The Way Walked Before
This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
There is a way I walk when I want to clear my head. It goes up the hill behind the village where I grew up and leads into the woods. It’s a quiet path, only sought for by dog-walkers and the odd seclusion-seeking couple. It goes round the new housing estate, along an access road for a water drum, then veers into a thicket of scrubby trees. When you come out the other side, you’re planted among a network of farms separated by dusty backroads and grassy verges.
I used to go this way with my dog, a black Labrador named Dani. He listened to every word in the house, but the moment he stepped out on those walks his inner rebel was let loose. If, when he ventured further off, I called him to come back, he would often turn with pricked ears to face me, weighing up what was in it for him, then dash off as he pleased anyway. He gave me no end of stress sometimes. But I used to love those walks with him, and his occasions of misbehaviour only added a sense of adventure to the whole affair.
Funny how at the time my mum would have to nag and nag me to make sure I took him out on the days I said I would, but now I would give almost anything for just one more chance to do just that.
We would climb the hill behind the village first. It wasn’t very big but I was always breathing heavier once we got to the top because the incline was so steep. A little further along the path, and there was a bench that faced a large grassy field in which Dani liked to run around. I would sit on the bench and watch him sniffing his way through the long grass, nose to the ground, suddenly changing direction as one scent led him to another. Often, my mind would drift to puzzling through the confusing events of my teenage life, and, if there was no-one else about, sometimes I would speak my way aloud through whatever issue I was facing. When bored of that, I would sometimes enact a dialogue between characters from a story I had cooked up in my head. I liked fantasy, especially fight scenes jazzed up with magic, so I’d rise from the bench swinging swords about, casting spells and the like, playing the part of both duelers at once. Dani didn’t take much notice. He was hoping to find something to eat.
When he was ready, we would continue on up towards the water drum at the top of the hill. It was not a long climb, but once again steep, although the way was paved so that vans could come to carry out maintenance on the drum now and again. Reaching the iron gates which shielded the drum from trespassers, we would hop over a dilapidated stone wall to its left, leading into a small wood. Here, if I had begun a fight earlier on, the trees might become part of my scene. Swordsmen could jump out from behind a slanting trunk and I would be forced to parry, or I would spot them from afar and shoot them down with an arrow or a fireball. Dani trotted on.
Sometimes I would take this opportunity, when the woods were quiet but for the wind, to belt out the words of my favourite songs. I liked to take my headphones with me and listen to the mixture of songs which were shaping my emotional life at that point in time. I could listen to them with a freedom I couldn’t show anywhere in my house, in the world, or with anyone, family or friend. I belted those lyrics as loud as I could and cared quite little, for a self-conscious teenager, if a stranger should suddenly appear on the path ahead. There was nowhere but with these trees, this breeze and this dog I felt so unconstrained. The first time I did it, I think Dani might have barked at me once or twice, wondering why I was making such a racket, but he was off exploring again by the time I stopped to explain myself.
The woods were my favourite part of the walk. The long grass and thorny bushes all cluttered together made it the wildest terrain on the route, the footpath marked out only by where people had trod before. At its end, the way came to a quiet backroad which circled round the back side of the hill and to the village. It was a narrow single-track road, rarely used, covered in a layer of dust blown on to the tarmac from the fields by the wind. Having crossed over the crest of the hill somewhere in the woods, we were completely unprotected as the wind rolled over the flat fields to the west. When the weather was temperamental, we would feel the worst of it here. I remember on one occasion singing ‘Greatest Day’ by Take That with all the force of my body, arms thrown wide, face-first into gale-force winds. Liberating.
Walking along the backroad, feeling like we were on a treacherous ridge cut into an exposed mountainside of the Highlands, we passed a lone house with a well-kept garden and a collapsing, disused farm. Dani would go and sniff in and out of the shell of a barn which stood by the road. He never seemed to lose interest in this collapsed building, always finding a new crevice to explore. While I waited, I would look out over the fields to my left and the line of peaks on the horizon beyond, wind roiling against me. It’s a view, a feeling, which feels like home to me, no matter how long passes.
On we went, past a house where two dogs of the more aggressive variety lived. They used to make Dani so anxious he would stay right by my side until the house had passed out of sight. They would bark the minute they got a sniff of another dog nearby and come charging out of the driveway. While they never went for Dani, they followed closely, eyeing him the whole way. Dani had been softened by years of strokes and “aren’t you a good boy”s in our house, so he didn’t fancy growling back at them one bit. In later years, the owners put an enclosure up to keep the dogs in, the fence of which ran alongside the road. Then, every time we passed, they would hurl themselves against the fence, their imprisonment sharpening their rage. Soon, they would turn to snapping at each other as they realised they weren’t going to get through the wire fence. I often wondered what it was that had happened to these dogs that made them so angry. Was it being left outside in the Aberdeenshire weather? Clearly they were paid little attention. For Dani’s part, once he realised they couldn’t reach him, he liked to taunt them by approaching the fence, only to trot smugly away when they raced up to snap at him.
Turning a corner in the road which took us back towards the village and our home, we walked through the old car park, now a garden of weeds, of what was once the village church. Then abandoned, the building exuded a haunting energy. Perhaps it was the glassless windows which crows flew in and out of, or the boarded-up doorway. Maybe it was the graveyard around it. Through the gateway, I used to look in at the war memorial every time we passed, noting when the poppy wreaths were laid there, and the varying lengths of time it took for them to be removed each year. One year, the wreaths were bleached by a whole bitter winter before somebody took pity and spirited them away.
There was one time I went into the graveyard and walked among the headstones, searching to see if there were any names I knew. Dani was, of course, keen to explore the new space as well. I figured that, having grown up in the village, I was bound to recognise at least one name. Sure enough, I did. The mum of a girl from school. I stood and looked at that name and felt the cold close in on me until Dani came to stand close by, letting me know he was ready to move on. Every time we came past the graveyard thereafter the experience was somewhat weightier. I didn’t go in again, anyway.
The journey home took us past a reclusive warehouse with a warning sign out front informing arrivals of the ‘NIGHT GUARD ON DUTY’, even during the daytime. I dreamed up that the place was a secret MI5 base, dressed up to look like a quiet family-owned workplace that shared a driveway with their house. There was a five-a-side football pitch behind a low wall next to it, but you couldn’t see what was behind that. Dani never would go exploring too far into that one. Something about the place seemed forbidding. It seemed to take its cue from the abandoned church a few yards down the road.
The road snaked on and we walked along the side of it, tucking in neatly to the verge when the occasional car came past, though they didn’t come often. We would reach a crossroads where I needed to put Dani on the lead, as there we turned on to the main road where cars were more frequent and travelling faster. That took us right back to the village, past the new housing estates and into the older part where we lived. Dani was always excited to get home. Panting, he would gallop through to the kitchen the second I opened the front door to lap up as much of the water in his bowl as he could, even on the cold days.
It happened very quickly. Dani and I had a mischievous, brotherly relationship and when, on one walk, he tripped over his own paws and hit his face off the ground, my instinct was to laugh. But it wasn’t funny, I later realised. He carried on that day. Soon, though, the walk was too much for him. Then one day he just stopped in the garden, trying to move but not able, and I had to carry him, feeling his body stiffen beneath the fur, back to his bed. That night he coughed up his insides all over the kitchen and I came through to find his eyes glowing sadly in the darkness. He didn’t know what was happening and he was scared. I think I said things but I don’t remember what. I was useless. All I could do was clean it up. I didn’t know how to help him, to comfort him. It wasn’t so many days later that the vet came to the house and we traded goodbyes with desperate, wide eyes.
I had lost my grandmother when I was younger but I had been too little to appreciate what death meant then. I had cried one day because it was supposed to be sad and that is what you are supposed to do. Losing Dani, though, was losing a part of myself. His love was the one thing I had that made me feel clean. His love was unconditional. I’ve not known from others an affection which is not, at some level, ready to be forgotten. He was such a pure soul to my mind that knowing he loved me preserved the belief I deserved to be loved at all. I haven’t taken the walk since he lived. I have seen flashes of the route on other errands. I went to sit on the bench and talk to him one Christmas Day when I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone else. Another time, I drove up in my car to a garage behind the village and I saw the woods where we used to walk from a distance.
* * *
Today, I am taking the walk. I tried to kid myself I could move in with the ex-boyfriend I didn’t love and since that fell apart I’m back with my parents for a while. Feels like a time to learn something.
Everything is different, though it’s the same. The bench reminds me of how I felt when I came to talk to Dani, of the faces that don’t understand when I speak honestly, of the eyes which died a little round that Christmas dinner table when someone joked that I was a bit old not to have a girlfriend yet. It reminds me of the time I told the one person I’ve ever truly loved that I’d love to sit and watch the stars with him, and he told me he didn’t want to speak to me anymore.
I climb up to the woods and I see the patch of grass where, when I was sixteen, I took my best friend to tell him that I had feelings for him, that I was “straight with an exception”, and that I was sorry. I see a frayed thread of rope, all that remains of a tyre swing, tied round the branch of a massive tree. I used to come up here with friends after school, pushing each other on the swing, messing around and chatting on summer evenings. Games of ‘Truth or Dare’ would end up in everyone spilling their secrets about who they fancied. I said I fancied Katie on those days, and after it got out that that wasn’t true I don’t remember being invited to the tyre swing very much.
I see the fence Dani used to squeeze under to cause havoc among the cows in the nearby field, returning when he attracted the attention of one too many. I remember with a smile how he ignored my shouts to come back, how worried I would get, though he did, at his leisure, come back every time. I see the trees I used to climb as high as my fear of heights would allow. Secure on a branch four feet from the ground, I would pretend to be the characters from the stories in my head, the stories I have worked so hard to write down, to make interesting, since.
I stroll along the side of the backroads and I remember the day a car pulled up alongside me and I was too engrossed in singing to notice. The driver rolled down the window and asked disapprovingly if I was paying as much attention to my dog as I should. I was too mortified to answer, too embarrassed. Caught being myself and reckless in so doing. I kept a hand on Dani and silently waited for them to speed off into a cloud of dust.
I pass the disused farm and the rubble’s been cleared up. Two houses and a few twenty-first century barns have sprung up across the road. The house where the dogs used to live is the same, but the enclosure outside now keeps a flock of chickens which huddle discontentedly under what shelter they can find from the wind. The church has been converted into a house by someone with the money to pay for expensive window frames and who clearly doesn’t mind stepping out their front door into a graveyard every day. The industrial warehouse has had its sign updated so that ‘Deliveries must be reported to the night watchman’ in less aggressive font. The goals on the football pitch have been taken away and now it’s just a neat lawn with a picnic table on it.
I feel the pang as I approach the crossroads that I better get Dani in close to put him on the lead. I glance about me for a few seconds, searching, before I realise what I’m doing and continue on. I notice that I have been doing this for the whole walk: searching. Out of the corner of my eye, have I not hoped that I saw a blur of black fur hopping through the grass? Have my ears not pricked for every rustle of leaves? The wind is cruel.
I look down at the pavement as I walk through the new part of the village on the way home. The tarmac is constant, unblemished grey, re-laid since I was here last.
I’m alone as I turn out of the new estate towards my street. Across the road, I see a group of teenagers laughing and joking with one another, heading for the hill behind my village. I wonder if any of them will grow up on that walk, if they will ever deposit memories on the bench, or the patch of grass, or the tree where the tyre swing used to be. I wonder if any of them will ever find they can’t be themselves anywhere in the world except on that walk, if they will ever lose something, someone, precious and go out there to ask why. I wonder if any of them will leave for several years, then return to walk the same route and fail to recognise the person who walked that way the time before.
I turn home, grieving those days I can’t get back, glad they are gone. ▲
Darryl Peers is a Scottish writer based in Cambridge, where he is studying an MPhil in Modern and Contemporary Literature. He writes short stories and creative non-fiction, and his work has appeared in publications such as the American Literary Review and Causeway. He is currently working on his first novel.