Tilting at Windmills by Gina Challen
Our Short Story of the Month is 'Tilting at Windmills' by Gina Challen.
A troubled woman faces an emotional journey to find peace amongst the beautiful landscape of the South Downs.
Gina Challen was born in London and moved to West Sussex in 1979. She has a BA (Hons) in English and Creative Writing from the University of Chichester, and a Masters Degree in Creative Writing. The short story form is her passion: she is currently seeking publication of her debut short story collection, and working on a novel.
Tilting at Windmills
I’m more at peace now. I no longer make drinks in the middle of the night, or sit in the dark listening to the traffic, losing hours as the tea goes cold.
The night before I leave, I lay my clothes out across the top of the blanket box: underwear, jeans, a red polo neck, and a pair of hiking socks, still partnered at the top by a cardboard tag. The ribbing feels thick and reassuring in my hand, and foolishly, I feel they’ve lingered in the drawer, waiting for this moment. Tomorrow will be another day of November damp, so I add a padded coat to the pile. I packed my rucksack last Sunday, popped the diary on top, and stood the bag in the corner of the sitting room. Since then the days have rushed past.
With my hand on the light switch, old doubts creep back and I am unable to shut the door and go to bed. I don’t speak to other people about it. Some things, like diaries, should be kept private. I hear my own breathing, rasping in the quiet room. The familiar racing of my heart begins, and I press two fingers against my wrist checking the beat of my pulse.
I’ll sleep downstairs. There’s a fleece blanket on the back of the sofa for times like this, besides, it comforts me to see the rucksack waiting for the morning. With the curtains open, the streetlight pools onto the rug, and passing cars cast beams across the walls.
When I wake, the room is submerged in moonlight. The furniture seems larger and displaced, as if each piece has drifted on a gentle current. There are stars in the sky. Looking out of the window, I murmur the names of constellations. The Great Bear. Taurus. Orion. After all these years, and no matter how many times you’ve told me, I still can’t pick them out on my own. My breath clouds the glass, and I find I’ve etched my name, Evie, on the pane.
Minutes slip past as I stand in the shower letting the hot water wash aches from my shoulders. There’s no point in leaving too early. It’s only a couple of hours drive, and when I get there I’m hoping for an easy walk. Thank goodness, you’ve made a note of the way.
Back at the window, I stare between the rooftops, watching the winking lights of a plane travel high and away. Words twist together through my thoughts, fragments of a poem you wrote in your diary. I’m not surprised to find I know each line by heart.
I leave the clutter of London and drive until I see the rising bulk of the South Downs closing in. Everywhere is empty. I’m wrong-footed this far from the city.
When I reach Halnaker, I spot the house. There it is, sitting right on the main road opposite a lay-by. Estate agent jargon sneaks into my head: A charming detached property in a rural setting. Although the front door has been painted a different colour, I’d recognise the building anywhere. Red-bricked and square, with the mass of the chalk hillside glowering over lawns too large for a Flymo. I’d come across the details hidden at the back of your desk, clipped to a note from your mum. Recalled accusations worry at me. I’d wondered why she’d sent them. Didn’t she understand, with the hours I worked we needed to live in the city. What a troubled day of raised voices it had been. Whatever she thought, we’d made no plans to move.
The signpost says it’s a three quarters of a mile hike to the windmill. I’m in the right place. And when I stand, with the car behind me in the lay-by, it’s strange to think how many times you’ve been here, in the very same spot. I never thought about that before. It’s all noted down, so I know the track runs forward under a canopy of overhanging trees and follows the route of the old Roman Road. I can’t see any of this from where I’m parked. Do you remember how disappointed I was when you gave me the walking boots for my twenty-third? Well, can you believe I’m using them at last, after all this time?
The going is easy at first. A broad path leads up between two cottages, the hedges surrendering to grass covered banks. I’m encouraged by the occasional hum of traffic. Don’t worry you’d say with a grin, civilisation is still nearby. Ahead the tunnel of trees is barred by a metal gate, and I might not get any further.
I missed it at first, but there’s a stile to my right, covered in part by an elder sapling. A few berries remain, hanging in shabby black clusters amongst the dying leaves. Elders to keep the devil away, or so your mother says. She always has a lot to say, my mother-in-law.
The stile is greasy, and I clutch the upright post, feeling the weight of the backpack against me. Further on, the track climbs the bank, running uphill, parallel to the old road. It’s spiteful underfoot. Fallen leaves hide slippery tree roots and sharp, exposed flint. I pass a field of donkeys. They interrupt their grazing to glance at me with old eyes, but I’m soon dismissed in favour of cropping grass. The landscape pulls me onwards.
Sheer faced, the sides of a disused chalk pit drop away from the edge of the path. Water has collected at the bottom of the bowl, and from here the pool appears black and deep. There’s only a barbed wire fence and snarls of brambles to stop me plunging over the edge.
Another stile, and then I’m standing on a path between more fields. You’ve said there’s a glimpse of the windmill from here, but I’m not tall enough to see past the boundary hedge. I climb back up, and holding tight, turn to face up the hill.
I can see why you love her. Her white cap and two sails are bold against the blue of the sky, and her body is shielded by the rise of the land, as if she is peeping over the slope of the hill. I carry on up to meet her at last.
When I reach the top, irrational questions bombard me. Was she expecting me? Did she guess that I would come to find her? I look back across empty farmland. In the rise and fall of open space, there is only me and her. This is her territory. But me, I need the hustle of people, the buzz in the air when you surface from the underground. I like the push and shove of it all.
Up close, she’s old, a faded beauty, patched with yellow lichen. Her shabby brickwork is exposed by missing hang tiles, and her mortar is crumbling. Above her empty doorway a plaque reads, this ancient landmark was restored in the year 1934 by Sir William Bird of Eartham in memory of his wife.
I lean the rucksack against the doorjamb, and step inside her. The rush of the wind is silenced by her thick, brick walls. Small pebbles shift under the impact of my boots, and the crunch of gravel as I land is swallowed by four storeys of vacant space above my head.
Other people have been here. There are empty firework boxes inside her tower. They’re not littered around, forgotten in the aftermath of some wild party. No, they’re stacked in a pile, the up-turned lids angled close against the wall, and balanced on the top, a heap of rocket launching tubes. Roman Candle. Golden Fountain. Scarlet Fury. All their promises of brilliant explosions spent.
I knock my toe against the bottom box, releasing the dank smell of puddle water. The cardboard is wet, offering no resistance as it bows inwards over the curve of my boot. Layers of compacted paper split with a sigh, leaving flecks of grey clinging to the new leather. This is no place for a party. I kick harder. The whole lot lifts up from the floor, holding its shape like an illusionists’ trick. The boxes fall back, and the impact of the descent splits them apart. I kick again, flinging pieces of cardboard against the wall. And again. I don’t stop until the gravel is covered in fragments of words.
I picture the partygoers all around, their voices echo inside her ancient belly. They dance across the grassland, their imprints sloughed at the same time as their discarded rubbish. Back outside, I sit on the bench and open the diary.
June 1st Saturday. A beautiful day. Blue sky. Scudding clouds. A peregrine dipping and gliding over Denge Bottom and Red Copse. Lost sight of him when he dropped into Halnaker Park. Damp earth. They’ve cut the scrub back.
She’s behind me, the bulk of her empty tower casting a shadow across the crest of the hill. Fields roll away below us. In the valleys trees still blaze with their autumn reds and yellows, patched in places by squares of evergreen pines, like the flag of some unknown country spread across the landscape. From my seat, I hear your voice strong and clear above the buffeting wind introducing me to your friends. Red Copse. Halnaker Park. Denge Bottom.
Perhaps I should have phoned your mum and told l her I was coming down. Yet whenever we meet she wears her disapproval of me like a rash. I’m not countrified. You think I’m exaggerating, that I imagine the slights and the barbed comments, that I’m fighting a war that isn’t there. But even now, I bet she still tells her friends how disappointing it is to have a daughter-in-law like me. A high-flyer. How I caught her son at university, and kept him in London. She’s never understood. I thrive on the energy of the city. It excites me. And you, well you could teach English anywhere. That’s what you said.
I stand, and take the wooden box from the rucksack. My hands shake, and I struggle to loosen the lid. Before I can change my mind, I throw the contents high into the air. I whisper the poem, stumbling on the second verse, and my words are carried up and over the hillside. For a moment, the light grey ash drifts towards the earth, then the wind, tugging at the heads of the dying grasses, snatches you up and takes you away.
The windmill is blurred through my tears, and I like her softer image. I can’t leave her like this. Once more, I jump down into the tower, and start to gather all the scraps of cardboard, cramming them into my bag. When I’m done, I balance the wooden box on top, along with your diary. I place my hand on the wall in farewell. The old bricks are warm, and the mortar rough under my fingers.
Outside, across the coastal plain, the horizon glistens and there’s the sea, no more than a band of shifting silver in the distance. The air is cool and damp. It carries the scent of wood smoke. Going down is easier. I walk quickly, my footsteps are lighter.
I stop on the path above the chalk quarry. At the bottom, the scars of derelict workings are healing under a growth of trees and brushwood. Close by, in the hawthorn scrub, a blackbird sings, and I try to spot him amongst the branches. And there, tight amongst the thorns, bright red haws speckle the hedgerow.