Updates every Tuesday and Thursday.
While Jo and I alternated between cigs and bottle swigs, Ewan and Paul set up some crappy disposable barbecues. The stags chatted between themselves, swapping looks and tender chuckles while they arranged some decent looking meat across the grills. I grinned stupidly every time they pushed and laughed at each others’ mistakes before working together to set things right. They were good for each other, that much was obvious. Ewan lacked the sort of self-conscious second-guessing that had held Paul back in the time I’d really known him, and Paul obviously helped to make Ewan’s ideas into something that actually worked.
Gerry, Steve and Lucy stayed inside one of the yurts talking in low, serious tones. Words like ‘Brexit’, ‘trade agreements’ and ‘bloody disaster’ filtered through the tent flap from time to time. It came as little surprise when Mike stepped out after a short while and took a healthy mouthful of JD.
“It’s not that I’m not into politics,” he said, drawing attention to any one of the patches on his top. “So much as I was planning on having a good time this weekend.”
He lit up a joint and we passed it between us to seal the deal.
By the time things were edible, I was starting to feel pretty good about the whole thing. Despite what Paul had said, it turned out that Ewan made a pretty mean barbecued steak. It went down well with a decent bottle of his prefered-brand craft beer after my hike to reach the site.
We all gathered around the coals after Ewan tipped out the barbecues into a pile and chucked some branches on the top. If I was the sort of person who worried about such things, I might’ve thought it was weird that there wasn’t a pre-existing firepit. I might’ve wondered if that meant the site had a ban on fires that weren’t fully contained, a fairly common thing in this part of the world. I am the sort of person that leaves tick boxes to other people, however, so I sat back and enjoyed myself.
One by one people pulled up makeshift chairs out of folded sleeping bags and waterproofs. As the pile of empties grew, so did the laughter. The night was clear, the stars were out, and for just a few hours I could pretend to be 20 again.
We all paired up, with conversations happening with whoever was sat next to us, whoever was sat opposite, and whoever happened to be walking past in the direction of the staggering booze pile we’d amassed. For all I hated camping, there was something to be said for those moments of pure, undistracted connection.
And there wasn’t a single acoustic guitar to be found. Ewan threatened to pull one out, but was caught by Paul who launched into a story about the time Ewan had tried to serenade him.
“I’d never been so embarrassed,” he managed as we laughed, choking on fire smoke and beer as Ewan fell to one side giggling. “I went out with him just to make him stop.”
“You’ve never been so embarrassed, huh?” I repeated, raising my eyebrows.
Paul frowned for a moment before his face dropped. “Come on, don’t do this to me.”
Ewan pulled himself up, wiping tears from under his glasses. “What’s this?”
“You can’t marry this man until you know what he can do with an empty of bottle of tequila,” I said, basking in Paul’s horror. “I mean, there’s ‘til death do you part’ and all that, but even still…”
“Wait – he’s never told you about our second year extrav?” Jo grinned wickedly. “Not even mentioned the time he crashed a stage?”
Paul tried, and failed to stand up. “No. don’t you dare. I want to marry this man. Get fucked.” He did his very best to look menacing, but cracked up halfway through and slid onto the floor where Ewan had creased up moments before.
We talked like that all night. I almost felt sorry for everyone who hadn’t been part of our stupid little group at Uni, although Ewan threw himself into it like he’d known us his whole life. Gerry chilled out after stepping around the outhouse with Mike and coming back with bloodshot eyes that weren’t entirely down to the woodsmoke. Good on him, I remember thinking.
Lucy didn’t say a word. She smiled politely along with our stories while picking at the stitching on her cargo pants; Steve sat back nursing a bottle of red wine and a plastic wine glass. Jo made the mistake of asking him what he was drinking and offering him her mostly-gone bottle of JD in the universal language of trade. He looked at it with the same sort of disgust he’d given me and tucked his very expensive looking bottle between his feet. I don’t know what he said, but it probably had a year in the name and tasting notes.
I might’ve mumbled something about him being a bit of a prick. Or I might’ve shouted it across the fire. Things were a bit hazy by that point.
The last thing I really remember was Paul talking about the hike we were going on in the morning. By that stage it must’ve been gone midnight. I was proud of the good-natured jeering we threw back at him. With a shit eating grin on his face he brushed aside our objections.
He said something about a nearby bridleway, a picturesque packhorse bridge (I still don’t know what that is), and a gentle ridgewalk. I called bullshit on the words ‘gentle’ and ‘ridgewalk’ being used in the same sentence, but whatever. I was merry enough to go along it all.
That pretty much put an end to festivities. Knowing we’d be getting up and moving with purpose in the morning took the fun out of things. Some animal part of our brains told us we needed to rest up, so one by one we drifted off to whatever space we had, or hadn’t, laid claim to.
Waking up was grim. I’d managed to make it into a tent at least, but hadn’t bothered getting undressed. I’d been using my sleeping bag as a pillow and my shitty waterproofs as a blanket.
As you can probably imagine, I wasn’t too happy to see sunlight filter through the tent canvas.
I reached for a can of something and downed half of it. I was still drunk enough from the night before that I figured I could ride ahead of the hangover. My head throbbed with the tell-tale ache of dehydration – nothing a no-brand special couldn’t chase off. There wasn’t much I could do about the fact my body felt like a bag of spanners that had been kicked off a cliff.
I heard talking outside. It sounded involved. Exactly the sort of thing a person wants to avoid when their body’s trying to figure out how it wants to punish itself. Do you want to launch yourself into the day like a fucking legend and own whatever you did or said the night before? Or is there enough tell-tale shame at the back of your throat that you should lay low for a while and hope other people were as far gone as you were? At least, that is, for as long as it takes you to remember what you might’ve done and how to apologise.
I considered pulling whatever discarded crap was lying around me and burying myself in it. A few more hours kip was just what the doctor ordered.
Even so, I couldn’t settle. There’s something about a conversation that makes the human brain click in a certain way. Besides, the site was so excruciatingly rural that there wasn’t any background noise to drown it out with.
Surrendering to instinct, I pulled my jacket around me – can in hand – and went outside. Seemed like I was the last person up.
“What’s up?” I asked, squinting.
“The bloody water’s not working,” said Paul as he planted his hands on his hips.
For as long as I’ve known him, Paul has been exactly the type of amiable, empathetic guy that when he starts wigging out, so does everyone around him. I think part of the reason we loved getting away so much when we were students was so he wasn’t constantly confronted with the things that made him miserable, like shit grades and constant assignments. In part, that was probably a good reason why he didn’t pass the first time around. In part, that was probably my fault.
“It was working last night,” I said, casting my mind back to a midnight stagger to use the facilities.
“Well, it’s not working now. The taps are spitting air, and the loos won’t flush. No showers either.”
“Can we call the farmer?”
Lucy held up her phone. “There’s no reception here. Not even emergency coverage. Not that this is an emergency,” she quickly added. “He – or she – is away this weekend anyway.”
Pissing in the bushes it is then. I could deal with that if it was the trade off for a few more nights like yesterday.
“We’ve dealt with worse, Paul,” I offered. “We’re still better off than we were way back when.”
Ewan stroked his fiance’s back. “It’s okay,” he soothed. “It’s not the end of the world. We’ve got a couple of bottles in the minibus. From the service station, remember? If the water’s still not working when we get back from the walk, we’ll drive out to the village and get more. No problem.”
Paul muttered to himself. “I guess.”
“It’s all good, mate,” said Mike. “We can last a few hours without working loos. It’s not like we’ll be anywhere near them for the next few hours anyway.”
“True.” Paul perked up enough to look more like himself.
Steve cleared his throat, sucking our attention towards him. “There is a water pump.” He waved somewhere in the direction of the outhouse. “It’s over there, beyond the facilities. Just this side of the treeline. I found it while I was doing a reccy yesterday.”
Paul groaned. “We can’t use it.”
“Who knows how long its been there for?”
Steve chuckled in the same way I remembered teachers I’d rather forget. It was a patronising sort of sound – completely humourless – practiced to make you feel as small and thick as possible. It was uniquely dismissive. “Centuries, most likely. The water will come from a spring – it doesn’t go ‘off’.”
“How do you know it’s safe?” asked Jo.
“Because I drew some water. It’s perfectly clear.”
“How do you know nothing’s died in it?”
“There are no bad smells, and it tastes fine.”
“You drank it?” Jo recoiled.
Steve reached into his pocket. With a flourish, he presented a blue cylinder. “I have a filter straw. It’s basic equipment for living in harsh environments. It removes bacteria and parasites among other things I won’t bore you with.” He looked so proud you might’ve thought he’d made the fucking thing. I bet he’d studied an SAS survival manual before deciding to camp out just for moments like this. “If you drink through this, it’ll be cleaner than the water coming out of the taps.”
“He’s got a point, babe,” said Mike. “The taps and toilets probably pull water up from the same source as the pump anyway. Why build anything else when there’s some already here, right?”
“Still gross,” Jo muttered.
“We bathed in the Ganges. It won’t be worse than that.”
I could see Steve smirking in the corner of my eye. I thought I could hear the sound of a leather couch creaking.
“Bathing isn’t the same as drinking, Mike. That pump’s probably for animals, not people.”
Mike shrugged in a way that only he could shrug. His shoulders were non-stick, his fucks non-existent. “It seems alright to me. Probably better than water in London, at any rate. If we boil it, it’ll be fine. Good enough to flush toilets with even if we don’t drink it.”
“Well I’m not touching it,” said Lucy putting up her hands. No one had asked her. “I’d rather drink lager than risk getting dysentery out here.”
Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.
Paul looked around, desperate for some other voice of reason. “Gerry?”
Gerry visibly greened. “It’s probably fine,” he just about managed. He might’ve had a stronger opinion if he wasn’t fighting down last night’s indulges. I suspected we wouldn’t see him eat or drink for a while yet.
Paul looked at me.
I thought for a moment. Don’t get me wrong: I had no plans to touch the water and the last thing I wanted was for Steve to think he was in the right. It’s not like I was planning to spend the weekend detoxing so it didn’t make the blindest bit of difference to me. But the thought of that smug prick violently shitting himself at the top of whatever mountain we were climbing won out over common sense.
“Steve looks like he knows what he’s talking about.”
Paul could not have looked any more disappointed.
Ewan slipped his arm through Paul’s. “Come on then. Let’s go get that water out of the minibus.” The two of them walked off through the gate and down the track. I could hear Paul complaining even with distance.
“I’ll draw more water then,” Steve announced as he strutted off like Bear Grylls with a manicure and a rod up his arse. Gerry slinked back inside his tent, a self-conscious shadow.
I patted my pockets and pulled out a crumpled fag packet. I lit one and Jo magically appeared.
“What’re you up to?” she challenged with a poke to my ribs.
“You want a smoke? You can just ask, you know.”
She grumbled, disapproving even as she pulled a cigarette out. She’d always been able to read me like a book. It was equal parts endearing and annoying.
“You’re upset about the water? If Steve wants to play survival hero, fuck it.”
“It might be standing. It might’ve been down there for decades. You’re not going to drink it, are you?”
“Am I fuck,” I snorted. “Even boiled, I don’t drink any water lower than the sheep line.”
“Sheep line?” asked Lucy, appearing on my other side.
“Yeah. The line where sheep die on the hills,” I replied, offering her a cigarette. She refused, managing to look offended in the process. “If you’re out in places like this, you don’t drink any water if you can’t see the source. Odds are if you do, there’s a dead sheep rotting somewhere around the corner.”
“Want a beer?” Fag still in mouth, I leaned back into the tent and pulled out whatever was closest. “It’s not distilled through the skins of alpine virgins, but it won’t make you shit yourself.” I said. “Don’t quote me on that, though.”
She held it like she was half-sure it was going to explode.
“If Steve winds up ill, I’m blaming you,” Jo continued.
I laughed. “And if he winds up having to leave site early, you can thank me.”
She didn’t laugh. “Play nice.”
I rolled my eyes. “He’s not entirely wrong,” I said. “It’s not like the pump will be connected to a sewage tank, or whatever.” I took a long drag and looked at her. “Why are you getting on my case anyway? Mike was on Steve’s side. So was Gerry.”
“Gerry’s wasted and just wanted to sleep. Mike was doing his usual diplomacy thing,” she sighed. It was a long, beleaguered sound, not without a hint of affection I could’ve done without. “I had this crazy assumption you’d be your usual cynical, arsehole self.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I grinned. “I’m playing the long game.”
A strange expression drifted across her face. I didn’t recognise it at the time, but it looked something like embarrassment or realisation. I wasn’t as good at reading people as she was.
Mike appeared on the other side of Jo working with practiced elegance on a rolly. “Heard my name. Anything good?”
The moment was gone.
“I was telling Lucy about the time you drank your own piss.”
Lucy sputtered, her face twisted. I couldn’t tell if it was from the can or Mike. Either option was perfectly valid – they probably tasted the same.
“Don’t remind me,” Jo shuddered.
“That was mine?” he said in mock astonishment. “I thought it was yours.” He threw a cheeky wink in my direction.
Mike was alright when he was sober. It was only when he was stoned – which was most of the time – that he turned into a vegetable. I could almost persuade myself that there was a good reason why Jo put up with him. She was passionate – a fighter and debater. Mike was, well, Mike. He’d throw himself on a knife if he was worried someone would get offended.
He was a good guy.
Certainly not an unpredictable, cynical arsehole.
I sank the rest of my can, crushed it, and chucked it over my shoulder.
“So what’s your story?” he said, peering at Lucy as he ran his tongue along the filter paper and pressed his construction together: A perfect, artisanal joint which he deftly stashed in a small baccy tin alongside several others.
“Me? I’m a surveyor. A property surveyor.”
I guessed Mike’s blank expression kept her talking. I wasn’t sure what a property surveyor did, but I imagined that they all looked like her, born with one arm made to hold a clipboard.
“When people are buying or selling a property, I go out and survey it. I see if there’s anything they need to watch out for. I mostly deal with commercial properties these days.”
I stared around blankly. There wasn’t much we could squeeze out of that.
“Ever seen anything really grim? Like a murder scene?”
Okay, so I was wrong.
Lucy squirmed. “I did find a dead homeless person once,” she replied eventually. “It was in the cellar of an office block in Birmingham. That’s where I work.”
“You work in an office where a bum died?” Jo’s eyes were wide as saucers.
Lucy’s face lit up for a brief, beautiful second as she almost laughed. I did.
“No – sorry. I mean, I work in Birmingham. The office block I was surveying was in the jewelry quarter. It wasn’t great.”
“That’s mental,” said Jo with a shudder. “Don’t know what I’d do if something like that happened to me.”
Lucy didn’t give any more. I decided I knew exactly what she would’ve done. She’d take photos and measurements, fully catalogue the scene then call the police. When they arrived, she would’ve given them an extensive brief including what she’d had for breakfast that morning whether they wanted it or not.
I think we were all waiting for some sort of follow up to the story, but it didn’t come. No wonder she didn’t talk much.
“So what’s Gerry’s deal? He seems a bit out of place.” I asked to keep things going. “I know he’s the boss, but that’s it.”
“He’s sound. Recently divorced. He would’ve gone to the Edinburgh do, but he’s got the kids next weekend so he came to this one instead. Took one sniff of me after I got back from a smoke and asked if he could tag along. Told me the last time he’d gotten stoned was at a Pink Floyd concert back in the early 80s. It was fucking wild. He’s a bit out of practice with it, though.”
For all his faults, Mike had always been a great listener. Another gold star for him.
I really needed to stop keeping track.
“I suspect he’s considering a late midlife crisis. Asked me loads of questions about travel. Got caught up talking to Steve about cars – engine sizes and all that sort of crap. He’s a few bad days away from an ear piercing or a crap tribal tattoo.”
I looked to where Ewan and Paul had gone. I couldn’t see them any more; the trees were bare, but they were closely packed and the vehicles had been left a good thirty feet or so down the track. I gestured in their direction. “I’m guessing the 4×4 over there is Steve’s.”
Jo nodded. “He didn’t want anything to do with the minibus.”
“Figures. Bet he didn’t want the leather seats scuffing.”
“He’s alright,” said Mike with a lazy grin. “I’ve met worse.”
“So have I, but I haven’t had to spend the night with them.”
“Gerry likes him. And Ewan and Paul like Gerry,” said Jo. “I think he’s still in work mode, probably afraid of looking casual in front of the boss.”
“He’s just keen to prove himself, I think,” said Mike. “He’s a bit on the abrasive side, but he’s harmless. We’ll get him to lighten up.”
The four of us stood in contemplative silence until the man himself strode back with a bucket and placed it by our makeshift firepit.
“Make yourselves useful and get this boiling?” he called to us, before walking away again.
“Wanker,” I muttered, before taking my leave to get ready for the walk.
While the rest of us mooks milled around kicking our boots at a stile on the opposite side of the field to the main track gate, Lucy performed the steal of the century.
“I don’t feel I should come,” she announced, her lips pressed in a serious looking line. It looked a lot more natural on her face than a smile.
“You okay, Luce?” asked Paul.
“I’m fine, but Gerry looks terrible. He’s not going anywhere.”
I snorted. “He’s just hungover.”
“Yes, but some people aren’t used to drinking that much,” she countered with a glance that wounded. “I feel like someone should keep an eye on him.”
Paul took the bait. Good old reliable Paul. “Is he that bad? Should we all stay?”
“I think we should all stay,” I said, earning another poke in the ribs from Jo for my sins.
Lucy shook her head. “I’ll be fine, and so will he. I’ve got first aid training if it comes down to it. Besides,” she added. “I can’t walk without water. If he starts to look better, I can drive to the village and get some in before you all get back.”
It was Ewan’s turn to take a pointed look, this time from Paul. ‘I told you it was a problem’, it said. Oof.
Ewan brushed it off with a calm smile. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “I remember seeing a little Post Office when we drove through yesterday. They’ll have all sorts for tourists. Maybe grab some painkillers while you’re there?”
Lucy nodded as he passed her a set of keys.
She took a handful of orders from other people in the group, studiously writing them down and making a show of what a great responsibility it was going to be. Every new item added validity to her cause. I stood off to one side, trying to not be pissed that I hadn’t thought of it myself. It had been a genius move. It didn’t help that I couldn’t drive.
Holding out for another reason to stay that didn’t come, we set off for the day’s ordeal.
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