‘Underhill! Can you not read full sentences?’ ‘I can sir.’ ‘Then why is it you’ve just missed a chunk of that sentence out?’ ‘I don’t know sir.’ ‘Don’t know? Maybe you have selective reading? Is that it?’ ‘No sir.’ ‘Can you see the words in brackets?’ ‘Yes sir.’ ‘Then I repeat, why did you not read the complete sentence?’ ‘Athletes want to be able to train their bod…’ ‘…I ask you a question and you choose to blatantly ignore it and begin the sentence again. What’s the matter with you Underhill?’ ‘Nothing sir.’ ‘Look at me when answering me young man and sit up.’ As I sat straight my throat croaked, draining every last drop of saliva with it. I didn’t want to answer, couldn’t answer. Smirking faces and echoing sniggers burnt inside my ears lighting a fire around the back of my neck and into my brain, melting away any rationale. Mr Wood had me where he wanted me- on the ropes. Every time. Every god-damn fucking time. God knows why. The words in the heavy, battered biology textbook fell helplessly from the pages like confetti, landing in a jumbled mess on the dark mahogany desk. I stared down the barrel of a gas nozzle praying it had been leaking all this time and that Jake Lancaster was playing with his lighter again. ‘Do we need to send you for special testing Underhill?’ The sniggering turned to cackling. Mr Wood thrived on it. ‘Well?’ Silence. I had nothing. Everything I had was now focused on not allowing my eyes to well. Maybe this is what school was really for? Education at its finest. School of hard knocks. Maybe this is what I really needed? Lord knows my father tells me enough times. Fuck this guy. Don’t give him what he wants. ‘WELL? ANSWER ME!’ I woke confused to the soothing sounds of my alarm. Sounds that now fill me with dread. Six AM. Back at it after two weeks off. I felt sick from either too much sleep or too little. My top jaw ached. Must have been grinding my teeth again. Faye says I need a mouth guard; she’s good to me. I wanted to sleep until noon, watch the light turn from blue to white. I’d gotten lazy, doesn’t take long.
I couldn’t tell if the stairs were creaking or my knees as I made my way down. I sat in silence drinking coffee, only my stomach stirring meaning a shit was imminent. It was dark out, only my wild bed head could be seen staring back at me. New Year, new me, porridge and blueberries it is. How long will that take? A few minutes. Fuck it, I’ll start tomorrow. The white buttery toast was a delight. Two more slices and I’ll go get changed.
The delayed white Christmas had paraded through at a light canter, leaving a dirty, squelching mush in its wake. I filled my washer fluid reservoir to the brim. I was all set for the January roads. Two miles down the road my washer fluid light came on. Playing in the car was Dylan’s Bootlegger Series. Every January it was out with the Tom Waits, in with the Bob Dylan. I can’t pinpoint why, but it felt cleansing.
I arrived outside the location fifteen minutes early. It was a retirement village, protected by black iron gates and bars all around; God’s waiting room. It looked tired, helpless, forgotten. Like dreams had fallen through the gaps of broken promises. Those extra fifteen minutes in bed would’ve made all the difference. It was going to be tough not taking it out on the proprietor. The cold sea air hurt when facing it. I zipped my jacket all the way up, catching my bottom lip on the last tooth, ‘Ah fuck.’ I tongued it but couldn’t taste blood. Martin the chartered surveyor turned up shortly after. His suit trousers were baggy, but his blazer was short in the arms, his ginger hair was flat all over apart from his precise quiff that didn’t suit a man in his late forties (or anyone of any age for that matter) and his eyes were close together. My great grandmother used to say you can never trust someone whose eyes are too close together- fuck knows why. ‘Happy New Year.’ He called out. ‘Same to you.’ ‘Say it then.’ ‘What?’ ‘Happy New Year.’ ‘Erm, Happy New Year.’ ‘Got your camera?’ ‘In my boot.’ ‘I’ve got the code to get in, follow me. You’re bleeding by the way.’ ‘Fuck sake.’
We were greeted by an elderly Indian man and his Caucasian wife. Both had kind eyes surrounded by sorrow. Both were short with rounded shoulders. Their house was immaculate, everything had its place and fit snugly. The husband showed us around his property intricately and proudly while his wife wandered off talking about grandchildren, cats and green bin day.
I began snapping while the old fella spoke with Martin about the extension he had built three years earlier. His voice was soft but self-assured, as if he’d rehearsed his lines the night before, ‘It should add at least twenty-grand t’ value, easy.’ He exclaimed. His Indian accent mixed with the Cumbrian dialect from years of living and working in the area made for a vibrant infusion. ‘Mr Agarwal, like I said over the phone, I think you’re going to have to lower your expectations vis-à-vis value of your property I’m afraid.’ Replied Martin, his accent dull, monotonous in comparison. ‘How can that be? The money I’ve spent on this place.’ ‘I’m sorry Mr Agarwal, the market just isn’t very strong at the moment. And adding to that the location of your property.’ ‘A stone’s throw from the Lake District and on the seafront? Come on.’ ‘You know what I mean Mr Agarwal. This retirement village.’ Mr Agarwal ceased talking and sunk into his brown leather sofa staring into the carpet slowly shaking his head. ‘Such a shame.’ He finally muttered. ‘All these years of working, saving, planning and for what? To have some company offer you a dream and snatch it away from you the moment you’ve handed over your cheque.’ I stopped taking photographs. The three of us in silence. A kind word, a warm hand on a shoulder; that’s all that was needed. It never came. Finally, Martin grabbed his laser measurement tool from his bag and began taking notes. It was enough noise for me to feel comfortable to begin taking photographs again. Mr Agarwal followed me in every room. ‘Where you planning on moving to?’ I asked. ‘My daughter’s for a little while. And then we’re hoping to move to another retirement village.’ ‘What’s wrong with this one?’ I quizzed. ‘The company went bankrupt building it. You see those buildings down there’ he continued pointing out the window at some derelict half builds, ‘they were supposed to be a café, restaurant and hairdressers. Everything was supposed to be here for us. Now it’s all gone up in smoke. These huge construction companies are doing this all the time. Taking people’s hard-earned money, only to roll over bankrupt. It’s deplorable. The world’s full of fraudsters and conmen.’ A hairdressers, Christ. This place was a prison, an unfinished prison, advertised as paradise. It was easy to feel for him. Poor bastard. He’d done everything right, everything he’d been told and for what? His right-hand shook, his left comforted it. ‘What did you used to do, you know, for a job?’ ‘I was an engineer at the power station, down the coast there. Struggled, provided and saved my whole life. Was dreaming of retirement for ten years.’ His eyes told of hardships that I’d never endure. Could never understand. Hardships I’d have no right to have an opinion on but would feel entitled to all the same. It was all fucked. I knew it, he knew it. Even the fucking seagulls and sea air knew it. Silence dominated the room warning us to keep schtum. We played ball until I finally spoke up and replied, ‘That’s a sad story.’ Repeating some line I’d once heard in a Bruce Willis movie that’d stuck with me. Plagiarism pouring into an open wound. He was right, the world was full of fraudsters and conmen. And I was no different.
Martin and I finished up. I wished Mr and Mrs Agarwal good luck. ‘I’ll do everything in my power to get you the highest price Mr Agarwal.’ Shouted Martin, his eyes narrowing. The front door shut. We walked back to our cars. ‘He’s not got a snowball’s chance in Hell about getting the price he wants for it, daft old sod,’ called out an irritated Martin, ‘I keep telling him, but he won’t have it.’ I kept silent. Maybe my great-grandmother was right. The iron gates opened just enough for us to squeeze out, shutting again with a piercing echo. Everything felt like it was out of reach. Even the pale blue sky looked like it belonged elsewhere.
I spent the next couple of hours at head office, uploading and editing photographs. I enjoyed head office. Well, I enjoyed the girls at head office. Making them laugh, a little flirting here and there. I don’t think the guys liked me too much. Not that I cared. The girls had better legs. After I finished my third coffee made by Lisa who wore the same perfume of an ex-girlfriend, I knocked on my manager’s door. ‘Nigel, all those photos are edited and good to go.’ ‘Good. Don’t let them build up like that again though. Stay on top.’ Gotcha.’ I wasn’t paying attention. Lisa walked past, in her tight white shirt showing off her curved smooth breasts, smelling like an ex-girlfriend. She smiled at me. Her green eyes lit up behind her frameless glasses. ‘Jack!’ ‘What? Urm, I mean yes, sorry.’ ‘Your next house was cancelled so I need you to go to Keswick.’ ‘Keswick? That’s over an hour away.’ ‘That’s the job fella. Here’s the address.’ ‘Alright.’ I don’t know why I reacted like that, I liked being in my car, spending time on the road. I said bye to the girls. I was expecting a flirtatious ‘Bye Jack’ in unison, but all three were now taking calls and didn’t even look up.
I poured some bottled water I found in my boot into my washer fluid reservoir. I caught my cuff on the bonnet as I slammed it shut, marking it. I rubbed it, making it worse. I licked my thumb and tried again, making it worse still.
The M6 north was busy southbound but quiet my side. I turned off at junction forty and drove along the A66 toward Keswick. The temperature gauge danced between zero and minus one. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cut out for an incoming call off Nigel. ‘Hello?’ I answered. ‘Bad news. The shoot’s been cancelled.’ ‘You’re kidding right?’ ‘Fraid not. You got any work you can do from home? If not, I’ll bring you back into the office and find you something to do.’ ‘I’ve got work I can do from home.’ I lied. ‘Yeah?’ ‘Yeah.’ I lied again. Nigel hung up. I continued along the Keswick bypass, gingerly weaved my way through Braithwaite and drove up into Whinlatter Forest. The winding road kissed the edges of the forest. Vertical drops on the other side brought both wonderment and trepidation. Cars creeping down in the opposite direction skidded and panicked on patches of ice as I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I had my tyres changed. The forest exuded enchantment. Mist floated in and out of dense woodland like apparitions. It was Monday, first day back at work. The forest would be mine, all mine to roam, explore, adventure alone.
The car park was full. Children screamed. Parents screamed. I parked up alongside the road and changed into my hiking gear. I hadn’t realised this was a hotspot for families. I should have researched. Always research. I walked back into the car park, hurriedly trying to find a footpath. It was Disneyland. The car park was one step away from being segregated into cartoon characters. Parents chased their kids around, filming their every step, scream and fart like paparazzi. I found a map; “Walks ranging from easy to difficult. Blue to red.” What’s the most difficult? Three hours- perfect. What distance is that? Four miles? Christ our nation’s in trouble. I bounded, overtaking families, searching for silence. I felt het up. It was unjustified. Parents were bringing their children to nature; showing them beauty outside of their bubbles. I shouldn’t be condemning them, quite the opposite. Introducing this world to a child will only nurture their souls. The earlier they’re shown, the earlier they’ll grow to love, respect and protect the great outdoors. Below me, to the left on a “blue trail”, a mother finished wiping her toddler’s arse with a wet wipe, stuffing it into a tree hollow. She looked up, scowled at me and carried on her merry little way. I retracted my previous positivity. The more I passed dog shit hanging in bags from tree branches, the more my jaw ached. Hiking in the Lake District (or anywhere for that matter) was slowly becoming the one thing one tried to escape. The world is a bowling ball on fire heading for the gutter. I envy the ignorant; they have peace of mind like no other.
The higher I climbed, not sticking to a particular route, the more my aching jaw relaxed. Fewer groups, fewer voices, more space. Sounds of screaming and yelling could still be heard faintly in the valley below, but I didn’t mind that too much. In fact, I kind of liked it. It reminded me of being tucked up in bed with no place to go, listening to someone else get ready for work. The air sharpened every ten feet. Freshly laid snow that was beginning to freeze attenuated the vibrations of traffic that up until now could still be heard despite being miles away.
I continued hiking for a few more miles, not caring where I was or how I’d get back. Narrow paths teased one way then led another through white dusted Sita Spruces, revealing a different personality to what they had shown only a couple months prior. Finally, a clearing broke through ahead. The Northern Fells, dressed in white, sparkled, dazzled. I had risen above it all. If only I could’ve risen a few more inches above the charging thoughts in my mind and I would’ve conquered the world. Still this wasn’t a bad consolation prize. I was beginning to gather my bearings. Recognising summits I’d explored and calculating what the other mountains must be. I became excited of the prospect of a pint of blonde in front of a roaring fire, opening a map and studying it. From this vantage point life made sense and it wasn’t complicated. Never had been. ‘Another ten minutes’ I kept telling myself, until dusk began pulling in the sun. I wandered down in a different direction, hoping I’d arrive at a different beginning. It wasn’t to be.