t prepared me. It also taught me several things, although it would take me many years to fully appreciate these lessons.
1) Not getting what you want is sometimes a good thing because it can lead to getting something better.
2) What starts as an accident or misfortune can sometimes become an adventure. It really depends on your perspective.
3) Getting out of the house is really important. Even if you don’t want to go. Staying in and reading stories is great but outside is where the best stories are usually made.
4) You can take your kids to Disneyland (as my parents did) and buy them presents at Christmas, but when they look back, their best memories of you will be the days where things went wrong and you laughed and made the best of it together.
5) If your smug, show off older cousin is standing bragging in the middle of a river, the only sensible thing to do is to throw rocks at him.
(Both photos show Lucy, Ben and me on our caravan site in South Wales. I tried and failed to find pictures of me around the age of twelve, when the adventure walk took place. It seems I took to avoiding the camera around this age and continued to do so quite sucessfully until my late teens.)