Finally the forest opens out and the path gets rocky. I can see a bit further ahead. Conifers give way to broadleaf and fallen leaves carpet the path. I find a place and sit for a while. Unexpectedly, I find some chocolate in my pocket. I sit and chew, looking through a gap in the trees at another gully and another ridge beyond. I can’t get used to the scale of the landscape here. When I began I was still thinking in Sussex Countryside scale. In England you can’t really cross many ridges before you come to a road, or very probably a service station and an industrial estate. It’s taken a while to fully realize that civilization is not going to be over the next ridge, nor the next, nor the one after that. This gully is full of ferns, some taller than I am, and there’s a stream in the bottom, full of fallen leaves. The rain is less driving here. As I sit, I feel the heavy drops on my hat. I look out under the edge of it up into the branches and several drops land on my face. They taste of resin.
Still, I feel ok, out here alone with just the weather and the terrain to contend with. It feels alright. I couldn’t be with them any more. Kev will have to handle them. He looked like he’d just about had enough of it himself. I guess he can’t choose who he gets to look after but I don’t know why I ended up travelling with them.
We landed on a beautiful stretch of desert shore – a tiny harbour and some mule carts waiting for us. We’d been sailing for I have no idea how long – months certainly, but the weather had been getting steadily better, with the widest bluest skies I have ever seen and high cirrus clouds and then tropic birds circling all around. The air was wonderfully warm and I swear I could smell trees long before I saw land.
There’s something strange about the perspective here. These mountains I’m in now were visible from a long way out, dominating the distance, and as time went on we could see desert hills with palm trees and whitewash, terracotta tile buildings on the sea front. I was in shorts and a vest and up on deck most of the time. Ray and his cronies stayed out of sight. I dreaded them appearing up there, making ‘clever’ remarks.
The guys with the carts were Spanish, which gave me a chance to practice. I’d never been to Spain in life, or anywhere really, but the village was exactly what I expected a Spanish village to look like. We stopped for a few hours and I looked around. There was a nice little bar, and kitchen gardens all around, watered by springs flowing out of the rocks. They gave me some figs, which I didn’t think I’d like, but which tasted wonderful, and a little plate of bread and ham, and some warm red wine. I’d like to have stayed, but everyone was loading up and getting ready to go. Somehow, the hundred or so passengers dispersed without me really noticing, along other paths I suppose. Our group formed a caravan of three covered wagons. I was depressed (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) to see Ray and the others there, Solly smirking superciliously at the scene, Ray still trying to look like he had everything under control, Brenda pointedly avoiding eye contact, Liz apparently not travelling with us. Only Harry showed his real feelings – outraged bewilderment. I noticed he’d grasped the power of non-violent direct action remarkably quickly. He just got in the way of anything he didn’t like. I managed to get into one of the other carts. Kevin, our guide, went round and checked that everything was secure and got into the front cart and Alex, our driver, said something quietly to the animals and we began to move off.
The road was rocky and threw us about a fair bit, but we lounged among the baggage, which was soft enough if you didn’t mind a bit of dust. The canvas was pulled back and we lay back and watched buzzards soaring high above. Later, as the sun came overhead we pulled the canvas over and snoozed in the shade, rocked to sleep by the motion or the cart. I was sharing with an older man called Martin and two ladies, Beth and Celine, who stayed very close and whispered a lot to each other – not in a rude way, I didn’t take it personally, they just didn’t much talk to anyone else. They smiled at us a lot though. I think they were in love. Martin looked out at the landscape but also didn’t seem inclined to share his thoughts. The only thing I heard him say the whole day was ‘I wish my wife could have seen this.’ Alex was singing quietly to himself. It was all very soothing. We spent the night in the carts. We had beans and pork and more wine, and coffee and bread and olives. Alex sang for us with his guitar.
Then we could hear Harry and Ray yelling at each other from their wagon. We hadn’t heard much from them all day since we left the harbour. I don’t know if it was deliberate or not, but as we went on, their wagon fell further and further behind and we enjoyed the peace and quiet without them. Now here they were arguing about something to do with their belongings. When they emerged they were all smiles as far as we were concerned but they didn’t seem to be talking to each other. Ray looked over at me but I wouldn’t look back. I prodded the fire and wished they’d go away. Pretty soon I decided it was time to sleep and headed back to our wagon.
In the morning I discovered that Beth and Celine were to swap places with Harry and Solly. I never found out why but I’m sure it wasn’t Beth and Celine’s idea.
All that day’s journey Harry sat looking sourly at the floor between his legs, still wearing that paunched grey suit while Solly grinned stupidly at the landscape, smoking heavily all the while. Every jolt made Harry look like he might erupt. I tried to ignore them, but it was impossible. Somehow, they occupied the entire space. Martin was perched precariously on some sacks near the back and after our mid morning break I went and sat with Alex up front.
‘Might’ve fucking guessed...’ I heard Harry mumble as I sat down
‘Just leave it’ I heard Solly say quietly but Harry was not put off and he leaned around to look at our backs. ‘I wondered how long it’d be’ he said. ‘Are you very cosy up there, you two?’ We tried to ignore him but it was difficult. Alex started singing but the noises of derision from below became too intrusive and he gave up. Martin got down and walked along a little way behind.
I put up with this for two more days. The road got steeper and more winding and shaded with pines. I also walked along behind a lot of the time but neither Martin nor I wanted to do it all day so we had to put up with sharing the space with Solly and Harry. Kevin tried to get them to not take up so much space but they were surly and uncooperative. That evening there was another fight, and in the morning Ray had taken Solly’s place. Solly was staying out of the way. During that day’s ride Ray tried periodically to engage me in conversation, making crap jokes and then telling us all we had no sense of humour when we didn’t laugh.
On the third night I got all the warm clothes I could find, all the food I could carry and set off up a side path on my own. I was so furious. I mean, if you can’t get away from these arseholes when you die, when can you? Isn’t there supposed to be some sort of come-uppance for people like these, or what’s the point? Shouldn’t Kev be able to do something? This can’t be the first time this sort of thing has happened. But I was also angry with myself. This was not the first time I’d been in this position. Maybe I should have said something. They’re just bullies after all, and mum always said bullies are just cowards and you should just stand up to them. But it’s not true. Bullies are not cowards – they’re dangerous children, and they don’t care what they have to do to get what they want – even when there’s nothing that can be done to get them what they want. They just do whatever they feel like, and I know I’ll never be like that. I’ll never be able to stand up to them because I’ll always care what I have to do.
I’ve thought about all this a lot. I think they’re lost here. There’s nothing here anybody wants to deal with them for. They can’t threaten anybody with anything, or deprive them of anything. Nobody cares here. Nobody’s impressed. All they can do is be irritating, and I think they know that and it makes them mad.
I did feel a bit guilty, leaving Kev to deal with it, and the others seemed nice enough people. I felt sorry for them. I wonder where they are now. I keep expecting them to catch up with me any moment and appear round a corner. It’s getting dark anyway – I don’t know if it’s more rain clouds or dusk. I’ve lost track of time.
When I saw him later on, Kev told me people do tend to get what they deserve here, one way or another. Being here affects people. Very few go back into life a second time the way they were. I hope he’s right. Apparently Harry ran off into the trees soon after I left. Nobody went after him. I asked what was the difference between me going off and Harry. Kev said he never had any doubt I knew where I was going, and he was just making sure I was well equipped. ‘Harry’ he said ‘got lost a long time ago.’
I tramp on down another slope, brushing against the lower branches of the trees, splashing in the puddles. The rain is getting heavier and I can only see the path immediately in front of me through the drips falling off the brim of my hat. I’m surprisingly comfortable though. This cape they gave me is brilliantly designed. It hangs loose around my body, enveloping both me and my pack. The boots are soft leather, and waterproof to my shins and then gaiters come up past the hem so my legs don’t get at all wet. I wish I’d had gear like this when I was alive. Dad used to say there’s no such thing as bad weather – only bad equipment, but we could never afford the good stuff so I was always either cold and damp from the rain seeping in, or the sweat seeping out, depending on the season.
When I need to stop for the night there’s this amazing tent that folds out of a compartment in the backpack without me having to take the pack off, and it’s designed so you just grab these loops and pull it over your head and down around you. It takes about a second. Then you slot these flexible poles in from inside and you can stow your cape and boots in a compartment at the end by your feet. There’s this thick sewn-in ground sheet that inflates. I reckon you could erect it floating in a pond and not get wet. I’ve spent days on end in it, sleeping, reading, looking out at the rain through the transparent panels, waiting for the weather to improve. Somehow it doesn’t get boring.
So I put the tent up again and I’m warm and snug inside and I start to rummage around in the pack to see if there’s any food left. There always seems to be something to eat and some fresh socks. Bizarre. I know I’m not alone. I think there’s a fairy in here doing my laundry and going shopping for me.
Now the rain is easing off. I open the door and look out at the forest.
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