Claife Heights

My eyes struggled adjusting to the bright florescent lighting reflecting off the immaculate floor tiles in the showroom. I sat on a perfectly Feng Shui positioned leather couch accompanied by a metal legged glass top table. The receptionist, a slim, leggy brunette twenty something peered over the top of her smoothed square framed glasses from behind her desk, glancing disapprovingly at my coffee cup that wasn’t on its intended coaster. I moved the cup into its correct position, completing the magazine look. Well I would have if I’d also removed myself from the scene. My jaw ached, especially a molar somewhere on the top-right. I hadn’t slept too well for about a week and on top of that was wrestling a hangover. I hadn’t been able to feel sorry for myself to the desired extent I longed for. So instead took to my old bedroom in my parents’ house, drinking wine and spirits excessively whilst watching and pretending to understand Federico Fellini’s masterpieces. I’d missed lunch but wasn’t particularly bothered. My appetite had plunged into obscurity since the breakup with Faye. Ironically, the depleted void in the depths of my stomach felt more filling than any three course Sunday dinner I’d ever eaten. I’d ravaged my fingernails to the wick and had developed a rash on my left shin that I took great pleasure in itching through my pants (particularly jeans) using the heel of my right trainer. I slumped on the couch exhaling theatrically with every nauseous wave that hit the back of my throat. Around me, parked proudly on show in the bright lights were the newest range of cars. A boot open here, a driver’s side door open there. Take a look in by all means, but don’t you fucking dare sit in one unless your wallet is splitting at the seams from bulging fifties and you have a scarcely used second home. I got up, mooched, baulked at the prices; wandered over to a shelving unit selling sunglasses, caps and a model toy car. I picked up the car. £29.99. My internal reaction to the price quickly enhanced any realisation that I was not where I thought I should be in life at thirty-six. ‘Mr Underhill?’ Called out the reception. I placed the car back on the shelf and walked over towards her. ‘That’s me.’ I answered. The sound of a toy car rolling off a shelf and crashing to the floor echoed around the showroom. All eyes homed in on me. I looked at the car, unsure of whether to pick it up. After a few seconds I decided to go for it. ‘It’s alright Mr Underhill, just leave it. I’ll sort it in a minute.’ Called out the receptionist. ‘It should probably have winter tyres on it.’ I joked. She didn’t laugh. I didn’t blame her. ‘Your car is all fixed and on its way back to the showroom. Here is the itemised bill, could you please check each individual cost and total.’ ‘Sure.’ I looked at the bill. I needed another job and fast. ‘Seven hundred and eighty quid for one small deer.’ I muttered. ‘Aww you hit a deer?’ Exclaimed the receptionist. ‘It ran out in front of me. I couldn’t stop in time.’ ‘My Dad says all Audi drivers are the same.’ ‘You work for Audi.’ ‘But drive a Focus.’ ‘I wouldn’t lead with that in any future sales pitches.’ ‘We’ve also cleaned your car. The outside. We couldn’t clean the inside due to Covid-19.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s just our Covid-19 policy. No interior cleaning. Safety you see.’ ‘Where’s the car now?’ It’s being driven back from the garage.’ ‘Where’s the garage?’ ‘A couple of miles away.’ ‘So, it’s ok to get in my car and drive it a couple of miles, but to clean it inside is a big no no?’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Can you not see where I’m going with this?’ ‘Sorry Mr Underhill. That’s just our Covid-19 policy.’ ‘Which policy is that again?’ ‘Our Covid-19 policy.’ ‘Awesome.’ I looked at the bill once more. ‘Will you be paying by card this afternoon Mr Underhill?’ ‘Yeah.’ I sighed. ‘Please enter your card and pin when ready.’ ‘Seven hundred and eighty quid for one small deer.’ I repeated.

I sat outside on a diamond shaped wooden fence that wasn’t all that comfortable. Still, swapping the pain in my eyes for one in my arse seemed fair. It was mild out; pleasant. The winter sun warming my face felt forgiving. I needed it. I momentarily felt excited for summer. But the thought of copious amounts of tourists and litter left in their wake quickly filled me with hatred. I wallowed in it, imagining fallacies of arguments and plots of revenge on people disrespecting the countryside. My home. The planet. All sorts of nonsensical scenarios surged through my mind. I became angrier and angrier. My fists tightened. My face twisted…‘Sorry, excuse me Mr Underhill.’ I quickly, somewhat embarrassed, snapped out of my overwhelming trance and turned around. It was the receptionist. ‘Oh sorry’, she continued, ‘I erm thought you were on the phone. I thought I saw your lips moving.’ I felt my jaw ache even more. I had found myself doing this on a regular basis. Especially since the breakup. ‘No, I was erm, just erm…cracking up I guess.’ I replied laughing. The receptionist laughed back but looked unnerved. ‘I have your keys. Your car is back. The mechanic came through the rear entrance. It’s just parked around the back.’ ‘Ok thanks.’ I took the keys and walked toward my car, nursing my fiery tooth with my tongue. I still felt embarrassed for being caught out fantasising about fictious confrontations with strangers. ‘I need a holiday.’ I thought, ‘I need to get away and not come back for a long time.’

I was back on the A590 allowing the car to fill its lungs and roar. I thought about the receptionist’s comment, ‘Your dad sounds like a right bell-sniff.’ I said aloud, and pushed further down on the accelerator.

I took a right at Graythwaite, and onto the slithering road that runs closely alongside the southern western shores of Lake Windermere, through Cunsey, up to Far Sawrey, before dropping down to Ferry Bay just below Claife Heights. Jenny was already there by the time I arrived, standing just off the road near the entrance to the car ferry wearing a bright yellow raincoat, looking over toward Cockshott point. ‘Hey.’ I said walking up behind her. ‘Hey.’ She replied turning. One look at her kind eyes mixed with an assured self-confidence behind them made the vibrations in the world relent a little. ‘Why can’t I find a girl like her?’ I thought. ‘You had one but fucked it up by draining the blood from your brain and injecting it into your cock.’ I concluded. ‘Why is Cockshott Point called Cockshott Point?’ She asked, looking back across the water. ‘Who gives a shit?’ I replied. ‘Oh. You’re in that mood, are you?’ ‘I just forked out over seven-hundred quid on my car. I’m entitled to be.’ ‘Excuse me.’  Called out a bent over elderly grey-haired chap covered in liver spots. ‘Yeah?’ I answered. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing that you asked about the naming of Cockshott Point. Well it’s actually a very interes…’ ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ I said, turning to Jenny. We walked off. The exhausted car ferry heaved itself across the narrow channel using the steel ropes below the surface like some desperate survivor refusing to fold. The crew looked bored; a lack of boats to pull out in front of, abusing their right of way probably didn’t help. ‘Has the car ferry always been there?’ Asked Jenny, ‘Even before cars?’ ‘Since time immemorial. Except they never called it the car ferry before there were cars.’ ‘What did they call it?’ ‘Urm…the ferry.’ ‘So how long’s it been there?’ ‘No idea.’ ‘What was there originally?’ ‘I think a wooden ferry, pulled by horses somehow.’ ‘Really?’ ‘I think.’ ‘And before then?’ ‘Some geezer called “Forearms McGinty, rowed people across.’ ‘Honestly?’ ‘How the fuck should I know? Go ask Hans Moleman back there if you’re that interested.’ 

We began walking north toward Wray Castle. I always enjoyed cycling this route when I was a kid. It was the kind of place that always felt like you were on holiday even though we didn’t live too far away. Moored boats behind Belle Isle pointed west like giant compass needles from the slightest of breezes. The sun began falling behind the Marilyn Claife Heights, but the early spring air kept its warmth for a little while longer. ‘So how you been?’ Asked Jenny as we strolled along the path leaving the open space and into the forest. ‘Not great. But I’ll live.’ I knew she wanted the sordid details of the breakup and what led to it, but I purposefully kept her in suspense, getting a kick out of it. ‘So, why have you and Faye ended?’ ‘Just one of those. Ran its course.’ There was a silence for a about a minute. ‘I saw your mate Bobby in town the other day.’ She continued. ‘Yeah?’ ‘He told me you’d had sex with some hot housewife when you were at work and took photos of it or something?’ ‘No…that’s not…he’s a fucking gobshite that one. That’s just not true. Well part of it is.’ ‘Which part?’ ‘The sex with the hot housewife part. I didn’t take photos. Well I did, but not of her.’ ‘Of what then?’ ‘Her house.’ ‘You were taking photos of her house whilst having sex with her?’ ‘What? No. I went to her house to take photos because it was up for sale. Then she seduced me “The Graduate”-style but with less “Simon and Garfunkel”.’ ‘How did that happen?’ ‘Her husband left her for a younger model and…’ ‘Oh fucking hell. You’re such a douchebag cliché I could cry.’ ‘Douchebag?’ ‘Yeah sorry, I’ve been watching a lot of Jonah Hill films recently. So how did Faye find out?’ ‘Does it matter?’ ‘Guess not.’

Sunlight skimmed through the trees like a time-lapse before leaving us in dusk. Waves crashed upon the beach from a powerboat speeding past, tipping over a paddleboarder in its wake. We followed the path beyond Belle Grange that was thick with mud from days of relentless rain. I danced, unbalanced around the outer edges of the worst of it, cursing myself for not changing out of my Nike Air Max and into my hiking boots.  I began telling Jenny about the fateful story of Sir Henry Seagrave but gave up when a poodle came bounding up to her. At High Wray Bay we took a seat on a log and listened to the water lapping up against the smooth stoned beach. I attempted to show-off my stone skimming skills until it became clear I had none. ‘Can’t find a stone flat enough.’ I complained. Jenny wasn’t interested. ‘So, you got anyone lined up to help you get over Faye?’ She asked after more minutes of silence that began bordering on awkward. ‘How do you know I’m not over her already?’ ‘Because you look like shit.’ ‘Oh. Well I am slightly hungover.’ ‘Where you were drinking last night?’ ‘In my room?’ ‘At your parents?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘By yourself?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘So, you’re obviously not over her then.’ ‘I was texting some girl the other night’, I continued, ‘we met up a few times last summer, but nothing came of it.’ ‘Got a pic?’ ‘She’s on Instagram.’ ‘Show me?’ I pulled my phone from my pocket and showed her. ‘Oh god.’ She sighed. ‘What?’ ‘Her story. I hate it when people post shit like beachscape videos on social media with the caption “contemplating”. What exactly are they contemplating? Did I press record? Is this a good time to post this video? I wonder how many views I’ve had? I would imagine they’re not contemplating what it is they are insinuating – which is life. How could they be? Nope. She’s a dickhead. My mind’s made up. You cannot date this girl. I forbid it.’ ‘I don’t think it would lead to anything as serious as dating. But you’re probably right.’ I replied. Jenny carried on the conversation, but I zoned out and began focusing on a plastic bag of litter that had been left on the beach. Two guys, medium height, were walking away from the scene. One of them over-weight wearing denim jeans and grey fleece. The other, slightly slimmer but still not in the best condition, wore baggy shorts, showing off huge calves and wearing an electric blue hard-shell jacket. ‘Oi.’ I shouted, jumping up and running over. ‘What?’ Answered the hard shell. ‘Is that bag yours?’ ‘Fuck’s it got to do with you?’ He sniggered. They both turned on me. My jaw tightened as rage began building up inside me. ‘Pick it up.’ I said through gritted teeth. ‘Fuck off.’ Replied the fatter one. I lunged at him, grabbing his neck and swinging round so I could put him in a choke hold. The other one darted towards me but I spun round still holding onto the fat one and planted an elbow in his face. He went down. Stayed down. I began choking the fat one harder and harder until I heard him fighting for breath…‘Jack.’…he fell to one knee, but I didn’t…‘Jack’…my teeth were grating harder and harder the tighter I choked this piece of shi…‘Jack, are you listening to me?’ ‘What?’ I snapped out of the fantasy. ‘Are you alright?’ Asked Jenny. ‘Me? Yeah fine. Why?’ I replied feeling my aching jaw. ‘You looked like you were somewhere else. You had a crazy look on your face. Evil almost.’ I could taste copper. Spat. Blood landed by my feet. ‘Oh my god, are you ok?’ Exclaimed Jenny. I didn’t answer, just stared at the blood before rubbing it into the stones with my trainer and looked back over at the plastic bag filled with litter. I scanned the rest of the beach. Empty. ‘Jack?’ Jenny repeated. My head began to feel as if it was closing in on itself and my eyes stung. I rubbed them aggressively before opening them wide along with my mouth, causing the sides of my lips to split. ‘Argh fuck!’ I called out, tonguing each side to ease the stinging. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Asked Jenny, concern etched across her eyes. ‘Who do you think left that bag over there?’ I asked ignoring her, ‘And why?’ She looked over. ‘I have no idea. People leave shit all over the place.’ ‘I don’t get it. How can people be so ignorant?’ ‘It’s nothing new. You just have to accept it. It’s not like we’re perfect.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘There are people out there, greener than us, who would look at our daily lives in total bewilderment.’ ‘Yeah but…’ ‘Yeah but nothing. You get all upset over shit like this when it suits you. And then you’ll get into your fast car, drive home, eat bacon and throw the packaging into the bin unrecycled.’ Her body language became animated, her voice irritated. ‘What you having a go at me for?’ ‘Because I hate this draining rigmarole we always have to go through when you get all pissy about litter or making cynical observations about people. Always pointing out the worst in anyone and everyone. It wears you down. You get all riled up, then you get me all riled up, while the ignorant fuckers are long gone living blissfully unaware. People don’t care. Greed and convenience rule the world. And unfortunately, not you, me or anyone else is going to change that. The time to save the world was yesterday.’ ‘So what, we just keep on letting people shit where they please?’ ‘Why don’t you ask Faye?’ The comment threw me. I looked at her peevishly, unable to answer. ‘Besides’, she continued, ‘what are you going to do? Scream and shout at someone who you see littering? Call them a cunt? Then what? Most people would love a reaction like that. It’d give their shitty little lives some much needed action. An excuse to scream and shout back. Throw a punch even. And then all you’d be left with is a fat lip and the world would still a shithouse. Now I’m in bad mood. Nice one.’ I became annoyed during her rant. Probably because I knew she was right and didn’t have an argument to counter. ‘Fuck you.’ I threw out petulantly. ‘If that’s the best you can come up with Good Will Hunting you should step away from the chalkboard.’ ‘Maybe I will do something about people littering. Maybe I’ll do more than scre…’ I could feel myself getting carried away. I was teetering on the edge of humiliating myself. Jenny picked up on it and goaded me, perhaps still perturbed by my ‘Fuck you’ comment. ‘Finish that sentence. Maybe you’ll do what? Get vengeance on the people who you think deserve it? For the sake of the world? Society? The future? This isn’t some Russian literature novel Raskolnikov.’ My eyes hardened and my jaw clenched once more. I was embarrassed and I didn’t like it. ‘Fuck you.’ I called out once more, except this time with added venom. I became agitated that I could only muster repeated unintelligible insults through hazy incoherent thoughts. ‘Fine.’ She replied calmly. Stood and walked off. I watched her go, mainly her pert bum. I contemplated running after her, but pride got the better of me. I sat a while longer, running things over and over, muttering the odd word aloud. Finally, I rose, walked head down further along the beach toward Wray Castle, coming across a flat stone about two inches wide. I skimmed it. Four long skims followed by six or seven shorter ones. I glanced round, pleased with myself, looking for adulation. But there was no one to share this great achievement with.

I slowly walked back through the woodland. Chocolate wrappers seemed to accentuate the trail like some shit modern day fairy-tale. Rather than feeling irritated by them though I instead thought of Jenny and what a dick I’d just been. I needed good people around me at the moment. Good people like her. I’ve always had a bad habit of telling people I’m alright when I’m far from it. Just some bullshit stiff upper lip nonsense passed down from older generations who were wound so tight themselves it’s a miracle they relaxed long enough to conceive a younger generation.

Once through the other end and out in the open air once again, I saw a man rowing across toward me, but thirty metres further up. It was getting dark, but I could make out that he was young; early twenties maybe. He jumped out, pulled the boat up the beach and walked up towards Claife Station. Fifteen minutes later I arrived at my car, opened the boot, found an old newspaper and wiped my trainers. As I was getting into the driver’s side, I heard a petrifying scream. Shock pulled me out of the car. I looked around. I couldn’t see a thing or even make out where the scream had come from. I cautiously walked round to the front and stopped. The scream had cut through me so deep that I was afraid to walk into the night. Suddenly, in the moonlight, I saw an elderly man, running frantically down from near Claife Heights. ‘Are you ok pal?’ I called out. There was no answer. ‘Hello!’ I shouted. The elderly man ran hobbling to the rowing boat, pushed and struggled with it until it sat buoyantly in the water, jumped in and began rowing away as fast as he could. I couldn’t see the younger man anywhere. I looked up toward the ruins of Claife Station. It was still. Quiet. Eerily so. ‘Hello? Is there anybody up there?’ I called out nervously. There was no reply. I considered going up to check, but fear locked my knees. I hurried back into the car, started the engine, reversed as quickly as possible; gravel flicking up and firing in all directions. I threw the gearstick into first and sped off into the night. 

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