This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As freezing persons, recollect the Snow
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
‘After Great Pain’; Emily Dickinson
WHY would you read on? This tale has an approximate grid reference for a title; a creaking, circular narrative dripping sentiment, genre conventions trampled into mulch – and no actual ghost. It even features two old friends yarning by the fireside in a remote cottage snugged between darkened hills and the Atlantic. With its over-abundance of snow and whiskey – though the snow was deep and the whiskey a gloine oir thinte – it has little to commend it.
Except that it is entirely true.
The fire was set and lit. O’Neill had the knack: two beast mart pages from The Donegal Democrat, salt-caked driftwood to burn coppery blue, the wigwam of turf; one match. The Tilley lamp hissed. That afternoon we had been driven from the summit of Raghtin More by a thug of an Atlantic squall and returned, quite drenched, to the cottage I rented each Easter, under a lid of black stratus low enough to touch. Our gear draped over a rafter and dripping onto the flagstones, we settled down to supper. Warmed by Derry Stew – use only Doherty’s best pork shoulder; deglaze; add good beef stock, a spoonful of mustard and a grated clove of garlic – we went out into the thickening dusk to see the first sweeps of the Fanad Head light, staying until we were sure we had counted five white arcs, then five red, each in a twenty-second pulse, twice.
The rain spattered on the thatch, the odd drop fizzing in the hearth. I recall it was late April. RTE had announced the death of Nina Simone at her French home, earlier, and so switched their entire evening schedule to a tribute, lasting from the Angelus until noon the next day. Her voice came from a radio at the edge of the lamplight, somewhere in the companionable muddle of books and maps tucked under smooth, pink sea pebbles flecked with basalt.
That bruised, smoky voice seemed to curl around us as we talked and thawed, for it was a raw night: bright enough by day with vivid yellow furze, early primroses, wood sorrel, and fuchsia hedgerows starting through – but cold enough for frost by twilight.
I pulled my chair closer to the fire, and O’Neill asked, kindly: ‘Are you cold?’ I’ll leave more turf from the outhouse – there’s three good bags left.’ He dragged it in; the blue polythene bag beaded with rain.
‘You always felt the cold.’
‘I think it feels for me: drafts search out the backs of my knees, my shoulders, then kidneys and fingertips.’
That is where our talk that night took us: to my proneness to shivering at the approach of a squall line or cold front, often succumbing to chest infections and a rasping cough from November to spring. I pulled a shawl – one of Annie Mc Gonigle’s from Glendowen – sea-blue with heather flecks – over my knees; rested the whiskey glass among the folds, and told O’Neill what I had only told one other outside my family, until that night.
‘You were back in Derry then – musician, campaigner, community activist – a blur of stuff. I was in my first year of teaching in Yorkshire, sharing a mid-terrace with my girlfriend.’
‘I remember – you flung everything into it – but it wasn’t a great time for you.’
‘I’m not a complicated man. I had to earn a living – and besides I loved the burnt biscuit stone, the tough kids – all of it: she had options. It was only a tentative arrangement, really for her first term at Bradford, and, yet, I sort of hoped that she would stay even for a short while longer. I can’t blame her. I came home back to Blacker – yes it really was called that – Blacker Road, one Friday evening, a week before the Christmas holidays, so happy after our Christmas Show had been a triumph – the skits, musical routines, silver band, ‘turns’ from staff – and my Yorkshire Nativity. I even threw in a Mummer’s Play, and, oh, they cheered and stamped and I would have been calling out as I turned the key – wanting to share it.
‘I suppose there would have been a note – I don’t recall. Only that compression in the lungs and tears somehow working their way up from your throat, amazing you with their saltiness.
‘A friend with a car had helped her move her stuff; it was clinically stripped out except for three boxes of brown-bagged dried beans, grains and pulses from a wholefood shop. She had labelled them, and I kept them just to see her handwriting. Purple felt tip; curlicues. I just sank. I think I sat in the dark a good deal, smoking, waiting for my gravity tank to kick in, but the emptiness just poured through me.’
‘Oh, yes – early aeroplane radial engines were liable to fuel leakage and greedy. Pilots in the Great War needed to be sure that, however badly shot up they were, if they couldn’t make enough altitude to effect a glide back across their lines, they had sufficient petrol to make it to safety – and they would reach up to turn open a brass butterfly valve on a gravity-feed tank with just enough reserve fuel in it to get out of danger. We all have one, in a sense: a tiny, emergency reserve of strength, hope and energy.
‘For those first three nights I lay in the dark listening to rustling sounds from the wholefood bags. I had no idea that it could be mice: I had lived in the countryside, on the edge of woods and fields, but we were never troubled by mice. Several ran across my face that third night. It was winter, and I had left food out. It went into the bin, but it was too late; the house was infested.
‘At first light on Monday, I sort of watched myself shave, wash and dress. I pulled on boots, thick clothing and a coat which I took for the capacity of the pockets rather than its warmth. I put a couple of books, not much more, into a rucksack, locked the front door and left the house to the mice. Now, we would call this an episode: it would be recognized as the onset of clinical depression – numbness, desensitization; self-destructive patterning. Then, I just wanted to go home.
‘ I reached Chester, the train station closest to my parents’ village, around mid-afternoon, after three hours jolting over the Pennines, and set off for the Pepper Street bus depot to catch the hourly service which would take me home. The streets were oddly empty, and the few people around seemed to be hurrying.
I put my hand in my pocket and, instead of the screw of coins and paper notes I had placed there that morning, only my house keys remained. Gone. Probably joining other stuff amongst the fag ash and gum down the back of the compartment seat, somewhere between Leeds and Stalybridge.
‘This, you must remember, was when cashpoints were a novelty; I had never even seen a credit card – I don’t believe I even owned a wallet. I could have attempted to cash a cheque in a bar, but had no chequebook with me. It was then that a fierce and strangely comforting notion struck me: I would walk the eleven and a half miles to our family home at Pentrehobin along the disused, ex London and North Western Railway track bed, something I hadn’t done since childhood. It would be level; I could skirt the sapling thickets, climb over any intervening fences, risk a little mild trespassing, keep up a brisk pace, and avoid the meandering road. I actually felt cheerful, even warmed by the prospect, as I crossed over a sullen River Dee at the town’s edge, reciting and counting the old station names in reverse, since I would be using the route of the home or down track. There were seven to pass: bulldozed, overgrown, sunk in woodland or left to sag and implode. They had been built to the company’s austere rural station template in 1849 utilizing local blue clay bricks and limestone. The line to Chester General had never recovered from reduced wartime services; it was barely viable when grouped under London Midland Region branch lines after nationalization in 1948, and closed for passenger and freight services by April, 1962.
‘ I pulled on my gloves, cinched the rucksack straps and glanced at the sky – distracted by rooks stall-turning above the bare treeline, noticing them flung back. The wind was picking up and the sky turning opaque; slug-coloured to the north. I followed a cinder path past lopsided, peeling spear-head fencing, the only trace of Mill Ferry Station, and scrambled down an embankment onto the old track bed.
‘The sides of the cutting, thick with dead brambles and ivy, sheltered me from the intensifying cold as far as Broad Oak – now mouldering brick footings punched through by ash, birch and sycamore – where the track bed curved away over bare, level fields. Here, the wind pounced, and the first snow swirled about me. I couldn’t keep my hood up, so pulled socks from my rucksack and used them for an improvised face mask, though cold made my teeth ache. I knew that it was a short enough walk to Kinnerton Green, just beyond the seething tree tops.
‘Dear God – was this the week before Christmas, in the winter of 1979? It was brutal! The sixth coldest ever recorded; freezing fog, hellish blizzards howling in from Scandinavia, hundreds killed across Europe, minus 26 recorded in Scotland; Pennine towns buried without power for weeks – ’
‘Yes. It must have been around the 21st or 22nd. I was not … quite all there. It was entirely ill considered.’
‘The old line, with all its curves, rising or falling gradients, dead spurs for coal and mineral traffic, still had its cuttings and embankments intact – and avenues of mature trees bracketing stations, planted to form wind breaks. The LNWR favoured Scots Pines to bind soil and check landslips, and they top out at a hundred feet. Now, they creaked and jostled, barred with snow. I was grateful to reach each row, knowing that they flanked another former station or halt. These had been branch-line basic: rubble-filled platforms, even sleepers on trestles; wooden shelters, open to the tracks, lit – and heated – by paraffin oil lamps; perhaps a simple brick and cement-rendered combined station house, goods and booking office.
‘My six hours of winter daylight were almost spent. It was dusk now. A freezing mist slithered in, walling off the south west. The snow flopped down; silent, relentless. I watched myself – I was Elsewhere, already numb – seeing this lanky kid in an oversized, lopsidedly –fastened snow-caked Duffel coat, carrying a bleached canvas rucksack bought with pocket money; his sodden boots lifting and falling. I felt uninvolved, indifferent.
‘The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – ’
‘The lights over the fields thinned out as I pressed on, or the mist and snow drank them up. I snapped shut the notion of seeking help. I hadn’t the confidence; I didn’t want to inflict myself on others. I just wanted to go home.
‘Kinnerton Green, then Hope Low Level, Garreg-lwyd: all undifferentiated ribs of drift, angles blurred, their old platforms chamfered by the snow. I could no longer feel my feet, and resorted to kicking each foot in turn with the other to restore brief sensation, until I overbalanced and fell. That wasn’t so bad, I was only winded – what terrified me was that the instant I lay on the snow, I could feel all my residual warm seeping into it; there was a delicious, seductive urge to sleep. I hauled myself up and sang bittersweets; butchering songs by Cilla Black, Dusty Springfield, Marvin Gaye, Roy Orbison, The Righteous Brothers and Johnny Cash – and the hellish, wheezing racket, which must have sounded like a consumptive crow’s death rattle, was instantly buried by the wind. But I thought I sounded terrific – that I was mimicking the originals perfectly, and could even hear the accompanying music.’
‘That would have been second stage hypothermia – confusion, sleepiness.’
‘Unquestionably. But I shouldered, staggered, inched, my way to Pen-yr-allt, by which time the light was fading fast – and the wind demonic, driving the snow directly at me, forcing me to try to advance sideways. Now I was close enough to Pentrehobin; I had only to strike out to my right, up the big hill and into Prenbrigog Meadow. My parents’ house lay behind a thick holly hedge at the top, on the very edge of our village.
‘I crossed the little Alyn, now a black streak in the almost – darkness, on the old packhorse bridge, marvelling that I was forcing my way through snow above the parapet, bearing right for the familiar road – Lon Rhosyn – I needed next, and realized, very quietly, I don’t recall any anger or despair, that I was beaten: so core-cold that I was shivering convulsively, my gravity tank drained. I had to rest.
‘It would only have been minutes. My legs and boots already had drifts of their own when they came back into focus. It took brute, yelling exertion to get back on my feet – and, as I rose, I saw a dog fox. He was about ten feet or so away, his orange-red fur streaked with frozen snow; winter-pinched, lean, and looking directly at me. The pupils of their eyes are not like the dog’s or the wolf’s, and in the last scrap of light, his pupils contacted to slits. He seemed intent on skirting the edge of a dry stone wall, the stones along its base visible in sheltered patches – following scent, I should think. He moved on with that daintiness they have in snow, then turned to look back at me once more before jumping up into the opening of double hawthorn hedge-sided path which headed in the very direction I needed. The branches were twice my height, entangled in an almost symmetrical oval: sleeved with white, but dense and tangled enough to offer a sheltered path, a short cut up the bwlch, out of the screaming gale.
‘I stepped up into the path’s entrance, pulling on the overarching hawthorn branches – great, knotted things, a handspan in thickness, sending a welter of snow onto my head. Inside it was overgrown, but utterly still – the dense, interlocking branches formed a remarkable windbreak. The snow had been driven through at root level, but had not drifted – the fox tracks were still discernible in the twilight, arcing off to the left, fading. I was quite alone. It took everything I had left, but after some forty minutes, I pushed through one last mess of branches, and emerged, spluttering, into the big meadow: into a bleached silence, so intense it seemed to be listening. There were the lights of my village, and in the moonlight, behind the three dips in a long hedgerow, home. In the open expanse of Prenbrigog Meadow, the snow had drifted waist-high, so I floundered a good deal, finally hauling myself over the hedge and, in an explosion of snow, holly twigs, sobbed relief, sopping books and odd socks – for the straps were wrenched off my rucksack and the contents fell out – crashed into the back garden and stood, swaying, in the light from the windows.
‘Little more remains to be told. It is a whirl anyway: my Mum and sister, all floury from making latticed mince pies, horrified by the thing that pushed open the kitchen door that night: the rush to fetch hot tea, whiskey, thick towels, a pair of my father’s pyjamas and his dressing gown; the gasps at the sight of my pulped feet, lacerated hands and scratched face as I was cleaned up. I was put into my childhood bed, where I slept for a night and two days, woken only by anxious temperature checks, changes to my dressings, or trays of chicken broth and buttered toast brought upstairs – or else woken by the snow, circling the house, and then flinging itself against the window: sullen, cheated.
‘It was a very fine Christmas. Though the sopping rucksack was retrieved from the lawn, my clothes were ripped to bits, and replaced. My Headmaster – the utterly decent Dennis Owen – alerted by concerned colleagues, rang, urging me to take all the time I needed to mend. Early in the New Year, I went back up to Yorkshire, found new lodgings, and resumed teaching.
‘It’s late, and I’ve a lunchtime meeting in Derry tomorrow – I’ll take your glass.’
‘Just one more thing. The shortcut I took when I was pretty done in. There is no such path or bridleway. It does not exist. Perhaps it did once – not now. I had previously explored every field, wood and trackway in that valley. I knew something was terribly odd – out of place. As soon as I had sufficient strength, and a brief thaw had set in, I walked back down, this time following the tarmacked lane. There were dry stone wall footings – but no gap, no knotted double hawthorn hedges; only a blank row of bare, mature sycamores. I quartered the valley until dark, assuming I was mistaken, disorientated. I knew there were paths converging below the woods at Plas Major Farm, but that was easily half a mile away from the route I’d taken up the bwlch that night.
‘The following spring and for many years later – this was long before you could retrieve stuff online – I spent days in the County Archives, unfurling old OS maps, a hundred years apart; field patterns, deeds, Land Registry documents, stopping-up orders, Finance Act and county maps, wartime farm surveys – even Tudor-era tithes and boundaries on microfiche – though with parallel hedges and some evidence of cobbles or crude metalling, it had to be Victorian at the earliest. I looked for traces of spring lines, suggesting cattle tracks or drovers’ roads. Though I can now replicate most of these searches, enhanced with zoomed satellite images on a laptop – I have never found any trace. There are over ten thousand miles of Lost Paths out there – missed out on the 1949 Definitive Maps; routes known locally, as cut-throughs, bridleways and byways, but never recorded, illegally closed, even overplanted, by landowners. I simply have no credible explanation to offer.’
I felt quite exhausted, and dozed. I remember O’Neill banking up the fire, and then I woke early the next day, still in the armchair, the shawl snugged around me. There was a note on the table –
Bought fresh milk, bread, eggs and bacon from the wee store at Dunaff. Gone back to Derry. We’ll bring the family out on Monday. I think you have needed to tell that story for a long time. I think you should stop trying to find the path –
A sleepy figure with a shock of red hair and deep hazel eyes padded across the kitchen flags, and circled my waist with her arm –
You should simply accept the path that probably saved your life for what it was.