I cannot see the wit of walking and talking at the same time … nor do I ask for ‘a friend in my retreat, Whom I may whisper solitude is sweet.’
Tail End Charlie. That’s how he feels. That’s what he is.
They break naturally into groups. This is his second outing, but it might as well be his first. The ramblers he thought he’d broken the ice with – Liz and Bob, Ken, Les, Pete and Vi – all give the impression they’ve never ever set eyes on him before. Apart from the flirty woman in leggings who gave him the once over in the car park. You can always spot one. And they both did.
He plants himself in the middle of the crocodile, tagging on first to one group then another. But somehow he can’t prise his way in, fails to find anything to say that anyone wants to listen to.
There are about twenty, all retireds or semi-retireds. The whole damn crew seem to know everything about each other. Holidays are the hot topic – how was Croatia? Did the cruise ship go past that lovely old schloss at Kirksberg? Were the midges as bad on Harris as last year?
He doesn’t do holidays, hasn’t been on one for the last couple of years. When he did it was to his sister’s place in the Midlands. Who wants to know about a rainy week in Redditch? He has nothing to contribute, nothing to add, no insights into Morocco, Bulgaria or Le Puy.
As they climb the stony path to Wills Neck the chat moves on to health. Les goes into lengthy details about his gall bladder operation, Vi’s smothered with sympathy over her still unidentified problem down below. By the time they reach the trig point they’ve covered everything from irritable bowel to prostates.
What the fuck does it matter? Just look at them, decked out in their ridiculously shiny Regattas. A zoo outing of cockatoos and mynah birds, parrotting their ludicrous chatter to the hill tops. Which, of course, means there’s not a pigeon or sparrow left on the hills, so they haven’t come for the wildlife.
Not one of them looks to right or left. No one notices the sunlight splashing the heather, or the toadflax making tiny pinpoints of brilliant yellow amongst the bracken. He tries stopping once, pointing at a hill shadow floating slowly over Aisholt, but they’re already smacking their lips, working their way through the Rising Sun lunch menu.
‘I think a ham panini this time, Pam. Or one of their delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese baguettes – yours looked scrumptious last time, Lisa.
The men compare real ales. Nutty Old Quantock or Exmoor Stag. Trouble is, he cannot be blokey. Les and Ken, their lunchtime tipple agreed, compare Les’s Ford Focus with Ken’s new Prius – the merits of sat navs, insurance groups, miles per gallon, and time between services. Does either of them really want to hear about his ten-year old Corsa with its jammed electric window mechanism he mended with gaffer tape? Then, as they enter the deeply shadowed woods, John’s complaining to Pete about how he can’t load his son’s spreadsheets recording the Formula One results.
He makes one last effort. A rider clops past, her horse dislodging loose stones, causing tiny avalanches down the steep track. Ken and Les raise their eyes and snigger.
‘Look at the size of her!’ Ken whispers. ‘Arse as big as her horse! She’ll burst those jodhpurs if she gallops!’
He smiles and pulls faces, but knows he’s not included in the joke.
A hundred yards on they step over a huge pile of steaming horse shit. He hurries to catch up with Ken and Les and points. ‘Whose backside? Horse or rider?’ He waits. Nothing. Neither Ken nor Les seems to have heard. He tries again, nudging Ken on the elbow. ‘Whose backside did that lot come out of? The horse’s or her with the big arse?’
Ken half turns and looks blank, as if wondering why a complete stranger has caught his arm. Then Les catches Ken’s attention again saying how his emails aren’t getting through because the bloody internet keeps going down and how their last Tesco online order got garbled.
Lunchtime in the pub. The time he dreads. The tables are small, and once again they break naturally into small groups, filling the snug. Where to sit? No one beckons him over or pats a seat. He wanders around the bar, examining old prints on the walls, sipping his beer, trying to look easy and unconcerned. He spots an empty place. It’s opposite the flirty woman in leggings. Thank God. Facing the wall, he goes through his breathing exercises – the routine he’d read about how to gain confidence and make friends. It’s easy to start a conversation, it told him, just ask questions. People love telling you about themselves.
Leggings isn’t a bad looker. A bit raddled and scrawny round the neck. Something bad happened to her at some time, but he’s no Pierce Brosnan. He leans across.
‘Hi! I’m Nigel. And you? Mel, that’s a nice name. So, what do you do? Tell me about yourself.’
And she does. For forty minutes. He needn’t have been there.
Back on the walk, the sun beats down and the pace slackens. Ken belches and Les and Pete disappear into the trees for a pee. Liz, too, and the whole crew have to create a diversion so she can get her knickers down without being seen.
Getting in with the men isn’t working, so he tries a group of the women. ‘Look at those whortleberries! Coming on a treat! Looks a bumper crop. I love a whortleberry pie, don’t you?’
One or two do half turns. ‘Splendid,’ one says, but it’s little more than a pause in the middle of a rant about the new Morrisons.
And that was it.
He feels like shaking the whole lot of them. They could be in Tooting fucking High Street for all they’d notice. Or care. He plods miserably on at the rear.
Back at the car park they plan the next walk. Car doors slam, kisses and hugs all round.
Alone. An empty car park.
With the windows wound up tight he shouts until he’s hoarse, longing for the touch of his dead wife.