The path leading to the summit cut deep into the chalk sides. A collage of horses’ hooves, made during the wet days of spring, had been set firm by the drying rays of sun. We walked between wheel ruts, our heads level with the banks at either edge. Flowers flourished where the green turf allowed. Daises, forget-me-nots, celandines, and campions. The heat deepened as we climbed. A solitary crow flew high overhead, his shadow gliding over the grassy slope. You tried to hold my hand as we walked, but the two ruts were too far apart to do so comfortably, and my palm soon grew damp, so we parted and walked alone. Halfway up we paused for breath by a gate and sought shade beneath a large twisted hawthorn. My dress was damp and my hair clung limply to my face. I tried to think of something to say but couldn’t. Instead I gazed over the gate and into the field where a herd of sheep were resting quietly beneath the lee of a hedge. They had been shorn and their sculpted sides moved quickly in and out. They chewed steadily, watching us with curiosity. You remained quiet and we both leaned over the gate, sharing the view of the plateau that stretched away below.
‘I think the thoughts might be returning,’ I said at last. ‘I’ve felt them, gnawing at the edges of my mind.’ I sighed.
You placed your arm around my shoulders and leant your head on mine. I felt something flow from you, like electricity, something so charged with emotion, so vitally alive, that it seemed to bring me back from the greyness and numbness. We stood and watched the sheep by the hedge, the ground was worn to smooth dust by their continual presence, and beyond, in the full glare of the sun the grass was scorched to brown. The sweet scent of the animals’ breaths flowed past, mixed with the sourness of droppings and the heated lanolin of their wool. Some were standing, their heads low, back legs occasionally stamping against the flies. They breathed heavily, noisily. Up here everything was closer to the sun. We leant on the gate. The worm-eaten top bar was warm where the sun had been on it, less than an hour before.
‘Let us keep going,’ I said, running a finger along the gently undulating wooden surface. It had been home to countless larvae and tiny burrowing mites. Within the dark recesses of its upper reaches hung a chrysalis, a slim brown cylinder, wrapped upon itself like a folded ear of wheat. A slight breeze rustled amongst the leaves of the hawthorn and the chrysalis swung delicately. You reached across and plucked it from its mooring.
‘Will that not be the end of the poor thing?’ I wondered.
You shook your head and lay it on your open palm. ‘It is already gone.’
I looked closer. A tiny hole, no larger than a pinprick, showed the passage of a miner that had long since burrowed through the crisp folds and devoured the occupant. I imagined a poor caterpillar, secretly and treacherously consumed under the cover of its own protection.
‘Vanessa atalanta – the Red Admiral. There are plenty of them about – don’t look so mortified!’ You laughed and held out your palm to the breeze which took the empty husk and carried it into the long grass. ‘Come on,’ you held out your hand, ‘let’s go to the top.’
(from ‘Violet and Crimson’, my unpublished novel)