‘Sar…Faye…’ ‘Were you about to call me Sarah?’ ‘What? No.’ ‘Who is she?’ She shouted theatrically, laughing. ‘What you on about? I said Faye.’ ‘It’s ok don’t get tetchy I’m only joking around. Anyway, you seem a little distracted and sound like you don’t want to chat, so I’ll let you go. Call me later.’ She lingered on the line a few seconds longer, giving me the chance to interrupt and tell her that that wasn’t the case. Instead I muttered ‘Yeah alright, speak to you later.’ And ended the call. Jesus Christ, what was that? Some half-arsed attempt at a confession? I needed to get my head straight. What course of action was I taking here? Honesty; that would bring the curtains down on Faye and me. Or, covering up; riding the guilt until it calms and promise myself that this blip will never happen again. I wasn’t sure I was in any position to be making promises to myself. I wasn’t sure I was in any position to be attempting to make myself feel better, but if I was to forget about this day and move on, I had no choice. I grinded to a halt just outside Ambleside. Sheep scarpering in every direction except the one the farmer wanted. Sheepdogs running, taunting, tongues dangling, looking like they had life figured out for what it was – a game. I was ten cars back, maybe eleven. No ten. The heater in the car was roaring, drying my face, cracking my lips. I loosened my tie and dialled down the temperature. It stayed hot. Fucking thing! I couldn’t sit and wait any longer. I wanted to abandon the car and walk, cool off. I tried adjusting my sweaty crotch that was clinging and folding into itself like Sellotape, but in those slim fit pants I couldn’t grab a firm hold. Then an itch. Oh god. An STI. It has to be. I’m being punished. Fate riding in on a motorbike has weaved its way through the traffic and caught me up and thrown down a cruel but deserved sentence. I’ll have to go to the clinic. What has she given me? Nothing. She’s married, she won’t have an STI. She’s separated, how many fools has she seduced? It’ll be only me. Ok, the itching’s died down. I’m ok. It’s back! Does it sting? Oh god, I have AIDS. It can only be AIDS! I pulled into a car park on the right-hand side. It was empty. I changed into my hiking clobber, adjusted myself thoroughly and set off walking in an attempt to clear my mind. I headed toward Ambleside, taking a left off Rydal Road and turning back on myself onto a footpath that was the old coffin trail to Grasmere. The days temperature had ever so slightly climbed into the pluses but were sliding back down quicker than they’d risen. Despite a weighted mind my pace was hasty. I looked up at the surrounding fells but took no notice. The flat, wide neutral path brought me through Rydal Gardens. I was deep in thought but hadn’t realised how badly I was treading water until a middle-aged woman walking her Border Collie approached me; concern splattered over her face. ‘You ok love?’ I looked at her, taken aback. ‘Me? Yeah fine. Why?’ ‘You look somewhere else. You sure you’re ok?’ ‘Yeah I’m ok. Thank you.’ I replied with a smile that was as fake as an escort’s orgasm showing a virgin the ropes. She returned a sympathetic smile that made me feel like a terminally ill patient. Walking through the gardens I read a sign bragging of the monumental trees growing on site. I looked up. They were right to brag. I walked through the car park at Rydal Mount and on the cusp of the camp site stood bold headed stubbled men next to their spruced-up campervans shouting proudly of their day adventuring in the mountains when quieter voices would’ve sufficed. ‘Now then.’ Shouted one. ‘Fuck off.’ I thought. ‘Alright matey.’ Was my reply. I continued up the steep road, past William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s old house. I stopped and looked through the locked garden gate. It was easy to visualise the two of them sat, finding poetry in flickering sheep’s wool caught on a dry-stone wall. I wondered if they ever rowed over Thomas De Quincey and his opium addiction. Dorothy giving William an ultimatum; ‘It’s me or the junkie. I mean it this time William.’ ‘Relax, he’s just chipping Dotty. Nothing to write home about.’ ‘Chipping? He’s passed out face down on the landing with the dog licking jam off the back of his head. Why does he have jam on the back of his head William? Why?’ I walked a little higher and onto another footpath signposted “corpse road”. All those funerals, all those miles, all those lives, all that resolute belief. The path was simple, effortless, too easy. I needed something arduous to sweat out the shame and guilt tightening around my bones. It wasn’t to be. I stumbled across Nab Well and hovered a while. God knows why. It would look more at home in a Bukowski poem than Wordsworth’s. Dead bracken twitched nervously like rooted tumble weed. Wiry trees stood dormant as their shadows danced to the worsening light. At the foot of Nab Scar, I took a load off and sat on an unusual seat. The aroma of damp moss lingered. Trickling water could be heard but not seen. Across the valley, drained wintery colours could only reach a certain height leaving the snow kissed fells above dominating proceedings. The juxtaposition of the two together looked hastily thrown together. I rubbed my face hard as if waking from a nightmare, even checking for sleep in the corners of my eyes. Unfortunately, the surrealism of the day was very real, I just wasn’t ready to own up to it. I stood staring down at my boots, my mind twisting and turning too quickly to be able to process any coherent thoughts apart from knowing I’d shat on another Shangri-La. Ruined something else that was good for me. Why was it such an allure? A short, rounded woman with short brilliant white hair walked past, calling out ‘Hey, you shouldn’t sit on that.’ ‘Why? What is it?’ I snapped. ‘A coffin rest. It’s unlucky.’ ‘Who told you that?’ ‘It’s common knowledge.’ Some guy with drooping red cheeks that matched his anorak who looked like he was having a worse time than me slowly overtook the woman, looking over. ‘Did you know sitting on this is bad luck fella?’ I shouted out. ‘What is it?’ He mumbled. ‘Coffin rest.’ ‘Nope.’ I turned back to the woman ‘Three people within a one metre radius of a coffin rest and two thirds of them knew nothing of the supposed bad luck you get from sitting on it.’ She looked at me like I was an arsehole, which I am, so didn’t feel too aggrieved.
I reached the end of the Coffin Trail, but without thinking carried further on through the forest below Allcock Tarn and Butter Crags. I saw some type of fungi growing on a rotting log; the only colour in the woodland. Faye would know what is was. I had no idea. Long fallen leaves were now turning into mulch underfoot. In a few weeks patches of snowdrops and rows of bluebells would begin shooting through. The thought that it was something I could no longer look forward to made my stomach curdle.
I dropped down a loose narrow path and came out at the grounds of some hotel. I crossed the main road and through Grasmere. It could have been a hundred years ago. Dark, silent. Minding its own business. Only smoke from chimney stacks revealing any sign of life. On the other side of the village, I walked around the west shores of the lake. Twilight was upon me. The moon shaped like a scythe and just as sharp sliced its way through the dense dusk clouds, lending more light than its slender shape appeared capable of. From behind the island just off the centre of the lake an outboard motor from a small boat could be heard rumbling and gargling its way back to mainland. I continued along the cut and along the shores of Rydal Water where a sharp wind blew down from Loughrigg Fell forcing me to turn up the collar on my jacket. From the shadowy depths of Rydal Caves, the sound of a melancholic flute reverberated softly and flowed elegantly across the water brushing past me. A beautiful but unnerving feeling.
I arrived back at my car, checked my phone. Three missed calls off Faye. I sighed deeply and called her back. ‘Hiya babe, where you been?’ She asked, picking up. ‘Just for a walk.’ ‘Oh really? Where at?’ ‘The old coffin trail from Ambleside to Grasmere and back round the two lakes on the other side.’ ‘You should’ve said, I would’ve come with you.’ ‘Sorry.’ ‘It’s alright. What time will you be here?’ I paused, closing my eyes and scrunching my face. ‘Hello?’ ‘Yeah I’m here. Look I’m not feeling too good. Think I’m coming down with something. Is it alright if we postpone and do it again when I’m feeling more up to it?’ ‘Yeah course it is darling. I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. You sure you don’t want me to look after you? I’m a very good nurse.’ Her sweetness stung like a jellyfish, to the point I wanted to snap at her, but at the last second held back. ‘Yeah I’m sure,’ I finally replied, ‘I’m better being on my own tonight, taking a hot bath and getting an early night.’ ‘Aww. Poor thing. Hope you feel better soon. Call me later when you’ve had a bath.’ ‘Ok.’ I hung up. Why did she have to be one of the good ones? Why couldn’t she be a total bitch? Why couldn’t I get what I deserved? I can’t catch a break.
My last appointment of the day. The roads were quiet, glorious. I opened up, taking great delight in hitting sixth and reaching speeds of seventy-five. ‘Make the most of it.’ I thought, ‘It won’t last.’ Creedence Clearwater Revival bounced around the interior with my hands thumping against the wheel helping accompany Doug Clifford to the beat of “Bad Moon Rising”. I looked in the rear view noticing a smear of mayonnaise on my chin from my turkey sandwiches. I removed it, wiping it on the map laying on my passenger seat.
As I approached somewhere near, I pulled in, turned the music down and studied the map. Once I got my bearings, I took off once more.
The track leading up to the house was gravelly, filled with potholes disguised with brown water that tested my suspension. An old rickety stone wall ran on one side of the track and boasted an open well-nourished field lined with oak trees through the middle on the other. The house was modern, impressive, expensive. Huge windows replacing walls exposed the interior. Whoever lived inside wanted the whole world to see. I pulled up and got out staring into the beautiful, deep woodland behind. To the right of the house at the bottom of the mystical garden hid an old barn with two black holes instead of windows and an old rotten wooden door hanging loosely from its rusted hinges. The quaint garden path with a charming rustic gate at the entrance contrasted with the modern building behind, making the scene feel somewhat fraudulent.
I knocked on the thick slate coloured door, camera bag in hand. A woman in her late forties answered. She was strikingly beautiful. Twenty years earlier she’d have been a ten. She still had great legs and obviously looked after herself. Her blonde hair fell spiralling onto her shoulders accentuating her azure eyes. She wore a tight white turtleneck that highlighted her pushed up breasts and black high waisted coated skinny jeans. She was slightly taller than me but only because of her black high heels. ‘You must be the photographer.’ She smiled, clinking g&t in hand. ‘I am. Sorry if I’m a little late, I had to pull over and check where you were on the map.’ ‘Ah, the sat nav failed you? No matter, you’re not the first. Please come in.’ Her accent wasn’t local. I couldn’t place it. She attempted to speak the Queen’s, but it didn’t come naturally to her. Inside everything seemed blue and uncomfortably bright. The main room was open plan and vast. It felt cold and impersonal. Everything from the utensils to family photographs looked like they were props on a theatre set. ‘Can I get you anything?’ She asked. The words toppling out of her gin-soaked voice. ‘No, I’m good thank you. I’ll just get to work.’ ‘You in a rush?’ ‘No, not at all. Just got a lot to photograph. You have an extremely extravagant home, erm Mrs Wentworth isn’t it?’ ‘’Tis,’ she scoffed, ‘Well not for much longer. Call me Sarah, please.’ ‘Ok. You have a very extravagant home Sarah.’ ‘Yes, it is rather lovely isn’t it? Makes one wonder why we’re selling, doesn’t it?’ I stayed silent, knelt down, opening up my camera bag. ‘Well doesn’t it?’ She called out abruptly. ‘Maybe. I dunno. People sell for all kinds of reasons. It’s none of my business.’ ‘I’m divorcing.’ She continued. Not listening to my answer, ‘Well, my husband’s divorcing me.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ ‘When he said he wanted a younger model I assumed he meant the Merc.’ She poured herself another Whitley Neil. ‘People say it’s the quality of the tonic that makes the difference. Horse shit.’ She called out, walking to the freezer for ice cubes. ‘What’s your name by the way? I didn’t ask. How rude.’ ‘Its Jack.’ ‘Jack. Nice name. Handsome young man aren’t you Jack? One could say you’re on the wrong side of the camera.’ ‘I don’t know about that.’ ‘No?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’re too modest.’ ‘Well, thank you. I guess.’ ‘Sure you don’t want?’ She asked, raising her glass and moving it side to side making it clink, ‘They’re refreshing.’ ‘I better not.’ ‘Ah a chink in your armour already?’ I laughed. ‘I’ll take that as a yes.’ She concluded and fixed me a drink. I began taking photographs, finding it extremely difficult not to capture my reflection in the enormous windows. ‘Here’s your drink.’ Said Sarah walking up behind me using emphasis on the “k”. ‘Thanks.’ ‘To the single life.’ She went on, ‘Think I’ll have trouble finding a new man Jack?’ ‘I doubt it.’ I said. She looked at me, giving me a filthy smile. I took a sip. It was strong. ‘Jesus.’ I said coughing, ‘There’s some kick to this.’ Sarah laughed, took a sip and didn’t take her eyes off me. ‘Where’s you husband? Ex-husband, or whatever he is.’ ‘Last I heard he’s in our flat overlooking the Thames. Most likely with that slut.’ ‘Anyway, I better get back to the job at hand.’ I said, clearing my throat. ‘Yes, of course.’ She replied. ‘Maybe I’ll photograph the bedrooms and bathrooms and finish off in here seeing as it’s the largest room.’ ‘As you wish. The bedrooms are down the hall to the left. Everything else from there is self-explanatory.’
I’d finished my drink by the time I’d completed the second spare room. It had left me lightheaded. The turkey sandwiches hadn’t been sufficient. I walked back into the open plan, making way to the kitchen. The sound of high heels sneaked up behind me. I turned, my back to the marble breakfast bar. ‘Top up?’ She whispered. ‘I’m good.’ Before I could react, she grabbed my crotch. ‘Yes, you are.’ She smiled. I stopped thinking; well anything intelligible and professional anyway. Allowing her to continue, she unzipped my flies, reached in and grabbed. My breathing deepened as she unzipped her jeans pulling my hand inside them revealing she wasn’t wearing underwear. She gasped, rolling her eyes into the back of her head. I grabbed her waist, spun her round bending her over the breakfast bar and pulled her jeans down to her knees and pushed inside her. She moaned out with pleasure, spread her arms out across the counter, stretching her fingers as wide as possible. I tried to push higher and deeper, but it was tricky with the height of her high heels. I could only go so far on my tip toes before cramp kicked in, making me yell out. She took it was an orgasmic cry and screamed, ‘Yes, harder.’ A lousy thirty seconds later it was over. Guilt, horror, angst hit all at once as I caught the ridiculous reflection of us both in the window, exposed to the world.
She pushed me away, pulled up her jeans and walked off, leaving me with my pants round my ankles, shoes on, slowly softening cock, tie skewwhiff. ‘Just leave when you’re done.’ She called out, coldly. Her footsteps echoed, stopping abruptly when she walked into the bathroom. A couple of minutes later I heard the sound of the toilet flush ring around the rafters.
I hurriedly completed the remainder of the house, not caring about the quality of the photographs. My knees wouldn’t stop shaking not helped by feeling nauseous. The effects of the gin had long gone leaving me needing a glass of water. I quickly turned on the tap, cupped some water with my hand, gargled and spat it out. I was walked from the sink I smelt my fingers, deciding to give them a thorough scrub. I packed away my equipment, walked toward the hallway and called out, ‘I’m all set. Thank you.’ Thank you? What the fuck man? I stood motionless. There wasn’t a pin drop. I turned and walked out. Strode up the path with purpose. Dropped the keys from my fumbling erratic hands and bundled my way into the car. I reversed quickly and drove rapidly down the track hitting every pothole on the way. Back at the junction I pulled on the handbrake, let go of the steering wheel and ran my fingers back through my hair, pulling my face tight. ‘Jesus Christ’ I shouted out, bewildered, half a grin across my face. I thought of Faye. ‘Jesus Christ’ I said softly. The grin gone.
It was dark out. Would be for another hour, just over maybe. It was slowly getting lighter in the evenings though. Five o’clock and still light. We’d turned a corner. The worst was over. The last push then spring. Still, little moments of joy were a necessity to keep the blues at bay. We weren’t out of the woods quite yet. That first coffee in the morning sat in silence, followed by fajitas and a movie later that night at Faye’s would be my fill of contentment for the day.
I was in my parent’s kitchen. I’d stayed the night after picking up some extra clothes. I was going to head back to Faye’s once I’d packed, but mum was making cannelloni, plus the football was on. I buttered two buns adding a couple slices of turkey to each. ‘Is this substantial enough?’ I thought staring down at them. I reached for a banana, but they were going soft and black. ‘The buns’ll do.’
The shower wouldn’t release me from under its spell. The hot water wrapped around me like comforting arms. Finally out after showing some impeccable willpower, the cold striking through the open window provoked me to curse my employer for giving me a job. Lousy no good bastard. Once dry and changed, looking as sharp as one can from an old makeshift groomsman outfit, I leant against the radiator slowly coming to life. I placed my hands between my arse and the metal indentations until it burnt. Released for a few seconds and repeated this motion until I was ten minutes late setting off.
According to the car it was minus two. I turned up the heating. I’d need this on full all day. I checked my appointment list. Mr Jacobs at nine-thirty; Carnforth. Mrs King at eleven; Arnside. Mrs Wentworth at one forty-five; ‘Where the hell is that?’ I checked the map. ‘Oh, nice neck of the woods round there.’ Wrapped up by around three. Faye’s by four. Perfect. My choice for movie night. Think I’ll choose “Blood Simple”.