I’ve made good time on my way north. At junction 40, I leave the almost empty motorway and drive the six or so miles to the old, stone bridge. Waiting in the Range Rover, I’m hungry and aching after the long journey and I wonder again why I agreed to walk to Lacy’s Caves.
Just as I decide to call Dacre to say I’ll meet him in the pub, his ancient truck growls up behind me. In my rear-view mirror his face is older, but he gets out with the energy of a young man.
“Hallo, Jez.” His voice is like deep water. And I don’t say that no one calls me ‘Jez’ or ‘Jezza’ anymore; it’s always ‘Jeremy’ now.
Of course, Dacre has always been just Dacre, even at school, when everybody had a nickname. Amongst the farming community he was known as Young Dacre to distinguish him from his father, Middle Dacre, and his grandfather, Old Dacre, now dead. I wonder if he has moved up to become Middle Dacre yet, since there isn’t a Young Dacre to take his place.
“I’ve brought Midge along.” He releases a black and white collie, glossy and wiry, from the back of the pick-up. She fusses around my ankles.
“Hallo, Midge,” I say, greeting the dog with too much enthusiasm.
“We’ve had plenty of rain recently, so there’ll be some sticky going.” He is looking at my boots, bought specially for this weekend, the price tag dangling extravagantly from the laces.
Dacre is in black wellingtons, farmers’ standard issue. I remember him in school games shorts with bands of bare skin below each of his knees where the rim of his boots had slapped his legs bare. I smile, ready to recount the story, but Midge and Dacre are over the stile amongst the spent thistles and the last of the willow herb.
At the top of the bank, we emerge onto the open plateau of the meadow. The River Eden, swollen and grey, surges below us. Midge disturbs a flock of birds that rise half-heartedly into the air.
“A murder of crows,” I say attempting to sound knowledgeable.
“They’re rooks,” corrects Dacre without breaking his stride.
We cross the next two fields without a word.
Midge, nose on outstretched paws, is waiting for us by the far fence that divides the grazing from the woods. The remains of a stile lie half-buried in a fall of rich, reddish earth where the river has consumed another yard of pasture.
“The floods hit us hard last back end,” Dacre says, following my gaze, his voice suddenly spiked with rage.
“I saw the pictures on the news,” I say, lamely. And again I hate myself for not calling him last autumn. It’s taken me yet another year to get here.
Dacre is holding down the barbed wire for Midge to leap the fence. He helps me scramble over, then supporting himself with the heel of one hand on the top of a fence post, swings his body clear in a neat arc.
Under the trees the ground is sodden and we teeter along railway sleepers, treacherous with wet leaves. Every few yards a newly sprung beck hurls itself down to join the river. In the thickets of willow and alder along the bank, bleached hulks of fallen pine and larch fly flags of tattered plastic. And from the fields to the east, comes the sound of sedate gunfire from a Sunday shoot.
“How’s the farm?” I keep the question tentative, polite, as if we are strangers. “Busy as usual?”
“Gathering the fell soon,” says Dacre over his shoulder as we process single file, Midge leading the way.
He offers no further explanation, but when we were at school he would complain of having to help his father bring the sheep down from the wet hillsides before winter set in. Dacre’s father is too ill to work, and I wonder who helps on the farm now.
“How’s things in London?” asks Dacre in return, and I’m about to tell him how much I’ve come to hate it, the job, the posturing, the so-called friends, but then he adds “How do you cope with all these security threats?” and I realise that he’s not asking the question that I was about to answer.
“Oh, you know Londoners,” I say carelessly, which of course he doesn’t. “They will just carry on making money whatever the terrorists do. Just moan a bit more.”
Dacre doesn’t answer. I watch his slender back for a reaction, but his shoulders are silent beneath his old sweater. He and Midge are getting too far ahead again and I hurry to catch them up.
“What you would need to stop the City of London isn’t a bomb,” I call out, my voice too loud for the quietness that has accumulated between us, “What you need is snow. Just make it snow and every Londoner panics and goes home. You’d have the place to yourself in minutes.”
This time I get a reaction. Dacre’s shoulders rise and fall in a soundless laugh.
Now the path leads steeply upwards, sandy, between fragile stands of birch, and the river loops, wide and lazy, far beneath us, as if it is already near its journey’s end.
“And what do you do?” asks Dacre, stopping suddenly to look down at the water.
“What?” His question takes me by surprise. I’ve been concentrating on keeping up, annoyed by my lack of fitness.
“When it snows in London. Do you stay or go home?”
“Oh, I stay.” I straighten up and look at Dacre watching the river. “Actually, I’m famous for it in our office. One of my Northern eccentricities.”
“We’re nearly there,” says Dacre, setting off again, Midge at his heel, towards the outcrop of sandstone just visible through the trees up ahead.
With just one glimpse, everything about the caves comes back to me: the red rocks glittering with mica, the graffiti, the coffin-shaped entrance, the same old sign forbidding camping, fishing and fire lighting.
I overtake Dacre and Midge in my excitement, ducking inside the doorway only to be brought up short by the greenish darkness, cool and quiet, the brightness of the river and woods instantly forgotten.
I shuffle blindly forward for a few paces, the floor soft and powdery. I use my phone as a torch and, as my eyes adjust to the dimness, I make out ‘Class of 86’ and ‘Man U 4 Ever’ on one of the walls.
The first cave leads into another and then another, each one darker and more secret. Mainly by feel, I find the final room, which is a dead end.
“I suppose you know that these caves are man-made, possibly so a hermit could live here?” I say, filling the silence. “It was a fashion, once upon a time to have your own hermit, an affectation, like having a personal trainer I suppose…or a…”
And I realise Dacre and Midge aren’t with me. I call out, but there is no answer. The light on my phone goes out. The battery must be dead. As I fumble with the on button, the phone slips from my fingers. I crouch down, patting the sand around me with both hands, then widen my search, but it has vanished.
I crawl on my hands and knees until my head collides gently with the back wall of the cave, its sandy surface crumbling a little with the impact. I turn slowly until I’m sitting in the darkness, my back against the rock wall. I close my eyes.
This is the last cave. It was Dacre’s and mine, the night we camped here with the other lads from school, that summer before we all went our separate ways: college, travelling, or in Dacre’s case, back to the farm. We fished, unsuccessfully, and lit a fire of sorts. In fact we made a point of doing everything the sign at the entrance told us was prohibited. It was a night for forbidden things.
Somehow, I get the sense that I am no longer alone. I catch the vinegar tang of a wet animal. Then a low, dark shape slides towards me. And Midge is licking at my boots, body wagging, cringing for a pat.
I follow as she strolls ahead of me out of the cave, tongue out, smiling, if dogs can smile. I stand at the entrance, shading my eyes from the glare. Dacre is leaning on the rock, a slim outline against the low sun.
“Why didn’t you come in?”
“I was reading the names carved in the stone, but you rushed off, so I sent Midge in to round you up.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.” One of my bad habits.
Dacre gestures towards the rock face next to him, and I join him on the narrow path above the shining river. We read the names: ‘Anne and Rich’, ‘Jack 4 Chloe’, ‘Tony + Beth’. But I can’t see ‘Jez and Dacre’.
“They erode pretty quickly,” says Dacre, running his callused hand across the face of the rock, setting off small falls of sand. “The stone’s too soft. You’d have to keep coming back to re-carve the names.”
Dacre seems neither angry nor resentful. To him it is merely a matter of geography. And I look down at the River Eden carrying with it the sediment of all the declarations of love that have proved too insubstantial to last, out to the tidal flats of the Solway Firth and to the ocean beyond.
Then I realise Dacre and Midge are already away down the path, almost out of sight.
Sarah Griffiths’ first short story appeared in Redline Magazine in 2014 and since then her work has been published by Writers’ Forum and Scribble. She is a single parent who lives and works in a small town in beautiful Cumbria, which provides the inspiration for most of her stories.