It began more than three years ago, on a golden evening of high summer. I'd started out from Knighton that morning on what was projected to be a six-day tramp along the southern half of Offa's Dyke. I've always found I think best when walking alone. And since I had a great deal to think about at the time, a really long walk seemed one way of ensuring I thought clearly and well. Decisions masquerading as choices were closing in around me. Middle age was beckoning, a fork in life's path looming ahead. Nothing was as simple as I wanted it to be, nor as certain. But up in the hills, there was the hope it might seem so.
It was Tuesday the seventeenth of July 1990. A well-remembered date, well remembered and much recorded. A day of baking heat and unbroken sunshine, declining to a dusk of sultry langour. A day of solid walking and serious thinking for me, of bone-hard turf beneath my feet and hazy blue above my head. I saw no buzzards, as I'd hoped to, circling in the thermals, though maybe, after all, there was something hovering up there, out of sight, seeing and knowing what I was heading towards.
I'd travelled up to Knighton by train from Petersfield the previous day, happy to be away and alone at last. My eldest brother, Hugh, had died of a heart attack, aged forty-nine, five weeks before. It had been a shock, of course. A grievous one--especially for my mother. But Hugh and I had never been what you'd call close. Twelve years was just too big an age gap, I suppose. About the only time we'd really got to know each other as brothers was when we'd walked the Pennine Way together, in the summer of 1973. Since his death, the memory of those three distant weeks on the northern fells had become in my mind a sort of talisman of lost fraternity. My trip to the Welsh borders was partly a conscious act of mourning, partly a search for just a few of the pleasures and opportunities life had offered then.
Above all, however, the trip was intended to clear my mind and decide my future. My sister Jennifer and my other two brothers, Simon and Adrian, all worked in the family business, Timariot & Small, of which Hugh had been managing director. In that sense--and several others--I was the odd one out. I used to claim my career with the European Commission in Brussels gave me immunity from their parochial cares and perpetual squabbles. And so it did. Along with absolute security and relative prosperity. It had given me twelve years of that and could be relied on to give me at least another twenty. Followed by early retirement and an index-linked pension. Oh yes, the life of a Eurocrat has its undoubted rewards.
But it also exacts its penalties. And they'd begun to weigh me down of late. The Berlaymont, an X-shaped mountain of glass and concrete where I'd worked in one cramped office or another since arriving in Brussels, had become even more oppressive in my imagination than it was in reality. It's been closed since, following the discovery of carcinogenic asbestos dust in its every cavity. So, even if you shake the dust of the Berlaymont from your feet, it may still linger in your lungs, waiting patiently--for many decades, so the experts say--to claim its due. Well, there's nothing I can do about that now. And, at the time, it wasn't anything as tangible as asbestos that was choking me. It was the knowledge of all the kilometres of corridor I'd dutifully trudged, all the hectares of memoranda I'd solemnly paraphed, all the tonnes of institutional gravitas I'd played my small part in bearing--and would go on bearing, year after year, until kingdom or retirement or asbestosis come.
I would have done, of course. I'd have gone on for want of any alternative, becoming more cynical and disillusioned as the years passed, becoming more and more like those worn-down colleagues of mine in their mid-fifties, dreaming of Surrey bungalows and golfing days to come. It was already too late to avoid sharing their fate. It was already, as sometimes I realized in the bland Brussels night, over for me.
But then Hugh died. And it didn't have to be over after all. It gives me no pleasure to say this. God knows, I still wish it hadn't happened to him. But my life's turned around since he succumbed to his own punishing workload and slid slowly to the floor of his office just after nine o'clock one evening in June 1990. I could never have believed what his death would lead me into. And perhaps that's just as well. I'd have fled back to my dull but secure existence in Brussels if I'd known even half of it. That's for certain. But, despite everything that's happened, I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad to have followed this road.
At first, it just seemed like a savage bolt from the blue, a nasty intimation of my own mortality. But the signs were there at the funeral, in the tension that wasn't just grief. For fifteen years, Hugh had been
Timariot & Small, sustaining it as much by his energy and commitment as by any nurturing of commercial advantage. Now he was gone. And the question wasn't simply who would replace him, but whether the company could survive without his hand on the tiller. Even at the crematorium, Simon and Adrian were eyeing each other in preparation for the contest to come, while Reg Chignell, the production manager, was eyeing both of them and clearly wondering if either was up to the job.
Uncle Larry had come out of retirement to chair the board on a temporary basis. It was he and my mother who put a suggestion to me the day after the funeral which I was still mulling over a month later when I set out from Knighton. Though the youngest of us, Adrian had worked in the company the longest. He also had two sons, which was two more than the rest of us put together and by my uncle's quaint logic made him a fitting guardian of family tradition. Moreover, by virtue of some shares held in trust for the eldest of those sons, Adrian brought more voting power to the table than Simon, Jennifer or me. The managing directorship was properly his, they explained. With the support of Hugh's widow, Bella, who had inherited his shares, they proposed to offer Adrian the post. But they foresaw friction between him and Simon. Well, that hardly required a crystal ball. What was needed was a calming influence, somebody to succeed Adrian as works director and bring the cool good sense of a trained economist to the board's deliberations. What was needed, in short, was me.
Their case wasn't, to be honest, a strong one. I'd worked in the factory during university vacations and in the office during the eighteen months or so it had taken the European Commission to decide they wanted me. But that was all a long time ago and my background in economics was so much eyewash. What my mother really wanted was to lure me home and see me settled in Petersfield, ideally with a wife and children, before she died. Uncle Larry was more than willing to play along. And I was tempted to do the same--for reasons of my own.
I didn't tell them how eager I was to leave Brussels, of course. I didn't want them--and I especially didn't want my brothers or sister--to think they'd be doing me a bigger favour than I'd be doing them. I did my best to imply that for the sake of the family I might be prepared to give up my lucrative career--on the right terms. But there was the rub, as the Commission's conditions of service artfully ensured. The terms would never be good enough. Frustrated or not, as a fonctionnaire
I was feather-bedded. With Timariot & Small, I was going to feel the draught.
Then there was the future of the company to consider. I wasn't absolutely sure it had one. A past, yes. In 1836, my great-grandfather Joseph Timariot went into partnership with John Small making cricket bats in a modest workshop in Sheep Street, Petersfield. With one change of site--to the present factory in Frenchman's Road--the business had grown since into something like the third largest manufacturer of cricket bats in the country. But that hardly made it General Motors. It employed about fifty people in a medium-sized Hampshire market town, using old-fashioned methods to turn out a handcrafted product in one branch of the sports industry where the Far East hadn't yet caught up with English traditions. The past it proudly possessed, in faded medal certificates from the Great Exhibition, in brown-edged letters of appreciation from Edwardian cricketers, in the sawdusty air of the workshop my father walked through in the footsteps of his father and his father before him. But the future? Did that really hold a place for the likes of Timariot & Small?
The Timariot family, as I saw it, was in danger of putting all its eggs in one very old and increasingly frail basket. I don't think my father ever thought all five of his children would work for the company. Until his retirement, only Hugh had done so. Then Adrian went into the business straight from school. Uncle Larry retired a few years later and was succeeded as finance director by Jennifer, who until then had been working as an accountant for a supermarket chain. When my father died, Hugh became chairman in fact as well as name and promptly installed Simon as marketing director, rescuing him from some long and inglorious struggles as a photocopier salesman. Which left only me on the outside.
Where good sense suggested I should remain. But the offer of a directorship had been made. And, flushed with generosity following his move to the top of the table, Adrian was happy to confirm it. Simon and Jennifer, seeing me, I suspect, as some sort of check on Adrian's power, urged me to accept. I went back to Brussels promising to give them a decision during the fortnight's leave I'd booked for late July.
So, in a sense, the Rubicon rather than the Severn waited for me at the end of Offa's Dyke. But careworn was the last thing I felt when I stepped out of the George & Dragon in Knighton early that Tuesday morning. I took one glance up at the clock tower, then headed down Broad Street in the direction of the Dyke. My rucksack was full, but, strangely enough, my shoulders felt as light as if they'd just been relieved of some heavy burden. For six days I was free, incommunicado, unobtainable, gone away. For six days, I was my own man.
I walked south through the rolling East Radnor hills as the sun climbed burningly in the sky, shadeless ridges alternating with steep wooded valleys. At some point of the early afternoon I'd have been able to see Hergest Ridge ahead of me, if I'd troubled to look at my map and pick it out through the heat haze. But it was only one landmark among many to me then. Just a name and a place.
I spent the hottest hour and a half of the day in a pub off the route, then pressed on towards the next town on the Dyke: Kington. It waited below me as I rounded the eastern flank of Bradnor Hill: a compact huddle of slateroofed houses dozing in the sunshine, with the Black Mountains rising beyond. It was a sleepy vision of rural England, with a picturesque touch of wild Wales thrown in.
My destination that night was Gladestry, a village about three miles west of Kington, where I'd booked a room at the Royal Oak Inn. The walk to it along Hergest Ridge was a pleasant one according to my guidebook, so I'd decided to leave it until the cool of the evening. I spent the late afternoon in Kington, pottering aimlessly round the shops until the pubs opened and I could slake my thirst. At a corner table of the Swan Inn, I eavesdropped happily on the local gossip while trying to do some of the thinking my week in the hills was supposed to facilitate. Giving up on the grounds that there were another five days for that sort of thing, I wrote a postcard to my mother instead. It was a muddy-coloured shot of Kington Market Hall circa 1960 and was the only depiction of the town I'd found in any of the newsagents' carousels. I dropped it into a pillarbox on my way back to the path.
The ascent to Hergest Ridge was a narrow tarmac lane called Ridgebourne Road, deteriorating after it had passed a few houses into a stony track. I started up it shortly after seven o'clock. The going was steep but steady. Midges were massing between the fern-banks to either side, the sunlight filtering warmly through the foliage. It was--I'd have said if anyone had asked me--a perfect summer's evening.
A five-bar gate separated the end of the track from the open moorland of the ridge. To the right of the gate, a car had been parked beneath the trees. It was a G-registered white Mercedes two-seater, gleaming from a recent clean. I glanced at it approvingly--even enviously--as I passed, thinking of the wretched little can-on-wheels I ran around Brussels. Some people, I reflected, had all the luck.
I went through the gate and out onto the ridge: a whale-backed expanse of grass and gorse, views to the north opening up as I gained height. Sheep were bleating everywhere, occasionally scattering as I came on them unawares. I passed two weary-looking walkers bound for Kington, who nodded in some kind of fellowship at the sight of my rucksack. Otherwise, my attention was reserved for the horizon of hill and forest, bathed in fading sunlight. As mornings bring expectation, so evenings, I suppose, are naturally peaceful. Certainly, I felt something very like peace descend on me as I gazed out at the loveliness of one portion of my homeland. Returning to the Berlaymont after this, I realized, was going to be like returning to prison.
It must have been near the mid-point of the ridge that I stopped simply to stare for a few minutes at the wide green world laid out before me. I sighed and shook my head and said aloud, for no particular reason: "Heavenly."
And a voice behind me said, "Isn't it just?"
I started and looked round. A few yards away, a woman was sitting on a flat stone at the base of a ruined cairn. She was smiling, though whether at me or the scenery her dark glasses made it impossible to tell. Her blonde shoulder-length hair looked golden in the sunlight, though maybe there were some streaks of silver there as well. She wore a white blouse and tailored beige slacks, slender ankles showing above moccasin-style shoes. Her smile was beguiling, almost girlish, but my immediate impression was of somebody who was no longer young but somehow better for it, somebody who might once have been pretty but was now beautiful.
Excerpted from Borrowed Time by Robert Goddard. Copyright © 2006 by Robert Goddard. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.