The Cotswolds, the hills between Bristol and Oxford that run along the southern bank of the River Severn, are what always comes to my mind when someone talks about the green and pleasant fields of England. I mean, just listen to the names: Nibley Knoll, Old Sodbury, Stow-on-the-Wold, Sheepscomb, or Toddington. Rolling green hills, rich woodland, and sheep pastures, separated by country roads, hedgerows and low dry stone walls. The villages rows of ancient grey houses. And when you look close at those grey stones, you find thousands of tiny, calcified sea creatures embedded in them.
This is pastoral England at its best, this is every James Ivory film you have ever seen, Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day all rolled into one. A homely beauty, a scenery so content with itself it borders on smugness. Every hedge, every wooded knoll, and every burbling stream sees itself and knows that it is good.
The weather was the perfect collaborator. Warm and dry, just the way a summer day is supposed to be. The crisp, almost crackling brightness of the morning framed everything in a cloudless azure sky. The saturating noon glow flowed across the land through the canopies of old trees, splattering the dry, mossy ground with flecks of gold. And in the afternoon the red, warm sunbeams danced with the lengthening shadows amidst motes of dust and butterflies drunken with life. Everything was perfect.
I followed the path along the escarpment past North Nibley, Dursely, and Stonehouse to Painswick. I was high on my own daring and content to let my feet take all responsibility. The Walk was busy with hikers and bikers, British and foreign, but never crowded. Peeps were amiable, respectfully greeting and nodding as they passed each other, walking briskly but unhurried. Evil was unimaginable.
When I walked across the foot bridge over Ebley Road between Cainscross and Stonehouse I thought, if I had staid on the bus I would have ridden past this very spot around 10 am. And again, for a brief moment, normality beckoned. I toyed with the idea of walking into Stonehouse and taking the train to Swindon, of getting back on track with a five hour lag. But just considering all that would entail made my brain ache. I would need to get my stuff back, somehow, identification, money, tickets. I’d never catch the boat. I’d have to call Berlin and explain myself. I’d have to listen to the same old complaints, or even worse, the lack of them and everything that was implied in that tired, disappointed silence. No matter how aching my legs, no matter how many blisters on my feet, or how much the hunger was gnawing on my insides, walking on seemed just infinitely easier.
And I wouldn’t be missed for a while yet. By the time I was thinking about all this I should have been in London, according to plan, making my transfer from Paddington to St. Pancras, where the train to Ramsgate would leave soon. Shortly past six, when the ferry had cast off, I would be expected to call my aunt. If I didn’t she’d try to reach me. The phone, wherever it was then, would start ringing. But I was betting it would be in some depot, wherever lost and found stuff from the busses is stored. After six there’d probably be nobody around, at least not in time to pick up before the voice mail cut in. And my aunt wouldn’t worry, you know how it is with mobile reception on journeys.
No, the shit wouldn’t hit the fan before 10 or 11 pm the next day, when my mum would return from work and find no sign of me having arrived. I’d still not answer my phone, of course. ‘Nessa, my sister, would confirm that she hadn’t seen my ugly face all day. Then the calls would start. My aunt would quiz Jane and Alice, who would repeat that they had put me on the bus. There would be anxious waiting, tears, calls to the offices of Transeuropa Ferries. Maybe they would track down the bus driver, maybe he would remember me, how I had gotten off. Maybe they would find my backpack and jacket. Eventually they would call the police. And that would inform the relevant authorities that I had broken parole, and that whole machinery would be put into gear as well.
When I said that nobody had expected any of this, maybe that wasn’t entirely true. You see, of course everybody had been expecting me to screw up sooner or later, ever since leaving juvie not quite half a year earlier, and probably for years before I ever was sent there. Probably as far back as the week before my 12th birthday. And I sure have screwed up often enough. So perhaps this was just one more step on a much longer road. It was just this particular twist that nobody had foreseen.
All that aren’t just idle musings, at least not for me. Especially considering what it all lead to. Do you believe in predestination? In providence? In Fate? You see, I do. I really do. And I suppose I did back then, even though I would never in a million years have admitted that. But looking back, maybe that was what I trying to run from. Well, I was trying to run from something, at least. Maybe when I’ve had my say you can tell me what that was.
One or two hours after I crossed Ebley Road I found myself at the bus stop on New Street in Painswick, in front a pretty curious churchyard. It was filled with dense, dark green yew trees that had been neatly clipped into the shapes of eggs. Rising above them was a massive square tower with an extremely steep spire with ambitions to be an obelisk rather than a belfry. I don’t know why, but the location had me half expect a white rabbit in a waistcoat hurrying past, checking its fob watch and muttering to itself.
Everything was drenched in cooling shadows and waning brightness, suffused with drowsy, residual summer heat. My chaffed lips tasted of dust and straw and my skin was glowing red with the absorbed sunlight of a long day. (I don’t tan well, usually I go from freckled pale directly to boiled lobster.) A bus had just drawn up at the stop. Some peeps got off, others got on. The driver eyed me inquiringly. I smiled at him and shook my head. He nodded, the doors closed, and the bus swung away, entering the stream of traffic again that keeps everything connected all the time.
Three girls about my age came out of the church. One of them lit a fag. I bummed her for one and asked about the nearest ATM.