Don’t get lost out there, little man.
But you did.
And now I’m lost too.
The land never let you catch it unawares. Year after year, from one holiday to the next, you might only cross the invisible border when the ocean and the mountains and the sweeping green hills allowed it. You would leave the motorway, gliding effortlessly onto narrow roads at low speed, crawling almost, and then you’d clear the bend and the whole expanse would open up on your right; the glistening of sun-dappled waves, the jagged mountainside flanking your left, and the mouth of the tunnel before you.
Then you knew, then you were across, and the land welcomed you again. Memories of beaches, of hot sand and cool water. Of ice cream dripping with raspberry sauce and cold drinks in glasses weeping condensation down their sides. Boats. The endless blue. The shoulders of giants in the distance, unscaled, unknown. Vast. Eternal.
Hannah Locke might have been aware of this moment when she made the turn, but with the indicator ticking like a metronome in her ears and car after car refusing to let her out onto the main road, all she knew right then was frustrated anger.
“Who the hell invented a roundabout anyway?” she snarled, gripping the steering wheel harder. “He needs dragging out into the street and—”
There was a fraction of a gap, but it was enough. Her tired Fiat leaped forward, the front wheels momentarily spinning as she dumped the clutch and swung to the left. Through years of instinct her eyes shot upwards towards the rear-view mirror. The flashing headlights of the car behind her told her that, although she’d cut it pretty fine, she wasn’t about to be rear-ended by the silver Mercedes just yet.
She hit the hazard warning lights and gave him two flashes, the anger subsiding now as the faint echo of the border crossing caught up with her. She stared through the lenses of her sunglasses, taking in the full canvas of ocean off to the north before sweeping back to stare up at the looming mountainsides and jagged outcrops of slate. These were the way markers of her childhood, the fingerposts pointing in a familiar direction, leading her to the fond memory of a home that hadn’t been home precisely, but that had become one and held power over her until…
She shook her head and felt the tears hot and prickly in her eyes. It should have been home, she thought as she blinked back the aching memory. Instead, it’s now a tomb. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s an empty one at that.
She reached for the water bottle on the seat beside her, fumbled one-handed with the screw-top lid, and took a long gulp from the neck. She checked how much of it she’d drunk using the scale on the side and capped it again before putting it back. The day was hot and dry and even with the windows down and a strong breeze tearing in through them, it was still unbearably hot. There’d been no air conditioning when she’d bought the little car and there was still none now, six years later.
The summer sun over her head had managed to break records that year. It made losing her job as an insurance-claim investigator in the middle of the hottest season the country had ever known a little easier to bear. No more driving out to dingy garages in her very expensive trouser suit. No more arguing with brokers or sitting in stuffy offices and meeting rooms drinking muddy coffee from plastic cups. No more…
But that wasn’t why she was there. Now. With a car filled to busting with only the most important things she owned, driving away from an empty flat. She wasn’t only there because she’d lost her job. That had just been the cherry, not even the icing on her particularly macabre birthday cake. It had something to do with her ex, who was now on his way to Spain to hook up with an old flame, but that still wasn’t all of it. Not by a long shot.
The road twisted through the mountain and the breeze died as the walls of the tunnel closed in around her. The hazy summer sun vanished and in its place the cold, dirty yellow of subway lighting washed over the Fiat and turned everything ugly. Engine fume and echoes spewed in through the open window. Hope gave way to despair and her breath caught in her throat until she passed through to the other side. Then the veil of emotion was lifted and with the return of the summer came a fresh thought; Ryan would be there waiting for her when she drew up outside the holiday cottage, the one she’d first formed solid memories of at ten years of age.
Mum and Dad had been taking them there since they’d been born but those had been vague recollections compared to the vivid starkness of that one long summer. It had seemed to stretch on into waking thought the way your first kiss did, or that nervous fumbling of a night in bed with another; few memories had so much power over all the rest. For Hannah and her brother, those times had been golden. Long days on the beach under a flaming sky the kind of blue you just didn’t see with adult eyes, swimming in a sea warm and inviting, and meals in the seaside pub, playing soldiers between courses on the veranda as the moon crept skyward.
The road twisted on. She took the turning for the hilltop town of Pistyll and grinned as the Fiat struggled up the ridiculously steep incline, barely able to reach the top. Here, quaint welsh houses bordered quilted fields of sheep that ran all the way to the cliff edges. On the sea, kissing the horizon, boats could be seen and even further off, the ghostly shadow of an oil rig stood like a giant wading in shallow water.
She weaved along the narrow road, slowing for speed bumps that shook her bones and most of her belongings, loose. Then she took the right turn at a mini roundabout, passing the wedge of a pub forced into a row of terraced housing. Then she was gliding down the far side of the hill and into the seaside town she loved so dearly. The sight of Morfa Nefyn, stretching along the coast, made all her worries pass like fog in the morning sun. The weight that had been sat on her chest all the way south lifted at the sight of the sun on the sand and as she slowed down, she reached up and wiped away the tears that now streamed down her cheeks.
She’d lost her job, her husband and her flat. She had nothing but her savings, the car she sat in, and the boxes of junk that constituted some thirty-plus years of achievement. But beyond all that, someplace high above the meaningless striving of the last fifteen years of her life, this place felt like a bedrock beneath her feet.
As the car slowed down to enter the village, it felt like Hannah Locke had finally returned home.