I remember the disembarkation quite well. It had rained solidly for two days and the guides told us they couldn’t wait any longer so we collected our few belongings and the kit that had been supplied for us and dropped into the little boats ready to take us ashore. The guy manning the tiny buzzing out-board smiled but said nothing and after a quick ride up past a headland we came into a wide estuary and there was a jetty and a small group of bamboo houses set among the trees. At that stage we were still in high spirits though apprehensive of what we might find in this new continent. Even Raz was having a good time, even though she told us she wouldn’t have been seen dead carrying her own belongings in life. ‘I just don’t do baggage’ she said and, by smiling suggestively at him, tried to enlist the help of one of the locals who was going to be travelling with us. He laughed but did not take her bag.
‘Oh well. Worth a try’ she said and hefted the rucksack deftly onto her back.
The first part of the trip took us up a narrow winding path through the trees and was extremely hot and wet. Even when it wasn’t raining the foliage dripped non-stop and the way forward was obscured by a combination of the water vapour that rose off of everything and the intense rays of sunlight. No one complained however – it was good to be off the ship at last and using our legs again.
Lisa and I had, by mutual consent, chosen to cool our relationship down. It had reached an intensity during those last few days on board that I for one, could not sustain. She said that was fine but something in her voice was not content. It was single file walking all the way up into the mountains and I had to make myself not walk behind her so as not to become completely deranged. The actual physical heat was bad enough without watching her shapely arse flex and jiggle as she walked along in front of me all the way to wherever it was we were going.
Still, we managed to remain close and my main memory of those early days is of the two of us invariably drawn together when the path was wide enough to walk side by side, chatting incessantly about everything. Wen and Raz and a couple of the others joined in too but mainly it was just us two together. Nothing else seemed anything like as interesting. The others did not attempt to hide their amusement.
I know, looking back on it, it was unfair. I was unfair to her. I don’t know if she was aware of it but if I’m going to be totally honest I knew even then. I was keeping her hanging on when I knew she would ultimately be let down. I allowed myself to behave like a man in love, no, to be a man in love, because I had to keep her there, because I needed her to be there, to be mine. I couldn’t bring myself to let her go because... because of what?
‘Because you were afraid to be alone’ says Sonia.
I nod sadly, acknowledging her wisdom. That’s probably all there was to it.
We are sitting on the terrace of one of the tiny side street bars in the northern end of the town away from the hubbub of the main ‘business district’ (as the main market square is laughably known), at a table in the shade of three lemon trees. Across the little square (or triangle actually) a man with a bicycle strolls, the handlebars laden with bags of vegetables. He smiles and waves, as people tend to do here as they pass by. A little melee of orange and yellow butterflies flutters in under the trees, battling furiously, or trying to mate, and is then swept up into the sky and across the roofs. I look at Sonia’s face, partly hidden in the shadow of her broad straw hat. The bruise has all but gone but I see it still, like I put it there yesterday. I can’t apologise enough.
‘I still don’t understand why you couldn’t simply be with her. It seems it was what you both wanted.’
‘I know’ I say, but I don’t. There’s something missing, something important, some sort of betrayal. I wonder about going to see the monks again, to see if they can free my memories a bit more.
‘How was Brother Jeffrey?’ she says. ‘You went to see him, in hospital, no?’
Our conversation still lacks the warmth and spontaneity it had before. I hope it’s just a matter of time. Her questions are somewhat abrupt and formal. On the other hand, she did arrange this outing.
‘He’s out now actually, back at work’ I say.
‘That’s good’ she says and looks around, as if to see if there’s someone else to talk to, but the place is deserted and silent but for the radio playing quietly inside the bar behind the bead curtains. It’ll be another half hour or so before Miguel is scheduled to arrive and already we don’t know what to talk about. Actually that’s a lie. I know exactly what to talk about. I still want to go over what brought me here, to fill in the gaps and I want to tell her what happened in that place at the end because I think she has the wrong idea about me. She doesn’t seem to want to hear about it however and I still feel like I need to tread very carefully. I asked Kevin and he just said ‘give her time’.
‘He said they help a lot of people who come here, Jeffrey I mean.’ And I’m immediately aware that I’m steering the conversation.
‘Perhaps you should consider joining them. You could do some good.’
I can’t tell if I’m being over-sensitive but she seems to be implying that I’m doing harm where I am.
‘Maybe. I don’t know’ I say and we lapse into silence again.
Actually Brother Jeffrey had suggested the same thing but less ambiguously. I asked how they cope with people like me wandering in out of the wilderness, damaged and deranged. He said it is the price they pay. He said this community is always torn between self-preservation and the urge to help the stranger. It is always a balance. ‘God grant it never tips too far in either direction’ he said.
So I am the price they pay – the price for living like this, in this utopia. I knew there’d be a catch. I’m the catch – me and others like me, because it turns out there have been quite a few of us, come the way I did.
All in all Brother Jeffrey had a rather patronising priestly way of expressing himself and I didn’t feel inclined to join up but he said he bore me no ill will and I had to believe him. He seemed very accepting and genuinely pleased to see me. Then sister Luisa took me out of the ward and showed me, rather bravely I thought, the corridors and rooms where I’d had my ‘attack’ as they called it, and the friezes and statues that had troubled me. They still troubled me but they didn’t bring on the same reaction. It was obvious even now that they were indeed representations of the places I’d seen. I asked about the people who’d created these images and got the same answer as with Peter – the artists were mostly living peacefully here or had moved on. She implied that none of them were carving out a new and vicious career in our midst. That gave me hope.
I mentioned perhaps making something myself for the sanctuary and she seemed inordinately pleased and said she’d heard I was an artist. I left it at that for the time being.
Finally Miguel turns up, accompanied by Ross and Mo and Cleome and another woman. Strength in numbers I guess. Mo looks, as always, delighted to see me and slaps my back violently.
‘Good to have you back’ he says grinning heartily. ‘You look well my friend.’ The mood lifts immediately and the bar’s owner comes out and asks what we’d like to drink. I immediately feel better because I know I’m going to pay for everything today – my treat. We’ll see how Sonia likes that.
Anyway, I’m happy to have my mind taken off things. The beers arrive and we toast my recovery and my new life and my garden and my job and pretty much everything else about me. I notice Sonia really trying to smile along with everyone else.
The conversation moves on to work and the weather and the coming fiesta and a concert scheduled for next week by an orchestra I really must see apparently, and then there’s some bitching about the person who runs the fish ponds and a ballot that’s due to take place in a couple of weeks time. There seems to be a dispute about a building project and a whiff of corruption in the planning system. I don’t know why it heartens me to hear this and I feel like laughing out loud.
A thought... Me, here, at this table, under this parasol, drinking this beer, having these sorts of conversations with these people, perhaps once or twice a month, for all eternity. Here comes the waiter. I imagine myself here in this exquisite sunshine – with the sound of the birds... distant voices.... the scent of lemon blossom, olive oil and cumin, for all time, and it feels... it feels like bliss. I take a deep breath and I can’t remember what all that fuss was about back in the world – to be original, to make a difference, to lead a full life. More novelty, more excitement, more, more more... I try to remember how we were so bored and dissatisfied so much of the time. It doesn’t make any sense any more. There’s so much to look at, to think about, to do, to understand, to love. A grain of sand. A wild flower... I don’t think I’ll ever be bored again. I can’t even think what that would mean...
Sonia is grinning at me. I don’t know why, but I grin back at her anyway.
I walk home by a short cut across the fields to a place where I can hop over the wall into my garden. It’s just getting dark when I get there. I’ve tidied up my banana grove and there’s a new crop coming along rapidly. That should be good as long as the fruit bats don’t get there first. I follow the path down along my little stream and wind up on my terrace. I’m going to spend the night out in my hammock. I can’t quite get used to the moon being back again. She’s not quite the way I remember her. Here she’s just like a bright, friendly face in the night sky, just out of reach above the trees. I’m told that her nightly visits are a feature of these parts. Either way the night sky is still beguiling and I still love to look up into it, wondering as the ancients must have done, what it’s like up there.
Cleome is a sweet girl, tall and slightly ungainly and her hair falls over her eyes all the time. She apologises a lot. She reminds me of Lisa.
I could see Lisa was falling for John almost from the start. Well, why wouldn’t she? He was tall and fair and toned and he was funny and yet sensitive and caring and he wasn’t attached to Anne after all. He and Lisa hit it off straight away, chatting about school and music and TV shows I hadn’t even heard of. Even the way she talked transformed completely, from educated middle-class Surrey to London pubs and clubs. Even the way she walked changed.
Oh she was still friendly enough to me. On the face of it nothing changed. Raz didn’t know what I was on about but I knew things were different. They tried to be loyal, Raz and Wen, but they were charmed too, and they were right to be. He was a lovely guy, really.
And it was right, because I was just a friend. I know that. It was exactly what I had been intending all along, to be her friend and to see her happy, and now it was as it should be. I was after all more than twenty years her senior – easily old enough to be her father. John was of her own generation, and had been a journalist and a photographer and he’d been everywhere. He was just perfect for her.
I don’t know what came over me.
It started with me just hanging back, walking on my own, letting them talk amongst themselves. John had been to Shiraz and Oaxaca and Coff’s Harbour and Kigali and he’d covered the liberation of Baghdad and the unification of the Muslim nation (‘George W.Bush’s greatest achievement’ he said. We all laughed). Lisa tried to include me and went on to him about my painting and some of the things I’d come out with about how the world should be and, the bastard, he said he thought I was right about everything.
Wen walked with me sometimes. She said she wasn’t that impressed with him. She said he was a typical journalist – just in it for the big story – no real conviction, but although we smiled conspiratorially her cynical take on him did not make me feel better. It just made me feel even more wretched because actually I really liked him. Anyway, I’m not sure she meant it. I think she was just trying to cheer me up.
I really wasn’t trying to make things difficult. I wasn’t giving them the silent treatment at all. I simply couldn’t think of anything to say any more. Wen and Raz both tried to chivvy me along and include me but they were both having too good a time to try very hard. Anyway, I didn’t want them to. I felt terrible every time they came back to find me or made the effort to include me in the conversation around the campfire. I just felt so irrelevant, so superfluous, and the worse I felt, I thought, the less they wanted me around them. I was in the way. It all felt horribly familiar. So on top of everything I was hugely disappointed in myself. I knew I wasn’t being fair but I’d come to depend on them so much, and on her especially. As time went on I just felt terribly alone.
Lisa at first just didn’t notice anything had changed. She was just hugely lively all the time and I actually caught her skipping along with Anna at one point, which was ironic because Anna was not happy either, since she’d had her eye on John too. She wouldn’t speak to me because she was pissed off that I didn’t come and have a word with ‘my girlfriend’. We really didn’t get on, Anna and I.
Later, Lisa took me aside and tried to find out what was wrong but of course I couldn’t tell her. I didn’t want to spoil things. I put my bravest face on and told her I was fine. Even then, Raz told me later, if I’d taken Lisa in my arms and told her I loved her everything would have been fine, but I didn’t. I couldn’t and I still don’t know why.
How pathetic, that we’d come this far and this was the afterlife, and we’d all died, tragically, painfully, hopelessly, needlessly, and here we were, in this extraordinary, unprecedented landscape, negotiating precarious crumbling tracks on the thickly forested lower slopes of the most prodigious mountain anyone is ever likely to witness, a mountain so high that no snow ever reaches the top and the upper third is simply a cold stone.
And there I was, stumbling along, sulking, eaten out with jealousy.
I was dwarfed in every way imaginable.
I only half remember the argument when it came, but when it came it felt good, it felt right, it felt just. Lisa had lost patience with me, quite rightly, and had quite rightly surmised the cause of the trouble.
I for my part had got to the point where I wanted to hurt everyone, I don’t know why. Maybe I wanted them to finally give up on me, to tell me I was after all a waste of space and to leave me alone. Then it would be over at last. I wanted to push it and push it and push it until finally it pushed me back.
I said some things, about John and Anna and Lisa, things I shouldn’t have said – about how easy it was for them, so easy, and Lisa said I had no idea what I was talking about, and I implied that now she wasn’t sick any more she could just go and have anyone she liked
And she just looked at me like she didn’t have the faintest idea who I was. She just turned away and started walking.
That was the last I saw of her. She turned and marched off up a side path. John went to follow her but she yelled at him to just sod off and leave her alone.
We all stood around and waited. Then it started to get dark and to rain harder and we made camp and waited some more. No one knew what to say. No one spoke to me and that was right. They shouldn’t have. Almost as soon as I’d done it I knew it had been the wrong thing to do – a stupid thing to do, a silly, childish, bad tempered self-indulgent, self-pitying thing to do. I knew it. I knew it all too well, and I knew it from before too. It wasn’t a new thing. It’s how I was and how I had always been. And now, finally, I’d made her suffer for it, sweet beautiful Lisa, who never hurt anyone. A harsh tearing scream rose in my chest and into my throat but I wouldn’t let it out. I clamped my jaws tight and my eyes too, trying to force the tears to stay in, for how dare I cry, after all that had happened? I didn’t deserve to cry. I didn’t deserve anything. I looked at the others but they didn’t know how to react to me. I tried to work out what to say to her, to make it alright somehow, because surely that must be possible. Surely it couldn’t just be like this? All the while I was glancing up at the slope, waiting to see her familiar, lovely form coming back down. I tried to think what to say that would bring her back. The dialogue skidded about my brain and I could probably be heard talking to myself, crying and pleading to her that I didn’t mean it and I was so terribly sorry and I was stupid and jealous and I had no right to be and could she ever forgive me?
The others just looked away. I was way beyond understanding. There was nothing anyone could say. When they all bedded down in hike tents I sat out under my poncho a little way up the path she’d taken. Our guide took a torch and had a quick scout around but said there was nothing to do until morning. Then she looked at me in that way I knew so well – the look that says that there may have been some sympathy but now it was gone.
By morning I was gone too.
‘I understand Peter took a couple guys up there where you were after you last saw him.’
It’s two days later. Kevin lounges opposite me on the other sofa, holding his brandy in both his hands, keeping it warm.
‘From what he told me it sounds like you did the right thing. You should be proud of yourself.’
It’s been a long day, trying to get everything done before the monsoon really blows in. Outside, the rain is falling steadily and probably will continue to do so until tomorrow morning. Then it’ll start again tomorrow afternoon and so on for the forseeable. Looks like we’re settled in here again. I feel strangely unaffected by the news.
‘What did they find, exactly?’ I say.
‘Bunch of kids, well, you know, what look like kids, running around up there.’
I take a while to think about this. I stand up and wander over to the hob and stir the dahl. It doesn’t need stirring but I do it anyway.
‘You did the right thing Gabe. You stood up to them. Most wouldn’t have. Many here... didn’t.’
He looks at me meaningfully.
‘What? You mean...’
‘Oh I’m not saying... no. But most people, most of us, would have just gone along with what was going on, in your position, if they didn’t think they had any choice. Or you could have just walked away.’
‘I couldn’t. I couldn’t just...’
‘Exactly.’ he says. Then he toasts me and says ‘You have every right to feel very pleased with yourself.’
‘Yeah right’ I say dismissively. He looks at me quizzically. ‘Seriously Kev, I’ve been thinking about all this.’ He observes his feet impassively. I go on anyway. ‘I think at the time I’d decided it would mean something – something I thought the narrative needed at the time – some big bloody climax, a final showdown or something, like in Hollywood. I wasn’t thinking about what happened afterwards. But in the end I was just sick of it all. I’d just had enough and I was happy to stop, to just be thrown into the wilderness. Do you know what I mean?’
If he nodded it was barely perceptible and might have been my imagination. ‘Seriously Kev, I’m honestly not one of the good guys. I’m just an awkward, bad-tempered bastard. I just never do as I’m told.’
He grins at me and says ‘Yeah right’ and raises his glass to me again. I look at him and take a sip from my glass. I feel a smile come. I give up. I walk over and clink glasses with him.
Even so, there is still the fact that I know what it feels like to hack into a person – the feel of the blade on muscle and bone and the sight of the wounds, and the smell, how satisfying. And the screaming and running about – the looks on some of their faces, like they really didn’t understand why this was happening to them. Whilst all the time I was standing there knowing finally that this was exactly what should be happening and why couldn’t these stupid people see that?
I had no sympathy. How can that be a good thing?
And yet I know their bodies are off repairing themselves somewhere as we speak and no doubt it’s not over. Nothing is ever over.
‘I meant to ask you’ I say, sitting down again, ‘whose house this was.’
‘Oh you mean Derek. Hah!’ and he takes a long drink at the memory and pours himself some more, and me too. My glass is empty too.
‘Derek was quite a character. Lived in this old place a good... Oh I don’t know... You know how hard it is to keep track here.’
‘You knew him well?’
‘Not well... He kept himself to himself, but when you did see him he’d be out doing something crazy – not insane crazy, just ill conceived crazy. He ended up here when his house in the forest fell down for reasons we need not go into. Jeannie and Duncan knew him. Have you been out there to see them yet? They’d love to see you. Always asking after you...’
‘Maybe next week’
‘I’ll tell you what. There’s a party up there, couple of weekends time. You should come. Be a blast. Bring a friend. What about Sonia? You two seem to get along well enough.’
‘She’s not exactly single Kev.’ He goes to object but I head him off ‘And any way, she’s still hardly speaking to me.’
‘Oh Gabriel. How long’s it been? Nearly two months. You only smacked her accidentally. You didn’t mean to do it.’
‘Really. Apparently the monks were trying to restrain you and she was in there trying to talk to you and you just...’ he mimes me thrashing about. It’s quite comical.
‘I remember one time last year’ he continues, ‘me and Ross were being unkind about her dancing. She didn’t speak to me for a month. A whole month, almost to the day.’
‘She’s an excellent dancer.’
‘Of course she is, but she’s a Mexican too. Anyway, don’t sweat it. She’ll come around. What about Cleome? She’s kinda cute don’t you think?’
I like Kevin when he’s had a bit to drink. He’s funnier and he talks a lot more so I don’t have to.
‘I don’t know’ I say.
‘Sure you do. Come on. Live a little. What’s the matter?’
‘I really don’t want to get involved with anyone.’
‘Who’s talking about getting involved?’
I reluctantly fill him in on the whole sorry story of me and Lisa that ends up with us lost on the mountainside. By the end I’m almost in tears, picturing her lost and alone, or worse, stuck in the kind of places I ended up in.
‘Cleome reminds me of Lisa quite a bit’ I say, pathetically.
‘Aw Gabe. Come here you big goof’ he says and gives me a huge hug.
Once we’ve regained a little composure and refilled our glasses he says ‘Sounds like under any other circumstances that that would have been the beginning of a beautiful reconciliation, the two of you finally understanding what was going on. You, contrite and humble, she, your best friend. She sounds like a fine woman. Seems to me you were just unfortunate.’
This seems like a gross understatement but I know what he means. She wasn’t the kind of woman who wouldn’t talk things through once she’d calmed down (unlike Sonia apparently). Probably we’d have made up and been all the better for it, everything out in the open, friends again. Which is why it seems so tragic that I couldn’t find her.
‘But why wouldn’t she come back? Unless she was so upset that... Maybe I just destroyed all her... because she’d learned to trust me, after what happened with all the men in her life.’
‘You don’t know she didn’t go back.’
It’s true. I never found the others again either. Maybe she went back in the morning and I was gone. She wouldn’t have said 'good riddance' I know. She’d have hated herself. What a mess. I can’t believe it. After everything I’ve been through, after everything that’s happened. There’s always some new way to screw things up – just variations on a theme.
‘She will get over it Gabriel’ he says softly, soberly. ‘I think you’re crediting yourself with a mite too much importance in this story. Anyway, what I don’t get is why you didn’t snap her up and just keep her for yourself from the beginning, the way you talk about her. Seems like she was something special.’
‘She was... but... I don’t know. There’s something else.’
‘Oh’ he says.
We tacitly decide to leave it for the time being.
‘Anyway’ he says, swiftly inebriated once more it seems. ‘Here’s to you taking out a nest of pederasts.’
‘Here’s to me’ I say, and have to admit I do feel ok about that. I’m still not happy about Lisa though.