We got down from the bus and crossed the road, my dad jiggling his canvas haversack to sit more comfortably on his shoulders. He reached out to steady me as I clambered over the stile. The path cut through the dried-out bracken like a parting through hair. Swinging my arms, I marched behind my dad up the gentle slope towards the spinney.
He pointed out the ash and the spindly silver birch, its bark like alligator skin. I jumped when a squirrel scampered across the path and up a tree to safety. “Listen!” It was the tap tap tap of a woodpecker but, though we strained our eyes and necks to scan the treetops, it remained elusive. Somehow, it didn’t matter; the shared not-seeing was enough.
I pressed further into the woods for a closer look at some bracken fungus clinging to the trunk of a dead tree like shelves made of scallops. I kicked at the sludge of fallen leaves with my wellies. At last I understood what drove him to come out here week after week: this was so much better than church. “Do you think we might find one of those bright red ones with spots on, like a toadstool in a story book?”
I thought he might call me a sissy, but he stroked his chin. “I know the type you mean, pillar-box red with pale yellow spots, what are they called? Something foreign …”
“I should’ve brought my I-Spy Fungi.”
“Fly agaric, that’s the name.”
“How did you know that?”
My dad shrugged. “You pick up things.”
We walked on. I was tempted to take his hand but I knew he wouldn’t stand for that. “Do you know the story of Romeo and Juliet?”
“Load of rubbish,” said my dad.
I swallowed hard. “What was your favourite book when you were my age?”
“I’d generally had enough of books by the time I’d done my schoolwork.”
“Wasn’t there anything? Robinson Crusoe? The Swiss Family Robinson?”
“Storybooks? Storybooks were for girls.”
I caught a flash of orange through the trees ahead. I thought of Geraldine but the colour was too low down and too abundant to be another rambler’s hair. “What about Biggles?” My brother liked Biggles, the gallant pilot who knew no fear.
“That’s it, Biggles. One of them would’ve been my favourite.”
I stopped short. “What’s that?” The orange blur transformed itself into a procession of four-legged monsters descending through the thicket.
“I remembered the fly agaric but I’m no expert on cows.”
“They’ve got horns. Like Vikings.”
“They look like Highland cattle but, if they are, they’re a long way from home.” Seeing me faltering, my dad flipped from jovial uncle to the stern patriarch he was at home. “Come on! They’ll not harm you. They’re more scared of you than you are of them.”
The cattle had assembled on the path, waiting. “I’m not going past them cows.”
My dad grabbed me by the arm and dragged me forward. “Don’t be such a softy.”
With a deep lowing, reminiscent of the sound my grandad made when constipated, the orderly gathering broke apart. Cows galloped into the fields; others trooped back into the woods; the rest trotted up the path towards us. I escaped my father’s grip and stumbled away to park myself behind a rock.
“Stop this nonsense! I said they wouldn’t hurt you.” He beckoned to me to join him.
Whimpering, I rose to my feet, caught between the wild beasts and my father’s wrath.
The cattle had settled back into a steady walk, although one over-eager or sexually confused youngster was mounting one of her siblings. Ahead of the cattle, a woman in a green anorak ambled towards us.
“We can’t sit here all day.” Dad prodded me forward.
The woman drew level with us, smiling broadly. “Beautiful morning!”
My dad smiled back through gritted teeth. “Isn’t it?”
A clunky walkie-talkie crackled from a belt around her waist. “Everything okay?” I noticed the National Park insignia embroidered on her anorak.
“We’re fine, thanks.”
The ranger cocked her head at the cattle. A few stragglers were still milling about on the footpath, like gossips outside church on a Sunday morning. She spoke directly to me: “They’re quite intimidating with those horns, aren’t they? I was petrified when I first came across them.”
“But you walked right through.”
“They’re as soft as kittens,” said the ranger. “More frightened of you than you are of them.”
“That’s what I said,” said my dad.
“Why don’t we walk past together?” said the ranger. “When you’ve done it once, you’ll feel more confident for next time.” She offered me her arm as if to lead me onto the dance-floor. “Shall we?”
Walking ahead of my father, the ranger told me about the national park. The cattle parted like the Dead Sea for the Israelites.
“See,” said my dad, “nothing to it.”
When both ranger and cows had departed, I did feel rather foolish and wondered how I’d recover my dad’s good mood. If we heard another woodpecker or spotted a squirrel or stumbled across the shiny red dome of a fly agaric the day would not be completely ruined. I tried to remember what else he’d said we might see. “How far is it to the plague graves?”
My dad turned away as if I hadn’t spoken. Checking the shoulder straps of his haversack, he strode off, and I had no choice but to follow. We marched for mile after mile, up hills and down again, through woodland and moorland, on mud and rocks and sheep-cropped grass. He didn’t pause to help me over the stiles. He didn’t reach into his haversack and offer me a sandwich or a drink of squash. He didn’t ask if I wanted to rest and admire the view.
I was tired and hungry and, when I stopped to pull off my wellies and smooth out the wrinkles in my socks, I had blisters on both heels and one on my little toe, fiery cushions of pulsing pain. I considered them my penance for spoiling the outing. Perhaps this was why Geraldine preferred her other friends: I was a scaredy-cat.
I ran to catch up, my feet throbbing with every step. When I got to the top of the incline, there was no sign of my dad. There were other ramblers, but I was too ashamed to ask for help.
I hadn’t any money for bus fare, and it would be too far to walk home before nightfall even if my feet were up to it. Would I die out here on the moors?
Through misty eyes, I scoped the terrain as far as the horizon in every direction. I stopped and looked again, and there was my dad, perched on a rock not a hundred yards from where I stood, drinking from the squat plastic cup of a thermos. He looked my way, but he didn’t wave or beckon me across. I limped through the heather to join him, my ankles twisting on the uneven ground. The wind whistled around my ears when I sank onto the rock beside him. My dad said nothing, but he poured me some hot, sweet tea. We stayed there for the time it took me to eat two jam sandwiches, not speaking, and then he hoisted the haversack onto his shoulders and we marched back the way we had come.
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