A few weeks ago Naomi suggested we take a stroll through Fletcher Moss Park.
“It’s a sort of nature reserve,” she said excitedly, “and there’s a botanical garden and walking routes by the river.”
“That sounds nice,” I said. I could already envision our slow mooch through the gardens, punctuated by long pit stops at a bench to bask in the sunshine.
“I bet there’ll be loads of dogs,” Naomi continued, dog-spotting being one of her favourite activities. “And maybe we could get a hot chocolate at the café.”
“Sounds good,” I replied.
“Ooo, maybe we could take a picnic!”
Naomi’s excitement was in danger of bubbling over now, so I decided to reduce the heat and focus on practical matters.
“Is there an entry fee?” I asked.
“No it’s free,” she said, her eyes beaming.
“And where is it? How do we get there?” Perhaps the prospect of a lengthy and complex journey on public transport would calm her frenzy.
“That’s the best bit!” Naomi shrieked. “It’s only a ten minute bike ride from here!”
A ten minute bike ride, no less. And it’s free. Well that was enough for me. We started planning an extravagant picnic, before debating the number of Cockapoos we’d encounter on our walk.
That weekend we set off on our bikes. The sky was a dank slate and wind whipped across the road. About six minutes into our ten minute journey, the heavens opened and my jeans immediately soaked through and stuck to my thighs.
“You should’ve worn your waterproof trousers,” Naomi called out over her shoulder.
The rain eased to a fine mist as we arrived at Fletcher Moss Park. The trees dripped and muddy paths squelched underfoot. An optimistic ice-cream van was sat chugging in the car park next to an information board.
We studied the map of the various walking routes, eventually opting for the two-mile one. As we strode away I noticed an old lady making her way along the path. She moved slowly, each step considered and full of effort. Her short grey hair stood on end in the gathering breeze and her eyes were narrowed in determination.
About five minutes into our hike we encountered a fork in the path. The one-mile route was signed right and the three-mile route left, but there was no sign for our two-miler. Oh well. We decided this was our cue to up the ante and commit to the longer route after all.
Another five minutes of brisk walking and we arrived promptly back at the start point. We looked around, confused. The ice-cream van was still chugging away, cones now appearing from the window into the hands of eager children and their weary parents. How had we ended up back here?
We went to the information board and studied the map again. Turns out we’d seen the sign for the longer route from the back, so we’d just walked the final five-minute stretch of it. No bother. Since we were back at the start it made sense to do our intended route - the two-miler - backwards, just to mix things up and avoid repetition. Off we went, this time against the steady flow of old couples and dog walkers.
We made good progress despite the added challenge of finding signs that all pointed in the opposite direction. There was a section of boardwalk through boggy wetlands, and Naomi was delighted to witness a trio of sausage dogs shuffling alongside their owners, flabby bellies scraping the ground.
A little further on, two Cockapoo puppies frolicked in a puddle. Their tails wagged and ears flapped, as if in slow motion. I could sense Naomi stiffen and saw her fists clench in barely-restrained joy. This was a delicate situation. One that could easily get out of control.
“Come on,” I said, gently placing a hand on her forearm. “You can have one of your own some day. Let these two go.”
We pressed on. A few minutes later we came to the River Mersey and its lush grassy banks. The sky was clearing. Sunlight glinted on the water. A family cycled past us, their tyres crunching into the gravel path.
The route then curved away from the river, returning to shady woodland. A couple of ambiguous signs followed, then we emerged from the undergrowth and saw the ice-cream van up ahead. There were no customers this time but the engine still gurgled unpleasantly.
I threw my hands up in frustration. “How the hell have we managed this?!”
“Hmm?” said Naomi, tearing her eyes away from a Golden Retriever galloping across the grass.
“I said, how have we ended up back at the start again. I don’t understand this place.”
We didn’t bother looking at the map this time. Nothing made sense anymore. We had tried to navigate three different routes, and each time been regurgitated by this mysterious park. The only thing left to do was have lunch.
As we trudged over to a picnic table, I saw the old lady I’d seen earlier in the day. Her feet looked heavier than ever, her back hunched forward, those determined eyes now just slits amid baggy skin. I watched as she limped past our table and disappeared into the botanical gardens.