He paused for a moment to examine the thicket and recover his breath. Several long, tangled muscular strands of brambles stretched in front of him, one at eye level, another lower from which a thorn even now snagged on his thigh, just below his shorts…shorts! Beyond that, a dense, spiky bush, was it hawthorn? Then a steep bank, heavily populated with nettles, leading down to a ditch, filled with black water of unknown depth. The other side of the ditch, another steep slope, thick with bushes, mature enough to draw blood when they touched him, too spindly to use to pull himself up. And beyond that, the relative sanctuary of the A34 dual carriageway.
Going further forward was impossible. He turned his head to consider retreat, and felt something scratch his neck. The blood trickling down his legs argued against trying to retrace his steps.
It had started pleasantly enough: he had been happy to drive his daughter over to her friend‘s house for a socially distanced visit. It was a fair day in June, and he left them catching up in the garden, and promised to return after a couple of hours exploring the Oxfordshire countryside. The walk had started along a clear, broad track, and he had stepped out confidently, enjoying his new navigation app. It was very accurate. He crossed a bridge over the A34 and headed on across fields to another busy road. His phone told him to turn left and follow the pavement along another main road. After a while he would come to a path across fields, heading back towards where he had come from.
When he reached the point where the path was supposed to be, there was a rotted old post with an empty slot where a sign had been, and the ruins of a stile, topped with barbed wire. He could see no footpath, just a rough uneven field. He tried walking past it, but the arrow on his phone pointed him back. This was definitely the route, so he pitched himself over and moved unsteadily across the lumpy, nettle-strewn field, hoping the path would soon reveal itself.
With relief he saw that the next field was easier going, and he swung his legs over a low stretch of fence and continued following the red arrow in his palm. Then he realised why the grass was so short: it had been grazed by a large herd of cattle, visible at the far end of the field. He strode on, thinking little of it, until he noticed that the cows seemed agitated, and were all running along the far side of the field. Probably the footpath was so rarely used that walkers made them anxious. He started to wonder if his choice of a bright red shirt had been wise.
The cows veered towards the middle of the field, and some began to approach him, shielding their calves. One then ran straight towards him in a challenge. He thought: don’t run, don’t make eye contact, ignore them and keep walking briskly to the end of the field. The cow got within ten feet before peeling off. He started sweating: people die this way. He remembered that a friend of a friend had been trampled by cows, and how the unsinkable comedy of his death had coloured the solemnity of the funeral. He thought: I’m going to die, and it will be a big joke.
Another cow pulled away from the herd and charged towards him, hooves thudding, getting even closer before turning away. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. He quickened his pace further, keeping his eyes on a battered stile at the field corner. As he retreated, the cows at last lost interest, and he was able to make the final fifty yards to the stile without further incident. Once out of the field, he closed his eyes and stopped to regain his breath. Jesus, that was scary.
There was still no trace of a path, so he kept aiming for where it should have been. He could see only a thick hedge ahead, but racing adrenaline told him there must be a way through. And indeed, there did seem to be a slight thinning of the vegetation, and he headed into it with determination, barely hesitating as the bramble and bushes grew denser. He soon regretted this confidence, as he looked around with no idea how he could move forward or back. Retracing his steps, even if he could get back through the hedge, would mean running the gauntlet of those cattle again, and he was not doing that.
He stared at the water in the ditch. How deep was it? Would it go up to his ankles or his knees? Perhaps if he found something to grasp, he could momentarily plant a foot in the ditch and haul himself up the other side. But the bushes on the opposite bank looked at once scrawny and menacing. He wished he had thick gloves, and a stout stick to thrash at the brambles to test the depth of the water. Meanwhile the traffic thundered past close by, mockingly reminding him how close he was to civilisation – at least, the A34’s approximation to it.
As he paused, the sun emerged from behind a cloud, and a trickle of sweat ran down his face. He cursed the Ordnance Survey and picked a couple of small thorns from his arms. Maybe if he lifted his foot high enough he could trample down one of the strands of bramble. But his left foot was not on firm ground, and kept sliding down the slope whenever he tried to raise his right foot. He imagined how absurd he must look, trapped in this spiky cage he had freely entered. He pictured calling the fire brigade or being airlifted out by a helicopter.
He realised he had no idea what to do next, and had to fight back tears of anger and frustration. Despair was setting in. No, that wouldn’t do. Forward. He managed to trample down the most obstructive piece of bramble. He leaned forward gingerly to test the stem of one of the bushes across the ditch, but the thorns were too close to allow any grip. After trying a few more, he found a weedy specimen, right at the limit of his reach as he leant over, which did at least have space for his hand. It was his only shot.
He paused to compose himself, planning where to plant one foot in the dark water of the ditch, and the other on a clear spot on the opposite bank. He would need to be bold to get the speed to climb up the other side. He would have to push his bare legs, arms and face through the spiky vegetation. He waited another moment, then took a deep breath, intoned “Come on!” and launched himself across the ditch.
Both feet landed where he had planned, but as he tried to haul himself up the bank his rear foot stuck briefly in the soft mud of the ditch, and he lost momentum. He tried to support himself using the feeble plant he was grasping, but it wasn’t up to the task, and he slid back into the ditch among a tangle of prickles. He waved his arms and legs frantically, trying to right himself, once more somehow had time to recognise how comical he must look. He heard something heavy splash into the water.
He finally righted himself, standing in the black water halfway up his shins, feeling its foulness between his toes. He patted his front pocket. Yes, that was his phone. For god’s sake, why had he put it there? He bent over and half-heartedly fished around, but found only mud and more prickles. It would be ruined anyway. There goes my fire brigade, my helicopter.
He imagined his daughter enjoying her friend’s company, oblivious to the time. How long would it be before he was missed? He wished he had told her where he was going. Twelve feet away the traffic still roared past, another world.