It’s true to say that people prepare. I did. I powered down my laptop and washed my coffee mug. I locked my things away in my drawer. I stuck a note to my screen: ‘Back in an hour.’ I did a sketch of some false teeth, so they’d think it was lunch-stroke-dentists. One of the managers, Alex, was watching me. She did that thing where she twirled her hair through fingertips, looking for all the world as if she was daydreaming.
I picked up the phone, dialled randomly. That nauseating transatlantic-sounding tell-you-off voice told me I’d misdialled, but I was only wanting to look busy and as soon as Alex took her eyes off me and went for one of her lunchtime pow wows I grabbed my backpack and took off.
‘Want anything from the canteen, Pete?’ Liz called after me.
‘I’m good,’ I said. I didn’t want to make eye contact with Liz. She was one of the good ones. She watched me all the way out of the office. It was just after one, hardly a cloud in a perfect blue sky. To anyone who wondered I was taking lunch, fetching a ploughman’s from the TasteeBite café. I stretched, took my sunglasses from my shirt pocket and put them on. I didn’t even glance back at the place. Did I have regrets? Did it matter?
I walked past my car, crouching to place my set of keys on the driver’s side wheel. I looked up at our department on the third floor. Sunlight dazzled the grey glass windows, so it was impossible to see if anyone watched me depart. I couldn’t help but imagine what would be said later. I didn’t notice anything odd about him that day. I mean he’s quiet at the best of times. But no, it was the last thing we expected.
I bent under the break in the wire fence, shielding my face from a cluster of nettles, and crossed the car park behind our office. Lockdown was easing, but Covid-19 meant that no one had been here for weeks and I’d seen rabbits getting bolder and even fox cubs playfighting in the reception area at dusk. I grabbed at saplings as I made my way down a steep bank, so I didn’t slide and emerged onto the old track at the back of the Army base.
There were no CCTV cameras visible. Certainly, none pointing towards the lane. Security investment ran to a rusting sign bearing the silhouette of a German Shepherd. I loosened my collar, unknotted my tie and threw it into some foxgloves. It was heating up and I was glad of the line of beech and sycamores throwing shade across the lane. I climbed the gravelly, potholed track, wincing each time a rock jagged my thin soles. Rapeseed glowed in the sunlight. After months of rain which brought flooding, an unseasonably warm April and May in lockdown had baked the earth. Ridges and boot prints have been fixed in the cracked mud. It felt good to be here.
I paused in the lane, before the steady climb to Beacon Hill. Gorse mingled with woodsmoke and honeysuckle climbing against a gable end of a cottage. The rhythmic thud of a pile-driver could be heard as work on the western bypass continued unrelentingly some three miles away, but other than that the town was peaceful. Birdsong filled the air, and the bleat of lambs just a few days old.
I rested on a stile to wipe my eyes. All of this was within a five-minute walk from my office. In fourteen years why had I never taken this path? A little further on I rested against the trunk of an old oak, hoping I was out of sight. But why would anyone be looking for me when I was on lunch? I doubted they could see me, make me out at this distance without binoculars. I didn’t cut a distinctive figure. I was as plain and ordinary as ready salted crisps, instantly forgettable. I took a baseball cap from my backpack and put it on, pulling the peak down so it obscured my face.
I patted the tree, guessing at its girth and wondering that it had stood here, by this creek with its crumbling mud banks, for some two hundred years. An acorn might’ve fallen as Dickens was born or Napoleon defeated. And it would go on for many more years. He’d see us all out. We are tiny, insignificant blips in time, and we leave little permanent trace.
I passed Beacon Farm, where a family was soaking up sun and sipping orange juice through straws. I didn’t want to ignore them but was desperate not to be trapped in conversation. I tipped my hat, and felt a fool for doing so, but I doubt they looked up. I took a puff of my inhaler. Rapeseed or grass pollen got to my chest. I dipped my head into my shirt as I climbed for there was no other way around it.
In the field below a collie sprinted for a tennis ball, almost losing its footing such was the rolling gradient. I thought of my granddad’s dog, Eric; of running in the dunes for his ball and setting down his chipped enamel dish of milk. Did it all come back to you like this? Was this how it was meant to be? Was I being reminded of choices, what I stood to lose?
My great uncle Fred ‘topped himself’ as my mother put it. So, perhaps it runs in the family. I was brought up to believe it was the ‘coward’s way out’ and a selfish act that left those behind with the sufferance and burden. Well, I have a message for those people who want suicides buried at crossroads, so their souls wander, or outside the church grounds: You can be at peace with your decision and not wracked with guilt or in turmoil. I had chosen a time. I had chosen a place. I left no one behind.
The hilltop above was wooded, thick with sycamore and carpeted with bluebells, with a sprinkle of campion at the edges. A perfect spot. I was taught at school that it was called Beacon Hill as a beacon was lit here to warn of the Armada. I don’t know if it was true or not as our history teacher, Saxby, was always winding us up. I leaned against a fence post, to sip water. A haze had settled over the town. To the west was the Castle, to the south and east the heathland, GPO tower and treeline of the Chase. There were distant glimmers from the M6, sunlight catching the windscreens of lorries.
I ducked under the rusted barbed wire and cleared a patch in the dry leaves. I smoothed out a linen bag and sat down, legs outstretched. It was hot and still. I sat in the shade of an oak, the town and valley and heathland beyond framed by overhanging branches. I sat counting my breaths in and out. I don’t know how long I sat there. I didn’t cry though I did try and force myself to. Tears wouldn’t come. I’d been on a sea fishing trip off Anglesey as a teenager and, moments after we turned from the jetty the boat began to lurch and roll and I threw up over the side. We couldn’t go back till the tide turned I was told, but I think they were having fun with me and I was holding the side of the boat and chucking my guts and I kept on throwing up till there was nothing left. I was in agony, lying in a foetal position on the floor of the boat with the spray and the slime and the fish scales, retching and groaning and nothing coming up except acid spit. My tears were like that. Running on empty.
I unzipped my backpack and took out the tub and shook it, enjoying the rattle. I clicked off the child cap and poured a handful of pills into my palm. Not a time to back out. I closed my eyes and swallowed a handful, knocking them back with water. I slumped back against a tree trunk and was shaking more tablets from the tub when I became aware of someone watching me. I sat bolt upright and stuffed the pills into the backpack.
‘Sorry, if I startled you.’
I turned to look at him but said nothing. He stood still. I said it was going to get hot and chided myself for talking weather. He was staring out at the fields through thick black sunglasses. The type rock stars wore when puffy faced after a session or escaping the press. He wore a heavy, black woollen overcoat and must’ve been sweltering. He had the hairstyle to go with it, too, if a little dated. He had the long, tousled locks of a bass player.
The fields swept down steeply below us. He traced the line of the telegraph poles and wires with a finger, as if he was conducting a miniature orchestra. What with the coat and the conducting I thought he might have mental health problems. I was getting up, when he turned and said: ‘I found something.’
‘I said I found something. Would you like to see it?’
I got up, dusting the soil and leaf mulch from my trousers. If I felt a little overdressed in brogues and work shirt I had at least unbuttoned my collar rolled up my sleeves. He stared at me intently. He had black stubble, like iron filings, and a strong jaw and was pinched below the temples. He wasn’t red-faced or sweaty, despite the heat, and somehow he’d got up here.
‘I should be going,’ I said.
‘At least have a look, my friend.’
‘I need to be back at work.’
Uninvited, he sat down beside the spot where I’d cleared the leaves. He wore heavy boots, like biker’s ones and black jeans, faded at the creases through too many washes. He had patches with band names and flags sewn into the denim. ‘You know you’re not going back to work.’ He opened his palm and there were two small cubes. I had to lean in to see there were fading dots on them. A pair of dice.
I must’ve looked alarmed as he raised a finger. ‘Not mine. I found them here.’
‘Found them where?’ I said.
‘They belonged to a soldier. Know how old they are?’ He tilted his palm and I instinctively put out a hand to catch them. ‘You’re holding a bit of history in your hand.’ He gestured behind us, where the fields became heathland, gravel and sandy scrapes and rabbit burrows. I gave them back to him.
‘I got to get back. Else I’ll be in bother.’ I don’t know why I was telling him this. I felt like a schoolboy. It would be discourteous, odd, to get up and walk away. I wasn’t like that. That sort of thing’s deeply ingrained – letting someone tell you to wait cos it seems impolite to argue. He patted down his jacket and took out a mobile phone, offering it to me. ‘So, phone your boss and say you’ve got the guts ache, whatever.’ It was a phone I’d never seen before. Not for some years anyway. Chunky with rubbery buttons. The kind my nephews poked fun of and said were built for ‘boomers.’ I guessed he had sight problems or difficulty with his fingers, perhaps that explained the sunglasses.
‘But I’m not ill.’
He ran a hand through his hair, tucking a thick strand behind an ear. ‘Would you be upset if I spoke frankly?’
I shook my head.
‘Ok, then. Taking an afternoon off isn’t important the way you feel right this moment, is it?’
I didn’t answer.
‘Now is it? You’ve either got the world’s worst headache or you came up this hill and you didn’t plan to come back down it.’
I picked at my thumbnail. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ My voice tailed off, sounding apologetic. I hate it when I do that but can’t stop it happening. ‘I hate myself,’ I blurted out.
He got up, took a packet of cigarettes from his coat, tapped them and expertly flicked one onto his lip. He lit it and drew in deep. He’d stepped out from the treeline, so I had to hold up a hand to see him. I don’t know how he stood it in that coat. ‘Aren’t you hot?’
‘Why would you hate yourself?’
I didn’t reply. What was the use in explaining to a stranger you’d spent your life trying to fit in and failing. All I’d ever wanted was to swim in the shoal, be mediocre, be invisible. It wasn’t as if I wanted to star in the school play or be striker for the first team. I wanted to be not noticed. Where’s the justice in getting kicked and spat at and bullied when you only desire to be left alone?
‘Want to share it?’
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Think of me as one of those fellas telling guys it’s OK to talk and you got to open up and all that kind of thing.’ He took a few urgent strides and swung his arm as if he were releasing a discus, sending the dice into the field. ‘Why did you do that?’
‘They’re not mine. They belong to the land. There was a battle here in the Civil War and hundreds died. Did you know that?’
Saxby hadn’t mentioned that in history lessons. He stooped, I thought to pat my shoulder or arm, he snatched at my backpack. He emptied the pills and crushed them into the soil with his boot.
‘You’ve had six, maybe eight, so you’ll live.’
I blew my noise, stuffing the hankie into my trouser pocket. ‘How long were you watching me?’
He stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and kicked at a thistle, sending the head flying off into the field. ‘What are you good at?’
‘I’m going home,’ I said.
‘Well that’s an improvement.’
‘On trying to kill yourself. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? But you weren’t ever serious, were you?’ I picked at a dandelion I’d squashed with my heel.
‘You’re lonely and you hate your job. They’re making redundancies and you reckon you’re next for the chop. Besides, you don’t have enough water or pills to do it.’
‘You don’t know anything about me.’ I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder.
‘Maybe not. But I’ve known plenty like you.’ He patted my shoulder. His fingertips were yellowed, and his hands callused. ‘What you’re going through is bad. I’ve been there, trust me. But it will get better. It won’t always be like this.’
I waved a hand and set off down the hill. ‘I have to get back to work.’
‘I’m trying to help you, Peter. And I’m Nick, by the way. Should’ve introduced myself.’
He held out a hand though I’d already moved off. I took another step, my weight carrying me down the slope. Peter, I thought. I hadn’t said my name was Peter.
‘I’m sorry about your wife, Peter. Truly I am, mate. But she wouldn’t want you to feel this way.’
I stopped and pinched the bridge of my nose. Tears welled up and I had to wipe my eyes, blurred as they were and sticky with pollen.
‘How do you know about..’ I wiped my face with a handkerchief. I shouted his name, but he’d gone. I clambered up the bank, and ducked through the fence, where I’d sat. The broken tablets and dust lay in the parched earth, beside the patch where I’d cleared leaf mulch and twigs. I peered under the canopy, adjusting my eyes to the shade in the woods. There was no sign of him. I sat in the same spot and the tears came. I don’t know how he knew about Annie, or my job, or any of it. I cried until I was exhausted, and I made a pillow of my backpack among the leaves and slept.
I was woken by a dachshund sniffing at my feet. Its owner was anxiously calling for it, so I sat up and apologised, saying I was napping in the sun. The dog owner, a woman in a pink sunhat, scuttled off shouting for Bobby to follow. Twigs and dead leaves had imprinted themselves upon the skin on my arms and cheek. I sipped the last of the water and saw the photo of Annie. I don’t remember taking it out of my wallet but must’ve done so before I’d fallen asleep. It was a black and white shot I’d taken of her sitting on the harbour wall in Crail, a little fishing village in Fife. I kissed the photo and slid it back inside my wallet. Wherever Nick was, he was long gone. I felt something inside my trouser pocket as I put my wallet back. I took two objects out and held them in my palm. Bone dice.
Nick lived forty miles away, so I don’t know what he was doing on Beacon Hill that day. He had a place out in the sticks but wasn’t too hard to find. I searched on the band names I’d seen on his patches and soon found a Nick Reece, who managed bands and ran a few festivals. He hadn’t been active recently, unwell I guessed, so I’d sent an email, then followed up when I didn’t get a reply. That wasn’t answered either, so I decided to drop in on spec and see if he was about. I wanted to say thank you. It’d been six weeks since we’d met on Beacon Hill.
I pulled up at the end of an unadopted lane outside gateposts in need of paint. It was flat, open land here and had been used as an airfield in the Second World War. An ad for skydiving was fixed to the gate in the layby. Fly-tippers had dumped old kitchen cabinets. I got out and went through the gates, making my way up a short U-shaped drive. I’d been right not to drive into the yard as overhanging branches and a fallen willow tree left little room to manoeuvre. The brass doorknocker was the Green Man, branches and leaves growing from his mouth and nostrils. I reached for it as the door opened. A woman with frizzy grey hair and round wire glasses told me I’d better come in.
‘I came to see Nick Reece.’
‘I guessed,’ she said.
She had to be in her sixties, perhaps older. She wore bee-pattern stripy leggings and a denim jacket with patches stitched all over it. I guessed at an aging art teacher. I followed her through to a conservatory, desperately in need of renovation. The glass was warped and distorted the view of the wildflowers and pot plants beyond. ‘You met Nick then?’ she said, gesturing for me to sit on a cast iron seat with a knitted rainbow cushion. Before I could answer she’d stepped back into the kitchen. I heard cupboard doors slamming and the tinkle of glass tumblers. She set down a tray and poured lemonade without asking.
‘Is it homemade?’
‘Nick isn’t here,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to barge in. Should I come back another time?’
She sat and folded her arms on her lap. ‘Where did you meet him?’
I told her Beacon Hill, explaining where that was and what he’d said. She didn’t know that area but took out an A4 pad and wrote everything down. There was a lot of neat, slanting handwriting in that book.
‘Is everything OK?’
She left the conservatory and came back a few moments later holding a framed photo. ‘This is my Nick,’ she said.
I nodded. No glasses, but same jaw, full head of thick hair. He wore the same woollen overcoat.
‘Did he give you anything?’
I held out my palm, showing the dice. She smiled. ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’
‘Is Nick here?’
‘Were you in some trouble when he spoke to you?’
‘I’d like to speak to him. He helped me.’
‘Only that was his thing.’ She leaned in and tapped my knee. ‘I’m sorry luv, but you can’t speak to my Nick.’
The realisation hit me, and she saw it in my eyes.
‘That photo was taken the day before he died.’
How do you accuse a widow of lying? How do you explain her husband standing on a hill talking to you when..’
‘Six years ago, last July,’ she said. ‘I knew why you were here cos you’re not the first. I’m glad he helped you. I hope you’re better now, that things have improved?’
I nodded. I still held the dice in my palm. ‘How?’ I said.
‘How did he die? Crashed his motorbike touring the west coast of Scotland. He always said you never hit anything softer than yourself on a bike.’
I handed her the dice, but she shook her head. ‘He gave you those, to remember by. So, keep them and go and live your life. You know what he was saying?’
I shook my head.
‘He was telling you to roll the dice. He always did.’
She ushered me out and I sat in the car, wondering how many times she’d answered the door to confused strangers. I started the engine. I shook the dice and rolled them along the dashboard.