At The Foot Of The Hill

When I was at university, I wrote a number of short stories. Looking through them now, I find most of them not really worth rereading so I wouldn’t consider putting them on here. This one is about the best of them, so I hesitantly include it. This was the last one I wrote, and dates from 1996.

Pete stopped the car and switched off the engine. He wound down the window and breathed deeply. The air out here was always fresher than the stale traffic-laden stuff he was used to back in the city. He glanced at his watch: he was early. He smiled. Nothing unusual there, being early was his idea of being punctual, even if it meant a long wait when he got there. He checked the map. Yes, this was the right place, one mile off the main road along the lane, the layby beside the canal. Of course it was right, they had been here once before, several months ago. They had only been friends then, had only recently graduated from acquaintanceship.

He smiled again. It still seemed unreal to him even now, if he stopped to think about it. He closed his eyes for a moment and listened to the sounds outside. Apart from the darting swifts and swallows and a few other birds, it was very quiet. It wouldn’t be long now before they all vanished for another year, the first sure sign that summer was over. Already, it was a few weeks past the solstice, and the days were becoming noticeably shorter.

Enough. Enjoy it while it lasts. There were a couple of cottages a little further along the lane, but there was no one in sight. No cars had passed, and there were no barges on the canal. He looked towards the hill about a mile away over the rising fields. There was a village on its slopes, topped by the silhouette of a ruined castle. Along from it was a short array of rocky cliffs, then the land started falling again. The flanks of the hill away to his left were covered in woodland. He remembered walking up there once: the trees and the numerous shrubs were twisted and gnarled, like the fingers of a conclave of silent old men.

After the bustle and traffic of the city, the quiet out here seemed almost too loud. It was so easy to just sit there and simply listen to it, allow yourself to just drift off. So much so, that when something did come – a train, car, or plane – it was a surprise. You wondered where it had come from, what its business was, or even what it was.

He looked at his watch again. It was almost time, she would be here soon. He sighed contentedly. This would be the first time he’d seen her for a few weeks. Since her husband had lost his job, she had been working longer and longer hours to make ends meet. He reached into his pocket and took out her last letter. He had read it dozens of times already, and as he again ran his fingers over the paper, he tried to imagine her speaking, the warmth of her touch. He switched on the stereo and put a tape in. As the quiet opening bars of An Alpine Symphony filled the air, he looked in the mirror and finger-combed his hair.

Gradually, the music became louder as it described the passage from night, through the growing light towards dawn in the mountains. The scenery here was hardly Alpine in proportion, but alongside the Cheshire Plain, it was the next best thing. He heard a car and looked behind him and saw her faded blue Honda pull up. He practically leapt from the car and ran over to her just as the orchestra broke into the tremendous climax of brass and percussion – the Alpine sunrise.

She smiled as they hugged. “How are you?” she asked.

“Better now,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed. “It has been a while,” she said.

He just stood there and looked at her for a few seconds, happy that they were together. She took his hand and they walked to the canal and stopped on the bridge. A simple pleasure, he thought, being out in the countryside with someone you care about.

They crossed the canal and started along the path. It passed under the railway and started to rise towards the hill. It rose for about a mile then divided. They took the left fork and were soon climbing through the woods. The path was well worn, but there was more undergrowth than when he was here last.

“It’s good to be able to get out of the house,” Karen was saying, “after working all week I don’t want to be stuck in all weekend.”

“Is it still bad then?”

“Yeah, well, some of the time; Jim can be a bit possessive, asking where I’ve been.”

“Does he know about us?”

“No, at least I don’t think so.” She kissed him, “I don’t blame him really, losing his job and having to stay in all day. He’s a bit old-fashioned, he feels he should be the earner.”

“It sounds claustrophobic,” Pete said.

“It can be.”

“Well, you’re here now,” he said and they kissed again. Somewhere above, a rook croaked.

“Come on!” she said, and took his hand again and walked briskly on. The path soon narrowed, and they were ducking under overhanging creepers and brambles, not to mention the profusion of nettles.

“I’m glad I didn’t wear a skirt,” she said.

“I was just thinking the opposite.”

“Cheeky! You weren’t hoping I would get stung were you?”

“Now, would I?” he said innocently. “Mind you, if you were I could always kiss it better…”

“Yes please!”

The wood was quite dense by now, and were it not for the path being so obviously well-trodden, it would be easy to get lost. The density of the trees made it dark, and he was reminded of Tolkien’s Mirkwood. He almost expected a wood elf to pop out from behind a tree, bow at the ready, and ask what they were doing on his king’s land.

“I remember this place,” Karen said suddenly, “it was where we first, you know…”

He smiled. “How could I forget?”

It was several weeks go already. They had known each other for a few months by then as they worked in the same office. Lunch hours had coincided, and they had started talking. They met up a few times, and got to know each other, and she told him about the problems she was having at home.

Shortly afterwards, he got a better job elsewhere, but they kept in touch. It soon became clear that her husband didn’t like “strange men” phoning her, so they wrote instead.

One afternoon, they met at the castle on the hilltop. It was little more than a ruined tower, but “castle” certainly sounded more impressive. They walked down through the woods, and she told him that her husband had lost his job, so she was starting to work longer hours.

“So I won’t be able to do this as often.”

“I understand.”

“Oh you are good,” she said, hugging him suddenly.

“So are you,” he said slowly, and kissed her. She returned the kiss, slowly at first, then almost violently. He felt her hands moving over his back and legs, could feel the warmth of her body, the softness of her thighs under her skirt. They fell against the trunk of a great oak, tongues mingling. Her skirt was up and he felt the cool air on his legs as she pulled at his jeans.

Slowly, he sat up, watching as she pulled her pants back on and straightened her skirt. It was only seeing her do this, and the sight of her breasts as she buttoned her blouse that it really sank in what had happened. It was true, undeniably so, but did still seem too fantastic. He had never really thought it possible or likely that he and Karen would…Even if, backed into a corner, he might have admitted to fancying her (awful phrase!) Just a little.

Would it be okay, though? he thought suddenly. Would this moment of erotic abandon spoil things? He felt an abrupt chill at the idea. He looked at her. She was brushing grass out of her hair, her face unreadable.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she smiled. “I’ve never done it outside before, au naturel.” She laughed. “Jim would have a fit if I ever suggested it, he always turns the light off at home.”

He couldn’t help smiling at this, and she kissed him. “I’m fine,” she repeated, “it was great.”

“You’re sure? This doesn’t change anything?”

“Not for me. Does it for you?”

“No. We’re still friends then?”

“Of course we are!”

“I’m sorry if I got carried away, I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s alright,” she said, “I think we both got carried away, but I don’t regret it. I hope you don’t.”

‘No.”

“Good. Though I want you to know I don’t do this all the time, this is the first time I’ve been with anyone else.”

“Thank you,” he said, “that makes me feel good. That you picked me.”

“I can’t believe so much time has passed,” she said, “that was weeks ago, and yet it feels like it’s only Just happened.”

“Yeah, it’s funny that,” he said, “how so much time can pass, and you don’t notice it, and can’t remember a lot of what you did in it.”

“Though sometimes it’s often not worth remembering.”

“Some of it anyway,” he said slowly, “I’ve missed you.”

They kissed lingeringly, and once again their hands moved ever each other as they slid into the grass.

When they lay still, he leaned back against the tree and stared up at the patch of blue sky visible through the canopy. There were only a few clouds, high altitude stuff, long thin wisps, vague and indistinct. It was hard to imagine these collections of ice crystals were probably several miles up, higher than any mountain and probably most airliners. As usual, he was quietly amazed at the whole process: how water evaporated by the sun found itself in the sky as clouds, high wispy ice trails, or the lower heavy stuff that could easily weigh five hundred tons, yet still stay up there, floating above everything, but inexorably joined to what was happening below. Then sooner or later it would fall back as rain, and the whole thing would start all over again.

He sat up. “You okay?” he said softly.

She straightened her dress, “I’m fine,” she said absently, and picked a twig out of her hair. He reached for it, and held it gently between his fingers, as if it were something very old and precious. He sniffed at it, searching for some scent of her.

“Pete?”

“Hmm?”

“Look, I’ve been thinking: I don’t think we should see each other anymore…”

“Oh.. .what?!”

“Jim and I….I’ve been meaning to say, we’re trying again…”

“I see.”

“We’ve been married for ten years, that means something, I can’t just throw it all away.”

He nodded slowly, but said nothing.

“You do understand don’t you? We’re friends, try and be glad for me.” He nodded again.

“I never meant it to last really.”

“So I was just a bit on the side was I?” he said roughly, “to tide you over a difficult patch? Was that all I meant to you?”

“Yes…no. I didn’t want it to mean anything. I don’t want to hurt you Pete, but it’s got a bit intense.”

“Bit late for that isn’t it?”

“I didn’t want you to fall in love with me, I…”

“What makes you think I do?”

She sighed. “It’s pretty obvious. That’s not a criticism, I can understand, but you should find someone, someone, single.”

“Okay okay, I get the message.”

He walked a short way and looked down the path. He clenched his fists, feeling the points of his nails only dimly, some distance away like the booming of a car stereo at the far end of a street.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, “don’t hate me.”

He turned. “How could I?” he said simply. He opened his fists and saw the forgotten twig, and watched absently as the crumbled fragments fell into the moss and grass.

“Can we still be friends do you think?”

“I hope so,” she said, “but perhaps we shouldn’t see each other for a while…”

He nodded, “you try and sort things out.”

“Yes.”

He squeezed her hand, “I’m going to stay, I need to be by myself for a bit, you know.”

“Okay. I’ll write you in a few weeks.”

“Yes, do that…Take care won’t you?”

“You too. I’m glad we’ve been civilised about this.”

He nodded, but said nothing.

“See you then,” she said.

He nodded again and smiled wryly. She looked at him a few seconds longer, then turned and headed down the path. He watched her for a while, until the flowery pattern of her dress was lost among the trees. He stood there for several minutes more, the bark of a tree rough under his hand. When the sound of her footsteps had faded, all he could hear above the birds was a plane, high up among the cirrus. Just visible above the tree line was the stark silhouette of the castle, gazing out across the plain for an invader. An invader that had come and gone centuries ago, if it had ever come at all. He stared at it for several seconds, then turned sharply, and without looking back, started back down the path towards the canal.

1996

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