“So tell me about it”
I looked up, trying to focus at the face with the sun behind it. I’d rather have had a window seat, so as to be able to turn away from the group, but by the time I made it there they’d all been taken. The minibus was leaving from Mallaig; a place I’d never been in my year at Knoydart, having walked in to Inverie, overland, instead, deciding to avoid the ferry crossing. But now I was happy to take the boat, and the lift to Byrness.
“Tell you about what?” I answered the young woman sitting beside me, by the window.
“Well, you look as though you’ve been travelling. Are you one of Ed’s students?”
I was surprised to hear his name from a stranger, but it was, after all, through him that I knew about this bus. He’d sent me a pass last year. The students had field trips in the Scotland, and at the end of the Summer, the week before term starts, they always met back at Byrness, on the border, for a forest jamboree. Kielder Forest: I wouldn’t have chosen it. It was the worst part of my journey up to Knoydart, especially after looking forward to it for so long. The bogs sapped my strength, and the trees, growing straight from them, were no option as shelter. There was a Bothy I spotted, but there was also CCTV, so I hadn’t wanted to approach it.
The girl was waiting for an answer, was I one of Ed’s? but I hadn’t decided what was more complicated, a ‘yes’, or a ‘no’.
“Well I was, one of his, in a way. How about you?”
“No. I should have been over in Byrness, working in the Cheviots all along, but a few of us cut loose to travel round the West Coast here. Just a holiday.”
“Aha, I see” I was trying to be polite but not engaging. I’d have liked to sleep through if I could.
“So what’s your name?” the girl asked.
“Hi Ellz, I’m Sophie”
Sophie was younger than me, I think. She had an open and eager face. Her voice matched her looks. I felt that I must look tired by comparison, but also more substantial.
“So Ellz, you’ve evaded me so far, but really, I’d love to know why you need a pack like that, and why your boots look so…distinguished.”
“I’ve been working on the Knoydart forestry project. It’s tough work.”
“Oh cool. How long you been there?”
“Over a year now.”
“I took a punt. Arrived on my own and stayed that way, apart from work friends I made a’course.”
“Yes. That’s great Ellz. I keep trying to get out on my own but it always upsets someone, so I never do it.”
I let the noise of the bus drown-out any efforts to talk, and Sophie turned her head to the window. I was thinking about my first month in Knoydart, living in the forest and returning to Sourlies Bothy for a day here and there when the weather came in, for a roof and a decent, drying, fire. When it was nice I’d camped on my beach sometimes, just to be near that pristine water and watch the Milky Way slashing the heavens in two, or to bathe in the semi-dark Summer nights.
After a month sleeping rough I volunteered for the forest project. Once I was not on the move I felt the cold, so I needed work and something more weatherproof to live in. In fact it went better than I’d hoped, and I ended up in a hand scribe log cabin of Sitka Spruce, their speciality on the project, which I’d helped to design and build, had no ownership of, but was monitoring and maintaining through the seasons. It was no good testing the materials and build with nobody living in it. I had made the point, and was the obvious person for the job.
My Cabin was being moved to another site now, and anyhow wouldn’t be ‘mine’ anymore, so it was a good time to make my visit to mum and dad. After Byrness I’d be on foot again.
“You should come to our party in the woods Ellz” Sophie suddenly suggested.
“Thanks. Yes I might. I’ll see how I feel at Byrness” I said, with no intention to go. The bus was warming up, which was sending me to sleep. I slumped myself down in my seat, bracing myself with my pack, and shut my eyes.
We arrived in the evening, which was not ideal at all. I had no time to walk out before setting up my bivi, so I went with the others to the Bothy, and when they were bustling around with kit said goodbye to Sophie.
“I’m off Sophie” I said. “Can’t sleep in huts; y’know, too many bodies, so I’ll head to a B&B. May see you tomorrow night but might need to head-off. Nice to meet you. Get away on your own sometime.”
She was too busy finding her head torch and getting herself a sleeping spot to get involved with me much, so I wasn’t delayed.
The trees I’d walked through on my way North were planted row upon row, with solid banks of branches, perfectly arranged, right down to ground level. There was no way into them physically, and they’d made me feel as though I was in a Christmas card. You can look but there’s no way in. They stretched for mile on mile on mile, and the walking alongside had been through marsh and bog, bad enough to trap my legs in a few times. No place for people. When I reached the forest roads it seemed equally hostile. Mile upon mile of hard surface and the exposure of the road. The forest around this Bothy, though, was older, the canopy way up high and the trunks bare of greenery. I decided to string out my hammock to avoid the sodden ground, and hang my pack up beside me.
Next morning I headed off. I made good progress South, once clear of the strength-sapping marshes of Northumberland. The accessibility over the tops of the Pennines is confined by the MOD, so my route choices were simplified. I was pleased to be travelling in the opposite direction to the few people I met on the Pennine Way.
Reaching the Shires, I was sad to have lost the vast expanses of sky and horizon, and the solitude. The fields seemed to have multiplied into smaller subdivisions, new fences everywhere, and the footpaths were even harder to navigate than before. My pack jammed stuck on one path that now had a wall built out into it towards the barbed wire fence on the other side.
I had no maps this time (they’d barely survived the journey to Knoydart anyhow) but the route looked very familiar anyhow. That surprised me, but I guess it was the engagement, the exploration, on the way up that did it. I’d stayed a few days here and there in some places, in no particular hurry, so I could take it all in. This however (coming back down) felt more pressured, as though time was an issue. It was telling in my legs and feet. When I stopped for a few days in Dovedale, Alstonefield, to let my feet dry out, I finally had time to reflect on the journey. It made me cry, for the first time since I’d made it to Knoydart, a year or so ago. It poured out.
The INCH plan. Well of course it was achieved long ago. It didn’t take a year of absence to realise it. Going back to see mum and dad, even if it had been to live there and not just to visit, wouldn’t have amounted to a return: it couldn’t ever be a ‘going home’. It was only that thought that allowed me to make for the village at all. Anyhow, this was just a visit to reconnect with them and to seek out GF. I knew that I might have to wait if he was working on something, but to be honest time spent there would only be an issue insofar as the feelings were tolerable or not, and that I couldn’t know until I got there.
I decided to at least get a message back to GF to let him know I was in the area, just in case he could make adjustments to his schedule. This was delayed though, since there was no working payphone. I’d have liked to speak with him even sooner because I had trouble with a hanger-on. I think he must have been wild camping quite close to my bivi. When I re-joined the Staffordshire Way in Cannock Chase, having stepped off it to spend a pretty chilly night in the woods, our paths converged. He started talking straight away and barely stopped, but nevertheless managed to ask me quite a lot about myself.
“You look like you’ve been on the road a while, mind if I join you?”
Usually nobody would even try to speak to me when I was in this frame of mind. I knew how to invite or evade attention, that was one of skills I needed to survive: not least to hunt in fact. So this one was unable or unwilling to read the language. He could have been older than me but he looked young: callow would be a good way to put it. All the while he walked by my side, and stopped when I did. It was a good ruse of his to keep talking because it subverted any notion I might form that he was stalking me. Why wouldn’t he stop alongside me as I changed my socks and had some water? After all, he was in the middle of saying something. Over-familiar, by temperament or design, I couldn’t tell which.
“Y’know, I could do with boots like yours. Mine have worn out already and I only got them this year. They’re not going to make it to Land’s End, that’s for sure.” He waited for me to say something.
“Ah ha” I conceded.
“I haven’t come from John O’Groats, though. You can probably tell. No, I’m doing it in random bits. I’ve already done the Somerset stretch” He paused very briefly. “I’m doing each section at exactly the same time each year: the same month.” Then he explained, “in October” and chuckled “…as you’ll have guessed! Twelve years it’s going to take me in all. It’s not the only thing I’m doing of course.” He smiled. He waited. I raised my eyebrows, starting to feel that I’d begun to resemble my dad. It was always hard to get a word out of him too, even when there were things of obvious relevance to say.
He changed the focus, asking, “So what about you then? Pretty serious kit you’ve got. How far ‘v you come?”
“A’ways” I said, nodding as though I’d answered his question.
“I won’t ask you where you’re going either then! Get the idea that you’d rather not say, am I right?” And his smirk broadened, pleased with himself, as though he knew more than I could say anyhow. That made me nervous. I didn’t want this bloke trying to project all of his own ideas and schemes onto me, I knew where that kind of conversation could end up.
Whatever sunshine there had been receded completely as we levelled out onto the canal. I recognised the boats moored there even through the obscuring fog, but the atmosphere was completely different this time. On my journey north the waterway had excited me, claiming me as a fellow drifter. Now it drew me down and back along its taming path like a tethered horse. I was glad to strike out for the fields. But I still had my companion in tow.
As the evening began to approach I decided that it was time to take more initiative. “One of my aims is to walk alone” I told him. “And getting into discussing things with people takes me away from that. It’s hard then to get back to solitude, know what I mean?” I was trying to be kind to him, clearly.
“Listen, whatever floats yr boat. God, I’ve had no end of ear ache from people about my walks. I know what it’s like just to want your own company. Yeah, that’s for sure.”
He took out a cigarette from his top pocket and lit it in one easy gesture, drew a draught of smoke, then with the fag between his fingers he made the hint of a wave from his wrist and backed off, dropping behind me.
Time had passed quickly, and I was disconcerted to have got all the way to Codsall without a more conscious recollection of my route. I’d been distracted by my frustration with him. In truth, I still suffered his effects, because I wasn’t at all sure how far behind me he had allowed his path to recede and whether I was still in his sights. I took some evasive detours in the town to try and position myself behind him. He didn’t appear, though. It was darkening down so I decided to go only a mile or two further, but all the while I kept an eye out. It was completely dark before I stopped, so the best I could do was make sure that I was behind a good thick hedge of holly and close to a footpath sign for the staffs way, ready for the morning get-away. It was colder even than the previous night, so it looked as though we’d turned a seasonal corner. The unseasonal mildness was up.
Next day was foggy: I woke to it, and walked in it all day, having to rely on the footpath signs far more than usual without the smudges of sun to suggest direction. I’d been mulling over the idea of extending my journey south, as far as Kinver Edge, before heading west and towards the Clee, and resolved the thought finally at Enville, where I continued South on the Staffs Way. The views out to the West might not match my hopes in the fog, I thought, but it would be interesting from my new perspective to see the homes in the rock: the cave houses. I was curious whether they would seem to be progressive or regressive. Then there were the Iron Age hill forts as well. I didn’t know much about them, Iron Age forts, but they held something like a nostalgia and feeling of recognition for me, having been in the midst of hill forts all my life.
No doubt about it, Kinver Edge was a park, and it was difficult to avoid walkers and dogs. It was no place for a bivi. It was a relief to top out at the hill fort, into its timeless circular enclosure.
I needed something to eat before I returned to Enville, but my provisions had been dwindling. I can only think that it was a kind of complacency at nearing the village, the family, that led me to neglect to forage and find. I was lucky that the sweet chestnuts were in force so that I could top up on something with bulk, since without the larder of dried meats and fats I’d carried with me it was quite hard to satisfy my hunger, even with the ample supplies of fruit and veg to cadge.
The fog thickened, so I had no choice but to head back the way I’d come. I reckoned that at Enville I should be able to pick my way back West to the river-crossing at Highley: the footbridge. I wasn’t sure where the other crossings were, so that was the safest option mileage-wise. The white-out tired my eyes so I fetched my sunglasses out for some relief, but it wasn’t clear to me whether they helped. Even through the fog the low sun confused the eyes, making me want some shade, but the dark lenses made no improvement to my ability to see through the foggy glare. What’s more the dampness on my face, dripping from my hat, made them slip down my nose even more than usual. I alternated between tolerating the continual need to reposition them and impatiently shoving them onto the top of my head with the arms buried into my hat to secure them. Since visibility had become so bad I’d got used to looking for the footpath posts and the habit lingered through the day, taking me into places I’d rather have skirted around; like the miserable copse, which was even more unwelcome through coming after the lovely stretch on the hill above Enville Hall. It was closed-in by scrub and thick with rucked mud. Things had been through the thin path that led into it, digging down to hidden burrows and ravaging the delicate structures around them. My footings repeatedly slipped, sometimes in the potholes and more often over roots projecting out across the way. After stumbling a few times to no consequence I finally took a much sharper twist and a heavier landing, pulled off balance by my sack. There wasn’t too much pain until I stood; then it knocked me back down. I fumbled with the ankle for a while to see if I could put it right, but all I could do was confirm the damage with each touch. It swelled up quickly, so I was forced to leave it alone and try and find other means to move myself. On my hands and knees I made for the wall of a ruined shack, throwing my rucksack ahead of me, then I propped myself against it to have a think. My glasses had dislodged themselves with my fall and half covered my face until I extricated them from the hat and put them above me on a ledge in the wall. This was one of those times that I decided restraint was uncalled for, and dug out my wood-gas burner for a brew. The warmth revived me a little, but the sickness brought on by my bodily damage intensified. It was meadowsweet tea that I was brewing, just as well! I could stomach that, and I felt it’s medicinal effects quickly.
I remembered this place from passing through before, and how close it was to Alveley. If I could get there I might be able to contact GF. My thoughts didn’t go any further than that and certainly not to plans of rescue in any sense other than having someone to consult with. The warmth that I was gaining from the hot drink was not really compensating for the sapping dampness of the woods and the water that my clothes had absorbed from the air. However, the swelling in my leg was bad enough that my spare, dry, leggings weren’t about to be adequate in size. I decided to try and peel these ones off then replace them with waterproof trousers, and to put on a dry hat. My upper body was okay I thought, just a bit sweaty underneath the jacket, but a telling shiver made me decide to put on a precautionary dry jumper. I did that bit first. It was excruciating to take off clothes when my body felt so compromised. When it came to my lower body I started to take off the sodden, and now muddy, leggings. The left leg was easiest since I could keep the right one still, but after fumbling about with the swollen leg I decided to cut the material away around the knee and leave the lower part on as support and compression around the swelling. By the time this was done the stove had cooled off and I could pack it away. Then, after a deep breath, I pressed my back against the wall and pushed up on my good leg, walking my hands up the stones until I was standing straight. I swung my leg behind me as I bent down for my sack, removing my stick from the straps, then allowed the wall to take the strain of getting the load onto my back. I was going to have to find another straight stick to be able to move any distance, and even then it was going to be very hard work hopping rather than walking. My instinct was to get down and crawl rather than try and support myself this way, but it was too wet and muddy for that.
The voice made me jump, then the blood drained from my head even more than it had already as I recognised my hanger-on. There was no chance of him being here other than to follow me. This wasn’t even on a named trail let alone being anywhere near his route.
“So you’ve followed me.”
“Well I’m not on route now. It’s December so I’ve stopped. Actually I wasn’t all that close to you but I saw the smoke. Didn’t know it was a distress signal till I was nearer.”
I saw no reason to hide my mistrust: “Come on. You didn’t see that small amount of smoke in this fog.”
“I smelt it.”
“And it wasn’t a call for help.”
“But you’ll need help, won’t you?”
“I’ll manage thanks.” But he didn’t go anywhere. I decided not to struggle onwards and risk another fall, so I made myself comfortable leaning against the wall. “So why did you follow me then?”
“Well I think it was mainly to see if I could, but I was curious to be honest – intrigued. And you wouldn’t tell me anything, which has made me even more interested.”
“So what do you want to know then? I’ve travelled from Scotland – left home a few years ago on foot and lived out and about since then. Now I’m making a visit to my folks.”
He was smiling as I spoke which disconcerted me, and he clearly wanted much more information, qualitatively different to this, asking “so what made you go then? Were you in trouble?”
“Not really. I didn’t fit in though.”
“Ah, now you’re speaking my language. Why not?”
“Hard to describe. Just upset people a lot, who then went about upsetting me. No way to live.”
“You’re obtuse aren’t you?”
And I found myself saying “like my dad”.
“Got two parents then?”
“Yep. Have you?”
“More” he said, but I was damned if I was going to get into an exchange of intimacies with someone who didn’t get the message, so I didn’t allow myself any curiosity. The pain reminded me to be instrumental.
“D’you have a phone?”
He replied only tentatively that he did, and started to fumble in his jacket pockets, several of them. He gave up after a time and checked the inside pocket, out of which he lifted a smallish blue phone.
“Can I make a quick call?”
I had to run a few number combinations through my mind before I recalled GF’s landline (it was nigh-on impossible to raise him on his mobile so I hadn’t a clue what that number was) then I rehearsed them as I worked out the settings on the phone so as not to lose them again. It rang several times then went to answerphone.
“Hey…GF…shame you’re not available. It’s Elly. I’m calling on someone else’s phone. I’m in the area, near Alveley, a copse between there and Enville. Was on my way to see you and the family but I’ve done my ankle in so it might be slow-going from here. If you’re about you’ll find me making for the pub in Alveley.” I took a breath and was about to emphasise my need for intervention a bit more clearly when the phone started bleeping and I lost the line.
“Christ!” I looked at the signal bars and they were strong enough I thought, but the battery was on the red.
“Stopped in Codsall to get it charged, but didn’t want to wait too long in case I lost you – in case you peeled off the Staffs way. Looks like it’s out of juice again.”
I handed it back to him, feeling worry now as well as irritation. It was going to be difficult to struggle on without allowing him to help me, but being physically supported by this intruder was an appalling thought. I started to hop forwards in defiant and concerted bursts of effort. I’m not sure whether it was the disturbances of thought or the effects of the exertion at that moment that brought on the vomiting. He didn’t offer to get help. I thought of sending him away on that as a ruse, but I wasn’t going to get very far before he’d be back with yet more people to deal with, so I held out for the arrival of GF at some point.
I was back down on the ground, propping myself up against the wall, and starting to feel more comfortable. The lad took a chocolate bar from his rucksack. I shook my head as he held it out to me. Before he could take a bite himself he was startled by the tune of a text coming through. He put the bar on his knee while he fished the phone out again, then stared at the screen, wiping the condensation that had instantly formed. Then he scanned the message for a few moments and said:
“Apparently Becky’s funeral was last week and he’s got to go to Glasgow now to present work from…is it Diabeg?”
He wouldn’t hand me the phone.
“Serious stuff then.” he said pointedly as he took the chocolate up again.
“Excuse me won’t you, I need a pee”. I shuffled myself to the other side of the wall. From there I could see the back of his casual skull and hear the rustling as the last mouthful was prised from the wrapper. Then, as he brought his hand to his mouth I swung the heavy branch in my hand around and down on him – to the back of his neck. He slumped down instantaneously.
It was what it was. I couldn’t be shocked, nor panic now. I looked around me. There were holes in the earth everywhere – some showing the tracks and traces of occupancy, but sadly mostly were earthen pits abandoned or stripped of occupants. There was an extensive set, old and empty, most probably culled of badgers, that had eroded down and down into the soil, and so I decided to sink his body into its caverns. I’d handled sizeable bodies before, even large deer with wide antlers, and knew the effort that it took. And yet it was quick. I hardly even needed to steel myself against the pain in my leg, which had completely gone.