It turns out that you can only do this on the last day of the year anyway, so all that trying before was a waste of time. And previously you always took the wrong paths.
Time to get away.
You walk down the mostly-empty mid-afternoon streets, avoiding the puddles of melting snow. Except for the off-licence, the shops are shut and dark. Hunching your shoulders you continue out towards the edge of the town.
Skirting past the golf course, you pass through the gap where the section of fence used to be. On the square, municipal playing field where the dog walkers wait, stubbornly Christmas-hatted with heads down and hands in pockets, while their dogs sniff at the leaves and each other, and piss on the soaking ground. You head for the pair of oaks in the corner of the field.
As you pass the goalposts, with their flaking white paint, you notice a child’s toy animal propped against one of the uprights. It looks like it has been there for some time, and it stares accusingly up at you in the baleful light and you stop and stare back. Over to the east the noise of the motorway. You leave it and go on.
The shallow ditch at the edge of the field holds a few inches of brackish water and the usual trash – a burst football, a shoe, face masks, food wrappers, free newspapers dumped by someone. Clotted, rotting leaves from more than one summer. You slide down the bank, trying to be careful, but your inadequate trainers still end-up wet and black mud coats them over the laces. You step across and grab a bunch of wild grass at the top of the near bank to pull yourself up to the other side.
A pair of crows flap up from one of the oaks, the sound of their cawing hardly seeming to travel at all. Their eyes are hard amber, you somehow know, and their wings are black strokes against the grey, darkening sky.
You push between the trunk of the left-hand oak and a holly bush, which you notice has somehow not been stripped of its berries despite the season just past. The sky hardens as you step out onto the end of the old farm track. There is a different quality to the light here – muffled somehow, like the sound. You saw it once before in that grove near Faluja. But that one wasn’t for you.
The track is two strips of mud separated by scrubby grass and bordered by patchy hawthorn hedges and ploughed fields of heavy clay-brown earth. It is suddenly utterly silent. The crows have gone. Then you correct yourself: rooks — crows work alone.
You stare down the track to the south west, noticing how the worn parts are too close together for a tractor and wondering how long it has been since they saw cart wheels. Mostly people on foot, you decide, making the same journey. Away from a thousand differently intolerable worlds. Heading West. Because it’s always west that they go.
You take the left side and walk down the track; and you know somehow not to look back. The air grows colder, more silent. Fog from your breath, and you realise that your jacket is inadequate and you no longer have your hat. The banked sides of the track rise up and the hawthorn turns more tree-like, and here and there alders and rowan. Everything soaked wet and silent. Expectant with the cold sunset. You walk on. The track etches deeper into the earth from the accumulation of footsteps, a space subtracted from the ground but never returned to it. The branches arch overhead. The sky is almost dark.
And then you see them, in the last light. The ones who left the world to its devices for a while and, over the ages, took the winter walk. Soldiers in khaki and in leather jerkins, headscarfed women, hunched men in overcoats, people stumbling on in the blankets and rags of a thousand tired years – the glut of humanity down the centuries who found themselves in intolerable times and decided to walk out and wait a while on the other side of the oaks. They walk ahead of you and they come back on the other side. Because the path has to be trodden and it has always been there.
And finally it’s dark and you reach the place you always wanted to reach: the forgetting. The turning place. Where the skein that links you back to your world becomes the thinnest utmost possible fibre of connection. An indefinite time passes. And it’s in that time, in the cold and darkness, that the world whispers to you that you never were responsible for the pain and the hurt of the time you left. It was nothing to do with any of you. It has always been like that, simply because there is no other way for it to be. Another ocean of time washes through you, and then you turn and step to the other side of the path. And you begin to follow the way back from the West.
And it turns out that there never was a forgetting or respite in that moment on the path. Instead of experiencing nothing, you instead saw it all. All the time, and what came before and after the time. All the bravery and all the despair. Every sunrise and every sunset. All the love and all the indifference. You carried it with you on the way back. But the crows knew this and took it from you to keep for themselves. For they are wiser than you.
31st December 2020