“Shall we get going then?”
“You got to look after your little sister again Bryan?”
“Fuck off. She’s not little.”
“Are you going to start it or what?”
“It won’t start.”
“Well you try.”
I did. Nothing happened.
“Wait, give me a sec’,” Alf’ said, tetchily.
He tried again. Nothing happened.
“Maybe the wheel’s locked? My mum’s car does that.”
“Nah, it’s not that. Probably the battery.”
“And who’s fault is that?”
“Fuck off. It’s Alf’s shitty car.”
“Do not, blame the car, right?”
The key clicked several times in the ignition.
“The fuck do we do now then?”
Alfie jerked the wheel forcefully from side to side and tried the key again several times, to no effect.
“Give it up, Alf’.”
There was a frosty silence; darkness crept through the trees.
“I’m getting cold,” said Bryan. “And hungry.”
Alfie gave him a dirty stare.
“We probably shouldn’t have left the lights on.”
“Or the music.”
“Or the heater.”
We sat in silence for a few moments.
“Shall we have a look under the bonnet?”
We stood around the front of the car while Bryan shone a faint beam from the torch on his phone. We realised none of us knew a thing about electrics.
Soon, Bryan began to stretch his calves against the car door.
“The fuck are you doing?”
“Keep me warm.”
“You think that will keep you warm?”
“What d’you want me to do? Run laps?”
“Well, we better ring someone,” I said.
I couldn’t think.
“Fuck. Off. No fucking way am I ringing my mum up at two o’clock in the morning to rescue us from some forest in the middle of nowhere. She’d flip.”
“Well, you got an alternative?”
The car stank of weed.
“Someone with a car must be up. Try Doug.”
Bryan shot him a look. I pulled out my phone: 15% battery, no reception.
Bryan was still standing with his hands pressed against the car, his left leg slightly pushed back; Alfie, arms folded, was scowling at him across the roof.
“We could find someone round here? Just to give us a jump.”
“Ain’t nobody round here.”
“How do you know?”
“Can you see anyone?”
I looked around us, through the pitch. A single beam of light spun through a quartered window along the valley.
“What about that?” Alfie said, gesturing through the trees.
“Oh, that’ll be fun. That’ll be a right barrel of laughs. If the three of us knock on some old binny’s door at 2 a.m. we’ll get the police called on us.”
We pondered the situation for a short while in silence. Alfie lifted his arms vigorously from the car.
“Let’s walk then.”
“Nah, hear me out.”
“No, you daft bastard. Up the hill.”
“Fuck right off.”
“Just to get signal. It’ll only be twenty minutes.”
“That’s not twenty minutes.”
“Then we’ll call one of the boys and they’ll come pick us up.”
“I’m not walking up there,” retorted Bryan, hastily drawing his line in the sand. “It’s massive.”
“You stay then. Me and James will go.”
“Woah, why do I have to go?”
Now it was Alfie who was looking at me: don’t let me down like Bryan, he said.
But Bryan started up again: “You – you can’t leave me here, though.” There was panic in his eyes.
“You afraid of the dark or something?”
“It’s pitch black!”
After a short hiatus, we did walk. First, Alfie retrieved his scruffy blue coat from the boot, while Bryan tenderly stretched his thighs; I rolled cigarettes on the back seat, careful not to spill any.
“Enough fannying about then, let’s go.”
We trudged out from the clearing, down the little dip and onto the road, where my ankle rolled through the tattered heel of my shoe. Ahead of us, there was nothing but a great darkness that swallowed up the hill, absorbing and disguising every facet of the landscape. As our eyes slowly adjusted, we were guided by the rough markings of the tarmac, the steep banks of mud and the flecks of grass that cocooned the road and pushed us forward in a single direction. At first, our feet took up a decent pace as the road bent steadily upwards, but soon the strain took hold and we fell back into a gentle shuffle; the stillness was punctuated by the in-out rasp of Bryan’s chest. Once we turned the corner, we too were enveloped by the hedges and the blackness, three boys invisible on a hill, silent but for the spatters of conversation and the endless sound of heavy breath.
“Let’s go up here.”
Alfie indicated with the arch of his fingers a small track running off the road to our right, which quickly disappeared beneath the gloom.
“You are joking.”
“Trust. It’s quicker.”
“We’ll be lost.”
“You just have to keep walking upwards.”
I was unconvinced; Bryan was half doubled-over, his chin dipping towards his chest.
“I’m not going up there,” he said.
I guessed we were barely a third of the way up the hill.
Alfie shrugged. “Stay on the road then.”
“I’ll never find you.”
“Why don’t you go back and wait in the car, Bryan?” I said.
He gazed back along the road.
“We’ll only be half an hour, honest.”
We would be quicker without him.
He huffed for a moment, but he knew it was the best option.
“Yeah,” he said at last. “Yeah, sure, whatever; fine.”
Alfie tossed him the keys through the air. “See if you can get it started,” he added, helpfully. “Try fiddling with the battery a bit.”
Bryan raised his middle finger. “I’ll leave you fuckers here to die then.”
As we walked onwards, hands on our hips like a pair of middle-aged women, our voices fell with the heavy tingle of our breath, our bodies heaving upwards through the coolness of the air. I’m not sure we had ever been fit – not really fit – and we certainly weren’t now, except maybe that one time when we were eleven and everyone got really into football. We used to play every breaktime, till Alfie got bored and then we stopped. At that age, running was so easy: you simply let out your arms, opened your chest and the legs did the rest, bounding through the grass and along the breeze as if there was nothing in the world to stop you. When you tripped, you fell and caught your breath; then you were off again –
There are two modes for young boys: breathless excitement and steady contemplation. For now, we mostly talked about Bryan: about his funny habits, his incurable laziness, his tendency to pocket lighters, phones, cigarettes. I suppose it was our attempt to say, ‘we love him for his faults’, though love, expressed as such, was in short supply in those days. Or perhaps he wasn’t much in the conversation at all. Perhaps it was really Alf’ and I, together between the hedges, the two of us on a single, upward path.
Soon, we came to a small clearing in the forest, banked by tall beeches on either side. In the middle stood a large stone, a metre or so in height, struck in silvery-grey by the last edges of the moonlight. The leaves lay in a bed around it.
“Weird,” said Alfie, stopping in the clearing in front of the stone.
“Strange,” I echoed, crushing the stones and twigs beneath my feet. I circled it from the far side and looked back at Alfie, who stood, transfixed.
“What d’you think it is?” he asked.
I shrugged. “A stone.”
He looked at me, half in disapproval, half in love.
“Where are all the trees gone then?”
“Someone must have cleared them.”
“I think it’s magic.”
I looked shiftily between the branches.
“Don’t say that.”
“Some pagan thing. Some kind of ritual.”
“Ain’t no pagans round here.”
“There are round my nan’s, on the plain.”
He nodded. As we stood, I shivered a little, swaying with the trees above. Every now and then a short gust would capture a handful of dead leaves and scatter them before us. I looked around again, uneasy.
“Bet there’s some mad magic we could do here,” he said.
“Go on then.”
Now Alfie looked uncertain: he cast his eyes around for any object that might have mysterious properties, but there were only roots and stones.
“Try this,” I said, throwing him a large, staff-like branch that I took from the ground beside me. It struck decisively upwards in his hands, bending slightly through the right at one end, a few leaves still growing from the core.
He approached the stone, while I stood back. There were scratches all along its rim and sides, sharp jags and divots moulded by the lashing rain, moss resting on its summit; the moon had slipped beyond the clouds again.
Alfie began scratching it with the branch.
“What you doing?” I tried to laugh.
He said nothing. Then, carefully, he lay the branch along the stone to one side and took a small flint from the ground beneath him. He began to carve something against the surface.
“Come on, man, you’re freaking me out.”
He looked straight ahead.
“What you writing?”
From across, I could just make out his hands scratching several sets of lines, each at cross-angles, into the surface of the rock; then he leant down and wrote something much smaller below it, the flint glinting between his fingers. I noticed now that he was muttering slightly, a garbled kind of language that rose and fell with the sweep of the trees and the wind.
I shifted nervously between my feet, trying to blot out the silence and the muttering. Then, suddenly, he uncoiled and stood fully upright.
“Done,” he said simply, and cast the stone lazily to one side; it thudded gently against the land.
“Done what?” I replied. I looked around: nothing had caught fire or exploded or come to life; everything was still and dark and silent.
I took two steps forward and leaned inwards, reaching towards the slab. The letters peered out hesitantly through the dark:
it said – and at the top he had carved a kind of anarchist ‘A’ in what I took to be Druidic script, staring down through the flatness of the rock. He looked up at me, satisfied with his creation.
He laughed. “Now let’s get out of here before some real druids appear.”
We walked onwards, tinny soul music crackling through the speakers on Alfie’s phone. “He-ey-y baby,” he crooned.
“I’m so tired of being alone,
So tired of being alone,
I’m so tired of being alo-o-one,” – and so on.
“Doesn’t Tammy live round here?” I asked him.
“Nah, she was on the other side of town, near the power station.”
“Didn’t you have a thing with her once?”
“Nah. Well, yeah, once. I had dinner with her parents once. They were proper strict about that sort of thing, so we had to have dinner with them before we could go on a date. We went to this noodle bar in town – fuck knows why, you can’t be polite while you’re eating noodles. We were sat on one side of the table, like this, and they were on the other side, staring at me over their glasses while I tried to eat my ramen.”
I laughed. “Didn’t she have that dog as well? Little terrier or something.”
“Yeah, vicious little shit. Bit me on the ankles once.” He paused. “God, she was dull – Tammy, that is – most boring girl I’ve ever met.”
“Why were you going out with her then?”
He shrugged. “We were fifteen; seemed like the natural thing to do. Wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole now.”
In fact, I remembered I had been to her house once, for some kind of party. Alfie must have got me in as a favour – I was his ‘wingman’, I suppose – but as soon as we arrived he disappeared completely. I ran into him hours later in the garden just as I was about to leave.
“Where’s Tammy?” I asked, a little drunk, half bitter.
“Eh,” he shrugged.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Eh,” he said again, and I could see the interest had drained from his face. “She’ll keep. Come with me,” he said, so I did. Tammy’s garden consisted of a short lawn, four, five metres of grass, followed by a short dip and a ditch which led off into the sheep fields. We lay in the dip and Alfie rolled a joint – I depended on him for that back then. We smoked it and drank the remainder of our beers, praying that no one would find us, sheltering from the crowd.
“You remember that, Alf’?” He nodded. “We were down on the grass, knees crossed, this great big tree hanging over us, the sound of river down in the valley and everyone else out behind. It was dark as this – all quiet and that. You could hear the other kids behind us, shouting, giggling, smashing bottles. But you said you couldn’t be bothered with that – we were done with it, you know, it had passed. We must have sat there for hours. Don’t remember what happened next.”
“You stood up and fell into the ditch.”
As long as I could remember, we had always told stories to each other. They were our currency – who had got in trouble with which teacher, who had kissed who behind the schoolyard, who’s eleven-year-old birthday party had been the best – and we traded them eagerly between us. It hardly mattered that we’d all been there: indeed, that was the point. The fun was that everything could be retold, a small detail added here or forgotten there. So, we huddled together, handing out our well-worn parts like hunks of bread, nourishing ourselves on the knowledge that most certainly we had been there doing that.
But things were different then, too: everything still felt so present; there was no need yet to reminisce. Each year, I would have the exact same argument with my dad: “You should keep your books,” he’d say, “one day, you’ll want to look back at them, when you’re older.” And each year I ignored him: I burned them all in a big heap in the garden; the flames ate them up in seconds. It was cathartic, I guess, but the point was more that there was no use for memory: the past was the very definition of unnecessary, of useless, meaningless time where exciting things that happened went to die. I wanted to be on to the next thing – heading somewhere new. Then I turned eighteen. It seemed at once to be the most important thing that had ever happened to anyone, and at the same time the most irrelevant. All of a sudden, memory took hold of me. I started keeping little notebooks, filled with phrases jotted down, things put to words, stories stored, compartmentalised and relived. It’s hard to say why: maybe it was leaving school, maybe it was the sordid realisation that I might actually be an adult, maybe it was the knowledge that ever so steadily, my memory had begun to decay. But I needed to reminisce. I needed to recharge from that connection, to remind myself that though the time was gone, the feeling of however many years remained, untouched, unsullied, immeasurable; I needed to prove that it would remain forever inside of me, though I would never be there again.