The narrow road called Nook Lane that leads from Ambleside to the Lower Sweden Bridge and the start of the walk known as the Fairfield Horseshoe is an incongruently unprepossessing one given what follows.
It was from here that I set out on a mercurial day in late May 2014 to tackle this well-known route, famed for the beautiful aspect it affords of the town, the surrounding fells and Windermere beyond. Not a particularly experienced hill walker, I reasoned that the only way to become so was to try something a little tougher than my previous expeditions on the far more placid South Downs. It was only after I crossed the bridge and gained the first incline that the full scale of the challenge became clear to me.
Still, the sky was clear and the summits above – of Hart Crag, Great Rigg and Fairfield itself – looked strangely inviting to my novitiate eyes, and so I continued my ascent with the enthusiasm of one who treats his actions as if part of a significant scene being observed by others looking back over the great spectacle of his life. That is, I breathed the clean air fully into my lungs, strode with purpose and carried on my face a somewhat self-satisfied smile, all the while conscious of my illusory audience.
In all, I’d say this state of affairs lasted no more than 20 minutes. Within that time, the smile had subsided and the strain in my legs had begun to bite. Worse, I was also conscious of a distinct pain in my chest, as if my pounding heart was trying to communicate something desperately important to me. It was soon joined by my brain, which with conspiratorial malice, showed me vivid images of my silent corpse prostrate on the verdant lea, played me the conversation of the young couple who’d discovered my blackened body, and even drafted up a small notice in the local newspaper: HIKER FOUND DEAD ON HORSESHOE.
As one generally prone to a rather morbid disposition in daily life, part of the reason for my journey to the Lakes was to assuage such thinking, and so I wasn’t unaware of the irony that attended this surge of discomfort. The intention of coming here was to embrace life, not dwell upon death (but leopards and spots and all that). It occurred to me that as a place to die it wasn’t such a bad option, steeped in a certain Coleridgian kudos, it might just as easily happen in a far less romantic location than this one. Unfortunately, such reflection did little to temper the very real fear I suddenly felt, which in turn caused waves of anxiety to ripple across my body, so that I found myself unable to take another step.
In something of a panic, I turned and looked down over Ambleside and thought about heading back to rest up at the prim bed and breakfast in which I was staying. But this too seemed impossible, and so there I remained, stationary on the hillside, trying in vain to calm my irksome internal organs, that I might eventually arrive at some sort of decision about what to do.
It was then that I realised that my predicament bore at least a passing relation to the question Hamlet famously poses; or to that which Camus tackles in his great discourse on suicide and Sisyphus – which, to put crudely, is simply whether to go on or not? One of my literary heroes, F Scott Fitzgerald, takes a not disimilar line to Camus in his famous essay The Crack-Up, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was now the same age as Scotty when he wrote this much-vaunted piece.
His initial observation regarding the first-class mind – its ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time in order to ‘be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise’ – comes under some scrutiny later in the essay, but we sense the acerbic barbs he proffers are dipped as much in irony as they are in scorn. If at the end of Camus we discover Sisyphus to be happy, we equally find in The Crack-Up that Scott the dog is somewhat pissed off. Each is its own response to the absurd proposition called ‘life’ and each allows, most importantly, for a ‘going on’. The stakes for my Cumbrian version of this may not at first seem so high, but I knew in my troublesome heart and brain that they were.
For I was sure, that somewhere along the line I too had cracked. And it’s the crack that puts the true strain on the dichotomous mind and on one’s ability to hold in balance ‘the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle’. The fissure is filled with futility, while the necessity is left buried somewhere deep beneath the earth; and it is this that makes the ‘going on’ become the more difficult thing to do. But like Fitzgerald, I too could not pinpoint the exact historical juncture at which the crack had occurred, and this mystery placed its own strain upon the flourishing fracture.
My last visit to this part of the world was with Verity, who had, in her typical fashion, eschewed suitable footwear in favour of an old pair of Harold Larwood-style cricket boots. The two of us had stomped around Great Langdale and consumed our weight in beer at the Hikers’ Bar at Old Dungeon Ghyll, like some breakaway party from the Taskerson phalanx, sent on to reconnoitre for liquid sustenance. And we had made love among the hills and watched the burning stars swing by overhead and listened to the land’s great groan in the night and known the sheer inexplicability of joy.
Or there were the times spent with my grandparents, who adored the Lakes with a fervour that revealed an unspoken passion between them and the landscape, which I think trumped their public belief in the Catholic God, and made them secret Spinozans without being aware of it. Our great pleasure was to walk out by the water amid the dim hum of dusk and pick up a fish supper, of which we were all firm devotees. My grandfather would test whether the flesh flaked as it should and then proclaim his satisfaction or lack thereof, and my grandmother and I would either nod or shake our heads as appropriate before offering an opinion on the quality of the mushy peas, on which he, in turn, would pronounce judgement. And then it would be back to the hotel for their regular evening game of Bridge with Mr and Mrs Beckett from Leinster, where I would sit in absolute silence and study the inscrutable faces of the old Irish couple’s North and South and my kin’s East and West, as the game developed and the world outside dissolved in the darkening night.
Then there was my very first visit, with my father, sometime in the late Eighties – a spontaneous drive into the then entirely unrecognisable hills, a haphazard pitching of our tent in a fallow field, a clamber up a slate-stacked beck in the failing light, then down again in the dark, with Dad drinking drams of whisky from his faithful hip-flask, and an uneasy night spent cold under clear skies.
All these moments came back to my mind as I stood there, determining whether to press on to the next peak or return to Ambleside, so soon defeated. I tried to discern whether the crack had appeared at any of these times, or between them, but I just could not tell. And I tried to determine whether the crack was self-inflicted or whether it had been caused by some external force. But this too, it felt impossible to establish.
Eventually, after some time, the physical sensations described above abated and I resolved to keep going, further and further up onto the ridge. But if the original intention had been to clear a mental space, this soon became impossible as my mind raced with thoughts of mortality, of lost love, of lost family, of the loss of surety and the half-remembered resonances of the prior life that was mine, in which meaning might be applied to everything and material reality was awash with plangent reverberations.
For now, as I gazed down into the pit of the glacial valley, it was like a great distance had opened up between me and the world. It was as if something had happened, some indefinable rupture, and that this was part of, or related to, or perhaps the very cause of, the crack I felt within me. What Wordsworth plainly applies to the species, I began to consider in the spirit of nosce te ipsum – had I given my heart away, my brain? Might I ever see old Proteus rise again?
Somehow, without my realising it, I had come to look upon the world with indifferent eyes. The tear-drenched injustice felt at my grandfather’s death, had, by the time my grandmother joined him, cooled into emotional inertia. But pinning it down any more than that was impossible; and besides that was only the start of it. I was now conscious that I was more than cracked – I had become the crack – such that it felt like my very physical presence was little more than a gap in the universe, incapable of garnering an emotional response to anything within its orbit, channelling its stream of negativity in on itself, feeding itself, growing, and in perfect likeness replacing the once vibrant thing that unknowingly fathered it.
And so it was this strange creature – or anti-creature – to whom Verity had declared her love and had suffered so much for; this strange creature who had stood to deliver the eulogy at its father’s funeral; this strange creature who now slouched toward Ambleside. Its face still threw out words and responded appropriately and did all that was necessary to present a near-perfect impression of a human being to the people who played the part of family and friends, but up on the Horseshoe there was nothing and no one to acknowledge it and suddenly the world became like a great mirror and it saw itself and knew the terrible truth of what it was.
From the north-east I could see a great cloud bank forming, but whereas such a thing was ordinarily seen from below, I was instead on the same level as this monstrous coagulation, which I knew would be upon me within the hour. My sense of unease increased, but still I walked on, past High Pike and followed a collapsed stone wall up to Dove Crag as the light grew dim and threads of mist raced across the path ahead of me. I walked on because I wasn’t sure what else to do and could feel the spectre of failure at my back. I walked on into the vacuous quiet.
Where Verity was concerned I had failed in the ways that a man usually fails a woman and then some. I had singularly failed to express love in a manner that would have meaning for her. I had treated her as a thing without its own ontology and, as a consequence, a thing at my constant beck and call. Like some stellar body that has fallen into the gravitational pull of a Black Hole, she was sucked into the gap where I once existed, her luminescence snuffed out by the dull weight of my teratoid ego. I threw everything I had left at her in the hope that something would stick, but all I did was to overwhelm her with the stark emptiness of what passed for my soul.
For the cracked man cannot love anything but the dim memory of himself, which stalks the mind’s bare escarpments like some phantom and says of woman, says of affection, says of intimacy that they are impossible and must be abnegated at all costs.
And when it came to the old man – well, we were like a two-piece dinner set dropped from the top of Blackpool Tower. By the end, ours was a relationship of cold observance; a still and frigid space in which the one waited the other out, and where I had the advantage (if that’s what it was) of youth on my side and a marginally healthier liver. I wrote his eulogy to prove to myself that I could still feel, but it only reinforced the dismal truth that I could not. My failure as a son was complete and the only solace I might find was in the fact that I wasn’t entirely to blame.
As I climbed higher the cloud finally rolled in over the ridge and I found myself enveloped in its thick pall. The noisy skylarks that had accompanied me further down the hill were gone. There was only rock underfoot now and after a few more minutes I found myself on the bouldered plateau of Hart Crag. I stumbled on but soon realised that I was hopelessly lost and had no idea of the correct route to take, so I did what every Englishman would do in the circumstances and sat down, drew the flask from my bag and poured a cup of tea.
In the strange and empty stillness at the top of the mountain I finally understood the crux of the thing: that I had indeed failed at all the important things in life; that I had in fact failed at the very business of life. Somewhere in the distant past my youthful arrogance had been knocked out of me, the ‘desire for personal dominance’ had deserted me, as it had Fitzgerald. The possibility of becoming a new Zarathustra was no more. I’d relinquished the will to impose myself on the world and shape it in the way I wanted; I was now the thing acted upon instead of the thing acting upon. I would close my eyes and timidly await the end.
And so this was how I had lived, like a dusky mouse in a Tube station, scuttling about beneath the belly of a far larger beast than I, the thing we call ‘existence’ with all its quotidian madness and the abstractions we apply to its rough skin, which somehow keep us in check but also in the troublesome business of hope. On occasion I would poke my head out, perhaps even try and latch on to a speeding carriage, which would take me so far – in a job, a relationship, a creative endeavour – before my grasp weakened and I fell back down into the gloom. For at each of these things I failed; I failed to denude myself of life’s absurdity; and I failed to resolve the great fear that I kept within my heart, the nameless dread that followed me about, from high to low, valley to summit, that strange pathology of the brain which speaks with the voice of Death.
This was the way of it. And so by the time I met Verity, by the time my grandmother died, by the time of my father’s decline I was already lost to them all… and to myself. I failed each of them in turn, drained of my prior capacity for feeling the sweet sting of life. In retrospect I might look to see if I can find a kernel of liberation in all of this, but there is none of it. It is more like an imprisonment in the lacuna of one’s own making. The sentence is indeterminate. The self devolves into the anti-self and watches impassively as the Earth grinds on around the Sun, like a clock to which no one pays any attention – no appointments to be kept, no anniversaries to celebrate, nothing to be done.
I looked about me but it was impossible to see anything. I was alone and perhaps as far away from the human world as I had ever been; nothing but cloud and rock and a now pressing decision, which at this height had shed its hypothetical mien and begged resolution. Carrying on up toward Fairfield seemed reckless and yet that was what I had come here for, not to turn back and affirm all the failures of which I’ve spoken. What did it matter if my earlier fears came to pass, and the local newspaper got its story? The young couple would go on to build their life together and I would become a poignant dinner-party anecdote for them to tell. In the villages, people might murmur something about me in pubs, until they stopped doing so, which wouldn’t take long. More importantly, the crack would have closed, the gap would have disappeared… at least I hoped so.
And then in an instant of non-thought, I made my decision; the only one I could have realistically made in the circumstances. I got to my feet, broke out the Kendal Mint Cake and started back the way I had come, like Sisyphus heading off to reclaim his boulder.
After an hour or so I emerged from the cloud, and soon the skylarks returned to accompany my descent. What danger there was had passed and my heart still kept about its business. I would add the Fairfield Horseshoe to my list of failures and return, crack and all, to the flatlands of civility.
And on the way down, as I glanced around at what now seemed like a great valley of ashes beneath me, I caught sight of a future world in which all that remained of what was once called my life was a sonorous echo, these few words of self-pity and self-immolation.