“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
It was stiflingly warm in the mess tent. The sun was really out in force. I guess trying to make for the past few days of rain. The smell as we entered was a delightful mixture of mildew and sweat, not a range that would be stocked in the local supermarket. It stagnated at the back of your nose where it fought for space with the burnt bacon stench which had been Harris’s breakfast. The frying pan still stood on the stove, obviously he wasn’t a person who cleaned up after himself.
Rahul and I were the first into the tent and went to sit at one of the tables at the back. The ground was still damp inside the tent though and as we sat on the bench it sank gently into the mud. It was a weird experience, as if we were slowly fading after eating the drink me flask and were entering the world of Alice in Wonderland. Neither of us were heavy and I wondered how some of the heavier lads would cope on the bench.
“Is that table extra large or have you shrunk in the shower,” Anne asked as both her and Sophie entered the tent.
“The bench has sunk into the earth,” Rahul replied matter of fact manner.
“I know…” Anne said. Sometimes she got exasperated at Rahul stating the obvious and not getting the joke. I found it refreshing and not too annoying. I guess at times I was a little like him, not able to read between the lines. Some of the school found him a bit of a drag, but he was a good companion.
The girls sat down at the opposite side of the table, but any conversation was stifled with the arrival of the boys who’d spent the last two hours playing football. Each to their own. I’d spent the time underneath a tree reading my kindle. Exercise was good but reading helped me relax far better.
“That was a goal” George was pleading with Richard.
“Nonsense, you couldn’t hit a barn door with a banjo with your shot,” Richard said, “Tonka pushed it wide.”
“It would have hit the post and gone in though,”
“Crap, that was going well wide. Why not admit that the better team won and let’s get on with it?” Richard said wrapping his arm around George’s shoulders.
I shook my head to myself. I could just imagine Richard on Monday Night Football with all those clichés and self-importance.
The noise in the tent racked up when the girls finally entered a few minutes later.
“Don’t you guys ever have a shower,” Amy said wafting her hand across a face in a fan like movement.
“That’s all testosterone, baby” Rich said standing up, “fancy a sniff?”
“In your dreams, Dick,” she replied.
“The names, Rich, not Dick,” Richard said sitting down.
“You got burned there,” George said laughing.
“Shut up.” Richard replied elbowing George in the ribs.
Would this soap opera never end? My dad always used to say that observing people was far better than watching real life television. It fell flat on my mum and sister who adored and lived their lives in Coronation Street, EastEnders and Hollyoaks.
Slugger and Miss Haycock came into the tent at that moment.
“Oh dear, it’s really hot and sweaty here,” Miss Haycock said with a grimace, “I think we’ll meet outside.”
“Can’t see what’s wrong,” Slugger moaned, “but if you want to go outside Flick, then we will.”
As we stood up to leave, Anne leant across the table.
“Seems old Slugger has the hots for Miss Haycock,” she said.
I laughed but didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
“Come on, quickly” Slugger shouted. I reckon he only had one volume on his voice.
As we left the tent, the fresh air hit us. A lovely concoction of grass and heather. It wasn’t even so hot as it had been inside.
We all stood in a huddle outside the tent, waiting to be told our tasks for today.
“You look like you’re lining up for execution stood there. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Sit down and we’ll discuss what you’re going to be doing for the rest of the day.” Miss Haycock said sitting on the ground.
We all relaxed a bit and sat down on the ground in front of her. Slugger stood up behind her, his arms folded like a statue.
“Come on Barry, sit down with us, give your feet a rest,” she said to him.
“I’m OK here,”
“Right let me explain how we’re going to do the expedition part of this award. There’s sixteen of you so I propose that we’ll have four groups of four. You’ll all walk a different route across this area. We’ll draw straws for the route starts and route finishes, but you’ll be responsible for plotting the exact route across the terrain. You’ll each have to carry enough food and water to last the three days and two nights you’ll be away.” She explained looking at us all for a response before she carried on.
We nodded. It was much as we expected from all the talks we’d had.
“Well, you’ll have today to plan the route, make a list of meals and provisions you’ll need. Then we’ll run you down to the local time for you to buy anything you need. It’s forty pounds for each group to cater for the expedition. Then we’ll have a meal tonight at the local pizza place, so at least you’ll have something to eat the day before you go. Not like yesterday when some of you made a mess of a simple meal.” She said looking in the direction of Richard.
“Not fair miss, it was someone else who told me how much water to put in,” he argued, although we all knew it was him.
“Now for the groups” Slugger said, “I’ve put you in a set that hopefully will work.”
He made a show of pulling out a folded sheet of A4 paper from his pocket, as if he was reading the winners at the Oscars ceremony. You almost expected a drumroll to come out of the air. We sat expectantly. I had my fists clenched tightly together. I’d hoped we maybe could pick our own groups but had prepared myself for this moment. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to spend the next three days with a group that I couldn’t get on with.
“OK and the first group, numero uno,” Slugger announced, “will be the one and only Richard along with George. I’ve paired them with a group of girls, as Fli…, Miss Haycock asked me to.”
He made it in no doubt he wouldn’t have mixed the sexes. His idea was his precious football team needed to concentrate on their sport, rather than by being distracted from the task by a lot of girls.
He looked down at the list again.
“They will go with Anne and Sophie.”
I heard a groan, which I knew had come from Sophie, although it could have come from me as well. I’d hoped that we’d get hat pairing as well. I knew them better than any of the others. I put my head down and clenched my fists even harder, almost breaking the palms of my hands with the nails of my fingers.
“Actually Julian, I’ve been having thoughts about these groups,”
I looked to see Miss Haycock had stood up and was stood next to Harris. Her hand was gently on his shoulder.
“After seeing how the groups interacted yesterday, I feel that I’ve got a better idea of how they’ll perform in the wilds.”
“But… we agreed this weeks ago.”
“I know, but indulge me… We wouldn’t want personality clashes to put these student’s welfare at risk. After all we know what the headmaster said before we left…”
“We’ll do it my way, should we Julian? We wouldn’t want a crisis would we… like last time?”
We looked at each other. What was this we didn’t know about Slugger? Obviously, something had been said before they left. I wondered what it was. What had happened on the last trip? Nothing had leaked down to us. I looked in Anne’s direction and she just shrugged.
“Well if that’s sorted, then we’ll move on.” Miss Haycock said. Slugger seemed to shrink inside his skin and moodily moved under a tree and placed his back against it.
“So, here’s the groups,” and then without any ceremony carried on,” Anne, Sophie, Tom and Rahul”
I missed all the other groups as I sighed with relief that I was working with group I knew I could get on with. I still had anxiety but with them I’d be able to cope.
“So, if that’s sorted, we’ll move on”
We all nodded like a group of dogs in the back of a car.
“Right, I’ll appoint the team leaders and they can pick the start place out of Mr Harris hat,” Miss Haycock said picking up a hat from the ground.
“OK, group one, your leader will be Anne. Come up and pick the first route start.”
No surprise that she’d picked Anne for the leader, she was the best option among us. Far more assertive than either Sophie, Rahul and me.
“Route three,” Anne said picking a sheet of paper out of the hat.
“Let me see… that would be start at Flatchley and finishing at Rhod Gyll. Have to say that’s a more extreme route but I reckon you four are up to the challenge. Right here’s a map, route planner chart, pens and highlighters, compass and a romer. Find somewhere to work. You’ve an hour to come up with your route and have it okayed by us. That OK?”
“Yes, OK Miss” she said and signalled hurriedly to us to follow her over towards the wi-fi tree.
“well that’s the first group over and done with, now let’s see what the rest of you are up to…” We heard Miss Haycock say as we wandered out of range.
“So, what happened on the last trip? What’s Slugger trying to hide?” Sophie said as we sat down under the shade of the silver birch.
“No idea, I’m going to message Angie and find out what happened, her sister went on the D of E last year, maybe she’ll know. That’s why I wanted to nick this space first.” Anne said getting her phone out, “damn, no signal. Still should be one in the town when we go.”
“Give me a look at the map,” I asked and was thrown it.
“There you go Mr Cartologist. I knew you’d be the one who could get us round this route. That’s why I persuaded Miss Haycock to pair us together” Anne smiled.
“It was you who changed the teams?”
“Yeah, I knew Sophie didn’t want to go with Rich, so I asked Miss if we could be paired with us. She said she would after I explained that if Richard came with us, he might not make it back alive.”
I gazed at her face trying to weigh up whether she did say that, or she was pulling my leg. I concluded she was pulling my leg, although I knew she had a vicious streak at times. Shrugging it aside I opened the map and looked up the grid references that we’d been given.
The whole area of the map was covered in browns and dark browns, black contour lines were so close together you could almost picture the relief in 3D. It was something I seemed to be able to do. Looking at any map I could visualise it as if it was a hologram before me. It was a skill I’d done ever since the first map I’d seen. I wished I could tell people what it looked like, the nearest I ever got was it was if the contour lines left the page and stacked themselves in the right height, quite like a wireframe.
It was high mountainous country with little settlements, farmsteads or even roads. Deep valleys carved through mountain ridges, each looking like knife edges. I found the small hamlet of Flatchley hiding in a narrow valley at the end of a very minor road. From the map it seemed to have only five buildings.
Rhod Gyll when I found it was at the end of a v-shaped valley about two miles from the nearest B road. Between the two points was nothing but mountains and valleys. No road, only a couple of minor bridleways. There was a small building at the bottom of one valley, labelled as High Horton Farm. Another building was near the foot of Perygl Mountain. It was marked Pergyl Farm. Apart from that there was nothing. It was real mountain wilderness, a couple of farms and probably a lot of sheep. Hard walking country. Some defined footpaths were on the map but it seemed that it was mainly moorland walking that would require us to navigate mainly by compass. That didn’t worry me, as I could see the way we’d be able to walk between the spots in my head. There was a few steep climbs and descents, but it wouldn’t be too bad.
Now we had to plot the way markers on the route plan and estimate walking distances each day, work out where we would camp at night.
“Simple” I said to the other three, “You make a list of food we need, and I’ll work this out in two shakes of a cat’s tail.”
They were looking at me with frowns on their faces.
“My nan’s phrase. leave me to this and I’ll find the easiest way. Might be longer than the shortest route, but at least I’ll cut down on the up and downs.” I said going back to my task, shutting the world out and concentrating on the map.
My eyes ran over the route in my head one final time. I could see every bit of the route in my head clearly now. I rechecked the waypoints on the route sheet, made sure the copy was accurate. I’d planned for the first night to stay near a tarn, which would provide us with some cleanish water, if we boiled and used purification tablets beforehand. The second night would be a relative flat sport below Perygl mountain. Hopefully the farmer there would also be able to give us water. That would drastically cut down on the water we had to carry. It made the third day a little longer walking wise.
I looked up and saw that all three of them were looking at me. I suddenly felt self-conscious of myself. Had I been talking to myself? I knew I often did. Once someone had filmed me when I was engrossed in a task and it forever haunted me. I was having a conversation with myself, explaining something and then questioning whether it was right. I knew I did this in my head, but I’d no idea that I did it out loud. What would they think of me if I had been?
My heart started to beat faster, I could hear it really loudly, would everyone else?
DON’T BLUSH, I TOLD MY INNER SELF.
DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO MYSELF.
God that was no good, it was making it worse.
I felt sweat beading my forehead.
DON’T HAVE A MELTDOWN HERE OF ALL PLACES.
I wanted to crawl away and hide under the nearest stone, yet I couldn’t trust myself to walk away, my legs would give way.
LOOK THE OTHER WAY, IDIOTS.
I wanted to shout at them but didn’t, at least I didn’t think so. Jesus what if I had?
I looked down back at the map.
Try to calm yourself down.
DON’T BE A WALLY
God my head felt hot, I must be blushing like mad
“You OK Tom?” Anne asked me, “this heat must be getting to you. Sit down and I’ll get you a drink of water.”
I shut my eyes, hoping she wasn’t going to get a member of staff.
That’s what I had to do.
Easier for me to say than do.
My fists clenched tight as I tried to control my breathing. I should never have come here. Could I sneak away and get a train back home? Yes that’s what I’d do.
DON’T BE A FOOL.
If you do that, you’ll be a failure again. You’re always a failure. You never finish anything, you never do any good. You’re just a grovelling failure in the bottom of a hole. No one cares for you. Man up, you’re supposed to be strong.
I’M A FUCKING FAILURE
A voice cut through my head.
“Here drink this water.”
It was Anne back with a bottle of water.
“Thanks” I said quietly taking the bottle and sipping the contents feeling the cold water running down my throat. It started to cool me. I daren’t look up though.
Slowly I felt my head clearing. I was coming back from the brink. Any longer and I’d fall over the edge and have a full-blown panic attack. It’d take some clawing back but hopefully I’d do it, I just needed time to collect myself.
“Miss is coming over in a few minutes to see the course you’ve planned,” Anne said.
CALM DOWN, MISS IS COMING
I sighed inwardly and pushed the cards to Anne.
“Here, can you deal with it?” I said feeling my voice croaking, but not sure if it was coming across that way. How couldn’t it? Mustering all my strength, I stood up and started towards the nearby wash block.
“Just going to the loo.”
It wasn’t far, but my legs felt like two unattached appendages. I wasn’t going to stop though. I could pass out in the toilets, but not before I got there. It was like walking through treacle, every ounce of my strength was needed to propel me into the block.
I made it and grasped one of the hand basins leaning over the bowl catching my breath. I knew from old, the more I thought about it the worse the panic was. After a few minutes I turned on the water in the sink. I don’t know why cold water running always works in calming me down, but it did. Maybe it was a like a river gurgling away, a sound that calms.
I splashed water on my face, my hands still shaking from the attack. It was ridiculous, nothing had been said, yet I still had melted down far too quick. I knew in my mind it was totally irrational but yet at the time I couldn’t think that way.
Looking in the mirror, my face looked pale, not red. I could still feel the blood coursing through my veins, but I sensed it was calming to manageable levels.
I heard a cough behind me.
GOD NO NOT SOMEONE WATCHING
Looking quickly behind me I saw Rahul.
“Are you OK now Tom?” he asked.
I nodded slowly.
“The heat is bad outside, maybe you’re dehydrated?” he carried on.
Nodding again I tried to let go of the sink, but my hands were reusing to release their grip.
“I’ll be out in a minute.”
“Good, Miss wants to talk to us about the route and the conditions” Rahul, “are you sure you’re OK?”
“I’ll be fine,” I smiled weakly. I wasn’t sure if he believed me, he was too intelligent for that.
After a few minutes I’d cooled down enough to go back outside. I took two good gulps of air and walked into the glare. Walking across the void between myself and the group I took my time trying to get my emotions and thoughts under control.
YOU’LL BE FINE
I sat down at the edge of the group who were engrossed in a conversation with Miss Haycock. Thank god Slugger wasn’t there, I couldn’t have coped if his comments.
“Hey Tom, listen to what Miss Haycock has to say about the route we’ve been given.” Anne said excitedly.
“As I was telling your group,” Miss Haycock started, “I was raised around here. It’s the place I most remember. I lived with my Aunt Fanny. Yeah, I know it’s a funny name but it wasn’t back then. There’s not much out there, a real desolate place, yet it’s beautiful at the same time. The route you’ve picked is good, but I’d try to avoid Perygl is I could. There’s always been a bit of mystery about the place. As kids we were scared to go up there. It felt as so death was all around, a place where the sun never seemed to shine.”
“I mean look at me all those years later and I still get shivers about the area. Anyway, most of it was surrounded by large fences. There was talk it was some secret government research station. We tried to sneak in one day but were stopped by a pair of guards after only five minutes. We were handed over to the local police who told us never to go there again.”
“A few years ago, whoever was there moved. Overnight the guards disappeared, and it appeared to be abandoned. It still feels a desolate place though. No one local goes anywhere near it. I’d advise you to follow the route I’ve written down here. It’s longer but it’ll be more pleasant a route.”
“Now Tom, are you feeling alright? Do you think you’re capable of doing this course? I heard you had a … moment?”
THERE’S YOUR ESCAPE, TAKE IT
I hesitated, then nodded.
“Remember to have plenty of water, and not do too much. When you get into the hills the mobiles won’t work so you’ll be on your own. All the groups will have the same problem, but they all picked routes that have some sort of contact. Both Julian and I are quite worried, but we… well I know you can do this. You’re the best prepared group and I know with your skills you can complete it.”
“However, we’ve sort of sorted out a compromise to not being in contact with you until the final day. Each night you’re to let off a green flare to let us know you’re ok. If you come to harm or have an emergency, you’re to immediately let off a red flare, and then let one off each hour after that so we can find you. Let me tell you that if you hadn’t been such a competent group, with my knowledge of the area, we wouldn’t have let you loose on such an expedition.”
Your list of provisions looks good. We’ll be heading down to Harttown so you can have some time off, buy the things you need and then it’ll be pizza time. Now off to show Dick and Dom, sorry Dick and George, how to plan to course properly. The girls will get them through, but it’ll be a struggle. That’s why Julian wanted you two girls paired with them. He’s a bit narked with me because he didn’t want his star turns to fail.”
She disappeared over to the other group.
“So, does she think we’d fail without you?” I asked Anne.
“Don’t be a dope all your life. She reckons we are the best group, you heard her.” Anne replied rolling her eyes.
I wasn’t convinced. What if she thought we needed more help than the others? Was that the real reason for the change?
“Tom, think about it, who did the route planning? You’re the best in the school at maps. Rahul is the quiet one, who’ll never let us get into trouble. I’m the mouthy one who thinks before speaking and Sophie is the one who can do the cooking.” Anne said laughing as Sophie aimed a punch at her.
“Hey, I’m not doing the cooking.” Sophie shouted.
“Not after last night, you’re not,” Anne said still ducking from Sophie.
“Well it was better than the boys…” Sophie said stopping trying to land anything on Anne.
“OK, OK, you can be the enigmatic one. The figure of mystery. All we need is a dog and we could be the Famous Five.”
Rahul looked confused.
“It’s a set of books for children who have adventures together,” I said to answer him.
“So we are the Famous Four?” Rahul asked.
“More like the Fantastic Four,” Sophie said.
“Freakish Four” Anne giggled.
“Yep we’ll be the freakish four” I said laughing.