I was admiring the framed ‘Alien’ poster on some geezer’s living room wall. The place screamed bachelor pad. He had an excessive number of guitars and a DVD collection that didn’t do a lot for me. He kept the place tidy, which is more than you can say for the majority of the houses we had to photograph. I was now at the end of my second week of what was meant to be a week-long trial, to see if I could handle the rigours of an estate agent photographer. The second week had been suggested by John to my boss, purely to massage his ego. ‘Jack, where you at?’ ‘I’m just finishing off in the living room.’ John came running downstairs, entered the living room and noticed the poster. ‘Oh wow, great film.’ He then shouted in an accent that I couldn’t quite place, but if had to guess would say somewhere in the Caribbean ‘If it bleeds, we can kill it.’ ‘That’s not…You’re thinking of…Who you impersonating?’ ‘Never mind all that Barry Norman, we’re at work and I’m trying to teach you something. Now it’s very easy to forget what rooms you’ve photographed in a house.’ ‘Really?’ I quizzed. ‘I forget to complete a house at least twice a month.’ ‘Now that I can believe.’ ‘Hey, it’s easily done. So, I find the best way of remembering is to mentally picture every room in the house clockwise, or anti-clockwise if that’s what you prefer.’ John, closing his eyes, lifted his right arm aloft and used it as a makeshift clock hand, moving it in stages whilst calling out various rooms. ‘Master bedroom, spare bedroom, bathroo…’ ‘Yeah I get it John.’ ‘Ok good. Well it’s Saturday and this is our last house of the week. Now it is party time.’ John grabbed his camera bag and monopod and made his way to the front door. ‘John we’ve not photographed the kitchen yet.’ ‘THE KITCHEN.’ He exclaimed, slapping his forehead.
After the kitchen was photographed and the house finally complete, we made our way to our cars, parked on the front street. ‘Fancy going for a beer. Causing some bother maybe?’ asked John, his eyes lit up. ‘Another time John.’ I replied, slightly concerned by what “bother” would entail. ‘Another time. Sounds good. So, what you doing instead? Going for one of your walks?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Good for you. I used to do a bit myself back in the day. Your calves must be getting stronger, let me have a feel.’ In a flash John bent down to grab a hold of my left calf. ‘John, what the fu…get off.’ I shouted, hopping backwards in a circle, trying to remove him. ‘Hmm not bad, not bad. Think mine are probably bigger.’
Five and a half days working with John was enough to drive anyone to the off-licence and grab two bottles of the closest wine you could get your hands on. Every once in a while, I show glimpses of will power and this Saturday afternoon was one of them. Turning down the temptation of getting nicely sozzled and instead choosing to walk up Pike ‘O Blisco. I’d asked Faye if she wanted to join me but she was working at the dog shelter until five.
I parked at the National Trust carpark next to Sticklebarn in Great Langdale. The week before last had left me pining for more, just with a little more daylight. Brighter colours painted with harsher strokes described the same scene differently.
Counting my pound coins at the machine, hoping one wouldn’t be rogue and rejected, a woman came rushing over, flummoxed. She was wearing all the country estate get-up, brand new. Only the price tag was missing. ‘How much is it?’ She cried, exacerbated. ‘It says right there.’ I answered, pointing to the sign, using a tone indicating I wanted nothing to do with this conversation. She didn’t pick up on it. ‘How ridiculous. How are you supposed to pay online when there’s no signal?’ Her nostrils flared. I thought I saw bats up there and wondered if they’d have Covid-19. ‘Worse things have happened at sea.’ I muttered. ‘Have they?’ She asked. ‘That’s actually a good question. I’m not sure, I’ve never been. I presume so.’ She ran off in a fluster. I paid, displayed and set off.
I walked along the road, looking up toward the left wondering which fucking peak was Pike ‘O Blisco. Eventually I came to a campsite, wandered through, used the surprisingly delightful communal toilets to take a piss and skulked into the reception area to ask, somewhat embarrassed, which mountain Pike ‘O Blisco was. The three chaps behind the desk all started moving and talking simultaneously like audio-animatronic dolls at a theme park. All laughing and joking when the one accidentally cut the others off. I wish I hadn’t bothered. Once the excitement settled, I was shown the peak and the route.
I walked through the other end of the campsite, impressed by the tipis, yurts and pods, and onto a small country road that began to twist and turn the more it climbed, as if it were built with Steve McQueen in mind. A prominent footpath finally appeared to the right of the road. ‘Excuse me. Where does this path lead?’ I asked an elderly hiker wearing rustling navy blue waterproof pants and a white wool jumper that turned over at the neck. ‘Pike ‘O Blisco.’ She replied. ‘Oh, I thought that was it over there?’ I replied, pointing at another peak. ‘No. That’s it. You tourists really should do your research before you come here.’ She said curtly. ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ I answered, smug in the knowledge the snooty bitch hadn’t picked up on my Cumbrian accent.
The path leading to Pike ‘O Blisco is steep but stepped, meaning you can walk up at a decent tempo. My lungs didn’t burn quite as much as they had done on other walks. A small achievement. As I crossed over Red Acre Gill, a young man in his mid-twenties was sat just off the route above in the entrance of his pitched tent, blowing into a steaming mug of something I couldn’t make out. We chatted briefly. He was soon to pack up and move on. He was living. At one with nature. The whole Christopher McCandless experience minus the minibus. An envious sight, even if it did look a little staged.
Further ahead I could see what must have been the summit. Fifteen minutes later I arrived, realising it was anything but the summit. I caught up to a couple who I’d been gaining on since the road, but eased off so I could follow, unsure of the best route. The couple bounded up a rocky crevice, scrambling and wedging their boots to support their weight. It looked a little daunting, but I couldn’t see an easier way, so followed suit. The wet rocks hidden in the shadows clashed with the sun’s heat meaning I didn’t notice at first when slicing a finger pushing myself up a jagged crag. I bit off the loose skin too aggressively, ripping off more than I’d intended, making my finger smarm and pulsate. Another crevice followed, just as steep, just as rocky, although I managed it much easier. The pain from my finger convincing me that I was now a rough and ready mountaineer. Once that minute but memorable stage had been completed, I could see the summit, safe in the knowledge that this was in fact the summit this time. The terrain leading to the last climb was tricky and easy to misplace a step. The couple I’d followed stopped short of the summit, leaving me to conquer it alone, only to find a young woman already there, enjoying the views all to herself whilst on speaker phone to her partner who was at work, sat in an office block somewhere looking down on the world below. I felt like I was imposing on a private conversation despite feeling closer to heaven than civilisation. Perhaps she was on the phone to God?
A fatigued, cantankerous sun cast a harsh white, blue light that made the surrounding fells scrunch together. In the distance, a white hot Windermere felt its wrath, looking like a coerced magnifying glass unleashing hell upon a line of oblivious ants. Below, the deep, rich valley thrived as liquid gold quenched its thirst. A monumental panorama of a humbling, mysterious majesty.
After five minutes of taking standard photographs, I couldn’t stand the intrusion any longer, so left them to it.
I somehow missed both jagged crags on the descent, much to my delight; instead stumbling across a gentle grassy terrace that my knees thanked me for. Three cross-country runners leapt past like chased gazelles, making their way south-west, the visibility unfolding a little more with each stride. Below, a trail of hikers were now making their way up the mountainside. Empty comments used to fill silences were made from both parties whilst courteously stepping off the path to let the other continue. By the time I’d reached the small waterfall, the camper had left, leaving behind empty bottles of water and a pair of shit-stained red shorts he’d used to clean himself. I prayed that fucking arsehole had gone full Christopher McCandless and eaten some poisonous berries. I looked further down the path but could see no sign. I fantasised about catching him up, stamping on his face and shoving his shitty shorts into his mouth. I picked up the bottles but left the shorts, praying I’d see this scumbag later on.
The remainder of the descent was plagued by the previous scene. I thought I’d feel some gratification throwing the bottles in a recycling bin but didn’t. Instead all I wanted was to douse my hands in anti-bacterial gel.
I needed a drink, so trudged back to the car, changed and went for a couple of pints at Sticklebarn. The pub was filled with hikers dressed identically, only different accents and dialects could separate them. Chairs screeched, conversations flowed at different rates and cutlery scraped the bottom of plates and bowls as dogs sat looking up wide-eyed at their owners, patient but for an ungovernable drip of saliva dangling from the corners of their mouths. The aroma of culinary flavours was vanquished when a damp log thrown onto the fire released a smoky reaction that settled onto clothing and nasal hairs.
My first pint of Harrison Amber went in no time, so I ordered a sweet potato and black bean curry to slow the sinking of the second. I marked on my stolen map another summit reached. I was getting a taste for this hiking malarkey, though I doubt it would ever topple drinking for top spot.
Contemplating my follow up adventure, a woman in her early fifties on the table opposite, with straight jet-black hair, wearing a dark aubergine cashmere crew neck jumper and black corduroy trousers, reading the paper, called out ‘Well this really has been a ridiculous four years. It’s unbelievable this circus came to fruition to begin with.’ I looked across at the page she was reading, revealing her disbelief – The US election. In particular, Donald Trump. The table showed no signs of companionship, so assuming she was looking for a little conversation and wasn’t talking to the voices in her head, I obliged. ‘It certainly is crazy’ I began, ‘But not all that unbelievable. Not really.’ There was a slight pause, followed up with her replying ‘How so?’ whilst dropping the top right corner of the page, removing her slight framed reading glasses and turning her attention towards me in a rather imposing manner. ‘Well, I think it’s fair to say that Americans on the whole love to immerse themselves in theatre, Hollywood, the silver screen. You notice it the second you step off the plane and into their airports. To the point that the boundaries between reality and fiction begin to blur.’ ‘I’m not sure I follow?’ Said the lady who was now putting her glasses back in their case. ‘Well they voted for Ronald Reagan in the eighties, who was a swashbuckling Hollywood actor. The Californians voted Arnold Schwarzenegger to become Governor of California, simply because he was the fucking Terminator. That’s the sole reason. They might deny it, but I aint buying it. Sorry for swearing by the way.’ ‘It’s fine, carry on.’ ‘OK. Where was I? Oh yeah, he was voted in so they could announce some typical American over the top tripe like “Don’t fuck with California or you’ll be fucking with the Terminator.” Then a few years later when reality TV was at its most popular, who rears his ugly head? Donald fucking Trump. A reality TV star. You know who’s to blame for Trump being president?’ ‘Who?’ ‘Anyone involved in the Hollywood writers’ strike.’ ‘Oh yes, I think I remember that. Wasn’t that around…erm…oh it must be at least ten, fifteen years ago now?’ ‘Something like that.’ ‘And why would they be to blame?’ ‘Because when all the tv and movie writers decided to strike, all the producers and execs in Tinseltown brainstormed ideas for shows that wouldn’t require a writer and hey presto! Reality TV was conceived. The quite amazing twist ironically is that through striking, the writers wound up inadvertently creating a story of such grandiose proportion that it most likely would never have been conjured up in a writer’s room. Or if it had, it probably would have been dismissed as being too implausible. A most preposterous visionary came not from their quill, but through their stance. In ten years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next President of the United States is some TikTok sensation who rose to fame dancing in their underwear whilst serving burgers in McDonald’s.’ I wiped the blood from my mouth and took a breath. ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that after calling out to my husband on his way to the bathroom.’ ‘Oh sorry, I assumed…’ ‘No, it’s fine, I enjoyed your theory.’ ‘I have a tendency to focus an awful lot of energy on irrelevance.’ ‘Well, it was entertaining. Whether I agree with you is up for debate however.’ I smiled and mustered a shrug. ‘Ready?’ called the woman’s husband from behind. ‘Yes. I am.’ She folded her paper, stood up, pushed her chair under the table and zipped up her quilted gilet. ‘Nice to meet you.’ She smiled walking off. ‘Likewise.’ I replied.
I stared into my second empty pint contemplating ordering one more, but instead smelt different parts of my fleece for varying degrees of smoke stench and left.
The sun fell behind the bullish fells and began to sink into the horizon of the Irish Sea, leaving behind pink streaks smeared across the dusk sky. The warm air bowed out to the evening chill that made a beeline for nasal tips. I drove out the car park and headed toward Ambleside. At Chapel Stile I saw the camper who had left his shitty grots up the side of the mountain. My anger rose but just as quickly subsided into apprehension the closer I got. To prove I wasn’t a total coward, I slowed to give him a disapproving glance, but he wasn’t looking. Ah well, I tried. Hopefully those poisonous berries will kick in soon enough.