Out of The Star and into the damp, early evening gloom they stumbled. The sun had gone and with it the summer. Mike was thinking a pint of Wherry was all it took. One minute everything was warm and lazy and stretched gloriously ahead in a thick, golden hue, and the next cold reality had struck. He would have to find more work. He would have to do his tax. He would definitely have to sort out the situation with Caroline, his poor wife, this side of Christmas at least – especially as he’d now just told everyone what he was planning.
And why had the council not mended the steps leading up to the Carrow Hill Tower and the finest stretch of Medieval wall left in the city. In fact it was one of the most intact and impressive sections of Medieval wall left standing in the country. The council was a disgrace and he was hopeless and did anything really ever change except the seasons? What a beautiful day it had been, with glorious sunshine throughout, and not a hint of mugginess that had dogged the last couple of months, and now it was dank and autumnal feeling and of course far too dark for the time of the day.
Next thing Mike knew was that Lizzie had slipped her hand into his pocket and was trying to interlink her fingers with his. Though their hands might have been out of sight, Mike felt the intimacy Lizzie was attempting was far too public, despite what he’d just said in the pub. But that was Lizzie all over.
‘Look at that,’ said Alex. ‘What is she doing?’ He was with Iain, and as usual they’d already fallen behind. Alex had bunions, a particularly large and painful one on his left foot, and Iain was very fat.
‘Again,’ said Iain, wheezing a little, trying to catch his breath. ‘He doesn’t mean it. Never has so far.’ They had started to climb, and he’d forgotten quite how steep it was. ‘These bloody steps. Are they ever going to be mended? One day I’m going to trip and break my bloody neck.’
‘I’d like to see them try to rescue you. They’d never get you on a stretcher here. They’d have to employ a winch. Air sea rescue.’
‘I don’t know why I continue to come on these walks with you lot.’
‘Habit?’ Alex was in pain and unsure of his footing too, and it was hardly the Himalayas. And what was making things so much worse was that he just couldn’t understand what Lizzie was trying to achieve by latching onto Mike in that way, right in front of them. Regardless of what had been said.
‘What intrigues me,’ said Mike, ‘is how they managed to build such secure foundations to cope with the incline, and then keep the wall so straight as it rose with it. It’s all perfectly in line.’ He’d stopped where the steps evened for a short while before turning slightly and leading to the final assault. Of course he’d mentioned this before, numerous times, having originally taken on board what Robert Jefford, the spectacularly boring local historian, had once told them. Though Mike wasn’t actually that impressed with the engineering; the Romans, the Greeks too probably, and the Egyptians for all he knew, had achieved as much centuries before. He simply wanted Lizzie to extract her hand from his pocket.
‘Darling one,’ she said, ‘they would have had a series of plumb lines and trenches and all sorts of complicated scaffolding. Think, if they could build the Cathedral, with a vaulted nave and a 300 foot plus spire, a bit of wall is not exactly rocket science.’
She’d said this before too, the exact same words. Was it last year, as long ago as that? Or the year before, or the year before that? Christ, Mike thought, and still Lizzie’s fingers were tightly gripping his, and she was leaning into him too. The incline aside booze always made her even more unstable and brash. Why had he come, knowing of course that Lizzie would be there? Was she simply taunting him in front of the others? Was that it?
‘Any sign of any subsidence?’ said Alex. He’d reached Mike and Lizzie, and though he hadn’t heard what Mike had just said about the extraordinary straightness and solidity of that particular bit of wall, he knew he would have said something about it. He always did. And he knew too that Lizzie would be making Mike feel increasingly uncomfortable. What the hell was she doing?
‘No,’ said Iain, puffed and having just caught the gist of what Alex had said. He’d finally made it to this stage of the ascent but he really wasn’t sure he was going to make it any further. ‘The only thing that’s not going to give way is this wall. It’s been here all this time. Why can’t they make things that last anymore?’ How many times had he thought and said that?
Through the trees and foliage the new riverside condominium blocks could be seen and a wisp of the Wensum, black and forbidding, and the unlit floodlights of the football stadium. Had Norwich won any games this season, thought Mike? Probably not. Once he followed the Canaries, shortly after he’d arrived in the city and when he’d wanted to embrace everything that was local – he chuckled to himself – but any half decent run the team had was soon countered by an abysmal spell of play.
Beyond the football stadium sat a massive Morrisons, complete with a vast car park. ‘So I hear,’ said Alex, ‘Morrisons is the next new building in trouble.’
‘Really?’ said Lizzie.
Alex caught her eye. She was still a fine looking woman.
‘Serves them right,’ said Iain. He was slowly feeling a little better and that perhaps he’d be able to carry on. ‘What did they expect putting that development on a reed bed?’
‘The people who put this up,’ Mike was looking at the wall again and peering up towards the perfectly symmetrical Carrow Hill Tower, made predominantly from flint, with a smattering of Roman bricks, ‘certainly knew what they doing.’ If only he did, he thought.
Alex laughed, out loud. He wanted to say, ‘That’s more than can be said for you, you boring arsehole.’ But he didn’t because Mike was one of his oldest friends and he didn’t want Lizzie to think he was in any way jealous. He knew that after all this time – exactly how many years had they been doing this walk, or pub crawl as his wife Lorna like to tease, for? – it would be absurd. However, on those badly maintained wooden steps, by the finest, and steepest section of the old city wall, in the gathering gloom of autumnal nightfall, with the latest urban regeneration scheme already sinking into the ancient reed beds far below them, he couldn’t help himself.
He hadn’t been in love with Lizzie before, he was certain. But, catching sight of an arrow loop in the tower, in the shape of a cross and roughly framed by sandstone, he knew he was now. It was worse than bunions.
‘Should we press on?’ said Iain. This was normally Alex’s line but Alex was looking away.
‘I could do with another pint,’ said Mike. ‘It’s –.’
‘Thirsty work, hey?’ said Alex, swivelling round to face the group. He should have seen it coming.
‘Are you in pain?’ said Lizzie.
Originally in The Independent On Sunday, November 18th, 2007