by Charlie Hill
You arrive at the lake in the afternoon. You found out about the beach earlier in the holiday and everyone has been looking forward to it. It is a hot day. The children have new wetsuits and wet shoes and have been chattering breathlessly about skimming stones and who will paddle the kayak and your partner, who loves anything to do with water, is excited too. You park in a layby alongside a field, unpack the car and walk along a short path through the trees to a small crescent of flat black stones. The children carry fabric bags filled with satsumas and bread and cheese and chopped cucumber and cartons of orange juice, your partner hefts the kayak and you bring the new swimming gear: life jackets, goggles, a snorkel—good grief!—that’s seen better days. Emerging from the foliage you see the water of the lake curve to the trees that line each shore; above the trees are fells, misty in the heat, while small boats with triangular sails glide through the haze of the middle distance.
As you set up camp on the flat black stones, you see other people on the beach. A pair of fishing rods extends from behind a bush, perhaps ten metres away. A man appears from the bush, followed by a boy. The man wears shorts, is stripped to the waist and heavily, steroidally muscled, the boy has a severe haircut. They catch your eye and glower, unhappy at the presence of other people in this spot they consider their own.
Soon the children are in the kayak—‘look mummy, look!’—and your partner pushes it onto the lake. He clambers in and begins to paddle. ‘Enjoy your walk!’ he waves and you say ‘Oh, I will!’ and watch as they slide off across the water. The water glints. As you rummage in a bag for a sunhat, your attention is taken by more voices, from behind the bush along the beach. The muscled man and his unsmiling son pick their way down to the edge of the lake, fiddle with one of the rods and unhook a small fish. The boy examines it and the father does too. The fish wriggles in the father’s hand and, holding it by its tail, he smashes its head against a stone and tosses its unwanted body into the water. The boy laughs. It is not a pleasant laugh. You shake your head and turn to see where the kayak is—your partner has a short temper and would be angered by such a display in front of your children. Fortunately—surprisingly?—the kayak already seems a long way out into the lake; reassured and not, you set off on your walk.
You have been planning your walk ever since you found out about the lake. It was, you said, a fair exchange and you imagine it will be the high point of your holiday. Partly because it takes you away from the beach. You know the children are confident swimmers and the water of the lake seems calm but you cannot swim and their cavorting unnerves you. You are, after all, in the wild and people drown in these lakes every year; all it takes is a distracted father, a weed-covered stone, a slip and a bang on the head… Besides. The walk is also necessary for another reason. Not so much, as your partner believes, because you enjoy being in nature but because of the solitude. What with the unrelenting demands of your children and the constricting routine of the interactions you endure with your friends and partner, you do not have much physical space to yourself, still less the mental freedom needed to explore what you know—or at least once believed to be—the substantial hinterland of your imagination. Whereas on your own, on the walks you used to take—walks like this one—you are free from all external pulls and have no need to engage with anything other than the currents and eddies of your desires. This is why you have been looking forward to the walk; because it is your time, a time when the only thing you are required to indulge is yourself.
Today in particular, you have need of the respite. For a while now, everyday pressures have been weighing down on you with more than their usual force. You are struggling through the quotidian, hemmed-in, airless, at once too busy, empty, deadened and full. This state of mind is affecting your relationship with your partner and children: you have lately been more brusque with them, less tolerant of their quirks and—with a clarity of comprehension you cannot bring to bear on any other aspect of your disquiet—you know that this is not right. Yes, the trip to the lake and the walk along the river and the relief it will bring has come at just the right time.
You walk back through the trees and onto the road. You have decided you are going to follow the course of the river that flows into the lake for as far as you want and then turn back. Even though the area gets busy in the summer, there is very little traffic on this side of the lake and you are immediately happier for being on your own. A minute later you are at a junction with a wider road that takes you to a bridge; here there is a stile that leads onto a footpath that cuts across a field full of sheep. At the top of the stile you pause and smile. As the cares of other people and their impositions disappear into the vibrance of the sun-bright field before you, you feel an almost physical lifting of your malaise.
The path takes you down to the bank of the river and your disposition further improves. Although the ground is dry and hard you imagine it springy and it might as well be; your tread is light, it is as if you are bouncing off the sheep-cropped grass. Halfway across the field you become aware that you are walking quickly—although it is not too quickly for anything in particular there is also no reason to rush, so you slow down. At the bottom of the field the river narrows and the path leads you away from the water and higher up the bank, but you are less concerned with the topography of the land than the contours of your thoughts, which you can feel widening with each springy bouncy step: before you, an expanse, flat and empty, is opening out.
You come to a bend in the river and reach another stile. Beyond this is a second field, which slopes towards a kissing gate and beyond that a wood. You slide nimbly through the kissing gate, and then you are in the trees. In the wood it is cooler and the light is clear. The footpath follows the course of the river. You breathe deeply and well. You pass through dips and clearings, step deftly onto logs that lie in your way, hop across rare patches of mud. By now your thoughts are weightless: you flit, alighting here on a whim, engaging there with a diversion that brushes against your fancy and is discarded with ease as you skip to the next; you feel invigorated, nourished, buoyed and these sensations remind you of the importance of going for walks like this. This contact with your most neglected far-flung parts is vital. Without it, without the recourse to what it announces or confirms or insinuates about who you are, none of the exchanges that daily define your life—with your children, your partner, your friends—can mean anything.
Not that such an indulgence can last, of course. And sure enough, as you reach another stile, you pause again. The path through the woods has become indistinct and for the first time on the walk you are hesitant: you might carry on but you don’t know how long you have been walking—should you turn around? You don’t want to, not really, but perhaps you have come far enough? It is now, as you teeter at the top of the stile, immersed in a feeling of acceptance—resignation?—that this might be as far as you can go, that you first notice the approach of another more peculiar sensation. It comes from a distance, slowly but irresistible too, like shade encroaching on the sunlit and it brings with it a definitive answer to the question: no, you won’t go on. But this is not all. There is something else in the shadow too. It takes a moment to identify what it is and when you do you feel a shiver of unease. It is an instruction, a command—not only will you return to the lake but you will do so urgently and without delay.
You get down from the stile and begin to retrace your steps. And as you acknowledge that you are powerless before the compulsion that has washed your volition away you decide you must at least discover where it has come from and what it might mean, to place it into some sort of context. Is it connected somehow to your children? Your partner? The other people on the beach? These considerations are not reassuring. A rush of images come to you then burn out, as if you are glimpsing the sun through the leaves of the trees – the unbroken peel of a satsuma, curled-up on flat black stones, a muscled bloodied man, a capsized kayak on the glinting surface of a lake.
Physically too, the walk is becoming a struggle. As you continue through the wood, you realise you are having difficulty following the path. Your tread gets heavier. There is suddenly something foreboding about the trees. The dark-leaved canopy seems thicker than it was and you trip over roots you hadn’t notice on the way; branches scrape and clutch at your ankles and with each stumble your helplessness grows. Whatever the cause of your need to return to the lake, it starts to feel like an insult, even a punishment of some kind. It is threatening to undo all the good of your walk along the river and as you will it to dissipate and it doesn’t, you are filled with resentment and something close to bitterness: it is unfair, not right, unjust.
This shift in perception takes you elsewhere. What if there is no particular reason for the imperative that has intruded into the carefree expanse of your thoughts? What if it has nothing to do with the safety of your children in water or your short-tempered partner and the threat of sudden, extreme violence? Could it be simpler than this? Not about the detail of your circumstances but mere geography? Might it be that just as your well-being is to be found in the open space of the fields and the cool air of the woods and the walk along the river, that this is also where the formless dread resides? And that whenever you imagine you have broken free, you will always be forced to return; that there is no escape, that there can never be any escape?
You reach the edge of the woods, climb the stile and are back in the field. In the open again, the sun is unforgiving. You find yourself walking more quickly than you can safely manage, stumbling over the parched earth. You wipe sweat from your forehead, see the path waver in the heat, feel your breath coming in gasps and as you are overwhelmed by fear you break into a run, frantic now, across the field towards the lake.
Charlie Hill is a critically-acclaimed novelist from Birmingham. His short stories have appeared in a number of magazines, anthologies and journals, in print and online. More information can be found here: https://www.charliehill.org.uk/