Interior of tree in Dorset

To Be Alone

Short story by Camilla Reeve

Back to main stories page

To be in the hills alone all winter requires that a man knows himself well, or that he is a fool. Joshua was neither of these things. Joshua had everything to learn. But, on that first morning, when he stepped out of the westbound train at its terminus, it would have taken a ruder person than me to tell him so. What I didn’t know, and really there was no way any of us could have known, was that Joshua wasn’t alone, not really. He didn’t feel alone. He was, I can say it quietly to you now, a haunted man. Now that’s an easy expression to let slip, and easy enough to misinterpret. I don’t mean that he was a fugitive from the scene of a dreadful crime or some such. But if being haunted means that you carry someone else’s soul around in your luggage, then Joshua was the hauntedest man I ever met.

Luggage - well there wasn’t a lot of that. His case had the smallest dry patch under it of all the pieces of baggage on that drizzly platform. And besides the case, he carried no more than a little haversack, newish, not one which had seen service on long walks or camping trips. As Station Master, it is my privilege to be the first to meet all the travellers who arrive by train. We don’t get many new faces in Loch Ary. Most of the folk who come are sheep dealers or are visiting family. And I’ll have been told they are due ahead of the train’s arrival. Some of the farms offer rooms in the summer to holiday makers but this is no place for relaxation after September. The wind cuts down the northern glen with bared teeth, and you need a thick sheepskin jacket at your back two days out of three.

Joshua felt the wind, I could tell. There wasn’t much that was obvious about him, but his sudden hunched shoulders and averted face when a gust caught him were clear enough. I made my way the few yards from my little office to where he stood. Normally anyone who wants a lift will not be backwards in asking for it, with a loud shout even, if I’m off tending my stretch of garden by the track. But he just stood there, patient, cold and a touch forlorn, until I offered him help. Not a man to ask for anything which might be refused him. Not someone who would beg. Or so I told myself that first day.

He had rented a little cottage near to Fordenbridge, a ways from the station though it hadn’t looked too far to walk on the map he’d bought in the city. None of those maps show all the hills and turnings that a walker must cross before he reaches his end. It was no trouble to me to take him and his two bags to the cottage. I knew there were no more trains to see to until that same one left in the afternoon. We stopped in Fordenbridge village for a few minutes to buy matches, bread and tea which he thought he might need. I could have suggested a whole lot of things he was like to want before the day was out, but I held my tongue.

Apart from his name - Joshua Lloyd - which was written on the label of the larger bag, I knew precious little about him, and that was the way he seemed to prefer it. He asked what I was owed for the lift and I mentioned a small sum which he promptly paid. Then he got out and let himself into the cottage without more than a wave in goodbye. But I assumed I’d be seeing him again soon at the pub or in the Post Office when he might be more ready to talk. Somehow, I had become most curious about Joshua. And short of asking him outright, I was as determined as I could be to discover where he came from and why.

It rained most of that week and I saw nothing of him. Maybe he wasn’t a man for the pub, and my work was keeping me too busy to run into him while shopping or posting a letter. I was renovating the station. It gets a bit weather-beaten during the Autumn so I do the inside rooms then, and the outside once the Spring arrives. And I planted my bulbs. Looking forward to the coming of flowers has always taken the place of a growing family for me. Besides my sister Glenda, there is no one I would call kin, though I have many friends in the village.

On the Saturday afternoon I was at the Post Office to send my weekly letter to my sister. Her life and mine couldn’t be more different but we keep in touch. She likes to hear all the village talk, gossip she calls it. I like her opinions of the books she reads and the films she goes to. Mrs. McEvoy, the Post Mistress, was obviously bursting to tell me something, so I waited till the other people she was serving had been dealt with. “Yon man at the rented cottage, Mr. J. Lloyd I fancy he calls himself, he’s like you. He’s a one for watching the birds now. I had him in here asking for a bird book only this morning and worrying me to know which were the best spots to look for the birds round here.” She paused triumphantly, “so of course I told him our own Station Master knows all about bird life. He watches them in the summer and can tell you where to go to see the best sights.”

After this, I half expected to see Joshua wander in one day but he did not. The man was not to be seen, not by me at all events. Harder to spot than a curlew on a dull day. And just as fascinating. He continued to stay out of sight so after another week I made a point of passing his cottage as he was coming out to get the papers. I got a cool level glance in exchange for my ‘Good Morning’ but he didn’t turn away immediately.

“I hear you are interested in bird watching,” I ventured.

“That is true, you must have been speaking with the lady at the Post Office?”

“Perhaps I could show you where I go when I’m out on my walks - there are several good places in the glen and along the loch?”

He paused, head slightly on one side like a wag tail, and I spoke quickly but with reserve of my favourite walks. When I’d finished he volunteered the remark that birds were fond of all wet places. He had been to reservoirs along the Thames with his daughter. Wild open lakes where the population was almost entirely water birds; terns, shag and black-headed gull for the most part. And secret, wooded pools, over grown with every kind of fruiting tree, where only a knowledgeable person could spot the little seed-eating finches and the tree creepers as they darted about their kingdom.

I said we sometimes had artists up in the hills to make sketches of the birds. They would sell the best of them at the Post Office. I’d bought a couple myself.

His face grew chill and shut. As if the sun had gone behind a cloud he wished me good day and went back inside the cottage.

A few days later, I had just about finished painting the waiting room and was over at the Doctor’s house, borrowing some turpentine from his housekeeper to clean the brushes. To my surprise, the Doctor left his patients for a few minutes to speak with me. “Your new friend Mr. Lloyd’s none too well the day?”

“I’m sorry indeed to hear that, what’s the matter with him? And why do you call him my friend? I hardly know the man.”

“Well, he’s picked up a bad attack of bronchitis wandering about the hills on a wet day - seems he was out on a walk you suggested and managed to miss his way?”

I felt concerned, responsible even, so I decided to go round and see him. He stood at the door, in answer to my knock, and I could see he was unwell.

But he was no more welcoming than before. “What can I do for you?” he enquired in his best South of England manner.

“I came to see how you were. The Doctor tells me you became lost on the hill. It can be very confusing. At the bottom of the mountain, it is easy to see the top. But from the top, it is a hard job to know your right road back to where you came from.”

“I shall be just fine, thank you. And next time I go walking, I’ll take a proper map, so you’ve no need to suggest any more local routes.”

I was at a loss when he had finished speaking. Clearly he was angry, with the weak, unstable anger of a sick man. But he was also desperate to be left alone. If he hadn’t been an adult, I think he’d have run back into the cottage and slammed the door in my face. As it was, politeness made me the one to smile and turn away as if I had errands that took me elsewhere and wouldn’t wait. Surly Joshua might be, but he obviously needed looking after so I suggested to the Doctor that he might get the district nurse, Katy McAllister, to pay a visit. She has a gentle warmth about her that’s a great help in her work. I believe she spent several hours there over the next few days. Joshua ran quite a fever and medicine had to be fetched from the town to cure an infection in one of his lungs.

Katy and I were having tea the next weekend. She had baked some scones and I was feeling hungry just looking at them. We talked a bit about her calls that week, including the time she’d spent caring for Joshua. She liked the man. “He called me Kit. No one’s done that since Jack died.” Her tears were beautiful. They flowed freely. I thought to myself, not for the first time, how much I would like to be have been married to a woman who’d mourn me as openly as Katy mourned for Jack. You could see through her grief as easily as through a pane of true glass and what I saw were memories of a good life, fully spent, nothing she need hide from herself. “He spoke of you, Thom, said he might have been a bit brusque and would you care to drop in when you’re passing so he can thank you for your concern?”

I hesitated about it for a while, but in the end curiosity overcame my shyness and I went back to see him. It had become a familiar task to negotiate the tricky latch on the gate and push past the over-grown bushes to the front door. I disremember those bushes when they weren’t soaking wet. I was fending them off and brushing the stray drops from my clothes when he came to the door. Looking like a ghost. “You should be in bed. Why didn’t I think to come in without knocking?”

“I’d be pleased if you’d continue to knock, Mr. Jones?”

He had discovered my name which pleased me.

“I’m not used to finding strangers in my house. We all knock where I come from.” I noticed a look of surprise and regret on his face as if he were listening to another man speaking.

Remembering that he must be feeling weak I moved forward which had the effect in that tiny room of forcing him gently into a large over-stuffed chair by the chimney-breast. He motioned for me to sit down opposite him and I could see him quietly gathering his strength for a little speech. The illness had sapped what must have been a very wiry and energetic man at other times. There was a film over his blue eyes and his hair looked dull and rumpled. Even his clothes looked out of sorts. But was it only the illness? When one is carrying a hidden problem, infection can take an unexpectedly high toll.

Swallowing carefully, he began, “I must apologise to you for the other day - I may have been rather short with you?”

“Nothing that a drink and a chat won’t mend,” I suggested, aware I was presuming on his hospitality but sensing he was ready to talk to someone.

So he poured me a glass of whisky and one for himself. There we sat and spoke politely about the birds he had seen before he got lost, and how mild the weather had been this Autumn. There was more to say but he didn’t seem to know where to begin. “I’m a family man, Mr. Jones, how about you?” he asked.

I told him to call me Thom like everyone else did, and then I spoke of my sister and asked if he had brought any photographs of his family with him. At this, he reached for his jacket which was hanging over the chair-back. From an inner pocket he pulled a colour photo, one of those large studio ones, and passed it to me. “My daughter Kit, lovely girl, she takes after her mother, I always say.”

The girl in the picture was tall, with sandy, shoulder-length hair and striking green eyes. They looked slightly out of focus as if the photographer’s flash bulb had caught her by surprise. She wore black jeans and a bright pink blouse, with a low cut V neck. There was a challenging look to her smile which I found a bit surprising. But there was no denying her good looks and I commented on them as I passed the picture back to her father.

He put it away carefully in its hiding-place and poured himself some more whisky. “She didn’t come with me in this trip. I needed to be alone, you know, had some work to do? But I think of her a lot.”

“What work do you do?” I asked, for there was nothing in the room which suggested that a laptop or books had been brought with him.

“Oh, I’m an adviser to a big Corporation. That sort of thing. Very satisfying but rather dull. Or so my daughter tells me. She thinks she’s an artist. At least she walks about in an artist’s smock half the time, but I don’t see many pictures to show for it.”

I found his petulant tone at complete odds with the man who’d spoken so appreciatively of his trips to the reservoir. Who was he talking to, me or himself? Sensing it was time to leave, I stood up and he made no move to stop me. When I looked back from the doorway, he sat on there by the hearth, lost in thought.

The next week the weather set in hard. By Friday evening, the wind was growing stronger by the hour, bringing with it the promise of frost or snow. I lay awake, thinking about the village and the people in it - like a crowd of penguins I had seen on the television - all in a huddle they were. Each bird took turns to stand around the outside of the huddle giving the ones in the centre his warmth. Confident, it seemed, that when he was in need they would be on the outside for him. Or was it love for the other birds, a feeling for them as individuals or as a group that made the penguins behave like that? The cold, that’s a kind of slow death when it gets into your bones. We’d had one death from cold last winter - an old shepherd whose cottage had been a mass of draughts. It had shaken us that no one had noticed, but his place was a mile or so from the centre of Fordenbridge along a little track. If there was no post he might go for days without seeing anyone. And William had seemed to like the solitary life. Who were we to stop him from a quiet uncomplicated death? Just because it hurt our sense of community that he should have died without a soul nearby. After all, he’d missed out on a long and possibly useless trip to the town hospital where his passing would have been equally lonely but in less familiar surroundings?

Somehow I wasn’t getting to sleep. There was something about cold and death and being alone. It was tugging at the corner of my attention like a chill breeze. I had it suddenly - Joshua in that rented place. When I’d been there last, it had been coming on to rain. The low cloud over the hills had made it unusually warm for November but I’d noticed a draught of air interfering with the pull of the fire up the chimney. What if he were cold and needed help? Not likely to call for it, I guessed. Dragging on my warmest plaid trousers and two jumpers I grabbed a few things and a torch as I went for my little car. Luckily it started at once. In no time I was outside Joshua’s cottage, in the dark, feeling every kind of a fool to be bothering him. The light was still on which made me feel a mite less foolish but I was no braver than a late-coming schoolboy when he pulled open the door and scowled at me through three days growth of beard.

“Thought you might be cold - weather forecast was promising snow - you’ve been ill?” I was talking too fast but he didn’t seem to mind or to notice. He wasn’t in a state to notice anything and I imagined the empty whisky bottle in his fist had something to do with that. Again I found myself forcing my way into his little place. Rented it might be but there was that indefinable air of it being Joshua’s castle. “What have you been doing to yourself? This is no way to get better from a dose of ’flu or bronchitis, whatever it was?” I moved around quickly as I spoke; shutting the window, which had been ajar, and throwing more wood on the fire. The room had become damp and cold. Not the clean damp of walking the loch side on a spring day, but something a lot chillier and more menacing to a recently sick man. He was watching me now, all his attention engaged in trying to make sense out of what I was saying. He’d obviously been sitting in the half dark and drinking for some hours. Hours spent like that can seem too long. Any hours you spend alone without wanting to be are long ones.

Settling myself down in the same chair I’d occupied the previous week, I studied him. Not good. Still the air of strain, the faint blurring of his features and a feeling I couldn’t escape that it wasn’t Joshua I was looking at. How I should know what a man had been like before I met him I cannot explain. But he was definitely not himself. Some of that could be set right by creature comforts. I put the kettle on and sorted out some light things to eat. He’d been to the Post Office often enough, since that first day, and Mrs. McEvoy had managed to sell him several items that had been on her shelves for a year or more. The biscuits looked the most edible, and with them a couple of thin slices of packet cheddar. As I worked I talked. Memories mostly. Things the village, for all that I cared for it, would have been amazed to learn. There’d been a girl some years back, in a nearby market town. She didn’t want the country life and I was too old to change. After a while she married a boy with a job in the supermarket. But I still recall our first cup of tea together. How her eyes shone. All the dreams we spun together. How perfectly the tiny river had reflected each rush, every feather in the mallards’ tails. And my time in the war. Nothing glorious. I had been in charge of the parcels office at Aberdeen Station. But we had stood fire duty on the roof of the station and I’d seen a friend killed beside me during an air raid. Such things make a man. Or break him. I wanted very badly to know what had formed the man who sat silently before me tonight. What loves, what losses was he running from ?

We drank our tea, the room began warming up and he shivered as his body adjusted to it. The shiver seemed to loosen his tongue and Joshua started to talk. Not the curt, dry, angry voice of our last meeting. Nor the cool, impersonal tones of his arrival at Loch Ary. This was indeed a new side to him. “You’ve heard me speak of my daughter, of Kit?”

I nodded.

“She would have been twenty-three this Christmas.” He stopped for a moment and drew a deep breath, gentle now but not yet at his ease. “We shared a house in London, you know? Her bedroom and kitchen were upstairs. I had the downstairs bit, like they were flats but not quite separate. Kit had been ill for a long while, since before her mother died, but it crept up slowly so none of us were aware of it for a year or more. She had something strange about her. The specialist called it schizophrenia? There were pills she had to take every day. I don’t know what else the doctors might have done. She didn’t want to be put in an institution. Anyway, that might not have helped. Some days she would forget the pills, or perhaps she preferred not to take them, not to be safe. Those days she would frighten me. So beautiful, like her mother had been when we met. And so. . . it was like she wanted me to kiss her. I’d go out, walk about and buy some cigarettes. An hour or so later, she’d be herself again - quiet and sad. Not so beautiful.

“We both knew it wasn’t working. I had my job in London and wouldn’t have the chance to retire for a few more years. She’d finished at Art School and felt very much at a loose end. Being ill with schizophrenia isn’t a full time occupation. You need something to fill your time or the pills will eventually destroy you. So we’d been talking about going to the provinces, a little town where she could garden, perhaps help in a shop? Where the hills and rivers wouldn’t be so remote. She loved nature. I used to say to her. ‘You’re good at art. Why not paint what you see around you?’ But she just shook her head. The quiet sad Kit was sure she didn’t have any talent. The noisy Kit was too bright and fidgety to settle to anything like painting for very long. Only a few pictures got finished in the last two years.”

I poured us both some more tea. The whisky and the silence was behind Joshua now. It seemed he couldn’t talk fast enough. "I told you we’d been talking about a move? But the money wasn’t going to be there. I asked my boss about a transfer up north. Not many people wanted to go up there so there seemed to be a chance, but transfers take ages to arrange. All of a sudden, there didn’t seem to be any time left. Kit started wanting to be alone. She would pick a quarrel if she found me on the stairs. Was I spying on her? Didn’t I have friends to see, a busy life to lead? The weekends were worst. I used to wait till I heard her record player start - something classical like Greig. Then I reckoned there’d be no more rows that night. One day, she actually ran out into the street in her dressing gown, shouting. It was a lovely dressing gown, silky and brightly coloured, like all the clothes I bought her. But still, people might have noticed. I tried to calm her down, get her back indoors. It started raining. Kit began to cry. It was. . . I was. . . I felt so helpless.”

I leaned forward in my chair. The room was small enough for me to lay a hand on his sleeve with no effort. We sat in complete quiet for maybe ten minutes. Then he started talking again and I relaxed back into the shadows.

“When you love someone, like I loved Kit, you feel involved. I couldn’t walk away, saying ’This isn’t my problem. The State can take care of her.’ But I knew I was getting out of my depth. We were both drowning, lost in the mixed-up world she lived in. About a week after she’d gone out in her dressing-gown, she locked herself in her room. I waited for two days. It was terrifying but I didn’t want to call the doctor. What might he have done? We couldn’t cope with the rest of the world by then. Coming up for air would have poisoned what was left between us. I remember pleading with her through the locked door. ‘Have a coffee, let me pass you some cigarettes. I’ll do anything, just open the damn door and let me see your face.’ At one point, when she’d said nothing for several hours I began beating on the door with my fists. It did no good. She started to weep. I couldn’t catch most of the words but the feeling in them was breaking my heart.

“I must have gone to sleep. I dreamed she was playing a record, not one of my favourites. Many times we’d rowed about the pop music she played - too loud, it would disturb the neighbours. But there - she was young. I woke up and sure enough the music was playing, not the record I had dreamed about, something quieter, more harmonious. Feeling relieved, I got up and went downstairs. We would be alright now. Life could get back to normal. I waited for her the next day, and that night but there was never a sound. Juliet on her tomb couldn’t have been quieter. In the end I went for a neighbour and we broke down the door. She’d taken an overdose of aspirin and was quite dead. No more rows. No more scenes. No more bright T shirts and loud music. All gone.”

Joshua sat there, staring into the remains of the fire, breathing heavily as if he had been running up a very long hill. After a little wait to see if he had any more to say, I scooped him up and half carried, half dragged him over to his bed. The night was almost gone and I thought he should sleep. But he looked up at me from the pillow with desperation in his face. “Thom, I let her down, didn’t I? If I’d been stronger or more of a father . . . I can’t rid myself of her face, of both her faces. I knew them as well as my own, but did I know Kit? Who was the person behind the two faces? Where was she? They are both still with me and nowhere can I find rest or freedom from them.” His voice tailed off suddenly and I let him settle back on the pillow. I found myself a cushion and went to sleep on the floor near the bed.

The light woke me, maybe eight or so the following day. A very bright light that you get in the hills sometimes in winter. Frost had laid patterns all over the window beside where Joshua lay. There wasn’t a sound anywhere, neither the river at the road’s end, nor the singing of small birds. Just my breathing and his in the silence. I must have made some noise, coughed maybe or shifted on the floor. He stirred and I found I was holding my breath, not knowing what was to come. Would he mind having revealed so much to a comparative stranger? I didn’t think he should be left too much alone just yet, but I was ready to leave and get Katy or someone else if my being there was a problem for him.

He didn’t look at me right away. His attention was on the window and the patterns of the frost. He traced them slowly with his index finger, then put it between his lips to warm it again. “Stars and flowers, that’s what they’re like. Stars and flowers. Kit used to love the frost. She did a picture of snowflakes last year, with the same patterns in it, the same bright yet peaceful colours.” At last he looked at me and I let my breath out with a small sigh. His eyes were clear. They were the eyes of the man I had never met before, the original Joshua. “You know, I’m remembering her and it doesn’t hurt so much, not like it did? I can say her name, Kit, and see one girl in my mind, not two. Oh, Thom!” And he sat there, looking like a man just out of prison.

A while later I made us both some breakfast. We were ravenous and silent as we ate our way though a strange assortment of bacon, toast, fruit and cheese. When we’d finished and I was pouring the last drop of coffee into his mug he stopped me, laid a hand on my sleeve in an echo of the gesture I’d made the night before. “You’ve been good to me, Thom. A great help. But some of this I must deal with by myself. Before you go, tell me what to do?”

I cleared my throat. For all my curiosity and sympathy for the man, I was at a loss to know how he could move on from where he was now. “Look Joshua,” I began hesitantly, “last night was like being born. Now you’ve got to learn to be alone, away from Kit. One day, you’ll even like to be alone. Not all the time. But in between being with the rest of the world. Look forward to that. It’s a great moment.” I left it there.

He would stay a while in Loch Ary. And then he would go, back to his job and his London acquaintances. I knew that, and as the days passed, so did he. But a few months later, I got a card from my friend. ‘Gone to Greece. On my own. You were right. Joshua.’

Back to Top