The snow has not yet dissipated. The grey drifting rain is rounding and smoothing the whiteness. Where there is colour, she sees, it is under the clustered pine trees and around the urgent green armour of holly bushes. He said it will not rain all day and shrugged himself deeper into the waterproof. They smiled. He looked tired. She shuts the door and turns up the heating and, although it is still morning, she pulls the curtains too. She decides she does not wish to project her thoughts into this suspended day. Her domestic agenda is to ignore the domestic. Her immediate task is to mix pigment into tempera medium, egg and minerals. In the kitchen she sits beneath a skylight, the light of the day concentrated into a white skirt. She sits in the skirt and details angelic feathers.
He walks up a hill. It does not stop raining. He wonders why he is doing this and sets markers and pointers, every few metres: to decide, get to here; to see what can be seen there.
I’m tired, he thinks.
But by tricks of self-persuasion his bad temper is encouraged into persisting.
Once in the forest, perhaps, once I get off the tarmac – he reasoned – then I will get into the stride of this. For too long now he had been avoiding long walks, hikes, the ever unpredictable and unseasonal weather was always a valid excuse.
The rain turned to drumbeats on his hood.
At the top of the hill a brief flattening of the road; soon, he thought, looking for the promised footpath. A route into the forest; a long valley pathway; it is marked on the map in a most clear and definite manner. Yet the view before him is less generous. All the signs say Private. Fences defend the trees. There are rolls of barbed wire in the shrubbery either side of the gates. But if he does not get off the tarmac road and if he does not get under cover then, he knows, a huge despondency will take grip; and this will strangle his stride, and this will burn out the awkward insistence which forced him into his walking boots earlier this morning.
There is red underneath the gold so that the shimmer holds within itself the splendour of blood; life pulses in this surface. The feathers are blue and white for they float into existence from out of eternity.
Once he made the decision and manoeuvred beyond the threats and warnings, stepping onto a private road, he found the walking much less tedious. The rain had eased back, almost stopped, and sheltering trees held off the worrying breeze. Once in amongst the woodland he saw its layers and convoluted promise. How generous and interesting it all was! Nature surprised him each time he managed to surprise himself by getting in amongst it. An occasional oak or beech stood in the solid depth of its own age, but most of the growth was fern and bramble huddled underneath the quicker, weed-like trees of new growth. Birds were all over, making the most of what was on offer; small and elusive birds, but also lumbering crows laughing from the treetops. The path was mud and gravel, deeply rutted by motor vehicles. Tractors or quads. No footprints he noticed. He kept checking the map and he was sure there was meant to be a footpath here, or here? He kept looking for a route which would veer away from machinery gouged track and wander in amongst trees. He told himself not to be impatient and noted how anxious he was today, for no apparent reason, he thought.
She was using fine sable brushes which she had trimmed down further with a scalpel. Each line was a breath. Feathers grew breath by breath. The wings became functioning lungs. Six wings for every angel.
Between pools of hardcore, imported crushed rock, the path rose through the mud to become a hard and stony spine, slippery because of the long, wet winter. He saw no hints of the snow he had awoken to, even though this access road was surely higher than his starting point, back at the rented cottage. Where the trees parted onto fields, trodden over grass was revealed. It all slanted down the hill; cattle churned spans of pasture, made into a quagmire where piles of feed had been dumped. A morose herd of saggy horse came over to inspect him. He looked at their protruding ribcages and saw old slash marks across their flanks. The creatures seemed dull, responding to his presence only in the trained expectation of food. He had no food and they had no more interest in him. He turned away from them. Obsessively he re-read the map. A river ran through the valley and he was sure the marks he followed indicated a recognised footpath, but the thought of squeezing in between the depressed horses and skating over their ammonia-soaked fields filled him with revulsion. Anyhow, he knew his goal for this hike was not alongside the river. He wanted to inspect the site, on high ground, which presented the legend tumulus. Therefore, he turned away from both field, horses, and the track; pushing directly into the woodland. It was easy at first, swishing in amongst the brown, old, and brittle ferns. Then the route he had chosen began to resist. Long runs of bramble snagged and nipped at his legs, the trees pushed in closer, obscuring vision of any direction, and dead wood was slick, treacherous and obscure underneath the shrubby overgrowth. This struggle lasted for a long time. He was not at all certain that he maintained a clear northerly ascent, as was his intention.
The children came downstairs and wanted breakfast. It was already well past breakfast time but they all ate cereal together. They wanted to watch television, but she made them light the wood burning fire before doing so. This was great entertainment. Lots of piled up twists of newspaper, clever mounds of kindling, then all yesterday’s sweet-papers added and, when matches were lit and applied, much smoke and coughing and yet no apparent flame. Suddenly; combustion! They had conquered this strange art. Next: heavy axe split logs added with caution. Eventually, all were satisfied that the fire was going to continue and that it was genuinely giving off heat; then the television. A peculiar square yellow creature made its eyes into round pools of shimmering conceit, his false tears shed for the octopus thing. In an instant the flame lost all its allure. She left the children engaged in their animation and went back to the kitchen, to her painting, and she sat before the gold and the lapis lazuli; and despite the cartoonish racket coming from the room next door there was a great silence all around.
He stumbled out of the snarly woodland and found he was back on the vehicle track. That is, he was on a track, rutted by heavy vehicles, displaying no footfall in its slushy dirt. It seemed to him to be the pathway he had left a short while ago. He looked up into the light, guessing at the time. The sun had barely moved, but this time of the winter it hardly shifted anyhow, just peeked up to make itself known and then quickly sank. He had set off early. There was plenty of time. He had brought his phone, obviously, but it was deliberately buried deep beneath pack-up and his extra clothing.
Mum! They called. Mum! Mum, the fire has gone out!
Put another log on then.
She sat back and looked at a nearly completed angel. A seraph, to be accurate. She got up and went into the hot front room. It was stifling, the fire a red mound of sparkling embers. Her two children were curled up next to each other on a sofa-chair, the one closet the television. On screen teenagers in spandex made kung-fu moves and shouted odd slogans. She put another log on the fire and pointed out how happily and easily it ignited. Thumbs up acknowledged her good work. She went back to the painting, via the kettle, looking out the kitchen window as she waited for it to boil. It had stopped raining. She made herself a tea.
He had been tricked. The track led back to the tarmacked road. He felt a little sick. To his left there was what may have been very long driveway. At least it was not the road. He turned down the road, or driveway; it was narrow with fields either side. The walking was easy. He made swift progress along its length and yet again came upon more notices proclaiming Private Property. He refused to stop. Pheasants were gooning about in the fields. Crows hung back, behind him, on the trees which marked the gateway to this property. Ahead he could see what seemed to be a very large gatehouse. It had been extended and given some garden features. It looked like a holiday rental, albeit an upmarket one. There was a full-grown pine forest to his right now, and thankfully a mud track. He dove out of sight, avoiding the rental property, and savoured the silence of these thick trees. Again, tyre markings but no obvious footfall. The pheasants gobbed out their startling fright call. On several occasions their shocked flight sent him into spasm, gasping and instinctively clawing at his chest. A bird transformed into a prehistoric explosion; a red blur dragging green-brown tail feathers in a spurt of panicked flight. The creatures would sometimes run stupidly from concealment and dash openly in front of him for a metre or so before again diving into a fern shrouded hiding place. At regular intervals he spotted their feeding stations. Barrels upended on stilts and filled with grain, designed for the pheasant alone, although the local rodent population doubtlessly benefitted also. This was why it was so quiet, he realised. He was not at all in wild eco system. This was death’s monoculture. A breeding ground for pheasant. The birds, like the trees, were product.
Her sky was gold, the mountain was bare. In the sky, surrounding the mountain, seraphs flew. They delivered a heavenly nectar to the naked rock. It stood at once solidly earthen and yet transcendent, seeming to shimmer, responding to the heavenly perfumes brought by angelic censers.
Now he understood the thick, churned up tyre tracks. A party, armed with shotguns, had been driven through here recently. It may have been yesterday, or earlier today. Their bloody spoils lay all around. Fractured wing, blasted tail feather; the gory stumps of a pheasant population. This brought home the sense of just how private this private property really was. He was no longer the lost hiker, he was an interloper. What’s more, he imagined that for this inebriated slaughter team the difference between bird and walking person was minimal.
Next door there was a dispute over the remote control.
If you cannot agree then it will be turned off, she advised.
But it’s boring! said one.
Agree on something.
They took a third option. This did not satisfy. One wandered away to throw kindling into the fire. The other remained watching because they were the more stubborn of the two. On a sudden inspiration, she brought out a bag of marshmallows and found some skewers.
Do not burn yourself!
The so-called boring tv show was surreptitiously put back on, yet the draw of burning sugar kept the other child from complaining.
The route brought him close to the river, whose bloated expanse had flooded over the pathways. Trees grew out of orphaned lakes. Green grass became a swamp. He slipped, slid backwards, and he struggled to drag his boots out of a hungry, sodden, and dark soil. The shooters had stopped bothering to even collect the corpses. One bird sat in the middle of the track, waiting for him to struggle past; head clean gone, neck a filthy stump of raw meat, and yet otherwise untouched; its plumage remained immaculate. This creature did not screech in panic nor in any manner protest his presence.
She was designing light. A structured eternal light that could not be depicted and yet was, by tradition, indicated as a gate to that which was beyond the merely optical.
It was close to midday and he thought he might be hungry, however the unremitting spoils of blood sport were not conducive to sitting down with a meal. He was not about to rest in amongst the foul cast offs of this trigger deluded playground. The pine resin was not powerful enough to erode the scent of decay. He anticipated paranoid gamekeepers and felt sure he saw the swagger of overfed, overconfident rats pushing in amongst the sparse grasses. He kept moving upwards whenever he could.
The light was to pour forth from the man. The man was to be held by a great archangel. Not a seraph, all wing and spirit, but a powerful and royally present creation whose pair of wings stretched over the breadth of the mountain. Despite all this angel’s armour and jewellery, the man standing before him, dressed in a simple white tunic, was to be for more remarkable, far more royal. And of course, the light came from him, not the archangel. The children were now at her elbow, looking sulky. One had eaten too many marshmallows, the other was hungry.
Turn the television off, she decided, and we shall all step out into the garden, just for a moment, test how the world smells!
Her idea inspired unified complaint.
Let’s do it! Then – then I will make some lunch.
But I’m not hungry, said the marshmallow eater.
And hence the conversation began to repeat until she opened the backdoor and physically ushered them out, even in their bare feet and pyjamas.
The ache of the hurrying against this unmet presence of gamekeepers and landowners and the, probably, paying band of bird killers was oppressive. Sight of spilt innards and ripped wing and feather disintegrated by explosive force thudded against his skull, producing the numbness of horror; dirge churning up sickness and hopelessness: that he could be so easily trapped into a world where this bleak indulgence of power was entertainment.
As they so often did, the children surprised her. Once outside they immediately stopped complaining and ran over the squelchy grass to the end of the garden. She followed, breathing deeply a cold brilliance which lurked below extensive, and very grey, cloud cover. At the end of the garden there was low wall and a fence, three horizontal wooden bars; immediately beyond this ran a stream. The excitement was to gauge if they were about to be flooded. Snow and rain and then rain and snow followed again by rain had forced up water levels. The news showed people up and down the country having to use boats and dinghies to negotiate their town centres. This was thought to look like great fun. The stream had risen noticeably over the few days of their visit, but they were safe. All three of them hung on the fence, watching and listening to the rush of water.
Suddenly the forest stopped. There was a fence which he at once climbed over. Above him the tumulus. A span of moorland pasture rising steeply. In the valley below, he could see the river lazily breaking its banks as it ran through grassy fields. A grand manor house squatted in the middle of the valley. He undid his trousers and urinated in its direction, imagining that this extra fluid was going to add to the flood and wipe away the building’s ugly foundations. He turned and climbed. Immediately he noticed the birds; weaves of goldfinches that floated before him, twirling around one another in the air and moving from grassy clump, to bush, to thistle. He laughed and climbed faster; sweat bursting out all over his body; feet skittering around on wet soil. He fell forward and pulled himself along with hands also, unwilling to get to the top any slower than possible. Hungry, and anything but calm, he chase the undistinguished liberty of his thoughts and staggered onto the peak where he could not, at first, understand anything he saw. The ground was a flat plateau. Far away the moor fell again and rose again, rolling away into the cloudy distance. All around him on this immediate stretch of ground there were mounds. A sort of pathway wove in between the mounds. Some of these heaped lumps had large stones on top. The heather grew over everything apart from the stones. There were gulls and crows high above him; closer to the ground, varieties of smaller birds flitted in and out of the heather. It struck him that this was probably a burial ground. The mounds were human in scale, mute, exposed to wind. Unsure what to think about this, if anything, he wandered around, exploring the graveyard. He slumped down and ate his sandwiches, waiting for a general resurrection.
When he finally made it back to the cottage he found everyone snuggled before an open fire and watching a DVD featuring dancing and singing teenagers trooping across an American school campus. Thankfully it was the grand finale. He slumped down in amongst his family and watched with them. The child next to him regarded him seriously for a moment and then said:
Poo! You smell.
No, poo you and double.
Yes, he admitted, I know.
The teenagers danced into the credits.
She took their children up to bed while he went into the kitchen to eat their leftovers. When she came down he was staring seriously at the angel on top of the barren mountain.
I met this today, he said.
And did you find your tumulus?
After a while. Do you know what it turned out to be?
He faltered, tiredness sweeping over him in waves. He poured himself a glass of wine.
(He drank the wine too quickly and poured out another.)
A rabbit run, he said. It was a mediaeval rabbit run, where people used to breed rabbits. I thought it was a burial ground at first, but there was a sign explaining it all. And then I ended up having to walk back along the road, all the way.
But you saw an angel, she said.
That angel, he confirmed. Armour, jewels, a tiara.
Oh, she sat back. I’ve not painted the tiara yet. How did you know about that?
He looked at her.
You saw it. She poured herself a glass of wine: Of course. C’mon! Now she pushed him out the back door: Let’s listen to the stream and see if there are any stars.
His body protested moving, yet when he got to the end of the garden they were enveloped in the sound of a long intertwining tumbling glee. The water rushed on, heedlessly dancing away and ever present. They saw no stars, but a synaxis of angels did appear, swinging burning dishes hung off gold chains and astonishing perfumes rolled all around them, engulfing the couple, filling the house, making the children dream of good marshmallows and kung fu dance moves.
A joy to read, Nick Norton’s wonderful book brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. I wish there were more books like it. – Patrick Keiller
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
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