The morning rain was magnificent: it was merciless, it was sublime. A huge and beautiful cloud had darkened the skies some two hours before, and now was emptying itself, crying and weeping in grief on the Earth. The rain fell so hard it hurt to stand in it; falling like iron bars and bouncing off the roads. It hammered the roof of the car and the windscreen wipers couldn’t clear the screen. There was so much water that it started to pour down gullies on the fells, run through the dry stone walls, collect in fast-running streams across the roads and seep into the becks, which filled and began to flood their banks. The huge fast-moving rush was incredible and terrifying to watch: it was as if fate and time, and the inevitability of death of some unknown doom was present in liquid form; and the noise of it, the hammering of the rain, the surging crash of waves as the water raced to fill the lakes was like music. The lakes, tranquil under their rain-pocked surface, collected these waters calmly; reservoirs of memory where the new icy waters undercut the silt, confessed and mingled, confused with their dark constant depths and the things which lived their lives within their vast volumes.
The beasts in the field huddled together and just took it. The oily wool of sheep acted like raincoats; the cattle and the horses were simply soaked, and the birds, there was silence as they hid in the trees which collected the water, letting it drop to the ground in huge globules from their leaves. Somehow, by the afternoon, the skies began to clear and the sun shone over the sodden fields; farmers drove out to check their animals; the gullies on the fells still raced with water, the becks were still heaving and the roads flooded, but the birds had started to sing again.
As I listened to their song another wet day came back to me, in another car, in another time. I only knew two lads who had cars back then, most of us had motorbikes. I remember cresting the hill behind Billy’s souped-up Ford Cortina, racing alongside flat out on my Triumph 500 down the slope leading into Staveley, and him looking across at me and pointing at the speedo; I looked at mine, we were side by side doing the magic ton. The other lad, Milky, had a tuned Cortina as well. We used to have free milk at school when I was a kid, to make sure the children from poorer families had some goodness inside them and to feed the rest of us up after the austerity of the war years. Milky would drink as much as he could get, and was able to drink it without swallowing, he just seemed to be able to pour it down his throat. Both lads were very popular with the girls who would ask them to give them lifts to dances, not that they minded – it was the main reason they had worked and saved up so hard.
Then there was Simon, who was small with hardly an ounce of flesh on his bones, but what flesh there was was wiry and strong. He and Milky were best mates. Milky was a huge lad built like the proverbial brick shithouse and tall with it. Someone once tried to sell him a Mini, and he said he couldn’t get his penis in a car that size never mind his body. It was true, even his Cortina looked like a toy with him standing beside it. Simon was a keen fell runner, a classic fell-running type, and he was always at the front and usually a winner. Fell running or the guides races as they are called, started when the poets discovered the Lake District and the Sublime. What was once seen as a bleak barren place, good for nothing except mining and scraping a living rearing sheep, became a place of beauty, and the rich who moved there to admire it needed guides, and the races started so the guides could prove their worth, their stamina, their skill on the rough terrain. Once there was good money in taking the rich through the fells, but those days were long gone and the races were now a local sport. There was a name to be made. I used to run in them and so did Simon; the difference being that I was not good at it and he was. I had trained, I had bought spiked shoes and my mother made me a pair of extra-short shorts, the idea being that I’d have more freedom of movement for my legs. All I got out of them was embarrassment. One day I brought my fell-running shorts to school by mistake instead of the normal ones and wondered why the girls were pointing at me and hiding their faces laughing whereas normally they would ignore me; a quick glance at my crotch revealed everything I had was on full show. I tried to cover myself but it was too late, and that was the end of fell running and the short shorts from my point of view…
Simon carried on running and he was good despite his stature, not as good as the eldest Bland lad who was running in the men’s guides now. Bland was usually on his way down before the second man had reached the top. He was even better at coming down than he was at going up. Often he was at the finishing line with a whole field empty behind him. The strange thing was that as he got fitter and fitter, whippet thin, his mother was getting bigger and bigger. She had contracted elephantiasis, which in the end made her hide away in their house, so she became a sort of myth. As a child everything is magical; even as a youth that sense of magic lingers on, the size of things, the way things change. She had become a giant and her son was possessed of incredible powers, and the more she hid away the more magical she became. People talked about her and tried to imagine her, and talked about her son and his great skill. I had run those same fells, so I knew how hard they were, but he ran them as if wings guided his feet. As I became a man I still could not understand it: there were people who could do things, who were magical. He trained hard as did the eldest Bland lad, but it was more than training, he had some special skill; he became a sort of legend.
Milky became a kind of legend as well when he and several lads drove out in his Cortina to a pub where they happened to be holding the Westmorland yard of ale contest. You often see the glasses hanging on pub walls but they’re rarely in use. The glass is a yard long with a bulb on the end and hold about two and a half pints of beer. The bulb at the bottom usually means that the contestant gets a soaking at the end when the contents of the bulb rushes down the long neck of the glass. The point of the contest is to drink the entire yard of ale in one go. Milky could easily drink eight pints a night without blinking, so it wasn’t long before his mates urged him to join in the contest. He won easily.
The last time I saw Simon he knocked on the door of our house and asked if I fancied a pint, but it was already a filthy wet evening and by the look of the sky it was going to really chuck it down later on, so I said ‘no, perhaps next time’, but sometimes there are no next times.
From what I was told, it would seem they had gone in Milky’s Cortina to a pub in Staveley and drank a lot of pints. Then Simon had challenged Milky to give him a head start of fifteen minutes, or maybe twenty, and said he could run to the bar at the Windermere Hotel before Milky could drive there. The bet was a fiver. It was raining the kind of rain that fills becks and makes the fells green. Simon wasn’t worried about that, as more often than not if you run on a sports day then you are going to be running in the rain. The bet was taken and Simon was out of the door and running. Milky was at the bar nursing a new pint, but looking at his watch. On the dot he drowned the dregs of his glass, and then they all jumped in the car and he nailed the accelerator to the floor. The rain was bouncing of the windscreen, the wipers clicking side to side. The lights were just a haze of reflective drops and everyone in the car was drunk. The Cortina was sliding at corners and everyone was shouting and laughing. Then, as one of them who had been in the back told me, there was a thud and a strange grey shape bounced off the windscreen and rattled across the roof. They stopped and there behind them was Simon, sodden, soaked, broken. Milky was shaking him, trying to shout some life into his lifelessness and weeping on his knees, the rain running in rivers across the road.
The Long Last Drink by Edward Allington, a story sent out in two parts over two days (9–10 May 2012) courtesy of Akerman Daly © 2012, Edward Allington and Akerman Daly