Weatherby's return


Charles W Warren

George Weatherby cursed himself. He knew these mountains like the back of his hand and yet, here he was, at least an hour behind his schedule, high up on a ridge and with miles to go.

Ahead of him, nestling between the blunt peaks, he glimpsed a bright shard of water. The lake. He should be walking along its shoreline by now where there was a wide gravel path.  He should know, he had ordered its construction 40 years ago. The path would take him straight down past the dam to the main road.

But he still had to walk up to Hacking Edge. By the time he got there it would be dark and there was a 500ft drop on one side.
‘Bollocks,’ he said, the end of the word escaping in a gasp as he stooped to tighten his laces. He must be slowing down. He certainly wasn’t getting any younger and each year he came back here the hills were harder on his lungs and the descents harder on his knees. He straightened his back, took a sip of scotch from a hip flask, and started walking again.

In the evening sunshine the mountains appeared soft, as if dressed in faded green velvet. Closer to, Weatherby knew they were patterned with sucking patches of bog and shoals of ankle-turning rocks. Easy enough to negotiate in the day, less so at dusk.

He stopped to look at the lake again. It was what drew him to this spot over and over again. Now it shone like burnished brass in the evening sunlight but deep beneath that lustre, in the airless cold, lay the remains of a village. Hardly a village. Just a valley that, when he first saw it, was cut by a bright stream and dotted with woodland, pasture and a few houses. There was even a little towerless church and a quarter acre of tilting grey-green gravestones. The church, rarely used, had been cared for by an old couple and their arthritic black and white border collie.

The village was all but forgotten and most of those that had lived there would be long dead. But Weatherby remembered it. His engineering expertise had taken him to rivers in Africa, China and the States but hardly a day passed when he didn’t think about that time in 1964 when he was just out of university and his work helped to drown that valley and drive out the families that had made their lives there for decades.

Weatherby crested out on to Hacking Edge just as the sun slipped behind the ridge opposite. Below, the lake turned black and the belts of dying bracken on the lower slopes lost their coppery glow. All was shadow now and he knew from years of walking up here how quickly those shadows would deepen into darkness.

The luminescent hands of his watch, glutted on the low sun that had just vanished, glared back at him. Seven-fifteen. He really needed to get his skates on. At least there was no more uphill, just the long flat path that ran along the top of the Edge. Next to him, so close that he could almost reach out and touch it, a lone crow rowed along the edge of the precipice, looking for a place to roost.

Of course they were compensated, of course they were found new places to live. But none of them wanted to go. And yet, right from the start, there hadn’t been much anger, just a sort of weary resignation. Even when he bumped into them out on the moors with his theodolite, he encountered only courtesy, and when the dam’s great grey wall began to raise its shadow over the valley, and their crystal stream clouded with mud and spoil, there was only sadness.

That limping dog had been put down. He remembered the tear that hung on the old dear’s tight weathered cheek as she told him about it. Better a quiet death at the vet’s than exile to the little flat in town the council had found for them. Now its grave lay beneath countless tons of unlit water.

Weatherby had tried to keep his distance but still he had wept when he saw the villagers’ cars, tractors and trucks leave the valley for good. They’d even had a farewell party, hanging their doors and windows with red balloons, and calling at each other’s houses. For months afterwards, shrivelled red balloons had turned up on the shore of the lake as the waters rose.

Weatherby looked at his watch again. 8pm... and still a long way to go. The hands had lost their glow. He wished he had brought a torch. Now all he could see in the weak grey light were the dull shapes of the rocks scattered on his path.

‘Be careful dear,’ his wife had said yesterday as he lowered himself into his car. She’d been along a few times, trying hard to understand his obsession with this valley and maybe take on a little of his burden. Now, she left him to it. Summer holidays with the grandchildren were more to her liking anyway.

A flicker of white to his left pulled Weatherby from his thoughts. A sheep probably. There it was again, moving fast. A dog? A stray, perhaps. Then it was right in front, flashing across his path. He stumbled slightly and his right ankle collapsed over a stone, pitching him to his right. He stuck his hands out to break his fall but touched only emptiness. Above him the stars twinkled in the night sky and he saw them again as he tumbled over and over, reflected in the black glass of the lake 500ft below.

The old couple were the last to leave the valley. Even they had gone by the time the sluices were closed and the thwarted stream groped along the heel of the dam and turned back towards their home. Weatherby was there still when the water lapped at their doorstep and slipped down their hallway. Months later it poured through their bedrooms and closed over the little church. By then, even Weatherby had gone.

Weatherby sat up. His right arm hurt a little. It had borne the brunt of his fall as he dropped side-on into a patch of boggy grass. He could feel the cold water creeping up his right sleeve. He tried standing. No pain. Even his ankle was none the worse. Jesus, he was lucky. That could have been nasty.

Where on earth was he? If he was halfway down the face of Hacking Edge then he was probably in a more dangerous spot than ever. He looked around him. All was darkness, even the stars had disappeared behind clouds.

Maybe he should just sit out the night. But he was trembling. It always started when he was tired and cold, and he knew he should keep moving. Again he cursed himself for not having a torch... but wasn’t there one on his phone? He’d buried it deep in his backpack because the last thing he wanted were calls when he was out here. What’s more, the signal was only as good as the hills allowed.

Arm deep in the pack, his hand closed around the phone. He pulled it out. signal and no power. He could have sworn he’d charged it.

When he looked up he glimpsed a small yellowish light. He’d not noticed it before. He didn’t know what it was, but at least it gave him something to aim for. Weatherby detached a walking pole from his pack and, waving it across the ground in front of him like a blind man, began his first hesitant steps into the darkness.

A single 40-watt bulb hung above his head in a rusty steel fitting. He knocked at the door below it. In the bulb’s dim glow, he could see a few other houses but this was the only one with a light on.

‘I’m really sorry,’ he said to the man of about 70 who answered the door. ‘I’m a fell walker and...’ he hesitated, he found it hard to say... ‘I’m afraid I’m a bit lost. Could you point me in the direction of the main road?’ Once on the road, he could walk the half mile or so to where he had left his car.

‘Who is it dear?’ a woman’s voice came from down the hallway.

‘A walker. Lost, he says.’ The old man smiled at Weatherby. ‘Why don’t you come in a minute, you look like you could do with a cup of tea...or something stronger. Then we’ll send you on your way.

‘Thank you.’ Weatherby wanted to get on, but a hot tea and hopefully a biscuit, would set him up for that last stretch back to the car. He followed his host along a hall piled with boxes and crates. There were dark patches on the walls where pictures used to hang and an old dog basket heaped with shoes.

‘We’ve just had a brew. Pardon the old mug, our best stuff’s packed.’ A gray-haired woman in a synthetic housecoat poured out his tea and handed it to him as he sank on to a wooden kitchen chair. ‘Our last lost walker.’ 

Weatherby wasn’t sure what she meant. Instead of answering, he gazed at her face.

‘You’re not the first to come down off Hacking Edge a bit lost,’ added the old man.

Weatherby stared round the kitchen - at the range oven where the kettle stood, at the cracked floor of quarry tiles, at the table of green formica where his tea sat steaming... and at a pair of red balloons hanging from a curtain rail.

The woman saw him staring at them. ‘We had a little party here in the village two days ago, we all went round each other’s houses and had a few drinks...

‘A party?’

‘We’re all leaving the valley, now the dam’s nearly finished. You must have heard about the dam? We’re the last, and we have to go tomorrow.’

Weatherby could not answer. His gaze groped around the little kitchen again until it found the old man’s face. The old man smiled again and gently lay one wide weathered hand on his shoulder. ‘It’s all right, son. We all of us have to move on eventually.’