She was doing that thing again, the little hints, the nosing into his bedroom to see if he was playing Assassins’ Creed or learning French vocab. He had the curtains drawn against the thin April sunshine.
She said, Did you want to meet later to do some French together? She whisked the curtains open. The Blorenge Mountain appeared like a sleeping mastodon, breathing wreaths of mist. Why are you sitting in the dark?
She didn’t look directly at his laptop where he had clicked shut the page about landing a jet. Hmm? she said. You said you’d like me to do some with you because it was less boring.
Maybe, he said.
Well, when? she said. Because I’ve only got a couple more days holiday. She smiled. It was a thin line. Up to you, of course.
She would do that. Speak lightly to show she wasn’t worried for him, so as not to undermine his confidence. It was maddening. He laughed. It’s ok, Mum, honestly. I’ll be fine. Let’s do it later, he said, about four? Think I’ll go out on the bike now.
A flicker of the brows.
Get some fresh air, he said. Magic words. Sounded healthy and sensible.
Nat hauled up the steep lanes to St Mary’s Vale, surprised by the pleasure of the physical labour, the breath sour in his chest after a mile but his legs powering on. The thought of the downhill rushes to come gave them force. Between the trees, swathes of wide green valley, the Sugar Loaf tempting on the other side. Past the plants, green against the stone wall, that his mother had told him were Dog’s Mercury, very poisonous. The entrance to the Vale a muddy gateway, and the cool gloom of the wood closing in as he cycled down the track soft with ancient leafmould.
She’d come with him a few times, once, up towards Clydach, where she’d struggled to stay in the saddle, then eventually slid off and panted up slowly, pushing the bike, him circling back down like a hunting dog, calling her on till they reached a stony downhill gully he wanted to try. They stopped at the top, looking round at the hills, the old lime workings, the July blue of the sky one day last year. He’d asked her to wait while he cycled off slowly on the green bank, looked at the obstacles, found the good lines. And then back to her where she gazed anxiously at the rocks underfoot and the barbed wire fence to the side. She hardly had time to say ‘Be careful’ before he had plunged down the track.
This you can’t beat: rocketing down the mountain at maybe thirty miles an hour, relishing the air beneath you as if you really can fly, just briefly, and might get the hang of doing it all the time if you just keep looking ahead down the track, finding the line, and don’t stop, don’t worry that you might be going too fast, just relax and get the rhythm, your body always in the right place for taking the berms, the drop-offs, the roots and corners.
He was half-way back up again before she’d got very far, brakes shrieking as she inched down. Oh my God, she was muttering, and again when he curved round towards her at the bottom of his second flight. Oh my God. You don’t know fear, do you? She said he’d been like this as a small child, always first to the top of the climbing frame, crossing the rope bridges at the climbing centre, abseiling. It was a good day.
Alone now he savoured speed, power, control, amidst the mud and beech roots of the slopes by the Nant Iago. Up then, towards the Sugar Loaf, in quest of new ways. He rambled round the mountain, trying this and that track till he realised he was lost. Well, if he went downhill he would eventually get back to Abergavenny. But fences and ravines might mean retracing miles. Heigh-ho. He circled round again, eyes alert for familiar configurations of rocks and trees. How similar these things can be when you need them to be distinct. At length he realised he was heading towards a wood that he knew, where paths crossed at a cattle-trough. He slowed down to make sure and passed an old man standing in the shadow of the oaks. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a shallow crown like the old pilgrims, and he was strangely still and brown in the tree-shade, as if he was made of earth.
He pedalled on faster, down a pleasant green track where the valley spread out to his left, on the home run. But ahead of him again was surely the same old man, standing by an open gate that should be closed, black as a crow this time against the bank of spring grass. Cycling on too fast for clarity he had an impression of an impassive face, something missing – no teeth, perhaps, or sightless eyes, and was so afraid he might see the man again that he hardly dared raise his head till he reached his own streets.
And it was gone six.
She was not pleased. She tried not to show it but the mouth was set again and the voice pitched down a tone to convey calm.
It’s under control, Mum, he said, I know what I need to do.
She rattled the pans. Look, she said, I don’t mind how you do as long as you feel you’ve done your best. You were disappointed before.
It was true. He’d done pretty well in the GCSEs but he knew he could have done better with a bit more work. Some kind of dry grey wall always rose in front of his eyes, and a dark ache in his marrow. School made you focus on silly details of stuff when your mind was restless for all the knowledge of the world.
Oh, thanks for the reminder, Mum. Look, it’s my exams, ok? Stop –
Take those off the table, she said.
He grabbed his muddy gloves and went to the back door. I’m going to put my bike away.
You’ll have to be quick. It’s almost ready.
He didn’t slam the door. He washed the bike down and left the hosepipe snaking in the yard. He kicked off his cycling shoes and sat heavily at the table. He waited for her to look out at the jumble of kit.
I’ll do it later, he said sourly.
One more word and he could stamp off upstairs. No French vocab. But there again, a tense atmosphere over dinner at the least. And maybe a little revision wouldn’t hurt. He went and took the shoes and the bike out to the shed, and came back through the still-bright garden and told her about how he had been scared by the eerie old man.
The exams came and went like a series of discouraged beasts. He waited for them, he pounced; somehow, he got by. They slunk off into the undergrowth, biding their time till August. In July he embraced the freedom of the summer, camped out with friends on the side of Sugarloaf, went biking, or messed about by the Usk. Often the carefree holidays of his childhood seemed to wave at him, almost within reach.
One night in the first week of August he met with friends by the river. They did the usual: someone brought a tinny sound system, they had a few cans of booze; some weed was going round. He had a beer, sat chatting. Then something strange began to happen. He found himself forming the intention to get drunk. This he had never done before, hated the idea of such loss of self. Now, though, he set about it. Someone offered to go and buy vodka if they all chipped in. He held out money. He lay back on the river bank and considered the lights of the Heads of the Valleys Road.
In a while he was swigging Ben’s idea of a brilliant drink – a sweet potion of vodka, cider and Ribena. The lights across the river began to dance up and down, and, later, a couple of girls from Year 12 were dancing too, right out on the Usk, oddly on the water not in it, and the tinny beat from the CD player was merging with a sound like bagpipes. He looked around for the source of the wailing music, and Rhian and Meg and Rhys and Ben reared up around him and floated past his eyes, waving slowly, they and the trees and the water circling till he felt quite sick. Then the old man from the mountain was standing before him with a hand held out, and he knew he had to take it, but he was very afraid, and said, No, and fell back on the bank with a groan. He heard weird laughter, then, and struggled to sit up, and Rhys said, You ok? and helped him stumble a few feet away to puke.
That improved things. Rhian and Meg resolved back into ordinary girls laughing in the summer night, their black-rimmed eyes glittering in the light of a big torch, flirting with him and mocking him at the same time, the older, clever boy who couldn’t take his drink. There were other things, he thought, you could not take. Sometimes you could not take yourself. He walked with purpose towards the water. The sign, he remembered, said SWIMMING IN AND BOATING ON THE USK IS PROHIBITED, but in the summer you often saw kids paddling by the Bridge Inn despite warnings about dangerous currents. For some reason Rhys was grabbing hold of him.
Don’t be a knob.
They collapsed together into a knot of brambles.
Fuck’s sake, said Rhys, unhooking bits of his clothing.
Sorry, mate. A new idea occurred to Nat. I’m going home.
Not on your own. Come on, I’ll see you back safe.
Which he did, because Rhys was a mate, they told each other at least twice on the way home, as Nat remembered the next day, and also that he and another friend had done the same for Rhys quite recently. What was surprising was the way his mother took the situation. The next morning he knew, from the wrong duvet on his bed and the bucket next to it, that he must have been sick some more when he got home. That she must have helped him into bed, taken the mucky stuff away, left him sleeping on his side with a glass of water and some kitchen towel handy. But he could recall no alarm, no crossness, just a vague sense of her hand on his shoulder, holding him as he bent over the toilet bowl and got rid of some purplish puke.
Even when he surfaced in the early afternoon she just looked at him a tad ironically and asked how he was feeling. And he was going to say nothing about it all, but it felt like a betrayal, when she was being so gallant, and so he went so far as to say Well, a bit, when she asked if he was nervous about his results.
I’m sure you’ll be fine, she said, and she smiled at him without biting her lip, and he realised he could easily cry.
I could have worked harder, he said. He wasn’t sure what he was most upset about. That he’d set his heart on Oxford and then been too cocky or lazy to get the grades, or that he’d let her know it mattered. And he didn’t know any more whether he was afraid that she would be upset for him, or he for her, or whether the real problem was what he now understood was his first hangover.
She patted him tentatively on the arm. Chocolate and lemonade, she prescribed brightly. What we used to have the morning after the night before, when I was – ooh, younger.
He tried to smile, understood they were to cheer each other up. I think I’ll just have a cup of tea, he said. Maybe go for a ride to clear my head.
Something made him take the track up Sugar Loaf that went through the grove of oaks, as if it was a rendezvous he could not avoid. His head pounded as he drove the pedals but he would not stop or slow, anxious to grind something out of himself through the pain and sweat. He stopped at last by the cattle trough, sick and panting, and reached for his water bottle. It was muggy and grey under the trees, and flies were feasting on the trampled dung and mud. A mad place to stop; he would come out of it and find the cleaner air, look down towards the town and out to where in clear weather you could see the Bristol Channel and even the Somerset hills beyond.
He knew before he turned that the old man would be there. He stood, a tall figure cradling a large-brimmed hat in one arm and leaning on a stick. He gazed absently at Nat and said something.
Nat shivered. Sorry?
Mushroomth, the man said, indicating the hat. He was missing some teeth. Nat, surprised at himself, went close enough to look. A few moon-pale objects nestled there, and a fresh strong scent rose from them. The man gestured with his stick. Always get them here, he said. More in a week or two. He smiled slowly, showing gaps like a seven-year-old. Take them back for Olwen. He glanced down towards the farmhouse in the valley.
Every year, the man added.
Nat replaced his water bottle and made to mount his bike but the man spoke again, and waved his stick at the sky where the rain clouds were huddling in a sullen mass.
Rain coming, he said.
Looks like it, said Nat. I should get going.
You’ll be all right, said the man. You’ll ride fast.
Nice to meet you, Nat said, as if they were at a tea party.
The man smiled his slow smile again and set off down the path to the farm, quite briskly.
On the way down the mountain the storm broke and the rain pelted through Nat’s cycling top. Sodden hair escaped from his helmet and snaked over his forehead, and his knuckles were chilled and pale on the handlebars. On the way down the mountain he was soaked and cold, and the rain trickled down his neck and back. But he felt he could keep on going, down this slope and up the next, descending and climbing track after track, the old man with his pilgrim hat appearing now and then with gentle talk of years of mushroom gathering. And when he came into the kitchen splattered in mud he felt he was glowing despite the cold.
Hello, love, his mother said, smiling at the state of him. Feeling better?
I’m fine, he said. No worries.
Seriously, he said, shaking his wet head like a spaniel. I’m OK. It’ll be OK, whatever, he said.
And he put his arms round her waist, and hugged her like he hadn’t done for years. He covered her tee-shirt in mud, and she didn’t complain, and they stood like that for a minute before she said, I think you really will be OK, whatever. But –
For God’s sake get in the shower.
OK, he said.
He rested his chin lightly on her hair, and looked out of the kitchen window at the drenched yard. Beyond lay the mountains, washed and hazy in the pelting rain.
Links to visual material online:
St Mary’s Vale