Small and Very Far Away
It’s breezy near the top. It’s welcome cool, set against the heat of the day. One of those odd English days that catches by surprise with bursts of blinding sun, near the end of summer.
The two figures pull themselves on and up, step by step. The taller in strides, the smaller lagging behind, shoulders set in youthful petulance.
“Come on then” says the man brightly, “it won’t be there forever. Well, it will, but that’s hardly the point.”
The boy mutters something in response that only makes the man laugh.
They are running out of up, the younger notes with relief. This is no mountain – just a small hill, really. Not even that. Before tackling it in anger, it had looked like no kind of endeavour at all. A slight blip in an already undulating landscape – a grassy mound, topped with an incongruous patch of thick wood that looked like a particularly ineffectual hairpiece on a big, bald head.
But now, barely twenty minutes later, it has become apparent that the unbroken persistence of tall grass has deceived, and he finds himself a little out of breath. Now, having followed a well-trod path around the wood, and no longer in sight of the spot where their car is parked, he can look down to the side and see how high up they really are.
Not a dangerous height – not a cartoon ledge – and in fact a slope that is almost too tempting to roll down – but high enough to make the roads that they had driven, and the cars that sped along them, look like over-zealous detail on some giant model railway.
The man stops walking, and if you want to know what he looks like, now would be the time to find out, because this is the nearest he has got to still. He is a tall man – is he a tall man, in this place where scale is such a broken proposition? Compared to the boy, he is huge. Big enough at the torso that his speed on the path is surprising, now that he stands surveying the vista opened up, he seems monolithic. Enthusiasm is writ large on his face, ruddy with the accumulation of exertion, elevation and elements, where you can see it. It is obvious from a cursory glance at the man that he has an eccentric attitude to fashion, and holds an exuberant – if erratic – position on the assembled principles of facial hair.
The boy, by contrast, is all slender-necked and shuffling. He is either older than he looks, or the tallest in his year at school, when seen from an appropriate distance.
Finally, they stand side by side, the elder grinning while the younger catches his breath.
After a while, the boy, deciding that he isn’t about to get any younger, asks the question.
“So why did you bring me all the way up here?” He says.
“Now there’s a question!” Says the man, clapping his hands together.
From their exchange, and their behaviour, it is hard to tell what their relationship might be. Father and son? Teacher and student? Or is something else entirely going on here? There is, a quick turn of the head by the man establishes, nobody around to ask this question, or to witness anything else.
“What do you see?” He asks the boy.
“Hills. Fields. Down there there’s a … either a very small lake or a very wide river. Can’t see the road, but it’s just past that line of trees – he points – and over there are the cooling towers for the power station, but they look weirdly bigger than they should.”
“Anything else?” The man asks, meeting the boy’s eye.
“Nothing else. Nothing and nobody. It’s… a hill.” He sighs.
“What about the path?” The man persists.
“Well, there’s the path. What, you mean that one?” The boy asks, pointing down to the base of the hill and on, at a swathe of crushed rape that leads off away from here, into the distance.
“Well, but… that’s just a path. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Just across that field.”
“And then, beyond?”
“Well, another field. Then another bloody hill.”
“Another bloody hill…” The man sighs.
“Yeah, another even smaller bloody hill. With…” The boy pauses. Squints. “That’s… With one tree on the top. How does that happen?”
“Yes… how?” The man says. He places his knuckles in the small of his vast back, and stretches. The boy senses impending movement.
“Is that what we’re here to see? A tree?” The boy near-swoons with the irritation of it.
“The tree, and the wonderful things that are at the tree.” The man says, as he removes a shoe and shakes it out, just in case. “That’s where we’re going.”
“What? But… there’s a path from the car park right to the gate into that field! We can see it from here!” He almost shouts. “We could have just walked straight there!” He stares at the man, who smiles back at him absently. Then the boy examines the landscape once again. “There’s even… I think we drove straight past the bottom of that hill, on the other side! Where that pub was?”
“Good eye.” The man says, proudly. “Yes, we did.”
“So why didn’t we just park there, and walk up?”
“Gotta get up to get down.” The man says.
“You have to come up here to get down there.”
“That doesn’t even make any sense!” The boy says, but he sounds almost defeated. He has finally seen the shape of his day for what it was always going to be, and with the sense of the very small in the grip of the very tall, he resigns himself to it. “Does it?”
“If we go the short way, when we get there it will just be a hill, and just be a tree. Oh, a lovely tree, certainly. But just a tree, all the same.” The man examines the slope close to their feet, looking for the slightly worn route through the long grass that the boy has already spotted. “We go the long way around. That’s how we get to where we’re going.”
“This is a lesson, right?”
“It’s all a lesson, my boy.” The man puts out his hand, waved out toward the way, inviting the boy to take the lead. “The journey always changes the destination.”
The boy starts down the slope, not so sure-footed, and then more sure-footed. The man follows, allowing the boy some distance, but close enough to hear, and close enough to speak.
“So,” says the boy, “what are we going to see when we get there, anyway?”
“Monsters.” The man replies, eyes glinting.
“Monsters?” Says the boy, a smile finding his face for the first time since they left the car behind. “What sort of monsters?”
“Strange, and horrible, and awesome monsters, boy,” says the man, the boy’s smile mirrored behind the hard cut beard “the best kind.”
… And down they go.
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