“Is he dead?” you hear, followed by a sharp prod to your shoulder. You let out a groan, roll onto your back in the glare of the sun. You sit up. A tall boy is guarding a long stick, next to him, a smaller boy clutches a bottle of water. You wipe your mouth with your sleeve and manoeuvre back into the shade.
“What time is it?”
The two boys look at each other, then the tall one turns to look at you and tilts his head.
“Just after teatime.”
You squint over the fence towards a cedar of Lebanon. Its stepped branches hold shadows that suggest it’s late afternoon. The last golfers can be spotted on the last greens.
“What’s the village?” you ask, pointing vaguely towards the church spire poking out the top of the distant woods.
“Swordenham,” says the tall one.
“We were looking for lost golf balls in the bushes,” says the small one.
“I was walking back to Sidcup,” you say.
“Sidcup, y’know, South East London?”
“This isn’t the way to London,” says the small one. “London is over the hills that way. Our Dad lives in London and it’s a long way. We go by train, and it takes forever.”
“Dad says it’s a short ride,” says the tall one.
“No he doesn’t, he says it’s miles and miles and miles and…”
“My parents are gone,” you say.
“Where are they?” says the small one.
The tall one elbows him.
“They are buried in a graveyard outside Dartford. So, I’m an orphan like Oliver Twist.”
“Oh, that’s sad,” says the small one.
“I need to get back to London,” you say.
“Are you lost? says the small one. We can show you the way.”
A train clatters by, the evening sun striking across it, and the sound somehow comforting you, as if you felt closer to home than you had realised. How long had you been out for? You walk to all manner of places. Walking without purpose gives the ambling man a chance to see the world unindexed, to see things unplanned. One time you found yourself in Lakeside at 3am. The Thames had led you there, deposited you in that place. The huge services restaurant was the only open venue, and you had to observe what the people in front were doing to orientate your way through the various stopping points, such as the conveyer belt toaster which hypnotised you as fresh bread disappeared then dropped out the bottom as toast. It seemed like a miracle. You had stumbled out into the dawn to see huge shopping units and empty car parks, the M25 starting to come to life.
Today you had been walking since the morning, a distant sense of direction disturbed by the miss-firing neurons of your internal satnav. Today you knew you had to walk east, so kept taking the second left, and then first right. On this morning walk you had stumbled through housing estates in Catford where women cut each other’s hair on grassy patches; you stumbled past car boot fairs where you counted twenty-seven women in jumpers with dog prints; in St Mary’s Cray you nearly got taken out by a cycling club whose peloton parted and regrouped like a shoal of fish; you had seen a young male deer come out of the deep woods on the North Downs and stop you in your tracks, deer and man looking at each other. In Swanley you saw a fight sprawling out onto the street from a pub, the men all dressed for a wedding with button-hole flowers falling to the ground. You had taken one as a memento, but you couldn’t find it now.
“Have you seen my flower?” you ask.
The small boy shakes his head, kicking idly at the patch of ground.
“Maybe you could retrace your footsteps,” says the tall one.
“It could be anywhere. I wanted to leave it to mum and dad, but I took a wrong turn somewhere.”
“Let’s look then,” says the tall one.
“Help me up,” you ask.
As the boys hold each of your hands, you seem surprised how dirty yours are in their little ones, and how they have a slightly unreal feel, like you are wearing gloves.
Back on your feet, you notice that your three-quarter length coat is covered in bits of grass and leaf. You wear a pair of black brogues and sport socks which are visible almost always. The boys regard you as if you are a king being dressed for battle, they look you over inch by inch. You can’t work out what their faces are telling you, and truth told, you don’t care much.
Your little troupe set off down the footpath, leaving the golf course behind and walking through a cornfield. A pheasant, startled by you, rattles its alarm and runs along the path in front before taking off. You hold an invisible gun and shout “Bang, bang!”. Then you all stop and watch as the bird jerkily flies its line towards the end of the field, as if it had been shot, before soaring downwards into a little copse. There is something in that moment that makes the boys look at you again.
The little one starts to skip down the path as it enters the woods.
“Will you get home by tonight?” the tall one asks.
You don’t answer. You are lost in your head, something about the path, about the boy skipping in front, something about the smell of the woods makes you feel disturbed, a tremor of something lost to time, as if watching a storm come in via a hallway mirror. You have to stop and lean against a tree.
“Are you okay?” says the tall one looking concerned. You slump down against the tree and look at the boy with such a fierce, searching face that he slowly backs away from you. Your vision is darkening at the edges, voices seem to be distant; they have a swimming pool quality to them. You watch the two boys run off, see them vanish into the deeper wood and you sit there dizzy with memory. A face you haven’t seen for years calls softly over the hedgerows and fields, and you begin to weep.
The small one comes back into the clearing: he has found your buttonhole in the middle of the path. He drops it into your hands, and you look up at him and hold out your hand for him to come to. The small one gives you a final look and then runs back to his older brother who stands at the edge, anxiously beckoning him with his hand.
“Come back please!” you say weakly.
You sit there for hours as the night starts to deepen the shadows around the edges of the clearing. You sit there in your great coat and become aware of a distant sound of traffic. You realise you can hear the motorway, the distant hum like a child’s spinning top, as if all of London’s streets were singing together, their chorus crossing the boundaries and flooding the home counties, telling you to come home, that you belong to them, their very own land surveyor – an auditor of common space – connecting everything and everyone with your walking, reassuring them that someone is out there counting the street lamps.
Andrew McDonnell writes poetry and short fiction. He lives in Norwich but teaches in Peterborough so that he has a long commute in which to write. He is the commissioning editor for Gatehouse Press. His poetry collection, The Somnambulist Cookbook was published by Salt in 2019.
@McAndyMac | @thesomnambulistcookbook