A fire smoulders on the roadside verge. Two charred lengths of heartwood oak form a cross. A brown kettle nestles in the nook where the wood meets. Flames lick at the kettle. The spout is black with smoke. A beige Ford Orion sails down the road. Like all of the other cars that have passed this way, the driver can’t help but slow to take in the scene. This particular driver has brick red cheeks, a flat cap pulled down low and a blue tartan muffler throttling his throat. An old boy. His eyes are all over us but he quickly averts his gaze and speeds up again after meeting our eyes.
‘Well’, Fletcher says as we watch the car go. He offers me his bony hand and says ‘good luck’.
The moment we have both been longing for and dreading in equal measure has finally arrived. After all of this time, here it is at last.
I take his hand and say ‘thanks’. There’s an awkward pause. The future, I think, won’t be without its traps and pitfalls. I say, ‘well, goodbye’ as the kettle starts to hiss and billow with steam. Time to be gone. You go your way, and I’ll go mine.
I set off along the road. Pat the pocket of my coat to feel the reassuring shape of the Golden Virginia tin that holds enough tobacco to last me, if I’m careful, until tomorrow. There’s some loose change in the other pocket. Enough, hopefully, to buy me a bus ticket to the next county where, all being well, a job will be waiting for me. All the money I have in the world.
When I reach a bend in the road I resist the urge to look back over my shoulder. One last look at the camp and Fletcher’s tall figure. This man who has taken me under his wing and forced me back onto the straight and narrow.
After all this time on the road it is a little unnerving to be in town again. Old ladies in grey raincoats look me up and down. Their husbands take their arms and quickly pass by. It’s a funny thing: the more I wish to be invisible the more attention I seem to gain. After a few minutes I get used to be being a sideshow again. Self-preservation kicks in. I stop noticing the scrutiny. Ordinary people making mental judgements about something they really know nothing about. Take it from me: this is not paranoia. Try it yourself someday. You’ll soon see what I mean.
I reach the bus stop and try and make sense of the timetable. Already, I am in trouble. The sign says NO SERVICE ON SUNDAYS which strikes me as being an ironic set of words. I thought Sundays were all about services. I read these words over and over again willing them to change. The idea of turning around and admitting defeat after our solemn goodbye doesn’t appeal. A failure in the first thirty minutes of freedom that Fletcher has given me and already I’m thinking about turning around and asking for his help again. No. This will not do. I must keep on going even if it means walking and making my own bed under my own hedge tonight.
I start to walk again. My coat smells of the wood smoke from Fletcher’s fire.
It’s an odd business doing a journey in reverse. It’s as if the ghost of Fletcher is everywhere and he isn’t even dead yet. I know that this is going to be the longest walk of my life. I do the calculations. Thirty miles. Average walking speed four miles an hour. I should be there in around, around seven and a half hours? My God, that’s a long time to be walking. But surely I walk faster than four miles an hour? Besides, I can’t go back: that’s already decided. Just have to keep going. There should still be time for me to have a sleep somewhere and report at work in the morning. My feet are already hurting but it’s way too early to start noticing things like that.
The town is falling behind me. Just have to keep on going. There’s maybe three hours daylight left to me. Mercifully, the temperature is just right and there’s no sign of rain.
I’m on the high road now, thousands of feet above sea level. All on my own.
Just me and Fletcher’s ghost.
Dusk now, on a summer road where there are wild strawberries in the verges. A taste explosion, nature’s finest, the flavour of morning forests in my dry mouth but it’s still not enough.
Pretty soon I’m going to be in real trouble.
My feet throb inside my heavy boots. My legs have turned to jelly and it feels like I’m wading through water as I walk. From time to time, a car heads my way, the headlights sending a fizzing dazzle into my brain as I shrink into the hedge. When darkness returns I struggle on again but the desire to rest now is very strong. I am fearful of doing this. If I stop, I can’t imagine myself ever getting going again.
I don’t want to be caught out here, on the road at dawn.
Despite the dark I can make out the sandy mouth of a track entering an avenue of trees. The lamp lights of a lonely house. A milk crate has been placed at the entrance to the drive. It holds one solitary bottle that must have somehow been left there all day. I don’t like the idea of theft and I don’t like milk. In fact, I detest the stuff. But sometimes needs must. I reach down, grab the bottle then slip it in my pocket. When I have gone on a yard or two and there are no dogs barking or any sounds of alarm I take the bottle from my pocket, jab the silver lid with my thumb and drink it on down.
A feeling of contentment gets into my blood. I lob the empty bottle into a hedge and realise that I can, after all, keep going.
All evening I have been dealing with the ghosts that have followed me.
All evening I have been dealing with the ghosts that have followed me.
When I’d set out this way there had been three of us if you count the horse who had been pulling our flatbed cart. The landmarks have etched themselves into my thinking. Here is the hedge where, inexplicably, someone had abandoned a bow saw with a glittering blade, the teeth still well oiled. There’s the hill top where the old Mark II Cortina had halted to wait for our approach. As we got nearer a man built like a blacksmith had clambered out. He had a shock of black hair and wore a brown leather flying jacket. He sat down on the cropped verge and crossed his legs. Waited as if he’d been expecting us and here was the appointed hour of our meeting in this bleak landscape thousands of feet above sea level. The highest, if you know your guide books, point in the county.
As we drew nearer the horse slowed and I saw that the man had a gold ring on his finger. The word Ventura had been stitched onto the left breast of his jacket in gold thread. ‘Let me do the talking’ Fletcher said. The man got to his feet and approached the horse. He patted the neck and looked the horse over. It was very quiet. Just the sound of a dry wind. ‘You see that car?’ the man said. ‘Here are the keys.’ He threw them up onto the cart and pulled a brown wallet out of his back pocket and snapped out a bundle of notes. ‘Two hundred pounds’, he said. ‘You take the car and this money and the horse is mine.’ Fletcher picked up the keys. Threw them down onto the road. ‘Walk on’ he said and the horse obeyed.
But the dark conceals the garden where I’d jumped down from the cart and filched handfuls of poppy heads. Hid the bend in the road where we’d had an altercation with the landlord of an inn who’d been worried that we were going to try drinking in his bar. ‘It’s my pub I tell you, and you’re not going in there. That pub’s mine.’
‘Mine!’ Fletcher shouted, one word expressing a thousand.
I can’t go on. I need to lie down. I force my way under a hedge and give in to exhaustion.
After a while, a strange orb of blue light pulses on a hillside. A penumbra of blue and silver light that has no earthly meaning.