Natalie stood at the fork in the paths for some minutes, trying to decide which way she should go. Having followed the old drovers route as directed around the end of the hill, she could now see the village off in the distance where she was supposed to buy a loaf of bread and some lunch for herself. Then if she followed the original plan, she could either walk back along the river path or get a bus, depending on how she felt. A nice, varied, low level route, her uncle had said. However, it was a beautiful sunny day and the route up the mountain next to her beckoned. How many more days would she have like this? The weekend had been miserable with rain and fog preventing her from seeing more than a few yards!
It wasn’t as if there was a time limit on her walk, she realised; the family all had their lunch at school or work and only wanted the bread for dinner toasted with some beans or eggs or whatever. So she actually had all day to get to the shop and back if she didn’t mind a very late lunch herself. She just had to get over that feeling of guilt, of not doing what she had been told to do. Worrying over what her aunt would say, and whether she would be in trouble.
Her uncle was in the local mountain rescue team and had been called out on Friday shortly after she had arrived. After spending most of the night searching for a missing person on the fells above their cottage, he had given her and his own kids stern reminders of how easy it was to get lost when the weather changed, the dangers of being ill-equipped for the conditions, and the importance of someone knowing where you were planning to go so that they could raise the alarm.
But she wasn’t clueless. She had a map and a compass, and knew how to use them, and the sky was so clear it would be almost a crime not to enjoy it. But she had to admit she was ill-equipped, with no lunch or water bottle.
She studied the map some more.
Eventually she decided to risk it and take the consequences. It was her holiday. Okay, not much of one, ten days in the Lake District, when her friends had gone to places like Thailand, or Australia, or South America, but it was free and she could save her money for university instead of blowing it all before she arrived. Assuming she worked out what she wanted to study, got her application in on time, and was accepted somewhere of course.
She put the thought of uni out of her mind, and instead concentrated on the view and the path, which got steep quite quickly. For several minutes she focused on nothing except putting one foot in front of the other. It was making her breathless, she wasn’t used to climbing quite so vertically for so far. In places the path had been laid with stones forming a sloped pavement with occasional channels for streams to cross, and the steepest sections were almost like an uneven staircase up the side of the hill. She marvelled at the effort involved, having to walk all the way up before you could even start work. They must be fitter than her! There were still sections of the original path where the ground was looser, eroded by feet and weather. She found herself slipping and having to go slower, glad she had proper walking boots on and not her usual trainers.
Sitting on a rock by a stream large enough to take a drink with her hands allowed her to look back where she had walked. It really was beautiful, the leaves just changing to golden on the occasional tree, green grass mixed with grey rocks looking properly mountainous and the bracken turning copper and bronze like well cooked buns in the oven. She could see waterfalls on the opposite side of the valley, streaks of white against the rocks. And above, just blue skies with the occasional bird flying over.
Her university application form intruded on her consciousness again, so she pushed it to one side and carried on walking.
The ground became rockier, with occasional piles of stones to mark the way. Cairns. She scarcely even needed the map, the route ahead was so clear. She enjoyed using it to help identify neighbouring peaks, however. Maybe she could climb some of them on other days. She had wasted the weekend, relying on her cousins to want to do something interesting with her. Apart from one good waterfall, what had she seen? Roads, pavements, shops, and lots of other tourists. She had spent the summer feeding tourists in the café where she had worked six days a week. Not that she minded the babble of foreign voices, the crowds of people at lunchtime, the general business and impatience; actually it had given her a buzz and she had really enjoyed working there. But she wasn’t part of it here, had no connection to them.
Blimey she was hungry though! What she wouldn’t give for one of the café’s flapjacks, or even a baked potato with cheese and bacon on top right now! She used to love seeing people’s faces light up when she brought them their lunches. Loved cooking it too, for that matter. Not that she cooked often, only when there was a real rush on or someone was away, but she had learned quite a bit now she thought about it. She could even have baked a potato and brought it with her today.
Nearest baked potato was in the village she wasn’t getting any closer to. Best to keep going then.
Natalie had assumed the going would get harder as she went, but suddenly coming out to a flattish rocky path along a plateau, she realised that she had done most of the climbing effort. It was just a matter of following the line of brighter stones, where the constant flow of feet had worn off lichens and kept the rocks clean. And then there was no more climbing. The ground fell away from her in all directions; she was at the top.
She sat down, overwhelmed by the view. Several different lakes or tarns of varying sizes; countless peaks and ridges. There was the village, and other villages by other lakes. Green valleys, shaped by glaciers and filled with dry stone walls and sheep. Ideal teashop country.
An investigation of her pack revealed a chocolate bar, eaten in silent celebration. Then a check of the map to make sure she took a sensible route back, since she still needed to get to the shop and get some proper lunch. She pulled a jacket on.
Downhill, seeing where she was aiming for, was easy walking. What was she going to apply for? Everyone said she should fill in her application form as soon as possible if she wanted to have the best chance of being accepted somewhere. Her parents. Her friends already at uni. Her school who would have to write her reference. Her sister who wanted the whole bedroom instead of half. All of them reminding her in their own ways, with little comments, dropped hints, or blatant demands. She hadn’t managed to fill in more than her name and address, and at the rate she was going she was unlikely to have done any more by the end of her holiday.
It had been so easy to dismiss worries last year. Loads of people took gap years, to get better grades, more life experience or whatever. Okay so she hadn’t done much with hers so far, just worked in a café over the summer and had now come to stay with relatives, but she would. Honest. Once she knew what she was applying for and where, then she was sure she would know what to do with the rest of her year.
Except she still didn’t have a clue what she was going to put on that wretched form. Her A-levels had been chosen from her best GCSE subjects: English, Maths and French. She didn’t want to study any of them, but they didn’t inspire any other ideas either.
She trudged on downhill. The village was getting closer, but she realised she didn’t want to get there yet. Instead she turned off the path yet again, and took a route that led towards a small lake that looked pretty.
Her stomach growled, but the university application was weighing too heavily on her mind. She had to think it through properly.
Above the lake was a stand of Scots Pine trees. The ground was covered with pine needles, and she found a place to sit leaning against a tree. She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of pine resin warming in the sun. Ran her fingers through the needles next to her. It was the most relaxed she had felt for ages.
After a bit, she looked up. Which way should she go next? she wondered. What should she do?
The tree moved its branch in a slight breeze. It seemed to be pointing not towards the village, but to the river path that would lead her back to her aunt and uncle’s house.
How would that help her?
She thought for a while, then ceased to think. Went back to her mindless playing with needles.
Then suddenly it burst upon her: she had spent the summer making bread in the café! Why on earth would she want to buy a loaf of some factory produced sliced stuff that her aunt had been dishing up for meal after meal, instead of filling the house with the smell of yeast and wheat flour, creating something warming, filling, sustaining, and enjoyable to eat! Okay so her aunt might not have all the ingredients she needed, but even plain flour and baking powder would make something for their dinner. And tomorrow she could buy yeast, and make bread and Chelsea buns and…
That was it! Why had she never realised? The café had been the best place she had ever worked, she had loved every minute, and that was what she wanted to do. To cook. To look after people, to nourish them, to help them feel better about themselves. There was no point applying for university to sit behind a desk for the next three years; it was catering college she needed! Or even better, an apprenticeship in a kitchen somewhere. And meanwhile see if she could get another job in a café or restaurant that wasn’t quite so seasonal.
Thank you tree! she said, and got up almost at a run to get back to her aunt and uncle’s house, recipes crowding into her mind. She could make her own lunch while she baked; there was no time to loose if she was going to cook dinner for five of them from scratch, with no idea of what she might even find in the cupboards. But she was confident that by the end of the week they would be asking, no, begging her to come and stay again.