The pub was called the Drovers' Rest. Its faded sign creaked monotonously back and forth, depicting a flock of sheep and a figure in a smock. The sheep were shown too big, or the shepherd too small, depending how you looked at it. Guy Morgan looked at it for no longer than he had to before he slipped his rucksack from his shoulders and straightened up with a sigh of relief. A number of bicycles were propped against the mellow stone walls. He wasn't the first to stop for a midday break.
Guy hadn't walked very far that day but the weather had sapped his strength and made his legs feel as if they were weighted with lead. The dust which had filled his nostrils had parched his throat and given him a raging thirst. It was all the fault of that same wind which played with the pub sign. April is normally a time of squalls and showers and buffeting winds interspersed with spells of sunshine. But this was a variety of the south wind which goes by different names in parts of Europe and is blamed there for any number of ailments from general lassitude to depression. It had no business here at all on the
rolling Cotswold hills. It was a child of the desert which had taken the wrong turning and after sweeping across the Mediterranean and Europe, marauded over the English countryside for twenty-four hours as unpredictable and merciless as a Rif tribesman.
High in the sky, birds struggled to maintain their course against its wayward currents. From early morning when he'd set out, Guy had felt himself besieged by it. It had ruffled his hair and puffed its dry warm breath disagreeably into his face. He pushed open the door, glad at the prospect of being free of his tormentor for an hour.
Inside he found himself in a long, low-ceilinged room which ran across the building from one side to the other. It was partitioned by a lath and plaster wall pierced by an opening between massive oak uprights. He guessed that once this had been part of a more formal division of the room into two. Beyond the opening, to the right, the cyclists had taken up residence. They huddled over the tiny tables, quaffing strange-looking liquids, making short work of various high-energy snacks. Guy had nothing against cyclists but tended to avoid them at these often shared halts. They hunted in strung-out packs, human greyhounds, swooping past him crouched over their handlebars in an extremely uncomfortable posture. Their legs and torsos were clad in figure-hugging Lycra and their shins were shaved to glossy smoothness. Some of them affected peaked caps, the peaks turned upward. In their minds they were tackling not just this dusty country track but some Pyrenean col. Guy acknowledged fairly that they, in turn, probably looked on him as a heavy-booted technophobe, as archaic in this millennium year 2000 as the smocked rustic of
the inn sign. Guy exchanged a nod with the nearest cyclist and moved away to lean on the bar. The landlord appeared before him and said amiably, âHello, there.'
âHello,' returned Guy. âI'll have a pint and your bar menu, if I may.'
âYou may, indeed.' The landlord produced a plastic folder.
Guy opened it up and read the list of offerings. It seemed somewhat elaborate for such a traditional-looking establishment in such an out-of-the-way place. Even the Ploughman's Platter boasted Brie.
âHaven't you got any Cheddar?' he asked.
âIf you want it,' said the landlord.
âIt doesn't say so here.'
âYes, it does, look, right there.' A stubby forefinger pointed at the foot of the page where Guy read the words âA selection of English cheeses available'.
âWhat other English cheeses have you got?'
âOnly Cheddar.' The landlord added reproachfully, âIt's the beginning of the season.'
Guy settled for the Cheddar Ploughman's and his order was shouted into a back room. The landlord returned to the bar.
âWalker?' he asked.
âYes. Just taking a break for a couple of days.'
âAll on your own?'
âA colleague was coming with me but had to cry off.'
âOh, right.' The landlord pursed his lips. âHow much further are you going?'
âAs far as Bamford and from there I can catch the train back to London.'
âAh, London, is it? Well, you might be lucky.'
Guy wasn't sure what this meant. âNo trains?' he ventured.
âOh, you'll catch a train all right, once you get to Bamford. You might get a bit wet before you get there.'
âIt's been as dry as a bone all morning,' objected Guy. âJust very breezy.'
âWeather's changing. It's already tipping it down in Wales and they're threatened with floods in Devon. It's coming this way. I saw it on the telly.'
âI'll just have to walk a bit faster, then, won't I?' retorted Guy, annoyed by the landlord's evident satisfaction.
The door opened and another pair of cyclists came in. The landlord abandoned Guy for the newcomers. His parting shot was, âYou want to get a bike, like them.'
A gum-chewing girl bearing a plate of salad appeared from the back room and looked at Guy with a mixture of doubt and assessment.
âYou the Ploughman's?'
He took his lunch from her and retreated to a far corner where someone had left a tabloid newspaper. Guy settled down to his lunch, his beer and scandal. As he got to the end of all three, he became aware of a shadow across the printed page and the faint warmth of another human being nearby. His ear caught a noisy intake of breath. He looked up.
The adenoidal girl stood by his table, watching him in a curiously unsettling way. She stretched out a hand to his plate. Her fingernails were bitten short and on the middle finger of her right hand she wore a cheap ring. Instinctively Guy felt himself throw up the defences. He knew her type.
âYou finished?' she inquired.
âYes, thank you,' Guy told her.
She picked up the plate but instead of moving away, stayed rooted to the spot, the plate held in both hands.
He managed not to snap back that wasn't it obvious? He confirmed it in as discouraging a voice as he could.
She was impervious to subtle hints. âAll on your own?'
He'd explained this already to the landlord and he was blowed if he was going to explain it again to this predatory female. He nodded curtly, not giving her the satisfaction of a proper answer which would keep the conversation, such as it was, going.
âShame,' she said. âCan't be much fun all on your own and that. No one to talk to. Where are you staying tonight?'
âI'm not sure,' he told her, evading the trap.
âThe Fitzroy Arms in Lower Stovey does rooms,' she offered.
âI hope to get a bit further than Lower Stovey.'
âPity,' she said. âI live there.'
He was rescued by the landlord who surged up and ordered, âCome on, Cheryl, get going. Don't stand there nattering.'
âHe might have wanted some afters,' Cheryl defended herself, adding in a sing-song voice addressed to Guy, âWe've got apple pie, lemon lush pie and ice-cream.'
He declined. âI've got to get on.'
âPlease yourself,' she said and flounced off towards the kitchen.
The landlord observed, âAnything in trousers, that one.' He lumbered back to his bar.
Guy saw now how empty the place had become. He was the sole visitor. The cyclists had prudently got on their way long since. Glancing guiltily at his wristwatch, he realised he also
should have moved before this. He grabbed his rucksack and strode through the door.
Outside there were distinct signs that the landlord's forecast was to be proved correct. The vexing wind had definitely fallen and a grey rash on the horizon heralded a depression spreading eastward. Already a misting of rain veiled the furthermost hills. Guy set out, refreshed and clinging to an optimistic hope he could keep ahead of the weather.
For twenty minutes he made good progress, even though he was now walking uphill. Then a large fat drop of water landed splat in the dust in front of him. In the past few minutes, the grey mass had raced across the intervening sky. Guy swung his rucksack to the ground and delved in it for his map and waterproof cape. He looked around him. He'd not yet crested the summit but even so, from up here he had a fine view all around. The hills were a subtle patchwork of varying shades of green enlivened by patches of bright yellow under the shadow of the now overhead rainclouds. Sheep and their lambs clustered in ragged white groups under stone walls. His eyes also sought shelter. There was a farm in the distance, he judged at least a mile and a half across the fields, too far. He could turn back to the pub, but it went against the grain to retrace his steps and even more to face the grinning landlord. Never admit defeat.
Guy ran his finger across the dotted line on the map which marked the old drovers' way. Far removed from the modern ribbons of asphalt which criss-crossed the country, it was no more than a stony track but it ran as straight as a die. Some said it had been laid down by the Romans, who were famous for that sort of thing, as the legions moved northward in their conquest of Britain. What was certain was that as long as the
history of the area had been recorded, it had been marked as a drovers' path. Once traffic had been plentiful: herders driving cattle to the towns for slaughter; country folk going to and from market, driving their flocks of sheep ahead of them and burdened with baskets of farm produce; strings of pack-ponies taking goods to isolated hamlets or bringing the packs of wool to the town. Then the wool industry had dwindled. Many of the markets had vanished or survived in a new form without animals. The drovers' way was no longer needed. Today it was travelled by ramblers, like Guy, cyclists like those he'd encountered at the pub and horse-riders.
Occasionally, to the annoyance of all three of these groups, a roaring destructive motorbike blazed its unwelcome trail across the hills. At its widest the drovers' way was about ten feet across. In parts it narrowed to admit only a pair of walkers in comfort.
Guy opened out the map. The wind, to prove it still had breath in its body, caught it and rattled it in his hands so that he couldn't read it and it threatened to rip free. He squatted down and spread it on the ground. Another raindrop fell, plumb in the centre of it as he held the paper flat with his palms. The village of Lower Stovey was the nearest hamlet, but that was another good two miles and meant going out of the way. Moreover it was where Cheryl lived. He didn't know what hours she worked but it was likely the afternoon was her free period and he'd no wish to come across her again. He wondered how she got to and from work and vaguely remembered a small motor scooter parked at the side of the pub.
However, there was another haven. Just over the crest of this rise he'd see lying below him Stovey Woods.
Guy folded the map hurriedly, creasing it, and jammed it back in his rucksack. He slung the straps over his shoulders and pulled the hooded waterproof cape over his head and the pack. The rain was falling faster now, striking malicious pellets against his face and bare legs. The dust puffed up where the drops landed. Slowly the spots blended with adjoining ones as the dry ground slaked its thirst. Soon raindrops would turn to puddles, earth to mud. Guy strode out briskly.
As he topped the rise and started down the other side towards the dark stain the woods made on the landscape, he heard a rumble of thunder. As he'd done when a child, Guy began to count in his head.
One â two â three â four â
The lightning burst across the sky in a sudden flash which hurt his eyes. Four miles away. He had a brief sensation of heat on his face and he thought, blimey, it must've been closer than that!
He began to jog down the hill. Received wisdom was that you shouldn't shelter under trees when there was lightning about. Guy hoped that meant you shouldn't shelter under the one tree around in open land. In a wood, surely, the odds against your tree being the one struck had to be in your favour.
The nearer he came to the woods, the more they struck him as a black, impenetrable mass. He felt a twinge of atavistic alarm. The forests had always been places to be feared, the haunt of elves and witches, bandits and wild beasts. Not now, Guy consoled himself. Not in this day and age when we were free from medieval terrors. No elves, no witches, hopefully no muggers and noâ
âHell's teeth!' Guy heard himself exclaim. âWhat the dickens is that?'
Something, some sort of animal, had been lying in the long
grass at the edge of the wood. At Guy's approach it rose up. He thought at first it was a large dog, but the dark outline was all wrong for a dog. Was it a goat? Impossible. No, it was a small deer â a muntjak. He laughed aloud in relief. The muntjak, disturbed by his arrival, trotted away from him, ears laid back, into the woods.
Guy followed it. The track which was the old road ran between trees on either side. This part of the woods was Forestry Commission land. The planting was of pines. To either side of the track was a grassy verge, beyond that a deep ditch before the trees began. Guy scrambled across the ditch to the right and stumbled into the darkness â and dryness â among the regiment of straight, uniform trunks.