I was somewhere south of somewhere, north of somewhere else, east of everywhere and west of nowhere at all. I was walking because of some stupid reason that embarrassed even my loneliness. I had been wandering for days across the flatlands, along endlessly straight roads and tracks that dissected peroxide-bright prairies of barley which the wind fucked into yellow oceans on which long, low black ships sailed with their slave cargo of caged poultry, de-beaked, hormone-crazy, chemically fattened for drumsticks, burgers, and nuggets.
I'd made some kind of mistake. I had a shadowy idea that my world, encircled and delineated by diaries, deadlines, telephones, newspapers, email, bank statements, bills, invoices, tax demands, mortgage payments; detail and description of ever complicating varieties, might be a creation merely of my own. Contiguous to this notion was a hunch that simply by removing myself from this apparently scripted existence I could discover a species of reality that had been previously invisible to my blinkered senses. For some time I had been becoming disconcerted by maps: the edges of the sheets suggested an unknown domain, but the next sheet was always available, thereby crushing the quiet, unpeopled regions of my imagination to nothing. In some ways I wished myself in an era when the known had faded at the edges, where civilisation petered out into blank spaces occupied with the superstition of the unknown; here be dragons. Browsing the map section in my local bookshop one morning, I had been first annoyed then intrigued by the absence of sheet number 134. I crossed town to another bookshop. No sheet 134 there, either. I was delighted. To be certain, I checked at the library, where 134 was similarly absent. More than anything, I wanted to be off the map. I imagined the roads becoming tracklike, sketched roughly over the terrain like tangled spider silk. I saw trees larger, hedges wilder, the shapes of distant mountains torn against a perfect sky. Above all I saw no people, no animals, and no birds.
I studied sheet 156, just to the south of the area I determined to stake my nebulous claim. There were lots of places that I could have gone to on 156, but as I could see where they were I didn't want to go to them. The only place that was close to 134 was called Bungay. By a jigsaw puzzle of walking, trains, buses and a brief interlude of minicab I arrived possibly only yards south of sheet 134. Ominously, there was no road north.
Well, I don't want to bore you with the dreadful time I had, other than to categorically state that while it was dreadful it was also very boring. Possibly the worst thing about sheet 134 is the straightness of the roads, and the charmless way in which they ran towards the flat and distant horizon. Or perhaps the worst thing was the fast jeeps along the roads, driven by small-looking people who, after living in 134 for their whole lives, could only look straight ahead, like the roads. The first place I found was called Ditchingham. After that, I walked through Seething, Broke, and Boringland. It wasn't like spider silk; there were no trees, no hedges, and no mountains. If I had to be wryly charitable, I could add that there were no birds or animals, and the only people were small, hunched over the steering wheels of enormous jeeps, and staring forward. My hitching thumb was tired from being unemployed. There was also a great deal of sky, frequently exploded upon by jet aircraft. I imagined the planes dissolving as they crossed from the airspace of 134 to the air above 156, but that was the only pleasure they gave me. It was an almost infinitesimally small amount of pleasure, though.
I walked in a direction that seemed to be towards the sea, though, of course, having no map I couldn't be certain of anything geographical. After nearly a week of this increasingly unpleasant travelling I arrived at the beginning of this story.
That afternoon I had decided that I'd had enough. It was Tuesday, I thought. Tuesday had never meant much to me, and that Tuesday meant even less. My memory, by now an irksome companion, reminded me that the reason I was alone had happened on a Tuesday. Then it reminded me about diaries, deadlines, telephones, newspapers, email, bank statements, bills, invoices, tax demands, and mortgage payments. I tried to impart my thumb with some sort of magical hitching power, but the jeeps continued to pass me to the extent that I began seriously to worry if I was there at all. Hell Common, the last settlement I had passed, was miles behind me, and I had no idea when I would reach somewhere with a railway station. Or a bus station. Or a bus stop. Or a minicab office. It became so quiet I hoped for a jet to split the mocking sky. That evening I travelled into what seemed a kinder landscape; the lanes suddenly began to meander and sink between hedges as the sun sank lower and the air cooled. My rucksack was heavy and painful on my sunburnt shoulders, and it was clear that I would soon have to find somewhere to put up my tent. At the brow of a gentle decline I saw ahead of me a dark wood massing about a mile distant. It was there, I decided, I would spend the night. The wood began at a fork in the lane where a small cottage lay beneath the purpling shade of the twilit trees. At the gate stood what I thought was a man, bent with age, holding a scythe upright, the blade swinging idly above his head.
He looked straight ahead, which I was used to; but also straight at me, which I was not. I muttered the sort of monosyllabic greeting which asks to be ignored, and so it was. I walked on, into the chilly shadows of the trees which grew along one side of the lane. On previous nights, I had walked until I was out of any possible view of anybody before I lurched off the road into a putative campsite, and I did the same this evening. I squeezed through a narrow gap in the shrubbish undergrowth, picked my way through a head-high tangle of brambles, and found myself alone in the wood. It was the most silent wood I have ever been in. It gave the impression of being dead, despite the foliant appearance it had given from outside. The dense leaves of the wood had been forced skywards by the burgeoning deadness of its interior. The expired leaves and twigs beneath my feet cracked like chicken bones. There were no birds, which perplexed me. Where did the fuel for the feathery pancakes I had stepped over on the roads of 134 come from? Not anywhere I had camped. And not here, either. There was nothing here.
I'd made some kind of mistake. Some kind of... mistake. But night was speaking. I could do nothing except unpack my tent, erect it, and crawl inside. I couldn't do anything except that. Because I couldn't relax, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't think of anything except a distant, faded sound of a stone sharpening a blade that slowly revolved above the head of something that might have been a man who stared straight ahead at me. I thought I heard or I heard chicken bones snapping and a rusty gate that creaked painfully on its decrepit hinges. I lay in my sleeping bag with my clothes on, with my shoes on, staring straight ahead, defencelessly conscious of the sound of my breath, horribly awake, off the map and out of sight and away from the map.
Silently I begged for the dawn. Trees, skeletal in their naked brittleness, swept down, brushing the fragile canvas of my tent. There was some grotesque sort of distant footfall or anyway a noise I couldn't account for. And occasionally but always, the slow, sly shrill cry of the gate, opening and closing impossibly in the cloaking darkness of the dead of the night. Maybe a sound formed itself into the shape of my name, twisted itself and warped its voice into a terrifying parody of my name and of my ideas and of my plans and of my future. Maybe a sound slithered into my tent shaped like footsteps or knife-shapening or chasing or a hollow realisation of the impossibility of escape. Maybe that's where I still am, cocooned in a flimsy, fabricated defence against what it is that I desire most; a damned region that lies off the map, unpeopled, empty of birds, bereft of animals, where the sky is torn from the land, and where I am caught for ever, dessicating, last week's insect caught in forgotten, dusty spider silk, suspended across a corner of somewhere that will never be visited again.