The next few days pass largely without incident, chatting, eating, singing and generally getting to know each other better. Even Nicky seems a little more relaxed. Agnes has taken her under her wing and Nicky seems to have submitted to it. Agnes and Muriel, although superficially young and girlish were undoubtedly old ladies when they died, the thought of which amuses me immensely. They really seem to enjoy their refound ability to sing raucous camp-fire songs and climb trees and chase lizards. Agnes makes no secret of the fact that she died horribly in a hospice, demented, incontinent and alone and that there’s no way she’s ever going back and taking the risk of that happening again. She has a tendency to fuss and get tetchy if things don’t go the way she thinks they should but on the whole she seems ok. Muriel is good hearted and motherly, although she died childless she says.
That evening the campfire conversation turns to death and I tell of my ridiculous demise – to much hilarity.
‘Well, that is at least easily avoided next time’ says Mike. ‘I won’t be going back – I had MS and spent the last year or so on a ventilator. I mean, I don’t regret the life I had – my kids and friends were wonderful and I made the most of it while I could, but I don’t feel the need to go through it all over again.’
‘What line of work were you in?’ asks Mr Sadeghi.
‘I worked in a factory making electrical equipment – just ordinary shop floor dog’s body, you know.’
Mr Sadeghi nods.
Mike looks about thirty, but died a lot older I know. His body shows not a trace of disability and he’s clearly overjoyed about it. I know it’s a cliché, but it certainly makes me wonder what I was making such a fuss about in my life.
Next the Sadeghis give a brief account of their sudden demise, all three of them adding their own memories and we all exclaim and look shocked at how horrible it must have been for them.
‘I remember most clearly...’ begins Mr Sadeghi ‘...the smell of burning – burning rubber, burning plastic, oil and... other things... I was thinking it was burning my throat and my lungs out and I couldn’t breathe. And I thought of my darling wife and daughter but I couldn’t see... couldn’t find them.’ Mrs Sadeghi grips his hand as he tells it, as tears begin to well in his eyes. They’re here with him. He’s very lucky. I briefly consider a suicide pact with Sophie for next time but dismiss the thought. What if one of us survived, or just lived a little longer in a coma and missed the boat?
‘I remember the noise’ says Shamim, ‘not of the collision, but of the other vehicles going past. They seemed to be right there, beside my head.’
‘You were lying on the road, I remember that’ says her mother. ‘I remember a tin of ravioli, and those instant noodle things. I still can’t believe you bought that sort of trash...’
‘It was all across the motorway, all your shopping...’
‘I remember the road was wet’ says Shamim ‘and the tiny bits of yellow and red plastic from the lights, right there.’ She holds her fingers an inch or two away from her eye.
‘We don’t remember much of the detail of the final moments’ says Mrs Sadeghi, cutting it short. ‘For which we are all extremely grateful.’
It’s strange to be mourning the deaths of people who are sitting right there beside us but it seems right somehow.
Then we come to Muriel and at first she declines modestly but we tell her we’ll only assume the worst so she tells us about the stupid accident with the toaster that brought her here. ‘I just remember the smell of grilled meat’ she says and I see Mr Sadeghi flinch. That must have been the other smell he remembers, but he didn’t want to say.
It’s at that moment I realise Nicky must be next to tell her story and I look across at her. She’s sitting cross-legged, hunched down, picking her cuticle again. Nobody says anything or even looks her way overtly. I don’t know if she wants to say anything or not. I don’t want to ask. After a brief pause Jeb mercifully takes over and tells us about his unusual experience with nitrogen narcosis whilst wreck diving. I’d never heard of it, but Shamim of course has and gets quite excited about hearing the details.
‘I just went deeper and deeper’ he says, ‘and I remember becoming certain that it ought to be possible to live down there. After all, the water is full of dissolved oxygen, and the fish manage perfectly well, and I think I had this idea that if I just breathed the water in, in a calm and relaxed fashion, instead of thrashing around as you would if you were drowning, and if I kept my exertions to a minimum, that my lungs would adapt. And do you know, it actually seemed to work for a while there? I even felt I could see clearly, as if my eyes adjusted to the changed optical qualities of the water. And I didn’t feel cold any more. I swear I could feel my body changing, becoming aquatic.’
We all look at him, amazed and excited at this new prospect.
‘Of course, I’m sure this astounding new insight must have lasted only a couple of minutes before I finally blacked out and drowned, but I remember it all very clearly. I’d recommend it, as a way to go, if you had to make a choice.’
Agnes looks horrified and shudders conspicuously, but Shamim looks on, fascinated.
‘Have you been diving since you’ve been here?’ she says.
‘Hell no’ he says. ‘You won’t catch me anywhere near the darn stuff now.’
We all laugh.
‘I drowned’ says Nicky unexpectedly, from under her hair. Her head is bowed almost to her legs so it’s hard to make out what she says. She looks up and says, quite conversationally ‘I drowned myself. In the Thames it was.’ We all look at her and don’t know what to say and she looks down again and goes on picking her fingers. Agnes goes to put her arm around her but is shrugged off. Suddenly it feels very chilly – like time to sleep.
The settlement we saw from the ridge has a spooky peace to it. It’s not that no one is home – at the entrance we are greeted by a softly spoken woman in a white robe, who bows and takes us in through a wide courtyard with citrus trees and pineapple plants in pots and a formal fountain at the centre, and then out through a gateway at the far end to a much less formal, grassy space with more fruit trees. Even the insects buzz less stridently in here. The walls are whitewashed and have terracotta tiled roofs. It all looks as I’d expect a Roman villa to look, or a Mexican hacienda.
We’re shown to our rooms through shady loggias and pergolas. The rooms are Spartan – almost literally, with stone floors, stiff white sheets and unglazed green painted window frames set high in the walls. I sit down on the bed and try to bounce but there’s very little give in the mattress.
The bathrooms too are pretty uncompromising – ice-cold water gushes continuously out of holes in the wall in a room at the back, presumably from a spring. A man shows us where it is after we’ve dropped our bags off, hands out towels and then leaves us to it. We decide the ladies can go first and we men head back to the first courtyard to see what else there is to do.
Very little, seems to be the answer. The locals go quietly about their business, some bringing produce in from wherever they must be growing it, others bustling in and out of what turns out to be kitchens. We find a vast echoing empty dining room adjoining. It’s all very clean.
We go and sit out in the shade in the orchard where our rooms are and find the women coming back already.
‘That didn’t take you long’ says Mike.
‘You don’t want to stay in there long’ says Muriel, shivering. ‘It’s bloody frigid. Have you seen anywhere we can get a hot drink here?’
Mr Sadeghi indicates the kitchen but suggests they don’t get their hopes up too much for anything very interesting.
‘We’ve still got the coffee’ suggests Mrs Sadeghi.
‘That’s if you can locate Jeb and the wagon’ says Mike. ‘I don’t know where he’s disappeared off to.’
I look at the women, still wet from their ablutions and it occurs to me what a fine-looking bunch they are, all in their white robes, looking tanned and healthy and in their prime. Mrs Sadeghi has her hair out and is a stunningly handsome woman, a taller, more powerful version of her daughter. Even Nicky seems more content now and throws her head back to let the sun warm her face. Shamim is watching me look at them and smiles knowingly.
‘Ok, lets go’ says Mike.
‘Keep the coffee hot for us’ says Mr Sadeghi, and kisses his wife on the cheek. We head into the shower room.
Jeb didn’t come back until the third morning, giving us some time to get to know the place a little, help out with the chores, and relax. The locals were not unfriendly, the food was plain but wholesome and the place had a wonderful serenity about it but there was a strong feeling they weren’t looking for new faces and would feel better when we’d moved on. The only really worrying thing about that first settlement was that if they were all going to be like that no one was going to want to stop anywhere for all eternity. Certainly none of us were at all tempted. Frankly it was all just a bit dull. We headed out that third day and began the long weary trek across the floor of the valley in the still, dry heat.
The canopy is up from mid morning to late afternoon. I lie sprawled on my belly on the luggage, peering out at the passing scenery – a mixture of twisted and shaggy trees and towering termite mounds all set in a haze of dry grass seed heads. Some peculiar looking, what appear to be llamas, each with a single horn on the nose stand by and watch us pass. We ride in the wagon, too enervated to speak, each dozing or lost in our own thoughts. I can’t imagine doing anything much here and yet when I glance at Shamim sleeping beside me I feel I could lean over and kiss her, and what’s more, I think she’d like me to. If it wasn’t for the others, and her parents especially being here maybe I would.