Come evening a boat arrived down at the quay and moored just beyond the turbulence. Marvin arrived soon after. I told him about the ‘children’ and he said it confirmed what he’d been told. ‘So nothing to worry about after all’ he said, slapping my back. I went up to get my things and we got ourselves on board. It was neat little boat, with a canopy and broad couches. I got myself settled into a sleeping bag and Marvin produced a bottle of Calvados and some cups.
‘This could take a while’ he said. ‘Chin chin.’
It took all the night and most of the next day to reach the other side of the lake where, in a pretty and busy little Alpine town we picked up fresh horses and headed down to the coast. That took another couple of weeks and we stayed at other small establishments along the way whenever we could. The landscape became increasingly rocky and dry as we descended, and the temperature rose steadily, at least during the daytime. At night we froze if we were in the open. We passed through pines, then tall evergreens, then tussock grass and aromatic scrub, every so often catching a glimpse of the river rushing along in a gorge some way below us. The scenery was magnificent. The peace gave me time to think about what had happened since the we all got off the ship, and about what happened on the ship too, for that matter.
I wanted to talk about Sophie and Andrea, but I didn’t feel comfortable raising the subject with Marvin. We weren’t on those kind of terms. I still find it hard to accept that, given my lamentable record with women in life, here I’d actually done rather well with the ladies. It all seemed a bit implausible. My old, homeless self (or worse, my middle aged loser self, still living with his parents) insisted I must have been imagining it. They were just being nice or something. But I couldn’t deny it. For the first time ever I’d felt genuinely at least as desirable as other, normal people. What had made the difference? Actually the answer was obvious, but depended on a new insight – to wit – I was actually alright, just as Andrea had said I was. It was my life that had made me mad – all the chaos of trying to make a living that didn’t feel totally humiliating and abusive, and then failing, and trying to get by somehow without giving in to dependence and to violence and ultimately to a sordid death. I didn’t have any of that to contend with here. Previously I’d have thought there was something intrinsic to my character that would always make me a failure and an outsider, but here I discover that’s not true. Instead of being astonished that at least a couple of women here found me attractive, I found myself wondering how I’d come to be so very unattractive in life.
Maybe then, I think, I should stay but it feels like a cop-out. I have to go in again, knowing what I know now. Like Sophie said – I need to use this experience.
I was also worried about what had happened to all the people I had met along the way, and in particular, about what would happen to Sophie – whether she chose to stay or to somehow make a break for it. It wasn’t a happy thought. I really wanted to ask Marvin about what had happened to us in the town but for some reason I was reluctant to broach the subject. I suppose it was guilt – survivor’s guilt. It was preying on my mind though. It was a very long time ago now, but just occasionally a shadow would move in the twilight and it was all I could do not to scream and run. One evening he was watching me when this happened. I grinned apologetically and he nodded as if he knew what was going on. We were camping that night and he threw a twig on the fire. He looked like he was thinking about it.
‘What do you think they were?’ he said.
‘I was hoping you could tell me.’
He shakes his head. ‘All I know is there’s a lot of things here we don’t know about.’
‘I thought we couldn’t be hurt here’ I said, my voice breaking a little. I’ve been bottling this up a long time.
He shrugs. ‘The ship is a kind of a safe house, but otherwise... That’s why they usually recommend you travel with a guide – gives you a measure of protection. I’m truly sorry you had to go without that.’
We sit and look at the fire a bit more. I glance at him. He seems nearly as upset as I am.
‘Did you get a good look at them at all?’ he says after a while. The view down into that basement comes to mind. It’s so horrible. Ian is gone too. Did they get him?
It takes me a while to say something. ‘I saw something. It looked like a man, pale, tall...’
‘Did you see the face?’
‘You know, at first I thought not...’ I look at him quizzically, hoping for something. ‘I don’t know...’
But I do know. I try to think how to describe what I saw. I say something about the thin shell of a gourd I found once in a bucket of rainwater and which I thought at first was a reptile egg, or a baby’s skull – brittle and wet and full of black rotten stuff and tiny white worms.
He purses his lips and nods his head. ‘Nice imagery’ he says.
I want to ask him the stupid question that’s been nagging at me.
‘Is it because of what we did?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The sex, the partying, the drugs, I mean, not me so much, with the drugs, but the drinking... Is it our fault? Was it the price we paid, because if it was...’
‘The Wages of Sin?’
‘But it’s not death is it? We’re already dead. It really is a fate worse than death.’
‘Whoa. I don’t think so. First up – sex ain’t a sin, none of that is, not here. It’s a pure simple pleasure, doubly so since you can’t get sick or pregnant. All that living in sin’s just dreary scriptural trash from the days when men felt the overpowering need to know exactly who their sons were. But sex is a good thing. You don’t appear to be convinced.’ He takes a long swig from the bottle and looks out into the night. ‘The evil is in the abuse of it – the lies and the betrayal, the brutality, the exploitation, the unloved children – and the disease of course. Some abuse it but then, there’s always someone’ll abuse anything. Don’t make it intrinsically wrong...’
‘Oh I don’t know...’
Something about this man makes me feel small and naïve once again. It’s an odd feeling, long lost. I think I’m regressing. He nods and goes on.
‘Anyway, second – it don’t work like that here. I don’t know what we’re here for, but so far I have no sense that it’s to be judged or punished, and I have seen no evidence of anybody or anything here in a position to enforce a penalty. So far as I can tell we’re here to learn, but at bottom, it’s probably just something we go through and it may have no meaning at all.’
‘But all that pain and horror...’
‘Just creatures doing what creatures do. My guess is you were just easy pickings. Hell, I’ve seen it – people always on the move, coming and going, nobody knowing from one day to the next who’s staying, who’s leaving... If there’s a moral to the story it’s that ideally, people should keep a proper look out for one another.’
‘But they didn’t deserve to be... treated like that.’
‘It’s not about deserving Gabriel. It’s like a disease, or a predator. It’s not about what’s fair or just. It’s just bad luck, probably. It’s not justice. It just is, so to speak.’
‘Hmm’ I say, doubtfully, lying down on my sleeping bag. It’s getting cold. Maybe I should get into it. He lies down too, tipping his hat over his eyes. I still feel like we should have maybe tried to do something – tried to rescue at least someone. I don’t know. I still feel like we must have done something very wrong. I feel in need of absolution or something.
‘What about Sophie?’ I say, almost inaudibly. Her name catches in my throat. I've not said it out loud in a while.
He looks over at me and there’s a trace of a smile that tells me he’s been waiting for this.
‘Tell me about Sophie’ he says.
‘She’ll come when she’s ready’ he says when I’ve finished my account. I’ve tried to be even-handed, but between being mortified at my own cowardice and my fury at her stubbornness, my explanation is not very fair on either of us. I guess I look pretty hopeless.
‘I mean it’ he says, more insistently. ‘She’ll be there. If she really wants to, she’ll be there.’
If she really wants to... I’ve heard this before. What happens in this place is supposedly all about wanting things badly enough. But how can you tell? James had seemed the most keen of all of us to get out, and Liam too, and look what happened to them. How could anyone say that they were any less ready than, say, Diane, who just seemed to be there because she fancied Nick? All anyone can say is she must have wanted it more because look, here she is – a self-fulfilling thingummy if ever I saw one. I don’t know. Who can fathom people’s true motives? I feel as sure of Sophie as I have ever felt of anything, and yet here we are, apart. There’s nothing anyone can say.
Then, as I lie there I remember that tomorrow is the big day. I muse vaguely on what that means and instantly feel the kind of sick anxiety I used to get all the time in life but which I haven’t felt very much at all since I’ve been here, despite everything. I've tried to think constructively about how I will change my life but it all just seems like a massive sooty grey tangle, like trying to find a needle in a stack of jagged and rusting metal. All I know is that on midsummer’s day in the year 2000 I will go to the Palace Pier and try to find Sophie. That’s it. Everything else is just noise. I hope she’s there. I don’t know what I’ll do if she’s not.
When we finally reached the further shore there were grey sand beaches alternating with rocky headlands as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was overcast and coming on to drizzle. I’d expected something different. I didn’t know what. Marvin lobbed a rock manfully into the surf and said ‘As good a place as any...’ under his breath and we began to climb down closer to the edge.
Beyond the rocks below us the sea crashes in in the usual way but then I notice, some hundred yards or so out, there seems to be a horizon, except it is way too close. The sea seems to just cease. The sky beyond has a peculiar pink hue. I look at Marvin for reassurance.
‘You ready to do this?’ he shouts over the crashing waves. There’s no particular concern in his voice. He just wants to be sure.
‘Might as well’ I say. And he tells me a little of what to expect – the strange sensation of losing ones body and dissolving away. Funny I never thought to ask what would come next.
My last memory was Marvin and I sitting on the sand drinking the last of the Calvados.
‘Any last requests?’ he said.
‘A long and happy life?’
‘I’ll drink to that’ he said and we raise our glasses to what ever is out there.