The hillside that flanked the village was a sea of slate, organised by wind and rain until each piece had found their place and stayed. Each slate seemed to lean on each other, interlocking as if for warmth or comfort, defying the laws that said they should fall down and shatter. They reminded him of the two pence coins at the arcades, stubbornly holding on a little longer to tan themselves under the neon bulbs that shone on them. He looked at a runaway sheet of bailing wrap, a fugitive, possessively flailing on a jutting rock. The loud clanking sound of a tractor’s front linkage snapped him away from the warmth of the arcade on the coast and he looked down at his trousers. They were darker at the bottom, saturated with water from the school yard puddles as he’d made his escape from the changing rooms. It was as if his trousers had drunk the water from his shoes and it was working its way up slowly. This was the opposite of what happened when he had a drink, he thought; that just went down and fast. He moved his toes inside his wet shoes, using his big toes to divine for water. He’d seen tv shows where they used night-vision to show people looking for things in the dark. When they concentrated, their eyes became big and looked stupid. Whenever he concentrated on something he couldn’t see, he would remember their daft faces and make his own as normal as he could as if he too was being watched. It wasn’t dark out here but inside his shoes it was. His toes felt warm and swollen and he wondered if the water would be as warm now as maybe a cup of tea that had been left for a while but not too long. He pressed his feet down into the waterlogged beds of his shoes and watched as water bailed out through the eyelets. He thought it made his shoes look like they were crying about something but then imagined lots of small sailors inside them with tiny wooden buckets throwing out water as if they were a sinking ship. He balanced on a cat’s eye in the middle of the road and swayed back and forth, until the shoes stopped weeping and the squelching sound grew fainter. Cadfan placed his hands around his mouth and, through the corner of his mouth, whispered in the direction of his feet ‘We’ve bailed out the water, Captain. I think we’re safe for now’.
It suddenly occurred to him that he was doing what he was doing in the middle of the road, right in the centre of the village, when he should be in school. As if realising that he needed some sort of disguise to make him inconspicuous, he brought his index fingers and thumbs together, flipped his hands upside down and placed them around his eyes like goggles. With a nod of recognition to his reflection in the window of a parked car he crossed the road and headed upward along a track. The walls that lined the tracks were built from stone; testament to a time of skill and patience. A time that respected the notion that it was better to do things slow and well. There was an order and confidence to the wall that perhaps the village itself below it had lost. The winding track was pockmarked with loose stones and its potholes had been filled with a mosaic of upturned bricks of different colours. He liked it here, he thought. There was no writing on anything and the light was not the bright type that made thinking hard in supermarkets. His brain did not have to fight to make sense of and to follow lots of different conversations like in class. It was like flying lots of kites at once that got tangled. It wasn’t like that out here but he tried to separate the sounds here into boxes; the distant plane, the near bird and the nearer stones under his feet. The sounds were not fighting each other here. They were okay with each other.
A sudden flash of some idea or memory flashed across his eyes, causing a chain reaction across his face. First his eyebrows dropped and then lifted, prompting his ears to fold ever so slightly inward. With the re-setting of his eyebrows, his ears returned outward and he bolted up the track. His shoes slid under the loose stones, causing some to scatter in his wake as if they wanted no part of the plan that was forming inside him. He ran his usual awkward run, alternating between the two lanes of track and the grass catwalk that flowed between them. As he neared a solitary cottage on the hillside, he stopped and turned to face it. His face grew suddenly serious and he placed his hand over the lower part of it and tilted his head as if measuring up the scene of a crime. Before him, encased in the stone wall was a Hitachi Microwave. It was yellowed and one of the hinges had bled a tear of rust that lost its intensity of colour as it had travelled. He’d heard about this before but had never seen it. Word in the village was that the owner of the cottage had become tired of his post being wedged in the latch of the gate so had turned the microwave into some makeshift postbox. He leaned in, peering through the window of the machine as if looking into a closed shop. His finger slid its way down the peeling keypad and pressed a rectangular button, prompting the microwave door to swing wildly open. He took a step back, looked at a point in the air a little taller than himself, reached out his hand and with a quick twist seemed to pluck an invisible circular object from it. He gently placed the object on the plate of letters in the microwave, closed the door and said ‘Two minutes should cook that head of yours, Owen’. The door was closed and he pressed button ‘two’ then ‘zero’, ‘zero’ again then ‘start’. As his teacher’s imaginary head cooked away, the wind picked up and the mist seemed to be rolling its way across the quarry tops. He liked it when it was like this. It felt more real and not like a picture. You couldn’t feel still days but cold or wet days you could feel on your skin and reminded you it was real.
The corner of a chain-linked fence on the other side of the track had been peeled back. It reminded him of that Christmas when the corners of the cards that came through the door were torn and folded out as if someone had tried to look inside. He narrowed his body through the gap, wincing as the stones pressed bone through the pads of his hands and the thin skin of his knees. He reached forward for the soft earth and felt his palms ease into the welcoming wet ground. He stood and surveyed the landscape, looking down at the village below. He had no idea where he was heading other than it being away from Owen and school and all the sounds that would have got louder if he had stayed. He stepped through the gorse, making exaggerated steps to avoid the pebbles of sheep shit that punctuated the path like sheet music. He thought of Hansel and Gretel dropping shite instead of crumbs and laughed into the wind. He’d come to learn the language of the landscape from his father; how the green spots on stone meant you were facing South or that lines carved into the hillside were sheep tracks created over hundreds of years. Ahead of him the gorse seemed flattened in a circular shape like a crown on a scalp and in it lay flecks of wool. They rose and fell, manipulated into dance by the wind rising. ‘A fox has got a sheep’ he thought to himself. His eyes followed the fragments of wool and rested on another clearing ahead. In it lay the upturned ribcage of a sheep.
He dropped slowly to his knees, feeling the material of his trousers soak up the moisture from the ground beneath him. The bones were stripped and white but with stained patches like the inside of a mug. Everything that was alive had gone from it. He wondered whether bones were alive even when they’re inside a living thing or did they just hold up things like scaffolding. He reached under his sweater and pressed the corner of his own rib as if any give in the bone would provide him with an answer. This movement tightened his trousers and he suddenly remembered the remnants of the sandwich he’d eaten this morning that was in his pocket. He reached inside, concentrating on making his normal eyes, and squeezed the crust inside the clingfilm with his finger and thumb. There was give. His sandwich felt more alive than bone; his bone. Were sandwiches more alive than bone? It upset him that he may never know the answer to this. He looked back at the cathedral of the rib cage and slowly extended a closed fist inside it. His fist took on a beat, a beat that began slowly before quickening and then stopping. The final beat seemed to freeze him and he stared not at his first but beyond it, through it. His eyelids flickered then narrowed, not by wind but by a distant and buried recollection. Suddenly he was on his feet, tripping and scrambling his way again through the gorse and cairns of fallen slate. His eyes were wild and wide and his laces snagged open from their protective knots and flailed behind him as if they knew danger lay ahead and were trying to flee in the opposite direction.
On hands and feet, he tumbled up the banks, rearranging the puzzles of slate as he slipped. He was breathless and the loud rattle in his chest was back as if his lungs were of thin tin and a stray stone from the track was in there. The slope began to even out and the landscape seemed to change. There was colour here; green mosses and the ochre of abandoned rusting water wheels and track rails that jutted out from the banks of slate. A buzzard sat on the crest of the wheel, its talons resting on the thinning rivets weakened by generations of rain. A solitary blood spider moved its way along the top of the wheel before sensing the beat of pulse within the still buzzard and turning back. The boy’s loud arrival sent the bird skyward, its startled flapping sounding like wet trousers being shaken out. The boy watched its stuttered exit from the clearing and the frantic movement of its wings and his heart united the two momentarily until the bird regained its composure through the safety of distance and surrendered itself to the thermal lift that carried it clear.
Cadfan leaned against a boulder and pulled his knees up to his chin; creating an armour of bone against the thought he’d run from. He reached into his pocket and once again squeezed the sandwich in film between finger and thumb. His eyes were wide now and his breath shallow and quick. With every intake of breath he could feel the wings of his shoulder blades press against the solidity of the rock behind him. He hugged his own legs tighter now, as if they were a buoy, keeping him afloat until he regained his breath. He suddenly became aware of the nagging stinging and cold in the hinterland of skin between the bottom of his trousers and the tops of his socks. The gorse had marked him: underlining; ticking and crossing out the errors he’d made in his escape from the remnants of the sheep. The palms of his hands were cut too and stowaway shards of slate hid themselves in the perforations. Stretching his palms opened the wounds to the mountain air and with it a sting of pain. But there was comfort in the burn. The ache reminded him it was real and not a picture, he thought.
In his scramble up here he had not noticed the body of water that was in front of him. The boy closed one eye, lifted a foot and with it traced the outline of the lake as if to measure its size. The lake had a brooding darkness to it and he felt a static hum come from it like when he’d stood under a pylon. The boy and the lake seemed to stare at each other, wordlessly measuring each other up. He was suddenly aware of his heartbeat and his breathing and he could not separate their sounds or which one was making his chest swell. They seemed to follow the ebb and flow of the lake’s surface and whatever had made him run had seeped out through the soles of his wet shoes as was now as far as the earth’s core. He rolled himself forward until he was upright and walked slowly towards the lake’s edge. There was a pull to this dark water he could not explain. Looking down, he shuffled his shoes forward until there was a paper’s width of a border between them and the water. The water seemed thinner near his feet and he could see the mottled slate beneath the surface. As he cast his eye further out, the water seemed to thicken to an ink black and it was impossible to know how deep it was or what was beneath it. He looked at the surface of the lake and a strange weight of jealousy pressed on him; an envy of its brooding stillness. His knees buckled slightly under this invisible weight but he righted himself. Something marched through his blood. It was a feeling he had come to know. He leaned down and picked up a heavy stone, holding it at arm's length. His arm quivered; a silent tug of war between gravity and bloody-mindedness. He could feel the cool of the stone permeate the skin of his palm while the sun brought a warmth to the roof of his hand. Hold on, he told himself through closed teeth, hold on. He closed his eyes and from between his teeth came spit and the whispered words ‘Why didn’t you hold on? Why didn’t you hold on for me?’ He fell backwards into the fragments of slate and turned on his side, the stone cradled deep in a knot of hands, arms and the trig points of knees.