Trust by Chris Green
Following the split with his long-term partner, Darci, Nick Parks feels at a loose end. He cannot face the idea of singles nights and has heard nothing but horror stories about dating agencies. He does not want to go down to The Gordon Bennett to be asked where’s Darci, or be encouraged to have another to drown his sorrows at The Cock and Bull. He wants to avoid anyone putting a sympathetic arm around his shoulder and coming out with clichés like there are plenty more fish in the sea or everything happens for a reason. Worse still, he can imagine Tony Single or Ugg White asking if they can have the all-clear to ask Darci out. After all, she is an attractive woman. He is also determined not to go to pieces and take to the bottle as he did when he split up with Roz. He thinks it best to avoid The Gordon Bennett and The Cock and Bull and other places of temptation altogether. He decides instead to join The National Trust.
When Nick receives his pack through the post, he discovers The National Trust offers more than just visits to stately homes and landscaped parks and gardens. The Trust runs a smorgasbord of organised activities as well. You can go horse riding, cycling, canoeing, running, geocaching, whatever this is, stargazing and even surfing. Because of his inexperience and to improve his fitess, Nick feels he might be best starting with a few organised walks. November is too late for the rutting stag walk, and the red squirrel walk is too far away, but there is a selection of interesting-looking options within an hour or two’s drive.
Not wanting to look out of place on his first walk, he buys Berghaus Explorer walking boots, a range of waterproof jackets, and two trekking poles from GO Outdoors. So that he will come across as a seasoned National Trust member, he also orders a rucksack, a walking stick, binoculars, a torch, an umbrella, hand-warmers, a multi-tool, and a selection of hats for all weathers from the NT catalogue. His fellow walkers will all have these. All that is left is to get a good assortment of OS maps and to make them look a little weathered.
Nick feels that, at just five miles, the May Hill Countryside Walk will be a good introduction. Suitably attired, he strides out from May Hill Common on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border on a cold Saturday morning. By keeping close to the National Trust guide and listening carefully, he hopes to be able to pick up some of the language that walkers use. There are about forty people on the walk, most of them, couples. Even those who are not paired up seem to be on familiar terms with each other. He feels a little sad that he is alone. He wishes he had a partner.
He had hoped that he and Darci might get married, but each time he had suggested it, she had been dismissive. He hadn’t actually got down on one knee and proposed or anything like this, but it was clear from her attitude, she was more of a free spirit than he was. As he is trekking through the woodland, he replays a typical conversation in his head.
‘Just think. We could be like this every day if we got married,’ he might have said.
‘We would be under each other’s feet all the time,’ she might have said. ‘We see plenty of each other.’
‘But if it were a sunny day on a weekend, we could just get up and go.’
‘But I may not want to. It’s important to each have our own interests. We need to be able to do things separately.’
‘But I don’t want to do things without you.’
‘Well, I do like doing things without you.’
‘And if we got married, there would only be one set of expenses.’
They had this conversation or an approximation of it at regular intervals. The last time he had tacked on to the end.
‘And of course, there’s the tax relief.’
This had been the final straw for Darci. She felt that reducing her status to that of an Inland Revenue Tax Code was insulting. How could he say he loved her. There again, he hadn’t said he loved her – ever. This is another issue. In retrospect, Nick could see where she was coming from. He did seem to have a remarkable talent for saying the wrong things, and for not saying the right things. He now realises that men and women have different ways of looking at things.
After a mile or so, Nick notices that one of the group seems to be lagging behind. She is one of the younger walkers. She is probably in her mid-thirties and when she flicks her hair back off her face is quite attractive. She is on the tall side of average and her slim-fit jeans show off her shapely legs. But shouldn’t she probably be wearing a thicker jacket for trekking at this time of year, especially in the woods where the sun never shines, and sturdier footwear? Pumps are no good. He holds back, waiting for her to draw level. He has the feeling that he recognises her from somewhere and then it hits him.
‘You’re from the health food store,’ he says. ‘The one in Ledbury.’
‘That’s right,’ she says. ‘Organics. When you were crumpling up your map earlier, I thought perhaps I’d seen you before.’
‘Savannah, isn’t it?’
‘Very good memory you have.’
‘I’m Nick, Nick Parks.’
‘Hi, Nick. Good to meet you. Thank you for hanging back.’
‘That’s OK. I could see you were struggling a little. That was quite a steep climb back there.’
‘I know I’m a bit of a slowcoach,’ she says. ‘Tom and Sarah, my friends up ahead there come on these adventures every week, but I’m quite new to it.’
Nick feels comforted by this, but does not admit that he too is new to it. This would take away his advantage.
As the main party forge ahead, Nick and Savannah discover that they have a mutual interest in cricket, and although Savannah doesn’t know the name of the England captain, they chat merrily about the sound of leather on willow on a sunny Sunday afternoon, regretting that it is now November.
Over bowls of spiced parsnip soup in the café, Nick is introduced to Tom and Sarah. Tom holds forth about walking in the Lake District, and how a digital SLR camera is better for panoramic shots than an automatic while Sarah texts all her family and friends on her iPhone. Eventually, Tom and Sarah go off to buy some cards in the souvenir shop. Nick asks Savannah if she will meet him next week for the Woodchester Park Woodland Walk.
‘It says in the Trust Handbook that it is a scenic walk around five lakes,’ he says. ‘But it does include some steep gradients.’
Savannah is not sure about the gradients.
‘There is the option of a five-mile walk if you prefer,’ he says.
She does prefer.
‘Perhaps we could take a picnic,’ says Nick.
Savannah brightens at the mention of this. Nick makes a note to buy a picnic blanket from the Trust shop before he leaves.
All week Nick looks forward to seeing Savannah on Saturday, keeping a keen eye on the five-day weather forecast. It looks as if they might be lucky. The high winds are scheduled to finish on Friday afternoon and the torrential rain is not forecast until Sunday. From Wednesday onwards, he packs and repacks his rucksack. By Friday evening, it is bursting at the seams and he hasn’t even put the picnic blanket in yet. He takes out the lighter of the two extra jackets and repositions the umbrella and the waterproof over-trousers. He probably won’t need the polar torch, so he packs an extra fleece instead in case Savannah gets cold. And an extra pair of thick socks. He decides finally he will have to pack the picnic separately, so he takes a late-night trip to Blacks to buy a shoulder bag.
He takes the laptop to bed and reads up on Woodchester Park so he has facts at his fingertips for the walk. Woodchester House, the great gothic mansion around which the park is built, has featured twice in Most Haunted Live and again on Ghost Hunters International. It was also the setting for the BBC production of Dracula. There are horseshoe bats in the park, along with sparrow hawks, green woodpecker and tawny owl. While they are walking through the woods, they must also keep an eye out for sedge, Solomon’s seal and stinking hellebore among the flora, although he imagines late November may not be the best time to spot these.
Nick waits for thirty minutes in the NT car park. The guide goes on ahead with the group, but there is no sign of Savannah. Just as he is about to call it a day, Savannah drives up in her blue Fiat 500. She steps out and apologises for being late.
‘I had a job finding the place,’ she says. ‘I haven’t got satnav and I’m not very good with maps.’
‘That’s OK,’ he says. ‘I’ve only just got here myself. I think the others might have gone on ahead. But don’t worry, I’ve got a map.’
He waits for her to open the boot of her car and take out her rucksack and walking boots and perhaps a waterproof jacket to go over her thin fleece, but she does not. All she has with her is a flimsy hemp tote bag.
‘Come on then,’ she says. ‘Shall we get started? We might be able to catch them up.’
‘Are you going to be all right in Converse trainers?’ he asks.
‘I’ll keep to the dry bits,’ she says.
Nick doesn’t say he’s not sure there will be too many dry bits.
They set off in the direction that Nick saw the walkers take. They climb steeply through thick woodland. Nick becomes nervous about the lack of grip of Savannah’s canvas shoes on the wet leaves. After a few skids, she slips and falls. He helps her up. This is the first bodily contact that they have had. Nick feels excited by it. He is not sure how Savannah feels, but she did not appear to resist.
As they near the top, Nick begins to find the weight of his rucksack a struggle. They reach a clearing and stop to look down at the lake. It begins to drizzle. The picnic blanket seems a little superfluous now. They exchange glances and press on. Neither of them wants to be the first to suggest they turn back. On the path down to the boathouse, Nick maintains over and over that this rain was not forecast. They could shelter in the boathouse, but having consulted his sodden Best One Hundred Wildlife Walks, Nick sees it is accessible only by boat. Eventually, the driving rain that sets in forces them to return to the car park. The trekking umbrella offers little protection, and they get soaked.
Having dried off a bit with the bank of beach towels Nick has brought, they share the picnic in the intimacy of his car.
‘These four bean salad wraps are delicious,’ says Savannah. ‘Did you make them yourself?’
Nick is pleased he took the cellophane wrappers off and repacked them in paper bags. ‘Sorry they are a bit squashed,’ he says. ‘It must have happened when the shoulder bag fell onto the rocks at the bottom of the hill back there.’
‘And this mango and pineapple smoothie is divine. It’s much nicer than the ones we sell in Organics.’
They move off the subject of food, and Nick asks politely after Tom and Sarah. Savannah explains that she does not see a lot of them. They tend to go further afield, Offa’s Dyke, The Peak District and the Lakes. They had just taken her under her wing after she had split with Conor. Nick’s heart leaps. He has not wanted to broach the subject of her relationship status directly, in case it might be in a relationship or it’s complicated. When Savannah offers him her phone number, he feels he is in with a chance.
Tyler Armstrong, the office Lothario tells him it is not good form to appear too keen, so Nick leaves it until Tuesday to phone. But he phones on Wednesday, Thursday and twice on Friday. He discovers that Savannah has a busy schedule of hair washing, cat grooming and getting milk in before the shop closes. She always seems to be in the middle of something. He arranges to pick her up on Saturday to take her to Croome Park. It is a much shorter walk, he says, and they can have lunch at Croome Court restaurant afterwards. He drops in a bio about Capability Brown, but she has not heard of him. She hadn’t realised that gardeners could be the stuff of legend.
If he and Savannah are going to have a relationship, he must take account of what she wants. He must not make the mistake he made with Roz. He tries to remember their conversation. It must be ten years ago now that she had dumped him.
‘When are you going to get it into your thick head that I don’t want to go and watch Bristol City play football every week,’ Roz had said.
‘Well I suppose we could go to watch Bristol Rovers,’ he had said. ‘Or Swindon Town.’
This had been the end for Roz. Nick had, by and large, avoided the mistake with Darci. He had not taken her to football games. They had gone to watch Gloucester play rugby instead, but even here, he found Darci did not always want to go. He resolves to be more considerate with Savannah. He will take her to farmer’s markets and craft fairs and perhaps they can take up ballroom dancing or yoga. He won’t even invite her to his old school reunions and definitely won’t take her along to Hornby, Mills and Nash dinners. Quantity surveyors can be so dull when they have get-togethers.
On their way to Croome, Nick pulls into GO Outdoors and he buys Savannah a pair of tan Helly Hansen Forester walking boots to go with the pink North Face insulated jacket and the Jack Wills woolly hat, he bought her off Amazon. He is going to leave the rucksack until next week. He doesn’t want to load her down too much. He doesn’t mind doing the carrying for the time being. Feeling that he is just trying to buy his way into her pants, Savannah resists the purchase a little, but Nick insists.
‘You must have the proper gear for walking,’ he says. ‘You will find it so much easier. Why don’t you keep them on, then your feet will be used to them by the time we get to Croome.’ With this, he gets the Saturday shop assistant, who looks about fourteen, to put her trainers in a bag. During the rest of the journey to Croome, she speculates what it might be like to let Nick into her pants. Although he is a bit controlling, he does have an athletic build. From a certain angle, his profile reminds her of Hugh Jackman.
The weather holds up nicely as Nick and Savannah make their way leisurely around the lake. This is as good as it gets in early December. From his bevvy of guide books, Nick feeds her historical information about the Earls of Coventry, Neo-Palladian architecture, landscape gardens and the temples and pavilions in the park like a seasoned tour guide. They stop to feed the swans with wholemeal bread that Nick has brought.
‘Did you know that swans mate for life?’ he says. It is an innocent reflection.
‘Not at all like humans then’, she says, with more of an edge. ‘How many people do you know that have been together for more than five years?’
‘Certainly not my family,’ he says. ‘What about you? You must know some. What about Tom and Sarah?’
‘Tom and Sarah are probably the only ones that I can think of. All my other friends are in and out of relationships every couple of months. I never know who to address Christmas cards to.’
Nick was hoping that this was not the case. He was hoping that Savannah represented a world of normal people with stable relationships. It would be a shame to take it to heart, though and spoil a lovely day. He will just have to try a little harder than others have.
After a late afternoon lunch at Croome Court, and a couple of halves at The Crown Inn at Shuthonger they go back to Nick’s and warm themselves up before an open fire that Nick has prepared. They make cautious small talk over the new James Blunt album, before shedding their clothes and getting comfortable for the night. He has bought condoms, and she has brought a toothbrush. She doesn’t leave until noon the next day.
Despite the euphoria of the weekend, with the festive season looming, Nick feels a creeping despondency. It is supposed to be a time of happiness, but he finds the emotions thrown up by Christmas disturbing and bewildering. Perhaps it goes back to his childhood. Most of all, he does not want to spend Christmas with either arm of his family. He is also desperate not to spend Christmas alone. Nothing could be worse. Lots of differing perspectives compete for space in his head. If he is honest, he would like to spend Christmas with Savannah, but it is early days. He hardly knows her. After all, they have only slept together once and you can’t tell all that much from the first time. What is she really like? What do you look for in a partner, someone who is like you, someone who is different, someone like you but different, someone who is different but like you, someone to make up for your shortcomings, anyone at all to stop you from feeling lonely? How closely does the person you end up choosing match what you are looking for, anyway?
Out of the blue, Darci phones. She wants to know what he is doing for Christmas. Perhaps she is feeling the same way. Perhaps she does not want to spend it alone and maybe she does not want to spend it with her family as she and Nick have split up. They have spent the last five Christmases with Darci’s family. He tells her he does not know yet, but he has had an invitation. She says she does not know yet, but has had an invitation. Amongst barbed pleasantries, they both fish around for information but the conversation ends with both of them none the wiser.
Nick instantly worries that Conor might be doing similar checking up with Savannah. While Savannah has not talked a lot about Conor, from what he has picked up, they were together for a long time. Savannah has said that sometimes she has to work late at Organics and that Nick doesn’t need to phone her every night, but now he feels he needs to speak to her more than ever. He is not due to see her until Saturday when they are going to explore Dyrham Park and it is only Tuesday. He phones. She does not answer. When she doesn’t answer on Wednesday or Thursday either, his sense of optimism tries to tell him it could just be that Savannah’s hair might be particularly tangled this week, the cat may have chewing gum in its fur or the shop may have sold out of milk and she has had to drive to the supermarket, but his sense of pessimism tells him she could be in the throes of ecstasy beneath an ardent Conor.
What forms the basis of trust, Nick wonders? Can you trust someone that you have just met? Can you trust someone if you have been with them a long time? Maybe you trust someone you have just met because you haven’t been with them a long time. What are you trusting them with? What exactly constitutes breaking trust? There are probably no meaningful statistics about faithfulness in relationships, but over time, few survive intact. The modern world puts so many things in the way of fidelity.
It is Friday night and Nick has given up on reaching Savannah. He has been trying all evening, but her phone goes on to voicemail. He is about to go to bed when his phone rings. It is Savannah.
‘Sorry to call so late,’ she says. ‘You’ve probably been ringing me haven’t you. My phone says I have a lot of missed calls.’
‘I tried once or twice earlier,’ says Nick. He does not say that for the last hour or so he has been a small step away from coming round to make sure that Conor’s car was not there, not that he would know what Conor’s car looked like.
‘Sorry, I didn’t hear the phone, says Savannah. ‘It was in the inside pocket of my new insulated jacket. Look, I know we are seeing each other tomorrow but I just wanted to ask what you are doing for Christmas.’
‘I’ve got no plans,’ says Nick. ‘But I was hoping I might spend it with you.’
‘I’ve got a week off and I thought we might go to Santiago de Compostela,’ says Savannah.
‘Santiago de Compostela?’
‘Yes. It’s in Spain.’
‘You mean the pilgrimage walk. But I’m not a Catholic.’
‘Neither am I. Trip Advisor says that you don’t have to be. It says it’s for those who want to get away from the Disney Christmas.’
‘Isn’t it about five hundred miles long?’
‘Yes, but we could just do a bit of it and save the rest for later,’ says Savannah. ‘I’ve even ordered a Survivor rucksack on Amazon. What do you think?’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved