Nicky runs away on, I think the eleventh day. All the days are blurring together and it’s impossible to be sure. Earlier that day we’d crossed the river at a ford and begun the slow ascent of the far side of the valley. The trees there were tall and spiky – like some sort of monkey-puzzle and with a tangle of straggling creepers beneath.
We stopped for a break on the riverbank and Jeb said something about making it to a place he knew before it got too dark.
I don’t know how it started but we all heard Agnes shriek at Nicky that she was a stupid girl and the next thing we knew, Nicky let out a sad little cry and was bounding surprisingly nimbly over the arching stems of what looked and felt like brambles into the trees. We could hear her crashing about in the undergrowth long after we lost sight of her.
Jeb just looked exasperatedly at Agnes, who met his gaze defiantly. She never would tell us what happened.
Jeb, Muriel, Shamim and I all set off after her. The others stayed behind to keep an eye on things. It was hard going. I was getting cut and stung as I went – we all were and we could see no easy way through, especially in the shorts and sandals we had on. Here and there were little patches of grass – perhaps places where rabbits or something similar rested. (Shamim pointed out the network of runs under the briars). Evidently Nicky’s long legs had allowed her to use these little clearings as stepping-stones to get through as fast as she did. Either that or she didn’t care about the pain.
Presently Mike arrived in sturdy boots and long trousers with a machete, and proceeded to cut us a path.
In the shade of the trees the going was a lot easier but she had a considerable start on us. Now, unless Jeb had some special tracking skills, she could easily disappear if she really wanted to. Well he didn’t and we just had to hope she didn’t really want to. We gave up when it got dark and went back to the camp to find a fire going and the evening meal well under way. Agnes was in tears now, and Mike gallantly went to comfort her. Later I heard her say ‘Well she is a silly girl.’ I don’t think any of us would have disagreed with that but I’m sure Nicky didn’t need telling.
Next day we have to assume she wants to be found because otherwise there’s no point in looking. We wander the hillside calling her name with no result. Jeb said he thought there was a fifty-fifty chance she’d come back in her own good time but he had other worries. Part of the guide’s role is to discourage attack from predators, and hence, Nicky had no such protection. As if to drive the point home we found one of the grazing animals still alive but torn almost in half, lying under a bush near the river.
‘Stay close’ was all Jeb had to say.
We combed the area calling her name all day then went back to the camp for supper. As we gave up the hunt, Jeb, in an otherwise unnecessarily loud voice said ‘Well, if she doesn’t turn up by tomorrow morning we’ll have to go. We can’t stay here another day.’ I hoped she heard him.
‘I don’t get her’ said Mr Sadeghi once we had eaten. ‘I don’t understand how she is.’
Shamim looked at him, then at me and bit her lip.
‘I guess there aren’t girls like her back in... er... where’d you come from?’ says Mike.
‘Iran. No. She’d be in huge trouble looking like that – not that I would condone... I don’t judge her. I pity her. I don’t understand what’s happened to her to make her that way.’
‘I don’t like to judge’ says Agnes ‘but I think she’s been given a little too much head by her parents.’
I stifle a laugh at the double entendre and Shamim slaps my leg and smiles mischieviously over her shoulder. She is flirting with me. I try to concentrate on Nicky.
‘I saw it all the time’ Agnes adds. ‘I didn’t like to judge...’
‘Yes you do. You love to judge’ says Muriel, scolding her. ‘You know nothing about the girl and yet you wade in, heavy handed. The girl needs love. Can’t you see that?’
‘She needs a firm hand.’
‘She’s a twenty year old woman’ says Shamim angrily. ‘You can’t just...’
‘Well that’s all the more reason to...’
‘Please, ladies.’ says Jeb.
‘I’m just saying Jeb.’
‘Agnes. Please. Now then...’ He collects himself, clears his throat, but before he can begin I ask if I can say something. Jeb nods.
‘She spoke to me’ I begin, ‘back on the boat a couple of times. I can’t go into the details. She swore me to secrecy. All I want to say is...’
What do I want to say? Suddenly I feel terribly self-conscious. I don’t know how to put it. I don’t know if she’s listening. They’re all looking at me.
‘She’s had a hard time’ I begin. ‘I do think she needs love, as you said Muriel, but I don’t know if she’ll be able to accept it. One thing she doesn’t need, Agnes, is yelling at. She acts silly, it’s true... but she’s not stupid and there’s a good reason for the way she is and I believe there’s a really lovely person there... if she’s given the chance.’
The last part was all mumbled. I felt almost faint with embarrassment. I didn’t know if I wanted her to hear me or not. Part of me imagined her dismissing my words with contempt and cynicism, the other part imagined her trusting me and accepting... what? My love? I did feel for her. Actually, now I think about it, I felt like I knew her rather well, poor kid.
After a brief lull the conversation begins again and Muriel starts to sing a slow, gentle melody. I don’t understand the words. It sounds Yiddish perhaps.
I lean back on my mat and Shamim lies down facing me.
‘Sorry’ I say, for what I’m not sure, but Shamim seems to understand.
‘It’s ok’ she says.
‘How do your parents feel about her?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Do they think she’s a slut? Will they think less of me for defending her?’
‘You want to know if they’ll prefer me not to spend so much time with you.’
I grin sheepishly. I hadn’t realised that was what was worrying me, but yes, she’s hit the nail on the head.
‘I’m here aren’t I?’ she says in a whisper. I look over at her mother and father and they are completely preoccupied with each other, paying us absolutely no attention at all.
‘Are you in love with her?’ she whispers unexpectedly.
‘I can relate to her. I feel for her. What she’s going through makes sense to me. And sometimes I want to have sex with her...’ And she rolls on her back and laughs.
Then we sit as before but a little closer and watch the fire. Shamim is the single most self-possessed woman I’ve ever met, but gentle and understanding. So many of the very independent western women I’ve met seem to have felt the need to rub men’s noses in it – Cat being the obvious example, but Shamim doesn’t. She just is.
‘I don’t think my parents have had the chance to be like this together for years. It’s very beautiful don’t you think?’
‘They’re lovely people, your mum and dad’ I say.
‘I’m glad you like them. They understand more than you think. Sometimes they understand more than I think.’
Later still, when the others have all more or less passed out she says quietly ‘Do you think you only want to have sex with her because you can’t imagine anything happening between you and I?’
‘Well...’ I look into her eyes. There’s a quiet, sultry smile there, a beautiful power. All I can do is grin and nod and look sheepish again.
‘I don’t know why you think that’ she says, and lies down in her sleeping bag and closes her eyes.
I look about. I’m not sure what just happened there but it sounded bloody good. I lie down too, with my hands behind my head. I think I’m in love.
Then I think of Sophie.
Then I think of Nicky, and I wonder what’s happening to her. She must at least be terribly cold.