Around where Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire kiss there is a field almost entirely surrounded by a high hazelnut hedge. To the west of the field is a small hill, and to the east, beyond the hedge, a lonely country roads runs past. Along the northern end of the field, reaching from the hill to the road, and separating the hedge from the field, is a shallow ditch.
Around 6 o’clock in the evening I was sitting at that ditch, cooling my aching feet in a puddle of water, and wishing for something to eat. I had just been on the hill for a look around. All I had seen was more of what I had been walking through for the last couple of hours: Fields, narrow roads, more fields, the occasional cottage, even more fields. No village of more than three houses anywhere. I could have tried to hitchhike out of there, or I could have gone to one of the farms and asked to buy some food from them, and if I had, peeps might even have given it to me for free. But both would have felt like begging, and I am not good at asking. Never was.
I couldn’t have been far from Little Malvern. From the top of the hill I could see the Worcester Beacon, no more than two hours to the northeast, and behind that the Malvern Hills. But I didn’t think I could walk another two hours. I didn’t think I could walk another 2 meters.
My feet were a bloody mess. Sores and blisters everywhere, some of them rubbed raw and suppurating, others still filling with puss. The mere thought of putting my shoes back on was pretty horrifying. But I knew I couldn’t go walking around barefoot in the dirt in this state either, or I’d have gangrene first thing in the morning. Well, or something.
Lacking anything else to use I had taken off my t-shirt and was carefully drying my feet when I heard a car approaching. Nothing surprising in that, there had been cars on the roads every now and then all day. This one didn’t sound like the hoarse whisper of a Rover engine, however – Land Rovers were apparently a big thing with the local farmers – but the distinct put-put-put of a Volkswagen Camper. And instead of driving past like the others, it rolled to a stop right next to me. Doors were opened and a heated argument spilled out, with expletives flying every which way like stray bullets. I almost ducked.
“I bloody know exactly where we are, dickhead. Get back in the bloody car!” That was a woman’s voice and it came from the open passenger door, just on the other side of the hedge. A man, who apparently had gotten out the driver’s side and was now walking off, shouted back that they had been going in circles for almost an hour and he was going to ask for directions.
“Ask where? There’s nobody here!”
I couldn’t make out his answer, but her next one was only too clear: “That’s a stable, you blithering idiot. And the bloody roof has caved in. If you can’t see that from there, you shouldn’t bloody drive in the first place, you blind fuck!”
Whatever it was he said in return, he closed with a “stupid cow!”
I crawled to the hedge and laid down on my belly to have a peek. The dense hazelnut curtain between me and that stage-worthy performance ended about 20 cm above the ground in a fringe of high grass. I carefully crept forward until my face poked out on the other side.
They drove a VW T3 alright, autumn red, and both the front passenger door and the sliding door were open. Of the shouting woman I could only see tan shorts and naked feet in green flip flops. Her toe nails were the same shade of green as the sandals.
“Look here,” she yelled, and from the sounds probably waved some roadmap about. “This hill over there, that’s this hill here. And Huey? That path you’re on, it doesn’t lead to any farm but only back to the road we’ve been on ten minutes ago!”
There was a pause and then Huey’s voice was coming closer again, explaining in how many ways that couldn’t possibly be true. The woman stepped around the door to meet him, telling him that she had gotten one bloody turn off wrong, and that it had been twenty minutes, not an hour, and it had been his bright idea to avoid the M50, not hers, and on and on.
I had by then lost all interest in their argument since I had just discovered something else: In the back of the camper, amidst assorted travel clutter but right at the open sliding door was a high quality backpack, such as I had considered getting for myself. The zipper was open and inside were sandwiches, pears, packs of cookies, a large bottle of water, and a thermos.
Carefully I crept forward through the grass. There was just enough space between the hedge and the camper that I could get onto my knees next to the open door. I zipped up the backpack and lifted it out of the car. The plan was to push it underneath the hedge, get through myself, and extricated it from the other side, gather up the rest of my clothes that were still lying by the ditch and clear out.
Huey and the woman were still carrying on their argument in front of the camper, if a bit quieter and more constructive than before. I glimpsed underneath the car to check on them, and right enough, there were two pairs of feet at the street-side front corner; the familiar one of the woman and a much more hirsute pair, also naked and in flip-flops. Huey’s flip-flops were red and he didn’t paint his nails. The feet showed that the couple was now facing the car; they probably pressed the map to the windscreen, trying to figure out where they had gone wrong.
When I turned away I suddenly saw a third pair of legs. It was behind the T3. These were also naked and in flip-flops (blue ones), but they clearly belonged to a kid. The kid was facing away from the car and appeared to be dancing.
I crept to the back and peeked around the corner. Sure enough, there was a girl of maybe 12 years, with long, blond hair. All she was wearing other than the flip-flops was a too large men’s shirt. In one hand she was holding an iPod the way the silhouettes do on the adverts. And just like on those she was tossing her hair around, dancing to the rhythm of what I faintly could make out to probably be Amy Macdonald’s “This is the Life”, volume set to stun. I thought: Sick of mummy and daddy fighting? Who could blame her. Anyway, my luck, she wouldn’t notice if I stole the whole bloody Volkswagen behind her back.
I got the backpack and pushed it underneath the hedge. From up ahead of the bus another of those ubiquitous Land Rovers came towards us. I checked for the arguing couple. They were still there. The Land Rover slowed down. Sensibly they both stepped away from the road without losing a stride in their argument.
Satisfied the driver of the Land Rover began to accelerate again. I checked the dancing girl again, only to see if the approaching car had caused her to turn around. It hadn’t. If anything she was dancing wilder now. Over the rumble of the approaching engine I thought I could hear the bass of some fast electronic track, possibly that summer’s reissue of the Utah Saint’s “Something Good.” Whatever it was, it seemed to fill her completely.
I got onto my belly about to crawl back under the hedge, when there was the screech of breaks, the squeal of tyres, a bump, a thump… and then, after a breathtaking long pause, a howling scream.
I looked back under the car. The Land Rover had come to a standstill next to the T3, blocking the road. I couldn’t see the girl, but from her howls she must have been lying in front of the Land Rover. Huey was running around both cars on the far side, but the woman was coming right my way. I panicked and rolled underneath the camper.
Huey and the driver of the Land Rover went to the crying girl. For some reason the woman remained standing at the corner of the camper, as if afraid to come any closer. She just shouted to Huey, hysteria flickering at the edge of her voice: “Is she alright?”
The driver of the Land Rover was babbling a mix of frightened apologies and angry accusations, oscillating between “Oh God, I didn’t see her, I didn’t see her” and “Can’t you watch your bloody kids; what kind of a father are you, letting her run in front of my car like that!?”
However, everything was well. “Nothing broken, just bumped her shins and her head a bit,” Huey informed the woman. To the driver he said: “Hey, mate, thanks for breaking. She must have been listening to her earphones. Your reaction saved her life.”
My escape route through the hedge was still cut off by the woman dithering at the side of the car. I crawled away from the accident towards the front of the camper. Huey politely brushed off the driver, no-thank-youing offers to call an ambulance, and carried the girl to the sliding doors, to lay her down on the back seat inside the camper.
The Land Rover took off again, and I slowly got out more or less where Huey and the woman had been standing before the accident.
That was when the woman asked: “Where is the backpack?”
And: “What’s it doing out there? Did you hide it under the hedge, Dewey?”
(Dewey? I thought. What the fuck?)
I was trapped… I couldn’t stay in front of the camper. When Huey went back to the driver’s seat he would see me there, or if I could escape detection by staying crouched down, they would run me over. I didn’t think that I could get away unseen on the open road. I considered getting back underneath the car, but I didn’t quite dare to let them simply drive off over me. What if I miscalculated the path the rear wheels would take? Or if I somehow got hooked to the chassis and was dragged to a bloody face down death? I could imagine less horrible ways to go.
So I circled around the camper instead, keeping my head down. My feet hurt badly on the gravelly road, bad enough that I had to grit my teeth not to yelp in pain. Eventually I was behind the camper. Checking underneath I saw that Huey was sitting in the open sliding door, with the woman half crouched outside and going through the backpack. I couldn’t see Dewey, so she must have been inside.
The plan was to stay behind the car until they drove off, and then quickly roll under the hedge, hoping they wouldn’t see me in the rear view mirror. It was a good plan until Dewey said: “My iPod. I lost it.”
I heard the woman approach. Before she could come around the corner I dived under the hedge and wiggled through. She screamed. I got to my protesting feet and limped across the field, through rows of high wheat. Huey broke through the hazelnut hedge like a tank. He was a big guy, broad shouldered. On the whole he was probably more teddy-bearish than menacing but at the time I wasn’t in the mood to make the distinction. He wore Bermuda shorts and a flowery shirt that in an emergency might have doubled as a tent. He had me in three seconds flat.
He grabbed me in a choke-hold, wrestled me back through the hedge, and slammed me against the side of the camper. My head connected with a side window, making a hollow sound. I stepped on a pointy stone, grunted as a sharp pain lanced up through my leg, and fell to the ground.
“Who the fuck are you?” Huey yelled.
“He took out the backpack,” the woman cut in. “Oh my God, he must have been under the car the whole time.” I got my first clear look at her. She was slender and androgynous. Her tan shorts were accompanied by a black tank top and an open men’s shirt (the same size as the one Dewey had been wearing, and definitely not one of Huey’s). Her hair was short, spiky, and dyed jet black, and her face was pointy and pinched, disapproval cast in skin and bone.
“Is that true? Did you steal the pack?” Huey hollered.
“I bloody did not,” I yelled back at him. I can’t stand being screamed at. “If I had, it’d be gone, wouldn’t it?” At that he was taken aback for a second.
“I only tried to. But I failed. Satisfied?”
Both Huey and the woman looked down at me, as I lay there in the dirt, naked but for my jeans with the legs rolled up. Dewey stuck her head out of the door.
“Shall we call the police?” Huey asked.
The woman was quiet for a moment. Then she shrugged.
“What’s the point? He’s right, he didn’t take anything. Let’s just get out of here.”
I slowly got up. Gingerly I stepped away from them. I hate being caught. Not the rozzers, not even jail so much, though I certainly don’t relish that. No, punishment is fine with me, I mean, kahretsin, I deserve it, don’t I? It’s the stares, the uncomfortable silence between a thief and his mark. We do not live in the same world, they and me, we aren’t meant to cross eyes, not without our masks.
“Thanks,” I said awkwardly and tried to make another step backwards. Again I stepped on something and more pain shot through my legs. I winced and looked down. My feet were black, glistening with wet dirt, puss and blood. More blood was seeping out of them, smearing the grass and stones I stood on.
“Fucking Hell,” Huey said. “You can’t walk like that, boy.”
I stared dumbly at the mess.
“No shit, Sherlock,” I mumbled and sat back down.
Huey looked around, and then pointed to an old, overgrown orchard a few hundred meters up the road.
“It’s late anyway,” he said. “We’ll camp there.”
He tossed the car keys to the woman.
She stared at them. “What?”
“I’ll carry him. You bring the car.”