I remained at Durham for a further three or four months after that chilly November night; I’d be at home for well over another year before I took the initiative and began my walk. Much of this time was spent doing nothing in particular and, bizarrely, I was going to write about it at some length. The issue was that entire period of my life (as I’ve mentioned before) was marked by aimlessness and regret, and, unsurprisingly, I found I didn’t have anything new to say about all that. So I’m just going to glance over it in favour of one particular evening.
May 2016, and I was on my first (and only) preparation hike: an exceptionally pleasant amble northwards along the southern half of Offa’s Dyke. I had started from Chepstow and my aim was to reach at least Hay-on-Wye, perhaps I’d go as far as Knighton, fitness permitting. This was the end of my second day, and I was hoping to stop for the night at a bunkhouse located at the base of the black mountains, in a village called Pandy. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and I must’ve hiked for well over twenty-five miles that day. The strain had taken its toll: I was sunburnt, lathered in sweat, hobbled by a badly sprained ankle, and quite frankly losing my mind over the impossibly large blisters that were torturing my helpless toes. The Brecon Beacons rose forebodingly over the surrounding countryside, and I must admit, I was not looking forward to attempting the sharp ascents the next day. Still though, I was in high spirits, and even if I had to claw myself along, I was going to go for it.
The humidity had been building for the past few days, and as dusk approached heavy thunderstorms were gestating on the horizon. So I was audibly relieved when the owner of the bunkhouse took me in that evening; even further delighted when he told me nobody else was due to stay that night – the place was to be my own. The bunkhouse itself was fine, I wasn’t expecting much and that was just about what I got. There wasn’t any hot water (which suited my sunburn in the shower), the beds were aggressively uncomfortable, and as the storm pelted the building I could distinctly hear a dripping noise coming from somewhere inside. But I had all the luxuries I needed (including a music player), as well as the virtue of privacy. So I plugged in my old iPod, set it to play The Verve, and set down to drafting some poetry.
I don’t write poetry very often – hardly at all, actually – but for the last few months, as my focus ripped towards the grand walk ahead, I had been experiencing a particularly surreal dream of a hobo skeleton. How a skeleton could be a hobo I don’t know, but without fail it would lope across my subconscious, mandible yawning, but always voiceless and unconcerned with whatever else was happening in the dreamscape. I remember one occasion, towards the end of my time at Durham, awaking to find I was in a state of sleep paralysis – hovering somewhere between consciousness and unable to move – and lying still, terrified, as my skeletal intruder shifted about the room in the shadows. Anyway, the poetry I was writing that evening had no aim other than addressing my stalker’s reticence. Here’s what I had penned:
I awoke one eve deep within a dream.
Unable to move, capable to feel
Great tumultuous thoughts oppressing me.
When across the gloom I spotted a man,
Rigid and bare, and, like me, petrified.
He streaked across the land, seeking refuge
From the sun on high; its rays threatening
To blush his ivory frame. He drew near.
As he passed by I called out for a name.
“I am the skeleton-man, come undone,
Wandering inside out above the ground;
With bones stretched by time, and mind overrun.
“I am the ancient-man, the orphaned son,
Trying to find my old burial mound;
Maybe the gravestone has an inscription.
“I am the timeless man, or am I young?
I can’t quite remember my own background.
Maybe I should pretend to be no one.
“I am no one, go away;
Just point me somewhere I can stay,
Or better yet, tell me who I am today.
“Please tell me, am I alive?
It’s hard to tell when you have no eyes;
I think someone took them when I wasn’t looking.
“Sorry, I must be wasting your time;
I’ve just been feeling quite profound.
Go ahead, bury me here; I’d rather be underground.”
I felt I was stumbling over form I didn’t understand, and was at the point of exasperation when a large party of hikers unexpectedly gate-crashed my creative funk. They were all middle-aged, soaking wet, and very talkative. As they entered one by one, shaking off their muddy boots and claiming beds for the night, I scrambled to hide the fact I had been spending the night clumsily writing about an imaginary skeleton. It didn’t work. The conversation among my new bunk-mates immediately gravitated towards who this young stranger was, and why he was alone in the middle of nowhere.
“Ah! We’re not alone, there’s a fellow wanderer here!”
“Not only that, but a writer too!”
“Oh splendid! Tell me, are you here for the festival?” The reason why I wanted to get to Hay-on-Wye was because the literary festival was currently on. Although I didn’t have tickets to see any of the speeches, I still wanted to spend some time checking out the many bookshops the town is renowned for. Maybe there’d even be some free event where I could mooch for a while.
“If he is, he can walk with us tomorrow-“
“-Steady on there, who says the lad would even want to?”
One of the women interjected, “Oh the poor boy, we must’ve ruined his evening.” She looked over to me, forlornly keeping my journal close, and gave a motherly smile.
“I wouldn’t call him a boy, oh now he’s blushing!” The room erupted in a spate of polite laughter; still more were treading in the room – there must’ve been about ten of them altogether. They slowly funnelled over to the sofas where I was sitting, in the centre of the room. The storm overhead was reaching its crescendo, and as the lightning sparked on the surrounding hills great echoes of thunder would interrupt the conversation, drawing gasps of awe from us. Somebody offered to make tea for everyone.
“It’s looking horrible out there, I hope nobody’s exposed on those peaks tonight.”
“They’d have to be a bloody idiot to put themselves in that position in the first place, it must be a quagmire up there. Besides, you could tell this was building all day.” Others murmured in agreement.
It’s only been five minutes or so, but no introductions had been made, and other than accepting the tea I hadn’t actually spoken. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable with my idiotic grin and shining cheeks; my nerves were beginning to fray, indigestion was setting in, I’m breathless, palpitating, and wringing my hands together. At moments like these I don’t really understand myself anymore, it’s as if my mind and body are operating on completely separate levels, independent from one another. Inwardly the pressure is building, and as it surges I seem to lose perspective on why it is I’m stressed in the first place. Positive feedback sets in, I’m wrestling to maintain composure, but the longer I’m left pondering with myself the worse I feel. The dialogue continues around me, I focus on the patter of the rain; I’m hyper-focussed and spaced out at once, like I’m having the mellowest panic-attack possible. I was passed a mug of tea, and my attention swings back to the other people in the room, all have now gathered round. A man whose thinning hair betrays his youngish face eagerly asks: “So tell us, who are you? Where are you going? Where are you from?” The faces all turn towards me.
It occurs to me that I’m never going to see or speak to any of these people again, theoretically I could pretend to be somebody outrageous and nobody would know. Common sense prevails, and I tell them about myself, and the plan to hike around Wales. “That’s fantastic!” One of them pipes in, he’s wearing a flat-cap that doesn’t suit him. “How Romantic! Is that what you were writing about earlier?” I begin to suspect that these people are literary types – their general demeanour, appearance, and speech are just too reminiscent of academia.
“Actually, I thought I’d try my hand at some poetry.” This creates great excitement amongst the group, one woman gives a little clap to herself in anticipation. God I’ve made a mistake here, they’re going to expect a reading now.
“What a coincidence! Half of us are poets! We’re actually holding an event at the festival – Coleridge around Wales? – You have to let us hear what you’ve done.” I let out a noise that’s half surprise, half groan, have a sip of tea, and take a moment to try and formulate an excuse.
“Are you sure?” My voice quavering, “I don’t think it’s particularly good.”
“Nonsense!” Says another, this one looks older than the rest, he has a beard that’s bright white. So I go ahead and read what I have, tripping over my own words throughout, my blush flaring brighter than before. I finish to a round of applause.
“That’s actually pretty good, you could be another Coleridge!” The others nod in approval, I smile but reflect on the terrible connotations that would hold for me. I had read little of Coleridge’s work before, but knew that he was plagued by illness.
“Wasn’t he addicted to morphine?” I quizzed, a little unsure, but fairly certain that the man was a wreck for most of his life.
I must have hit a nerve, because the man in the cap roundly condemned the notion. “That’s debateable!” He exclaimed, as if I had just slandered a personal friend. He continued to talk about Coleridge at length, to the point where I felt I should start taking notes. “Tell you what, walk with us to Hay tomorrow, and we’ll tell you more about him.” I wanted to accept, but was also already limping badly, and didn’t want to potentially slow down the entire group. I told them that I had other plans, but would happily meet them at the festival. We sat there for about another hour, until the worst of the storm finally passed, before turning in for the night.
I never saw any of those people again. They must have left particularly early in the morning before I had even awoken. Someone had scribbled a phone number on a scrap of paper with the note ‘Come see our speech’ written underneath, but I foolishly decided it’d be better to avoid contact. However, I did dream about the skeleton again that night. He was striding through the storm atop the boggy peat of the black mountains. As I followed in his footsteps a few hours later, I wondered if any of the cairns I passed on the trail signified he had finally found somewhere to stop. Maybe he had, because I haven’t seen him since.