Ashley Bird - "Back On The Hill"

 

“Is Kyle coming,” Josh said.

“No idea,” Nathan said, “I text him but I haven’t heard anything.”

The sun had dipped below the top of the hill by the time they had reached their camp. It wasn’t far from the village but the funeral and wake had taken longer than expected. That left them with around half an hour to get everything set up before the light disappeared.

They split the work between them. Nathan took care of the tents. Slipping the poles through the loops and hammering pegs into the stubborn ground with a small rubber mallet. It didn’t take long for him to set up the two of them so he set about getting the smaller jobs done. Digging a small fire pit using a gardening trowel, packing things away in the tents and that sort of thing.

The fire took more effort. Josh had to walk all the way to the far side of the hill to cluster of trees. On the edge of the treeline he searched the floor for sticks. Not just any sticks. They had to be dead and dry and ready to burn. In Wales this is never an easy thing to find. He was also on the lookout for two or three good size logs that would burn long and hot to see them through the cold night.

That was just the start of the battle. Up on the hill the Welsh wind was fierce. Every time it looked as though the fire had started, another strong gust would put an end to it. It took Josh getting down on his knees, using his body to shield the flames, before it grew strong enough to survive. While Josh battled the elements, Nathan set up three chairs around the small pit so they looked out over the village below. He put a bottle of beer on each of them.

Once the work was done the two friends could relax. It had been a long and difficult day. They sat, looking out over the dancing street lights at the bottom of the valley, drinking their first beer. The village looked exactly the same as when they left it. The same river flowed along the same route behind the same houses. The pace of change in this part of the world is a crawl. That is one of the reasons they spent their teenage years dreaming of escape.

Neither of them spoke for a while. They had spent most of the day talking to old acquaintances so both men were content to sit and enjoy the quiet night air. The beer was cold and as they drank they sank deeper into their seats.

“Still no word of Kyle,” Josh said after a while.

“No,” Nathan said.

A time went by without another word. Sometimes silence and a cold beer is all that’s needed. The dusk had shifted its way into darkness and the only source of light was the fire with its fuzzy orange glow. There is something about sitting around a fire at night. It is romantically primitive and can remind you of a time you never saw. A sense of it inside that has been doused by centuries of civilization.

Down in the growing dark a pair of headlights came up the country lane. Slowly they wound around the narrow bends. When the hovering lights were below the camp they stopped.

“Here he is,” Nathan said “always turns up when the works done.”

“Nothing changes. A fiver says he hasn’t brought a tent,” Josh said.

“A tenner says he hasn’t brought a tent or a sleeping bag,”

Both men laughed and watched the hillside, waiting for the new arrival.

It took him a while but when Kyle made it into the glow of the fire his old friends barely recognised him. He was skinnier than they remembered and it made his face look gaunt and stretched. All his features were exaggerated but it was his eyes that were affected the most. They looked like they were retreating back into his skull and it gave his face a skeletal quality. Shadows hung in the hollows.

“A’right boys, been a while,” Kyle said between gasps for air.

“A’right Ky, good to see you,” Josh said.

Nathan stared into the fire and watched the flames jitter. Kyle waited, letting silence take over, before moving towards the empty seat on the end of the line.

“Not that one,” Nathan said.

“There’s another one by my tent, I’ll get it now,” Josh said getting up from his chair.

Kyle stole his spot as soon as he got out of the way.

“You didn’t fancy coming today?” Nathan said.

“I had work,” Kyle said.

“Jesus, you couldn’t take a day off for today?”

“Fuck me, give me a minute to sit first. Some of us can’t afford to take a day off whenever we want.”

“Thought you’d be there that’s all.”

“Well I’m here now, ain’t I?”

“Yea, just in time for a drink.”

Both men fell silent. A gust of wind swayed the fire as Josh returned with a chair in one hand and a beer in another. He passed the beer to Kyle and, with a shake of his head, set up the new chair for himself.

For hours the group sat on the hill drinking their beers. They talked about the old days when they would go to the same spot without tents or sleeping bags. The days when all they needed was as much cider as could be “borrowed” from one of their parents sheds and an air rifle to try catching rabbits. They never did hit one but the fun was in the trying. They were simpler times back then but that’s how it is for everyone. They had their mates and their place of escape and that’s all they really needed. It is only when adult stuff intrudes that things get complicated.

When Josh got hungry he cooked for the whole group. Sausages wrapped in tin foil and pushed amongst the glowing belly of the fire. The smell of charcoal and sausages mixed with the damp earth. They also had beans cooked in tins with their lids bent back into place to keep the ash out. Even a few bread rolls to mop up the tomato sauce. All three ate fast. It was meal that took them back to a childhood spent outside. It could be cooked in a pan at home but it would never taste as good as it does from an open fire in a field. When he finished, Josh let out a satisfied sigh and took a swig of his beer.

He looked at the empty chair on the end of the row. With the beer waiting there, untouched. The wind had all but disappeared by that point and the bugs had come out. High pitched chirps filled the autumn night. There were a few bats swooping just above their heads. Every now and again one would get low enough to be caught in the fires glow. Revealing itself for a brief moment before vanishing back up into the night.

“Here’s to you Jeff boy,” Josh said raising his beer up.

Nathan did the same almost instantly. It took a glare from Nathan to get Kyle to raise his drink.

“What’s the matter with you?” Nathan said looking Kyle in the eye.

“What?”

“Leave it out boys,” Josh said.

“Whatever, I can’t be dealing this, never going to change. I’m going to bed,” Nathan said.

He got up and left the warmth of the fire without another word. His tent rustled as he climbed inside and zipped it shut. Even that sounded angry. Josh yawned and stared into the fire.

“I might as well go to bed too, been a long day,” he said “you can crash in my tent if you need to.”

“Cheers, I’ll have one more beer then I’ll come in,” Kyle said.

 

Josh woke up in the dark. The insects were still chirping and outside the tent he could see the faint glow of the fire. There was no yellow flame left but the embers still shone a deep red in a void of black. He looked around the tent but the was no sign of Kyle. It was hot and stuffy inside so he twisted himself around and unzipped the door. Shutting his eyes and he let the cold night air hit his face. He was grateful for it. When he opened his eyes he saw Kyle’s figure still sitting in the chair, hunched over.

Josh let himself free from his sleeping bag and went out into the field. He hadn’t bothered to put his shoes on and the dew on the ground soaked into his socks. Kyle looked as though he was sleeping but as Josh approached he lifted his head, a cigarette lodged between his lips. Josh took a seat next to him.

“What are you still doing up?” Josh said.

Kyle stared out across the valley. Under the moon he could clearly see the river. A silver streak winding its way through the place he called home. He knew every bend along this stretch of the Taff. Bends that hadn’t changed since before they were kids when they fished and swam in them. The same river but different waters.

“We weren’t sure if you’d show up tonight,” Josh said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Kyle said.

“Well you didn’t come to the funeral, did you?”

“I had work.”

“Don’t give me that shit. No boss is going to stop you going to a funeral.”

Kyle reached down and picked a log from the pile beside his chair. He threw it on the fire and bright red sparks exploded skywards, pushed higher and higher by the heat.

“You could at least tell me why you couldn’t be bothered to go to his funeral”

“I didn’t get invited.”

Kyle turned in his seat so he could look Josh in the eye. They stared at each other while the last statement hung in the air between them. A gap that seemed to widen with every second that passed. On the floor the fire cracked as the new log caught. It spat a fleck of glowing ember at Josh’s feet.

“Did you stop to wonder why you didn’t get asked to the funeral?” Josh said after a while.

“Fuck you,” Kyle said

“No I’m serious, did you ever stop to think about anyone but yourself.”

“Don’t twist it around on me.”

“Tonight is why you didn’t get invited. We knew you would turn up late, drunk or high on whatever you’re into these days and you’d make it all about you. Just like you are now.”

Josh got up from the chair walked over to Kyle. With Kyle still sitting, Josh towered over him. His eyes were wide and crazy and full of frustration. He was on the edge of something. Something he might regret when the sun is up and the beer has left his blood.

“You piss and moan about everyone leaving but that’s not what it’s about is it. It’s about you staying while everyone else is off living their lives.” Josh said, finding his rhythm.

“It’s been ten years. You don’t know a thing about me.” Kyle said.

“That’s just it, you’re the same. The same fucking waster that only cares about the craic.”

Kyle's eyes flared and he took a deep breath in through his nose while he gritted his teeth. His hands gripped the cold metal arms of the chair like he was trying to anchor himself to the ground. Behind Josh the fire had grown; yellow flames jerked about making all the shadows twitch.

“Nothing’s changed for you has it. While everyone has moved on to bigger and brighter things, you stayed right her. Pints in The Rickards and smoking weed in you mothers basement. It’s fucking sad mate.”

In the flick of a flame Kyle was on his feet and moving closer. There was a crunch as a foot came down on the fire and then Josh was falling backwards. He hit the damp dirt with a heavy thud.  

One foot had landed in the fire and he quickly jerked it away. Panicking a little, he sat up and started to pat down his leg; he had to brush the glowing embers away before they burnt through his jeans. Before he had cleared the last of them Kyle was over him. The orange glow of the fire made his face look twisted and deranged as fury took over.

“You haven’t got a fucking clue. You come back here and judge us, who do you think you’re talking to. You forgot where you came from, butt? No matter how long you live it up in the city you’re still a fucking valley boy. Just like me. So don’t come at me with the big I am routine because I will put you on your arse.”

Two thick lines spread across Josh’s forehead and it was his turn to grind down his teeth on their opposite numbers.

“What, what are you going to do?” he said

Kyle gripped Josh by his collar and lifted his back off the floor. Shoulders tensed and shifted as he moved his free arm backwards. His hand clenched tight and hovered there, in mid-air, while time wavered. Both of them felt it. Like the world had stopped turning for a moment, waiting to see what would happen. Smoke from the scattered fire swirled around them. It stung the back of their throats and made their eyes water.

When Kyle turned his head the world went back to its rotation. Nothing to see here. He looked out over the valley. A pale streak of light ran across the top of the opposite hill as a new day began. The silhouettes of the houses in the village were beginning to stand out. Looking out over the place they all grew up, Kyle made his choice. He opened his fist and let Josh fall back to earth.

“I’ll see you around,” Kyle said.

Josh slowly got himself to his feet and went over to the seats. He watched Kyle walk around the small campsite gathering his things. He wanted to say something; there had to be something to say. He wanted to tell him he was sorry, to go fuck himself, he’d make it right and to grow up all at once. Unfortunately, there isn’t a word for that sentiment so he just watched as he stuffed things into his rucksack.

“Kyle,” Josh said to his back as he walked down the slope.

Kyle turned around. Still the words didn’t come but both of them seemed to understand. It was over, it had been over for a long time but now it was confirmed. They were no longer old friends. Instead, just someone they used to know. All the anger had seeped away to some sad acceptance. Kyle gave a small nod and carried on walking while Josh sat and watched him get smaller and smaller until he climbed the fence at the bottom of the hill.

He stayed in that seat and watched the sun come up, the fire die down and the first rabbits appear. He stayed there when he heard signs of movement coming from Nathan’s tent. He didn’t move while he told Nathan everything that had been said. The only response was a shrug of the shoulders. A shrug was all that was needed. It communicated everything about their trip back to the place they grew up. Deep down they both knew that it would end this way. They didn’t know each other anymore and pretending it was the good old days meant nothing. All they had wanted to do was their duty; what else is there? Together they packed away their things and poured the last of their water onto the strewn embers. They hissed and steamed fighting against a premature death. With one last look over the valley they left for good, again.

 

Ashley Bird is a Welsh writer living in Pontypridd on the edge of the South Wales valleys. He currently studies English and Creative Writing at the University of South Wales. He is new to submitting work but hopes to have more pieces out in the world soon. On twitter he goes by @ashbirdy87, to chat about anything writing or reading related.