The bus has been idling outside Salisbury train station for a good twenty minutes, and my only companions are a small Asian couple afflicted with a weird skin condition that makes brightly coloured camera-filled fabric cysts erupt from their bodies. They've looked at me a couple of times as I adopt a sort of louche-but-not-aggressive supine posture on the bench seat at the back of the bus, with my feet propped up on the metal handrail of the seat in front, but they haven't made any attempt to communicate aside from a sort of hurried nod and smile as they settled themselves. I suppose I look pretty moody--my jacket is black, my sweater is grey and I think the t-shirt underneath it might be black too, but I don't check because of the way the back of the seat is tilting my head. The sky outside is pretty dark too, and through the tinted windows I can see the tops of trees mucked about by the wind, entwining and separating over and over again.
Eventually I feel the engine stutter beneath me and hear the hydraulic hiss of the concertina doors thwomping shut, and I slump back further in my seat. Surrendering to gravity gives me a little extra room to think, and I need to think pretty badly, as my decisions so far have been uncharacteristic to say the least. For example: I don't even know what time K's group are supposed to be arriving. I'm pretty sure that I have the correct day, and I'm pretty sure that I didn't inadvertently upset her, so I'm even pretty sure that her phone has just died or she's run out of credit instead of her being pissed at me or worse. I'm sure that if we miraculously do happen to collide on the South Downs, K will be pleased rather than freaked out that I've engineered the whole deal. But honestly, the odds of this happening are not good.
Before I left that morning I'd looked up how many visitors the place gets in a year, so I could work up a full understanding of the improbability of my plan. Something like 800000 people, all told, who spread evenly throughout the year (unlikely I know, but this is a valid thought experiment, trust me) and then evenly through open hours of the day would amount to about 250 people, every hour of every day. And how long does it take to circle a bunch of stones? So I guess maybe I'm slumped a little in hopelessness too, but I did have some sense of the romance of my journey too at the start of the day, so I don't think my feelings are entirely negative as we trundle through the centre of town - which looks time-locked around the stomped foot of the ancient Cathedral - and out onto the A roads and the tug-of-war of traffic. It doesn't take us too long to arrive.
Stonehenge is, in a word, a disappointment. The sky is a more bruising grey than the stones, which seem kind of fake in a way, like they are too famous to be real. I do find a configuration of pillars that makes me happy momentarily, but can't work up much enthusiasm for it, as I keep looking up at the layered clouds, which are angry and streaked with hints of rain. There don't seem to be many sages or druids around; just school parties braving the weather, and snaking gaggles of European teens with matching backpacks who take pictures of each other every couple of steps, reconfiguring like a school photo ordered for age, then height, then gender before descending into obscure rules that might be based on democratic allegiance or shared allergies for all I know.
After a couple of circuits of the monolith and a speculative dash back to the visitor centre, I venture back through the underpass and settle on a stone bench that gives a good view of people arriving. The grass around my feet is flat and will probably take hours of rain and darkness to pick itself up off the floor, though not yet as there are still a couple of hours of trudge time for willing visitors. This is perhaps the biggest failing of my plan. If I'd gotten out of bed early enough, I suppose I could've ensured I was here at 9am and waited the entire day, increasing my chances by some factor I'm not actually smart enough to calculate. Instead I took a slightly more fatalistic approach and decided that if I was going to throw my lot in with chance, I might as well assume that chance approved of lie-ins.
With little else to do, I allow myself a daydream, and picture the still steady trickle of visitors thinning out as the rain intensifies until only a single person rounds the corner and comes into view. Obviously, it is K. I hope that if these circumstances were to arise I would look suitably devoted and dishevelled, sitting on my bench, my hair tendrilled by the drizzle, my jacket woefully inadequate (I picture her in something bright and sensibly water-proofed), and maybe I'd look pretty fucking prescient about the whole thing (which I would be, of course) and K would smile, and any trepidation she felt about me being somewhere she was not expecting me to be would be forestalled for a while by the sheer magic of my appearing before her in such an (allegedly) magical place, like some convergence of ley lines or ancient wisdom had brought me there rather than a pretty shoddy study of probability and whim, like the stars were in uncommon alignment, like the moon was in a prodigious quarter, like runes had been cast, like fate had willed it.
Despite my daydream version of events, after about an hour, with the light ebbing in proportion to the homeward movement of a tame herd of clouds, I pretty much conclude that I have missed K. She was probably here in the morning, while I slept a couple of hours away. It was probably sunny while she was here too, which might have cast the monument in more profound light and made the experience seem greater than the one I am having (or might have made it seem even smaller now I think about it, the way the clarity of summer exposes everything as fleeting and silly on some level, even mountains and castles). I begin, to tell you the truth, to feel a bit stupid. I mean, she had said that this would be a romantic place for us to meet for the first time, and that her tour group was going to be there on Thursday (today), and I had agreed that, yes, it would be romantic, and that it was pretty close, and that I would go. But I think we had assumed that there would be a further conversation at some point, one that moved from the generalities of good intentions to the specifics of getting stuff done. I begin to wonder what K would have done had the roles been reversed. I suspect she would have spent more time trying to reach my hotel and less time sitting on a bench.
Every so often the shriek of the motorway asserts itself as a particularly heavy truck shoots past like a hurled brick. Car-toothed jaws open either side of the mound, and as the crowds start to ebb to nothing, I start experimenting with different benches to see if it is possible to look at the stones without seeing high-sided lorries and coaches shuddering past in the distance. A solitary figure emerges from the underpass, immediately recognisable as a member of the site staff, miserable under a National Heritage branded wind-cheater. Checking his watch, he pays attention at each bench, as though they might provide somewhere to hide, and I get up and make my way back along the plastic non-slip walkway to the steps.
There is no real sunset. For a while, to the west, the roof of the great grey head of cloud shines silver in the thin atmosphere, and then it is gone.
Now I have no plans. Nor do I have a bus timetable. As I mooch out from under the thundering road back into the visitor centre, I don't bother stopping at the souvenir shop, nor do I peruse the racks of postcards (today would be an odd thing to have a keep-sake of). I don't even stop to check the bus times; instead I slip between haphazardly slotted coaches in the gravelled pool of the car park, and vault over a crash barrier that separates the visitor area from a quiet service road, which I run across, hunched, as if it might stop anyone from seeing me. On the other side of the road is a field, and beyond it a stand of trees that stretches into the distance (you might think this looks majestic, but in fact until you get up close they look like miles and miles of broccoli).
The ground underfoot is saturated, and mingled with the broken stems of some crop or other so my feet squelch and slide about, and the resulting peaks of muck created by my sinking shoes resemble nothing so much as the shit of a diet high in fibre. It doesn't take me long to reach the trees, which are taller than I had anticipated, and seem to have a wet fog hanging around them, as if their canopy were holding all the water that had fallen on them over the preceding hours, and was only allowing it to descend as a cool diffused mist. In spite of this, the ground underfoot is more solid, covered in a dense marble of fallen leaves. No birds hoot or animals scurry that I can hear, though the dim growl of the road as it snakes west is still very much audible, as it probably is all night.
There is movement between the trees ahead; upright, legged movement. I see a flash of blue slipping between tessellated trunks and what might be a trail of breeze-meddled brown hair following behind. Being from the city, I am well-enough attuned to the movements of people that I think I recognise this as a girl, but within a step or two all I can see are colonnaded trunks and she's lost to me. I quicken my pace a little, though not much, as barrelling through the woods in pursuit of a strange girl might be a rather difficult thing to explain, but I am still curious, and the sensation of slipping between trees on damp-cushioned feet does make me feel a bit more nimble and graceful than I really am (the trees are more considerate partners for this particularly selfish dance than your average crowded street).
There is still no sign of the girl by the time I reach the edge of the wood (I couldn't say how long I've been pinballing between trunks now, it could be minutes, it could be hours, though there is still a tiny amount of light filtering through from above). On the other side is another brief stretch of muddy field, and beyond that a wall of buildings the colour of winter sand, behind which the red-tiled spire of a church stretches modestly into the twilight. As I look down to gauge exactly how much of the bottom of my jeans is now caked with mud, I notice green shoots have begun to emerge on this side of the trees in orderly rows, and so I shift my trajectory slightly to protect them as much as possible for my slip-sliding (I do take a few out despite this, but there are so many its hard to feel guilty). At the far end of the field is a fence with a sprung gate, which I navigate without managing to lose a finger, despite it having the tension of a snare. It opens on to a wide tire-churned track that circles the village.
I follow the track a little way until it crosses a passage between buildings. There's no one around, and no tell-tale blue flicker (always blue) from the dark windows I pass to denote the presence of television viewers within. The road leads to a square in the centre of the village, with the church sat at one end and the other three sides occupied by closed shops, their awnings fixed like knitted brows. On the steps leading up to the church is a figure, dressed in blue jeans and a grey jacket, with long brown hair. As I walk towards her, she raises her head to look at me, and hugs her knees together against the cold. She smiles. It is K.
"Hello K," I say.
And the bus arrives, and I step on board and K evaporates, blown back on the breeze to wherever her American exchange group are sitting down for dinner. I settle back in my seat, and begin to list types of cuisine they might be about to enjoy, knocking off the least likely in my head.
BIO: Philip Walford lives and writes in London. He is currently working on a novel, and has short fiction and poetry forthcoming in Foundling Review and Eunoia Review.