The gull is ripping the blue packet with its beak. They are determined birds, he thinks. Soon there’s a trail of crisps across the wet pavement, but, at that moment, the bus queue surges forward. The gull has no choice but to back into the darkened doorway of the charity shop as the people trample its hard-won crisps to specks. Paul thinks it’s tough. Paul thinks that a lot really, and not just about gulls. When he’s on the check-out he looks at the passing products and wonders at the assortment of value-range oddities filling the bellies of the folk of this part of town.
Of course, Paul knows people could say the same of him. His kitchenette is stacked with white rice at 40p a kilo, tinned tomatoes for 32p and all that. But Paul has his inheritance.
He could plan online but Paul doesn’t have broadband at the flat and it’s a fuss to go the library. Anyway, the unfolding of the OS maps, the way they bring the hills and valleys to his table, that is part of the joy. He runs his fingers over the pink dotted lines of the footpaths. Sometimes he stops at a junction, remembering a way-marker and a moment. Honey sandwiches passed from hand to hand and sweet coffee from a flask. Reading his Beano while Dad had forty winks under the big oak. Or the day he stood on the Beacon as hail stung his face and he knew the oxygen cylinder meant Dad would never stand beside him there again.
He sweeps his fingers down the packed contour lines of Devil’s Dyke. He picks out lost railway lines and rings the Ardingly reservoir. He overlaps, map to map, certain of the flow of the Ouse and the Adur. He presses his palm to the paper.
The sun is barely up and condensation on Paul’s window is splashed with the orange of streetlights. He flicks the kettle into life, butters bread (value wholemeal at 45p a loaf), warms the flask and ties his boots. The building is silent still. The bus takes yawning people to cleaning shifts and Paul out of town.
The winter sky is flooded with white light. A dark arrow is pressing into the wind and Paul hears Dad,
‘Ten miles as the crow flies, my boy. But we can’t fly so we’ll do twenty.’
Who wouldn’t want to see the land from the sky? Who wouldn’t want to stretch and coast up there? But, as he walks through the crackle of the beach woods, he feels the land underneath his boots. And each step is a welcoming back.
Knees aching, fighting with the wind for his breath now, Paul is climbing Wolstonbury Hill. Underneath the tussocky grass, ants are over-wintering in nests. Rabbits dart away from his advancing shadow. Below, in the Weald, mist is retreating into smaller and smaller pockets. When Paul reaches the summit he’ll sit with his sandwich and his flask and everything he’s been gifted.