I stood in line at the petrol station trying in vain to release my wallet from the right pocket of my slim fit trousers using only my left hand, out of fear my right was covered in covid-19 after using the petrol pump. Not being able to pull off this feat by the time I reached the till, I surrendered and vowed to douse the contents of the pocket with anti-bacterial gel once back in the car.
The sky matched the concrete. My shoes lifted ever so slightly with each step and caught my heels on the way back down. My shirt collar clung onto strands of my freshly trimmed beard and pulled.
I sat in my car, miserable (miserable being my pitiable state, not the name of my car), wolfing down three triangular chicken and sweetcorn sandwiches from Tesco, wondering what they do with the fourth. The radio, sounding like an updated version of ‘Desolation Row’ announced: ‘They’re stealing dreams from children, they’re painting the passports…well we still have no idea. The dole office is filled with pilots, the second wave is finally here.’ I’d only turned the damn thing on because my phone reported my weekly screen time was up twenty percent. I sat in silence realising I’d forgotten to apply hand sanitizer before eating my sandwich. I figured if I was now going to die, I may as well die doing what I love, so spent the next fifteen minutes scrolling through photos of celebrities riding the subway.
It was Saturday, 11:45 on October 31st. I was in Barrow-in-Furness; a town terrifying enough on any day of the year. I’d been at work but had the rest of the weekend off. My mood should have been better considering that I was going on a first date in an hour or so. Her name was Faye, she was an ‘outdoorsy type’; athletic, 5’6, hazel eyes, olive ash hair. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend, when I was slightly more than slightly intoxicated in a bar in town a few months back. Lately, everywhere I turned, people were either falling in love or making do. After some time out of the game I wanted a little slice of the action.
My mood had to improve, so I played one of Gary Clarke Jr’s live albums. The blues always has the opposite effect than the genre title suggests on me; make of that what you will.
Halloween had brought with it a foul storm. Spooky exterior decorations were left looking like forgotten tinsel in mid-January. I drove out of Barrow, onto the A590 and followed it until I got to Greenodd, turned left at the roundabout and followed the road toward Coniston, turning right when Nibthwaite was signposted. A ‘road closure’ sign was placed in the middle of the road as I approached the east side of Coniston Water. Nothing spurs on curiosity quite like a road closure sign; an opportunity to call bullshit if nothing else. I drove on, finding the way unobstructed.
I parked in the car park just up from the jetty, on the right-hand side in Dodgson Wood. I’d arrived early, noticing a voice message from John, ‘Hi Jack, John here. Give me a call when you can. I’ve just had a word with Paul the manager and I’ve convinced him to extend your trial week by another wee…’ I deleted the message, pulled my seat back and changed rather awkwardly from my work clothes to my ‘best first date hiking attire’, that was my regular, worn hiking clobber, except I swapped out my torn, tattered walking pants for jeans.
Faye arrived a little while later. It’d been little under a year since my last first date, an acknowledgment that dawned on me the moment she pulled up beside me. I took a deep breath, envisioned how Don Draper would act and got out. I walked round the back of my car, oozing fake confidence and slipped on a tree root that was hidden by fallen leaves. I tried to keep upright but failed, jarring my knee in the process. Faye ran around to see if I was ok. She looked down at me as I was positioned in the ‘crab’ pose. ‘Ta Da’ I said, hiding the pain my face wanted to etch across it. ‘And now for your next trick…’ She laughed. ‘I had a group of clowns planned to clamber out of my car, but social distancing really fucked it.’ I said, wiping mud off my hands and jeans.
She looked good. Better than memory served. Whoever invented yoga pants had her in mind. She brought her dog with her, a Pug. I love dogs but don’t see the fascination with Pugs. Or French Bulldogs for that matter. I think it’s the breathing. They should come with a Vicks nasal spray or something.
Once the embarrassing commotion had died down and my face returned to a normal colour, we set off walking, following a footpath to the left of the car park. Very quickly, the path became overgrown and impossible to walk on, so we turned back and started again, this time following a footpath to the right that meandered leisurely at first but soon began to pull. The pace of the conversation began at a ferocious speed due to nerves from both parties. Luckily, the incline forced us to ease off in order to catch our breath.
Faye was a yoga and pilates instructor who had spent a couple of years teaching in Dubai. She now split her week running a yoga retreat and volunteering at a dog shelter. ‘You like dogs?’ She asked. ‘I do. I love them in fact.’ I answered. ‘This little guy I got from the shelter. He’s a rescue.’ She continued, nodding at her dog. ‘Well he sure is a cutie. That snorting sound he makes is adorable.’ ‘I know, right?’
Faye asked about me. I told her I was a photographer, but now had a new job as a, well photographer. Just not taking photographs of what I wanted. ‘And what do you want to take photos of?’ She asked. ‘Anything but kitchens.’ I joked with all seriousness. ‘No really?’ ‘Well I do love photographing the great outdoors, landscapes, shit like that. But sometimes it can feel like I’m missing out on the moment.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You can spend so much time deliberating over a shot, so much time looking through the lens, you end up missing the big picture. I haven’t been hiking for some time. Years in fact, since I was a kid, up until recently anyway. And I’ve noticed that being up on the fells isn’t just magnificent views, it’s a feeling. One that you can’t put your finger on, can’t put into words even. Maybe you’re not supposed to, maybe you’re supposed to just let it take over.’ I couldn’t tell if I believed in what I was saying or just trying to impress, but the words flowed out all the same. ‘You didn’t seem this spiritual when we were introduced a couple of months ago.’ Quizzed Faye. ‘How so?’ ‘Well to be fair you were pissed, really pissed. But you overheard another table’s conversation and shouted over “I can’t tell if it’s the character Jesse Pinkman I hate, or the actor who plays him…” um…’ ‘Aaron Paul.’ ‘Yeah him. The other table weren’t even talking about erm..’ ‘Breaking Bad.’ ‘Yeah that. But the poet Walt Whitman.’ ‘What can I say. “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God I am as good as the best.”’ ‘Is that so?’ She asked, a wry smile across her face. ‘Certainly, fifty percent is.’ I replied.
Faye stopped in her tracks, bent down and helped a struggling beetle back onto all, well however many fucking legs they have. She was fascinated in the undergrowth, inspecting fungi, plants and other vegetation that would look more at home under the waves. When imparting wisdom about them, she used names such as ‘Yellow Staghorn’, ‘Angel Wings’ and ‘Dryads Saddle’. She had a way about her that suggested she believed in fairy tales and magic. Where others would stare horizontally at swaggering views, she gazed upwards staring at the patterns in the treetops, she studied the colours of the woodland like an art enthusiast analyses light in Rembrandt’s biblical scenes. She had a kindness and innocence without a shred of naivety. She’d make Mother Teresa look like a cynic. Everything in this wood was now perfectly placed to write a children’s story of epic proportion.
Dodgson Wood broke off at a little gate and one of the many thousands of stone walls segregating the land. The path continued, leading onto a bleak stretch of landscape called Spy Hill that’s situated between Coniston and Grizedale Forest. The striking auburn colours of the dying bracken and emerald green fields below made the storm bulldozing toward Coniston Old Man look all the more penetrative. On the other side, above Grizedale, streaks of rain hung in the air like beams of light fired down from UFO’s, curious as to why Earth, usually an ever-evolving ball of self-destruction had quietened dramatically over the course of the year. Spy Hill was desolate, eerie. The odd tree permanently shaped in such a way looked as if it were frozen on the spot trying to escape an evil witch casting detestable spells.
A winding track led us to a converted barn used by travellers. There was an old pushbike covered in rust propped up against the discoloured whitewash wall. As we walked past, Faye’s dog became riled and growled at an open downstairs window. Its playful nature changed in an instant as if it could sense the presage advancement of peril. ‘Hush Percy.’ Cried Faye. ‘Shush someone’s here.’ Whispered a voice from the shadows inside. Silence followed. Once past the house, I turned back and saw a hand covered in a worn tattoo slowly reach out and close the window. As intrigued as I was, curiosity wasn’t killing this cat today. ‘I didn’t like any of that.’ Faye said nervously. ‘I wasn’t too keen either.’ I replied.
After half a mile or so we dropped down into a forest called Heald Brow that merges into Monk Coniston Moor on the cusp of Grizedale Moor. We wandered off the beaten track amongst the haunted trees draped in moss like a misfit army of the dead plotting the downfall of the proud uniformed Norway Spruce. In the distance we could hear the revved engines of dirt bikes drawing closer. ‘Where’s Percy?’ Asked Faye nervously. ‘I haven’t seen him.’ ‘PERCY!’ Called out Faye, apprehension creeping into her voice the closer the bikes sped towards us. We ran back to the path to see Percy sniffing a blade of grass, oblivious to the speeding dirt bikes hurtling towards him. The bikes screeched to a halt at the last second as Faye ran in front of them, waving her arms frantically. ‘This is a public footpath, if you’re going to ride your bikes on here, ride slower.’ Shouted Faye, catching her breath. The five bikers (a gang in their late teens/early twenties) removed their helmets, styled like an 80’s rock band. The leader of the pack, sporting bleached blonde hair and an earring laughed in her face before turning his attention to me, attempting to stare me down. ‘Come on boys.’ He finally called out before sliding his helmet back on and kickstarting his bike. They rode off, over revving in an attempt to intimidate.
Before too long the narrow footpath joined onto a wider track filled with strolling families and mountain bikers. We walked and laughed, wiping our running noses when the other wasn’t looking. The dog panted, snorted and sniffed the occasional arsehole. Unaware of how long we’d been walking, we decided to veer left and drop back down toward Coniston Water. A clearing in the trees revealed galloping white horses charging the length of the lake, barging past the old steamer with superiority, leaving it rocking vulnerably in their wake.
Silences along the way weren’t filled with awkwardness. If the conversation wandered off, it naturally found its way back after a few moments.
Soon after we were on the road, walking back towards the car park purring over the houses on the lake shore, pointing out which one’s we’d prefer to live in and why. This tomfoolery reminded me of being twelve and walking around Ikea with my parents, deciding on the interior design of my imaginary flat. Twenty-four years later and still dreaming.
A mile down the road, Fay asked if I fancied taking a dip. The black hostile water made the hairs on my arm stand to attention just staring at it. ‘I have no swim shorts.’ I shouted, hoping this would detract her enthusiasm. ‘Me neither. You coming?’ She shouted out, now stripping down to her underwear without a care in the world. Ten years ago, I’d have been in like a shot, but at 36 my body is now made up of more apprehension than water. Before I had time to answer Faye called out again. ‘Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure?’ ‘In my cock that’s shot up inside my body.’ I called back. ‘Ah fuck it.’ I muttered to myself and stripped down to my boxers. I waded in, putting my hands down the front of my boxers so there was at least some bulge. The water was colder than it looked, that worked in my favour, because after thirty seconds I couldn’t feel a thing. The bed of the lake was just as fierce and sharp as the surface. I’m never comfortable swimming in Coniston, it’s known for its unpredictable currents that have caught out many a swimmer of the years. We didn’t swim out too far, our chattering teeth an indication that the dip was nearing its end already. ‘You have tiny nipples, don’t you?’ Laughed Faye. ‘You keep my nipples out of this.’ I replied. She swam over to me, wrapping her legs around my waist. ‘The bottom’s sharp.’ She said softly. She moved closer. I moved a few strands of wet hair from getting in her eyes. She leant back, running her fingers through her hair and in doing so pushed her breasts out of the water revealing a nipple piercing protruding through her drenched bra. If I was going to feel anything now would be the time. But nothing. She came back up, smiled at me mischievously and whispered, ‘I don’t kiss on the first date.’ ‘And here I was thinking we were going to dress up as pixies and have sex on a gigantic toad still.’ She laughed. The dog whined from the shore staring on. She released her grip and swam to shore. I followed.
The idea of stripping down and spontaneously swimming on a first date may sound romantic as hell, but in reality, with no towel and trying to hide your tiny, frozen penis whilst trying to squeeze your sodden legs into a pair of jeans, you quickly realise it’s best left for the movies.
The last half mile was cold and unpleasant. Luckily, back at our cars, Faye had a spare towel and change of clothes and I, my work clothes.
Within half an hour we were sat near the fire in the Black Bull in Coniston village, drinking a glass of merlot each and sharing a portion of Moules marinière. The exhausted dog curled up round Faye’s feet didn’t so much as flinch when the fries arrived.
Once the food was finished, we played ‘Shithead’ with a deck of cards that we found on the windowsill. The Ace of Clubs was missing, we claimed it wouldn’t matter, but it did.
We walked back to our cars, tempted to stop off for one more, but thought better of it. Well, Faye did. We arranged to meet up again sometime soon. She told me she’d had a great time and couldn’t wait to it again. I knew I felt the same. I made a move to hold her hand, but she was holding the dog lead on the inside, bringing a sudden halt to the romantic gesture.
That evening, the air was that little bit sweeter. The light hovered that little bit longer. The regrets of yesterday dispersed, the shudder of tomorrow lifted. I was here, I was now, and for a short while that’s all that mattered.