Pulp.net - The Ten-Mile Walk

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Erica Wagner

for Francis

She had the compass. It made her nervous. The dial swung, ever so slightly, this way, that way, as if advertising her own indecision. She thought the compass was supposed to know. The needle turned in clear liquid, the plastic was transparent: you could read the map right through it.

‘Are you sure that’s the way?’ The sun hid behind dirty cloud and was no help at all. She swung her head and shoulders in imitation of the compass: hills one way, hills the other. Common sort of ground, thistle, gorse.

‘I reckon,’ he said. He seemed certain. In his rucksack there were ham sandwiches, chocolate bars, a couple of bananas, a Thermos of tea, a guidebook, a rainproof poncho rolled up in an efficient sack and a spare pair of shoelaces. In her rucksack there were two bottles of water, a small silver flask of brandy (the flask engraved, RWA, the initials of a stranger; she had bought it in Bermondsey market), a pocket knife and a poncho just like his except it was green and not blue. The air wasn’t warm or cold but somewhere in between; a drift of mist thinned and faded away. There was nothing to do but go. It was a ten-mile walk. ‘Come on then,’ he said, and put his foot forward.

Of course, the paths were marked: at least, somewhat. After the third field – they walked in the lumpy, pebbled earth by the side of the corn stubble, harsh yellow stalks gritted with dust – they came to a wooden stile, where an orange painted arrow sent them off in the direction of a small copse. Its trees huddled against the rise of the hill. She liked the arrow: its vigour and definition. She had no qualms. He looked at the map again. He pulled it from his pocket and unfolded it again; its creases were already beginning to show the white fur of wear; she should have got one of those clear plastic folders you wear around your neck.

‘That way,’ she said. Her arm followed the arrow.

He turned the map, folded it again, nodded. ‘All right.’

The copse was thicker, darker, than it looked from the field. Close-set hazel wood, in need of coppicing; the leaves just on the point of turning, paling, the narrow veins becoming visible as bones. Ash, birch, oak mixed among the spreading coll: an acorn cracked under her heel. The trees kept out the wind, but it was darker among them, and seemed colder. But the path was clear, and they followed it to where they could see it turn, she thought towards the next hill: already-fallen leaves made the walking soft.

‘Look.’ She stopped; he almost ran into the back of her, she felt his hand grip her elbow, then let go. She pointed down at her feet.

A ring of white stones, just the width of the path. Not all white, pure white: some greyish: and one dark grey but with a white ring all round. Like the ones she would find on the beach, years ago: someone said they were lucky stones. That stone was at the bottom of the ring, as they stood to it: at six o’clock. She counted: there were twenty seven stones.

She reached down and took the lucky stone, held it in her hand. Perhaps her hand was cold, but it seemed warm to her, more like wood, or flesh. She felt a breeze on the back of her neck, or breath. She turned to face him. His eyes were the same colour as the grey of the stone. She moved the stones to either side of where the lucky stone had been, so the circle was complete again. She stood.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Straight ahead.’ Her palm curled itself around the stone. She stepped over the circle, he stepped over the circle, and they continued along the path.

They came to a road, and walked along it for a while. The hedge by its bank was beginning to thin: they could see birds’ nests threaded into its fabric, exposed by the weather. The birds were long gone. She could hear a rook somewhere, cawing, not far off.

And then a sound: a distant crowd, she thought at first, like a throng in an amphitheatre awaiting a spectacle. Not the wind. Her heart blossomed in her chest: she wanted to take his hand, but as they rounded the bend he was reaching again for the map, tugging, unfolding. The flat white light made the lines at the corners of his eyes very clear: fine as the grey hair over the tops of his ears.

‘Water,’ she said, and he looked up.

It rushed black over the road, fast, its surface crowded with waves and bubbles. ‘Right here,’ he said, his finger on the map, the crescent moon at his cuticle distinct. ‘A ford.’ She looked: the stream ran east to west; they were walking north. A split rail fence, worn and splintery, marked the edge of the road: she could see the stream either side was not deep, but no less strong, she thought, for that. They walked closer to the edge of the water, purling along the tarmac. The water has nothing to do with us, she thought. The water has its own business. Her separateness made her afraid.

Now he’d put the map away; she did take his hand. Its smoothness reminded her of the stone in her pocket and her heart softened a little. Quickly, they stepped through the water, walking on their toes, three long steps, the stream flowing over the toes and even the lifted heels of their boots, darkening the leather, looking for seams, trying to enter. Without bright sunlight the water did not glitter, but stirred and poured like an animal. She found herself thinking: the water will become us, we will become the water – only this time she did not feel afraid. One, two, three and they were over. They had made the ford; the stream lay behind them. She did not let go his hand. They moved on, following the road.

At the next stile there was a sign, red, with straight black letters: BEWARE THE BULL. But not only did the map show them that this was the way (she felt more confident with the compass now, and he seemed to trust her) there was another one of those little orange arrows, pointing straight ahead.

‘We’ll have to go around,’ she said. She remembered a book she’d read once, about a doctor whose leg was broken after he’d been chased by a bull. Most of the book had gone dim in her mind, but the part where he was careering down a steep hill just ahead of the hooves and the black breath and the weight like a freight train behind him – that was still pretty clear.

A drystone wall, nearly as tall as she was, stretched long to either side of them. He looked to left and right, then ahead, climbing up on the stile. ‘It would be a long way,’ he said. ‘Anyhow, there’s no bull.’

‘What do you mean?’ His voice was so flat and matter of fact, as if the lack of a bull in the field were quite what he expected, that irritation climbed up her neck and into the edge of her voice. ‘The sign says there’s a bull. The bull could be anywhere.’

‘I can see the whole field,’ he said. ‘Come up.’ He gave her his hand and she took it, slotting in front of him on the first step of the stile. His chest pressed against her back and his breath was in her hair. She looked. She couldn’t see any bull. She was not convinced.

‘It could be in the next field. It could be anywhere. I don’t want to cross a field with a bull in it, I really don’t.’ Anxiety stiffened her legs, tightened her shoulders. Six women she’d heard of attacked in the last month near her office, by Shadwell station. No fear then. Fear now.

He looked at her – was it pity she saw in his eyes? It made her mouth taste bitter, like she’d eaten a bad berry.

‘It’s not far,’ he said. ‘Look, we can just run across.’

‘Running enrages them.’ She would stick to this now.

‘I mean, we won’t have to run from the bull, just that it will be quick. It’s just some wretched farmer who doesn’t like a right of way going over his land. That’s all. Some git trying to scare us.’ He moved his legs around hers and quickly, in two steps, was over the stile, standing on the other side. All the time he’d held her hand, now he pulled, trying to draw her over. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Just come.’

The bitterness spread, around her tongue, down her throat, into the cavity of her chest. Some git. The white sky pressed down on her, his clean gaze pressed down on her, and anger made her legs kick over the stile and land beside him. She would be flattened by the bull, the bull would tear her to pieces, toss her over his horns, make a sacrifice of her, a rag doll -- and she would have been right. She let go his hand.

He grinned at her, and she hated him. ‘Come on – run!’

Straight across the field, her rucksack knocking at the bones of her hips, her shoes too heavy, the earth uneven, her vision narrowed to a dark tunnel of sods and stones, the next stile at the other side of the field, all the light of the world had gone except for this narrow strip of brightness, the way where the bull was not. Everywhere else was the bull, the possibility of the bull, the bull was in her own breathing as she thundered over the earth, she wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Her own black gaze the bull’s gaze, her rage the bull’s rage: even if the bull was invisible, the bull was in the field with them. The bull could not be escaped.

When she crossed the stile at the other side of the field she stumbled over the last step and fell, her rucksack tumbling off her, the air knocked out of her as she landed flat on her back. She saw his feet thump down beside her head, but couldn’t hear anything except the blood in her ears, her rushing blood, as if it would escape but could find no way out.

On the other side of the wall, they sat and ate the ham sandwiches. They did not speak, but drank from one of the bottles of water; after a little while, she peeled a banana, broke it in half, and gave half to him. When the wind began to cool them, they shifted closer together until their shoulders were touching and warmth flowed back and forth between them. ‘Nice sandwiches,’ he said at last.

‘Thanks,’ she said.

‘Nearly halfway there.’

‘I guess.’

‘What colour’s the bull, do you think? Black?’

She shrugged. ‘Probably,’ she said, and he nodded.

The sun, behind its thick scrim of cloud, had moved in the sky; it was past midday. He stood up, extended his hand to her and pulled her up from the ground. She stuffed the banana skin into the front pocket of her rucksack, wrapped in the clingfilm from the sandwiches.

The path now led them down, towards a farmhouse, and they turned into its drive, which cut hard left and ran straight. There was a battered caravan, like the kind you’d see in a circus, in the yard next to a couple of old tractors and a Land Rover the colour of mud. No smoke rose from the chimney of the house, but then it was midday. Maybe this was the farmer who’d put up the sign; they walked quickly and quietly.

Past the bottom of a yard there were some broken down sheds, roofless stone buildings, doors with peeling paint that was a memory of green hanging off their hinges. Her steps veered towards them; she could peer in. Their darkness crooked a finger at her, drew her.

‘Careful -- ‘ He grabbed her arm, hard enough to hurt: her feet slid on the white earth and gravel at the end of the yard. By the edge of her boot: a stone lip, curved and smooth, and a round eye-darkness, deeper than the darkness of the broken buildings, older and more patient. They crouched on their haunches and peered down into the old well: its breath came up at them, mineral cold.

She reached out to touch the worked stone. A film of algae blurred the interior. Her knees and hips flexed as they were, the lucky stone in her pocket bit into her flesh; she stood, worked it free, looked at it and held it over the well. She didn’t move her hand, but let her arm balance there, over the air and water. When he took it from her, her fingers felt light; he rolled it in his palms, felt its warmth from her body, then dropped it in the well. She counted seconds: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand – but heard nothing, silence, not even the wind, and could only imagine the stone’s descent into the earth. They stepped over the abyss and walked on.

Past the farmyard the fields flattened, and when the dusty drive petered out – first into rougher gravel and stones, then darkening into clods of earth and thick, weedy tufts of vegetation – they saw that they could follow what looked like a green road between the acres of ploughed land. The ground was springy beneath their feet, and they could hear the squeak of their still-wet leather boots and their breathing.

It was colder now, and they moved a little faster, in step without meaning to be. There were no birdcalls anymore, no sounds of rooks or magpies, and there was still no sound from the farm. There should be roads in the distance, thrumming, and she knew there was a railway line not far off, either: but the silence began to pile on top of them like a mountain of cloud.

And then the mist closed in. As if there’d been some swift shift in the temperature of the air – which there hadn’t, at least not as far as she could tell – whiteness rose up off the fields around them and became almost solid, a cool, damp chamber opening and closing, opening and closing, the door of it – a few feet of the green road visible but nothing else – always just ahead. Their breathing seemed louder, the sound of their shoes, of the fabric of their clothes.

‘We could walk off the edge of a cliff,’ he said. ‘We’d never see it.’

‘There aren’t any cliffs here,’ she said. She squeezed her hands in her pockets. She was sorry now she dropped the stone in the well.

They marched to the sound of their own feet. It became hard to tell how many footsteps they made; more than once each of them turned to look behind as if they expected to see a legion following them, out of the mist, into the mist.

He stopped. He pulled out the map, the compass – but when he looked into its liquid face the needle swung and spun, uselessly.

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘How long have we been walking?’

She looked at her watch; but couldn’t remember when they’d started. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. They stood in the whiteness, on the greenness, and everything was still.

They had not felt the road slope downwards, but when the mist cleared – it drew itself away from them, exhaling beyond the grass, leaving the air where it had been still damp and cool – they were at the bottom of a ravine. The path had brought them down into a gathering of pine trees and rhododendron, the bluish pink flowers at the end of their lives, gone brown and mulchy, mixing with the pine needles on the ground. Her heart in her chest again, thudding, knocking as if trying to get out: while the mist had been there they had seen no plants or trees, now there was a crowd of them, pressing close. And before them the ground fell away, into a steep, dry gully filled with dead leaves and broken branches.

‘I said,’ he said. ‘We could have broken our necks.’

‘It’s still not a cliff,’ she said.

‘It’s fucking steep.’

‘Is this on the map?’

‘I’ve kind of given up on the map,’ he said. And then again: ‘Christ.’

There was a narrow plank bridge across the gully. It began almost at their feet; it was hard to tell how deeply anchored it was in the earth under their feet. It looked as if it had been there a long time: the wood had a smooth surface, but was rough at its edges. It had gone dark with age and weather. She put her foot on it, let her weight test it, just at the junction between the plank and the ground.

‘What are you doing?’ he said.

‘We have to cross it.’

‘It’s probably rotten,’ he said.

‘This is the way.’

‘Don’t be daft. It’s not that far to fall, but it’s far enough. We’ll find a way around.’

‘That’s not what you said in the field.’

He sighed. She put her other foot on the plank, stood with one foot in front of the other like an Egyptian painted on a tomb wall. She bent her knees, bounced. The plank flexed. Lifting her toe, then her heel, she took a step. She held her arms out to either side of her. She decided that it would be best not to walk too slowly; not to have too much time to think. The plank answered her steps. After toe and heel it became heel and toe; one foot curving round the other, arms to the sides, taking a breath, keeping straight as the plank bowed under her and she had to resist the urge to move even more quickly, not wanting to jar the plank, to come down to hard on it, to make it give up and crack and drop her. It held her. Heel and toe; thirteen times.

On the far bank she noticed the smell of the pine, the rankness of the dying rhododendron. Now he stood across the ravine from her, waiting. ‘Come on,’ and she held out her hand. It was easy to imagine she could reach all the way to him, make a bridge of herself that he could cross.

As they moved through the pine wood, it began to rain. Her legs were shaky for about ten minutes after walking the bridge; it was only afterwards that her body recognised fear, only when she was safe. He had risked nearly leaping across, allowing his feet to fall heavily on the plank – and it had held him, springing up to propel him forward. Five steps to her thirteen. He had sighed when he reached the other side of the ravine, bent over, rested his hands on his knees, stared at the ground.

The path here was clear. They stopped, briefly, to retrieve their ponchos from their rucksacks, and slipped them over their heads. The rain was not hard, but steady. It whispered against the pine needles and ticked against the dead leaves on the ground; the loam underneath released a sweet wet scent of deliquescence. Neither of them pulled up their hoods and the rain fell into their hair, parting it with thin liquid fingers. She saw him lick the drops from his top lip when they worked their way down past his nose; she did the same, and tasted her salt sweat thinned, nearly pure water, water with a faint iron tang like blood.

Quickly, his confidence apparently restored, he looked at the map, trying unsuccessfully to shelter it from the wet with his poncho.

‘This right?’ she said.

He shrugged. ‘Here’s the path.’

They carried on. The rain stroked their foreheads, and the toes of their boots ploughed through a brown mulch of leaves and needles. It was hard to see where a clearing might be, but the rain was soothing, and it didn’t seem to matter now.

The rain fell harder. They put their hoods up and kept walking, more quickly now. The ground rose, but then fell away again, and still the woods surrounded them – making it seem as if it were still later in the day than it was already.

‘Not far now?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think so,’ he said.

Her legs seemed to move of their own accord. Her jeans were wet (you were never meant to wear jeans when you were hiking, she knew that, but she had even so – she’d never understood why you shouldn’t, still didn’t, even with her legs soaking wet and heavy, and so she had persisted) and the water began to trickle into her socks. She had to wipe her eyes despite the hood.

Then he said: ‘Look.’

You could hardly call it a cave. It was an overhang in an outcrop of rock, about as long as a coffin, or maybe a piano, a few hands higher than a tall man’s head and maybe three feet deep. Sandstone: dark brown where it had been stained by the water, paler and striated inside with the layers of fine grit that had clenched themselves together over tens of millions of years. Dry. Yards away. They scurried now. The possibility of shelter made them notice how wet they were.

Sitting, they had to press their backs against the stone and draw their knees up close to keep out of the rain; even so, the occasional gust of wind blew the wet over their legs, sometimes into their faces. But it was better than being outside. It wasn’t long before the way their flesh warmed the stone against their spines came to seem as if was the stone that warmed them. She scuffed a fading, empty packet of crisps away with her foot.


From the rucksack by his ankle he drew out the green metal flask and poured the liquid. She’d put sugar in it; that morning, he’d been cross when she told him: now, he didn’t say a thing. The Thermos had two cups, and he gave the larger one – filled to a shallower depth than his, he was always very fair – to her.

‘Cheers,’ she said, and drank. Her toast brought to mind the little flask – her cup resting on the ground, she drew it from her bag, opened it, drank, passed it to him. The spirit burnt away the taste of the sweet tea; but the heat was short-lived. He drank too: screwed up his face, capped the flask, gave it back to her.

She pressed close against him; he didn’t object. His shoulder resisted her: it was a firm ledge, like the stone. She rested her head against him, too. When he’d finished his tea, he let his arm rest on her damp knee: she could see his fingers flecked by rain. A vein ran over his third knuckle, branching to either side; the same in her own hand; she’d never noticed before. She imagined his heartbeat, her own, running all through their bodies, just out of sync.

When they reached the carpark, she was somehow surprised to find their car still there. A green Nissan, deeply unspectacular, in pretty good nick: there it was, and why shouldn’t it have been? Wheels on the ground, the ground of the real world. Dark earth tamped down by car after car, puddles of thick mud, rusting wire rubbish bins, stone walls stained with the weather. There were no other cars in the carpark – there hadn’t been this morning when they arrived, and of course there was no way of telling if any less hardy hikers had been and gone for their briefer walks since.

The rain had stopped. They stripped off their ponchos, opened the trunk, balled them into the back, slung in their rucksacks, unlaced their boots. When he opened the doors, the clunk of the central locking had a peculiarly finite sound. He sat behind the wheel; she sat beside him. How many miles back to London? She couldn’t remember. They shut the doors. Their breath steamed the windows. They did not drive away, not just yet.

© Erica Wagner 2003