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The hike wasn’t terrible.
Paul – to his full credit – hadn’t gone as brutal as he could’ve, and showed some sympathy to those of us in the group who weren’t used to cardio three times a week. We covered about six miles in total, spread out over a generous four-or-so hours.
By some small miracle, we’d only been hit by a small shower on the tops. The morning had largely been one of those crisp, clear autumn mornings you see on the covers of 70s vinyls, but never really experience in real life. The sun was low, visibility was good, and by the time we broke out through the forest that ringed the camp site, we were in good spirits.
There was a fair amount of banter at first which died off around the middle when there was scrambling and balancing, and returned with a knackered sort of relief-fuelled hysteria as we re-approached the forest mid afternoon.
Steve had not shit himself. As funny as it would’ve been, I was grateful. He’d spent most of the walk leading upfront with Paul and being downwind from that would’ve destroyed whatever reserves I had left.
As part of the vanguard, the rest of us kept one another going with promises of how good it was going to be when we finally returned to site. Ewan breathlessly chatted to us about wedding plans, Jo and Mike enthused – when they were able to – about places they’d visited over the years and potential honeymoon destinations. I kept my head down for the most part, trying not to choke on my addled lungs. God I wanted a cigarette.
On the shore of some little tarn overshadowed by the peak we were about to climb, we ate lunch: sausage sandwiches making use of leftover barbecue food, some handfuls of trail mix that tasted better than it had any right to, and – of course – lager.
For those few hours out on the fells, I could’ve almost convinced myself that this was something I could enjoy. Intellectually I knew the buzz wouldn’t last – real life would come knocking soon enough – but at the time I was prepared to ride the endorphins wherever they wanted to take me.
When we returned to camp, it was mid afternoon. The first thing Paul did was check in with Gerry and Lucy.
“They’re not there,” he said.
“They’ll be at the village,” said Ewan. In a masterful stroke of preemptive deescalation, he added: “You kick your boots off and have a drink. I’ll make sure they were able to get the minibus out.” He gave the rest of us a meaningful look as he limped off to the gate.
Paul looked like he was about to object then nodded as Jo swept an arm around his shoulders and led him towards the yurts.
“If you want something to do, get that lit while us mere mortals recover,” I said. He flipped me off for good measure.
There was a satisfying chorus of groans as most of us eased off our footwear and stretched out, wriggling toes in sweaty socks. We lit up and leaned back with our beverages of choice as Steve went to the outhouse.
“You reckon the water’s back on?” asked Jo.
“Find out in a minute, I suppose,” said Mike.
Paul busied himself with the ashes of last night, scraping back the now-burned grass and building up a pile of kindling.
“One of the reasons we chose this place was because it promised modern facilities,” he said.
I raised an eyebrow at the outhouse. “I’m not sure a converted shack counts as modern. Have you actually been inside? It stinks of sheep shit.”
Steve reemerged moments later and made a show of indicating no dice, then walked off and away out of sight towards the pump.
Paul sat back on his heels with a sigh. “It’s good enough. Or would be if it bloody worked.”
“For what it’s worth, we’re having a great time,” Jo beamed. “This was a brilliant idea.”
Paul turned back and caught her infectious smile.
“Yeah, nice one mate,” said Mike. “London sucks the soul out of you after a while.”
“On the plus side, you can probably get some sort of refund. Any refund you get means more money for Edinburgh!”
Paul chuckled. “Only enough for a pint. The other reason we chose this place is because it’s dirt cheap. I’m starting to realise why.”
“It’s the arse end of the season.” Jo passed him a can. “This place must be amazing in summer. I bet it’s full of tents and caravans, kids and parents running around having adventures in the forest, taking dinghies out on the river. Maybe we could come back when it’s warmer.”
Satisfied with his pyramid of sticks and a generous heap of firelighters, Paul slumped down next to Mike. “There weren’t pictures or anything on the website. Bit weird, really. I had to call up the farmer to ask whether or not they were actually open. It is beautiful, though. Cheers.” He offered up his can. “To reunited friends and absent ones too,” he toasted. We bumped drinks and took long, satisfied gulps.
“To you and Ewan!” Jo said, and we drank again.
“To not being students anymore,” added Mike, and we drank again.
“To not walking,” I ended. We drained our cans. That was better.
“It’s a shame Jimmy couldn’t make it,” said Jo as we passed around fresh drinks.
“Why so?” I asked.
“He’s a plumber now. I bet he could’ve fixed the outhouse.”
I snorted. “I bet he’s too busy robbing old ladies left right and centre. Has he been on Crimewatch yet?”
Jo tutted. “He’s got himself a proper little business going in Leicester. All above board. He and his wife are expecting their third kid any day now.”
Blimey, they hadn’t wasted any time. Out of all of us, Jimmy – aka James ‘the Fixer’ Foster – had been the least suited for Uni life. Maybe life in general. There hadn’t been a month when he hadn’t been pulled up before the Deans to explain himself. The only thing more surprising than him settling down with a trade and a family was that he hadn’t been kicked out of Uni altogether.
The fire took hold quickly enough. With feet stretched out towards it, I could appreciate the itchy return of warmth to my toes. It felt prickly and good.
“What about you two?” asked Paul, nodding towards Jo and Mike. “Are you planning to get married or start a family?”
They looked at one another. “We’ve thought about it,” answered Mike. His hand reached for hers and she took it.
I drank again.
“It’s not off the table.”
“If we get married, you know it’s going to be a right-place, right-time sort of thing. Maybe we’ll be in Las Vegas and play chicken.” Jo laughed.
I looked away, seizing onto the distraction of the distant gate swinging shut. Ewan began back from the track. He was about halfway across the field when he came to a stop and looked off to one side. He dithered for a second with an apologetic gesture before diverting off.
“Where’s he going?”
I leaned back to get a better look. He disappeared from view, the outhouse angled between us.
“Looks like he’s gone to the pump.”
“Fair enough. Steve might want a hand.” Resigned Paul was better than stressed Paul any day.
If I absolutely had to put a pin in the exact time when the weekend started going to shit, it would be when Mike treated himself to the first joint of the day.
“Jesus Christ!” those of us near the unlit fire heard him shout.
We jumped up and half-staggered on blistered, socked feet through wet grass towards the direction of his voice.
As we rounded the outhouse to where Mike was frozen, we came to a dead stop. It wasn’t difficult to miss what had him spooked.
Jo gasped, putting her hands to her mouth as she took a step back; Mike caught her. Paul’s eyes bulged.
There was something on the stretch of field between the outhouse and the pump. It was closer to the treeline than where we were. The grass was still frosted there in the shadow of the forest, making the very, very red puddle stand out that much more.
Ewan and Steve were stood over it looking like a pair of criminals caught in the act.
“The fuck is that?” I called as I started forward towards them.
They conferred between themselves, too quiet to be heard from a distance. As I got closer, I didn’t need an explanation. It was blood. I’m no Poirot, but even I could tell that whatever had been slaughtered there had been dragged away: There was a long smear that faded into nothing in the direction of the treeline.
“Please tell me that’s paint,” said Jo.
I heard the others approaching behind me. Mike lit up a joint and took a deep drag. He blankly passed it to Jo who followed suit.
Steve raised his hands, his face set with the expression of a consummate salesman. It made my hackles rise. Was the man capable of genuine emotion? It looked like a butcher had exploded at his feet. Ewan had the good grace to look pale.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. Ewan managed a nod. “We’re in the countryside.”
“What the fuck sort of countryside have you been hanging around in?” I asked. “Midsomer?”
“It’s nothing to worry about.” Steve repeated each word with a clipped sort of emphasis.
Jo handed the blunt to me. “What died?”
“Probably a rabbit,” said Steve.
“Big fucking rabbit,” I muttered, exhaling.
“Yes, a big rabbit. Or maybe a hare.” Steve put his hands on his hips. “And whatever killed it, took it away. It’ll be afraid of humans.”
Paul was quiet beside me. I passed him the joint. He listlessly took a drag.
“So, the minibus is gone,” said Ewan with forced cheeriness, looking at his fiance over the puddle between them. “Lucy and Steve are at the village. It looks like they might’ve had some issues with the mud, but they got away okay. They’ll be back soon.”
Paul couldn’t take his eyes off the blood. The joint was limp in his fingers. Ewan moved to relieve him of it, took a drag, and passed it back to Mike. He took his fiance in a hug.
“Hey, it’s alright. I know it’s a shock. We’re going to throw some water on it. It’ll be gone in no time”
“Was it here this morning?”
“No,” said Steve. “Thank Christ. If it had happened last night, we would’ve been woken up. Rabbits don’t go quietly.”
“I heard a dog last night,” said Mike. “There was barking and howling. I thought I’d imagined it so I went back to sleep.”
“Most likely a fox.”
“That’s a good thing, right?”
“Better than some rabid wild dogs, I suppose,” I said.
“Dog. In the singular,” replied Steve curtly. “And rabies has been extinct in the UK since the 20s. Let’s not get carried away and imagine packs of ravenous, marauding creatures.”
“I’m not getting carried away,” I frowned. “We don’t know what’s out there.”
He ignored me, addressing the others. “This is simply nature, red in tooth and claw. Ewan and Paul, please go back to the camp and start cooking. Gerry and Lucy will be back soon.”
I bit my tongue as the married-to-be walked away.
“Can we help?” asked Jo.
“I’ll do this,” I jumped in before Steve decided to give orders. “The bucket at the pump, yeah?”
I didn’t wait for an answer as I started off. When I glanced back, Jo, Mike and Steve milled around for a bit longer before walking away to the camp. Good, I thought. I didn’t need a supervisor telling me how to throw water around.
The blood was fresh, alright. If crime shows were anything to go by, the blood would clot or dry quickly if left alone. There would at least be flies buzzing around the place. There was an awful lot of it. Definitely more than I’d expect to come from a rabbit unless something went to great pains to exsanguinate the thing. I know liquid spreads further than you might think, but every time I chucked a bucket load over it, more seemed to come through from the mud. I didn’t like it one bit.
I didn’t like the way Steve was acting, either. He seemed far too keen to brush it off.
As I slung the bucket next to the pump, I frowned as something shiny caught my eye. If I hadn’t been rinsing away blood for the last half an hour, I would’ve dismissed it as a piece of foil angling the low autumn sun, or the bottom of a can. I stooped, brushing the grass away and picked it up. It was an analogue watch – a decent one too. It was still ticking.
I turned it over in my hands trying to get a sense of how long it had been out there for. It didn’t show any signs of damage or weathering, but that wasn’t too surprising. It looked to be of good enough quality that you could probably wear it while diving or parachuting, or whatever it is people with money do in adverts targeted at them.
There was an inscription on the back: ‘G. M. M. 03.09.2012’. I ran my thumb over it. Something about it made my brain itch. I took it.
Job done, I walked back to the camp. Paul had the fire lit and Ewan was mucking about with a cooler showing different packets of food and gauging reactions. Mike, Jo were sat to one side; Steve sat on his own opposite them.
“I found a watch,” I said sitting down and yanking off my wet socks. Disgusting. I chucked them onto a flat stone near the fire.
“Let’s have a look.” Ewan extended his hand. I fished it out and passed it to him.
“It’s got something written on the back.” I pointed at it, as if there was any ambiguity.
“It’s Gerry’s,” said Ewan after a moment.
Steve now took it. “His ex wife gave it to him on his birthday. I remember.” He inspected it as I had done. “He must have dropped it last night when he went for a smoke.” I watched as he slipped it into a pocket.
“Hey, that’s good,” smiled Jo. “I bet he was gutted when he realised it was missing. Where did you find it?”
“Over by the trees.”
Mike hummed. “That’s not right.”
“Well, when me and him went for a smoke last night, we just went to the other side of the outhouse. Near the bins. We didn’t go that far out.”
“He might’ve needed the toilet,” said Steve.
Everyone looked satisfied. I wasn’t. That brain itch was still there.
“Can’t say I take off jewelry when I take a slash,” I said, lighting up a cigarette. “Each to their own.”
Ewan shifted. “He looked terrible this morning. Maybe he went somewhere to be sick.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to get vomit on it,” said Steve.
I stared back, taking a long, unfazed drag as I did so. “That’s a long way to go when you’re going to be sick.”
“Gerry is a man of restraint.”
“He wasn’t that restrained last night.”
“He wouldn’t be sick near the camp. Unlike other people, he’s not prone to inconveniencing people around him.” Steve narrowed his armchair-crease eyes at me.
I don’t know if he intended to imply anything but I wasn’t in the mood to take it. My feet were cold to the point of being painful after wading through blood, water, and frost, and now my shoulders were kicking off.
“I didn’t see any vomit either, smart arse.”
He stared me down. “Clearly I haven’t wasted enough of my life watching television programs about crime scenes. Or hungover.”
I stubbed out my cigarette and prepared to counter.
Probably for the best, Mike cut me off.
“It’s cool – there’s no point arguing about it. We can ask him when he gets back.” His words ended the subject.
An awkward hour passed. No one really said anything. We fell back on those stupid sort of topics English people do when no one wants to talk about anything meaningful. The weather was the main one, of course. We were lucky that it had been raining the previous week so it was decent enough for the weekend. There was a threat of showers tomorrow – Sunday – and dry spells Monday onwards.
You know: important things.
“Come and get some more firewood with me,” said Jo when we hit peak, icy politeness. She gave me a nudge. I glanced about, not sure if something else was going on, before pulling on my still wet but now warm socks and boots.
Paul had been poking at the fire and looking towards the main gate every few seconds. The air felt tense. It was far removed from a few hours before.
“I think I’ll drive to the village and see if I can find our missing party members,” announced Steve as he stood and patted a pocket. His car keys gave a dull jingle.
I stopped short of telling him he could make it to Carlisle before dark if he kept going.
“Come on, you.” Jo led me in the opposite direction, towards the stile.
We clambered over it and set about picking up wood that wasn’t too soaked. That’s the thing about this part of the world: It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since it last rained. Somehow, everything ends up the same level of damp. Branches, clothes, people. Nothing’s safe.
We chucked our haul into a messy pile. Little by little, I could feel myself calm down.
Tension and strange undertones aside, the simplicity of shuffling around and looking for sticks with an old flame was a world apart from ringing phones and other people. It was a world I could appreciate. I could focus on putting in a bit of work that might make the night decent. Another campfire, a few drinks, and we’d be back to where we were. If I ignored the slaughter site and Steve’s tryhard mode, the weekend wasn’t shaping up to be as bad as I thought it would be.
I stopped when I realised Jo’d stopped.
“What’s up?” I asked feeling my unstable peace slip away. She had that same look on her face she’d had earlier that morning: Realisation now tempered with impatience. There might’ve been a trace of pity hidden in there behind the flushed irritation. She folded her arms like a punctuation mark.
“You’re a right pain in the arse, you know that?”
“It’s been mentioned once or twice.”
She rubbed her face. It didn’t seem appropriate to tell her she’d wiped mud down one cheek. “I realised it earlier. No one told you, have they?”
“Told me what?”
“Paul’s mum died a few months ago.”
I felt my stomach flip. She took in my dumb expression and sighed.
“This whole weekend isn’t just about the wedding. He didn’t want to celebrate at all. It took me and Ewan weeks to persuade him not to cancel. We bigged it up as this reliving-the-past sort of thing, hoping he’d chill out and have a few days away doing stupid, young-people crap with friends. Have some laughs. Get drunk, get high, and not stress out.” She pursed her lips. I hated it when she pursed her lips. “You’re not helping.”
“Well I didn’t know!”
“Of course you didn’t. Because you never talk to anyone!” She threw up her arms. “Do you think you could tone down the hole-picking? Just for this weekend? There’s no need to be so confrontational. Steve’s a bit of a tosser, but he got invited here just like you.”
We started collecting wood again in painful silence.
I felt like pure shit. Not about Steve, but about Paul. He’d had always been close to what little family he had. His dad had died while he was at Uni and it had been a massive contributor to his first failed attempt at a degree. It’d been cancer, I remembered. One of the really bad ones that’s drawn out and painful. Since then, he and his mum had been close. I remembered him going home once a month to spend time with her. I imagined how fucking heart broken he’d be, knowing she wouldn’t be there for his wedding.
I wondered why he hadn’t mentioned anything. I wondered if I really was that difficult to talk to.
“How did she die?” I asked eventually.
“Car crash. Paul had to identify the body.”
That explained his reaction to the gore.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Fuck you.”
That stung. I straightened up, chucking a branch onto the pile with more force than it deserved. “That’s not fair. Just because I’m not on Facebook or whatever, doesn’t mean I don’t care. That’s not a fucking requirement. I liked Paul’s mum. I like Paul!”
“So stop winding people up. Stop acting like a brat,” she snapped. “Even if Paul wasn’t destroyed about his mum, Steve obviously means something to him and Ewan, so maybe calm down a bit, yeah?”
“He probably just got invited so they didn’t have to put up with him whinging. They all work together.” I was aware that a childish sort of whine had entered my voice. I inwardly cringed.
She broke a branch over her knee and dropped it onto the pile. “It doesn’t matter! The fact is, we’re all stuck out here with each other, camping is shit, so why make it worse by bickering?”
I knew I was being a bit unreasonable, but did Steve have to act like King Shit? I hated people like him. I’d spent my life hating people like him. He had a way of talking and holding himself that made you feel small. When I felt small, I wanted to push back. I put up with too much abuse and bullying in the workplace to tolerate it on my days off.
“I don’t like how he’s acting, is all. It’s like he’s got something to hide.”
“You don’t have to like anything. We’re here for three nights. That’s all. One down, two more to go. Then you can go back to doing whatever it is you want to do and you never have to talk to him ever again. He’s doing what he can in his own wankery way to keep Paul distracted, so how about you do the same.” It wasn’t a question.
“Paul said I’d hate him.”
“That’s not an excuse. You hate everyone.”
The words fell out of my mouth before I could stop them. “That’s not true. I like you. A lot. Still.”
She straightened and looked at me, her arms full of wood.
She might’ve said something back. She might’ve needed a few more minutes to process what my idiot brain had decided to throw into the mix. She might’ve immediately dropped her load and slapped me soundly for being the person I am.
I didn’t know. I’d never know.
There was the sound of raised voices. We turned back towards the field, conversation forgotten to the easy relief of us both.
“Maybe Lucy and Gerry are back?” she said, starting back.
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