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Walking with dwarfs

Does anyone know the difference between a succubus and an incubus?

They’re both a kind of devil, but I can’t remember which is which. One sits on your shoulder tempting you, and the other does whatever. I think what I’ve got on my tail is an incubus. Two, actually. They keep popping up wherever I go, and my internal response is to stoke up the fires of hatred, which is a sin and not a Good Thing altogether. You shouldn’t despise your fellow man. But these are not ordinary men, I’m convinced of it. They’ve been Sent by the Evil One to torment me.

Yes, you can wait 64 years and along come two incubuses at once…

Hunzi and I have two walks, that we do every day. I may have described them to you before. One he knows is called Along the Beach – Border collies are supposed to be able to understand up to 200 words of human speech – and Up the River. Extending to about five miles, this one involves first driving the ten minutes to the beach. We park at one end, and walk a mile along the shingle barrier that, until this winter’s storms, used to protect the reclaimed pasture behind. At the far end, the beach becomes too rugged and impassable, especially at high tide, with an extraordinary rock formation making a 200-foot-high cliff of twisted filo pastry layers.

So we turn halfway back, then down onto the river path and walk a mile and a half as far as the lowest bridge, over the river, round the chapel, and return along the cycle track on the far side, past the horses, red kites mewing in the sky below the hill, past the tin shacks and the duck lady, then across the river to the car park.

The other walk we do daily takes us across the road, through a small estate, under the main railway line, along the cinder path above the flood pans, still half-full from the winter rains, crossing the tracks of the little steam railway that carries tourists up the valley to admire the gorge, gates clanging, turning left over the iron-girdered footbridge across the river, past the cricket club and into the exurban space that passes for our local recreation park.

Exurbia is the name given by a writer called Iain Sinclair to those outlying parts of towns that haven’t yet quite been developed. Neither suburbia, nor greenbelt, they are unclaimed spaces containing the hidden extrastructure  of urban communities. Sports grounds. Recycling facilities. Industrial units and electricity substations. Storage  areas, lorry parks and brownfield sites, railway lines and decaying industrial buildings, all widely separated by unfarmed fields, marshes, immature woods and scrubland, criss-crossed by waterways, railway lines, power lines, footpaths and cycle tracks.

Hunzi knows the walk through our exurban space as Round the Sewage Works and Down the River. For, having rounded the eponymous water treatment facility and trudged through the scrubby, muddy wood along the railway, across the field and back past the cricket ground and over the bridge again, we turn sharp left and follow the river downstream, past the grinning fisherman who has just clubbed to death the last sea trout in the world, round the 60-acre university sports facility, under the road bridge and along the municipal river walk beneath the retail park and the housing estate, over the footbridge and back along the river the other side, past the allotments and under the road bridge again, turning onto the road running past the other side of the sports ground and over the railway lines, past the filling station and across the road to our little house, with its forlorn For Sale sign, its rubescent Photinus and neat double-glazed windows. Every time I behold my little house, front garden bathed in sunshine, I feel a pang. Why is no-one even coming to view it?

The interesting thing is, I suppose, that we are talking about two different rivers here, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Though they end up at the same place, flowing to the sea through the town harbour, and they’re both about the same size, the Tigris runs through the town and the Euphrates (names heavily disguised to protect the innocent, i.e. me) is one valley over and flows through fields where sheep may hazardously graze their flat pasture below the frangible barrier of mud and shingle. On the other side of it, the sea is hungry and wants the land back, slopping over with every high tide – and along parallel to the beach, in an artificial course dug for it in 1852 when the estuary below the grey stone mansion, the ugliest building in Wales, like an Irish Garda barracks, was drained for  farmland.

So the two walks form completely separate, collapsed figure-of-eight circuits. Indeed, on less energetic days it is possible to do just half of each, before going home for tea and toast. Yet, whichever of the two we do, Hunzi and I, in whichever order, at whatever time of day, or day of the week, there they are… my incubuses, or incubi, I’m not sure of the correct plural. Two small men, bald (one polished, one fuzzy), with bushy beards growing down to their chests – one pale ginger, the other gingery brown – standing about 5’3″ in their holey socks. Each, in their way, the genie of their particular river.

Tigris is slightly built, yet wiry and tough-looking, with tattoos on his forearms. He has a sit-up-and-beg bicycle, which he rides endlessly round and round the cycle paths, always at the same, slow, stately speed, never varying unless he stops to wash the wheels at the river or in a puddle, a mysterious, oversized black box tied precariously to the rack behind the saddle.

He is often to be found enjoying the sunshine, occupying the one park bench in the whole valley, either sitting or lying down, smoking a roll-up. He has on his face an ineffably smug expression, as if to tell everyone he has found total contentment in this pointlessly vacuous existence. His billowy beard, like the luxuriant pubic hair of a Pre-Raphaelite model, juts forward at an annoying angle, as if prepared for an argument about it. We have never so much as exchanged the time of day, and I often take a two-mile detour whenever I see him approaching, slowly pedalling, or lying on his bench – which is pretty much every time Hunzi and I go Round the Sewage Works and Down the River. He is driving me crazy just by his very existence; but he knows that I know it’s my problem, not his. That, of course, is his job as a full-time professional incubus.

Originally a fan of my famously comic dramatic performances, Euphrates quickly became tiresome in his fulsome admiration. The retiring sort, I appreciate praise but in small measure. Now, he infests the area we know as To the Beach and Up the River, popping up at any point along the five-mile walk at any time of the day or night and in any season of the year, to play the game known as ‘I saw you in the supermarket the other day, but you didn’t notice me’. (Of course I did, and he knows I did…)

With his bushy marmalade beard and short, stocky build he somewhat resembles Gimli the Dwarf, from Lord of the Rings. Since the day he appeared in the distance and detected instantly that I had spotted him and was sprinting off in the opposite direction to avoid him, our encounters have become increasingly satirical. He will suddenly arrive behind me and accelerate past at a great rate, throwing over his shoulder some remark about having passed me only the other day, and disappear off ahead, leaving me to trudge along in his wake, bearing the heavy burden of guilt over my obvious sociopathy. It is an effect made worse by the fact that the cycle path at that point runs true for the best part of a mile, so that one has to view his triumphantly dwindling back for the next ten minutes. So expressive, it might as well be his front.

It would, I think, repay some University research scientist in need of cheap publicity to conduct a study of how it is that short people can walk faster than tall people. I think it’s to do with being able to fit-in more strides to any given distance walked; as I, with my spidery long legs, am often overtaken by little stumpy people pedalling furiously, and am unable to catch them even if I quicken my stride to match theirs.

Of course, incubuses have supernatural powers enabling them to sprint round our walks and catch us twice, inducing double the amount of paranoid bile produced by my churning pancreas. (A reference to what I fear may have been a gallstone recently passed).

My dearest desire is to escape the area altogether, since these are realistically the only walks available to us (Round the Horses takes us via the university equestrian centre and the lesser campus – hippocampus? –  but is probably less than two miles, and punishingly uphill), only nobody comes to look at my little house anymore, not since I appointed the new agent. He tells me you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink, which is not a helpful analogy as he has managed to send me no horses at all, thirsty or otherwise, since the beginning of January.

But I shouldn’t be surprised if, wherever Hunzi and I end up, we shan’t find that the world is teeming with self-satisfied, smugly bearded ginger midgets, just waiting to annoy the hell out of me.


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