The road sweeps out of the darkness and into the dawn, through silent, grey villages that cling to the mud-stained hem of the Yorkshire Dales’ crumpled skirts.
The van bounces across a hump backed bridge, tents and rucksacks shifting in the back.
“Banger?” says J-Dog.
“Go on then,” I say.
I light two small cigars, pass one across and crank the window down an inch to allow cold, dew heavy air to whistle in.
J-Dog inhales, exhales. “Great track, this next one.” His thick finger jabs the stereo and Joe Jackson informs us how It’s Different For Girls.
The road turns, cracked crags loom over scrubby forgotten fields, a buzzard hangs in the air, looking for death.
J-Dog is a few years older than me and music is everything to him. I envy his passion for music, try to hear music through his ears but I never manage it. I like to think he’s a rock climber, moving steadily through life, securing himself to certain moments with a song or an album or an artist, each track a musical carabiner. Perhaps Joe Jackson got him across a black chasm back in 1979, leading to a sheer cliff face where Squeeze’s Up The Junction would give him a safe foot hold, then a precarious ridge where he could hold onto the frayed rope of Van Morrison for safety.
I love music, don’t get me wrong, but it’s always been books and writers that do it for me. I like a great lyric in a song but I can’t stand a bad one. It’s as though someone is sticking a pencil in my ear, sharp end first.
We smoke our cigars and J-Dog stares at the tarmac and drums his fingers on the wheel while I gaze into the distance, at the great, grey giants up ahead.
Our trip to the Lake District is less of a holiday, more of a pilgrimage. We made this very trip ten years earlier when the world was a slightly different place and we were slightly different people. J-Dog had wanted to go then because it had been ten years since he’d made a previous epic visit to the same area, when he had been a teenager, and he wanted to see if anything of himself had been left in the lakes and mountains.
We didn’t find anything of the teenage J-Dog back then but it was still a brilliant trip. We forged a great friendship in the high mountains, suffered on the peaks and then got spectacularly drunk in the valleys.
But then girlfriends became wives, wives became pregnant, husbands became fathers and time slipped away, year after year, and promised camping trips disappeared like cigar smoke through a van window.
Dire Straits now.
Now I know what you’re thinking, but Dire Straits aren’t that bad. A guilty pleasure. You have to remember it’s J-Dog’s journey, his own trip down memory lane. I don’t know if he realises that all the music he’s playing is old music, all of it from that first trip, the teenage trip before I knew him.
That makes any music he wants to listen to alright by me.
Think of these tunes as being the soundtrack to a film he saw that blew his mind at eighteen, but now he can’t remember what it was called or who it was by, he can only remember the music and one person who was in it.
XTC. Kate Bush. Foreigner. The Police, Billy Joel. The Jam.
Skipton. Gargrave. Long Preston. Clapham. Ingleton. Kirkby Lonsdale.
We’re getting close.
J-Dogg and I had got back in touch a few months earlier. We’d not even seen each other for a couple of years and that felt wrong.
We met up over a few midweek beers and within minutes we were talking about the Lakes.
“We need to go back.”
I know. It’s a must.”
“When? When can you get time?”
“Sound. I’ll book it.”
The Lakes make everything better. When we are back there we are back then, we’ve travelled through time to who we were.
The big lakes, the famous lakes – Conniston, Windermere, Ullswater, Buttermere – are roughly on the Eastern side of the Lake District and are each reached by a winding series of interconnected roads, arteries that feed a steady flow of tourists and walkers to the towns that hug the lake shores.
Wastwater is different. it is cut off from these roads by hulking mountains, vast ramparts built by billions of tons of glacial ice, tens of thousands of years ago. The valley itself, Wasdale, cuts a long, sombre ‘V’ pointing westward, and from the high peaks surrounding the lake you can see the glittering silver of the Irish Sea, weather allowing.
This is our lake, our dale.
The road we take weaves towards the sea then struggles upwards, finding gaps in the hills, through lanes crowded on each side by crumbling walls and twisted hawthorn and the scented tendrils of honeysuckle.
There is an excitement in the van now. We both watch the landscape change, become more lost, more remote. No villages now. Even the trees crouch low, deformed by decades of vicious winters and the unpredictable moods of the kinder seasons.
The road is never flat. It rolls, pulls upwards, dips down to cross runnels of clear cold water clean enough to drink before rising again.
The high mountains part the clouds ahead. We lean closer to the windscreen, staring upwards.
“Fucking Hell…” whispers J-Dog, his face shining.
“Yeah,” I reply. “That.”
What looks like a mountain reveals itself to be the twisted leg of a mountain, and above that the broad chest of the mountain, a tattered shirt of mist clinging to it’s broken ribs, and still the huge head hides, somewhere up there.
Fucking Hell indeed.
Led Zepplin, Kashmir.
And now Wast Water is before us and we jump around in our seats at the sight of that glittering plate of beaten tin stretching, shimmering for three miles ahead of us. It is weird to see something flat and shining amongst shattered stone and coarse grass – it is almost unnatural.
The roller coaster road rises and falls and sways along the side of the lake, until we reach the campsite, J-Dog steering by sixth sense as he rarely peels his eyes from the water.
We arrive at the campsite, pay the man, prowl the grass to find the best pitch, smoke another cigar.
“Here,” says J-Dogg.
It’s where we’d camped ten years before and where he’d camped ten years before that.
Nothing has changed.
We pitch the tent without looking, always staring upwards. The mountains…
Around us, other campers are pitching up.
A father and his ten year old son expertly construct an aging frame tent complete with windbreaks, deck chairs and a two ring stove. The dad stands proudly, thumb hooked into the braces that hold up his corduroy trousers and raises a tin mug of tea in our direction.
“How do,” he says.
“How do,” we say.
A long limbed, olive skinned woman in a converted van swings a leg from the open side door, looking off into the distance. She’s no older than thirty but has a wild, weathered look about her. It’s obvious the van is her home. An old iron woodburner glows behind her and a streamer of white smoke rises from the tin chimney poking from the top of her van. She is independent and capable. I feel strangely intimidated by her, somehow inferior.
Other campers arrive, unroll tents and brew tea.
A Peugeot pulls to a halt behind the converted van.
Three young women get out.
Two of thm erect a dome tent, quickly and efficiently. The third shuffles around, pulling bits of luggage onto the grass. She finds a bag that contains what can only be described as a ‘festival tent’.
It has seen better days.
J-Dog nudges me. The other campers watch discreetly.
The young woman pulls on guy ropes, messes with poles, drags the whole sorry excuse for a tent around for a while. Her two friends offer to help, but she declines. When the tent is half up she seems satisfied. She goes back to the car, finds a rickety fold up chair, opens it up and sits down.
She lights a cigarette.
She does not look up at the mountains.
Her friends get ready to go walking but she shakes her head, lights another cigarette.
She looks set for the day.
J-Dog and I turn our attention back to the business of packing rucksacks for the day’s walking. Waterproofs, First Aid Kit, dry clothing, food. The usual essentials. We also take hip flasks, and cigars and assorted junk confectionary. Not conventional, but fuck it. If you go back forty years every bag would contain tobacco, brandy and mint cake, so why should we miss out on the fun?
We take a last look on the map, trace the route we want to take.
I say, “Scafell Pike, then?”
“Aye,” says J-Dog. “Let’s have it.”
It’s not the hardest peak in the Lakes but it is the biggest – the biggest in England, in fact, at 978 meters. It’s not a hard climb really but it’s not a piece of piss either. For some people it’s a morning jog, for other’s it’s the most challenging thing they’ll do in their life. Fair play to either group. For us it’s a day out, time to be together, two blokes walking and talking, sharing something.
On the way we see people dressed as if they’re going to the Himalayas, people dressed as if they’re going for a run, people dressed as if they’re going to the shops.
Scafell Pike is strange in that it is huge but it is accessible, with a well made path leading almost to the peak. Some think that this has ruined it, taken away the challenge of the climb and I’m inclined to agree, but the Lakes are filled with challenges so if you don’t like it you can always fuck off somewhere else instead.
Saying that, you’d be a fool to underestimate the mountain.
People die here.
The weather can mug you, it scuttles and slithers along hidden valleys then rushes over the tops to engulf you, and if you aren’t prepared then you can suddenly find yourself in deep shit.
Some people stumble through fog, trying to find the path or a lost dog, then step off a cliff into nothingness.
Other people twist an ankle and sit down and slowly die of exposure.
There are those who dress like they’re going to the shops and have a massive heart attack.
We talk and talk and stare at the world below us, eat millionaire’s shortbread from Tupperware, take nips of whisky.
J-Dog asks me lots of questions. I’m his Wikipedia. If he wants to know something he’ll phone me up or call round. It’s not that he doesn’t know things, it’s just that I’ve read so much I’ve got a take on most things. Not an in-depth knowledge, just a take on it. I don’t like the term opinionated, it suggests a person who has made up their mind on something and then set their point of view in stone.
I’m not like that. I’ve got an opinion, but I’m still open to suggestions.
Things interest me. the world is an interesting place. I’ve not travelled much in my life but whenever something has interested me I’ve looked it up and built up a bit of knowledge on the way. This has shaped my opinion on the world.
J-Dog is a practical man, very skilled with his hands. He’s spent his life making things, fixing things, building things. This doesn’t allow for much time to stop and stare. These trips to the Lakes, these are J-Dog’s chance to do just that. Stop. Stare. And then he wonders. Then he wants to know. And when he wants to know he asks me, and I do my best to answer.
A mist rolls in. The temperature drops. The green valley disappears and the air becomes as grey as the screes. The shapes of people loom from the cloud in ones and twos, greeting us as they head back down the mountain. We press on.
I think about those who strayed from the path and stepped into space. We take care.
Eventually we reach the peak.
There is a huge cairn, a neatly erected pile of stones that resembles a neolithic fort.
This is the highest point in England.
There is a queue of hikers waiting patiently to climb up to take a selfie. They have flasks of tea and some are eating flapjack. Polite conversation drifts over to us in shreds.
We watch them, not quite at the peak ourselves.
J-Dog shakes his head. “Set of cunts.”
I say, “Yeah. Wankers.”
The hikers have ruined it. The spell of wilderness is broken.
We turn around and walk back down without reaching the peak.
Back at the campsite we shower and change. We go to the pub and order pints and a big bowl of chilli each. Fresh faced hikers lounge around by the fire, swapping stories about their adventures on the mountain. I notice there is a lot of talking and not much listening.
We see the three young women from the campsite. The two who had put up the dome tent come over to talk to us for a while. It’s nice to see two women who feel at ease enough to approach us, without worrying we’ll hit on them. I like that. They both have short blonde hair, shaved at the neck, and they hold hands under the table. The third girl, the one with the festival tent, is stood outside smoking a cigarette, talking to a local lad. He is big and brawny with tribal tattoos running down his muscular arms.
We have a laugh with the two girls about their friend’s tent. They complement J-Dog on his wedding ring. His wife bought it in San Francisco. It is the sort of Ring Elvis would have worn. Silver, big diamonds. Flashy but fun. I wear a plain gold band.
We buy the girls a drink and they buy us one back. They’re good company.
Eventually the girls go back to join their friend and we soon begin to tire of the pub. There is only so much climbing banter we can take.
We walk back to the campsite along a silent, stone-walled road, using torches in the deepening dusk. Bats swoop silently above us and multi-coloured tents in a nearby field glow like Chinese lanterns.
Back at our tent we wrap up warm, open a bottle of red and talk in low voices. The proud father with the frame tent is reading a magazine about model trains by lamplight, his son presumably asleep inside. The girl with the van is strumming a battered guitar quietly and the smoke of her stove scents the air. High above us, on the mountain, strings of tiny lights show where teams of night hikers are traveling to the summit, a practice I fail to understand.
The wine warms me. My limbs ache from the day’s walking and my belly is full of chilli.
The two girls come back to their tent and wish us goodnight before disappearing inside. J-Dog waggles his eyebrows at me, hinting at what they might be getting up to. I drink more wine.
The third girl returns to her tent, but she has brought someone with her. It’s the brawny local lad.
We watch with interest as they eat each others faces and he mauls her big tits with his big hands.
The proud father stops reading his magazine for a moment. The girl strumming the guitar misses a chord.
Festival girl takes local lad’s hand and together they enter her tent. This is something to behold, as the tent is barely big enough for one, never mind the impressive bulk of the local lad. It’s like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis in reverse, the two clumsy bodies writhing and struggling to enter the sagging cocoon.
“Bloody Nora,” says J-Dog.
They are in. They zip the tent shut. A torch is switched on, revealing in a tawdry silhouette every motion of the occupants.
Proud dad has totally given up on his railway magazine now. Van girl’s guitar is silent.
Festival girl and local lad strip hurriedly, then she begins to suck him off. A low groan comes from the tent.
We begin to giggle. Proud father shakes his head. After a while festival girl comes up for air and they swap over, local lad burying his face between her heavy thighs. We can hear a noise like a dog eating a hot chip. Festival girl moans.
When local lad comes up for air there is a brief discussion. Local lad then struggles to get his jeans on and the tent is unzipped. He shuffles across the dewy grass towards our tent.
“Evening lads,” he says.
“Evening mate,” we say.
Local lad glances back towards festival tent. “Urm, look, you couldn’t lend us a johnny, could you?”
Me and J-Dog look at each other.
“Y’what?” says J-Dog.
“A johnny. Y’know, a condom. It’s just that, well…” He nods towards the sagging tent.
I say to J-Dog, “You got any?” He shakes his head.
“Sorry mate, Can’t help you.”
Local lad looks around the campsite. The other tents are in darkness. He shrugs and starts walking back to the tent.
J-Dog says, “Wait a bit, why did you reckon we’d have a johnny?”
Local lad looks at him, then looks at me. He says, “Well, you know. Your lot usually have ‘em.”
He crawls back into the cocoon and wriggles out of his jeans. There is a brief discussion, and then he fucks her anyway.
“Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh UH UH UH Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Oh yeah! Oh YEAH!”
Festival girl is enjoying herself. Proud father is wincing, glancing back at his own tent, obviously hoping his son doesn’t wake up.
Other tents in the field begin to light up with torches. Confused faces appear at unzipped doorways. Confusion changes to shock, then amusement.
The whole campsite wakes up.
Local lad has got festival girl on all fours. His head is stretching the top of the tent to breaking point. They are basically fucking in an illuminated bag in the middle of a field, being watched by thirty people. It’s quite spectacular.
In the middle of the show J-Dog says to me, “What did he mean, that lad, when he said ‘your lot’? What was that all about.”
I think about it for a moment, then it dawns on me.
“He thinks we’re gay.”
J-Dog looks horrified. “What?? Why?”
“I don’t know.”
Proud father is stood up now, he’s shaking his head but he’s smiling and having a bloody good look at the festival sex tent. He catches our eye. He says, “Do, us a favour, lads. Don’t you two be making a racket like that. I don’t know I’d explain it to my son.”
I say, “Don’t worry, we won’t.”
J-Dog looks at me, aghast. “Don’t let him think we’re gay too! Tell him!”
I shrug. “What does it matter what he thinks? He doesn’t mind that we’re gay…”
“We are not gay!”
I say. “Whatever. All I’m saying is, it’s not a big deal. We’re mates. We get on. We share a tent. Dammit, we love each other. You’re like a fucking brother to me, maybe more so. The other stuff, the gay stuff, it’s neither here nor there. We’ve never had a single argument, not one. We could hang out together for the rest of our lives and we’d get on fine.”
J-Dog is quiet for a while. “So… does that mean we’re gay then? Are we a pair of gayers?”
I say, “don’t obsess about labels, mate. We are what we are.”
He goes quiet again. Then he says, “So, are we going to have to do gay things tonight?”
J-Dog asks me things all the time. If he wants to know something, he asks me. I have to think things through.
So I think about bumming J-Dog. Bending him over, pushing it in, pulling it out, pushing it in again. I imagine him sucking me off. I imagine sucking him off. I have a really good think about it.
Then I say, “No, mate. We won’t be doing gay things tonight or any other night. I mean, you’re great lad and everything but blokes just don’t do it for me.”
J-Dog looks relieved. “Thank fuck for that. It would have been a right chore. The thought of necking you with that big moustache…” He shudders.
We have another glass of wine as festival girl has a shuddering orgasm and local lad pulls out and cums on her tits, then we call it a night.
Next morning we sit out in the cool morning air, bleary eyed, eating sausage sandwiches and sipping carefully at steaming mugs of tea.
It’s been a long night. Local lad fucked festival girl about five times. Very impressive, especially considering the state of the tent. We slept, but the the whole campsite woke and slept depending on local lad’s state of arousal.
Now we sit and watch the tent. There are signs of movement.
I look around the campsite. The other campers are going about their business, but everyone has one eye on the festival tent.
The door unzips.
Festival girl emerges, and without a glance to left or right, she marches towards the washrooms.
A ripple of applause echoes around the campsite.
She does not acknowledge it.
J-Dog and I giggle over our sandwiches.
Suddenly the festival tent opens again.
Local lad climbs out and stretches.
He is stark bollock naked.
He drinks deeply from a can of Strongbow, belches, glances over at us.
“Morning,” he says.
“Morning, we say.
He nods at our sausage sandwiches.
“Got any of them going spare?”
I nod at his cock. “Looks like you’ve got all you need, mate.”