There’s a walk in Surrey that my husband and I try to do every autumn. It’s a beautiful walk at any time of year, but there’s something extra special about it when the leaves flush orange and the heather turns purple. Door to door, it swallows the entire day, leading us through heathland, forest, fields, small villages and across the Devil’s Punchbowl — an impressive depression in the land caused by a geological process called spring sapping.
We rise early and take the train from Waterloo to Milford. Of course, I’ve packed a book for the journey. A couple of years ago, I discovered Huma Qureshi’s writing, devouring her collection of short stories Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love. She is one of the best writers exploring family connections today — the said and the unsaid; the nuance of sibling rivalry; the power of guilt trips from those who know your secrets. This month, her debut novel Playing Games is published and, as the train leaves the station, I pull a copy from my rucksack.
Playing Games is the story of two sisters, Hana and Mira. On the surface, Hana appears to have a wonderful life: she’s a successful lawyer, she’s bought a house with her husband and they’re thinking about having children. Her younger sister, Mira, lives twenty minutes down the road in a flat share that Hana doesn’t approve of, making coffee to pay the rent while she tries to forge her path as a writer. In reality, both sisters are stuck: Mira’s staring blankly at her laptop; Hana’s husband’s eyes are wandering away from her. In a warped but familiar way, both siblings are jealous of each other: one of the other’s supposed freedom; the other of a supposed stability. Hana and Mira continue to dance around their ideas of each other, refusing to verbalise their true feelings. Qureshi’s writing stings. By the time the train arrives at Milford, these people are real to me.
Packing away my book, we leave the carriage and walk through Milford, ducking out into the trees along Lower Moushill Lane. Turning right by a bridleway near Dairy Farm House, the ground becomes waterlogged, with long yellow grasses up to our hips. We tiptoe over wet stones, pull ourselves over semi-broken styles, then across Bagmoor Common. It’s the kind of terrain that would make anyone feel childlike, and we bargain with each other over how far we can get before water seeps into our walking shoes. The path weaves through rows of Norwegian spruce, and everything smells like Christmas.
Miraculously, our feet remain dry as we enter Thursley National Nature Reserve. This area of peat bogs and woodland is peppered with toadstools, and it opens out onto a heather trail. At Forked Pond, in the summer months, you can spy twenty species of dragonflies and damselflies, and though many of the birds have migrated south at this time of year, we see what appears to be a couple of Dartford warblers perched on the gorse. They resemble ruffled robins. In among the trees, the squirrels are working overtime.
We’ve brought sandwiches and a flask of soup, which we stop to eat before entering Thursley village. Named after the Norse god Thor, Thursley is home to a beautiful Saxon church dating back to the 11th century, with surviving Anglo-Saxon windows. Walkers can pay a visit —the building itself is empty and eerily calm— and I decide to buy a set of postcards of the tapestry parish kneelers, as they remind me of Tracy Chevalier’s novel A Single Thread. In exchange, I slip a one pound coin into the honesty box on my way out.
Our walk takes us out of the village and along the edge of farmers’ fields, where cows watch us sleepily, and fieldmice can be heard in the hedgerows. After a dip into a valley and up again, we approach the rim of the Devil’s Punchbowl. This is a basin created by erosion, though its creation myth is much more exciting. The story goes that Thor, God of Thunder, and the Devil were fighting, so one of them scooped up a huge handful of earth to use as a weapon, leaving a depression in the landscape measuring 697 acres. The Devil’s Punch Bowl is now looked after by the National Trust, and we’re grateful for the refreshment hut where we can buy cups of tea to warm our hands.
With tired but happy feet, we wind our way into Haslemere and find the train home. I read more of Playing Games on the journey, easily sinking back into the story. Qureshi dangles temptation in front of Mira —the younger sister who longs to be a writer— having her overhear an argument between her sister and brother-in-law. Mira notes how it’s the sort of urgent, private conversation that would make a good basis for a play; it’s everything she wants her writing to be. Surely, she reasons, it’s just artistic licence to use these words as a platform for a new writing project. Surely, she convinces herself, Hana wouldn’t mind — in fact, surely, Hana need never know… and so Mira begins writing a play about a couple whose marriage is falling apart, allowing her sister’s life to feed her. Of course, Mira can’t convince us. The reader knows this isn’t going to end well — and I know that no matter how tired I am from today’s walk, I’ll be staying up late to finish this book. It’s too good not to; sleep can wait.
See a map of Jen’s walk, which is approximately 11 miles, and takes about four hours and 30 minutes.
Playing Games by Huma Qureshi is available now.
Jen Campbell is a bestselling author and disability advocate. She has written twelve books for children and adults, the latest of which is Please Do Not Touch This Exhibit. She also writes for TOAST Book Club.