Dad would take us to the Coppice on Sundays. It was a cluster of ancient, gnarled oaks clinging to the hillside. If you stared for long enough at twilight you’d begin to see faces with bulbous noses and crooked mouths. Where the oaks thinned there was bracken and gorse. The light was fading, so a copper sun framed the outlines of dripping silver birches and knotted hawthorns. This was where I’d seen the shed. It wasn’t a shed, of course, it was a hospital and that was why the cross was there. It wasn’t a religious cross, but a medical one.
In the First World War thousands of troops had trained up here in preparation for the trenches. Most of the building foundations – cookhouse, hospital, barracks and bakery – had crumbled into the gravel and sand. I stood with my back to the hospital wall and took 18 paces. A man walking a Great Dane nodded to me, faintly amused. I waited until he was in the trees, turned east, and took seven steps. The gravel became peat as the path gave way to bracken. The ground felt spongy and hollow. I stomped on it and grinned. I checked no one was around, took the spade from my backpack and ripped off the plastic bag that had covered its handle, and began to dig.
The ground was parched and dusty, but I could tell it had been disturbed. It soon gave way to rich black peat. The spade’s blade cut through it like cheese. There was a thud. I began to dig carefully now, scraping the peat away, scooping with my hands. I uncovered a wooden box, like a small crate. Breathless, I scraped the last of the soil away and took a screwdriver from my jacket. God knows what the police would think, seeing me on my hands and knees digging for, what? My heart pounded against my ribcage. I worked the tip of the screwdriver between the box and lid and levered until I heard a crack. The box splintered. I cast the lid aside. Inside the box was an envelope. My name was written on the envelope. Of course, I recognised the writing at once.
Don’t be angry or upset with me. With time you’ll thank me. Read me or you’ll never know. You’ll always wonder. Remember those words? I shall explain. You deserve to know. Remember when you were a teenager and you had a girlfriend and you wanted to finish it. You didn’t know how to, so you treated her badly (you once told me this, Paul, so don’t deny it). That way they’d hate you and finish it for you, making it easier. But it doesn’t work out like that, does it?
They blame themselves and hold tighter. They say they’ll get better and it’s their fault. You make life so hard for them you end up hating yourself. But they won’t let go. They never will. And that’s why I’m writing this letter. When you get home I’ll be gone. Don’t try and follow me, it’s for the best. Sooner or later we’d have killed one another. I knew you’d follow the map, bless you. What is it people say? I can read you like a book.
I did love you once, Paul.
Drink to us
I crumpled the note in my fist. My throat ached and I blinked back a hot tear. I slumped back into the bracken, head in my hands. I don’t know how long passed, but I was staring into the distance, beyond the cooling towers and canal, thinking about the ten mile walk home, when a thought struck me. Drink to us?
I dropped to my knees and rummaged through the box. Under scrunched up sheets of newspaper there was a bottle of Chianti and a glass. There was even a corkscrew. I opened the bottle and sloshed wine into the glass. I held it up to the falling light. A train rattled past, far below. I wondered if Anna was on it and angled the glass to her. A kite twisted and turned on a distant hill.
‘To us,’ I said and swallowed.