Castle in the Air


All build up no delivery, laying groundwork.

I picked my way up the narrow path between the top of the gorge and the moor with the open landscape on one side and the steep rocky slope falling away to the other. I’d been drenched down in the valley earlier in the afternoon, and apparently it had rained here too, so that the worn rocks of the path over which I was making my way were slick and treacherous and I was treading onto the vegetation wherever I could in the hope of finding better purchase. It would be nice to be able to say that last time, when there were two of us, it was sunny and the going easier but this is Derbyshire in November, as indeed it was then, and you have to be realistic about the prospects so it was teeming down that day as well.

What I can say I suppose, was that then it was an adventure, and we shrieked with mixed terror and hilarity at ourselves and each other as we teetered on the edge or slipped and refound our footing, the balance of our bodies unfamiliar, weighed down as we were by the heavy rucksacks we were wearing. The thought of consequences seemed so far away when we could take such joy together. Now though when my foot came out from beneath me, and I scuffed the palm of my hand on the stone catching myself, it didn’t seem so funny. Go down that slope the wrong way and it could be a month before, investigating the pollution of the water downstream and expecting a decaying sheep, they found me instead.

I’d been up here first as a child. Years before then a little pack of us had sheltered for the night in the old shepherd’s hut enjoying our first fumbling adventures in what we took then for the wild. I’d brought you up here for the romance of the scenery and maybe to recapture an echo of that earlier perfect childhood visit, but something in the bleakness of the landscape instead brought home to you the lesson i’d been desperate that you not learn, not yet, not ever, and when we made our way back down the following day (sunlight then of course) in spite of there being still not ten feet between us we were both alone.

You’d turned in on yourself as soon as we’d arrived and put down our packs. I’d clambered down to the stream to fill a container with water and when I had made my way back up again you were still sitting there staring out at the wisps of mist wreathing the moorland.

“It’s not you.” you’d said when I had challenged your silence, though we both knew it was a lie. I was closeted in fear and you couldn’t live with that, couldn’t dance around my friends and family, couldn’t be expected to stand by me forever without holding my hand. I’d taken advantage of the patience you had given me, and cruelly, selfishly, absent-mindedly, let myself pretend it could go on like this forever. But you were exhausted by then, at the limit of your strength, and really in the end my lack of surprise, my lack of fight, told me I had known what was coming all along.

What the fuck had been wrong with me. Had I really thought myself so important that other people would waste their lives caring? Had I really thought myself, and you, so unimportant that we didn’t matter? Had I really thought there was a finish post somewhere with a smiling figure ready to wave me through as I stumbled in, body broken, mind a shadow of its former glory. ‘Congratulations, you lived as little as you could, you nurtured your shame, you bottled everything up, you turned the woman who cherished you away. It’s what I want for all my children.’ Maybe i’m more like my sister than i’d like to believe.

Earlier today i’d been walking up past the foundations of the old hall in the valley. It is barely visible now, the stone having been reclaimed down to ground level to be reused, mainly in dry stone walling I expect. You have to be right on top of it before you can make out the outlines of the walls and see it is there. Hardly more prominent than that are the exposed limestone ridges angling up out of the heather all around, relics of a different level of time, deep natural time beneath the shallower architectural time, and then lastly on top of aksaray escort all that the even more shallow water-filled prints of my boots in the mud, so very transitory, fading already, ephemeral human time. In a hundred years who’ll care? Call it a hundred minutes and you’d be closer to the truth.

One disastrous relationship (experimental and ill-advised) with a man after you left had gifted me, by accident not design, with the miracle of my boys, before he worked things out and he left me as well. It had become obvious that neither of us could give the other what they needed. I at least had known from the start that that would be the way of it I suppose, but it was another variation on the theme of my previous mistake with you, and i’d just hoped it wouldn’t matter this time around. Once again of course it had and to give me the limited credit I deserve i’ve not made the same mistake again since. I took my babies and I went home to the farm, taking over the running of it when my father died, and so two decades passed.

But when you hit your forties, and more and more of the people you care for start to die, there’s an inevitable change in perspective. You have to come to terms with knowing that none of it matters afterwards, it only matters now. Your life is draining away day by day and the end is coming up far far sooner than you can possibly know. You wont get that slap on the back for living in denial, all you’ll get is regret and the occasional flaring painful memories of pitying gazes from the concerned ones around you who have figured it out in time. Those apparently inconsequential words of encouragement which didn’t quite make sense when you took them in and passed them by, are exposed retrospectively in all their horror for the desperate pleas they were, to come and play, to join the fun, to dance while summer yet remained. You spent a year begging me to listen, for hours on end sometimes, and I still couldn’t hear you.

When I reached the hut this time it was remarkable how much smaller it was than it had used to be. The first time I came it was monstrous, hanging high over the roar of the water, a castle in the air. Last time, with you, it was pedestrian, embarrassingly mundane, stripped of its magic it was just a cold place to stay and you hated it I think. Now it was squalid, rundown, there was no glass in the windows and some previous visitor had trodden sheep shit into the dirt floor over by the fireplace where I had been planning to try to cook. There was a puddle on the floor too and liquid was seeping out of the shit, staining the water around it mahogany brown.

I’d done no breaking and entering but what I was doing was still intrusion, this was an owned place and I hadn’t been invited, so despite the lack of lock (there was only the basic latch holding the door closed) I was still a trespasser and there was the vague tension inevitable to adopting that role. That would fade with nightfall though. In spite of the light I would be producing by then, and which would highlight my presence to any passerby down on the road, nobody sane would brave the path up here to challenge me in the dark.

I climbed the ladder into the upper room, half a dozen battered foam mattresses covered most of the floor. There were four narrow windows, one in the centre of each wall and wooden boards were leant up covering two of them to prevent the wind getting in. Its direction had changed since they had been placed though so I moved one around to improve the shelter. It was still draughty and the wind was howling through the slates high above so I was glad i’d packed a hot water bottle for later, age does teach occasional small lessons.

It was bringing up my niece which changed things for me. She came out of her shell so beautifully after Grace dropped her on me a few years ago. I suppose I saw in her a reflection of how things might have been for me in another world where I had been given the support I needed. So when she brought her girlfriend home to meet us last February her pride in her prize and the love knitted aksaray escort bayan tight between them were like a physical blow to me. Yet another wake up call for what might once have been.

Naturally I took to social media for support and there I stumbled across you again via a friend of a friend of one of those university acquaintances who had managed to remember my surname and added me to their stable. I stalked you quietly and with limited success, you don’t make a big thing of sharing, that would never have been like you. But through things you chose to be connected with, and photos in which you both appeared, I also found your wife, and then immediately her obituary, as if the story of your time together was distilled down to just that. My heart broke for you, and for all the life in between, which you had been living together and which I had never known about.

I left you alone again then. No-one needs an ex turning up like a bad penny when they are grieving I suspect. But months passed and you were still there in the back of my head where you hadn’t been for so very long and one day in a moment of weakness and inebriation I clicked on your name and nothing happened. Nothing happened for a week and then you wrote to me.

We built up a correspondence and I remembered so much about why we had got along, how much we had in common. It was remarkable actually how similarly our tastes had continued to develop in the intervening years. I’d mentioned in one of my recent letters that I had been thinking about coming up here again, even went as far as to mention the date. I was just being ridiculous really, maybe trying to recapture some kind of connection with the bloody place again. I should have learnt my lesson last time but it does rather seem that I need to bugger things up twice in the same way in order to learn anything useful from them. So there I was, night falling, eating a pot noodle, sat on the stone step of the doorway, and boiling another pan of water to heat the bottle for my sleeping bag. And of course you hadn’t come, why would I ever have thought that you would.

So I climbed up the ladder to bed, and I piled a couple of those mattresses on top of each other because they were thin and I was not any more, and despite the bottle I woke up stiff and cold in the morning when I heard the latch on the door go. ‘Well here’s my eviction notice’ I thought, ‘some warden come to turf out the squatter.’ I shuffled across still in my sleeping bag and poked my head sleepily down through the hatch, all prepared to tell apologetic tales of reliving childhood escapades, and who should it be but you in the doorway, wielding a thermos and wearing an apologetic smile.

“Hello Jennie, been a while.” you said.


We sat on the porch and drank coffee, presweetened, premilked, just as I don’t like it usually but today it was ambrosia. Lynne told me she had stayed in the budget hotel in Buxton overnight, not fancying the spartan digs on offer up here. Wearing my unzipped sleeping bag like a cape and still shivering I was in the perfect frame of mind to appreciate her point.

“You’re not telling me you made coffee this good with the kettle at a Premier bloody Inn.” I said and she grinned.

“Nope, got the lad in Costa to fill it up for me for a tenner, good eh?”

I grunted affirmatively. I’d not really been bothered about coffee, quite happy with Nescafe, until the boys went to college and started bringing home the good stuff. Since then i’d developed a taste for it and this was definitely working for me – dark roasted and earthy.

We watched the sunlight spread across the far side of the steep valley in front of us, long shadows from the protruding rocks visibly shortening and turning downward as the angle changed. There was a group of sheep making their way slowly along the slope, grazing as they went and bleating occasionally.

“I loved it here.” she said, and I couldn’t suppress my surprise. Had I been so self-involved that i’d been unable to see her enjoyment. The question escort aksaray didn’t need the decoration of an answer.

“Aside from what happened that is. I suppose that threw a damper on things.”

Lynne had always been good at that kind of compartmentalisation, seeing and enjoying the good in spite of it being all snarled up with the bad. She could stop and smell the flowers at a funeral we always used to say, I wondered whether she had.

She went on, “Sharing this place, it made me feel so deeply connected to you, it scared me and I ran away. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”

I shook my head slowly, we’d avoided each other studiously for the final two terms after we had tried and failed to reach a compromise here, it’s not as if she was the only one to run.

“No, it was the right thing for you to do, i’d have just made you unhappy.”

I barked, you couldn’t really have called it a laugh, “The stupidest thing is that after all that fear I did finally tell my dad about you before he died and all he did was call me a bloody idiot for letting you go.”

“We were barely twenty Jen.” Lynne said gently. “A lot of mistakes get made when you are young.

“And besides, everyone’s out now, no-one seems to pay it much mind these days.”

It was true. I thought about when the girls came to visit last winter and sat unselfconsciously together in our tiny village pub, trading endearments without giving a thought to it, and how worried i’d been to start with. But, aside from occasional envious glances cast toward each of them, no-one had seemed to give a damn and why should they.

I thought it was important to make one thing clear though, “Um, actually i’m not really out, only Dad, and he’s gone. I mean it isn’t that i’m in or anything, it’s more that i’m just nothing at all really. There hasn’t been anyone since the twins came, since Aaron. There was never the time.”

I thought I was babbling a bit, it should have been a simple thing to say but I could only seem to find a complicated way of doing so. Lynne looked horrified, it obviously hadn’t crossed her mind, and I felt the deep shame of this life I had half led, half strangled.

“Oh you poor thing, I didn’t think.” She put an arm around me and after all this time it was still a familiar gesture. Silence was enough for a while, I suppose when I was younger that would have been cause for a few tears but they didn’t come so easily these days. The emotions ran just as deep, maybe deeper, but they didn’t burst out in the same way.

There was more coffee in the thermos and I fried bacon over my little rocket stove. We swapped stories. I told her about the boys and Rachel, she told me about her children, a boy and a girl. We were both empty nesters now although, with the boys both still living on the farm and her two away at university along with her loss the previous year, in a way her nest was emptier than mine.

She told me about Carol, how they’d met, moved in together soon after as is so often the way between women. They’d waited a few years before kids so hers were younger than mine, Carol had carried them.

She told me about how the sickness came, they had spotted it early but still not early enough. It was breast cancer of course, it generally is at that age.

“Carol said ‘Don’t kiss that one Lynne, that’s the fucker that betrayed us.’ but of course I did. I gave it extra because it was sick.”

She didn’t tell me about the end, why should she put herself through that after all, when really she didn’t have to. I’d been through it with Mum and with Dad by then and from what I had seen and what I had heard it was always the same.

The morning was running late by the time we were finished so I packed up my things and knocked the stove out into the fireplace. Lynne was parked down at the layby on the main road and had offered to shout me lunch at the first pub we passed before dropping me off back at the station in Buxton to catch my train home.

As we walked down the path I turned back to look at the place again, I doubted I would be back, certainly not to stay another night. Perched on its crag over the gorge it was glowing in the late autumn sun and for a moment I could see it again as I first had thirty years before, looming majestic, floating like a castle in the air, while the clear excited voices of my companions echoed around me.

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