Winner of the Bath and North East Somerset Libraries ‘Lockdown’ Competition (Short Stories)
She’s never been one for the crowded places. The town squares with their fountains and their tourists, the pedestrianised areas thronging with shoppers, the pubs full of drinkers spilling onto the streets. No. She likes the quiet. And the wild spaces. Mountains and moors scratched with heather, rasping at your ankles. Waves crashing on a rocky shore, an empty beach spooling out in front of her tramping boots.
Now, she is inside. She’s one of the vulnerable. Her door must stay locked. Death lies just over the threshold, over there, outside.
Her flat is dark. Small. A bad conversion in a Victorian tenement. It smells of basement and of damp. It didn’t matter before. It was where she dumped her bags, rested between trips, a stopover place. She never meant it to become her world. The view from her kitchen sink is of the ‘courtyard’, a pokey dirty space originally designed for coal deliveries, all blackened bricks and dead leaves. There is only a postage stamp of sky.
She feels the sadness creeping in. All the losses. All the regrets. The times when she should have stepped into an embrace but held back, awkward, the times when she should have smiled and said I love you, but was too diffident, the many times when shyness overcame her and the moment was lost forever. And the other times, when she was shunned, or rejected, or harassed, all those times crowd into her head until all she can do is crawl under the covers, curl into a ball and sleep and sleep and sleep.
On the fourth day of sleep she drags herself from bed to bathroom and then to kettle and, as she waits for it to boil, she looks out into the courtyard. Prison yard, she thinks. The high walls, the patch of sky. There’s a bin bag, blown in from the street, caught in the drain. If it rains, that’ll flood, she thinks. She makes herself unlock the door, push hard and step out, in her flip-flops, into the air. It’s dank and dark of course, but it is not the rank air of her bedroom and there is light, filtering down.
She tugs at the bin bag, frees the drain, then, like a prisoner, she steps along the edge of the yard. Ten steps. She runs her fingertips over the rough texture of the red brick. Ten more steps across the back, then ten again, and ten back to the door. A square, of forty steps. A step is about two and a half feet. Two thousand steps makes one mile, ten thousand is five miles. She knows this. This is enough.
On that first day she walks around the area five times. The air fills her lungs and although she goes back to her bed and retreats into the dark her head is beginning to fill with other images, with other thoughts, and when she wakes the next morning she gets straight out of bed. She has a plan.
She finds the old tin of white paint that is hidden at the back of a cupboard and a paintbrush that has hardened with lack of use. She levers open the tin and there is plenty of paint, plenty as she sloshes it on the walls of the area, plenty to make it white. It doesn’t matter that the paint splatters on the ground, and it doesn’t matter that it might peel off in a few months or become stained green with mould. What matters is that now the walls are bright and white and she has a canvas.
She finds her Ordnance Survey maps. She chooses one to begin. It is her favourite. She steps out into the courtyard. She starts at the pub in the village and walks through three fields until she gets to the edge of the moor. She climbs up the steep slope, her feet finding footholds in the rocky footpath. She meets the burn and puts her hand into the peaty water, splashing her face to cool it. She doesn’t smell the new paint now, but the fragrance of heather, coming into bloom, the coconut scent of yellow gorse and the crystal clean air of the hilltop.
That morning her limbs feel heavy and tired from the exercise but her brain feels sharper than it has for days. She feels the need to mark her walk, to record it, as a prisoner might. She has oil paints, bought for a project long discarded. Standing in front of the shining white walls, she paints the new purple blush of the heather which covers the moor. The second day is an oak tree, stunted and bent by the wind. The third day she paints a hare, guarding its leveret in the grass.
By the third week she looks out of her kitchen window to a wild space, thronging with life, with green, with mountains, with birds, with rocks and caves, with sky. She looks out into a landscape of freedom.
She rings her mother.
“Hi, Mum,” she says. “I’ve been on the longest journey.”
Clare Reddaway writes short stories and plays. Clare’s stories have been widely published, have won and been shortlisted in national competitions, and are frequently broadcast on BBC Radio Bristol. She reads her stories at events throughout the south-west, and runs a regular live lit event in Bath called Story Fridays. Her plays have been performed across the UK, including a run at the Edinburgh Festival followed by a short tour, and productions in London. Clare runs regular creative writing workshops in Bath and Bristol, currently online. Find out more at www.clarereddaway.co.uk.