Gradually his story came, unhastily, naturally, like Sun-Tzu’s water: “hastening to the low, shaping its current from the lie of the land.” He had been in the Lake District for a time amongst precipitous fells and shining lakes brimming with trout. Then he had headed south, traversing the countryside, zigzagging along like an autumn leaf blown in Nature’s plan. All this by foot, through his own power and strength of limb and the benefaction of Providence. He was a modern day tramp, a wanderer. Somehow his internal promptings, and perhaps an irrevocable external force, brought him to the South Downs and this chance encounter with me. He was heading west as the weather closed in and autumn laid its grip on the land. He had been on the road for several years.
And before that? I was shimmying back along the rope trail of his life looking for the kernel of the story, why and how it started, the truth of the matter. And while his story was in itself fascinating, in reality, but unknown to me at the time, I was looking for the answers to questions I had about my own life.
“I lived in London for a time. I had a good job, you know. I was successful. I had more money than I needed. I worked hard but all I seemed to do was work. And I got to thinking, ‘I’m working to pay my mortgage, to pay the bills. Why?’ It just seemed to stretch away into the future without end. So I asked myself, ‘Do I really need any of this? Would I be happy without it?’ and the answer was, yes. So I packed it in, got rid of everything. Now all I own is this.” He gestured to his pack, to the clothes he was wearing.
There was a daughter and he was in contact with her. Presumably there was a wife and mother too but he made no mention of her. Instinctively I looked for a closet source of pain – a flicker in the eyes, a catch in the voice which revealed it. Surely this “casting off” was the result of some sort of mental breakdown. My education insisted that a job, a house, a family are things to aspire to and work hard to attain. To deliberately shun these things – worse, to have them and then to consciously chuck them away – surely must be the result of madness? But, try as I might, I could detect no imbalance in him, no morsel of regret or shame or sadness. He was tranquil, accepting of hardship, of the good and bad that befell him. And he was happy.
“People are good, you know, generally. Sometimes I sleep in churchyards, under the porch and they bring me tea and food. In town, I’ll look for a bed in a hostel but mostly I like being out in the open. Like here…”
I could feel the straps of my pack biting mercilessly into my shoulders. The weight was bearing me down. Under normal circumstances if I had stopped for any length of time I would have seized the opportunity to heave the sack to the ground, rub my groaning shoulders and feel my body rise like a balloon. But not here. Somehow it seemed wrong to get too comfortable. There was a tacit understanding that however open-hearted this coming together was, it was to be brief, fleeting. We were just passing ships in the night, a couple of tethered bullocks chewing the cud for a short respite before hauling our cartloads in opposite directions. Still, his cart looked considerably lighter than mine.
“I used to carry a lot more with me – extra clothes, a pretty good tent. But I could feel every step; walking became a chore. So I began to jettison things and found I didn’t miss them. Now I just sleep with a ground sheet and sling an old army basha above and rope it to some trees. People think they need things. They want so much and spend their lives accumulating. But imagine if everyone was to do this, and they do in this country. How much needless stuff is created? All it does is put up barriers, keeps people from each other.”
I nodded along in agreement. He was smiling. It wasn’t a rant, just some gentle observations from the front line. If he couldn’t change the world, he could at least change himself.
“Now when I sleep, I don’t stare up at blank canvas, I can see the stars.” I could feel a tide begin to tug us apart. It was a natural end to a natural communion. He squinted up at Chanctonbury Ring, silent and watchful of the landscape, and at our coming together.
“I’m going to go up there now and sit with my back against a tree, look out over the view, and make myself a brew.”
It sounded an attractive plan and I envied him. But I could never just stop on a whim, outside of an assigned break. I would never get to where I was going, or at least, I wouldn’t know when I’d arrive. We shook hands again. It was time.
“Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” I asked by way of valediction, something more to take away with me.
“Haggis.” His eyes twinkled mirthfully. Then we parted, stepping off in opposite directions, I towards my destination of Devil’s Dyke, he towards the Chanctonbury Ring, which had as many associations with demons and the supernatural.
After a few hundred yards I turned back and I could see the dwindling figure of Haggis making his way slowly but surely to the dark mass of the fort under a gigantic Autumn sky.
Written and illustrated by Harry Chapman.