My father always had his head in the clouds. That’s probably why my mother left him. He was forever going off without letting anyone know where he was going or why. Half the time I don’t think he even knew these things himself. He did the things he did on a whim. Before he retired he earned his living as a carpenter. He worked for himself, which was probably for the best. It was difficult to imagine any employer tolerating the vagaries of his behaviour for very long.
When he retired, he moved out of town to a village on the North Yorkshire Moors. It was probably the most conventional thing he’d ever done in his life. We spoke on the phone most weeks. I knew the area slightly and I remember wondering how he’d fit in but, from what he said, he liked it there. There was a small town with a supermarket a few miles away, he said, so he could keep himself well-supplied. His neighbours were friendly enough. Most of the time though he kept himself to himself, which was the way he liked it, he said. He told me how he spent his time, whenever the weather was half-decent, taking himself off for long walks on the fells.
A few weeks after he’d moved in, I went to see him. He greeted me cheerfully and showed me in. We went through to the kitchen where he put the kettle on and brewed us both a cup of tea. We sat and chatted for a while. He asked what I’d been up to and I told him. My doings were pretty mundane back then but, as I already knew, to parents, even the mundane doings of their children can seem interesting. I then asked him about the walks he’d been doing. Where had he been?
‘I can’t say I’m sure,’ he said. ‘I mean, I take a map with me but it usually stays in my coat pocket.’
‘Aren’t you supposed to check where you’re going?’ I said, trying not to sound solicitous.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘You can see where you’re going as you go. I don’t want to burden myself with all the words on the map. If the hill up ahead has a name, I don’t want to know it. I want to see it for what it is, not for what other people see in it. If you don’t look at the map, every walk is a voyage of discovery.’
‘Isn’t there a risk you’ll get lost?’
‘You can only get lost if you know where you’re going.’
‘But it could take hours to find your way back.’
‘It could. It does, on occasion. All the more reason to start early.’ He laughed.
I wasn’t particularly worried about him. I was sure he could look after himself. He was a short, wiry man and although he’d retired, he still looked young. His hair was still brown back then, with just the occasional hint of grey. Since his retirement, he’d let it grow long, along with his beard. This was a man determined to be himself. And he was winning me over. I found myself wanting to set out on unmapped walks of my own alone or, better still, with him.
Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to go out together that day. I can’t remember why. Most likely it was because I simply didn’t have the time. It was an hour’s drive to my father’s place and I probably had to be back in time to pick the kids up from school.
It was a few weeks before I was able to get over to see him again. When we’d spoken on the phone he’d said he had something he wanted to show me. He sounded quite excited about it. I asked him what it was but he got all mysterious and said I’d find out when I came over. I was intrigued.
When he opened the door it was obvious that he could barely conceal his excitement. Tea-making formalities were postponed. He showed me straight through to the front room.
‘Have a seat,’ he said. ‘Look at this.’ He took a shoebox from where he’d left it on top of the bookcase and passed it over to me. I put it down on my knee and removed the lid. Inside were three large fragments of metal, gold by the look of it. I had no idea what they were but I did recognise the endless woven loops engraved into them. The pieces clearly belonged to some Anglo-Saxon artefact.
‘I did some research on the internet,’ he said. ‘They’re three pieces of a sword-hilt.’
‘Where did you get them from?’ I asked.
‘I was out walking. I came across a pit dug into the peat. It had probably been a quarry some time in the past. I clambered down into it. One side of it was quite loose. I was even worried it might fall in on me. It’s been raining a lot recently which didn’t help. Then I saw something sticking out. It was an odd shape. It was this…’ He pointed to the largest fragment. ‘I pulled it out carefully. The other two pieces were behind it. When I got home I gave them a good scrub.’
‘Where was this quarry?’
‘I’ve no idea. It was foggy. I doubt I could find it again. I carried on walking for half an hour or so before I finally found the road.’
‘What are you going to do with them? Aren’t we supposed to tell someone?’
‘I’ve thought about it. I guess I’m supposed to. When I read that people used to leave such artefacts in peat bogs as offerings I even thought of taking the pieces back to where I found them. If I could find find it. Or just reburying them on the moor.’
‘They’re probably worth thousands,’ I said.
He seemed not to hear me. He went on: ‘And then, I thought there wasn’t much difference between being hidden on a peat moor or hidden in a shoebox, so I decided to leave them where they are.’
Not for the first time in my life I found my father’s reasoning difficult to follow.
‘Shouldn’t we tell a museum about them or something?’ I knew there were laws about such things but I had no idea what they were.
‘I’m just going to keep them for now,’ he said. ‘One day, they’ll be yours. You might need them. If you don’t need them, keep them.’ He paused. ‘If I’d been using the map I’d have found found my way straight back to the road in the fog. Chances are I’d never have come across the quarry. So they’re a reminder, too, of the importance of leaving your map in your coat pocket.’ He laughed.
It seemed to me like a foolhardy thing to do in the fog but I didn’t argue. I think now, too, that he should have done whatever it is you’re supposed to do about such things at the time but that time has passed and he didn’t. The shoebox is mine now. The picture on the side shows a pair of stylish brogues, size nine. I find it hard to imagine him wearing them and have no memory of ever seeing him wear anything like them. Sometimes I take it out and look inside. The fragments exist in a kind of legal and temporal limbo which, along with the accidental part they now play in our family’s history, enhances the almost palpable aura that seems to exist around them. Sometimes these days I go for walks on the moors myself. When I do, I almost always leave the map zipped firmly in my coat pocket.
(c) Sackerson, 2020