‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks. ‘I’ve been here before!’
‘What? I thought you said you had never been to Northumberland. I thought that was the whole point of us coming here: going somewhere new for a change!’
Elisabeth stared straight ahead as if trying to make out something on the horizon.
‘I can’t explain it. I just had a flashback, a memory: I could see myself standing right here, just like I am now.’
‘When?’ asked Tom, irritation starting to enter his voice.
‘I really don’t know,’ she said, now somewhat vaguely, blonde hair flapping round the edges of her woollen hat. Her nylon jacket brushed against his as she squeezed past him on the narrow path, stopping, after a few, slow paces, to turn and look back at him. ‘It might have been a hundred years ago, it might have been in a previous life, it might have been last week.’
‘Oh. I see. You’re having another one of your ‘cosmic’ moments, are you,’ said Tom, rolling his eyes. ‘If I’d thought coming to Northumbria was going to send you off into Narnia, I’d have insisted we go to Yorkshire as usual. At least we’d have known where we were going. I don’t know why you wanted to come here anyway. Look at the weather for a start: and this is supposed to be summer! Mrs Shuttleworth is probably wondering why on earth we haven’t turned up this year. I doubt she’ll ever give us our favourite room again!’
‘Your favourite room,’ said Elisabeth dryly.
‘Oh, so now you’re telling me you don’t like it?’
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
‘What is it?’ he snorted. ‘Are you trying to see which room she’ll give us next year?’ He strode past her and marched off along the mud path that weaved its way through the squat bilberry bushes.
‘You never take me seriously!’ she protested.
‘I do when you talk sense, which isn’t that often,’ his voice was bored, dismissive, ‘but not when you come out with one of your airy fairy declarations about feeling a presence or seeing a ghostly hand reach towards you.’ The wind carried his words away as it pushed past the wiry trees and rustled through the shrubs that huddled together on the hillside.
They trudged on without speaking, the only noise the buffeting wind and the occasional squelch of their boots in the mud. All of a sudden, there was a flash of movement, causing them to stop in their tracks. A large, brown bird shot up from the heather, the blood red plumage on its head clearly visible. It flew off with rapid, whirring wing beats and cries of ‘gobak! gobak!’.
‘It’s a red grouse,’ explained Tom.
‘I know,’ replied Elisabeth, with an emphasis that seethed with anger.
‘I was only making an observation!’ He he turned and continued walking.
After a while, the path zigzagged down into a dip, leading them to shelter and quiet as suddenly as if a door had been closed. The smell of mud and damp hung in the air, no longer ushered away by the wind. He was already at the bottom when, stepping on to a patch of mud, she slipped and lost her footing. She tried desperately to use her wooden staff to regain her balance but a moment later she was lying on her back.
‘Mind you don’t trip!’ he laughed.
Slowly, very slowly, with the aid of her staff she pulled herself to her feet while he watched from down below. After brushing the bits of heather and earth off her jacket, she carefully picked her way down the path to where Tom was waiting.
‘Thanks for nothing!’
‘Oh, so now it’s my fault, is it? You should watch where you’re going! Anyway, you seem to manage it every year!’ he grinned.
She stared up at him.
‘Oh, dear, having a sense of humour failure, are we? Makes a change – not!’
He turned and stomped off across the grass and reeds before climbing the path as it wound its way up out of the hollow. Elisabeth followed, five, ten, then fifteen paces behind. When they reached the top, they were again met by bracing gusts. He marched on across the fell without looking round.
‘Tom!’ she cried. The wind and the distance that separated them muffled the frustration in her voice.
‘What is it now?’ his shoulders dropped as he spun round. He rammed the pointed metal end of his wooden staff into the soft earth.
When she finally got nearer to him she stopped.
‘I… I have been here before,’ she stammered, looking not at his eyes but at the thin lips that formed a slit in his thick, blonde beard. ‘Something terrible is going to happen. I know it is.’
He raised his eyebrows and stared at her. The wind blew between them, over the bushes, through the trees. It danced around them whistling its own tune. And it carried with it the smell of rain.
‘I would like to be able to enjoy this holiday! Preferably without all the usual shit you come out with whenever we go away! What is it with you? We can’t even go for a fucking walk in the country without you feeling some bloody spirit in the air! There are no druids or ghosts here! It’s the wind! It’s just the fucking wind!’ His arms were raised outwards and his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. A blast of air billowed across the exposed hillside thrashing the branches of the withered oaks back and forth. They looked at each other in silence. He spat on the path, yanked the staff from the ground, turned and carried on walking, his clothes fluttering to one side like a dull flag.
‘Why do you always have to swear?’ she asked, but the wind discarded her words just as it had his. She watched as he strode up the hill.
The distance between them stretched as he marched on and she followed at her own, slower pace, two tiny figures clutching their wooden staffs like pilgrims as they crawled across the windswept moorland. Eventually, Tom stopped, pulled a map from the pocket of his windjammer and began to unfold it. When she caught him up, it was struggling like a trapped animal to free itself from his grip.
‘This fucking wind!’ he shouted.
With that, a gust tore the map from his hands as a scolding parent snatches a toy from a disobedient child. They watched it as it flew away, twisting and turning, somersaulting, collapsing, until it was no more.
‘Are you satisfied now?’ he shouted. ‘Something terrible is going to happen!’ he whined in a voice meant to imitate hers.
Elisabeth leant on her staff and looked at him. A flurry of rain drops blew into their faces.
‘We can still follow the path,’ she said and began walking.
‘Not much bloody choice, have we!’ He pushed past her so that he was again in the lead.
They continued their gradual ascent in silence, the only sound the constant billowing of the wind. After about half an hour, Tom stopped at some rocks that lay scattered amidst the heather like giant dominoes. When Elisabeth caught him up, he suggested they have lunch. She let the rucksack fall off her back, then opened it and began pulling out small packets wrapped in tin foil. She handed two to Tom who had made himself comfortable on one of the rocks.
‘Ham?’ he huffed, as he peeled back the bread to look inside.
‘That’s all they had at the shop in the village,’ she said quietly.
Tom bit into the sandwich clasped in his gloved hand, paused to look at the contents and then began chewing. They ate in silence and without eye contact, each seated on their own tablet of stone. In front of them, the bleak landscape stretched without end, open and empty.
‘Do you want some coffee?’ asked Elisabeth, when they had finished eating.
‘Go on, then,’ said Tom, making a ball out of the pieces of tin foil in which his sandwiches had been wrapped.
She poured steaming milky coffee from the thermos flask into a plastic cup and handed it to him.
‘Thanks,’ he said, managing a small smile.
For a moment, she watched him sipping his coffee and staring out across the hills. Then she poured herself a cup before screwing the lid back on the flask and placing it on one of the rocks. The wind blew between them, harder and harder, until suddenly the flask was clanking and rolling across the dark stone. Before she could catch it, it had already fallen into the grass.
‘Why didn’t you just put it in the rucksack?’
‘It was the wind,’ she said.
‘I know that! I’m not stupid! That’s why I said, why didn’t you put it in the rucksack instead of leaving it out on the rock where it was bound to blow away. It’s not rocket science, for Christ’s sake!’
Elisabeth tightened the lid on the flask and put it into the rucksack before throwing away the rest of her coffee.
‘And I still don’t understand why you had to go and buy a new coat. What was wrong with the old one?’
‘I told you: it was torn, it wouldn’t have been any use.’
‘But why didn’t you just get another one the same? Why did you go and get a bright blue one? Blue’s not a colour for a serious fell walker. Besides, we’ve always had matching jackets; that’s always been part of the fun.’ His voice oscillated between sulky and cajoling.
Elisabeth looked at him but did not say anything. He sighed then swigged back the last of his coffee before passing her the cup.
‘I’ve told you what your problem is.’ His tone was matter of fact, summarising. ‘You don’t communicate, at least not with real people. You’d be a lot happier if you got out more instead of spending all your time fart arsing around with those stupid tarot cards and psycho books and God knows what else you keep up there in that room of yours. And perhaps then you wouldn’t go around with a face as cheerful as a wet Monday afternoon in November.’
He waited for her to react. Indeed, her mouth opened momentarily but then closed before any thoughts could become words. He watched as she packed up the rucksack and wrestled it on to her back. They picked up their staffs and continued on their way.
The wind buffeted them from all directions, one minute blowing cold in their faces and another pushing them from behind, driving them towards a ridge above which dirty clouds fled across the darkening sky. The path snaked its way up the hill, weaving its way between dark rocks. When they got to the top, they paused to regain their breath and to look at the view. Behind them, the land fell away into a distance now blurred by rain. Elisabeth stared out across the patchwork of green, purple and brown that extended in front of them below the cliff.
‘I have been here before,’ she insisted.
‘Oh, Christ! Here we go again!’
‘I could see this place in my mind’s eye long before we got here, you know. I could see this view right here: the moor, the heather, this cliff.’ She walked along the edge to where there was a grassy overhang and a wizened tree which flailed in the wind as drops of rain began to fall.
‘Please! Spare me!’ groaned Tom, his eyes watering.
‘I could see the entire pathway, all the way from where we left the car,’ she said, turning to look at him.
He shook his head incredulously.
‘You never believe anything I say!’ she shouted.
‘Because you talk a load of crap, that’s why!’
‘I have been here before. I know something bad is going to happen.’ Her hand gripped her staff tightly.
Tom strode over the rough grass and brushed past her.
‘So, when were you last here then?’ he sneered, looking out across the moorland. ‘In Roman times? As a medieval witch more likely!’
The wind buffeted them. It blew and billowed as never before.
‘In March, you evil bastard!’ she shouted. She threw her staff aside, ran forward and pushed him with all her strength. He did not cry out and made no noise as he landed. For a moment, she did not move but simply stared at the point where he had gone over. Then, slowly, she walked to the cliff edge and peered down to see his twisted shape on the rocks below, blood seeping from his head.
‘I told you something bad was going to happen,’ she said, ‘you should have listened to me.’ She pulled off her woollen hat and let her hair blow freely in the wind. And then she began to cry.