All I knew about Ashby-by-the-Moor was that my father had insisted on being buried there.
Or rather, his will had insisted. It amounted to the same: me trying to squeeze into a parking spot beside a band of village green as cold February rain slanted across the windscreen. Not that there were many people there, but there wasn’t a lot of space either. The village consisted of all of two streets, arranged in a cockeyed cross with the church, appropriately, at its centre.
There were five of us mourners. I didn’t recognise the other four and there wasn’t much in the way of conversation. I wished again that I could have talked Deborah or the girls into coming with me, but Deborah was busy with work and neither Jen nor Heather had the faintest interest in a grandfather they hadn’t met. The ceremony was brief, thank goodness; the rain hadn’t let up. The priest said a few innocuous, impersonal words, and I wondered who’d arranged this. My father, presumably, but to the best of my knowledge, he’d never been religious. Could it be that, seeing the end approaching, he’d found some sad glimmer of faith? He wouldn’t have been the first.
Afterwards, I hurried back to the car. With the heater turned up to full, I took the envelope I’d received the week before from the glove compartment and emptied its contents onto the passenger seat. They consisted of a copy of the will and a small, hardback book bound in a cracked sheaf of glossy paper. The will I returned to the envelope, annoyed by its reminder that at some point I’d have to answer its summons to visit my father’s empty rented flat and collect his remaining belongings. The book I flicked through, as I had twice since I’d received it, each time with puzzlement. I still thought that perhaps a letter might drop out, some final apology or explanation or … something.
But no, unless its hidden messages were written in invisible ink, the slim volume was precisely what it appeared to be and what its title stated: A Book of Local Walks for the Solitary Hiker. The copyright page dated it originally to 1952, though this particular copy was a reissue from a decade later. It listed twenty-seven walks of four to eight miles in length, with names ranging from the studiously dull “Up and Down Faxendale” to the faintly enticing “Around Kirby Top and Past the Devil’s Saddle.” And none of that explained why my father had felt the need to arrange for it to be sent to me after his death.
I put the book down and started the engine. Then I switched the engine off and picked the book up again. I flicked to the contents page, scanned down, and read aloud, “Number 12: From Ashby-by-the-Moor Churchyard, via Thiliburton Woods and the Old Granary.” The length was listed as four-and-a-half miles. Was this the significance I’d been meant to find? I vaguely recalled that my dad had been into hiking. Was this intended as some sort of legacy?
I wanted to roll the window down and throw the book out in the rain. Instead, I put it back in its envelope. I was beginning to get hungry and there was nowhere to eat in Ashby-by-the-Moor, as there wasn’t a great deal of anything. If I set off now, I could grab an early lunch in a nearby pub.
I could. But I didn’t. I realised I was staring at my shoes. They weren’t made for walking, but they were sturdy. And didn’t I have my coat in the boot? Anyway, the rain was slackening and the sky was lighter ahead. If I’d interpreted the crude black-and-white map rightly, that was where the walk would take me. And I wouldn’t be doing it for the father I’d barely known, I’d do it for me, to stretch my legs and clear my head and make something of this otherwise wasted day.
The route took me into the graveyard. I purposefully went around the opposite side of the church to avoid the fresh grave there. Beyond, a wrought iron gate led onto a gravelled lane between the gardens of quaint cottages. Within a few metres, the lane met a gate, with a stile beside it, and gave way to a grassy track. The ground was wet and puddled from the recent rain, which at least was dying down, so that I didn’t have to keep ducking into shelter to check the guidebook. Still, my shoes were smeared with mud, and I knew I ought to turn back and get in my car and go ahead with my initial plan of finding somewhere that would serve me lunch.
However, the clean air was pleasant in my lungs. The smell of dirt stirred by rain and of wet pine trees filled my nostrils. It was an age since I’d been out in the wilds, an age since I’d done anything remotely foolish or adventurous. If not today, when? I asked myself. You just buried a parent. Even if you had no love for the man, that justifies a couple of hours to yourself.
I walked on. The directions were easy to follow and often echoed by faded yellow arrows painted on posts and trunks. I left the track for a rising path across fields, a steep ascent amid gorse and pale rock outcroppings, the brow of a shallow hill, and then a dip toward what the book maintained was Thiliburton Woods, though how anybody could tell them apart from other woods was beyond my citified judgement. I settled into a rhythm that felt natural and was unlike my usual hasty pacing. There was a profound silence around me, and it wasn’t disturbed by the occasional splash of water from leaves or the rumbling of a distant tractor or the patter of small animals darting between cover but somehow deepened.
In the back of my mind, the point of this unusual diversion had been to think, but actually I wasn’t thinking at all. I was a void, absorbing the scenery as it went by, appreciating it in an abstract manner. And it was good to be a void, better than the aimless emotional turmoil I’d spent so much of the recent months experiencing. Was this what my father had done? Was this where he’d found the peculiar callousness that had allowed him to walk away from his wife and son? Once that notion would have hurt me, but just then it had no strength to do so, as though I’d isolated myself even from the pains of my own life. Nor did I feel any bond with or understanding of the man I’d watched being lowered into the ground an hour ago. Indeed, it seemed to me that understanding another person was as impossible as standing naked on the moon.
The route took me higher, and the wind nipped inside my coat, and I’d discovered that mud had not only coated my shoes but seeped inside them. Yet more and more I felt I could happily have kept going forever. Nevertheless, it was apparent from the map that I’d reached the extremity of my short hike, and a kissing gate revealed a winding path down into further woodland. Soon I was walking between a strip of trees and grand, primordial ferns. And as the thought crossed my mind that it was many minutes since I’d seen signs of civilisation, I noticed a shimmer of grey through the trees too regular not to be manmade.
I remembered that the guidebook mentioned an abandoned granary, but that was near the end, so I assumed I’d come on a secluded house or farm. I wasn’t far off. In fact, as I drew closer, I saw one corner of a barn, with its broadest flank roughly level with the footpath. It was made of stone, in large, crude blocks, and the roof was of dark, bluish slate. Both were covered in stubbly patches of moss and lichen like carelessly splashed ink, and in general everything about the place spoke of ancientness. Had someone told me it had been built by the Normans a millennia ago, I’d have believed them.
The barn had suffered at the whims of the years and the elements, but it hadn’t been abandoned to them. Parts of the wall had collapsed, and it was hard to say what was holding the remainder together, but somebody was determined to halt its final progress toward rubble and rot. The man was old; that was my first impression of him. He was a perfect fit with the building he was endeavouring to save. His hair and untrimmed beard were the same grey as its stone, his skin as pale as the wooden beams visible through the tumbledown gaps. He wore overalls that had themselves seen better days, and he was knelt amid a heap of blocks, presumably repurposed from those the crumbling barn had already spat out.
He didn’t look round as I approached, and I wondered if I ought to call to him. But anything I imagined saying seemed inappropriate to the situation, and more than that, there was something inordinately solitary about him and his task, which on his own was bound to take months or years. I felt that, even if he was simply a tradesperson, this wasn’t a job you took on if they were eager for conversation with strangers. And my instincts assured me he wasn’t, but rather that this was a labour of love—or of some like sentiment. At any rate, it had nothing to do with me, the bumbling tourist playing at hiking to divert him from the many topics he preferred not to ponder.
So I walked on. I passed close, within a couple of metres, but he didn’t turn, just kept on with his work, which he was going about with extraordinary steadiness and tenacity. As I went by, I tipped an invisible cap to him.
When I glanced over my shoulder a minute later, the barn was out of sight, shrouded by layer upon layer of greenery. In another, the path had been reduced to a boggy stretch by the recent rains and the place was swept from my mind as I hopped and lurched to avoid the worst spots. I thought of it again briefly when I arrived at what the guidebook informed me was the old granary, a dignified monolith that had been remodelled, in recent years, into the sort of house TV programmes were made about; would that be the barn’s fate once it was finally done? And soon after, I was back in Ashby-by-the-Moor and trying to clean sufficient mud off my largely ruined shoes that I dared to climb into my car.
Thenceforth, I didn’t think of the village, or the walk, or my father’s lonely grave, or any of it. Life did what life does: it happened and happened and happened, and so much of what might have been important slipped between its gears and was lost.
That November, Deborah told me she wanted a divorce. I was more surprised than I should have been. It transpired that everyone had known except me, and that many of them had considered me cruel for failing to catch on, as though through sheer ignorance I’d been keeping her prisoner. But then, perhaps that was exactly what I’d been doing, and ignorance seemed less and less of a defence in the subsequent days.
That Christmas was a cold one in every sense, and by Easter, the deed was essentially done. The legal processes were grinding inexorably on, but I’d moved out into a flat, the first time I’d lived on my own in over a decade. The proceedings had been amicable, in a decidedly frosty way that matched the season, and that frost had crept inside my bones and made me numb and sluggish. Within a week, I knew I’d never decorate and that the drab pastel walls would be a source of mild discomfort for however long I stayed there—which I swore wouldn’t be forever, even as I couldn’t conceive of any future change. I saw the girls every second weekend, apparently on their decision rather than their mother’s. Their lack of enthusiasm over those four days in each month was the only part of it I felt actual pain at, the single thorn that pushed through my insensate skin.
The evenings were difficult to fill. Nothing held my attention. The weekends when I didn’t have Jen and Heather were easier emotionally, but harder otherwise, a trudge of bloated hours. People advised me idly that I needed a hobby, and I agreed, while simultaneously being unable to remember anything that had ever amused me. Hadn’t I used to play tennis? Hadn’t I gone to the cinema? Those seemed like the experiences of another me in a mirror world that the glass had long since cracked on.
It was a work trip that took me back to Ashby-by-the-Moor. Or rather, the trip took me to a town some thirty miles off and a vivid flash of memory was what made me swerve onto a side road: my father’s coffin being lowered into the earth, and the priest droning on, and cold rain trickling down my neck. But by the time I got there, I wasn’t thinking about the grave, though I supposed I’d pretended to myself this was a visit. Wouldn’t that have made sense? Life had pushed my father and me fractionally closer in those intervening months, at least as it came to our circumstances.
The guidebook was where I’d stashed it all those months ago, in the glove compartment. I’d been meaning to take it out and stuff it onto a bookshelf, had always forgotten. Had I been subconsciously planning for this day? What was to stop me exploring some of the other routes, maybe staying for a weekend in a bed and breakfast? All right, I’d be doing so alone, but if I was going to lead this solitary existence, I might as well make the most of it.
I only spared a glance for my father’s grave, enough to note that there was no evidence it had been touched. Nobody had left flowers, and the stone had already lost its sheen of newness. I felt nothing at the sight, and wondered if I ought to, if there was something wrong with me. But if there was, I didn’t see what I could do. I’d no way to conjure up emotions I didn’t have.
Once I’d followed the lane to the grassy track that began the walk proper, such negative sentiments fled my mind: not dealt with, merely absorbed into the stillness and the deep quiet. This day was better than the previous one, the sun was warm and the ground was baked dry. I was reassured that I wouldn’t be destroying another pair of shoes, not that I’d have cared. It was good to be out there, and I understood that I’d missed this sensation and that the missing had been subsumed in the storm of anguish and loss that had been the last year. Were it not for the divorce, the flat, the hole that had opened beneath me and refused to seal, perhaps I’d have come back much sooner.
I hadn’t contemplated the barn at any stage, had barely remembered it, yet when I noticed the smudge of grey amid the twining foliage, I was struck by a sense of occasion that almost brought me to a halt. The memory of what was coming was fresher and more potent than that of the rest of the walk, as though those particular instants had happened not months but minutes ago. I slowed, unsure of what I wanted, or expected, to see. Would the old man have abandoned his project or handed it off to a younger relative? Was the barn finished and converted now into a second home for well-off commuters?
The barn wall came into view by degrees—or maybe that was simply how I perceived it, as my eyes darted, absorbing details, matching them to my recollected picture. Had that section been complete? Was the stone there newer, or was it that the elements had stripped the lichen that mottled other blocks? Had that weatherworn beam been visible?
I’d reached my conclusion before I saw the old man, but he confirmed my thoughts, as if his crooked figure was the exclamation mark at the end of a sentence. Nothing had changed. No progress had been made. And I’d have sworn he was the same too, dressed in identically faded blue overalls, felt cap pulled low over his wrinkled, sunburned features. I could even have persuaded myself that his tools were where they’d been and that the piles of stone at the ready were also. Nothing, nothing had changed. And I was glad. Change could be damned; I’d had enough of it.
I considered saying hello and decided I wouldn’t. It occurred to me that I didn’t really want to, regardless of how inappropriate it seemed. Instead, I carried on, and within seconds the barn was behind me and I was alone once more.
A year went by. Deborah remarried the following April, and she invited me to the wedding. I insisted that I was happy for her, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. I couldn’t bring myself to do much of anything that involved other people, especially if there was a risk of exposing any part of me to their scrutiny. That wasn’t entirely a matter of choice; it was as though a shell was growing around me, a cocoon. It felt like an altogether natural process: I’d passed from one mode of living to another, and here I was, being transformed into something new and solitary.
Even the girls didn’t visit much anymore. Of everybody, I missed them the most, though it was obvious when they did come that I was an embarrassment and a source of discomfort. They’d spoken highly of their stepfather-to-be, maybe because they thought doing so would hurt me, maybe because they didn’t care either way. I didn’t blame them. He sounded like a nice guy, one who was present for them to an extent that I was coming to see I’d never been. Perhaps, after all, it was better that they moved on into the brighter future he was sure to bring.
There were days when I was adamant that I had to start looking for someone else, try the occasional date anyway, or if not, find a hobby that brought me into contact with others, lest the shell close over my head and seal me away for good. Yet the truth was that I didn’t object. I was an island, no matter what the quote claimed, and that was okay.
And increasingly, I walked. Walking brought me—not pleasure exactly, but a purer sensibility that I could only interpret afterwards, as though I’d stepped out of the proper bounds of human experience and had to learn some novel vocabulary to account for where I’d been. Which was odd, really, given that there couldn’t have been anything more prosaic than my wandering of hills and dales and meadows and forests. Wasn’t it precisely what men in my circumstances had done since time immemorial? Wasn’t it what my father had done? Maybe, if I trusted the clue of the guide book he’d left me, if it was a clue and not a bizarre administrative error or cruel joke.
One such trip was what returned me to Ashby-by-the-Moor. But that wasn’t where I was headed; I’d rented a room in a bed and breakfast for the weekend from which I could trek out on the nearby moorland. Ashby wasn’t even on my satnav route, except that one diversion and another found me in the vicinity of the village. I had a dreamy impression of recognising nondescript roads and hedgerows and isolated trees in close-shorn fields, features that might have belonged to countless places and nevertheless struck a chord. Then I saw a sign and understood.
If I kept going, I could be at my B&B early enough to get a couple of hours’ hiking in and have my dinner in the village pub. I had it all planned, and I didn’t know I was going to stop beside the village green in Ashby until I did. I checked the glove compartment, half convinced the guidebook would be gone, because why would it still be there? But of course it was. I flicked through the yellowing pages, though I had the route memorised.
Nobody was around. I stuck to the road so as to circumvent the graveyard and didn’t so much as peer in. As I crossed the first stile, sure enough, the route rushed up clearly in my memory, each twist and turn presenting itself with the clarity of a well-loved favourite movie. I kept checking the book all the same, as if it were a companion pointing out details I might have missed. The day was chilly, but I didn’t mind. I felt less lonely than I had in days, or weeks, or months.
This time, I was looking out for the barn. The sky was overcast by then, and there was something faintly predatorial about the way in which it slipped from among the trees, like an octopus breaking from a cover of fronds. Yet I wasn’t concerned, and I had no preconceptions or questions as it slid into view. I had a fair idea of what I’d see, but I didn’t feel any pressure to know or comprehend. Neither was what I’d come for.
I stopped and watched for a protracted while, as the old man worked at his slow labour, which never produced results. He was skilled, that was evident in the smooth motions by which he laid stones and smeared mortar. However, nothing he did was beyond me. I was a quick learner. How hard could it be?
I didn’t offer to help. I don’t quite remember brushing through the intervening high grass and tangling wildflowers. But abruptly there was rough stone under my fingers and I was bowing to usher it into place, a thrill of joy rushing through me at the perfectness of its fit. I looked up, seeking the old man, wanting praise perhaps or just acknowledgement. But I was alone, and it seemed to me that I’d always been alone and that my memories weren’t to be trusted. Hadn’t my mind wandered? Hadn’t I glimpsed the splash of rain on grey tombstones; a woman’s face, distant and growing more so; a single tree rising stubborn as a flagpole from the centre of a stubbled field? The images were a jumble, and none had the tactile reality of the stone beneath my fingertips. I checked it, and, satisfied, reached for another. And another. And another.
That, I think, was yesterday. But then, it’s been yesterday for a long time now.