He found the body on the
forty-third day of his walk. By then, the end of April had arrived,
although he had only the vaguest idea of that. Had he been capable
of noticing his surroundings, the condition of the flora along the
coast might have given him a broad hint as to the time of year. He’d
started out when the only sign of life renewed was the promise of
yellow buds on the gorse that grew sporadically along the cliff
tops, but by April, the gorse was wild with color, and yellow
archangel climbed in tight whorls along upright stems in hedgerows
on the rare occasions when he wandered into a village. Soon foxglove
would be nodding on roadside verges, and lamb’s foot would expose
fiery heads from the hedgerows and the drystone walls that defined
individual fields in this part of the world. But those bits of
burgeoning life were in the future, and he’d been walking these days
that had blended into weeks in an effort to avoid both the thought
of the future and the memory of the past.
He carried virtually nothing with him. An ancient
sleeping bag. A rucksack with a bit of food that he replenished when
the thought occurred to him. A bottle within that rucksack that he
filled with water in the morning if water was to be had near the
site where he’d slept. Everything else, he wore. One waxed jacket.
One hat. One tattersall shirt. One pair of trousers. Boots. Socks.
Underclothes. He’d come out for this walk unprepared and uncaring
that he was unprepared. He’d known only that he had to walk or he
had to remain at home and sleep, and if he remained at home and
slept, he’d come to realise that eventually he would will himself
not to awaken again.
So he walked. There had seemed no alternative. Steep
ascents to cliff tops, the wind striking his face, the sharp salt
air desiccating his skin, scrambling across beaches where reefs
erupted from sand and stone when the tide was low, his breath coming
short, rain soaking his legs, stones pressing insistently against
his soles…These things would remind him that he was alive and that
he was intended to remain so.
He was thus engaged in a wager with fate. If he survived the walk,
so be it. If he did not, his ending was in the hands of the gods. In
the plural, he decided. He could not think that there might be a
single Supreme Being out there, pressing fingers into the keyboard
of a divine computer, inserting this or forever deleting that.
His family had asked him not to go, for they’d seen his
state although like so many families of his class, they’d not made
any direct mention of it. Just his mother saying, “Please don’t do
this, darling,” and his brother suggesting, with his face gone pale
and always the threat of another relapse hanging over him and over
them all, “Let me go with you,” and his sister murmuring with her
arm round his waist, “You’ll get past it. One does,” but none of
them mentioning her name or the word itself, that terrible, eternal,
Nor did he mention it. Nor did he mention anything
other than his need to walk.
The forty-third day of this walk had taken the same shape as the
forty-two days that had preceded it. He’d awakened where he’d fallen
on the previous night, with absolutely no knowledge where he was
aside from somewhere along the South-West Coast Path. He’d climbed
out of his sleeping bag, donned his jacket and his boots, drunk the
rest of his water, and begun to move. In mid-afternoon the weather,
which had been uneasy most of the day, made up its mind and blew
dark clouds across the sky. In the wind, they piled one upon the
other, as if an immense shield in the distance were holding them in
place and allowing them no further passage, having made the promise
of a storm.
He was struggling in the wind to the top of a cliff, climbing from a
V-shaped cove where he’d rested for an hour or so and watched the
waves slamming into broad fins of slate that formed the reefs in
this place. The tide was just beginning to come in, and he’d noted
this. He needed to be well above it. He needed to find some sort of
shelter as well.
Near the top of the cliff, he sat. He was winded, and he found it
odd that no amount of walking these many days had seemed sufficient
to build his endurance for the myriad climbs he was making along the
coast. So he paused to catch his breath. He felt a twinge that he
recognised as hunger, and he used the minutes of his respite to draw
from his rucksack the last of a dried sausage he’d purchased when
he’d come to a hamlet along his route. He gnawed it down to nothing,
realised that he was also thirsty, and stood to see if anything
resembling habitation was nearby: hamlet, fishing cottage, holiday
home, or farm.
There was nothing. But thirst was good, he thought with
resignation. Thirst was like the sharp stones pressing into the
soles of his shoes, like the wind, like the rain. It reminded him,
when reminders were needed.
He turned back to the sea. He saw that a lone surfer
bobbed there, just beyond the breaking waves. Whether it was a man
or woman, he could not tell. At this time of year, the figure was
entirely clothed in black neoprene. It was the only way to enjoy the
He knew nothing about surfing, but he knew a fellow
cenobite when he saw one. There was no religious meditation
involved, but they were both alone in places where they should not
have been alone. They were also both alone in conditions that were
not suited for what they were attempting. For him, the coming
rain—for there could be little doubt that rain was moments away from
falling—would make his walk along the coast slippery and dangerous.
For the surfer, the exposed reefs on shore demanded an answer to the
question that asked why he surfed at all.
He had no answer and little interest in developing one.
His inadequate meal finished, he resumed his walk. The cliffs were
friable in this part of coast, unlike the cliffs where he’d begun
his walk. There they were largely granite, igneous intrusions into
the landscape, forced upon ancient lava, limestone, and slate.
Although worn by time, weather, and the restless sea, they were
nonetheless solid underfoot, and a walker could venture near the
edge and watch the roiling sea or observe the gulls seeking perches
among the crags. Here, however, the cliff edge was culm: slate,
shale, and sandstone, and cliff bases were marked by mounds of the
stony detritus called clitter that fell regularly to the beach
below. Venturing near the edge meant a certain fall. A fall meant
broken bones or death.
At this section of his walk, the cliff top leveled out for some one
hundred yards. The path was well marked, moving away from the
cliff’s edge and tracing a line between gorse and thrift on one side
and a fenced pasture on the other. Exposed here, he bent into the
wind, and moved steadily forward. He became aware that his throat
was painfully dry, and his head had begun to fill with a dull ache
just behind his eyes. He felt a sudden bout of dizziness as he
reached the far end of cliff top. Lack of water, he thought. He
would not be able to go much farther without doing something about
A stile marked the edge of the high pasture he’d been following, and
he climbed it and paused, waiting for the landscape to stop swimming
in front of him long enough for him to find the descent to what
would be yet another cove. He’d lost count of the inlets he’d come
upon in his walk along the undulating coast. He had no idea what
this one was called, any more than he’d been able to name the
When the vertigo had passed, he saw that a lone cottage
stood at the edge of a wide meadow beneath him, perhaps two hundred
yards inland from the beach and along the side of a twisting brook.
A cottage meant potable water, so he would make for that. It wasn’t
a great distance off the path.
He stepped down from the stile just as the first drops
of rain fell. He wasn’t wearing his hat at the moment, so he
shrugged his rucksack from his shoulders and dug it out. He was
pulling it low onto his forehead—an old baseball cap of his
brother’s with “Mariners” scrolled across it—when he caught sight of
a flash of red. He looked in the direction from which it had seemed
to come, and he found it at the base of the cliff that formed the
far side of the inlet beneath him. There, a sprawl of red lay across
a broad plate of slate. This slate was itself the landward end of a
reef, which crept from the cliff bottom out into the sea.
He studied the red sprawl. At this distance it could
have been anything from rubbish to laundry, but he knew
instinctively that it was not. For although all of it was crumpled,
part of it seemed to form an arm, and this arm extended outward onto
the slate as if supplicating an unseen benefactor who was not nor
would ever be there.
He waited a full minute that he counted off in individual seconds.
He waited uselessly to see if the form would move. When it did not,
he began his descent.
Want to read more CARELESS IN RED? Click on the link below.