Coniston Old Man


Jenny’s grandad, Bill, died ten days earlier. The funeral was a washout. He didn’t want a fuss and didn’t get one. He’d asked Jenny if she would scatter his ashes from the top of Coniston Old Man, a mountain he climbed over and over throughout the years; not out of favouritism, but convenience. The X-12 stopped at the end of his street and dropped him off at the foot of the mountain.

Such practice should ideally be a family affair, but tragically a few years ago Jenny’s mum passed away with leukaemia. Her sister, some saxophonist prodigy now living in New York playing regular gigs at those clubs that are all fart and no shit, couldn’t find the time to fly back. Her dad point blank refused to attend. He and his father-in-law hadn’t spoken since old Bill accidentally blinded him in one eye after attempting to hammer a nail into a tree stump using the blade-end of an axe for a bet in the Hare and Hounds one drunken night. Thus, leaving me. Jenny has better friends, friends she’s known longer, but it transpired they’re fair weather types. She wanted to scatter her grandad’s ashes on an atmospheric day, stating it would match his cankerous personality.  

Jenny clung onto the lid of the urn every bend, bump and cattle grid we encountered. ‘That thing screwed on properly?’ I asked. ‘They said it was secure, but I’m taking no chances.’ She replied. ‘You ever held the remains of someone before?’ She continued. ‘No. I once had to pick up my dead dog after he got hit by a car though.’ ‘What was that like?’ ‘Heavy.’ I answered abruptly, trying not to conjure up the memories of that night.

We drove through Torver, passed the Church House Inn. ‘My mates have seen Steve Coogan in there before.’ Exclaimed Jenny. ‘They said he was miserable, nothing like off the telly.’ ‘You mean Alan Partridge?’ ‘I guess.’ ‘I hate it when people say shit like that.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘Oh, I saw such and such off the telly the other day. When I shouted his catchphrase in his face whilst he was trying to have a meal with his family, he got really shitty. Entitled prick.’ ‘What’s up with you?’ ’Nothing.’ I lied. I was meant to be meeting Faye. This would have been date three, which as everyone knows, automatically means we would be having sex for the first time. Instead, however, I was scattering the ashes of some guy whose last words to me were ‘Don’t you talk to me about your “remain” bollocks you snowflake cunt.’

We parked up from the petrol station, avoiding having to pay for parking. It was raining, but light enough that the automatic sensors on the window wipers couldn’t pick up on it. We set off, Jenny putting her Grandad in her backpack. I couldn’t help but notice how good her round bum looked in the cut-off, high-waist jeans she was wearing. A thought I felt a little guilty over considering the circumstances. Jenny was slightly taller than me, but when standing her feet turned inwards, making her appear smaller. She was pretty in a subtle way, but there was an unflinching confidence behind her dark brown eyes that was alluring. She was the type who didn’t have to exercise often to stay in shape. She’d have been a good rower, if she wasn’t afraid of water. To begin, we walked through a small wooded area for forty yards until it gave way to a single road. The road was steep, narrow and busy. Top of the line Range Rovers tore up, slammed on and timidly reversed back down when meeting an oncoming car. Both drivers paying more attention to the others facial reaction than their surroundings; ready to unleash a backlash of fury if there was even a hint of an eyeroll from the other.

Once the commotion was behind us and the road ended, we began walking through the base of the Coniston Fells, looking up at the tall, brutish guards on the south-west entrance of the Lake District, keeping an over-protective watchful eye. The path, lined with sharp, chipped blue slate took us through the old slate mines. Rusted remains of machinery and wire ropes driving in and out of disused shafts made the area look like an old western film set. The thought alone of working up in these exposed conditions a hundred years ago was enough to make arthritis attack your joints and send you scurrying back down to your car and its heated seats.

The route we took wasn’t an easy one. We pushed down on our thighs with each step, unconvinced our legs would be able to straighten otherwise. The clouds above pushed passed quickly, as if they knew of dangers in these parts; and in doing so regularly changed the landscape below. Perhaps it is too obvious a comment, or one that has been used far too often it has now fallen into the cloying connotation of a cliché, but the scenery unravelling in this part of the world doesn’t seem real. At times, oddly, it’s like you’re staring at a painting in a great museum, or CGI on an IMAX screen.

The more mountain air I breathed in on our adventure, the less perturbed I felt about not seeing Faye. I enjoyed Jenny’s company. We had a similar sense of humour and take on life. Our relationship had never been anything other than friendly, excluding of course New Year’s Eve 2016. Those scratches on my back never did heal properly.

At 997ft Crowberry Haws forces the path to split into a T-junction. We turned left, watched on by Strubthwaite and Colt Crag.

You could be forgiven for thinking Coniston Old Man was the inspiration for ‘The Lord of the Rings’ novels. With each outstretched step you can vividly visualise one of Tolkien’s meticulously written pages describing ‘Middle Earth’. Unfortunately, disregarded clothing, plastic bottles and dog shit unable to decompose in plastic bags paved much of the route, ruining the ambience somewhat and leaving one shamefully siding with ‘Thanos’ and his big clicking fingers. Conceivably it may be a tad hypocritical to find the forgotten decaying quarry machinery captivating, but the used wet wipes stuffed between two rocks execrable. Alas, beguile always has and always will get a pass.

Below the last leg of the climb we took fifteen minutes to sit by a tarn sheltered by Brim Fell Rake. Staring into the water as I took a sip from Jenny’s canteen, I told her that I went for a dip in Coniston a couple of weeks ago. ‘What was that like?’ She asked. ‘Fucking awful.’ ‘I bet. Who did you do that with?’ ‘Faye.’ ‘How’s it going with her?’ ‘Pretty good.’ I answered. ‘It’s only been two dates but, you know, she seems cool.’ ‘Could this finally be it?’ ‘Well never say never…but never.’ ‘Oh god, here we go.’ ‘You still seeing matey with the erm, what was it? Drooping eyelids?’ ‘He has mild narcolepsy!’ She exclaimed. ‘And no, we broke up. There’s a limit to putting up with someone who begins every sentence with “I mean…” before you start to lose your mind. Fucking hipsters.’ ‘Narcolepsy is a very hipster disease.’ I responded.

We set off on the last stretch. The wind began to beat us down. I was going to suggest turning back, forgetting momentarily the sole purpose of the trip.

The views from the summit looking east to west were extraordinary. To the east, Coniston Water looked as pissed off as ever. To the west the unfamiliar Seathwaite, Ulpha and Muncaster led out to the coast. Both directions with contrasting weather fronts.

We touched the top of the cairn that marked the summit surrounded by cigarette butts and crushed Lucozade bottles wedged into crevices. Jenny removed the urn from her backpack. ‘Is scattering ashes considered littering?’ I asked without thinking. ‘Why would you possibly bring that up now?’ She asked, miffed. ‘I have no idea. Sorry.’ We stood side by side, silent. We were alone for the time being, but luminous jackets could be seen trudging up not far below. The wind howled, charging in one direction one second and another in the next. ‘What do I do?’ Asked Jenny apprehensively. ‘I’ve never done this before.’ ‘Me neither.’ ‘I wish my mum was here.’ Jenny muttered in a tone so soft it took me a few seconds to register what it was she’d said. That was the only time I’d seen a chink in her armour since the death of her Grandad. For a fleeting moment she looked as helpless as I felt. ‘I guess you just throw them up into the air and watch them glide into the valley below.’ I finally suggested, trying in vain to show some sort of guidance. ‘Ok. Here goes.’ She went to throw the ashes but stopped halfway. ‘Should I say something first?’ ‘Erm, yeah maybe.’ With each question thrown my way, the more useless I felt. ‘Ok.’ She said once more. Paused, contemplated briefly and continued. ‘Grandad, it was me who stole your five pound note off the mantel when I was eleven, not Heather.’ And with that final confession she threw the ashes with all her might into the air. At the exact same moment, the wind changed direction once more and instead of scattering over the Coniston Fells the ashes blew toward Sellafield. As we watched helplessly on, I muttered ‘Your Grandad didn’t have a secret love for nuclear power by any chance, did he?’ ‘Not that I know of.’ Responded a deflated Jenny. ‘Mind you.’ She continued, ‘I found out the other day when clearing out his wardrobe, that he had a secret subscription for a Ladyboy magazine called “The Adam’s Apple of My Eye”. So, you never know.’

We walked back down on the other side of the mountain that featured a much different terrain, not sticking to a particular path. Gusts whipped through hardened grass like tormented spirits, violently shaking dead bracken in a desperate attempt to revive. Once in a while a welcome silence broke free; a brief tranquillity. In the distance, deep blue skies stretching to the edges of space could con one into thinking it was four months earlier than the calendar stated.

A stone’s throw from the car we made a quick detour to grab a crate of Moretti, drove to the western shore of the lake, used a couple of estate agent brochures from the boot of my car to sit on and Jenny opened a couple of bottles using her lighter. On the water, a couple of paddleboarders struggled heading into the southerly wind. I looked at Jenny, who was deep in thought staring at the trees swaying hypnotically on the eastern shore. I studied the profile of her face, noticing a small white scar on her cheekbone. I wanted to ask how she got it but didn’t want to ruin whatever it was that had her full attention. Finally, she spoke up and asked, ‘Where do you think he is now?’ ‘Who? Oh…’ My mind could only think of her Grandad mutating into a nuclear superhero or villain in a reactor on the Cumbrian coast. It took an awful lot strength not to speak my mind. ‘As in where spiritually?’ She went on. ‘I mean, do you believe in God? Heaven and Hell?’ ‘Not as much as I used to.’ I answered. ‘I probably wouldn’t believe in it at all anymore if there wasn’t the slightest niggling feeling deep down saying “What if?” And I have to admit, if I ever get dealt a bad hand like a sick relative or a pregnancy scare from a one-night stand, I’m on my knees in a jiffy.’ ‘Those priests really drilled it into you when you were a kid, didn’t they?’ ‘You know you can go to Hell for that kind of talk?’ I laughed. ‘I hope so. Heaven sounds so boring. Everything’s so white. Bruce Forsyth. No thanks.’ ‘Hell’s got Hitler though.’ I countered. ‘At least he’ll be playing Charlie Chaplin movies.’ ‘True.’ We laughed and with temperature beginning to drop Jenny moved over, ducking her head under my arm for me to cuddle her. ‘Thanks for coming today.’ She said contently. ‘My pleasure.’ ‘You enjoyed it?’ ‘All things considered, yeah I have. The litter bugged me though.’ ‘Yeah it’s awful. I just don’t understand it.’ We sat in silence once more, my cheek resting on top of her head. ‘What you doing for the rest of the evening?’ Jenny quizzed. ‘Going round to Faye’s for a bit of sexy time.’ ‘Oh yeah? She said that?’ ‘Well no, but it’s date three.’ ‘So?’ ‘Date three means sex.’ ‘No it does not, you pig. Where did you read that? Nuts Magazine?’ ‘No…’ I scoffed ‘…Esquire.’ ‘You’re unbelievable.’ ‘Whatever. At least I didn’t break up with someone ‘cos they had narcolepsy.’ ‘I DID NOT BREA…You know what? I’m not biting. But I do hope Faye makes you wait six months.’ We both laughed. ‘So, what plans have you got ton…’ ‘Oh for fuck sake!’ Jenny interrupted, standing up and placing her hands on top of her head exacerbated. ‘What?’ ‘I left the fucking urn on top of the cunting mountain!’ 

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