It’s 3am, I’m sitting in a soggy field staring at a local map under the torch; I’m lost in the long grass. It’s a cloudy summer’s night, the breeze blowing grey clouds across the perfect moon. Besides the artificial light, it’s the only beacon as far as I can see. My phone is long out of battery and there are no streetlights, no towns, no cities, no bleating sheep.
In my rucksack I have several spare aa batteries, a few more empty ones, a black banana, an empty water bottle and the crumbs in empty crisp packets and pasty wrappers. My shoes soaking, I can feel my toes wrinkling inside but I’m not cold. The wind is a westerly one, my jacket waterproof, I did come here of my own free will after all and not unprepared.
I start to walk on in the dark, I’m looking for a path but I’m bouncing over the wild heather, trying to ascertain the direction I came. It all looks the same this countryside, a tree here, a plant there.
I sit down and stare at the map again. Squiggly lines pointing off in all directions, names of landmarks and old dead languages still influencing modern tongues. The further I abstract from the present here and now, the more difficult it is to see through the blurry mess of history. I see ancient settlers wrapped in thick cloaks of animal fur, carefully walking through the bogs and plants searching for something, food? A place to sleep? No place for a town, a stop-gap on ancient commute. I wonder if people ever stopped back then, to really think about the aesthetics of the landscape, or whether this amble of mine is a luxury. A discovery of myself, a discovery of wet clothes and shit maps, and darkness.
My mind wanders, I am struggling to concentrate on heading one way. Questions I’d previously given no thought are breaking through with a dull sizzle of electricity. No ideas that will help.
I sigh heavily. I am comfortable in my own company, I always have been. No man or woman can come between my hard shell and I. It’s too late to change the way I think now, I don’t care how much plasticity scientists think my brain has, the mould is set. Blips of abstract philosophical thoughts are what sleepless nights are laced with. I could probably sleep here, there are no murderers on the moors; not tonight at least.
There must be some evolutionary purpose to being terrified by the world, a self-preservation mechanism, an avoidance technique, a learnt behaviour. I run from people, it’s more comforting to sit in silence than be silent in a room of chatter. The wind whistles lightly, gently speaking at a comforting cadence. It tries to usher me away from where I’m heading, “run with me” it says. But I’m treading on uncomfortable ground, forcing myself over the slippery moss-covered rocks, heading down for what seems the first time in hours.
But the relief is only temporary. I slip down into a large bush of brambles, or nettles, points all sticking into my clothes, pulling at the cotton or polyester, digging into my hands, piercing cuts send signals to my synapses. There could be miles of this, I can’t see far enough in front of me to judge. All we do as a species is bend nature to our will and yet, these spaces exist that simulate the wildness and starkness of the past. I’m annoyed at myself now, the inner monologue and the power of hindsight team up to lecture me on the benefits of remaining indoors, doors bolted, room locked, covers pulled over my head.
I can see through the black now, the darkest part of the night is over, the yellow streaks begin to form borders around the clouds. The brown moorland comes into view and I can see the trodden path, years of walkers flattening the undergrowth till it parted for us, like a bow of deference. We’ve walked through here and nature is ours. I think of clansmen and women, or hunter gatherers, waking and searching for a direction to take, towards food, towards the light, towards a stream or a river. Or maybe they didn’t walk over here at all, too absorbed in the stress of every day to find time to be alone, or content that their little settlement by the river has everything they need.
Not everything has a purpose, I’m not a rational actor in control. There’s a wild streak, an impulse to be spontaneous, to search for meaning in the landscape, or a computer screen. But there isn’t a meaning in either of those things, just stories I tell myself. Fiction that keeps the journey alive, like there’s a grand revelation at the end. I’m smiling to myself now, ready to find a cafe, to sit and enjoy the sensation of being alive, and after that the sensation of rest.
I see a man walking towards me, in period costume, like an imperial war re-enactment. He raises his right hand and hundreds of men appear from the tall grass, standing to attention with muskets pointed at me. My feet keep moving towards them, I doff my woollen hat, I’m not afraid. A shot fires out, I’m surprised because suddenly my shoulder throbs and I give a perplexed look at the men. They lower their arms and a group of five or six of them gather a net and walk towards me, I fall to the ground and mutter a few words of disbelief. And I think, I never saw it coming, I never saw anything at all.