The van took off down the main road, clattering away as it hit thirty five, grey-blue smoke clinging to the road surface behind before thinking better of it and drifting slowly across the hedges, gaining height before losing its cohesiveness and disappearing on the breeze. Crows flapped lazily away from the remnants of rabbits on the roadside, cawing in unhurried amusement at the red van with back doors held together with string, flying back down once the noise passed to strip the rotten flesh from the carcass all over again.
There wasn’t a soul to be seen. The early autumn skies threatened rain but so far only the odd spot had fallen on the grimy windscreen, the laughably ineffective wipers spreading it about until it was almost opaque and the driver had to lean forwards to peer out for any potential hazards. The last of the crops were ready for harvest in the neighbouring fields but for now they lay listless awaiting the combine. Behind them the sea lay quiet, its mass reduced to a thin line between the land and the horizon, the steep incline they faced reducing it further as they climbed. Thin traceries of currents just visible on its surface, waves reduced to ripples. The empty road, all corners and blind hedge-filled verges, spun away from the coast reluctantly, taking the van inland and away from all that promise.
The van screeched to a halt with an unimpressive braking distance, the rear wheels locking up for a second and the back end swinging out across the road.
“What ? What is it ?”
“I don’t want to go back. Not there.”
“Oh Christ….what d’you want to do ?”
“I don’t know….I don’t know….I don’t want to walk out like that…but I don’t want to go back to the flat….don’t want to leave…oh shit why is this so fuckin’ difficult !”
Dave sat in silence, the engine barely ticking over, spluttering and knocking. He looked down in his lap, fiddled with his hands and tried not to look over at Ali.
“He’s being so … so bloody stupid and blokey… I didn’t even intend walking out, just kind of did… now I’m bloody stuck here. I’m just going to look an idiot if I go back, tail between my legs. Christ, I’ve had enough of wandering around with a bunch of no-hope travellers, I really have. I like it down there in the village. I want to stay there, but I can’t just go back….” Ali was close to tears. Her face was red with confusion, anger and she dragged her fingers again and again through her short hair. Her eyes were filling up.
Dave looked up. He was, he reckoned, only about three miles from the village – he mentally weighed up how much petrol he’d used, he couldn’t help it. He’d picked Ali up as she walked through the village – she had the air of someone who was going somewhere with a vengeance. She was striding out and looked furious. Dave had just been about to set off for the weekly shop at what passed for a supermarket but put those plans on hold and asked her if she wanted a lift. He still felt that things had been left out of balance when they’d split and liked the idea of being able to offer her help for a change. She’d looked at him with furious eyes and for a second he thought better of it, but she just mumbled something about Terry being a complete idiot and wrenched the door of the van open and got in. Dave figured out they’d had some sort of argument and had, without a word, started the engine and driven on the road out of the village in the direction she was heading. They’d gone about a mile before he asked her where she wanted to go and was surprised when she asked him to take her to the quarry. She’d then not spoken again until she’d yelled at him to stop. Dave was secretly pleased that she seemed so vulnerable. He’d never seen her like this before – certainly not with him – and he was happy to make the most of it.
“Where to then ?”
“Oh god, I don’t know ! Back. Not to the flat. Certainly not back to your bloody mothers. Just back. Somewhere. Somewhere away from people.”
Dave revved the engine and the van stuttered into a three point turn, back end banging against a low stone wall hidden in the gorse. He swore, revved some more and swung back around one hundred and eighty degrees.
“I can take you up on the cliff road if you want…?” His words hung in the air. Ali was sniffing, determined not to cry. She let out a sob, snorted it back in and sat there silently.
“D’you want…” Dave tried again. Ali was beyond caring, beyond knowing which way she wanted to go, she nodded and rubbed at her nose with the back of her hand. Dave drove on, still no-one around, he wondered why he was running around the countryside with a stupid girl like this – he owed her nothing now, so why was he doing this ? Her emotions didn’t touch him, she’d get over it. He had.They always did.
As the van clunked around another bend, approaching the point where the road split to either go down to the village or up and over to the houses on the cliff, Dave saw a figure walking down the road, kicking at the dislodged stones by the side as he walked. He swung out to pass him, saw it was Terry. Ali, head down and eyes red, didn’t notice him.
The van limped down the left hand turning; Dave looked briefly in the rear mirror, but saw no-one. The road here was barely driveable at points – tarmac so old that great clumps of grass had pushed through, chunks of black road surface lay apart from the rest, chipped off by wear and the weather. Potholes erupted with water as the tyres smacked down into them, jarring the van and making Dave wonder how much more often he could afford to do this. The back door clanked as the string tensed and relaxed with each new shock. Ali looked up as they arrived back at the coast – although this time they were way up above the beach, a crow’s eye view of the sand and the sea. The tide was out, the sand slicked with water looking almost glassy. Dave pulled up and pushed the gearstick into neutral, he kept his foot on the pedal and wrenched the handbrake up with a groan. The van slipped forward an inch or two before the brakes took effect and then rocked unsteadily as it settled into position.
Dave stared out of the windscreen. Ali sat and looked at her feet.
Tentatively Dave put his arm out and rested his hand on her shoulder. He wasn’t sure why, but it seemed an appropriate thing to do. Anyway he didn’t like the silence. Ali reached up and put her hand over his, squeezing it lightly as if to at least recognise that he was trying. She turned away and pulled at the door handle again, the door dropped slightly on its hinges as it opened, the handle itself stayed in her hand. She looked at it and laughed.
Dave smiled for the first time and told her not to worry. She threw it over the back of the seat to sit amongst a pile of old boxes, wrappings and blankets. He got out of his side and slammed the door shut, for a moment the van looked as if it might set off down the hill on its own, but once more it rocked gently and settled down after a second.
“I don’t want to go back down there….not just yet.” Ali sounded subdued and inwardly she was feeling completely foolish. Dave grunted noncommittally.
The rain was starting to fall now, light drizzle, the wind was picking up. Ali shivered and Dave offered her his coat. She laughed again, “Who’d have ever thought that you’d be doing the chivalry thing for me again ?”
Dave laughed back, not too sure what the joke was. Ali turned down his offer, mainly because apart from the light jacket all Dave had on was a t-shirt and a pair of board shorts. Ali walked along the cliffs, away from the houses, out towards the headlands.
“What you gonna do then ?” Dave was awkward again, part of him wanted to get off and get on with his day, part of him wondered where all this was going and was curious. He liked Terry and all, but didn’t feel any duty towards him, this was all because he finally felt that Ali was letting him see her in a role other than the sarcastic, confident, brash persona that she’d always had around him in the past.
“I don’t know Dave, I really don’t. I feel like I want to just be away from everyone, hide away for a few days and let it all wash over me. Get rid of all this stuff in my head. Numb the pain.”
“This do for a start ?”, Dave pulled out a joint from his shorts. For the third time Ali laughed and took it off him, fumbling in her pocket for a lighter and fighting the strengthening breeze as she turned to find shelter to light it. Dave stared into the middle distance, thoughts coming and going in his head.
“Got somewhere you could try…..if you want….” Dave was almost apologetic in his approach as he took the joint from her fingers, barely touching. She looked up at him, his long hair straggling around his face and blowing into the corners of his mouth. “It’s a bit of a, well, its a bit of a local thing to be honest…”. He grinned at the secrecy.
“What sort of local thing ? Thought you used that sort of terminology for the best breaks ?” Ali looked at him, intrigued but not expecting much.
They walked out past the hotel, shut up and as silent as the stunted trees that marked the boundary of its garden. The last building on the clifftop, from here the path meandered before turning into trodden down grass, clear enough at first but gradually fading into barely perceptible tracks. Ali hadn’t spent much time up here and for the first time she wished she had – there was something wild about the clifftops if you kept the village behind you – it had the air of antiquity, the smell and the feel of a hundred years in each blast of sea air. She found herself unable to keep her mind on the day's events. A feeling of total insignificance overwhelmed her and made it all seem so distant. She knew that the smoke was helping her along, but more than that the sheer emptiness up here, facing the sea, looking out onto nothing for hundreds of miles, seemed to be inviting her to join in nothing, to become part of nothing.
“Go on,” she said, when she finally became aware of Dave again, “what sort of local thing?”
“I’ll show you.” He said firmly this time. He took her by the hand again and started to stride along, so much so that she had difficulty keeping pace with him on the greasy surface. He led her further along the cliff, out of sight of the hotel, down towards the edge.