Sing Like You Know the Words, p.1
SING LIKE YOU KNOW THE WORDS
By Martin Sowery
Copyright © Martin Sowery 2012
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My dear friend, the real truth always sounds impossible, do you know that? To make truth sound believable you must always mix a lie with it. People have always done so
The vaunted eloquence of statistics has all the futility of precision without force…the printed page of the Press makes a still sort of uproar, taking from men both the power to reflect and the faculty of genuine feeling: leaving them with only the artificially created need to have something exciting to talk about.
The boy followed the path without thinking about anything in particular. It was late afternoon; almost evening. Mist hung in droplets as the air chilled, softening the autumn colours of the hills. The day was very still. The only sound he heard was the light rustle of his own clothing as he walked.
Earlier in the day, the fells had been busy with hikers and ramblers. Now they were gone; some to fill the crowded tea shops and pubs, while others hurried home to beat the evening traffic. Now the boy felt as if the country was his alone; the deserted path, the still air, and the light that shone through the soft mist with such peculiar clarity as to make it seem to glow.
At first, he’d only intended to catch the last of the sunshine on the high path that overlooked their rented cottage. His father had warned him about walking the hills alone. The old man was annoyed because the boy had refused to join the rest of the family on the hike he had so carefully planned. His son preferred to spend the day alone, sitting in the warm kitchen, idly leafing through the pages of a borrowed book that was as dull as his thoughts; turning the pages mechanically, his attention wandering.
At last the boy could enjoy the outdoors in solitude, letting his feet lead him, with neither map nor compass to spoil the mood. Already he’d travelled a good distance from the cottage. His father liked to pretend that the fells could be threatening, but the boy knew that in fact this was a tamed country. Even in its remote places the paths were so well trodden that you could hardly miss your way if you tried.
Soon, the path became steeper and rockier, but the boy was young and some long denied part of him welcomed the effort of climbing. Without being aware of it, he was standing straighter. His hunched over shuffle unconsciously lengthened to an easy stride. He had no clear destination in mind but he knew that the path he was following led to a summit somewhere. It couldn’t be far away, and there was still plenty of daylight left. His uncle had warned him that high on the tops, the route tended to be a bit of a scramble: he looked forward to it. He was glad he was wearing trainers rather than the stupid heavy boots that his father had made the rest of them wear.
As he continued to climb, the air cooled and the October sun could no longer sustain the ripening droplets of moisture that were hanging in the air. An improbable rain began to shimmer faintly in the light of an almost cloudless sky.
Soon, the landscape became a little darker and its colours more muted. The boy enjoyed the freshening breeze and the feeling of the rain on his face. This was weather that suited his mood more than the time-stopped noontime he had dozed through back at the cottage. He could admit that the scene was pretty enough, in a lifeless way, but its charm was not to his taste. A country landscape painted in discreet oils: dappled sunlight through trees with pretty shading emerald to russet. In the foreground a few dumb cows, chewing cud with patient stupidity and treading the paddock to bog. His father had described the scene as bucolic. He didn’t know what that word meant, but in his mind it hinted at something sickly, which seemed to him appropriate
This brooding, and overcast sky of early evening on the empty fells was better than the cottage; more vital. At least here you could actually feel as if life was happening.
The thought of what his father and uncle would say if they could see him now made him smile; out on his own and without what they would call suitable clothing. Maybe it was true that the mountain wasn’t quite safe. You couldn’t see so far into the hazy distance now as you could have minutes earlier. Fair enough, you’d be in trouble, say if you had a fall, and weren’t able to walk. But falls were for old people. And besides, even with the damp now penetrating his sweater, the day was warm enough. The summit must be close: to turn back without seeing it would seem like failure at this stage.
Although, as it turned out, the summit was further away than he had thought. Eventually he arrived where he thought it must be, but by now there was nothing to be seen at all for more than a few yards in any direction. The fog was a blanket, and the cold was biting. He was a little empty and deflated as he stood there, feeling as if he should leave something behind to mark his visit; simply retracing his steps was not adequate to the moment. But then, as if for the first time, he realised how close the night time was.
He needed to get back down as quickly as possible. He knew that there was a downward path that was shorter than the way he had climbed, but in truth, it wasn’t easy to pick out any path across the exposed rock of the summit. Even so, he thought he could pretty clearly make out where the line of it should be.
The weather was freezing now. His clothes were soaked through, and there were big drops of moisture coating his sweater. He felt the first pricks of barbed anxiety that had been hiding in a corner of his mind; but not too sharp, for the moment.
Quickly, he sighted the more direct route and started down the track. Without the exertion of climbing to warm him, he soon felt cold seeping into his body. He tried to speed up to compensate, but then realised that in this light, if he started to jog, he would stand a good chance of twisting an ankle or worse. The wind seemed much stronger now. It was surprising that there could there be so much wind and mist at the same time. It seemed that the rain and the air had merged into one.
The atmosphere was heavy with water. His hair was plastered to his scalp and he could feel himself becoming tired: more tired than he should be only from walking. He had to make a conscious effort to maintain his pace. The light was fading more quickly than he had expected. He knew that the others would be home by now, wondering where he’d gone. He allowed himself to admit that he was scared, just a little, hoping that by allowing himself a small rational degree of anxiety he might keep that growing sense of vague dread at bay. It didn’t seem to work that way though.
The path he was following had started out clear and well trodden, but now it was all but exhausted. There was no more than a sheep trail to follow. In places where the land was boggy, the track seemed to sink into the earth. Each time, after he lost it, he believed that he had been able to recover the path a little further along, but with each vanishing he became less sure of his way. This was such confusing terrain that even the sense of heading downhill could not be trusted. The path followed the contours of the landscape, up as well as down, and seemed in no hurry to get anywhere.
Finally, the track disappeared entirely and he was abandoned in a broad hollow of boggy peat, his feet sinking into the ooze between the marsh grasses. The boy reasoned that if he followed a straight course, then on the far side of the bog he should emerge on or near the path. But how to know which way was straight?
The marshland tried its b
Over the wall he went; but on the other side, still no path. And now the night was truly come. The land became indistinct and featureless as the pale remains of the day surrendered to the darkness.
The child within him urged him to sit down and wait for the adults to make things right. Some other voice insisted that he keep moving, even if the way forward was not clear. His teeth were chattering uncontrollably and his body was shaking. His thin sweater was heavy with the rain soaked into it. All he could think was that he must find a path, any path, off the mountain.
He climbed another wall. The stones felt hard and sharp on his numb fingers. On the other side, he found himself between two high stone walls, on a rough track, unmade but broad enough for horses to have passed in the olden days. He set off in what felt like the downward direction, arms hugging his shoulders tightly and jaw clenched against the shivering cold.
The new path continued for some distance. There was not much that he could see beyond the walls, in the almost perfect blackness. Then it seemed that there was some kind of building ahead. It must be empty, he thought. No-one would live up here, so far from any road, but at least there might be a roof and somewhere to rest for a while.
By the time he came to the building, fatigue had almost overwhelmed him. He knew that he could go no further: still he felt embarrassment. How should he explain himself to the owner of the cottage, if there was one? But when he reached the building and it became clear that the old place had been abandoned for many years, his disappointment was more bitter than shame could have been. He felt as if the last of his strength had been used up, practically falling against the door.
The wood was damp and almost rotted. There was no lock, and it was easy to push the door ajar, but to enter, he had to force the narrow opening with his shoulder. The timbers scraped across the floor, sagging pitifully in a frame that was close to collapse. Screws fell out of the rusted hinges. He could smell the animals that had sheltered there before him. The boy sank onto the uneven stone and in a second felt even colder than when he’d been outside. At least here it was fairly dry. He half crawled into a dark corner. There was nothing to be seen, inside or out. He curled his body into the tightest ball he could make and tried to collect his thoughts.
He must not stay in this place too long, but he could allow himself a minute or two: a short rest while he thought about what to do next.
When he awoke, it was the same cottage, but everything had changed. Most important, he was warm and dry. There was a fire burning in the grate, the roof was somehow entire, and the empty window frames had been glazed. The light of a fire and soft candle glow illumined the space. The boy found himself dressed warmly, in a style of clothing he did not recognize. He saw that his own clothes were drying near the fire: they looked odd and out of place in this setting.
The sense of fear, even desperation, which had taken hold of him earlier, had vanished, and it was as if those emotions and that life belonged to someone else. Instead, he felt safe and calm.
The cottage was nothing but a single room, and there was a figure, back turned to him, performing some kind of household task at the far end. He could tell that the stranger was female, although as she turned and advanced to the table that stood between them, her face was hidden in the shadows. He could only see distinctly her hands, setting a bowl on the table, and steam rising from the bowl.
Try some, she said in a voice that was very tender; a voice he knew. He realized that he was very hungry.
The boy struggled to his feet and staggered towards the table. He felt so weak. A place was already set for him. Then she smiled and he saw her face, and it was his mother: his mother who had been dead for almost two years. But this did not trouble him just at that moment; it seemed right and comfortable. His concern was that he needed to eat, and to rest some more.
When the boy awoke again it was after midnight. He was alone in the decaying cottage that once more reeked of animal droppings; lying in the dark on the stone floor. Through the holes in the partly collapsed roof he could see moonlight and the glow of stars. The night air had cleared. The rain and the fog seemed like a false memory. He was wearing his own clothes, but they were dry, and his body still felt the warmth of a fire and the satisfaction of a hot dinner.
For some reason all of this seemed perfectly natural to him, and his thoughts turned to practical matters.
He pushed the ruined door aside and stumbled out of the cottage; then he scaled the wall on the far side of the track. As he stood on top of the wall, in the moonlight he could make out the line that the path followed ahead. It wound down the hill between double walls of high rough stone. He did not know where he was right now, but the route he must follow was clear enough.
The boy set off down the path, which now seemed to descend with some purpose. His spirits rose gradually, until he found that he was even enjoying the empty serenity of the night. Soon he spotted the distant lights of a settlement not far below him.
For a time, the boy was in dread of what he would have to say when he finally reached whatever village this might be. How to explain his stupidity to a stranger, let alone anything else that had happened? But then somehow or other, as he descended, the unknown path that he was travelling joined with and crossed other paths, that seemed more familiar, until eventually, without knowing quite where he had been, he knew where he was. It was the village where they were staying, and now he could even make out their cottage, at the far edge of the hill.
For a moment he paused, realizing that there would be no end of trouble at the end of this night, but there was nothing to be done.
When he first arrived, only his aunt remained in the house. The others were out looking for him, though they returned quickly enough. At first, the only mood in the house was relief, but soon enough that gave way to anger and recrimination; and of course his father was the most angry. The boy could not say anything to explain himself. His only defence was to plead, truthfully, that he was exhausted. Eventually, his aunt insisted that they allow him a hot bath and then sleep.
There were more questions and harsh words in the following days. Still the boy had no answers for his father, and still he said nothing about the time in the derelict cottage: not to his aunt or his father or anyone else. It was almost a relief for the boy when he found that he’d caught a serious chill; exposure his aunt called it. Finally, he was able to claim the privilege of an invalid to be left in relative peace.
The boy was strong enough and before the end of the holiday he’d recovered well enough to be up and about. He spent his time looking for a way back to the cottage, but he could never find it, nor even a path that fit his memory of that night.
As the years passed he returned to the valley more than once, alone or with friends. Always he would find time to search for his hidden cottage and always his search would be in vain.
The man who had been that boy eventually told some members of the family his story, but in a joking, light-hearted way as if he didn’t believe it had all really happened. That tone didn’t match his true memory though. All families have their minor histories and myths; tales that don’t demand literal belief to take their place in the shared discourse; and so the boy’s experience passed as unremarkable.
Strangely, the story was never once told to the father, and perhaps that was a good thing. The old man would not have been much impressed. He was a practical man; skilled with his hands and holding a serious regard for the plain truth. There was not much room in his view of the world for fanciful nonsense. The father and son were very different in their natures. They both grieved deeply for the lost wife and mother, but each grieved in his own way and their s
Growing older, a continuing reticence about sharing his secrets with his own family did not prevent the young man from telling the story to relative strangers; at dinner parties or over drinks with friends. The tale was told so many times that it changed in the telling. Perhaps details were exaggerated or lost, or layers of meaning became polished away. Memory is always shifting, and the one who remembers is blind to the changes. What stayed constant always was the boy’s firm belief that this story was true and that it in a way that had yet to be defined it would shape the man he was to become.
In those later years, a friend, who had heard the story more than once and might have been tired of it, asked the man to explain its point. Was the storyteller suggesting that he believed in ghosts? The man only answered that he had to believe what he had seen and felt, and what he remembered. For him, it was inarguable that something extraordinary had happened in his life, and whatever it was had saved him.
The friend wasn’t sure what the explanation meant, or if it was intended to mean anything. The man would often say things that were puzzling or infuriating when you thought about them afterwards, even though he spoke with such confident charm that at the time every word seemed reasonable. Perhaps he simply enjoyed being enigmatic. He loved telling stories of all kinds and he never seemed to be without a circle of willing listeners.
The friend came to believe that, for the man, what was important about this story, or at least, what had become important to him, was not so much the supernatural part, which he seemed to take for granted, as the notion that he had been chosen to be saved. He had been the beneficiary of an intervention that was so extraordinary, so far from the everyday, that it must have happened for an important reason. Whatever the truth was about what happened on the hill, that night, all those years ago, the undeniable outcome was that the boy passed on to his adult self a rare and terrible thing; the sense that he had been chosen for a purpose and carried a destiny to be fulfilled.