It was when we were driving home on the M3 that we saw her.
A woman, pulled up on the hard shoulder. The motorway is a tarmac desert: somewhere one does not stop unless the car has given up the ghost. But far from having broken down, she had pulled up for a purpose.
I have never seen anything like it before, and I’ve seen a lot of motorways. A flight of stairs ascended from the hard shoulder into the dense woodland, where a door awaited. It was a wooden door in a brick wall, and who knew what lay beyond it?
She brandished a pair of keys, in obvious readiness. In the minutes after our car had passed on its way, she would walk up the steps, unlock the door and step into another world.
The sound of the traffic would recede, and instead of the sight of steel self-propelled carriages hurtling brashly by, the greenery of English woodland would emerge, and the heathy smell of sun-dried straw.
A door: a portal: a before-and-after.
My favourite door lies at the end of the garden in the holiday home we use on the Kent coast.
So in love am I with this door that I can almost feel the black bolt slip beneath my fingers and the door swing towards me, buffeted by a sea breeze. And I can almost see the shimmering expanse of sea before me, bordered by comfortable English seaside furniture: the green cliffside walk, the 20 pence telescope, the dogs lumbering along on a lead, the people sitting basking on the seaview bench.
An unassuming door, which holds a world of experience on the other side.
Phil stepped over a threshold today: a metaphysical one. He made a choice to do something so unfamiliar it must have felt like opening a door and walking through.
He ran 13 miles to raise money for a charity.
Phil runs in the forest with the dog: but he has never run in an organised event over this distance in his life. This morning as we prepared to go, he looked longingly at his small four-legged running partner. “I wish I could take you,” he told him.
The dog wagged his tail and emanated clueless affability. He got very excited indeed when Phil put on his running shoes, but all to no avail. Instead he sat, disgruntled, at the top of the stairs while we piled into the car and packed in the picnic.
I was not of settled mind.Phil’s knee had twisted on Friday in football: we had no idea whether it would stand up to 13 miles. And then there was the unseasonable heat.
We drove the half hour journey and trailed across the fields to the festive starting line. And he disappeared into a seething throng, making a brief cameo appearance on the other side of the road before vanishing on his odyssey.
Two hours later, the drama of the finishing line had us in its sway. Felix was impressed by the clapping and cheering, and offered words of comfort to passing runners on their last legs. “Nearly there!” he chirruped delightedly.
And then the paramedic punctured the jubilance by getting grimly into his car and driving off down the course. Ask not for whom the paramedic’s siren tolls…each of us in a crowd of hundreds prayed with selfish single-mindedness that his wheels were not pointed in the direction of our loved one.
It added a heightened tension to the next 40 minutes as we waited and cheered those who ran by, each one with a story of determination and perseverance.
I moved into the sun and used my camera to frame a special shot: the victorious runner. Evader of the paramedic. Conqueror of the knee. Vanquisher of the heat.
He appeared. I didn’t know whether to cheer wildly or take a picture. I settled unsteadily for both, and then turned and ran like the clappers along the course to catch him further on.
I became aware that Maddie was sprinting alongside, and that someone was shouting to me that I had dropped most of my worldly belongings behind me in my eagerness to see him running just one more time before he faltered finally, and allowed heat, knee and exhaustion to overcome him.
Having retrieved them, we sat in the sun as Phil drank water and ate a tuna fish sandwich and we all stood round, saying: Well done, Phil. Jolly well done.
Before he stepped through his door he had no idea what awaited him: success or failure, health or injury, defeat or jubilation.
He has a talent for stepping through metaphorical doors boldly.
Now all that remains is for me to find the keys to mine.