“Come on then, you devious bastard. Next stop, Sheldon.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that no group of two or more gay men may walk through the village of Sheldon without passing comment on the name of its public house. This is not a convention which K and I are about to flout.
“What’s the name of this place? The Cock and something?”
“The Cock in Hand?”
“No, that’s not it. But I’m pretty sure it’s got Cock in it somewhere.”
As we start the long descent into Deep Dale, I catch the disused lead mine out of the corner of my eye, about half a mile away to the left. Oh, was that part of the same walk? Although I recognise everywhere we have been, my memory has been as a series of disconnected fragments, which I am having to stitch together from source all over again.
Over the summer, we had bickered our way down this hill, arguing the toss with every fresh field. This time – certain of our way, hitting our stride, fully up to speed – our conversation swerves off into an animated impromptu plot conference. By vocalising my sketchy ideas for the first time, I can feel flesh starting to draw over bones. Thought leads to thought; chance suggestions are toyed with and acted upon; new characters emerge from the ether; existing characters take on names, faces, back stories. We’re buzzing, on a roll, eager imaginations churning and melding.
I had forgotten what an effective sounding board K can be, particularly when it comes to his favourite area: plot. (I tease him over it, positioning myself as if on a higher literary plane – but we both know that’s bullshit. Anyway, complementary skills and all that.) It’s like the planning stages of Chapter Three of The Naked Novel all over again – only bigger, broader, freer.
Somehow, we’ve avoided the wrong turning: the one which I harped about incessantly last time (after K had insisted and I had yielded), and which had added a pointless half a mile to our route. Reprised as caricature, my extended “told you so” nag rings in our ears once more. Chuckling, we veer rightwards into Deep Dale.
Striding through the wildlife sanctuary, still dotted with seasonally redundant little marker boards, pointing out rare – and now vanished – wild flora on the hillside, I coax K into delivering a brief company report, strictly in layman’s terms. (Proteomics? The very word makes my head spin.) Caught in the middle of all the little day-to-day dramas and stresses, it’s easy for me to lose track of the wider picture. Consequently, I hadn’t quite realised what a key stage this is for him – indeed, for all of them. Viewed from a certain angle, I guess we’re both poised on our respective brinks.
Having left the binoculars at home this time, there is little to detain us here. Before we know it, we’re at the car park by the A6, where the last of the Bright And Early Brigade are busily de-booting themselves before the four o’clock lock-up. Just outside the toilets, someone has dumped an old PC monitor: damp, useless, too big for the bin. We tut.
Now we’re at the actual spot, K can’t resist teasing me about the bird-watching for the umpteenth time. When we were last here, I had amused myself with the binoculars while he went for a pee.
“Shh!”, I had cautioned, as he emerged from the toilet block. “There’s something in the trees over there. I’ve been tracking them. They’ll probably emerge in a minute… ah, there they are. The two black and white birds with the long tails. Any idea what they are?”
“Mike, they’re magpies. Haven’t you ever seen a magpie before?”
“What, are they quite common?”
“You could say that.”
“HAHAHAHAHA! Ooh, ooh, keep still, I’ve just seen a very rare magpie. HAHAHAHAHA!”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can’t all be Children of Nature. I mug obligingly, riding out the storm, until K’s attention is caught by a tree over to our left.
“Good grief, look over there: the catkins are coming out.”
“So they are. Er, that’s supposed to happen in spring, right? Oh, don’t start all that again. Anyway, what about those daffodil shoots coming up in the cottage garden? It’s all so wrong!”
“Doomed… we’re all doomed…”
“I blame the government.”
“I blame Thatcher.”
Crossing the busy A6, we head into Monsal Dale for the final stretch.