The Saga of the Stone is a short story I wrote back in 1997 (although it's been revised a bit over the years).
To me it's a very personal story – because the events and people in it are real. It covers a series of events that happened to me when I was 20, which very nearly cost me my life. But that said, it's also a story I find inspirtational, as so much of what happened during that night echoes a lot of the trials we experience in life.
As I've said before in The Problems We Can't Fix, we will all go through periods of our life when we experience deep personal problems. When I went through such a patch in 1997, I decided to look back to the events of the Saga of the Stone and write about the life and death struggle. It felt like a powerful metaphor for getting through any kind of problem.
I think we all have a Saga of the Stone story in some way in our past. I certainly feel inspired hearing the tales of a friend named Jess Bromley talk about hers. Her story and mine remind me that life is a gift, and one of the huge tragedies in life is, it takes tragedy or near-tragedy to appreciate it.
The Saga of the Stone
Dedicated to the memory of Violet Wallbank,
a friend in dark places.
They say in life that the only certainties are death and taxes. Yet as children - if we’re lucky – we grow up shielded from both.
We might hear about murders on the television or of elderly relatives who we never really knew ‘passing away’. But they’re, too distant – there’s no sense of intimacy, and no sense of loss. But sooner or later death comes into our lives, taking someone close, and it leaves it’s mark on us.
For me in happened when I was 20 and studying at the University in Sheffield. It was nearly Christmas, the countdown to festivities had begun, which pretty much meant for all of us it was partytime! But before we planned to hit the local bars, I had to phone my parents at home, for the weekly catch up.
It was then a bombshell hit when my mother said to me, “I was told by Mable at church that one of your friends from school’s died”.
My seemed to catch in my throat as I managed to ask, “Who was it?”
“She didn’t really say ... James somebody I think. I think you used to be friends in school. It was something to do with drugs. I expect it’ll be in the Burton Mail.”
After a slight silence we finished off our phone call, said our goodbyes and hung up I headed back to my room, the news circling around my head. James - it could only be James Taylor. At school he’d been my best friend, for a while when our fleeting interested had matched. But teenage friendships can be fickle, and as we moved on to Sixth Form Colleges and then University, our connection had become broken.
That was until just a few months ago – we’d been both working the same crappy summer jobs at the local factory. He was a different man though – at school and after he’d been a lively character – ever ready for a fight or a drunken dare, and much admired by many of the girls for it. He was a guy brimming with confidence and humour. Yet the man I’d met that summer had been subdued and almost haunted.
Life was not going well for him – he’d got into trouble at University, with him getting kicked off his course. His parents wouldn’t have him back at home. And now he was stuck trying to work at the local factory to make ends meet. But his woes didn’t end there. He’d just found out he’d managed to get his girlfriend pregnant, and just felt he didn’t know what to do, trying to talk the girl into taking an abortion.
He admitted he didn’t drink too much any more – it’d got him in too much trouble, as he was always getting angry when he did. But he did do some drugs – and could do me a deal if I ever needed some, he had a few “connections”.
Maybe my choice of words weren’t the best thought out – I told him he needed to sort his life out, and that drugs are for losers. Alas the textbook “good kid” response to the “kid gone wrong”. But stupid words that offer no comfort or help. A few days later he was fired, though on the factory floor the reason behind that varied from his attitude to him caught stealing …
And now he was dead. A friend, a school friend, my age, dead. This wasn’t the way I thought life worked – death was something for the elderly or something that happened elsewhere. Not something in Burton-on-Trent.
Deep inside I couldn’t help wondering if there was something I could have said, or done that would have altered his terrible fate. Something better than condemning his mistakes.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like partying anymore.
The world seemed different - it was the last week of term before the Christmas break, and my hall of residence was decked in lights, tinsel and decorations. The students around me were dedicated to celebrating the season to the last of their allowance and beyond.
The thought went over and over again in my head “He’s dead?”.
I needed to speak to someone, to be with someone. I tried so many friends, but they were either gripped with the merriment of the season, or else feverishly slaving over assignments due in later that week. I felt utterly alone - a gulf away from the party folk and revellers.
The atmosphere of celebration was like some foul air to me, on which only I was retching. I grabbed a coat and headed out, away from all the laughter and cheers, the small talk and antics. It was a cold, frosty December night, and the chilling, sobering air offered some small portion of relief and clarity.
I got off the bus to be greeted by the silence of emptiness, and headed out, away from the mad city gripped fervently in celebration, away from those who would tell me to ‘cheer up and have a beer’, away ... where I could think, and, perhaps, find some answers.
A light chill mist hung in the darkness as I set off, following the isolated chain of electric lamps which led like some mythical ‘yellow brick road’ to darkness and oblivion. The world was silent but for the terrible humming of the lamps above which made the place seem that much more empty and eerie. Behind me the city lights bathed the horizon in an orange phosphorescent glow, like a mechanical sunrise. Back there shone people and houses and all their petty hopes and dreams, ahead lay the darkness and obscurity which was my destination.
It was a long walk, but did nothing to settle or calm me. I was resolved now in my mind as to my destination - to stand in utter darkness, beneath the naked sky and there, maybe, standing between the Earth below and the Heavens above, maybe there I would find some revelation or perspective, to find out why my friend was dead.
This was a walk I’d done many times before, but never in such darkness or such cold. The landscape, so beautiful and lush in the sunlight, seemed in this blackness like that of some haunted, shadow world. It was eerie, but it matched my mood so well, so much better than the dazzling, happy lights of the city. I walked on.
And then the lights ran out - the edge of civilisation, beyond the grip of the city whose orange glow raged on behind me was like a inferno swallowing the horizon. Here now to one side stretched a large reservoir, with a sign, battered and abused saying ‘Yorkshire Water’ and warning people not to contaminate the water. For a moment I fought back the childish urge to urinate in the lake - to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who’d made me feel so alienated tonight, but it passed with a turning in the wind, and I renewed my attention to the road ahead, past the orange monochrome world, and entering dark shadows that waited ahead.
I looked back to see that last, lonely lamppost, its light reaching vainly out to me, like a lighthouse calling me back to the shores of civilisation and people. I took a deep breath that chilled me inside. The misty darkness was terrifying and unsettling now that I stood within it, and that last light seemed so warm and secure and open. But I had set my sights further afield, and swallowing my nerves with renewed resolve, I moved further into the darkness...
The darkness where it waited, as I knew it would. Aware as I was of it, my first sight of it still filled me with dread. Even in daylight it was unnerving, but swathed in the night it seemed more evil still.
At some point it had been a car, perhaps one which ferried children to school, carried shopping home and took families on holiday. But now, by some unknown twist of fate it lay here, nothing more than a burnt out wreck, a rust covered shell of an automobile, that reminded me all too much of a rusty medieval hanging cage where the corpses of men would be displayed as a warning to other travellers. I quickened my pace, faster, faster until the shadows and mist had swallowed it whole again, yet still I felt it watching me, and waiting.
I walked on, the reservoir on one side, a forest to the other, until at last the road unceremoniously ended and twisted off to the right to become a footpath through the trees. The frozen, muddy path creaked and scrunched under my feet ‘crunch crunch crunch’, and I stopped every so often, hearing something rustle in the woods to one side. I would gaze with the eerie feeling of being watched, staring into the still and silent trees, each time bracing for an attack from some swift, unseen assailant. But the only demons pursuing me were phantoms of my mind.
Little did I know it as I walked on, but danger, lurked from another, unseen but very real direction.
Eventually, the forest petered out, and before me stretched the endless emptiness of the Moors. At last I was alone, standing on land untouched and twisted to mankind’s purposes, a timeless land. I stretched out my arms, breathing in the gloriously desolate air as if being resuscitated by the breath of God, and threw my head back to view the night sky - clouded as it was with only faint, isolated stars peering through the dark clouds.
The footpath - not really a path, but a worn track - snaked and staggered like a drunken man, until at last it came to a huge rock, at which point it seemed to fork off. I lay down on the rock, and looked into the sky. It felt peaceful - and there I felt an understanding of life pass into me.
“What happened James?” I wondered in almost silent prayer. And although the clouds never parted to reveal a holy light, still within me a stirring calmness seemed to answer my thought - life goes on ... my life should go on.
I could have stayed there forever, but the cold rock chilled my back, so I got up, and contemplated going on. Two paths were in front of me - though I never remembered there being two when I’d done this route in daylight! But the one on the left looked the most familiar, and so I set off.
The moors were calming - much more serene than the reservoir road or the path through the forest. It felt open, tranquil, safe - nothing lurking unseen, nothing to be heard but the wind and the ‘crunch crunch crunch’ of frozen mud and grass beneath my feet.
‘Crunch kerplunk’. I realised in my romancing of the moors how careless I’d been. And how very stupid - stupid and complacent. My right foot had gone through ice and into a trapped puddle beneath, the chilled water numbing all feeling there.
This was no path, but a marsh with a thin icy crust that I was walking on. I pulled my foot out and turned around. My path, the twisting winding path of which I’d been so certain of was gone like a mirage. In the faint night light I had mistaken a series of scuffs in the grass for a safe path. It was no such thing. Now I had no idea where I was or even which direction to head back in.
Panic. How could I find my way again? The frozen marsh would be all around me - I’d been lucky or rather unlucky to get so far that the fork in the road was far out of sight. I knew roughly which direction the other path was.
If I could head to that - surely I couldn’t miss it - then I’d be able to find my way back again.
I walked a few steps ‘kerplunk’ went one foot into the freezing marshy water, a few more steps ‘kerplunk’ went the other. On and on it went - and then the ground gave way – this time it was serious.
The ground had swallowed me to my waist. This must have been a frozen marsh, the water an icy shock to the lower part of my body - freezing, paralysing.
I grabbed the edge, and slowly, tentatively pulled myself out, the ice around groaning and creaking and threatening to cast me back. I lay for a moment out of the water - shivering and terrified.
Cautiously I stood up, half expecting the ground to swallow me up again - I had no idea which direction I was headed in anymore, no star constellations were visible and the city glow was invisible now, obscured by far off trees themselves too far in the dark to discern. I turned around and around frantically, but all directions looked the same - their end obscured by the darkness and the mist.
My heart pounded - both Hathersage and Sheffield were equally close I knew, though lay in opposite directions. There was only one thing to do - chose a direction and keep on until I found something, anything that would find my bearings, and then find the safest route to either haven.
It was slow progress, and one after the other I put each foot down tentatively, testing the ground before putting my weight upon it. My drenched jeans - what a stupid choice of clothing they were - clung heavy about my legs, and were starting to freeze up in the sub-zero temperatures.
Cold and in the dark I stumbled on and on and on.
I’d walked the Moors before many a time. I was drawn to them with their timelessness and rugged beauty. Here I felt my relationship problems, work problems, money problems all melt away into the landscape. Now too it didn’t matter that Claire didn’t like me, that Mark wasn’t speaking to me or that Prof. Combley was disappointed in my work.
Here all that mattered was that I find my way out and survive.
It seemed like forever, going on and on in vain - every so often slipping back into the frozen marsh which for all my new found caution threatened to swallow me whole.
The darkness and the mist played tricks before my eyes, forming vague outlines of the track that I so desperately wanted to discover. But they were only phantoms, each one dashing my spirits a little more, surely and certainly breaking me. My jeans had frozen solid now, like an unbreakable rigid plastic numbing my legs as I stumbled on, tearful, hopeless and so very alone.
At last in the nothingness of grass and marsh something different came out of the mist - a single stone, shaped like some ancient pagan altar, stood alone in this wilderness. Pitifully I clung onto the stone as a drowning man clutches some flotsam in the hope of staying afloat. I called aloud to God to help me - but no divine intervention followed. I was stranded, freezing on the one solid island in this sea of uncertain frozen marsh.
With my body worn out I shivered more and more violently. I was lost, with no hope of rescue on this freezing night, and I was going to die. The idea of death didn’t worry me, not at all. But not this way. Freezing to death would not be an easy slipping away from this mortal coil - no I could look forward to hours of violent shaking and shivering before that happened - it would be a long, cold and lonely death. I tried to make myself comfortable face down on that stone, hoping to sleep and speed up the process. How I wish that death would quickly and swiftly come to me...
And there, on that stone I died.
It was in that moment of utter hopelessness - of settling down to the inevitable fate of death - that something had stirred within me. A new hope came upon me – I would not give in, I would go on.
I got up. The stone I had clutched in desperation and certain death I now released in hope to find my way again. I felt something familiar about this place now I looked with eyes turned to survival rather than fading in death.
The ground further on had little grass, and was quite stony. I followed it until, at last, it gave way to a cliff edge. At last I was found again, for down there would be a road which would lead me to Hathersage I was sure. I followed the cliff edge along until it came at last to a point I knew to be a relatively gentle, downwards path, which, if I was right, I had been truly fortunate to stumble across. My luck at last was changing for the better!
I made my way down slowly, arms supporting me as my legs, one by one tested the ground. I inched down the slope, all too aware I had made enough rash mistakes for one lifetime this night.
At the bottom, a lonely road waited for me. It was deserted, not a single car moved along it. But I knew it and it would lead me where I needed to go.
My mind was racing. Ideally I’d have been headed back to Sheffield where I had a warm room waiting for me, but at least Hathersage was off the Moors, the beautiful and deadly Moors.
There was no way I would risk going back through them to Sheffield! But once I reached Hathersage what then? Throw myself at the mercy of the first house I came to? What would they care for some dumb walker who’d got himself into trouble? But I was alive and off the moors, and what ever it would take now to stay alive I’d do.
I walked into Hathersage, a quiet, deserted town at this time. I saw by the village clock it was 3 o’clock - almost 6 hours since I left, and how many of them lost and despairing on the lonely, savage Moors?
I found a public phone - thank God I had plenty of change, the first thing I’d done right this night! I called several taxi firms in Sheffield, getting their numbers off the back of my Student’s Union card, only to be told I was out of their region. I tried several local companies, but in this quiet village they had closed down for the night.
But I was not beaten - not yet.
I made my way towards the train station - I’d survived hours on the Moors, I was sure I could survive the remaining hours until the next train. I read the badly lit timetable, scrubbing away the ice which had formed on it’s surface, to find the next train would arrive at 6:50 am. Now if I could only get some shelter - like the public toilets and then remove these freezing jeans which were sapping my strength to move in, then things wouldn’t be so bad.
I tried the public toilets but found them locked - what kind of place locks it’s toilets up at night? My only chance of shelter was a bus stop, exposed as it was on one side. I huddled there, but the bitter wind blew right through. “So this is it?” I thought “reduced to living little better than a vagrant?”.
I wandered around – not knowing what to do. Wanting to sort myself out, not rely of help. Keep moving, keep warm, and take that first train.
Wandering the church, I noticed there before me was the grave of Little John - the reason I’d first come to this village. He was something of a hero of mine – tall, legendarily strong and I always thought of him as an unswervingly loyal right hand man. Several places claimed to be the burial place of Robin Hood, who I thought of as probably a vain and egotistical leader, but there lay a man who in my eyes was solid, dependable, loyal - all the things I felt a man should strive to be.
This was no time to give up, and I had no wish to join Little John in his final repose. I decided I needed help, and hoped I could rely on the Vicarage to lend me some aid. I rang the bell, once ... twice ... a light came on upstairs, and then another, and another, this time downstairs. Then the clanking, twisting creaking of a door lock.
My heart leapt into my mouth and I swallowed hard, terrified of being turned away, so ashamed to rely so heavily on the unknown compassion and charity of whoever stood behind that door at such an unsocial. Would they rant and rave about being woken at such an hour? I certainly would. The door slowly opened, and a grey haired head of a man looked cautiously, blearily around, his face both strict and compassionate in equal measure.
“Can you help me?” I shivered pathetically, “I’ve had a bit of a walking accident.”
“You’d better come in” he said matter-of-factly. I followed him into the wonderfully warm house. A quiet, gentle Alsation padded up to me, and stroking him I felt life return to my hands. Quietly, the old man looked over me. “You’d better get out of those clothes. Do you want a drink?”
“Er ... y-yes please.”
He put the on the gas fire, and disappeared into another room. I cut open my frozen laces with a nail clipper in my pocket, and struggled out of my icy jeans which turned slowly malleable in the new found warmth, and sat there in front of the glorious heat, clutching that dog and shivering the deep-set cold out of me.
I looked around the room - there were shelves of neatly arranged books on Christianity and faith. He returned and offered me a steaming stoneware mug of coffee.
“I’m Jeremy, the vicar for this Parish.” he softly informed me. “So what happened?”
So I told him my tale of my lost friend, and how my reaction had led me into such danger this night. He asked me about James, and about myself, and with the lifting of the cold and the emotional burden, life seemed to take shape once more. And after a while, he got up, saying “We’d better take you home.” He left the room to get changed from his pyjamas and dressing gown, and came back properly dressed, passing me a pair of jogging bottoms. “Try them on.” he said.
There was mainly silence in the warm car trip home, save the odd directions.
When at last he pulled up to my hall of residence and I said “Thanks ever so much”. It didn’t seem enough. He’d saved my life, never complaining once about being woken up at such an unearthly hour, and words seemed such a little thing in return. I owed him a great debt, and he wished for nothing in return. I watched him drive away, passing away into the mist before returning to my room, the Christmas decorations seeming less oppressive than they had been hours earlier.
I woke the next morning still shivering, and looked around my room as if looking at it for the first time. I had lost a friend last night, but in trying to deal with it, I’d looked death in the face myself. Something had changed. I was a little wiser, but not that much. I would still make mistakes, I knew that. But I had looked into the depths of despair … and came out the other side. And to survive, sometimes I had to look to myself, and sometimes I knew I had to have to courage to ask for help. There was no shame in needing help I knew that now.
This is not a tale about heroics or a man’s triumphant battle against the elements. This is a tale about a friend who died, a stone which gave me hope, and a vicar who came to the rescue.
James is long gone now, Jeremy has moved to another parish (though I did get the chance to visit him again at a more reasonable hour that summer and thank him again) and I am forever growing into an older, wiser man. With the odd bend in the track along the way.
Life moves on, and death leaves friends behind us. But the stone remains - like a seat on Mount Olympus it looks out over the cliffs and to the countryside of Derbyshire. It hangs on the edge of all that is timeless and eternal. And it waits for me still.
I’ve visited it many times - that strange stone that broke me and re-forged me. And each time I look at what I have done with the extra life and wisdom I gained there, remembering the night when my petty problems faded away and only survival mattered.
I last visited it with my wife, and explained its significance and what happened there, sharing the tale of my struggle against insanity and the elements. And knowing its importance, she promised me that when I die, she would return my ashes there.
It gives me comfort to know that in death I will return to the place that gave me back my life and my hope. For I am a mortal man, and I now know death must someday come to me, as one by one it comes for so many others who I’ve known along the path of life.
But the stone remains. The stone remains forever.
The story you’ve just read was based on real events, with some name changes.
Over twenty years have now passed, and on each December 10th I remember it, and count my blessings as I’ve been given one more year of life. And it feels a wonderful gift, though I say this against the tragedy of a loss of a friend.
This much I know – in my story there are two people having problems and asking for help. My friend James was in trouble, and my reaction was to point out his mistakes. However when I was in trouble, Jeremy the Vicar listened and offered help.
I realise now that people in trouble sometimes just need to be listened to, they’re all too aware sometimes of where they went wrong. And often the judgement from another is enough to terrify people from opening up and talking. Life sometimes seems too full of people willing to judge, but it’s the people who’re willing to listen who make the world a better place.
The last year has been a tough one for me, as I lost another close friend named Violet. And in some ways I’ve found myself going through some similar motions as in this story dealing with her loss. Though this time my grief didn’t take me on such a perilous path.
But grief makes us act in strange ways. Sometimes it can seem to others as if a kind of madness has gripped us. But to us, we’re trying to make sense of a strange and very personal loss. I know with Violet I was all too aware of complaining how unfair her death was. As if God was some football referee who if we complained to enough would reverse their decision, and bring you back your beloved friend.
But life can’t work like that, though in grief we wish it could.
Ironically Violet helped me so much with the writing of this story, and now sadly I’m finding I’m adding her name to it, in a way I could never have imagined at the time.
Grief takes us to strange and terrifying places. A lot of times we have to weather the path by ourselves. If this tale has a message, it’s that it’s okay when you’re lost to ask for help.