That’s it. I’ve had enough.
‘I’m gonna walk,’ I said, and got out.
The slam of the car door scared three crows behind a hedgerow, sending them flapping up and away. Sorry guys. This isn’t about you.
‘Is walking a good idea?’ came a voice from the back seat. ‘We’re miles out of town.’
‘It’ll be good,’ I replied, stepping back onto the grass verge.
As the engine started, Emm shouted, ‘Hold on, hold on’. A hand appeared from a rolled down window, waving a bottle of water. I went over and took hold of one end.
‘Thanks,’ I said, although the bottle wasn’t fully in my possession yet. It hung in the air like a way-out-of-season Christmas cracker. Emm wasn’t letting go. Her beautiful face was all screwed up either because of the bright sunlight over my shoulder or something was troubling her.
‘We don’t want you dying out here in the wilderness,’ she said.
‘Not exactly wilderness, but yeah.’
Emm’s elbow rested on the door. She had caught the sun in our few days of heatwave. Her pale skin had turned sandy brown, with a hint of pink, plus a few new freckles.
‘Why, Ben? Why do this?’ she asked.
‘I dunno. Because.’
‘Are you sure?’ She was gripping the top end of the bottle.
‘Well, don’t get lost. I don’t want to have to lead out a search party. See you later on? It starts at seven, remember.’
Emm let me have the bottle. As I backed away, she was shaking her head and silently tutting. The driver revved the engine and raised a hand to wave goodbye. A comment was followed by stupid laughter. As the car sped away, the back tyres spun up a dust cloud, leaving me resembling a rocker on stage with dry ice blowing around his knees.
In two seconds Emm’ head and shoulders popped out of a window, her hair falling over her face. She shouted words I couldn’t hear and waved, while trying to hold down her blowing-wild hair. She fell out of sight at a bend. The car roof disappeared amongst the low rolling hills and full tree canopies.
I was left with the massive pale green splash of mid-summer coming at me in all directions, from the tiny hawthorn leaves on the hedges to the enormous oak leaves, uncut grassy verges, and meadows beyond. Very pretty, especially if you like green, but everything looked a bit dry and thirsty for my taste.
As the last sounds of the car engine faded into the distance, a buzz of insects took over and became the only sound in my head. No traffic, TV, radio, station announcements, overhead planes, computers, chat, office psychobabble, ambulance sirens, music, phones. You don’t notice all that everyday noise until it is gone.
A massive sigh surfaced from somewhere. Breathe.
I drank some of Emm’s lukewarm water. She must have been holding it in her lap with both hands. Lucky bottle. It was kind of her to stop the car to give it to me. A sign of character and loyalty. She knew the others weren’t bothered about me wandering off in the middle of nowhere, but she was strong enough to look out for me. Not everyone does that kind of thing.
So, she had the looks, character, everything. Only her taste in friends let her down, apart from me, obviously. I couldn’t have spent another second in that car – I just couldn’t.
The few miles into town should be easily doable before dark. For starters, I knew which way to go. After a few paces, a second movement struck up from the hedgerows to follow on from the buzzing insects. This segment was far from bucolic and barely musical – rather, it drifted over in a series of overlapping electric notes, rising, falling, repeating. Random sequences of code; the sound of a 1980s video games arcade. But there was no sign of gamers, only the flickers of the warblers’ wings amongst the thickets and high grasses.
The lane soon dipped to cut through a shady copse of larch. The rush of cool wind through the trees drowned out the bird chatter. I jogged up the hill to get back into the daylight and warm up.
It felt a good day to be dressed twenty years younger: shorts, stripey t-shirt, baseball cap, trainers. For the next hour or so, I had the winding road and the whole of the sunny countryside all to myself. Bliss.
Coming to the end of a long straight stretch something jumped out on the road ahead – not animal or even natural, but an unwelcome chemical intrusion amongst the plant life. The light from the high sun was bouncing off a stretch of thick white lines warning of a blind bend. They looked recently painted. A red triangle road sign advised caution with the dangerous curving section of road, which was completely hidden by rows of poplars.
Nothing much to worry about, except for pedestrians. As I got closer, I saw that at the bend the grass verge narrowed to nothing with only the hint of a roadside ditch at either side, bordered by a thicket of spiky hedgerow. If a car came round at any speed, I would be a goner.
A little after the road sign, two wooden gateposts marked an opening in the hedge to enter an empty field. No gate, no crop, no sheep, or cattle. The grass was quite low, so I guessed livestock could have been taken for pasture elsewhere. Or perhaps the cows had escaped, like me.
A little further into the field the shelter from the row of poplars raised the temperature. The Mediterranean buzz of insects started up again. I didn’t even know we could get that. At the thought of sunny holidays abroad I took off my shirt and slung it over a shoulder.
After a few more steps, the quiet field opened out and came to life. The buzz turned out to be wasps, bees, bluebottles, horse flies – there for the meadow flowers and tall grasses.
Over the brow of the field two cedars appeared, standing further down – branches intertwining here and there, as if an old married couple resting close together, still in love, holding hands looking out at the rolling valleys. The view must help their relationship – such practicalities make all the difference I am told.
Was there time to go down and visit them? Why not? From under the gorgeous double canopy, the nearby sound of water distracted me. A stream ran along the bottom of the field, where I cooled my wrists and neck in the icy water and filled up Emm’s bottle.
Up by the trees, I crashed out on my t-shirt. The long grass folded down to make a soft mattress, without tickling too much. The slight wispy clouds were so sparse they almost disappeared into the blue brightness. I covered my face with the back of my hand. Even closing my eyes didn’t shut out all the light. My arms dropped to my sides and the warmth hit me all over. The buzzing dropped to a mellow hum. I could fall asleep here.
A breeze rustled the leaves on the two old cedars. Would I make it to that stage in life? Or ever be one half of a happy old couple? Thirty, forty, fifty years with someone you love, one person who is all you need, who has everything, like Emm. I could do that length of time with her. No problem at all.
I woke to the squawking of a bunch of crows – the ones from earlier possibly, getting their revenge. They hopped on towards the cedars looking for more trouble.
My head felt fuzzy. I must have slept for ages. I threw a quick wave to the old trees and strode up the hill, hunched over. It was steeper than I remembered. Past the brow I tried to see the way out, but my head was still half-asleep, and my eyes wouldn’t focus properly.
A flash of white paint on tarmac signalled the gap in the hedge, to the right of the poplars that hid the road. My throat felt dry. Oh, the water bottle! It was getting late. No time to go back. I would be all right without it.
At the entrance to the field, I doubled over and rested both hands on my knees, out of breath and light-headed – what you get from siestas in the sun. Or was it something in the stream water? Stupid to fall asleep for so long. Oh, the heat, and no water.
I straightened and recalled that I needed to go left round the blind bend. I clung to a wooden gatepost for support as I turned and swung to get onto the roadside verge. But there was only a steep bank of nettles and brambles running down to a ditch. I forgot about that. I stumbled to avoid the nettles, reaching out for balance, and staggered. A distant mechanical sound. Was that a car? Ah, there was danger here. Yes, the warning sign and those thick white lines in the middle; slow down, don’t overtake.
On the other side of the road lay a bunch of flowers, not wild, but wrapped in plastic with a rubber band. There was a framed photo of a young man, a blurry image, my eyes, and a note. To remember a death. He looked so young – he never made it to the old couple time – unlike the cedars – so sad. And the note – what did it say? Oh, my head was splitting. A sharp pain.
That sound of a car. There it was – a flash of red – a red Fiat, like Emm’s car. Surely not. Was that her face at the steering wheel?
The flowers, the photo, and the note. I needed to get away from the road.
The deadly power of the hard steel roared past. I felt a thud on my arm. I fell backwards, my head just missing the wooden post.
A car door slammed. Footsteps approached.
‘Ben, are you all right? Did I hit you?’
As Emm helped me to her car and into the backseat I was aware I was talking non-stop about my walk, explaining what happened. Once I was calmer and comfortable, Emm gave me another of her bottles of water. The wing-mirror had left a bruise. The sunstroke and dehydration were more serious, Emm said. And the sunburn ‘wasn’t cool’.
‘I came back because I felt bad about you walking away. I was worried about you,’ Emm said, as she started the car. ‘Sorry I hit you. I feel worse now.’
‘It’s all right. I’m okay.’
It wasn’t only the water that was helping. Being alone with Emm made everything better.
We fell silent as we passed through the country lanes. Soon we reached the suburbs and shops, getting closer to town. I could see Emm’s face in the rear-view mirror. She checked on me now and again. At first, she looked worried and serious, but a smile started creeping across her face. A happy memory? Or she was looking forward to dropping me off and going to the concert with her pals? The grin got bigger until I could tell that she was trying to hold it back.
‘Ben. I’ve got an idea,’ she went.
‘Say no if you want, but why don’t we skip the concert? Come to my place. We’ll get some food. You should rest. Let me make up for bashing into you?’
Our eyes met in the mirror. We shared a nod and smile.
‘And you can explain that gibberish you were mumbling back there – crows, flowers, dodgy stream water, dying young, a photo. Who are the “old cedar couple”?’
‘I’ll tell you all about it,’ I said.
And I did, often. It turned out Emm and I had plenty of time for that.
Robert Scott lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. He has short fiction in several magazines and a couple of anthologies.