When it gets light the first thing I do is glance over to see if Nicky is still there. She is, and still asleep too. Mr and Mrs Sadeghi are prodding and feeding the fire because it’s still perishing cold out here. Mike is taking a little stroll. Everyone else is sound asleep. I look down at the little mats we’ve been equipped with to sleep on. They’re surprisingly comfortable, even on this rocky ground. Mrs Sadeghi notices I’m awake and quietly beckons me over.
‘Here’ she says. ‘We made coffee. I know you like your coffee.’
‘Damn straight’ I say with some enthusiasm and they shush me vigorously and point at Jeb who is dead to the world, so to speak.
‘He didn’t get much sleep – keeping an eye on...’ and they nod at Nicky, foetal in her sleeping bag across the way.
‘I tried too but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.’
‘Did you hear her crying?’
We all nod.
The second day is a little livelier than the first. Mostly we still loll about among the luggage and watch the countryside go by, but when we get bored we take turns sitting up next to Jeb, or walk alongside.
The landscape is truly breathtaking. As the gradient gets steeper the road snakes increasingly tightly, making a ladder of tight loops up the side of what I’ve come to realise is a mountain, not a hill. The vegetation becomes less dense as we go but more interesting. It occurs to me that in my next life I really must visit the tropics at least once, but then I think – well here I am. This is the tropics. Why do I still think this is somehow less real?
On the verge of the road I stop and peer down among the shoots and stems and fronds. Every millimetre of soil I expose has things scuttling for cover – worms, scorpions, beetles, lizards and a whole lot of other things I have no names for. I really wish Lou was travelling with us. He’d have a better idea. Then I remember that Shamim was interested in the environment and maybe I should ask her. It also occurs to me that we haven’t seen any of the other wagons since we left the beach. I stand and look down where we’ve come from but there’s no sign of them. I look over at our wagon, labouring up a steep incline and see that nobody is sitting with Jeb at the moment. I ask him if I can come up. ‘Sure’ he says but doesn’t look like stopping to let me on. I look at the side of the wagon and find a leather handle and a step and swing myself up. He winks at me in a fatherly way (an idealised father. Not my actual father) and I suddenly feel very at home with things.
‘You seem very at home with all this’ he says.
‘I used to love going camping and trekking. I never went anywhere like this though.’
‘Isn’t it magnificent? This is my fifth trip. I never get tired of it.’
We sit for a while and look at the view.
‘Hey’ he says, then looks surreptitiously over his shoulder and lowers his voice. ‘Do you know anything about this young girl...er...’
‘Nicky’ I whisper and look around for her. She’s in the same place as yesterday, at the back, and apparently sleeping.
‘Nicky, that’s it.’
‘She told me some things. She didn’t want me to tell anyone else.’
‘She troubles me. Is she really as young as she appears to be?’
‘She’s about twenty I think.’
He nods and looks around again.
‘We all need to keep an eye on her.’
‘Will you try and talk to her some more, when she wakes up?’
‘I have been trying. She just brushes me off.’
‘Well, they say nobody ever committed suicide because people tried too hard to help. I suspect that’s true here too.’
‘You think she might go?’
‘I’m sure she will, at some point. The question is, will she do it because she wants to be chased or will she genuinely want to disappear? I can’t tell yet.’
‘You’ve seen this before.’
‘That I have.’
We sit and look a bit longer. We pass through a grove of palms whose grey pleated fan-shaped leaves are at least ten feet across. They stand by the road like sentinels, unreal, serene.
After a few more miles we cross a ridge and look down into a broad valley, almost entirely filled with trees.
‘See that?’ He points. Way below us a small area of what look like fields can be seen.
‘That’s where we’re headed. Not tonight, the next night, they’ll put us up.’
I nod and wonder how long this journey will be. Beyond the settlement below I scan forward and see another range at least as high as this and higher mountains beyond that in the far distance. My head spins with the scale of it. I feel a tap on my back. It’s Shamim.
‘Do you want to walk a little more?’ she says.
I jump down as we’re still moving and almost fall on my face but he halts to let her off. What a gentleman. She thanks him.
We walk slowly at first to let the wagon get ahead a little.
‘Are you avoiding me?’ she says, smiling her little challenging smile.
‘You know I’m not.’
‘What then? Oh look! Look at this.’ She crouches by the side of the road and lets a mantis crawl onto her hand. It’s about six inches long and boldly banded in yellow and black. Amazing. I never saw it among the plants, but here it is, on her arm, like some sort of miniature motorway maintenance machinery.
‘Do you know much about all this, you know, nature and stuff?’ I say.
‘A little. I know more about the mountains at home - the Elburz.’
She shows me some other things, explains a little about the flowers and the insects. I’m impressed. Then she tries to get me to talk about what I used to do, but I say I’ll tell her another time. She sees her father stand up and stretch and she waves at him. Nicky sits up too and sees us but makes no visible reaction.
‘Is it because of her?’ says Shamim
‘You know very well what.’
‘Ok. I don’t know. She worries me.’
‘Is that all?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Oh Gabriel! You know exactly what I mean. Stop pretending you don’t.’
‘I don’t want her if that’s what you mean, well, in a way... But she’s so young. And she’s so fragile. To be honest my main feeling is protective. I mean, yes, there’s lust too, but no. It’s just too weird.’
‘Have you spoken to her much?’
‘Yes, quite a lot actually, back on the boat. She’s really messed up. I don’t know if she’s talked to anyone else much.’
‘Have you had sex with her?’
‘God no. She kissed me once, that last night.’
‘I saw you together. You looked very uncomfortable.’
I turn and look at her. There’s a wicked smile barely disguised on her lips.
‘You’re enjoying this aren’t you’ I say but she just grins at me.
We walk along in silence a bit further.
‘The thing is’ I begin, ‘I think I might be the only person she’s really talked to. I know that sounds very self important, but... I feel like she’s my problem, in a way.’
‘You could be her knight in shining armour.’
‘Don’t take the piss.’
‘Yes you were. Anyway, I feel I should be trying to help. Jeb asked me to. She started talking to me back on the boat and I just think maybe...’
‘I don’t like to disillusion you but you do know she “talked” to a lot of men on the boat, don’t you.’
‘I know, or rather I don’t know exactly. I think she maybe slept with a few of them, and she was always flirting and playing about I know, but I have no idea if she actually talked to anyone else – not properly. I don’t know. Anyway she doesn’t look like she’s going to make any new friends here, so...’
Shamim sighs and nods. I think finally she sees the problem.
‘Honestly I really don’t want this responsibility. I just want to do this journey, look at the scenery... spend some time with you perhaps...’
She sees the shy expression on my face. I’ve never dared flirt with her at all before. She smiles and looks away.
‘Is that why you’ve been avoiding me?’
‘I’m just afraid she’ll be jealous...’
‘Really? She has something to be jealous of now?’
‘Ok, ok. I just think she might not open up if she thinks...’
We walk along a bit more. I don’t know what more to say – I’m covered with awkwardness. At least Shamim seems to think it’s funny.
‘I think she will have to get used to it’ she says after a while. ‘Anyway, I spoke to her a little last night. Maybe we can be friends too.’
‘That would be better.’
‘Ok. Oh, by the way, did you know she wasn’t supposed to be with us?’
‘No. Jeb told me. She ran and jumped on before they could stop her.’
Now I’m worried, and Shamim knows it. We walk along for another couple of miles. She points out all manner of bugs and flowers but I’m too preoccupied to really take it in. As far as I know I’m the only person on this wagon she already knew. She must be expecting something from me. I see her sitting there among the baggage at the back. She looks at me sometimes but then quickly looks away when I look back. She looks down at her fingers and plays with the cuticle.
Soon it starts to get really hot and it’s time to put the canopy up again – Shamim and I arrange it this time, then we climb inside and get comfortable. Shamim’s mother offers us lemonade and pastries.
Nicky conspicuously avoids looking in our direction. I feel like somehow this is my fault, and if anything happens to her I’ll be to blame. I don’t know what to do.