Mike and I are in the car, heading for the countryside, at his request. It's a Sunday morning and I have a hangover. At this time I would normally be recovering in my gloomy bedroom in my dank house, curtains closed and telly on. But Mike phoned me early on and insisted we go for a walk in the hills.
Hungover or not, I agreed straight away, because lately Mike has become reclusive and we are all worried about him. He has been unhappy for months, since he came back from America without his wife Lucy (or girlfriend or whatever she was). They broke up, and Mike has a severe case of heartbreak. Or so I assume. Mike is introverted and stoic: a man's man. So he's not actually admitted to any heartbreak – but he barely leaves the house, and all the life seems drained from his movements.
But now he suddenly fancies a Sunday morning stroll in the hills, so that's good news. For him I will brave the daylight.
He drives us out to the peak district. He seems better. Not his old self, not quite, but less fragile and silent than he's been recently. We make conversation about nothing as bright fields flit past outside.
He parks somewhere near Edale. I open the door and step out. The clear, open air, the sky a million miles above us, beautiful sunshine.
Fuckin hell, I say, it feels good to be outside.
Mike nods, and we set out. Through a gate and up a gently sloping path. He has some idea where we're going, and naturally I don't, so I follow meekly behind. He strides ahead with a large pack on his back.
He talks! For six months I've hardly heard him utter more than a mumble, but now he speaks at length, about the landscape and the area and his memories of other walks when he was a kid. Mike always talks in short, simple sentences, straight to the point, like Japanese poetry – though he'd find that comparison absurd, of course.
I stumble awkwardly after him, mumbling and grunting and wishing I'd bought something to drink other than water. I start to feel a little sick.
Want a drink? asks Mike.
I wave my water bottle at him and say nah.
I mean a real drink, he says.
Well in that case, I say. Mike produces from his bag a bottle of red wine. He removes the screw cap and we take turns to swig from the bottle.
Not bad, I say, plenty of nose.
He strides onwards. He seems enlivened by the surroundings, and the wine. I don't understand Mike. I never have, I suppose. A man whose inner life remains inside.
We follow the slants and swells of the dusty path, gradually ascending. The air is still and warm. We stop for a while on a bulge of rock with a good view and exchange swigs from the bottle of wine. Across a shallow valley a row of five green hills are clenched like knuckles, as though a giant punched the earth from below. I moan for a while about my house and my awful job. Mike suggests I move out and resign. Ever the pragmatist.
We set off again. It really is a beautiful day, warm and clear, the kind of day you don't often get in England. I really can't stand clichés, but there are moments when you are moved to use one and seem to hear its truth for the first time: today is the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive.
We follow stony paths up green hills, clamber over stiles, walk along rocky ridges with marvelous views into valleys and over plains. We pass a few people out walking and say hello, greeting strangers like Victorians. We pass a cliff face where climbers are clinging to a sheer wall of rock.
Mike sets a brisk pace. In between gasping for breath I tell him a long complicated story I read recently in a magazine, about a persecuted Italian Renaissance scientist. Eventually I realise I've forgotten the ending, so I invent one in which he builds a rocket and flies to Saturn to escape the Medicis. Mike reacts with his usual measured interest.
After a couple of hours we find ourselves up on a deserted outcrop overlooking a broad vista of parkland. It's very warm. I take off my light jacket. Mike surveys the area. We stand in silence for a while.
Shall we make a little fire? he asks.
A fire? It's not cold!
Well, says Mike, there's a couple of things I want to burn. If that's okay.
I look at him for a while. You want to burn something?
Mike glances away, a bit embarrassed. He says: I've got some things I need to get rid of. Things from Lucy. Didn't want to bin them. Burning seemed better.
Oh, I say. What things?
Mike walks over to the edge of the outcrop, takes off his backpack and sits down on a boulder. He opens the pack.
Photos, letters, some trinkets. Just the stuff that will burn.
He begins taking stuff from his bag – piles of letters and photos, a piece of wood with some message scratched into it. And things for making a fire as well, firelighters and a little kindling. He lays it all out on the ground around him.
Mike, I say, are you sure it's a good idea, I mean, are you sure…
It's definitely over, if that's what you mean. Time to move on. I just think it would help to get rid of all this.
Mike gets up and starts gathering wood. I go over and look at the stuff all laid out on the floor. I pick up a pile of photographs and look through them. Mike and Lucy, in bars, on holiday, in love. The usual couples photos. I stop at a photo of her on a beach, in a bikini. She is certainly beautiful. Green eyes, a knowing smile, a delicate tattoo of a vine crawling from her shoulder to the base of her neck. I put the photos down and pick up the piece of wood. It's old and seamy, splintered at the ends, and on it she has carved a message. Some private symbol I don't recognise, a letter L for Lucy. and the single word Always.
It seems so sad to burn these things. Mike is a total mystery to me. Still, it's up to him.
Help me get some wood, he calls.
We spend some time gathering wood. All the wood I bring back is pronounced unsuitable for one reason or another. Mike tells me I'd be useless in the wild. I tell him he's useless in civilisation.
Mike makes a circle from rocks and prepares a fire in its centre. I finish off the wine. Mike produces another bottle from his bag and hands it to me. Since I'm not of any use in the fire-making process, I sit on Mike's backpack and drink.
He gets a preliminary fire going at last. It's about eleven in the morning by this time. He picks up the first pile of letters, ready to burn, and stands before the fire. He pauses.
Not so good with words, he says, more your area. Want to say something?
Yeah, he says, just say anything, doesn't matter what really.
I feel awkward for a moment, then experience a moment of inspiration. I stand up, across the fire from Mike. I raise a hand theatrically. I think for a few seconds before beginning.
Dear Universe, I intone loudly, please accept this offering, as we know you will, with utter indifference. We commit to the quantum grasp of your fires the relics of a brief and fiery love, in the brief and fiery life of one of our brief and fiery species. Commit them to the past, as you commit to the past every succeeding instant of every day, with unerring regularity. May their constituent atoms and subatomic particles take the next step in the great cycle that forms stars and suns and black holes and quasars… and hills, and grapes, and winemakers and other humans… all of them to flare into existence for periods of time, ultimately to return to the cold bosom of your indifference. We thank you, universe, for the gift of a meaningless existence, the most free and wonderful existence of all, and we offer to you these trinkets which, to our mere human brains, seem to mean a great deal indeed.
I splash a little of the wine into my hand and dab it on my forehead. Mike comes around the fire and I dab a little on his forehead too. He is smiling tolerantly. He returns to his side of the fire and throws the letters into the blaze. They begin to burn. He follows them, bit by bit, with all the keepsakes of the love he has lost, while I stand and watch in silence. For the first time I feel like I understand Mike.
The flames flicker, the heat warps the air between us. Something unreal happens. In some way I can't describe, things feel different. The flames take many shapes. I feel the heat on my face, and see the fire even when I close my eyes. I feel an obscure connection with some imagined ancient ancestor, some Celtic magician burning offerings and casting spells on an outcrop above an Irish bog. In the heart of the fire I see the shadows of countless sorcerers and artists, weaving spells on indifferent reality and transforming themselves in the process. Figures flicker in the heat, a man and woman, sketched in the hot substance of the ever-passing, the tracery of love.
I bow deeply to the fire, and Mike does the same. He raises his head to watch something drift into the sky.
MATT HARRIS is a writer based in Liverpool whose short fiction and poetry have appeared in Confingo, The Alarmist, Hoax and others.