Like something out of Treasure Island, at dawn we head for shore in four small rowing boats. The ship lies at a slight angle in a few feet of water on the low tide sands. Each boat takes eight passengers. Eight times four is thirty-two, so that’s three trips altogether to empty the ship. I’m in one of the first, although I didn’t push forward. I just happened to be in the right place. As we move up toward the beach through the shallow lapping tropical water a veritable flotilla of huge turtles move along with us, their flippers as much as ten feet long, their heads like small cars, ploughing through the water. Up ahead a bank of beige sand is topped with tall, slender-stemmed palms and a mass of other vegetation. And it’s hot. Now we’re down at sea level there’s hardly even a breeze and we wear as little as possible. I’m not sure how Mrs Sadeghi manages, in her robes and headscarf, but she seems comfortable enough. I suppose she’s used to the heat where they came from. Shamim is much more lightly dressed in a thin white blouse and trousers. I can almost make out the dark form of her body underneath it. She’s not wearing a bra. I smile guiltily at Mr Sadeghi but he doesn’t seem to have noticed me ogling his daughter and he smiles jovially back. I like the idea that I’ll be travelling with them. They’re good people.
Once on the beach, and with legs wet to the thighs we shoulder our packs and head for the shade. The new guides are there with mule carts for us to travel in. Mrs Sadeghi looks none too impressed but her husband helps her up and we settle among the sacks. Shamim smiles cheerfully at me and sits closer than I would have expected and I feel her warmth fill me up from my belly to my eyebrows. Others gradually join us - a man I spoke to briefly once at the bar (‘I’m, Mike’ he says, shaking our hands) and two ladies I don’t recognise. They introduce themselves as Agnes and Muriel.
Lastly, with a shock I realise Nicky is clumsily trying to hoist herself over the side. I’m too taken aback to move and Mr Sadeghi comes forward to give her a hand. As usual there is an unobstructed view of her breasts, wobbling in her thin cotton top as she leans over the side and then flops down before us. I glance at Shamim who is clearly enjoying my discomfort. I smile apologetically back at her. Eventually, having treated us all to a display of her arse as she tumbles in amongst us, she sits back and introduces herself. She smiles coolly at Shamim and I and then settles back in her sunglasses to doze.
We all feel sleepy I think. Most of us were up late the night before and it’s been an early start too. Although we’ve had plenty of warning of course, packing has been a last minute thing – what with all the drama during the night. I hope I’ve got everything I need. I didn’t even get the chance to say my goodbyes properly.
Pretty soon we feel the wagon begin to move on the uneven track and we all look around at the beach, the ship and the others, still disembarking. I notice Olly wading ashore so presumably Lou won’t be far behind. I give him a wave but he doesn’t see me. I know our carts will become separated as we go and I probably will never see any of them again. I’ll miss them. I really will. I’m worried about Ned too. I have a strong feeling he’s not coming with us this time.
The first day of our overland journey begins very quietly. I feel incredibly tired and the others evidently feel the same way. We all doze through the morning, only occasionally looking about when the wheels drop into a particularly deep hole and we get jostled about. I drift between sleep and looking about me, at the rank vegetation along the trackside and the occasional glimpses of life amongst it, at the people around me, and at Nicky’s long, rather fleshy white legs that are sprawled out to my left. I can see the regularly arranged specks of her follicles where she’s shaved them. Shamim sleeps on my right – her head tilted back, she snores and makes amusing gargling noises every time we are jolted.
As the sun gets hot the guide stops the cart and swiftly arranges an off-white, rather tatty canvas over the wooden frame above us and, with Mike’s help, ties it down. The rest of us look on in befuddled silence. Now we all lay together in the dim light of a constellation of rips and punctures and threadbare patches. It’s a beautiful soft warm light. I look closely at what we are lying amongst. It appears to be a lot of kitbags filled with bedding or perhaps camping equipment, perhaps food. It’s hard to tell. The coarse weave of the bag nearest my eye becomes hypnotic, compulsive. A tiny glossy black beetle appears from a hole, waves its antennae and disappears into another. I look closely at the worn, bleached grain of the boards in the floor next to my head. I study the old nails holding it together, scraped and bent. Another jolt and Shamim shifts again. I feel her breath on my neck. I look at her brown arm in its thin cotton sleeve. It looks so fine and elegant. I want to kiss it.
Another insect trots happily across the small wood-floored canyon between my pillow and her arm. I watch it investigate the tiny grains of dust and fibres of its environment. It seems to know what it’s doing. I turn on my back and look at the canvas. I make patterns out of the tiny pinpricks of light and think of the constellations of stars I’ve not seen for months. Outside, crickets are in full chorus. I look down over my chest and see Nicky looking intently at me. I smile but get no response. I prop myself up, give her a little wave and see that she only looks awake in the half-light. In fact she is sleeping with her eyes half open. I take the opportunity to observe her then remember there are others with us and look about to see if they’re watching. Agnes (or is it Muriel?) seems to be awake, peering out under the canvas but otherwise all is quiet. I look back at Nicky, laying on her back, spread-eagled, legs apart, skirt up around her thighs so I can see her knickers, blouse fallen open so that her bra is uncovered. And yet somehow she just seems sweet and silly rather than lewd and dirty – like an over-grown child who is not old enough yet to know about the dangers. I want to go over and cover her up.
I look at her feet and her ankles, which are not delicate and graceful like Shamim’s but she wears a fine silver ankle chain with a tiny heart on it and it seems terribly sad somehow. I’m reminded of Emily, Sophie’s little girl. She loved things like that. We didn’t know what to make of each other at all but I knew almost immediately that I would be committed to being there for her in the future (her father was not much help) and that felt exactly right. It makes me wonder how Nicky managed to get into the mess she’s in. I can see her as a sweet girl too. I wonder what happened.
As night falls we feel the wagon come to a halt. We’ve all been awake for a while but haven’t felt the need to say very much. It’s been a peaceful, silent fellowship. When we stop the guide pokes his head in and says ‘Time to stop for the night folks.’
We all stir ourselves and stumble about among the sacks – a little mild swearing as accompaniment. I drop down onto the ground in time to see the sun disappearing behind a mountain. I look about. The sea already seems impossibly far below, and a mass of vegetation rises above us. The road has been built into the hillside and there is a considerable drop on one side and a steep bank on the other, cut into the jungle.
‘Now, can I get your attention just for one moment folks?’
We all look at our guide – a tall, bony sort of a man with a tiny, comical moustache. His lankiness contrasts interestingly with the extravagance of his shorts and bush hat. We all look at each other, wondering what we’ve let ourselves in for.
‘Ok, now my name is Jeb and I’ll be your guide for the next part of the trip...’ He rubs his hands together as he says this, and shifts agitatedly from foot to foot.
‘Now, I took the trouble of collecting fire wood this morning so we wouldn’t have to go blundering about in the dark now, so if you’d like to unload... er...?’
‘That would be fabulous. You’ll see it all, slung between the wheels. Now ladies, perhaps you’d like to have a look behind the driver’s seat where you’ll find some pots and pans and other bits and pieces and we’ll be away. Mike I have a job for you...’
And off we go. Shamim turns to me with a big smile and a shrug. ‘Ladies?’ she says. Mrs Sadeghi and the other two women are already busy and Mr Sadeghi is waiting for my help. Only Nicky seems not to know what to do. She stands there looking about, looking totally lost. Shamim glances at me and goes to help her.
‘Now young man’ says Mr Sadeghi. ‘Are you feeling strong?’
I look at the firewood and realise we’ve got a major job on our hands. One thing’s for sure, Jeb’s not going to let us get cold.
After we’ve eaten (some chicken and beans and potato. It’s all very Old West) we sit about on our rugs and bags and stare into the fire. Jeb is talking quietly to Muriel and Agnes. Mr and Mrs Sadeghi sit together in silent contemplation, he half behind her, caressing her shoulders. She looks round, smiles and pats his hand. Shamim is talking with Mike. Nicky and I sit a little way apart, but except for a few pleasantries I’ve not been able to get her to say anything. She looks very unhappy indeed. Jeb keeps looking over at her with a worried look on his face too.
Slowly the temperature drops and we all crawl into our bedding. Jeb stays up a little longer, watching over us. All around there are sounds of things rustling and scuttling about, sometimes very close by. Unidentifiable and bizarre calls echo about periodically. And amongst it all there is the tiny sound of a young girl crying herself to sleep.