The Quotable

Paying the Price

The pattern of the bracken on the hillside looked like the pattern of blotches on an elephant’s trunk. An Indian elephant. I knew this because my friend Jenny had sent me a picture of herself sitting astride such a beast in India, where she’d gone to find herself. Edna called it “doing a geographical” — thinking you could solve your problems by going somewhere else. Well, I hadn’t gone as far as India, but these Welsh hills were my version of Edna’s geographical. She would be horrified if I’d told her, which of course I hadn’t.

My older sister always had a criticism ready to post out through her hard letter-box mouth. She took delight in constantly pointing out what she considered my unsuitable choices of jobs, clothes, boyfriends. Especially boyfriends. I was careless, cavalier even, Edna said. It was time I started to value people and settled down, Edna said. She would undoubtedly have had something to say about the cost of this trip, too. Money doesn’t grow on trees, she liked to say. It wouldn’t have been any good telling her that I was staying in youth hostels or that life had moved on since our childhood and that, for instance, £5.30 was not an out-of-the-way price to pay for fish and chips these days.

I was sitting chewing on my cheese and onion sandwich looking at the sun striking the bracken on the other side of the valley, and bringing out the pink in it. Thinking, not about elephants in India, but about Edna. So much for getting away from things. Not only was she right to say that you took your worries away with you, but she came along for the ride too. I swore. Out loud apparently, because I heard a laugh and a “Tut tut” behind me.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, reddening.

“Don’t worry,” said the sandy-haired man. “I’ve heard worse.” He looked to be about my age, square-jawed, a solid sort of person. His brindled dog was trying to lick my hand, or perhaps it wanted my sandwich. “Do you mind dogs?” he asked.

“Well...” I hesitated, pushing my hands into my pockets.

“Come here, Jessie.” He took hold of the dog’s collar and pulled it towards him, but gently. “You’re probably a cat person, are you?” he said.

I was relieved to meet a dog lover who didn’t say something like, “He just wants to be friendly,” and I noticed that his smile was lopsided. Charmingly so. “I’ve got a hamster,” I said, hearing it coming out of my mouth as something stupidly childish.

The man smiled that disarming smile again and said nothing. He heaved off his rucksack, unzipped the big pocket and then hesitated. “I was going to stop here and have lunch, but I’ll move on if you’d rather be alone.”

“No, no, it’s fine,” I said in a small voice, immediately regretting it. This was always happening to me – agreeing to things I didn’t want to agree to. I’d come away on this trip to think about how I could change, and here I was doing the same old thing at the first opportunity on a remote Welsh mountain top. I jumped up, throwing the remains of my sandwich in the direction of the dog. “Actually, I do have to go. I’ve a long way to walk. You enjoy the peace and quiet.”

Again he said nothing, just smiled as he watched me swing my rucksack onto my back, and waved as I left.

I felt angry as I stomped across the heathered and bilberried hillside. Why couldn’t I behave normally, instead of swinging from one extreme to the other? As I walked my anger quietened. I listened to the nothingness of the day, which separated out into larksong, bleats from the sheep, the crunch of my footsteps through the low shrubs, the sound of my breath and, underneath, my heartbeat. I stopped thinking and just walked. One foot and then the other. Simple. Easy.

In no time I was across the river and up in the elephant-trunk bracken. I paused and looked back at the hill where I’d met Jessie and the sandy-haired, lopsided-smiling man whose name I hadn’t asked. No sign of anyone moving over there. Just a kite drifting on a thermal against the darkening sky.

I knew that there was a youth hostel over this hill. Soon I reached the point from which, according to my map-reading, I should have been able to see it. There was a house below but it looked like a cottage, not big enough to be a youth hostel. I got out the map. As I traced my finger over my route I realised that I’d gone the wrong way. In my rush to get away, I’d gone east when I should have turned towards the south. I swore again but there was no-one around to hear me this time. It was four in the afternoon and there was no way I would reach the youth hostel before dark. I rummaged in my rucksack for my torch. There was no torch.

I had no choice now but to head for the cottage. I couldn’t tell from this distance whether or not it was inhabited and perhaps it would be better for me if it wasn’t. Either way I’d have to pay the price for my stupidity. I shivered. The warmth of the March sun had left the afternoon air.

As I approached the cottage a thin line of smoke began to rise from the chimney. The door opened and the brindled dog ran out. I wanted to turn and run, but there was nowhere else to go. I knocked on the door and the man’s voice called out to me, warmly. “I saw you coming. I’ve got the fire lit and the kettle’s on.” I stepped inside. It was time to accept things as they were.



Cath Barton lives in South Wales, where she sings, writes, takes photographs, gardens, walks and generally enjoys life. Publishing credits include Short, Fast, and Deadly, Fractured West and 100 Stories for Queensland. You can see her exhibition of photographs of Wales at The Camel Saloon.


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