Impostors: The Man in the Dark Suit

A man in a dark suit is standing in a car park on the Ridgeway, just off the B4570, above the Vale of the White Horse, maybe a couple of miles’ walk from Wayland’s Smithy. The man’s face has been tanned the colour of dried nutmeg, as if he has spent many hours each day out in the open, exposed to wind and sun and rain. But beneath his brown skin there is a plum-purple blush of overheated blood and there are beads of sweat on the corrugated folds of his forehead. Sweat glistens, too, in the last straggling strands of dark hair he has dragged over his honey-brown pate.

            A man in a charcoal-grey suit is standing, all alone, at a crossroads, at a point where modern metalled road meets bridleway. He looks stooped and tired, weary of waiting beneath the heat of the sun, but as I turn into the car park, he stiffens, straightens, takes his hands out of his pockets, as if he feels guilty at allowing his vigilance to have slipped for a moment. But clearly he has been here a long time—many minutes, many hours, perhaps many days: you can sense how long he has waited in the car park from his flushed face and sweat-slicked hair, and from the air of resigned anticipation, weary patience, that hangs about him.

            Further down the footpath, not 20 metres from where the man in the dark suit is standing, there are bushes and trees and hedgerow that might provide some shade, so that he could shelter from the fierce blast of the midday sun. But evidently the man in the dark suit is waiting—waiting for something to happen, someone to arrive. Yes, the man in the dark suit is waiting for someone or something to come to this car park on the Ridgeway: this crossroads where a twisting little country road meets the ancient thoroughfare. He looks so hot: but he shows no desire to get out of the sun. The man in the dark suit has his duty to fulfil; he has his orders to follow; he has business to complete.

            I get out of the car, taking in the scenery. On one side of me, there is the long leisurely slope of a wheat field, in which each golden-brown ear of corn is picked out in fine detail by the bright sunlight; on the other side, there is green pastureland on which some sheep graze lazily, apparently indifferent to the sweltering heat.  And I am in a white chalk-and-gravel car park, standing beside my little red Peugeot, looking at a man in a dark suit.

            The man smiles politely in welcome when he sees me, and I notice that the man’s suit is worn at the lapels and the cloth on the elbows of the jacket and the knees of his trousers are a little shiny. Perhaps sensing my gaze upon him, the man in the dark suit bridles slightly: he doesn’t actually make any movement or gesture to indicate what he’s thinking, but somehow I know he’s conscious of the dust on his boots and his loosened tie. I sense that he’d like to button up his collar, as he feels he’s been caught off guard by my turning up unexpectedly. I understand that, even though he welcomes any break in the monotony of waiting, I am also intruding on his private affairs. The man in the dark suit has other fish to fry.

            Maybe he looks bored, maybe he looks tired and dejected, but these are not the main impressions he makes, this man in a charcoal-grey, double-breasted suit. No, the main impression he makes, on me at least, is one of patience. And it occurs to me that maybe this is not the first day the man in the dark suit has come to this remote spot. Maybe he comes here every day. Maybe he comes here every day, come rain, come shine, to stand alone in the car park and wait. Maybe he never leaves the spot; maybe he has made a lean-to from hazel branches and the fronds of ferns, and he bivouacs each night in one of the copses that line the Ridgeway. Maybe he secretly sleeps in Wayland’s Smithy, rising with the dawn from the dark interior of the long barrow’s cruciform burial chambers.

            The man in the dark suit notices my eyes lingering a moment longer than is necessary on his spare frame, his long gangly limbs, his crumpled white shirt, the brown stick-like wrists that jut out from the sleeves of his jacket. ‘Nice day,’ he says conversationally. ‘Going for a walk?’

            He’s not from round here, I think to myself. Is he Irish? American? Maybe from the west coast of Scotland? But I can’t quite place the accent: it’s at once familiar and elusive. I’ve heard it before—or something similar—but it’s not exactly like any one accent I know. Maybe he’s a Traveller. Maybe he’s a gypsy—that might explain the dark skin. Or maybe he’s just one of those people who’ve lived all over, so their voices have picked up the tricks and the intonations of many different accents. Or maybe he’s European: some Germans and Scandinavians speak such good English you’d almost take them for Americans, except for something not quite right in the rhythms and the cadences of their speech.

            ‘Going for a walk?’ he asks.

            ‘Yes,’ I answer, smiling broadly, so as not to seem stuck-up or nosey or judgemental: after all, we’re just two chaps meeting at a beauty spot where lots of people come to walk and take in the views. ‘I thought I’d take a stroll along the Ridgeway: maybe take a quick look at Wayland’s Smithy.’

            The man in the dark suit nods. His eyes are pale grey, but the irises are rimmed with a darker, bluer shade of grey. They somehow look out of place gazing out from his leathery brown face. ‘Have a good time,’ he says still smiling. But the man’s eyes look serious. Perhaps they look a little sad. Or maybe this is just something I am imagining, because the eyes don’t seem to belong with the rest of the man in the dark suit. They don’t seem to match.

            ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ I say blandly, just to make sure he understands I am not at all curious about his sad grey eyes and his dark, weather-beaten skin and the fact his suit looks too big for his bony long-limbed body. And so I walk away from the man in the dark suit, leaving him in the white chalk car park, and I don’t look back, because I am not curious. Really I’m not. I am just going for a stroll along the Ridgeway, and maybe I’ll take a look at Wayland’s Smithy and then walk down over to the White Horse and down to Uffington Castle or Hardwell Fort. If I have time, that is.

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