I never thought I'd finish a novel. A couple of previous attempts led nowhere. There were the few ragged pars I send to a guy called Ian McEwan who stole them and called the end result "Atonement".
I am a lousy liar as you can tell.
But over the last few weeks the words have kept flowing. The words have been flowing more freely than the brandy, although the brandy helps. And you know you are getting closer to becoming a writer when you forget about the world around you and you wonder if it's still 90 degrees outside when, in fact, there's a dusting of snow on the lawn.
I have a way to go but apparently 70,000 words is a respectable length for a novel. And I do believe I have reached the 30,000 mark. Of course this could be nonsense as I read the 70,000 word thing on the Internet somewhere. Maybe I'll stumble toward the finishing line only to see a leering redneck in a pickup truck driving off with the checkered flag, giving me the bird and telling me I can't quit until I'm Leo Bleeding Tolstoy.
Anyhow since Philip met Miranda's father he became estranged from her in Greece - a rather familiar theme when it comes to men and women in the novel, not helped by the fact he has seen her hazy outline with a married man on the lawn (never a surefire recipe for longlasting love I'm told but who knows?). He later partied ways with Miranda but still held a torch for her - just not the kind the ancients paraded at Olympia.
And Moriarty was back to his stride on the squash court, except he wasn't. He broke down, said he had only six months to live and wondered if Philip would write his narrative. Of course, Philip agrees because his job generally sucks, his boss resembles a horse and my narrative would die if he refused.
So they decamp to a cutting edge cancer center in Arizona and Moriarty starts to tell his tale and Philip faithfully writes it down. Except Moriarty and his friend Michael got expelled from their school for fighting the school bully at the age of 14, so they decided to skip school and climb Helvellyn. As one does. Confused yet?
Helvellyn or Hell?
(And if I climbed all the way up Hevellyn and saw someone dressed like this I'd wonder what I had smoked)
I stared hard at the muffin because it was the only soft object in the dining room. The light was relentless and harsh even at this time in the morning and the water a designer slab of brittle blue glass against the blood red frame of the hills.
The light did Moriarty few favors playing up and down unforgivingly on his greying features, emphasizing what used to be there as much as what was there now. I saw him falter briefly and hesitate before rallying again, chafing at the thought of being just another cancer patient.
“I feel better talking about this in the room,” he said. We got up carefully, ignored by all the white coats and the few cancer patients who had made breakfast. We left the muffin in splendid isolation.
“Those mountains are so unlike the Lakes,” Moriarty said with a nod to the sandy crags outside the window. Moriarty was in a position to know. During his last week at Cockermouth he had decided to immerse himself in the wilderness around him.
His father was not in an apparent hurry to pick him up after the fight and studies were useless in the last week. Michael Bellows had taken to pacing around Moriarty’s room, spewing out hapless and random thoughts about his future.
“It’s a strange sensation,” he would say. “Freedom feels … unfreeing, perhaps.”
“Your pacing is making me nervous,” Moriarty told him. “I have this idea.”
Moriarty felt the sense of adventure come over him as he unfurled a giant map he had borrowed from the school library and stored under his bed for a couple of months. At first glance it seemed to be a whirl of swirling lines that revealed themselves as contours on the sides of mountains and fells. The closer and more jumbled the lines, the more Moriarty felt the electric excitement coursing through his hands.
“It’s 28 miles from here to Helvellyn and we have just under a week before our parents show. Who will miss us?” he said.
“Arkwright for one. I hear he’s preparing quite the send off,” said Michael.
“More the reason to get out of here.”
The specter of a rematch with Arkwright and his henchmen was enough to persuade Michael to get his coat and to follow the crazy line Moriarty had drawn on the map. They left a note with the words “gone climbing” on Moriarty’s table and slipped across the quad and through the churchyard. Before long they were climbing over barbed wire and setting a fast pace through the dew of the field flecked with bleating sheep. The mountains rose up before them, a maze of sunlit crags and mysterious gullies still swathed in mist.
“Aren’t people supposed to wear boots and proper gear for this sort of thing?” said Michael who was wearing his school brogues and uniform.
“Ideally yes,” said Moriarty. “You may want to lose the tie.”
The morning marched on and the sun rose high. They walked for four hours until they found themselves in a deep forest of evergreens beside Bassenthwaite Lake. The air smelled sharp of pine and the afternoon was getting warm and sultry. Moriarty was starting to reflect that an expedition is improved with planning. Their water was running low and the two small chocolate bars had failed to survive the sheep field.
“I’m starving,” said Michael. “This is probably the most half assed expedition I have ever heard of.”
Moriarty motioned him to be quiet. Something moved in the corner of his vision. Below the path they could hear splashes and yelps. Some walkers had left their packs beside the path and were swimming 50 yards below in the water. The water was clearly cold but refreshing after a long climb. Moriarty was staring intently at their packs and the distance to the walkers on their narrow beach. Michael caught on to Moriarty’s thinking.
“No. You can’t.”
“Shsssh … just casually.”
The moved lightly but purposefully. Michael hauled up a sizable backpack in one flowing movement and they continued casually marching down the path, looking for all the world as if they had walked with the pack for the last four hours. The splashes and yells continued below them, muffled by the pine trees. It would be some time before the walkers realized they were missing their belongings by which time Moriarty and Michael would have vanished down a little used trail. Half an hour later in the depths of Whinlatter Forest Park they checked their haul. Chocolate bars and sandwiches came tumbling out of the pack, along with a small tin.
“This looks like aunt Mable’s fruit cake,” said Moriarty.
“Don’t you feel just a bit bad.”
“It’s survival - right.”
“But this isn’t the Amazon rain forest.”
Another 20 minutes later the overgrown path kinked to the north and came out on a road. In the interests of survival and the preservation of Michael’s swollen feet, the boys decided to try to thumb a lift the rest of the way to the mountain, although few drivers appeared to be keen to pick up two muddy school boys.
After half-an-hour without success Michael started to worry the walkers would see them and recognize the stolen pack. He almost gave up when the truck passed, but raised his thumb feebly in the air. To his amazement the truck slowed down, came to a halt and backed up. A ruddy faced man of an agricultural appearance with an unkempt moustache peered out of the cab at the boys.
“Where are you going boys?”
“Helvellyn,” said Moriarty.
“Very good,” said the man in a thick Welsh accent.
“Are you from Wales?” asked Michael, just seconds after clambering into the big cab.
“Good. My father had a man servant from Wales.”
“Now did he? I see.”
The truck rumbled off down the mountain road, beneath peaks that had a deeper cloud cover as the afternoon became overcast. The sense of adventure was draining from the boys as the sun beat its watery retreat. The Welshman adjusted his flat cap and his eyes fixed at some vanishing point on the craggy horizon.
“And what would two fresh faced young boys be doing alone on this road?”
“Picking blackberries and stuff,” said Michael before receiving a swift blow in the ribs from his companion.
“Hard job that as they aren’t out yet,” said the Welshman. “You boys running from the law?”
“No,” said the boys in unison.
“No matter said the Welshman. Your little secret’s safe with me. He shifted his big saggy body in his bucket seat and wiped his hands on his filthy dungarees. His finger twitched on the zebra print steering wheel. He started to say something, thought better of it and started to say it again.
There may be something you can do for me, though eh boys. Just a little favor like.” He was reaching for a rope coiled behind the driver’s seat.
“According to my map this isn’t the way to Helvellyn,” said Moriarty in the best grown up voice he could muster. The Welshman said nothing but gave Moriarty a lingering look that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. There was a foul intent in the Welshman’s disposition that was even more nauseating than his breath.
“These are lonely parts out here, boys.”
He wasn’t wrong. The truck had climbed up a deep defile in the hills and when he peered back Moriarty could make out the black smudge of the forest miles below and beneath him. All around him the hills rose up bleak and darkening and the dry stone walls hemmed in empty enclosures.
“This is closer to our destination. We can get out here,” said Moriarty.
The driver said nothing and still the truck rumbled on, its growling engine and sounding more menacing with every mile of the remote road. The further they went the more remote and desperate the hills seemed.
Suddenly there was a lull in the relentless engine. The Welshman cursed and slammed on the brakes at the sight of fast bobbling wooly backs as a farmer with his lean sheep dog herded his flock over a tiny bridge over a stream. Michael, who was sitting on the right flung open the door as soon as the truck stopped, and half fell onto the ground before running across the mud in the direction of the farmer who had stopped and was looking suspiciously at him from down the lane.
The Welshman hastily got out of the truck to give chase to Michael. “Now come back her boyo. I didn’t...” His words were swallowed up in the bleating of sheep.
The Welshman had little time to realize the chase was beyond his sagging middle aged frame. He heard a rumble from behind and turned round to see his truck moving towards him. It came forward in jerky movements before there was a louder growl from the accelerator and it shot forward. The Welshman leapt into a waterlogged ditch to avoid being hit by his own truck.
The right door was still hanging open. Michael clambered in, astonished to see Moriarty driving the big farm truck. With an ear splitting crunch of the gears they were lurching forward again. The last of the sheep cleared the bridge and they were over it.
Michael was running his hands through his wispy hair.
“We are really in the shit now.”
“Perhaps but that chap was a pervert.”
“How can you drive this thing?”
“I can’t but I’ve tried it back home a few times.”
They had little idea where they were going but Michael retrieved the map and found the tiny lane led over a mountain pass and hit the main road to the eastern Lakes.
They got to Helvellyn under the cover of the night. The next day they woke up with the first light and made it up Striding Ridge, a place where the world fell away like an hour glass to their left and right, where the primrose covered fells had given way to hard granite and lakes glistened silver in the morning under drifting clouds. Moriarty was later to say it was one of the best days of his life, although he had few good days to rival it over the next few years.
By the time they returned to the truck, a couple of police officers were inspecting it and scrawling notes. They were surprised to see a 14-year-old boy holding the key. Moriarty and Michael were too exhausted to invent a story by this time having spent a fitful night sleeping in the cab before scrambling up Striding Edge in unsuitable foot wear.
The officers became even more interested in the boys when they uncovered knives, ropes and pulleys in the back of the truck, as well as a blood soaked towel.
“A Welshman you say,” said one of the officers. “Hmm.”
It turned out the Welshman who was picked up worse for wear on a remove hillside was wanted for a series of sex attacks on young boys and girls and had terrorized the cities of northern England for three years. Moriarty and Michael became accidental heroes for a while and their faces and the story of their escape appeared in newspapers as far away as Boston and Bejing.
A young man who owned the back pack even turned up at their door back at Cockermouth and said he was pleased his supplies had helped sustain two young heroes as they had foiled the most wanted sex offender in northern England, before requesting the return of the backpack.
Even Arkwright and his cronies postponed the unpleasant send off they had proposed for Moriarty and Michael, who had become the most popular boys at Cockermouth on the eve of their expulsion.
Only Hector Moriarty refused to be impressed by his son’s antics.
Moriarty heard his artificial leg banging on the flag stones for what seemed like an age before he arrived in the room. His father had refused to be helped to a seat and was delivering a lecture seconds after he sat down.
“I sent you to an unremarkable private school, a long way away because I didn’t want you to make waves. I wanted it to be all quiet on the Western front see. So we have a fight in a cemetery that leads to your expulsion, an unscheduled expedition that caused a major funk at the school when you disappeared, theft of a backpack and this episode with a criminal. Not. And, if I will take the liberty of repeating. Not all quiet on the Western front.”
Faced with the facts in such stark terms Moriarty had to admit his short time at Cockermouth had been eventful.