Three years ago I walked around the Land's End peninsula, starting at Newquay on the north coast and finishing up at Falmouth on the south. It was January. The weather was foul and the wind was against me all the way. There was no one about either, and I tired of my own company much sooner than I anticipated.
The first hostel I stayed in was deserted. I went to bed early with a book. Except for a farmer who, I think, was speaking in tongues (his dog had crept up behind me and made two neat puncture marks on the back of my leg), I hardly spoke to a soul all the following day. either. By the time I reached the backpackers' hostel in Zennor at the end of the second day's march I was utterly sick of my own thoughts and desperate for conversation.
Strange place. Zennor. There were no people to be seen, or cars. The only living things I saw were some unnaturally large cows queueing in a mediaeval farmyard and some hens in the road. The houses, barns, church and pub, huddled together in the boulder-strewn landscape, were constructed of huge granite blocks. It was like walking into the 13th century. My feeling of entering a time-warp was accentuated by the weird quality of the light, and the peculiarly rich silence hanging over the place.
The independent hostel was in the most modern building in sight, a big square Wesleyan chapel. Apart from the taciturn Aussie who checked me in, it too was utterly deserted. Heavy rain delayed my start the next morning. I sat it out in the diningroom with my book. I was trying to read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I remember it was that one because this elderly bloke appeared in the dining-room, saw what I was reading and commented on it. He congratulated me on my choice, or something — not in a snobby way, though, but with real enthusiasm. His name was Neil. He was walking the coast path too, and he didn't like the look of the weather much either. He'd stopped off at Zennor (a touch of irony in his voice here) because he'd heard that ley lines were reputed to intersect right through the village.
At last! I thought. A fellow human being! I put down my book and, greedy for conversation, talked to Neil for the next 12 hours. Nearly off my head with solitude, I talked wildly and passionately, like a dying preacher preaching to dying men. And Neil, Yorkshire, disillusioned socialist, retired director of Sheffield social services, mystic, poet, traveller, was right up for it. We did Art, Love, God, Football — the lot — and after dark walked across to the Tinner's Arms and continued in there till last orders.
Neil was the only person I've ever met who's read Ulysses by James Joyce and enjoyed it. He was also the only person I've ever met who dabbled in Sufism. He particularly liked the Sufi proverbs, he said, and gave me an example of one. If two magnificent horses come along, one called Happiness, the other Disappointment, jump on the one called Disappointment. I've forgotten everything else he said. but for some reason that proverb has stuck in my mind from that day to this. (If the Americans do invade Afghanistan, they'd better look out.) The next day was dry. We said cheerio. Neil headed north, I went south.
A week later I got a letter from him, beautifully written, oddly formal. I wrote back; he wrote again; I didn't bother to answer. Then nothing for three years until a fortnight ago, when I received another letter from him. He said he was driving down to Zennor again to do some sketching, and would like to break his journey in Devon and meet up for another chat. I wrote back saying (sincerely) how good it would be to see him again. He arrived last week.
He was a lot thinner and frailer than I remembered. There was no awkwardness between us, though, despite my not writing back to him and the fact that we'd met only the once, three years before. We had a cup of tea, then went to the pub, where the conversation flowed as easily as it had done the last time. He was talking about Yeats's poetry, which he loved. (I said I couldn't make head nor tail of it.) Then Neil had a heart attack right there in the pub. His face went the colour of putty and he put his head on the table, beside a bowl stacked with empty mussel shells. I rolled a fag, thinking he was overcome by tiredness after his long journey.
Yesterday I went to the hospital to see him. His heart's damaged, but if he doesn't have another cardiac arrest by the end of the week he'll probably be OK. He was sitting up in bed, wired up to monitors. His speech came indistinctly through an oxygen mask. 'You what, Neil?' I said. He was only talking about bloody Yeats again.