The Bloody Hill
The Hill was in front of him. It had many different names since no one knew what it was rightly called, but to Oscar it was just The Hill. On occasion it became The Bloody Hill or other contemptuous names, but usually it was just The Hill. It was a monolith in Oscar’s mind as surely as it was a long climb with a steep incline in real life, because he had so often tried to reach the top of it, but had managed it only once. Sometimes he wondered why he climbed The Hill at all, except that it was there to climb and he wanted to see what was on the other side of it, to see if anything had changed from the last time. Originally, it had been curiosity, but now it had become determination not to be beaten.
He adjusted the gears on the bike, changing them down in the hope that doing so would make the ascent a little easier, though he knew from painful experience that the difference was minimal. Once or twice he had even walked up that long road, but that was before he had the bike, and it had been even slower, if not quite so much work. The problem with The Hill, Oscar always thought as he reached the bottom of it, was that you could not see the top until you were nearly all the way up. It was just steep and steep and steeper still before the long awaited plateau stretched out suddenly ahead of the rapidly spinning front wheel.
Trying to steel himself mentally, Oscar raised himself from the saddle to put more effort into pushing the pedals and felt the familiar change in speed as the road rose up in front of him. Pedalling hard, he pushed forwards and was surprised with the speed at which he made it up the first quarter of The Hill. That worried him. Whenever the first part of the ascent seemed easy, it was good odds that the rest would be doubly difficult. Thinking that made him slow his legs, until he shook himself and pressed forwards once more.
There were no houses on The Hill; people either lived at the foot of one side or the other. This meant that there were good views of the surrounding countryside and it was not unusual to see many people travelling the road or simply walking some of the way up to admire the view. Today, though, it was empty and Oscar revelled in the opportunity to take his mind from the difficulty of the ride and content himself instead with the rolling hills and green meadows. It was a paradise all of its very own.
There was a different sound to it today though. The noise of the tyres on the road and the whizz of the spokes as they turned around in the wheel were nearly drowned by a clinking noise as though someone was knocking two very heavy rocks together. Looking all around him, Oscar could not see where this noise was coming from, and assumed it must be coming from the hidden plateau. Curiosity drove him forwards, though as he had predicted the climb had now become more difficult. His legs had begun to ache – filled with lactic acid – but he tried to ignore it and keep pedalling. Sweat ran down his face, which was red from the effort, and his breath came in gulps that threatened a touch of asthma if it did not end soon. Gritting his teeth, Oscar pedalled onwards. I will make the summit. This time, I will.
He was about halfway up now, maybe a little more. He recognised the stretch of the road from the verge at the side. Huge green weeds grew here, strangling the life from other plants, weaving between the blackened wood of diseased roses and blocking sunlight from dying Forget-Me-Nots. Oscar did not like this part of the road – it was the worse stretch, the stretch where the pain started to hit the worst and where he had so often turned his bike around and made his way back to the town below. He tried to push on, tried to ignore the verge and keep his mind on the road.
A sharp birdcall from within the thorns made him turn, though. It sat amongst the weeds, perched on a piece of blackened rose briar, a fat, grey shrike with a black mask. All along the briar it sat on were small animals impaled on thorns – the prey of the butcher bird – and Oscar was horrified to see amongst them a nightingale and a swallow. The front wheel of his bike wobbled and he struggled to control it, veering towards the bird and its serial killer’s larder. Stumbling onto the verge, the bike shook, longing to bring Oscar to the floor. The Shrike flew up from amongst the thorns and Oscar managed to wrench the handlebars away, so that the bike stayed upright. He felt thorns tear at his leg, but ignored the pain, steering himself back towards the road.
When the rubber touched tarmac once more, he stopped, reaching his feet down to the floor and waiting. His hands hurt from gripping the handlebars and his leg smarted from the touch of the thorn. There was a familiar tickling on his skin as blood ran from the wound. Breathing out heavily, Oscar looked towards where the top of The Hill must be, but he could not see it. The road stretched onwards and it seemed there were many miles still to go. He looked towards the town, at the long stretch he had ridden up. Not so bad, he thought. It was a reasonable distance to have come and it would be good training for the next time. There was no harm in going home, recovering a little, and maybe going to sleep.
It came from somewhere deep within him and felt like an electric current had been put through him. He could not turn back now. He could not allow The Bloody Hill to defeat him again. He looked back at the shrike, which had settled once more amongst its prey. Taking up a small stone he flung it at the bird, causing it to fly away, shrieking its sharp call to any who would listen. Resolved, he started off once more, feeling fresh and ready for the rest of the ascent.
The road flew past under his wheels and he kept his head down and pedalled for all he was worth. The electricity in his veins pushed him onwards, kept him fighting against the bike and against the road. He rode with his head down, looking only at the piece of tarmac in front of him, not counting how many miles he had come or worrying about those left ahead.
It was because of this that he did not see her until she shouted, her words drowned by the clinking noise, which was loudest here. He looked up suddenly, saw her in his path, and flung the bike left as she rolled right. He managed to slam the brakes on, the front wheel skidding in the gravel and bumping gently against a large white stone. Dismounting, he hurried over to her, where she sat, rubbing her ankle.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, “nothing broken.”
He breathed a sigh of relief and offered her a hand to help her to her feet.
“Sorry, I wasn’t looking. I was trying to get up The Bloody Hill,” he said, frowning nervously.
“That’s okay. I shouldn’t have backed out into the road, but I was trying to get a better look.”
She gestured towards the white stone and Oscar saw that the stone formed part of the base of what looked like a Roman temple. There were columns in white marble and capping stones, with broken friezes. It looked like it had been run down. Here and there figures in white dust suits were working away with chisel, chipping at the stone, reshaping it. This was the source of the clinking noise.
“What is it?”
“It’s an old temple,” she said, “it’s been here for many years, but it needs some restoration. I’m just trying to decide what it should look like.”
“Won’t you restore to how it looked before it fell down?” he asked, frowning a little as he tried to take in the size of it. It would be huge when it was complete.
“I could,” she said, nodding, “but it fell down for a reason. It needs to be something that can be used for years to come, something that people will care for. For that, it needs to be functional as well as beautiful.”
“It’s certainly beautiful.”
“Yes. I’m very glad to have found it,” she said, a wide smile appearing on her face.
She stood still for a moment, just looking towards it and smiling. He wondered if she was imaging what it would look like when it was finished, and longed to see inside her mind to the plans she had for it. He made a mental note to come back soon and see what changes she had made. Just as he did so, she seemed to come back to the present. She turned to him and smiled.
“Well, I ought to be getting back to work,” she said, “good luck with the rest of the hill.”
“Thanks,” he said, “I’ll come back and see how you’re getting on tomorrow.”
“I best get working then,” she said with a laugh.
Oscar took his bike and wheeled it away from the temple, looking back over his shoulder at the beautiful building, with the people working to restore it. She stood there in the middle of them, giving instructions. Getting into the saddle, he turned it onto the road and pushed himself forward looking now and then over his shoulder, back towards the temple. Shortly he realised that he was no longer fighting the road and that it had levelled. He had reached the plateau. From here he could see all of the town and the countryside, but it was the temple that he looked towards, the top of it just appearing above the crest of the ridge.
I’ll be back tomorrow.
He spurred himself forwards and saw the long road stretching down on the other side of The Hill. He changed up the gears and pedalled to the edge, before standing up on the pedals and allowing himself to freewheel. The wind whipped at his face, the rolling hills and meadows became a green blur, and he shouted with joy as he sped away from The Hill’s summit.