THE WALK BEGAN with staring cows and lazy rain. With chickens hanging around front doors and families, seen through frosted windows, enjoying their lunch and each other’s company. It started with a visible outward breath, her surrender into country life after too long rattling around London, piling vice onto vice onto vice.
She felt she could have journeyed on along those country lanes forever; each site warmed her. The mossed fences, the centuries-old farmhouses, the bailed hay and the distant drawl of tractors, singing to her of honest industry and Time Spent Right. She passed muddied dogs and wild flowers and became so suddenly tactile. But each time her hands neared something she marvelled, she pulled away, sure the oil of her fingertips would obscure it all somehow.
She watched her white breath billow into the country air and was calmed by the sight of it leaving her. In the city, she had to smoke to see her breath, like adding a stiff smell to gas so it is clear when there is a leak. But here, in the depths of the Dartmoor National Park, nature was doing it for her. The crisp air dutifully assured her, every few moments, that she was still alive. Coming here was the first good she’d done herself in months. Yes, she thought, this is where the healing will take place, this is where the bad thoughts will cease, this is where it will happen.
And then the lane turned into a hedge-lined highway. She was to turn right here, according to her landlady, who offered directions whilst wiping specs of mud from her cheek. She waited for a van to pass, crossed the road and started walking with a hurried pace. Perhaps she misheard; perhaps she was too focused on the mother cow weeping by her landlady’s side, not long separated from her calf. She thought of her own mother, and wondered if she was weeping, too; they’d been separated for so long.
A car came barrelling along the road toward her and she stopped and pressed her body into the hedge. She gave the drivers each a slight wave, but was sure to make it distinguishable from one a hitchhiker would offer. She kept her thumbs tucked in and didn’t look at the drivers longer than a moment or two.
By the time she realised the danger of her expedition, it was pointless turning back; she was as far away from home as from the township, so decided it best to press on. She felt safer on the straight parts; there was ample time after spotting a car to position her body in the hedge and steady her feet. But when she came to a corner, slight or blind, she ran, propelled forth by fear and the imagined sound of screeching brakes and crunching leaves. She wanted it to be over as quickly as possible.
She watched a dark blue pickup slow and stop on the other side of the road. Cars backed up behind it and overtook with no regard for the double lines, the girl in the hedge or the man’s elbow out the window. The skin of his face was heavy and pulled his features down. She didn’t feel particularly alluring that day – hair unwashed, face bare, a floppy green jumper – but she was a girl on the side of a highway, after all; a damsel in the shrubs.
The night before, in the taxi from Exeter bus station, she listened to the newsreader tell of a murder in one part of town, a rape in another, and of some middle aged nurses who roughed up a man in a retirement home because his wife complained about the activities program. Perhaps it had to do with countryside lethargy, or that people have to turn their headlights on at three. She tried to tune the radio out; this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of town.
It’s very dangerous walking along these roads, said the man, I saw you on my way to town and turned back to get you. She tried not to let her fragility show, but her voice was too wispy and her ponytail too high to fain strength. I haven’t far to go, she said, twigs pressing into her jumper and holding her in place. I’m just going into town.
You’ve still got a good mile to go until you reach Moretonhampstead, he said, and the road only gets worse from here on. She tried to assure him that she was okay, but he piled reason onto reason and if a truck comes by you’ll be in real strife pushed her into agreement. She crossed the road and clocked the company name on the spare tire cover. Holiday something. She’d forgotten it by the time she reached the passenger door.
Her fingers wrapped around the handle, stealing one more moment of indecision. He watched her hesitation and said, as if to calm her, you can either be killed on this road, or you can get in a car with someone who may murder you. Those are your options. She climbed in, but left the seatbelt unbuckled. He checked his mirrors.
She remembered the word holiday and made small talk with him about his business. He didn’t seem to want to talk about it; yeah, I run a sort of holiday company was all he offered. There were thick rubber gloves on the centre console and the back of the truck was empty. Have you lived around here long? she asked as she pretended to type something into her phone. He couldn’t see that it read no service.
His left hand came into view when he turned the car into a small lane off the highway. He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. She knew that if he kept going along the lane, she was done for, but if he used it to turn the car around, back onto the highway, she would be okay.
He entered the lane too straight to turn. The canopy of trees in front of them was like a barrel of a gun, pointed straight at the windscreen. She used to fantasise about being captured, and played out different scenarios, alone in her bedroom, well into her teens. She was always sure it was going to happen to her, but figured it would be whilst pacing the backstreets of the West End in the early hours, unable to sleep, unable to find someone to walk with.
She sunk lower into the passenger seat and closed her eyes. She pictured herself locked in a cold hayshed, wishing she’d picked a flower or two to clasp between her fingers, now reddened, now decorated with ant bites and rope burn. Wherever kept, she knew that her moan would blend in with the sound the cows make of an evening, and that the noise would not turn a head around these parts.
She looked across at him and studied his hands, his face. He looked weathered, heavy with something. Maybe grief, maybe too many years working a farm, maybe loneliness. She recognised his lethargy, and wanted to tell him so. She wanted him to face her and see that the same thing that had pulled at his features had started pulling at hers. She wanted to tell him
that he could put on the gloves now and that she’ll move into the back, if that would make him feel okay. Perhaps this was the healing, perhaps this is what she came for, perhaps this was it.
You don’t sound like you’re from around here, he said as he pulled the wheel heavily and swung the car back onto the highway. She stared at his face like he’d broken a promise or taken something from her. She wondered who felt more let down in that moment, the mother cow or her. No, she breathed, I’m not. His eyes were fastened on the road. Well, I hope you enjoy your stay.
He dropped her at the post office and drove off without looking back. She stole into the nearest café and sat by the window. A missing cat sign hung in front of her – behind the thin lace curtain – and she pictured her face on it instead. Vegetable soup and a coffee, please, she said to the waitress. White bread or granary? the woman asked. Granary, thanks. No butter.
When she was done she asked if she could use the phone to call a cab. The woman on the other end of the line laughed and said you can walk there faster than I can get a cab to you, you know, there are only four drivers in this town! She looked through the café window at the darkening sky and implored the woman on the other end of the line to send the next driver. It’s your money, sweetheart. She paid for her lunch and sat on the bench outside the door.
The taxi arrived half an hour later, and she greeted the driver like her grandfather coming to pick her up from school. When they arrived back at her lodging, Trevor, wrapped in a thick knitted jumper, wrote his number on the back of the company’s business card and passed it to her. Sally will probably answer the phone, he said, but if you want to get a drink at the pub, give me a call. She looked at him a while and saw the canopy of trees in his eyes. I don’t get reception out here, she said, sinking into the passenger seat, so we’d better go now.