He found the body on the forty-third day of his walk. By then, the end of April had arrived, although he had only the vaguest idea of that. Had he been capable of noticing his surroundings, the condition of the flora along the coast might have given him a broad hint as to the time of year. He’d started out when the only sign of life renewed was the promise of yellow buds on the gorse that grew sporadically along the cliff tops, but by April, the gorse was wild with color, and yellow archangel climbed in tight whorls along upright stems in hedgerows on the rare occasions when he wandered into a village. Soon foxglove would be nodding on roadside verges, and lamb’s foot would expose fiery heads from the hedgerows and the drystone walls that defined individual fields in this part of the world. But those bits of burgeoning life were in the future, and he’d been walking these days that had blended into weeks in an effort to avoid both the thought of the future and the memory of the past.
He carried virtually nothing with him. An ancient sleeping bag. A rucksack with a bit of food that he replenished when the thought occurred to him. A bottle within that rucksack that he filled with water in the morning if water was to be had near the site where he’d slept. Everything else, he wore. One waxed jacket. One hat. One tattersall shirt. One pair of trousers. Boots. Socks. Underclothes. He’d come out for this walk unprepared and uncaring that he was unprepared. He’d known only that he had to walk or he had to remain at home and sleep, and if he remained at home and slept, he’d come to realise that eventually he would will himself not to awaken again.
So he walked. There had seemed no alternative. Steep ascents to cliff tops, the wind striking his face, the sharp salt air desiccating his skin, scrambling across beaches where reefs erupted from sand and stone when the tide was low, his breath coming short, rain soaking his legs, stones pressing insistently against his soles…These things would remind him that he was alive and that he was intended to remain so.
He was thus engaged in a wager with fate. If he survived the walk, so be it. If he did not, his ending was in the hands of the gods. In the plural, he decided. He could not think that there might be a single Supreme Being out there, pressing fingers into the keyboard of a divine computer, inserting this or forever deleting that.
His family had asked him not to go, for they’d seen his state although like so many families of his class, they’d not made any direct mention of it. Just his mother saying, “Please don’t do this, darling,” and his brother suggesting, with his face gone pale and always the threat of another relapse hanging over him and over them all, “Let me go with you,” and his sister murmuring with her arm round his waist, “You’ll get past it. One does,” but none of them mentioning her name or the word itself, that terrible, eternal, definitive word.
Nor did he mention it. Nor did he mention anything other than his need to walk.
The forty-third day of this walk had taken the same shape as the forty-two days that had preceded it. He’d awakened where he’d fallen on the previous night, with absolutely no knowledge where he was aside from somewhere along the South-West Coast Path. He’d climbed out of his sleeping bag, donned his jacket and his boots, drunk the rest of his water, and begun to move. In mid-afternoon the weather, which had been uneasy most of the day, made up its mind and blew dark clouds across the sky. In the wind, they piled one upon the other, as if an immense shield in the distance were holding them in place and allowing them no further passage, having made the promise of a storm.
He was struggling in the wind to the top of a cliff, climbing from a V-shaped cove where he’d rested for an hour or so and watched the waves slamming into broad fins of slate that formed the reefs in this place. The tide was just beginning to come in, and he’d noted this. He needed to be well above it. He needed to find some sort of shelter as well.
Near the top of the cliff, he sat. He was winded, and he found it odd that no amount of walking these many days had seemed sufficient to build his endurance for the myriad climbs he was making along the coast. So he paused to catch his breath. He felt a twinge that he recognised as hunger, and he used the minutes of his respite to draw from his rucksack the last of a dried sausage he’d purchased when he’d come to a hamlet along his route. He gnawed it down to nothing, realised that he was also thirsty, and stood to see if anything resembling habitation was nearby: hamlet, fishing cottage, holiday home, or farm.
There was nothing. But thirst was good, he thought with resignation. Thirst was like the sharp stones pressing into the soles of his shoes, like the wind, like the rain. It reminded him, when reminders were needed.
He turned back to the sea. He saw that a lone surfer bobbed there, just beyond the breaking waves. Whether it was a man or woman, he could not tell. At this time of year, the figure was entirely clothed in black neoprene. It was the only way to enjoy the frigid water.
He knew nothing about surfing, but he knew a fellow cenobite when he saw one. There was no religious meditation involved, but they were both alone in places where they should not have been alone. They were also both alone in conditions that were not suited for what they were attempting. For him, the coming rain—for there could be little doubt that rain was moments away from falling—would make his walk along the coast slippery and dangerous. For the surfer, the exposed reefs on shore demanded an answer to the question that asked why he surfed at all.
He had no answer and little interest in developing one. His inadequate meal finished, he resumed his walk. The cliffs were friable in this part of coast, unlike the cliffs where he’d begun his walk. There they were largely granite, igneous intrusions into the landscape, forced upon ancient lava, limestone, and slate. Although worn by time, weather, and the restless sea, they were nonetheless solid underfoot, and a walker could venture near the edge and watch the roiling sea or observe the gulls seeking perches among the crags. Here, however, the cliff edge was culm: slate, shale, and sandstone, and cliff bases were marked by mounds of the stony detritus called clitter that fell regularly to the beach below. Venturing near the edge meant a certain fall. A fall meant broken bones or death.
At this section of his walk, the cliff top leveled out for some one hundred yards. The path was well marked, moving away from the cliff’s edge and tracing a line between gorse and thrift on one side and a fenced pasture on the other. Exposed here, he bent into the wind, and moved steadily forward. He became aware that his throat was painfully dry, and his head had begun to fill with a dull ache just behind his eyes. He felt a sudden bout of dizziness as he reached the far end of cliff top. Lack of water, he thought. He would not be able to go much farther without doing something about it.
A stile marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following, and he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the others.
When the vertigo had passed, he saw that a lone cottage stood at the edge of a wide meadow beneath him, perhaps two hundred yards inland from the beach and along the side of a twisting brook. A cottage meant potable water, so he would make for that. It wasn’t a great distance off the path.
He stepped down from the stile just as the first drops of rain fell. He wasn’t wearing his hat at the moment, so he shrugged his rucksack from his shoulders and dug it out. He was pulling it low onto his forehead—an old baseball cap of his brother’s with “Mariners” scrolled across it—when he caught sight of a flash of red. He looked in the direction from which it had seemed to come, and he found it at the base of the cliff that formed the far side of the inlet beneath him. There, a sprawl of red lay across a broad plate of slate. This slate was itself the landward end of a reef, which crept from the cliff bottom out into the sea.
He studied the red sprawl. At this distance it could have been anything from rubbish to laundry, but he knew instinctively that it was not. For although all of it was crumpled, part of it seemed to form an arm, and this arm extended outward onto the slate as if supplicating an unseen benefactor who was not nor would ever be there.
He waited a full minute that he counted off in individual seconds. He waited uselessly to see if the form would move. When it did not, he began his descent.
Excerp from Elizabeth George Online
3 years ago