Now for the Big Climb.
The last time we scaled the incline on the south side of Ashford, it was high summer, and we were sweltering and struggling. It’s a long ascent, whose true length only gradually reveals itself over time – but the diligent climber is amply rewarded by stunning views back over Ashford, and the fields, hills and dales beyond.
A couple of hundred yards short of the summit, we settle ourselves on the sloping grass and have our packed lunch. Whilst munching, we amuse ourselves by spotting the aeroplanes coming in and out of Manchester airport, another thirty miles or so beyond the horizon, over to the far left of our field of vision. With the clear, cloudless skies and the particular quality of the autumn afternoon sunlight, each vapour trail is unusually easy to spot. At one point, we can count a full ten planes ahead of us – and that’s not counting the ever-widening vapour trails left by earlier flights, criss-crossing the sky in spectacular fashion.
Falling into an awe-struck reverie – punctuated only by occasional murmurs of “wow”, and “so beautiful” – my gaze falls upon a group of three birds, flying around in the near-side fissure with the A6 at its base. Mesmerised, I continue to trace their path as they swoop up, down, and off above the high ground over my shoulder. By now, my neck is craned right round to the left – and as I keep gazing, my eyes meet those of an elderly lady, beginning her descent on the path which we have just climbed.
As I am smiling, and as I am turned awkwardly in her direction, she takes this as a form of greeting, and approaches us. Her smallish, friendly-looking dog trots ahead of her, making straight for K.
“Can Charlie come and say Hello?”, she inquires. “He seems to prefer men. I don’t know why.”
By now, Charlie is all over K, and K is all over Charlie.
Charlie doesn’t give me a second look. Clearly, he is well acquainted with the difference between friend and foe.
We chat briefly about the lovely weather, before the old lady calls Charlie to heel and sets off again down the hill. Charlie keeps gazing fondly back at K, who is returning his gazes with equal fondness.
Two or three minutes later, another dog appears to our right, on the upward path. This one is of an indeterminate breed, with a demeanour which suggests a bright friendliness, and an alert perceptiveness. Once again, it makes straight for K’s lap, walking straight past me without so much as an acknowledgment.
The dog’s owner comes into view, head stooped, climbing up the hill. Another elderly lady, again with something of a “county” air about her. She smiles over at us, every bit as genial as her predecessor. K calls over to her.
“We were just wondering what breed of dog he is?”
“No idea, I’m afraid! I was rather hoping you’d tell me!”
“He looks a bit like a German Shepherd, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, a lot of people have said that. I think there must be some German Shepherd in him somewhere. Glorious afternoon, isn’t it? You’ve picked a lovely spot for lunch…”
Her cheeks are flushed with enormous patches of vivid crimson: either a result of her sustained uphill exertions, or of a stiff gin-and-dubonnet after the morning service. Or maybe a bit of both.
“He’s from Animal Rescue! Third one I’ve had! I went to Bakewell Market to buy a cabbage, and came back with a dog in a cardboard box! Oh well!”
As the two of them disappear off to the left, I hiss seditiously at a still beaming K.
“What’s going on here, then? Is this another one of your carefully staged I-want-a-dog ploys? I’m going to have Sharp Words with the script-writer, I’m telling you…”
He beams back at me, in that particular bare-gummed way of his which I always take to signal smug triumphalism.
“Come on then, you devious bastard. Next stop, Sheldon.”
To be continued.