As I kept on walking I felt the climate gradually turn hot and heavy and the vegetation became richer and more exotic. The birds, insects and flowers got bigger and brighter and the noise and odour of the place became more and more overwhelming. I’d never been to the tropics in life but I had no doubt that this was exactly what it would be like.
Increasingly, I came across other travellers along the route too – some in groups with their guides, others alone. I saw myself among the loners and they – we, all had that same weary exultant expression on our faces – we’d made it. We’d arrived.
The traffic was increasing too – mostly mules and other animals pulling various sorts of rough carts but also some vans and bicycles – and I got a lift some of the way. Settlements became more common too – clay and wood walls and terracotta or thatch roofed cabins usually set around a well or a fireplace in a clearing among the trees. At night the locals welcomed us in and brought cushions and rugs and spicy food and we sat around the fires or crowded into rooms if it was raining and ate and drank and sang or played games until dawn when we slept for a while, got breakfast and moved on.
After one particularly entertaining night, ten of us collapsed into the back of a truck with our belongings, a small pig and a fruit tree in a pot and took the dusty track through the fields to the edge of the forest. At that point the land fell away steeply and the road was nothing but bends.
A little later we came round a curve and the sea was there far below us – electric blue and shimmering in the heat. We walked or rode the remainder without resting, jubilantly singing and laughing along the dusty track among the whitewashed houses, under the flowering trees and palms.
And so the realisation of what was going to happen next gradually became unignorable. I’d hardly thought about it since Joe told me about it all those years before. I wondered briefly what had become of him.
In quieter moments I take the opportunity to try to think back to my so-called life: England, Sussex – that job I had, and those people... It all seems an incredibly long way away and yet I know it’s just around the corner now and I am going back there somehow and I haven’t even thought to find out how that is supposed to happen. I try to recall the things Joe and I talked about, and what Miranda said, and Jim, and I wonder if he is still there, tending his goats for all eternity. Then I take a seat on a log and look across the treetops and wonder impatiently what I’m supposed to have been getting from all this.
I gather myself up and try to really think about it seriously. What has it all been for? Joe said people tend to get what they really want here, whether they like it or not, or words to that effect.
I’ve met a woman who wanted to have sex with me. That’s certainly something. Ok, she was only ten inches tall, but still... And I wonder where Lucy ended up. She just seems sort of ridiculous now by comparison – immature, selfish. I don’t know.
What else? Well I could probably grow all my own veggies if I needed to, and raise chickens and goats. Jim was a really nice guy, resigned and enthusiastic at the same time. I miss him most. I wish my dad had been more like him... And I find myself lost in sadness again and almost in tears. I check to see if anyone’s about but the road is quiet at the moment. It’s about midday I suppose. Most people will be indoors having their lunch or crashed out in the heat. I hear a man laugh somewhere across the way among the trees – a friendly, warm laugh, but I can’t see anyone. I sniff a bit and wipe my nose and eyes on my sleeve. It’s covered in grime. Nothing I have on is even slightly clean. The front of my shirt is stiff with fruit juice and sweat stains and the creases in my shorts are drawn in with soil and crushed vegetation. I can imagine Justine’s smiling face looking down at me and giving me her own bright female version of that laugh because I’ve got myself in a mess again. I was always in such a mess.
Shit, what am I going to do? I cast my mind back as fleetingly as possible over the last year or two of my life and then quickly around at the thick vegetation on the slope below and the sea beyond. There’s a boat out there with a triangular sail the same burnt sienna as the soil around here. When I think back about all those other people in the sixth form, Camille and Carly and Gareth and Tom and the rest, getting on with it, sorting out their careers and their university places, it seems like everybody else knew what to do. I lean back propped up on my elbows with my head hanging back and feel the sun roasting my face, evaporating my tears away, and I listen in to the insects and the birds going about their business around me.
I don’t want to think any more.
Joe, I know, had big ideas for me and my career but I really can’t imagine what I will be able to do to make any difference whatsoever. All I know is that I’m not going for a walk after that party. After that, who knows? I haul myself into the standing position and pull my pack onto my back.
Right on cue, a cart pulled by a cow with enormous curved horns rounds the corner. It is driven by a very dark skinned man and he seems to have a few passengers already, sitting up on top of a lot of sacks and crates. I stick my thumb out and he grins at me, his teeth so brilliant white, in such contrast to the rest of his face that I can hardly make out the rest of his features.
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