The Campsite

By David Hartley


I unzip the door, a tooth at a time, so as not to wake Mark. Above, the moth flutters and clatters against the lamp. It sounds frenzied, incensed. I have to get it out. It had been stupid of us to let it find its way in, along with all the midges and mosquitoes lurking in the shadows. I ease the zip along and kneel up as I take it above head height. Mark’s come oozes out and dribbles down my leg, like a slug escaping. I’ve always hated the feeling. I grab my underwear and shorts and hurry them on. I’ll nip out to the toilet block while I’m up, get myself clean. I’m sure the damage is done by now. 

Damage. I take a cooling breath of the Cumbrian air as it sweeps through the opening. I will it to clear my head and calm me. The first thoughts of my child-to-be cannot be damage. What sort of a psychic start is that for a newly embryo-ed egg?

I let go of the zip. The gap is enough for the escapes of both the moth and myself. I reach up and unhook the lamp and bring it down to the opening. The moth flutters up to the roof first, then skips down to the inner door barely inches from Mark’s exposed toes. Please don’t, I urge it, but it doesn’t. It takes pity on me and darts towards the lamp again. I shepherd the frantic thing out and click the lamp off. I swap the lamp for a torch and shift around to slip my sandals on. I can see Mark’s come now, a thick teardrop. I scoop the worst of it onto my fingers and reach outside to wipe it away on the grass. 

I bring my hand back inside and wait a for a few quiet moments in case all this has roused Mark. I rehearse the wording of my excuse but he doesn’t stir. His breath is deep and heavy and whistles slightly through his nose. I shift back, stand up and dodge through the flap of the doorway. The grasp of the night air is shocking and it seems to grip me inside and out. I turn to zip the door back up, but I stop. Something is wrong. Something is very wrong. 

There are tents. Everywhere.

There had been none. No; there had been one other, a tipi-style thing at the opposite side of the field. But that had been it. We turned in, what, three hours ago? I click on the torch and dash the light across the undulation of peaks and domes. Hundreds. The field is full. The tents are tightly packed and perfectly pitched. Not a slack guy rope or a drooping cover sheet. Barely space to step between them. 

My first reaction is absurd: embarrassment. How many people – families, children – had heard our grunts and moans and Mark’s orgasm? It made it perverted, somehow, that the conception happened inches from the heads of disgruntled parents, or fascinated teenagers. A dizziness hits and the tents seem to swell towards me. I turn away, back down to the zip, and ease it closed. I can’t let the cold air wake Mark and I don’t want him to see me outside the door, doing nothing, fucking about.

I stay crouched. It’s impossible. There had been time enough for a field-load of campers to arrive and pitch up, but on this cold September week night? In complete silence? I hadn’t heard voices, or the striking of hammers on pegs, or any billowing or zipping or pumping of air beds. Had I been so focused on the task in hand that I missed it all? 

I shine the torch on the nearest tent. It’s the same blue as ours, but its bigger, a six-man or eight-man. The ropes shine luminous in the beam and hold the outer material taut and free of creases. There’s not a speck of dirt on any part; even the pegs, clutching the grass, are gleaming. I stand again, my stomach hollow, and listen. It’s not a perfect silence. The hush of a car on the distant road, sheep braying to each other on the hills like demons. But no muted voices, no restless sleepers, no snores. It is a show-field of tents, as if posed for an advertising image, or ready-pitched for a weary army of ramblers. But I cannot convince myself that they are empty. 

Mark huffs and it spikes in my chest. I cover the end of the torch and wait for him to settle. The stain on my leg is drying. It reminds me of its presence every time the breeze blows. I need to get it all off. I need to cleanse myself and calm myself. It’s just a campsite. There are tents. That’s not strange. 

I hold the torch out and pick my way over the ropes towards the fence-line. It’s not far. I’m glad now that we had that tiny argument about where to pitch and that Mark won by saying that we’re better nearer to the car park and facilities. But the going is slow as I navigate the ropes like they are a laser grid in a heist film. I desperately don’t want to trip and pull one out, but the further I get from our tent the more I want to be out of the field, and panic starts to violate through me. I leap over the last few ropes and lurch forward to grab the fence. The gate is only a few metres away but I ignore it and duck through the slats, scraping my back on the wood as I go. I stumble out onto the gravel path and scramble away. 

The opposite field is bare. Not a single tent. The camp attendant had said that we could choose either field, anywhere we liked. If we’d have chosen this one, would we still be alone? I look back at the swarm that chose us, but I can only stomach a glance. I cup my hand over my eyes to block it out and point the torch at the ground. The toilet block and Reception are next to each other, through the woodland at the end of this path, a stupid distance away. I stride on, head down, humming a broken tune to keep me centred. 

I had wanted to camp as far away from civilisation as possible. It had sounded halfway romantic when I first thought it, but soon became something murkier, something seedier. Or an attempt to avoid seediness. I wasn’t quite sure anymore. I tried to pick the most remote looking campsite in Cumbria and managed to convince Mark that my cycles pointed to this as the best day. Truth was, I wanted a date as close to the end of camping season as possible. 

We had agreed to try for a baby. It’s what we needed, Mark said. A focus. Something new to love. Something new to love. It sounds horrible now. But it was the way he had said it, the look on his face. The slight smile, the curl of hair fallen from his fringe, the nebula of hope in his eye. It was a genuine revelation for him, to feel the first stirrings of fatherhood, and to know, just know, that it was the most perfect idea. He was giddy with pride for himself and I glimpsed, I think, the evolution of that; where it would take him, and our child, and me. I hadn’t felt ready, but, as Mark pointed out, when would I ever be?

Now, say the trees of the woodland. Now, now, now, say the pinecones littering the path, now, bray the sheep on the hills. I have to be ready now. He or she is inside me, not even a he or a she yet. Still microscopic, still struggling to fuse, perhaps. Mark and me, coming together, in the only true way possible. 

My breath catches and I have to stop to cough. It’s gentle at first but I’m soon doubled over, almost retching. It felt as if I’d inhaled a fly and my throat nags with the idea of a dying insect. So much for staying quiet. I flash the torch back down the path and the light picks out the first few tents, but nothing more. There is a flutter of heavy wings somewhere above me and the sheep are still shouting. Nothing abnormal. I am the abnormal thing. I press on as the path bends around and reveals the squat eco-buildings of the toilet block and Reception ahead. There are various insects dancing inside the pale green glow of the toilet light. I hurry on to it, desperate now to be out of the woodland, to be in a place where my back is not exposed. 

As I reach the entrance, I slow to a creep and peer inside. A dank scent of festered chemicals rises out. The walls are speckled with flies and the strip lights buzz and tinkle with moths, but there are no people, not that I can see. I go in and quickly check each cubicle. No-one. I choose the furthest cubicle and sit down, but grab the door and keep it mostly open.

I can convince myself now, in the relative normal of a public toilet, that the mass of tents was some sort of bizarre vision, some mirage of a head not fully woken up. I must have fallen asleep and my passage out of the tent was a kind of sleepwalk, a half-dream. I will get back and the field will be normal again, or there will be a few tents, but enough that makes sense for the time-frame and noise levels. I am messed up and mussed up. It had been an exceptionally stressful day. A difficult journey over, a stodgy lunch in a pub, and a stressy Mark swearing at poles and pegs as he insisted on putting up the tent alone. 

And the sex had been dreadful. There had been barely any room to move and the airbed quickly went flat, leaving me with what felt like a carpet of stones to lie on. We went from freezing to sweating in mere minutes, but the perspiration was all from the layers of canvas and sleeping bag, rather than anything erotic. Mark did his sequence of tried and tested gropes, got himself in, held back for a bit to give me time to catch up, and then, apropos of nothing special, just went for it. I was too wound up to get anywhere close to orgasm.

I flush the toilet, wad up some tissue and wet it in the sink as I wash my hands. I wipe my thigh to get the last bits of the come off and scratch at the places where it has dried. Despite the slight murkiness of the water, I splash it over my face and the feeling helps. The mirror and the lights conspire against me, mock me for a lack of sleep. I want to go home. I want to be in my own bathroom, then in my own bed, on a night when Mark is away with work. 

A large mosquito bobs down hunting for my arm. I swat it away. I ignore the laments of the mirror, straighten my hair and flex my shoulders. There is no need to be frightened. I’ve been through worse. We’ll be out of this place first thing in the morning and home by this time tomorrow. Mark will drive, I can sleep in the car. It’s all fine. Things sort themselves out, one at a time.  

I leave the toilet block. Further along the path there is the Reception building and, behind that, the car park. No doubt it will be full of cars or motorbikes or coaches, and there will be a night-porter of some kind who will explain everything. I take a deep breath and stride up the path. I round the corner of Reception, my eyes hungry to see a car park just as full as the field. But it is not. Just one car. Ours. It looks as if it has been there for centuries, abandoned by an apocalypse. I don’t have the keys, they are in the side pocket of the inner tent, next to where Mark slumbers.

I turn my back on the emptiness and dash to the door of Reception. I thump on the window and try the handle. There is a faint light on inside but I can’t see a night-porter. I knock again, a little more calmly this time and focus on my breathing while I wait. There has to be an explanation. Perhaps there’s another entrance at the other side of the fields. Perhaps there’s an arrangement with a group of hardcore ramblers who do some sort of epic hike at this time every year. No need to come in this way, they just stroll straight off the hills and pitch-up. But so silently? No-one answers the door. 

I sit down on the step and stare at the car again. There is something sad in the droop of its headlights and the terse grimace of the front grill. It wants to be away from here too. It wants to take me back to the warm embrace of the city where I can swaddle myself in pyjamas and wait the nine months out on the sofa. If I sit here long enough, will Mark come and find me? He’ll be angry but he’ll understand. He’ll take me back to the tent, look after me until morning. Nothing to fear.

Next to me there’s one of those bug hotel things. A dissected hut, each compartment stuffed with twigs and severed bamboo and pinecones. I shine my torch onto it and see something long and wriggly shoot into one of the gaps. The light picks out stray legs and the glint of wings but the inhabitants stay still and silent and hidden. It is the first time I really picture my child. She is standing here, six or seven years old, amused but puzzled, desperate to see a creepy-crawlie. The sliced hotel keeps her attention for twenty, thirty seconds. She sees nothing. I click the torch off. Tears have welled in my eyes. 

I sniff them away. So; I’m expecting a girl. Or hoping for one. And she looks more like me than Mark. And she’s curious, unafraid. I don’t love her yet. I don’t even quite believe in her yet. But she’s there now, in some sense. I stand us both up and step down to the path. I have to go back to the tent. I have to be with Mark. There’s nowhere else for me to go. And I have my girl to protect.

The torch light fades a bit as the path takes me back into the woods. I see it go from bright white to a muted yellow. I smack at the torch to bring its brightness back. Fuck off, fuck off, I say under my breath. The whiteness returns but only for a few seconds before going dim again. I’ve brought spare batteries but they’re buried deep in Mark’s bag. 

I round the bend and glance up. The end of the woodland is dark and I can’t see the tents yet. If I lift the torch, I’ll see them. I don’t, not yet. I can see the left-hand field which is still empty. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or not. Quite unconsciously, I have balled my hand into a fist and my breaths have deepened. What exactly do I expect?

I lift the torch. It hits nylon, canvas, ropes, zips, the whole clogging mass of them, still there. The field looks fuller than ever.

I hurry off the path. I pick my way through the foliage until I’m at the last trees before the fields. I hide in its shadow and turn the torch off. The moonlight displays the tents like a challenge and I stare at them. Who lurks inside them? What do they want? They have swallowed Mark in their depths; I cannot see him or hear him. I cannot even pick out our tent. What colour was it? 

I lean my forehead against the tree and tears come to my eyes again. The back of my hand presses the tree as well, wedging the torch against my belly. I feel delirious. What am I being told? What have I done wrong? I want to shout to Mark, but I don’t want to make a sound, not even the snapping of a twig. Chloe wills me on. I have a name for her now. It came quietly to my mind moments earlier. It is a name I’ve always liked for its strangeness.

I step out and back to the path. I keep my steps silent as I creep to the gate. I lift the latch, push it open and squeeze through the gap. What now? Rip all the tents apart? I just need to be back with Mark. Then I can wake him, show him the field, and then we can grab our stuff and go home. He’ll be angry, but he’ll understand. Anyone would understand. 

I take it slow. One guy rope at a time. I step over, stand still, step over the next, and on, and on, in the direction of our tent. I still can’t remember what colour it is, or quite where we pitched it. I’m picking the easiest route through the labyrinth of strings, but am I going in the right direction? The deeper I go the more the tents tower over me and whenever I feel like I’ve turned towards Mark, a thicket of ropes bars the way and I have to choose a different route. I stop and stand on my tip-toes to look back at the fence-line. I’m too deep into the field, we didn’t pitch up this far away. I swear at myself, lip quivering, and turn back. I try to pick up the pace, taking two ropes at a time, clambering over criss-cross barriers I had rejected before. I’m in real danger of losing my balance, but I can’t stop, and I click the torch back on, sweep it over every tent in desperate hope of finding mine, or of seeing Mark, emerged and bleary-eyed and just as frightened, but I cannot see it, I cannot find our tent, I can’t remember what it looks like, which one it is. 

The torch fades out and the ground between the tents becomes a deep void. I stop, wait for my eyes to adjust, but a cloud has taken the moon away and the darkness is thick and heavy and will not relent. I have to trust my instinct and head back towards the fence-line, keeping the woodland on my left. I lunge forward with high strides to avoid the ropes, arms out for balance, but I don’t get more than five paces before my toe is snagged and I’m thrown forward. I fling my hands out, twist to protect Chloe and bring my elbow smack down on the head of a peg. A stab of bolts shoots through my arm and screams up into my head. I stifle a cry but it spits through my clamped lips where it seizes the escape of my breath. I bury my face in the ground until the pain stops its first assault. My fingers feel like millipedes having seizures. 

I suck in a deep breath and push it out again, in and out, in and out. I feel a pain in my knee now and the coldness of seeping blood. I’ve lost the torch completely. A taut guy rope digs into my back. In the tent next to me, something is moving.

I scramble away as fast as I can manage. I keep hitting ropes but I yank them out and crawl on while my arm becomes jellified ice and my stomach melts to slush. I lurch left then right, taking rope after rope with me, listening to the soft wake of slackening fabric behind. Any moment now I will hear a zip and I will scream. Any moment now. 

But then I see a glint of something I recognise. A beer can. The silvery green, the buckle in the middle. Mark’s beer from earlier, the one on his breath as he gave me Chloe. It rests against the side of a tent. Our tent. I leap up into a crouch and dart forward. By some miracle, I’m not tripped and I make it to the door. I grab the zip but hesitate. Some feeling has come back to my fizzing hand. I reach down to the grass and grope around. The sticky fluid confirms it. Our tent. I am home. 

I wipe my fingers clean, unzip the door and dive inside. 

“Mark,” I say, my voice cracked and dry. “Mark, wake up.”

I open the inner section and throw aside the flap. The tent is empty. Mark is gone.

I shut the whole tent up and stay inside. I have the lamp with me and the moth is back. It may not be the same moth. It flutters down to the lamp and up to the ceiling, down and up, down and up. It will not let me settle, it will not let me think. I turn the lamp off.

I also have the mallet from the peg-bag. It is just a lightweight plastic thing but it is better than nothing. My arm is numb and my elbow stings every time I bend it. I am dizzy with the pain as it evolves into a splitting headache. I have my phone and I’ve already tried ringing Mark. The call connected and his phone lit up in the pocket on the tent wall. The sight of it drained every last bit of my energy. I will just sit here and wait for him to get back. That’s all I need to do. The moth lands on my head and I swat it away. I turn on the lamp and prop it into the far corner. I have to think. 

The car keys. I find them in the pocket with Mark’s phone. So, he hasn’t tried to drive away. What’s the most logical explanation? He woke up, needed to piss the beer out, so he went outside, saw the tents, freaked out and got away. But where to? We didn’t pass each other in the woods, I saw no sign of him. I will give him an hour. Then I’m taking both our phones, the car keys and whatever money I can find and I’m getting out. Then I’ll phone the police and say he’s gone missing. 

Why not phone the police now? I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to make a sound. I shouldn’t really have the light on, except Mark might need help to find the tent again. The moth finds its way down to the lamp and casts jittery shadows. It tip-taps against the plastic and I start to appreciate it as a companion, as something real. I close my eyes. I try to bring Chloe back to my mind. She had seemed so clear earlier by the bug hotel. What colour had her hair been, what shape her face? I try to picture the clothes she will wear and the sound of her voice. But its all too false. Its all too much like some picture-perfect Hollywood innocent, all freckles and pigtails. She will not be blonde. She will have Mark’s long nose, my thin lips. I cannot see her at all. I try for a boy instead. Even murkier.

The moth’s tapping has stopped. I open my eyes. The lamp is out. I grab my phone and light up the screen and cast the glow in front of me. I lunge at the lamp and click the button but it doesn’t come back on. 

Zips.

A hundred-thousand zips. A million zips. All of them, ripping and screeching at once, an alien orchestra of wails. Chloe kicks and squirms in my belly but that is impossible because she is microscopic, she doesn’t really exist, not really, but there she is, thrashing like a trapped fly. The zips stop with a flourish. Now it is the flapping of fabric. It is all of them, I realise, every single tent has opened at the same time. I grip the mallet in my good hand and make myself as small and still as possible. 

No other sound. No grunts or huffs of people stepping out of tents. No clicking of torches, no voices. The night is still and silent again. I wait. I will not be the first to move. If they want me, they will have to come get me. And when the sun comes up, they will have nowhere to hide. I am stiff and still for so long that my muscles feel like concrete when I dare to shift position. I move from knelt up to cross-legged and settle again. But it is enough. Something outside changes. There is a new sound.

It is distant at first, a beep or tone of some kind. I focus on it and it grows louder. It isn’t mechanical, its organic. It cuts out for half a second and starts again. This time I recognise it. I am hollowed. I become the shell of myself. 

It is a baby, crying.

I cannot. I will not. But it grows ever more desperate, ever more pained. It screams for help while it gasps for air. I know this is a trap. I know it is primal, I’m not supposed to be able to resist that sound. It pierces deep inside my brain and burrows there. I cannot resist it. They have played their move and it has beaten me. 

I keep a grip on the mallet and crawl forward. Tears burst from my eyes as I unzip the inner door, then the outer door and step back out into the night. The scene is the same but the tent doors are all open and flapping in the breeze. The baby’s cries are coming from the centre of the field. 

I could still escape. I could still grab the car keys and get out of here, but they are the cries of Chloe, or of the boy, of my baby, and whatever else the fuck this is, I have to answer them. I have to. I step around our tent and angle myself in the direction of the wails. 

Every time I hesitate, the cries intensify and become those awful cuts of silence when a scream is not enough. I have to hurry on and never stop, not even if I trip and fall. I cannot tell which tent the cries come from but I draw nearer and nearer, skilled now at manoeuvring over the tripwire ropes. And then I see it. A red tent, with a light on inside, and the blotch of a silhouette. I stagger on, mallet still ready, and reach the baby’s tent. There is a ring of space all around it and the door is not open. I have not looked inside any of the other tents. I did not want to see. But I have to enter this one.

I use my numb hand to open the zip and my elbow needles its complaints. My knee is stinging and I look down to see my leg striped with trails of blood from a nasty wound. I should be cleaner for Chloe. I should be perfect and whole. 

I pull aside the flap and crawl in. There is no inner compartment. This is it. In the middle of the space is a baby. Its eyes are screwed up, its mouth a toothless cave out of which the screams tear forth. The baby is naked. It is male. Next to it, in collapsed disarray, are Mark’s clothes.

I have to use Mark’s t-shirt to swaddle the baby. When I pick him up, he soothes and the cries quieten down. I crouch in the centre of the tent and rock the child in the crook of my bad arm. I don’t know if he’s hungry, or sick, or cold but he’s exhausted from the wailing. The little face collapses down into sleep. Outside, tooth by tooth, the zips of all the tents are being closed. It is an odd sound, mechanical but plastic, or like footsteps of tentative insects. I wait for it to stop. I wait and wait for silence. 

The morning comes. It lifts me from a doze. The baby is still sleeping. Outside, I can hear voices. They are gentle and muted. I keep a careful hold of the baby and duck out of the tent. I leave the mallet and the clothes behind. 

It is a bright day. Cool but sunny. The field is full of people taking down the tents. They are men and women, a few teenagers. Different ages, different races. I watch for a while. The only thing they have in common is an efficiency in taking down tents. The grass soon emerges, a patchwork of flattened squares. The people heave heavy rucksacks onto their backs and tie hiking boots with double knots.

I look across to find my tent, but it has been taken down too. And behind me, the baby’s tent has been flattened. A middle-aged couple fold it and roll it up into a bundle not much bigger than the one that still sleeps in my arms. The woman sees me and smiles. She ambles over.

“Oh, isn’t he gorgeous?” she says. “Your first?”

I don’t reply. She strokes a hand across the baby’s downy head but he doesn’t wake up.

“What’s his name?” she asks.

“It’s not a he,” I say. The woman’s smile doesn’t falter but it expects more. “She’s called Chloe.”

“Beautiful name.” She touches my elbow, the bad one, and nods her head. “Look after yourselves.”

She returns to her partner and helps him load the tent into a rucksack. He slings it on and the pair of them stroll past with a cheery goodbye. They join the lazy queue of the other walkers who all chatter the morning to each other as they await departure. I shield my eyes from the sun and watch the leader of the queue scale a stile at the far end of the field. Long minutes pass as the others follow and the line of them snakes its way along the footpath and over the hills beyond.

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