Thursday, May 2, 2013

Downland: part seven

Striking out for home, the darkness enveloping him, Ridler re-crossed the deserted Lewes Road and immersed himself in the narrow lanes that would lead him back through the village of Ripe, past Deanland Wood and the old airfield, and to the caravan park and home. Second only to being on the Downs, these lanes felt like carefree liberty. The hedgerows, with the tips of hazel and blackthorn stretching overhead silhouetted against the star-studded sky, and the scent of hawthorn and dog rose filling the warm air, were a haven for Ridler, an enclosure of safe passage that would carry him home unmolested. He had rarely met a soul on these lanes and when he had, he was able to melt into thicket and darkness to keep himself concealed. The nearer he came to Ripe the more he felt at ease. He was tolerated in the village - some went out of their way to talk to him queuing in the post office or the village shop – but any voluntary encounters were borne of fascination rather than human decency. When he had first come here, they had sent a reporter and a photographer to the village shop. The picture of the cheery shopkeeper handing a packet of sugar across the counter to Ridler had been on the front page of the local newspaper. That was in stark contrast to the fearful, mute incomprehension he was met with from the grocer’s wife and daughter.

As he came into the village, he could see the lights from the Lamb and, through the windows, the drinkers finishing their last drinks of the night. He had timed his return well; half an hour later and staggering, swaggering farm labourers would be exchanging their final boasts and threats to each other in the street – always a danger. Two years before, returning from the Downs at this time, he had seen the Writer and his wife arguing drunkenly, violently outside the pub, the landlord standing imperiously on the step, the drinkers crowded at the windows. Judged and outnumbered, the Writer had started to run straight at Ridler, it had seemed, standing in the hidden shade of a yew; but he had passed by, only feet away, spitting curses and insults against his wife and the publican, and had staggered off toward Deanland Wood. Ridler recalled seeing the Writer there too, in that time before, creeping about the wood one afternoon with binoculars in one hand and a small book in the other. Ridler had guessed he was bird spotting but the unsteadiness of his demeanour and the noise he made with every twig-snapping step meant that any bird would have flown. The Writer had not even spotted Ridler close at hand among the trees; his powers of observation were surely dulled. He had seemed like a man numbed, in a trance. It was only later that Ridler heard of the nature of the Writer’s treatment and the reason for his stay in Ripe; but still none of this was able to explain the events of a year ago, up there, on the Downs. Ridler, looking back over the village, could just pick out the line of those hills in relief against the midnight blue starlit sky, high above the flat parochial fields the lane now led him through.

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