The near-blind walk in the foggy dark is long and slow and terrifying.
I track my route forward by feeling the crumbling edge of the road through my shoes. When the ground beneath my thin soles feels too smooth or solid I know I’m potentially veering into the path of traffic and step sideways onto the verge where the low, wet branches catch in my hair. This way I keep myself safe from traffic that won’t see me in time. But no traffic comes. It is, after all, very late.
Every few moments, ribbons of fog caress my face or drift in front of me or hover under the trees to watch me prod on along the edge of the ridge. Somewhere below the river rushes over low flat rocks, and above me the branches drip and around me my footsteps echo with a soft, sticky squelch.
My phone is dead. My car is somewhere miles behind, also dead.
Ten years ago I knew this road well but now I’m not so sure where I am. The fog has blurred all the half-familiar points. Instinct told me to go up the valley rather than down in search of help. Sooner or later I’m sure there’ll be a village and then at the very least, I’ll be somewhere rather than nowhere.
And then, at last, I see a pub across the road, lit up, the only oasis of hope in the darkness.
I gasp, remembering it from all those years ago when it stood graffitied and abandoned, loitering, glowering with its back against the rock of the mountainside, derelict and empty. But now it is bright.
I cross the tarmac and stand for a moment outside, unable to believe the pub is actually open, clean, welcoming, after all that time I’ve been tramping in the dark. I’m soaked through, dishevelled probably, but there’s nothing else to do but enter. I open the door and step inside, the soft light more blinding than the fog.
It’s empty but for the landlord who leans on the bar fiddling with his mobile phone, straightening with a puzzled smile when I appear then looking over my shoulder. I half turn as the weight of the door is taken by someone else.
A woman, as damp as I but somehow yet elegant is crossing the threshold behind me.
She has a face I could never forget. Her hair seems too heavy for her head and her long damp skirts cling to her legs. I expect her to follow me to the bar, but instead she just sits near the window and stares out into the darkness. She, like the road, seems familiar and yet not quite.
I tell the landlord what’s happened and order a drink, then realise I have no money on me and find my bank card has expired.
‘You both look like drowned rats,’ he says. ‘Sit down and have a coffee on the house. I’ll see if I can get a recovery vehicle for you.’
The woman says nothing when he puts the drink down in front of her. If he’s surprised we aren’t sharing a table it isn’t obvious. Perhaps he thinks we’ve argued over the break-down.
There is a pool of liquid on my table. I use it to doodle, trying to capture the curve of the woman’s head and shoulders as she clasps her cup and peers within as she’s scrying.
Forcing my finger into sweeps and lines slows my heart from panic to mere anxiety. The wall lamps in the pub are dim and the night beyond the windows is not so much darkness as a subtraction of light so the woman is shadowed, her features cast into angles and swirls. Hers is the kind of face people describe as ‘not remotely beautiful but-’. The kind of face that has stared with silent authority from babyhood onward.
In the background, the landlord speaks into his mobile too low to follow. He’s taking his time. How hard can it be to get a recovery vehicle? I falter over sketching as my agitation grows and then the woman says, ‘is that what you really want to do?’
Her eyes are fixed on me.
I smear the image away and shrug.
She rises and presses her nose to the window. The fog is thicker than ever and seeping wisps of it squirm on the doormat.
‘No good,’ says the landlord, stabbing his phone to end the call. ‘He’s got a family emergency.’ His expression is one of curious pity. ‘This isn’t a road to drive without enough fuel.’
‘I know,’ I snap. ‘It wasn’t that. Where’s your payphone? I’ll reverse the charges.’
He shakes his head. ‘We haven’t got one. There’s one down the road a bit. You probably walked past it after you abandoned your car.’
‘I could have walked past my own grandmother.’ I shiver. Even in the moonless darkness drifting strips of fog had seemed like people. ‘And I didn’t abandon it. I left it. Can I borrow your mobile?’
The landlord considers his phone. ‘Signal’s gone again. It’s a bit intermittent look. Weather’s probably affected the mast.’
It isn’t hard to imagine the fog coiling up and suffocating whatever emits a signal up that forsaken mountain.
‘Have you got a landline?’ I’m desperate. ‘Could you phone someone for me?’
‘What’s the number?’
I look at my dead mobile and realise I can’t remember.
‘Can you phone me a taxi?’
‘No taxis round here,’ says the landlord, surprised. ‘People need driving, they’ve got friends, isn’t it?’
I wish I had friends.
I turn to the woman wondering how to ask a stranger for a lift back down the valley. She’s watching our exchange, impatient, indifferent and unbiddable. I lock eyes to shame her into offering but all that fills me is a swirl of cold doubt before she breaks the connection to stare back into the fog.
‘You dunno this road then,’ says the landlord. It’s a statement.
‘I used to.’
‘Follows the river look.’
I remember the river well. It hides below a tree-edged ridge to rush towards the distant sea, minor rivers falling in behind as they join from other valleys. And the road keeps step with it – more or less – winding here, straightening there, shadowed, with blank wet rock high on one side and lurking water below the ridge on the other. Not a road to wander in the dark, let alone fog.
‘Where you off anyway?’ he says.
‘No you weren’t,’ the woman interjects. ‘You were running away. And you don’t have long.’
‘How long you need to run away?’ says the landlord with a chuckle but he’s looking at me more closely now, his eyes flickering from my dripping hair to sodden shoes.
The pub is warm and bright. You can tell by the decor it’s only newly opened. I don’t want to go back outside.
‘It’s time to leave,’ says the woman. ‘Tell him what you have to.’
She is familiar, too familiar. Her hair flows and her skirts slink.
‘Tell you what, I’ll drive you back down the valley,’ offers the landlord. ‘I’ll close early. No-one’s coming out in this.’
I imagine going down the valley with him – going back – going home. There are people wondering where I’ve gone.
Or at least, ten years ago there were people who wondered and then – then they misunderstood.
I push my driving licence across the bar into the landlord’s hands.
‘My car broke down,’ I said. ‘I just wanted help. This isn’t a road to walk in the fog. Not so high above the river.’
‘It’s time to leave,’ repeats the woman.
With a sob bubbling in my throat, I turn to join her. There is nothing else to do.
‘Tell them I didn’t do it on purpose,’ I tell the landlord over my shoulder.
He stands open-mouthed as the door closes behind us, my licence in his hand.
The woman and I are in the dark again and there is no light but a small glow from the pub though the fog is lifting. It seems like a nice pub.
It was never like that ten years ago. It was closed.
It was closed every foggy night for the ten years I’ve tried to reach it. But now it’s open and I can’t do any more to get my message through.
‘It’s over,’ says the river, her hair sleek to her face, her skirts clinging. Then she walks away.
And, as the landlord wrenches the door open and calls for me to wait, I follow her, fading into the fog as I cross the road, then the verge and finally, tumble for the last time over the crumbling edge of the ridge into the river’s waiting arms.
Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.