Few things are bleaker than Dartmoor when the winter nights draw in like wolves around a campfire. But his mood was bleaker, and his prospects bleaker still, and after a long period of slouching around a filthy house in a shabby dressing gown, he threw everything up in a spasm of self-disgust, grabbed his tent, boots and backpack and set off onto the moor.
He walked until he could no longer remember where he had come from or where he was going, until the sun went away under the world and ice began to fringe the dirty edges of the bogs. Then, in a hollow at the foot of a shadowy tor he pitched his camp, and heated up a tin over the stove. There was nothing else to do—no light to read by, no book to read, no human company. Not a birdcall or bleating sheep broke the winter stillness. He stared out into the darkness as the chill grew around him, and when his body told him it was time to sleep he unzipped the tent flap by touch and crawled into his sleeping bag.
Few things in his life had been as constant and as reliable as this sleeping bag. He knew all the zips, cords and baffles. It was like a second skin; it even smelled of him. It had kept him warm in the coldest, wettest and stormiest of weathers, and he’d never had an interrupted night in it.
That night, he woke in the darkness. He was warm, and his thoughts were working slowly, and it took him a moment to remember where he was. Before he slept, he had zipped his sleeping bag up and drawn the collar tight around his neck, so only his head lay in the open air, resting on a bundled-up jumper in the hood of the sleeping bag. What had woken him, that wasn’t the light or the wind or the cold?
Then he heard the distinctive sound of a zip unfastening, the teeth disengaging as the opening widened. Someone was outside.
No, that wasn’t it. The tent zip had a different tone. Someone was inside, and they were unzipping his sleeping bag.
He groped for the zip, but he’d rolled over in the night and his fingers flapped uselessly against the opposite seam. Then as he doubled his arm up at the elbow and fumbled for it, his hand brushed against something. It was a child’s hand, small and soft and yet so cold his whole body flinched away from it. His arm instantly went numb to the shoulder, and his feet kicked helplessly in their cocoon as something colder than ice unzipped him and crawled in. His breath left him in a billow of vapour and his heart stuttered in its beat as it embraced him and laid its cheek on his chest.
It had been a year, a long, lightless, mourning year, since the tragedy, and she had lain awake all night, staring at the unfurnished walls of the flat as the hours went by. When the first light broke, she dressed and left, taking the 4×4 onto the high rough roads over the moor. She didn’t know what she was going to do when she got there. Perhaps she would talk, like people did to gravestones, or weep, or just stand there until it felt like some duty had been done, some rite observed.
A year ago, when she and her husband were still together, unbroken by the pressures of grief, they had taken their son camping on Dartmoor. On the second day a freak storm swept in and the temperature had dropped incredibly to ten below zero. Their nine-year-old boy had started shivering uncontrollably, slurring his words, becoming confused. Somehow, they’d managed to pitch a tent in the teeth of a blizzard, by which time he was nearly unresponsive. They’d bundled him into a survival bag and an extra fleece, zipped him up, and ran off to seek help.
What they hadn’t known—what Search and Rescue pitied them for not knowing—what they would have gladly given their whole education to know—is that once a boy’s temperature drops below a certain point, his body has no more heat to give out, and he loses the ability to warm himself, no matter how many insulating layers are piled on top of him. All the time they had thought their son had been lying in a snug dry tent while the blizzard beat around him, his breath had been growing shallower, his heart slower, his flesh turning blue. When Search and Rescue got to him, he was long dead of the cold.
She parked and walked the last mile, shivering even with her coat wrapped around her, her wellies crunching through the ice and squelching in the liquid bog beneath. When she saw the tent, her hand flew to her mouth and for a moment she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Then she made the connection.
She called her ex-husband’s name. There was no answer. Cautiously, she approached and unzipped the flap.
His sleeping bag was lying open. His hands were splayed, his lips were blue, the last shivers dying out as the last shreds of warmth retreated to heart.
Before she knew her thoughts she was lying beside him, her wellies kicked off somehow, gathering him to her and throwing the sleeping bag around them. His body felt hard and numb as stone, but she held him to her, closer than she ever had since that awful night a year ago, willing her heat into him, from her warm hands into his stiff numb fingers.
‘Come back to me,’ she said. ‘Come back to me, or we’ll both grow cold together.’
Thomas Tyrrell lives in Cardiff, and is a two-time winner of the Terry Hetherington award for poetry. He likes to tell this story around a campfire, and his Orange County Boy appeared previously in Lonesome October.