The hill is higher than I remember, and steeper. I am struggling to breathe and I wish I was fitter. I wish for many things, even now.
At least I’m not carrying the food. Or the bottles of beer. Or the glasses. He had asked what I wanted to do, so I said I wanted a picnic, a proper picnic, on the hill. As the sun goes down. Sandwiches and pies and cold meat and a crunchy apple. Pickled onions and crisps. Potato salad and pasta salad and green salad. Cheddar, edam, yarg, and stilton. Red Leicester, brie, and gouda. Red wine and white wine, beer and champagne. Elderflower presse and Sicilian lemonade. Cakes and trifles and gateaux as big as a house.
I want never gets.
He had tried his best. There is half a load of loaf of bread and a tin of corned beef with the key still attached, two apples – not too badly bruised – and a small lump of cheese.
Best of all, there are the two bottles of beer. He has kept them for today. They are dusty, with labels peeling off. I haven’t seen beer like this for a long time, but I can still remember the taste. Sweet and bitter. Great floral aromas that remind me of running through meadows of flowers in the sunshine. The warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
The daydreams of food have distracted me and I realise that we are nearly at the top of the hill. I am sure it seemed shorter before. But – of course! – there had been a car park before (and a road, and cars) and we had walked from there. Thinking about it now, it feels like cheating.
Today we walked all the way. Out of the gate and down the road. Past the shops and the school, the pub and the park. I touched some of the things as we passed (a post box, some railings, the large horse chestnut by the side of the road), letting my hand drift over the flaking paint, the cold metal, and the rough bark. It felt good.
Once out of the town we began to climb. The road meandered at first, up through the trees with old stone walls at the side in the shadows. The sunlight was muted, filtered through a thick layer of green leaves above our heads. When I looked closely, I could see all sorts of greens: golden greens, light greens, dark greens, some that were almost yellow, some bordering on blue. I wondered why I had never spent time looking at trees. At the colours of the leaves.
We left the road at what would once have been a stile. It was now a rotten plank balanced precariously on a lump of wood. Neither of us had fancied trying it so we worked our way around the stile through the bushes, holding back the branches for each other until we found the path again. Nettles grew high along the path and I regretted choosing shorts. He walked in front of me, lifting his knees up to stamp down on the nettles, trying to squash them so they could not sting me. It didn’t work but it made me laugh and I reached forward and held his hand to say thank you.
Now we sit on a bench near the top of the hill. It is stained brown and orange with rust and I perch on the very edge, trying not to let it ruin my last pair of shorts.
A man appears below us on the path, climbing up towards the rusted bench. On his back he has a large rucksack and he is wearing big, heavy walking boots. He is carrying a stick and he leans on it when he stops beside the bench. He is going west, he tells us. He plans to keep walking towards the setting sun. He will keep going for as long as he can… And then.
I smile at him and he knows that we understand.
I tell him about the picnic and he says that he thinks that it is a fine idea. He says that he hopes we enjoy it. Then he picks up his bag and continues on up the path, heading west.
We watch him go until he is out of sight over the brow of the hill and then, slowly, we follow. The path is wider here and we can walk side-by-side, holding hands. I think about all of the other places we have walked, before, with my hand in his, and it makes me smile. I look at him and he is smiling, and I know that he is remembering too.
At the top of the hill we stop and I take out the blanket from my bag. I lay it on the grass and he unpacks the picnic, arranging it carefully on the blanket. Behind us, in the west, the sun is dropping in the sky. It is big and red and it turns the clouds orange. In front of us, down the hill, I can see the trees and the town and, beyond the houses, the sea. If I were to look really carefully I might be able to see people, little ants, but I don’t. That way it is just the two of us, sat on the hill, staring out over the ocean.
He carefully pours the first beer into the glasses, making sure that we both get the same amount. Between us are the apples and the corned beef sandwiches and the cheese. I ask where it is and he says, with a smile, that I will have to guess. I don’t want to guess, so I make sure I have a piece of everything and it’s all delicious. That’s just his way, he likes to make everything into a game. It is infuriating and lovely in equal measures. Today it is lovely.
He takes the top off the second bottle and says that this is it. For a moment I wonder what he means, but I don’t ask. I trust him. We clink our glasses together and stare out at the darkening ocean. He moves around until he is sitting behind me, one leg either side with his arms around my waist. I run my hands through the hairs on his legs and feel the warmth of his skin. I feel happy.
It was a great picnic, I say, and he agrees. He tells me how happy he is to be on this hill with me, tonight.
He is yawning and that makes me yawn and I know that we will both soon fall asleep. And it occurs to me that there is nowhere else that I would rather fall asleep then wrapped up in his arms, looking out over the ocean. I really want to tell him this but I find I am too sleepy and the words won’t come out. It doesn’t matter. I know he knows.
My eyelids are heavy and I try to keep them from closing. I want to watch it. To see the light grow bright in the east, catching the tops of the waves. A hundred thousand galloping horses with manes of fire rushing towards us. To feel the heat on my face and the rush of the wind, warm and sudden. But it doesn’t really matter. Not any more.
I lean back and I feel him there, his chest slowly rising and falling as he breathes in and out. My eyes close and the rest of the world recedes, pulling me back from the ocean, over the town and the trees, until it is just me and him and the rise and fall of his chest, getting slower.
Sometimes there are good moments.