The hill is higher than you remember, and steeper. You are struggling to breathe and you wish you were fitter. You wish for many things, even now. At least you’re not carrying all the food. Or the bottles of beer. Or the glasses. He had asked what you would like to do and you said that you wanted a picnic, a proper picnic, on the hill. As the sun goes down. Sandwiches and pies and cold meat and a crunchy apple. Pickled onions and crisps. Potato salad and pasta salad and green salad. Cheddar, edam, yarg and stilton. Red Leicester, brie and gouda. Red wine and white wine, beer and champagne. Elderflower presse and Sicilian lemonade. Cakes and trifles and gateaux as big as a house.
I want never gets.
He had tried his best. There is half a loaf of bread (you wonder who is still baking out there, and why), a tin of corned beef with the key still attached, two apples (not too badly bruised) and a small lump of cheese. You don’t ask what the cheese had cost. You don’t want to know.
Best of all, there are the two bottles of beer. He has kept them for today; they are all dusty, with labels that are peeling off. You haven’t seen beer like this for a long time, but you can still remember the taste, the smell. Great big floral aromas that make you think of running through meadows of flowers in the sunshine (did you ever actually do that? You don’t think so). The warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Thinking about food has distracted you and you realise that you are nearly at the top of the hill. You remember now why it seemed shorter before. Before there had been a car park (and a road, and cars) and you had started from there. Thinking about it now, it feels like cheating.
Today you had to walk all the way. Out of the gate and down the road. Past the shops and the school, the pub and the park. You touched some of the things as you passed (a post box, some railings, the large horse chestnut by the side of the road), letting your hand drift over the flaking paint, the cold metal, the smooth bark. It felt good.
You walked out of the town and you started to climb. The road meandered at first, up through the trees with old stone walls at the side in the shadows. The sunlight was muted here, filtered through a thick layer of green leaves above your head. There were all sorts of greens when you began to look closely: golden greens, light greens, dark greens, some that were almost yellow, some bordering on blue. You wondered why you have not spent more time looking at trees. At the colours of the leaves.
You left the road at what would once have been a stile. It was now a rotten plank balanced precariously on a lump of wood. Neither of you had fancied trying it so you had worked your way around the stile through the bushes, holding back the branches for each other until you found the path again. Nettles grew high along the path and you wished that you weren’t wearing shorts. He walked in front of you, lifting his knees up high to stamp down on the nettles, trying to squash them so they could not sting you. It didn’t work but it made you laugh and you reached forward and held his hand to say thank you.
You sit on a bench near the top of the hill. It is stained brown and orange with rust and you perch on the very edge, trying not to let it ruin your last pair of shorts. A man appears below you on the path, climbing up towards the rusted bench. On his back he has a large rucksack and he is wearing big, heavy walking boots. He is carrying a stick and he leans on it when he stops beside you on the path. He is going west, he tells you; he plans to keep walking towards the setting sun. He will keep going for as long as he can, and then. You smile at him and he knows that you understand. You tell him about the picnic and he says that he thinks that it is a fine idea. He says that he hopes you enjoy it. Then he picks up his bag again and continues on up the path, heading west.
You watch him go until he is out of sight over the brow of the hill and then you follow. The path is wider here so you walk side-by-side and hold hands. It isn’t particularly practical but it feels right. And you think about all of the other places you have walked, holding his hand, before, and it makes you smile. You look at him and he is smiling, and you know that he is remembering too.
At the top of the hill you stop and you take out the blanket from your bag. You lay it out on the grass and he unpacks the picnic, arranging it carefully between you on the blanket. Behind you, in the west, the sun is dropping in the sky, big and red and turning the clouds orange. In front of you, down the hill, you can see the trees and the town and, beyond the houses, the sea. If you look really hard you might be able to see some people, little ants, but you don’t look. You like that it is just the two of you, sat on the hill staring out over the ocean.
He carefully pours the first beer into the glasses, making sure that you both get the same amount. He hands one to you and you say thank you and you clink your glasses together. Between you are the apples and the corned beef sandwiches and the cheese. You ask where he put it and he says, with a smile, that you’ll have to guess. But you don’t want to guess, so you have a piece of everything and it’s all delicious. That’s just his way, he likes to make everything into a game. It is infuriating and lovely in equal measures. Today it is lovely.
He takes the top off of the second bottle and he says that this is it. For a moment you wonder what he means, but you don’t ask. You trust him. You clink your glasses together again and you stare out at the darkening ocean as you savour the last drops of beer. He gets up and comes and sits behind you, one leg either side with his arms around your waist. You run your hands through the hairs on his legs and you feel the warmth of his skin and you feel happy.
It was a great picnic you say, and he agrees. He tells you how happy he is to be on this hill with you, tonight. He is yawning and that makes you yawn and you know that you will both soon fall asleep. And you think that there is nowhere else that you would rather fall asleep than wrapped up in his arms looking out over the ocean. You want to tell him this but you are too sleepy and the words won’t come out. It doesn’t matter; you know he knows. Your eyelids are heavy and you try to keep them from closing. I wanted to watch it, you say to yourself, to see the light grow bright in the east, catching the tops of the waves. A hundred thousand galloping horses with manes of fire rushing towards you. To feel the heat on your face and the rush of the wind, warm and sudden. But it doesn’t really matter. Not any more.
You lean back and you feel him there, his chest slowly rising and falling as he breathes in and out. You let your eyes close and the rest of the world recedes, pulling you back from the ocean, over the town and the trees, until it is just you and him and the rise and fall of his chest, getting slower.
Sometimes there are good moments.