A few days later Ross appeared in the early morning and without saying anything much, handed me some work boots and some leather gloves and walked with me for about half an hour along dusty lanes and through the fields to a place where they were getting the ground ready for planting. The fields were quite sizeable but divided up into strips about six feet wide with raised paths dividing them, and the soil, I was surprised to see (considering the parched, rock like red stuff seen elsewhere), was deep and dark, from untold centuries of recycling the town’s organic waste onto it apparently. He told me they flooded it periodically with river water using a system of channels set into the hillside. On our way we passed blocks of beans and cucumbers, corn, spinach and yams and a whole lot of other crops I didn’t recognise. Finally we came to a group of dusty individuals and Ross introduced me to one of them – a woman called Lo who apparently was in charge. They were there that day preparing some seedbeds for salads. The method was very different to what I was used to – making sunken rather than raised beds. It occurred to me that it would have been a good method back home when I was trying to grow stuff on the chalk. Raised beds dried out so quickly and any water you put on just ran away – obvious really. I didn’t realise until break time that it was the little veggie plot I’d had in life that I’d been remembering, and the place I’d lived in, and the woman I’d lived with. It was my first real memory of the past. I looked around but there was no one here I knew well enough to tell about it so I kept it to myself. The others looked like they had problems of their own anyway. I caught Lo watching me sideways a couple of times. Well, why wouldn’t she? She looked like she could take care of herself in a fight. But it didn’t matter. It was no one else’s business. I’d had a wife and a home and a garden and we’d been happy. That would have to do for the time being.
The work went on at a fairly relaxed pace and we took breaks quite frequently. About every two hours we collapsed on a pile of rugs and sacks under a pomegranate bush and the others got their books out or chatted quietly or just looked about. Everybody else had some food or drink with them but there was a plentiful supply of roasted and salted nuts and seeds and fresh fruit provided and some sweet fragrant lemon water to keep us going. At midday all the teams went down to the river for an hour or so and those that wanted to threw their work clothes off and jumped in. I needed absolutely no encouragement to join them.
Next day I improved my working day considerably by bringing along a broad brimmed straw hat I’d found in the house, some bread, cheese and tomatoes, a towel and a bottle to carry water in.
Over the next few weeks we moved on from bed to bed, starting new crops off, going back and checking the older ones, weeding, using the channels for irrigation, applying mulch to the larger plants as they grew and then, as time went on we did the harvesting too. Considering the number of breaks we took (or maybe because of them) we got a remarkable amount done. The yield was prodigious. I wasn’t used to growing food in a tropical climate and probably the quality of the soil was a big help, but the fact that, although there were pests and diseases about, they never really seemed to get out of hand was probably the most important thing. There was something spooky about how well balanced everything seemed to be. I thought of the constant battle with the forces of mollusca that had made gardening back in life less of a leisure activity and more like a siege. I used to get so excited if a rove beetle or a slow worm or a thrush turned up and I encouraged them lavishly with food and hide-outs. Here you’d hardly dislodged a caterpillar before any number of small beasties had come along to take it away and dismember it. Weeds were a different matter though. They grew almost perceptibly and their seeds were everywhere popping off and sticking to our clothes and one had to be constantly vigilant to keep on top of them.
At the end of the week, whatever money was available was shared out. It turned out that most of us only worked three or four days each week (which paid for a basic but wholesome sort of lifestyle) so that I had enough time to seriously get down to work on my painting which was transmogrifying into something more allegorical. I’d had to tape down several extra sheets of paper to accommodate it. Otherwise I tended to my own plot, explored the beaches and coves in the vicinity and made further excursions into the forest.
Working in the fields, the town was always a presence, not half a mile away, sometimes serene, sometimes brooding, always self-contained. When the wind was in the right direction I could hear the voices and smell the food and on a couple of evenings there came some almost painfully sweet, haunting music, drifting down to me as I sat in my own garden. I didn’t feel I dared go and see what was happening and no one invited me. It saddened me when I thought about them but I wasn’t surprised and I tried not to think about it. I kept myself occupied.
Kevin was the only person I saw at all regularly. I liked strolling along the coast, beach-combing along the base of the low crumbling cliff, under the screw pines and coconut palms, sifting among the debris there, watching the sun go down and the waves come in and the tides run back and forth. His place was on the edge of a small shanty of rather bleached shacks at the back of the beach just where the coast got rockier and the water deeper. His little community specialised in providing seafood for the town and refreshments for the townsfolk when they came down to swim. There were also surfers and divers and the owners of boats among them and I repeatedly hinted that I’d like to go out with him in his. Again I was disappointed but not surprised that he never took me up on it. No one wants to be trapped on a small boat out at sea with a homicidal maniac. I was surprised they let me loose with a trowel sometimes.
Even so we lounged on his veranda or at the bar with our beers and fish suppers at least once a week and chatted a little – never about anything from the past – just about things that were pertinent to the here and now. I didn’t push. We just sat there in silent masculine fellowship most of the time. It was ok.
Nights were different. I still woke up very early most days, sweating and tearful. Sometimes I could remember what I’d seen and sometimes not. The same three places kept coming up – the frozen mountain, the war zone and that so-called paradise.
I knew I’d somehow managed to get myself lost looking for someone, and I’d got caught on a mountainside in a gully when the winter came in.
In the bottom of the gully I remember was a pond – crystal clear and barely differentiable from the surrounding frosty air but for a translucent green film that covered everything below the surface. I nearly walked into it in the mist. Big grey fish moved sluggishly in its depths and I remember thinking I could maybe get in and catch one I was so hungry, but I didn’t want to get wet. I wondered what would happen if I actually froze through. Would I remain conscious whilst frozen solid? I remember looking about me at the pinnacles of rock above and beyond. I’d found my way up and over a craggy edge that day and down through a small ravine, trying to stay out of the wind. Finally I’d found my way to this place where I rested and the freezing fog was moving in along with the darkness and I pitched my tent and settled in for what I thought would be a day or two. As it was it snowed heavily in the night and in the morning I had to burrow my way out. The next night it snowed again and I had to burrow twice as far. The tent was stuck fast and I wondered when the weight of snow would crush it.
Those first few days I went out and walked as far as seemed safe, trying to find some clue as to where the others might have gone but with each day the already weak light became more and more fleeting and I spent more and more time in the tent. Probably it was not more than a month before I retired hopelessly into hibernation. I have no idea how long I was there, nor why I was not lost for good in that place. I remember strange people coming to see me and talk to me sometimes. I suppose I must have been hallucinating. They told me it was time to give up – there was no point in trying any more, and to come with them, but I didn't.
Before all that happened there had been seven or eight of us travelling together I think. I remember three women, or perhaps four – one thin, one fat and one tall with very long hair. I remember her especially. I remember us coming over a rise and the rain whipping us in the face. Raz – that was her name – the thin one – was very tired and crotchety and we stood there looking across this vast plain and watching the rain clouds drive across it in wave after wave. Beyond, in the distance we could see a colossal grey mountain with a minuscule town nestled at its foot. That’s where we were headed for, said our guide – Moira her name was – a little Scots woman, very energetic but frankly a bit harsh. She’d kept us moving non-stop for the last few days and several of our original party had given up and stayed back at a settlement as soon as they’d got the chance. She said it was going to be worth our while to get to this place she had in mind but that it was not safe to stop anywhere on the way, so we kept going. I’m trying to remember the name of the fat woman. She was excellent company. She was the one that kept our spirits up. She and the tall woman kept making up songs and stories. I know they pissed Moira off considerably.
Anyway we stopped for the night on this ridge and looked at this mountain with its little town and the fat woman said ‘That’s one hell of a mountain, and I’ve seen some big mountains – I’ve been to the Andes and I’ve seen Aconcagua and that’s not as big as this thing.’ Wen her name was. I remember now.
In the morning the weather had cleared somewhat and we began to head down into the valley and I remember we were all chatting quite happily, enjoying what sunshine there was when Wen just stopped and stood there, mouth open and we looked around to see what she was looking at.
It wasn’t obvious at first. There was the town, with the mountain silhouetted behind it as before, but then, once our eyes accustomed themselves to the light another shape resolved itself above the mountain – a huge towering shadow dwarfing it completely. It was another mountain, even bigger.
We all stood there shocked. It was like thinking you’d met a very tall man of seven feet or so and then being introduced to his twenty-foot brother. It was terrifying.
I’d noticed – every so often this place would do something like that to you, as if to just gently remind you that you are not home or anywhere like it.
‘Good isn’t it’ said Moira gleefully coming up behind us. She pushed through and left us gawping for quite a while.
‘I wish I had my camera’ said Raz.
We reached the settlement two days later. It was not the town we had seen (‘That’s nothing special’ Moira said) but a smaller place further up, a collection of timber buildings reminiscent, Raz remarked, of villages in the mountains of western China and Tibet. I think we stayed there for several nights in very simple cabins built out over the precipice looking down onto the tops of the firs below and beyond them to the river in its gorge and then across at the very lowest slopes of what we knew by now to be the Mother Mountain.
I remember lying there on the veranda with the sleeping chamber behind us with Raz and Wen and the other one (Lisa, that was her name) and looking out through the incessant rain and drinking our tea. I remember it all seeming very pleasant and care-free there, the four of us, laughing and joking, and there were a couple of other people we’d got to know too who seemed ok, although I didn’t really want anyone new to disturb our little party. There was John I remember, who’d been staying at this place for the last year or so and was ready to move on and Anna, who had been with us from the beginning. Anna and John were rather keen on each other as I recall so I judged they offered little threat to our little clique, but something bothered me even then, something about there being another male in the mix perhaps.
My last memory is of the four of us, Raz, Wen, Lisa and I, warm and relaxed, curled up among the quilts and cushions in the shelter as night came down, watching the trees and screes on the opposite side of the gorge disappear into the darkness, and listening to the rain in the roof, and there was the smell of wood smoke and incense and the spices in our leftover food and the scent of the last honeysuckle blossoms, and last but not least the surprisingly sweet scent of Lisa’s hair against my face. I think I must have been in love with her.
That was the morning I woke up here crying – remembering her like that.
It was her I was looking for when I got lost, and it had something to do with John and Anna, I’m sure of it, but I can’t think what.