January · Liz's stories · lost

Fifteen Miles

by Liz Parkes

BEHIND the prison there is a road, a snake of black tarmac running up and away off this moor and down towards Plymouth and the sea, where a handy looking man can pick up a passage, no questions asked.lost Liz

I know this landscape, if I close my eyes I can walk out to the quarry behind the warder on his mount, so many paces from the yard to the gate, from the gate to the arch, from the arch to the road, up the lane towards Rundlestone Corner and into the quarry-the same day in day out.

Sometimes, when the wind is right, I can taste the sea in the air and I look up from the rock face to fill my lungs, then I’m back to pick and hammer and dust. The work fills my time, gets me out, keeps me fit.

Night, after the door closes and the weak wintery sun sets in the twenty one squares of my high window, I plan. The light patterns the painted bricks of my cell wall and I note, West. The moor and the sea, both vast and wild acres, are no friend to most men, but for me there are landmarks, routines, timetables to remember, guides which will keep me safe when my day comes.

And it does. The planned diversion, the pick slipped, the man down howling on the ground, the pig’s blood from the kitchens spreading over a man’s trouser leg, the guards are distracted. I will not go far. I have a bolt hole planned, a depression covered by scrub in the worked out back of the quarry. Lay low until I am missed, night is my friend, a sailor knows his stars.

The woods at the quarry edge are dark blotches against the skyline, the village school has doused its lights, the windows in the few streets start to glow, time for me to make my move; my empty cell will have told its tale. The returning train marks the time each day, lock down time, time to account, to be missed. Soon the bell above the arch will clang out to warn the outlying farms that ‘one is away’.

There will be dogs, I hear their baying, feel their excitement run through me. The prison bloodhounds will follow the thousand interesting scents out here, if I can throw them off my tracks, I can lose them. I follow the bed of the stream back out onto the moor, the splashing sounds loudly as the moor slides into night. I must move swiftly now.

The roads and the railway line would be easy to follow, guides to towns and anonymity but they will be guarded. As soon as the bell sounds to mark an escape, I hear the engines rev. There are few cars, most belong to the prison staff.

In those houses, wives will be packing sandwiches and flasks for the warders who will spend the night out there guarding the roads off the moor. The men will be grumbling at missing their hot meal , their wives chiding children, warm houses with fires, food bubbling on the range. Doors will be locked and windows barred because I am out.

No good to dwell on this, I must follow my stars.

The baying of the dogs deepens, they’ve picked up a scent. My heart takes a turn. The gorse tugs at my legs, the wet trousers cling and my damp shoes rub; breath comes hard and my limbs are heavy. Only fifteen miles.

My stars fail me. The night clouds over and a mist rises. Now bushes become wild ponies and then bushes again, despite the dangers I must head for the road, follow its line down or be lost. The road was behind to the left of the stream but the night is full of mischief, rocks with familiar shapes appear again and again, paths lead away and peter out.

At last the tarmac of a road to follow. Sheep roll weary eyes but do not move from their stored warmth, they’ve seen it all before men who think they can get off the moor. And they call sheep silly.

The road has given me hope. I move quicker again but I must be alert for the sound of a car, the mist will slow progress, give me time to roll into the gorse. The damp air chills the bones quicker than the frost of a clear night. If I stop I cannot control the shivers, so I press on at a pace.

Then I see it, solid on the road in the mist, a Ford Prefect. The warder will be around somewhere. The windows glow with light. Through the steamed up panes I can see the shape of a child reading by the light of a torch, her long braids flopped forward. She is strangely unconcerned out here in the dark, lost in her book. Her father must be near watching the road and he will be armed. I do not blame him, he has a job to do. Ten years ago we were fighting the same enemy, I on the Atlantic and him in the trenches of Flanders. He will not miss.

I break off out onto the moor again. There are no landmarks, nothing to take bearings from. I try to remember the shape of rocks along the path but the wider paths lead into sheep runs or follow where the wild ponies have pushed tracks through the bracken. When I find the path again, the rocks look familiar, I mark them only to find I am walking in circles.

Dawn brings a cold light, no warmth. Bracken pulled together to give me rest, prickles with gorse. Weary, hungry and cold, I look for shelter and food. There will be people moving to Tavistock or Plymouth to work, I will be taken back if I walk down the road. I must wait until night. I strike out towards the smell of wood smoke, a tor looms above an old Dartmoor long house; there will be cattle, a byre, warm milk.

The sour smell of silage is replaced by the heavy, intimacy of the cows and their hazy, hay scented breath. They shift uneasy as I search for something to hold the milk. Finding an old enamel bucket in the corner of a stall, I run my sleeve around and set to on the nearest udder. The cow is confused by her second milking of the morning and shifts around, stamping close to my hard won gains. With warm milk inside me and a warm hay loft above, I can get my strength back.

The prong of the pitch fork in my thigh brings me out of a deep sleep. The old man’s talking rapidly to someone in the stalls below. As I am forced down the ladder from the hayloft, I see an old lady holding a shot gun. They spread me against the wall. Hands run down me as over the legs of ponies at the market. “Poor lad, he’s soaking. We’d better warm him up, dry him out.”

My clothes steam on the rack above the range and bread is dipped in the bacon dripping from the farmer’s breakfast. With the fire, the cosy dimness and the decency of the old folk, my guard is down. The old man is almost apologetic as his wife makes me comfortable in a bed with blankets.

I drift off with my wrists tied to the bed head and the sound of the farmer’s pony clattering on the cobbles of the yard. It will not be long. My dreams are of the sea, the ship cutting a steady course homeward, the new boy, timid, unsure of himself, the teasing, name calling, cruelty. Maybe I felt something more than I should have, I couldn’t bear it.

The warders shake me awake. The farmer’s wife has placed my dry clothes at the end of the bed. Handcuffed between the warders I make my way down the road. In the bright daylight, the village tucked around the star shape of the huge building, is clearly visible. Twenty hours out and I am only half an hour’s walk away.

I walk through the village, between two warders, keeping my head up. The wind is in the right direction and I can smell the sea. In a window seat a child sits reading. She looks up, catches my eye, then turns away.

©Liz Parkes 2016

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