New Year

Everyone else had turned towards home and lunch; he could hear the shouts of the other boys as they followed the track over the river and down to the farmhouse. He and Fred climbed on towards a rocky outcrop. The sky was blue, there was snow on the tops. He carried Fred on his shoulders, picking his path between rocks and shale. They threw a long shadow up the hillside. Fred was heavy on the climb but he did his best to help: he stayed still, he kept quiet.

They reached the rocks and he laid down his jacket on a seat of hollow-sounding turf. He and Fred sat squeezed onto the jacket and stared out over Ullswater. Below their feet, the hillside fell away to a basin of fields divided by stone walls. In field corners, black with traffic, sheep huddled in long yellow coats. Between the pasture and the water the ghost woods, full of nothing except steel air, the screen of winter trees. And the black lake, its edges lapping like glue against the black sand of the beaches, the black rocks of the shore. On the far shore, the hillside rose steep and shaded; unmoving to the naked eye like the hide of some dormant monster.

He and Fred reviewed their route; straight up through the empty wood, following the track through the bracken. They had come a long way, they agreed. They were far from others. They sighted the tall trees around the farmhouse, they planned their path home together.

“Dad.”

“Yes.”

“Can we come here next year?”

“Maybe.”

“Why maybe?”

A ferry was heading up the lake.

“Dad, is that water going anywhere?”

“Do you mean going somewhere like the boat is going somewhere?”

“Like a river?”

“No, it’s a lake. Like a big pond. The water is flowing, very slowly, that way.”

He pointed west.

“At a village called Pooley Bridge the lake becomes a river.”

“Like the Thames?”

“Yes, but much smaller.”

“Can we go on that boat one day?”

“Good idea. Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Is tomorrow New Year’s Day?”

“Yes.”

“Can we say hello to the Captain?”

“Of course we can.”

He wrapped his arms around Fred and kissed his blond hair and wondered for how much longer he would be allowed this doting access to his son. As his father he had a responsibility to make Fred more self-sufficient, less vulnerable; to prepare him for independence. He accepted that their relationship was temporary, and that it must constantly evolve to accommodate Fred’s changing. But for now he was a small boy, overwhelmed in this high country, his limbs clumsy and hasty. Without him, Fred would not find his way home. I am his father, he thought, and I may kiss his head whenever I want.

There was an explosion of sound and an RAF Typhoon moved in to control the airspace above the lake. For a moment it perched elegantly on one wing, baring its weapons systems. He and Fred sat still on the side of the hill, dumb, and then it was far away, leaving the slow roar of its noise, the thrill of its diminishing.

“What was that?” asked Fred. His request to climb the hill had generated unexpected advantages: the sighting of a boat, now this terrifying bird of prey. He shook his head at his father’s response; he wore a wild adult look.

Going down the hill was much more difficult with Fred on his shoulders and once he lost his footing on shale and crashed to the ground.

“Are you alright, dad?” asked Fred, who had fallen further than he. Coming off the steep slope they waded through sand-coloured bracken and climbed over a style into a field full of bright, sideways light. They were on a curve of pasture crossed by dry stone walls. Fred was leading the way now, his hands swinging by his side, his green boots swishing into the sheep grass. One gloved hand gripped a feather.

They followed the river as it crashed down through a wood, the water pausing in pools before splitting and cascading down the valley. The farmhouse was on the far side and they were looking for a crossing place. At each likely looking spot they paused and weighed up their chances but the river was too wide, the water too deep and fast flowing to risk. So they kept moving along the wood, stooping under the tree line like fugitives. Then they saw the farmhouse across the river, smoke rising from its chimney, and a stone bridge over the burn.

“Dogs!” shouted Fred.

Beagle hounds were moving in force down the lane.

“Millions of dogs!”

The pack dropped down towards the stream. He lifted Fred onto his shoulders to watch the hounds spread out across the fields. The leaders disappeared into the bracken and the stones of the hillside, shouting to one another. The stragglers were through the water, and rushing the steep slope. There were no followers in sight; just the beagle pack singing in the New Year.

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