Friday, 21 February 2014

Alison XV – My Second Summer of Love

Andrea was a major part of my life for a long time after that. All through the late eighties and nineties we were together... more or less. Mind you, I don’t think you can ever say you can truly 'have' a woman like Andrea. She was one of the most self-possessed people I ever met. We travelled quite a bit together though, through the Middle East and East Africa. Or else we were at festivals - she giving massages, me doing very little of anything, mostly watching her. We always had plenty to talk about – a love of exotic food and live music and skinny-dipping. I didn’t see her very often – just a few weeks here and there but it was always memorable.
For a long time – years, I really thought we might get it together properly one day – become an actual couple. I kept trying to get her to come over and spend the summer with me at my place in Lewes, and she always said she’d like to do that, but she never did.
I think I was in love and I’m sure she knew it but she somehow managed to brush me off without me ever feeling totally rejected. She took it as a compliment and I accepted my role with all the dignity I could muster. The fact is I don’t think I could have spent more than a few weeks at a time with her. I would have burned up. I counted it all up after we lost touch. I knew her for about seven years all told but I don’t think we spent much more than about six months in each other’s company in total. 
But she was always there in the background, no matter how flat and featureless the rest of my love life was at the time.

Last I heard she was working out in Africa again. I think she had a child. To be perfectly honest, I think I wasted a lot of time waiting for her, and messed some good women about in the process. 
I look over at Alison, waiting for me to begin and for once I can’t think of a single thing to tell her. 

‘What’s up Gabriel? Guilty conscience?’
Alison evidently suspects something. I don’t know why I’m putting myself through this. It’s over and done with surely. I decide to sidestep the issue and tell her about some relatively harmless experiences with all-night parties and drugs. 

‘Andrea always knew where the raves were – there was the whole dance thing in the late eighties and nineties you may recall...’
‘I hadn’t pictured you being up all night dancing to techno, popping Es.’ 
‘Well, not so much the Es, but the rest of it... I think I must have missed out on it last time around. I guess it’s who you know. I remember once turning up in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in North Wales, getting out of the car, walking up a hill in the pitch black, in complete silence, miles from anywhere and then suddenly, coming over a ridge – lights, music, action. Amazing...
I didn’t really do the drugs though. There was something about them... I took mushrooms a couple of times. There was one time I was at someone’s place in Brighton and I remember losing my way coming back from the loo. It was this big old three-storey Victorian semi they were doing up but what I didn’t realise was that it was actually two houses being knocked into one, and I went down the wrong staircase.’ 
I take a moment to remember the horror. 
‘So suddenly I was coming down what I’d thought was the stairs I’d gone up but now it was dark and deserted, and, get this – it was the mirror image of the place I’d come from. I was totally freaked out.’
‘Well, understandably’ she says smiling. It wasn’t funny at the time.
‘Have you ever done mushrooms?’ I say.
‘Acid, once. Never again.’
‘I know, it sounds like just a normal bad ‘shroom experience doesn’t it, but there was something else. I remember looking back up the stairs and knowing there was something wrong, and looking at the empty lounge to my left and I just knew it. Every door I looked at...’
‘What about the front door?’
‘Locked. I tried.’
I can still feel it now – that sick panic. I remember sliding down, my back to the front door and crouching there, waiting, with a smell of blood and shit all around, too afraid of being heard to shout for help.
‘Then I noticed there was another set of stairs below the ones I’d come down, going down to the basement, and, I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed before – there was a light on down there, and music playing.’ I see her relax and smile. She’s evidently been on the edge of her seat too. 
‘No, you don’t get it’ I say. ‘I knew that’s where the demons were, and I knew they’d come and get me when they were ready, and nobody would ever see me again.’
I can’t speak. It was all so real. They came for me in dreams for months after that - their smudged faces, their pale bodies... I used to wake up paralysed with fear, sweating, crying... 
‘I don’t know’ I mumble eventually.
‘What did you do?’
‘I broke a window, cut myself quite badly actually, getting out.’
‘It sounds like you gave yourself quite a scare.’
‘Yes but the point is, somehow, I knew they were real. It wasn’t just the mushrooms, or, maybe they’d freed something, let them out. It wasn’t just in my head. It was something that had really happened, somewhen, somewhere... I never took anything again.’
She looks at me quizzically. ‘You think it brought something from your previous lives, somehow, into your current life?’
‘Or from the afterlife, maybe, do you think?’
‘I don’t know. It’s plausible I suppose...’
‘Maybe that’s what hallucinations are. Maybe that’s what schizophrenia is, and nightmares?’
She purses her lips and frowns, thinking it over for a minute or two. ‘Could be’ she says, shrugging. ‘It’s an interesting theory. I could look into it.’
‘Thanks. I don’t know, maybe it was just my old worries about losing control, like if I got stoned or pissed it would all come back, all that past life stuff. That’s what I was afraid of – going back, getting trapped.’

We’re almost out of time. It’s a relief. She looks through her notes again and it occurs to me that in her eyes I’ve gone from interviewee to patient – from biography to case history, or possibly even charge sheet. Is it my imagination? Her whole demeanour seems to have shifted.
She mutters, slowly turning the pages. ‘Hmm’ she says ‘well we seem to have covered a lot of what I wanted – your parents, your time at school and art college and what you did afterwards... It all seems to have worked out well for you this time. But the issue that arises in previous accounts again and again as I see it, is this thing about your relationships with women, or the lack of them.’ She looks up at me. ‘Do you feel you dealt with that part of your life successfully this time?’
I huff and look about the room evasively. She knows she’s on to something. 
‘You’ve told me about Yve and Andrea...’ she goes on. ‘Do you have anything to add to that? We can talk about it next time.’
And that’s it. That’s where we’ve been heading all this time. Judgement day. I can almost hear the bells toll.

Voyage XII – Snake Oil and Wood Spirit

‘No, tell me’ says Raz ‘I’m genuinely interested.’
We’re in the sauna again, the four of us, inseparable. It’s the middle of the night, no one else is about and anyway, since the weather has improved outside it’s been quiet down here and we feel like it’s our space again. I don’t know why it feels so comfortable for me to be here, in a dark little wooden room, naked, with three naked women, dozing, sweating, dissolving, melting. It sounds like it ought to be very erotic but it isn’t. It’s just warm. We’re very close. I don’t know what that says about me.
The other day, in passing, Ruth had asked, without expecting an answer, what my suggestions for improvements were, since I apparently hated the world the way it was so much. I said I didn’t hate it. I just thought it had its priorities wrong. I knew she wasn’t really wanting to talk. She merely stopped by to show off her new cooler social life to us and to point out to them what losers we all were. Lisa all but snarled at her and asked if she didn’t have somewhere smarter to be. Ruth smiled superciliously and swanned off.
‘I really hate her’ said Lisa. ‘And it’s not a word I use often.’

Going back to Raz’s question, ‘I don’t know’ I begin wearily ‘I just have this very strong sense that the world could be a lot better, I mean we could change it to something radically and significantly better, if we chose to.’ I sit forward and dribble some more aromatic water onto the burner making it hiss and froth. We all slump a little further into the benches. ‘People always say that’s how the it is – just violence and inequality and exploitation, as if nothing else is possible, but I just don’t think that’s true.’
‘I admire your optimism, really I do, but I think I’ve seen too much’
‘You seem to be assuming I haven’t. I know what goes on Raz. I’m not under any illusions.’
We sit quietly for a while and I assume she’s dropped the subject but then she says ‘When I was in Burma we had this anti-venom kit we were pushing.’ I look over at her. She’s not talked about her work much before. Wen opens one eye to look at her, then closes it and goes back to her torpor. I look at Wen’s body again, fascinated by the proportions of it. She doesn’t need to wear anything to cover her private parts once she’s sat down – they’re completely obscured by her belly and thighs. Interesting...
‘I was in marketing’ continues Raz, ‘and they had this new product - Venone, they wanted to shift. It was like a simple kit anyone could take with them if they were out trekking or what have you, and we were promoting it to the tour companies, developers, scientists, that sort of thing. Anyway...’ She leans over and asks Lisa for some of her water. Lisa jumps a little when Raz touches her leg, shakes her head a little as if waking up and reaches over for the bottle. Then she smiles at me lazily through her hair. She knows I’ve been watching her. I don’t care. It’s just lust after all.
‘Anyway, we were visiting this little clinic up in the hills on one of the main trekking routes, chatting up the doctors, checking out the potential demand, enjoying a little sight-seeing in the process, and one of the surgeons is showing me around and she says that about five percent of the locals she treats have snake-bites and she shows me a room with three children and their mother and she’s been bitten and probably not going to make it without treatment and I ask her, the doctor, what they’ve got for her and she says nothing because it has to be brought in from the city and it’ll arrive too late to save her and I say what about this Venone stuff and she says she can’t afford it, none of them can and I go to Tim, he’s our manager and I ask if we can use one of the demo packs on this woman and he says yes it’ll be good PR.’
Raz is sitting bowed forward, staring at the stove, her hands clasped between her knees, her small breasts hanging, her thin belly creased, her black hair straggling around her face. She looks old.
I look at Lisa, who looks confused. ‘What happened?’ she says.
‘Oh she was fine. The treatment works almost instantaneously. There was a big party. They really laid on a big spread for us and everything.’
‘So that was a good thing then. You cured her.’
‘Yes.’ Still Raz looks on but not at the fire, nor beyond the fire at the door. She’s looking on into the blackness. Lisa and I watch. We’re all leaning forward, waiting.
‘What happened next?’ says Wen from behind me, but her tone of voice tells me she’s already guessed.
‘Next day, another victim, a little girl this time and everyone looks at us expectantly, and Tim says – I’ll always remember this – he said “Show’s over ladies and gentlemen. No more. Sorry” like it’s just been a circus stunt. And we move on to the next village.’
‘And the little girl?’
Raz shrugs. Wen leans back. She knew this was coming. Of course she does, she was working in places like that too.
‘Didn’t you have any more of the treatment?’ asks Lisa.
‘We had a crate full. Tim said we needed it for the other settlements and we couldn’t afford to just give it away.’
‘How much was it, to buy I mean?’ asks Lisa.
‘About fifty dollars a pack, three treatments per pack. Not that much...’
‘Not for a westerner’ says Wen.
‘No. We developed it for the westerners. Like I said, the locals couldn’t afford it.’
I say ‘Hang on, I don’t get it. Surely the locals got bitten more than the tourists?’
‘Much more’ says Raz, ‘but like Ruth said we weren’t a charity. We were there to make money and the locals didn’t have any.’
Silence. Somehow if she’d told us she’d stood by and let Tim rape a child we wouldn’t have felt very differently.
‘Did that sort of thing happen a lot?’ asks Wen after a while.
‘Well, lets just say it wasn’t an isolated incident’ says Raz, leaning forward, staring into the dark. ‘I’m not proud of it’ she says quietly.
‘How could you do that?’ says Lisa, moving down to face Raz. Raz turns and looks into Lisa’s angry face. She looks like she thinks Lisa might hit her and actually, Lisa looks like she might. Quite suddenly Lisa turns and leaves, letting the door slam behind her. I look around at Wen. She’s frowning hard at the ceiling. I’m going to have to go after her again I know. I get up and look down at Raz who looks up at me pathetically. ‘I really want to know’ she says, loosely taking my hand, then dropping it when I don’t respond. I’m not being deliberately hurtful. I know she wants absolution or something but I just don’t know what to say to her. Then Lisa reappears and Raz looks up at her hopefully but Lisa just strides past and goes out the other door to the pool. We hear her drop into the water as the door closes.

I find Lisa later in the library, looking at the music section. It’s almost light out and the thin mauve morning is illuminating the shelves around her. She says nothing but comes and sits close to me on the fat leather bench with a book on her knees. Then she throws her arms around my neck and sobs. I hold her close and wait. After a few minutes she leans back, still with her arms around me and looks into my face, searching my eyes. She runs a hand through my hair and looks at me some more then moves forward and kisses me powerfully almost as if she’s trying to consume me from the inside out and I can’t help but feed on her in return. It’s desperate. We stay like that for what seems like an hour or more, pressed against each other, struggling to get as close as we need to be.

Finally we were exhausted and knelt back, face to face and looked at each other. I felt sick and horrified and at the same time just wanted more – so much more. I curled down and closed my eyes and looked for my girl’s face but I couldn’t concentrate. I felt Lisa’s hand on my neck and grabbed it, not wanting her to take it away but unable to stand her tenderness. I suppose I squeezed it too tight because she flinched and pulled away. That made me just want to hold her more. I turned and sat, looking away from her, away from temptation. I suddenly realised I was truly dead and gone and I would never see my girl ever again.

Lisa sat with me in my room until I had finished crying. Then, as the ache subsided and I lay back across the bed exhausted, staring into space she asked me to tell her about my girl.
‘You never told me her name’
‘I can’t.’
‘What was she like?’
‘I’m sorry, I just can’t’ I say.
‘Tell me about the other girls then’
‘I don’t know. I’m interested. I want to know.’ She stops and thinks about it a bit more. ‘Maybe because I missed out on all that. Do you know, when I was alive I just used to read romance novels all the time? And films, like The English Patient, and The Bridges of Madison County? All hopeless love and wasted passion? I don’t know why.’
‘You’re a romantic.’
‘I am. Is that a bad thing?’
‘No. I am too.’
‘I know’ and she leans in on me, her head on my shoulder, hugging my arm. I kiss the top of her head again and stroke her back.

‘What do you want to know?’ I say.
‘How many girlfriends did you have?’ she says, briskly sitting back, kneeling on my bed, drying her eyes and being cheerful.
‘I’m not sure’ I say. I’m glad she didn’t ask how many women I had sex with because I do actually know the exact score. It’s a bloke thing – sad but true. ‘My first real girlfriend was at college. Her name was Yvonne, Yve. I’ve been telling my guide about her.’ And I go on to tell her a bit about her – her going to university and us drifting apart as a result, and that I lost my virginity with her – an 'older woman', and Lisa is gratifyingly impressed. She wants to know about the sex and I tell her I liked going down on her. That makes her squirm nicely. She tells me she never met a man who really enjoyed it. I give her an evil smile and the image of Lisa’s tender fair-haired vagina at the pool comes to mind. I shake my head and she laughs.
‘Who was next?’
‘Oh, there were a few at Art College, obviously.’
‘What were they like?’
‘Oh you know, arty types.’
‘Just one night stands and things?’
‘I suppose. I don’t know if I’m a one night stand sort of a guy to be honest. Usually I wanted to see more of them. Anyway, after I finished college there was Andrea. That was weird.’
‘She was always insisting we’d met in a previous life. It was the sort of hippy shit people came out with at those sorts of gatherings – I met her at a festival, but I’m actually fairly sure she was right.’
‘What was the festival? Was it like Glastonbury?’
‘Something like that – the Wood Spirit festival. She was training to be a doctor but she used to go round the festies in the summer and do reiki and deep tissue massages – stuff like that. I met her when I went for a massage.’
‘Did you go to a lot of festies? I always wanted to do that.’
‘You’d have liked the saunas.’
‘Was everyone wandering around naked all the time?’ she asks with a cheeky grin on her face.
‘Around the saunas yes. Not so much elsewhere.’
‘God I’d have liked to have done all that.’
‘Maybe you will, next time.’
‘Oh I’m not going back.’ She gets up and begins to pace about in the tiny area of floor, ending up slowly twirling on the spot.
‘No? Maybe it won’t happen again, the ME I mean.’
‘I couldn’t take the risk. It’s not like I’ll know what to avoid. No, I’ve thought about it and I really don’t want to. It’s ok.’
‘No, fair enough. Fair enough.’
‘Tell me about Andrea. What did she look like?’
‘Oh she was amazing – she had really pale white skin – she had to be really careful in the sun, and she had really bright blue green eyes and rich red hair. I think she used to henna it but it was naturally very red, and really thick. You could take great handfuls of it and...’ I have this memory of taking her from behind, holding her hair wound around my fist, pulling her head back, making her gasp, then turning her head and eating ravenously at her lips and tongue, her broad white back arched, her heavy breasts hanging below and her chunky white arse spread out in front of me – a winged tattoo across the small of her back.
‘What are you thinking?’
‘You’re thinking about her aren’t you’ she says gleefully, leaning forward and poking me in the ribs. I nod my head, smiling guiltily.
‘You dirty old sod. Tell me about it’ she says and after a little prodding I begin to talk about how we were together, Andrea and I, and I am aware that Lisa is sliding onto my bed and getting comfortable facing me, her pale cotton trousers stretched tight between her legs. The small smile on her lips tells me what she is thinking. I am caught between the delicious feeling of anticipation – that I’m quite certain I could take her, and the certainty that I can’t let it happen. Is she doing this to me on purpose? Probably, but I don’t want it to stop. I tell her about Andrea’s fat white breasts and her big pink nipples with their silver rings, and the nicely rounded rolls of belly and the ginger fuzz below. I tell her how I loved to get down and bury my face between her legs and breath her body’s perfume in. I look at Lisa and her eyes are wide and fixed on mine.
‘Oh God...’ she breathes and closes her legs. ‘I never...’ she says flapping her hands in the air, as if scattering the image as it flutters about her head. ‘My ex... wasn’t into it, didn’t want to. Was it good, for her I mean?’
‘It got results, if that’s what you mean.’ I observe her dishevelment candidly, and she giggles girlishly and holds her hair across her face, hiding from me. Then she straightens up and looks away, thinking about something. ‘Did she, you know, to you too?’
I pretend I don’t know what she means and she goes ‘Oh you know what I’m talking about don’t you. You’re doing it on purpose...’
‘Why don’t you just say it? Go on. Say the word...’ and I mouth the B at her and she giggles and squirms some more and hides her face behind a cushion as if I’m flinging stuff at her. I look at her feet, long and narrow and perfect and take one of them in my hands and suddenly have the memory of doing this to Yve all those years ago. Lisa stops to look at what I’m doing and quietens down. ‘Ok’ she says ‘Did Andrea ever give you a BJ?’
‘A BJ?’ I say, laughing, and tickle her feet and she squirms around giggling some more.
‘Actually’ I say, deliberately breaking the mood ‘Andrea was not all that good at “BJs” as you call them.’
‘Oh. That’s disappointing’ she says, drawing her knees up and peering at me over them.
‘Well, actually, to be honest, not that many women are, in my experience. I mean, it’s easy to get a man to come, in a run of the mill way, obviously, but...’
‘But it’s not always that great, as orgasms go. I think a lot of men like the idea of a blow job...’
She sits back, giggling again ‘Sorry sorry’ she says, ‘but it’s just such a silly name. I mean, I don’t mind saying wank or tits or whatever, it’s just Blow Job. It’s so stupid. There must be a better thing to call it.’
‘Fellatio?’ I suggest.
‘What? No.’ she shrieks. ‘Yuk! Why does that always make me think of men in periwigs and breeches?’
‘Whatever turns you on I suppose.’
‘That’s not what I meant and you know it. Anyway, you were saying, erm... something... men like blow jobs because...’
‘Ah yes. I think it’s all about humiliation and domination, having a woman on her knees and so on. There’s all those porn sites about facials. I don’t really get it myself.’
‘I think Mick, my ex... God, I haven’t said his name for ages... Anyway, I think Mick thought giving a woman... whatever the equivalent of a blow job is, was demeaning.’
Her voice trails off and she sits quietly again, thinking, playing with her hair. I rub her feet some more and try not to think about her vagina.
‘So you really liked it, going down on her’ she says, trying to be cool, still looking at her hair. I nod, waiting, not knowing what to do. ‘But you didn’t really like having it done to you...’
‘I liked it, don’t get me wrong. It’s just... it’s not my favourite part. There’s the actual, you know... fucking... for example...’
‘Maybe you just never had a really good one’ she says, suddenly grinning at me, rolling her tongue lewdly around in her cheek.
‘Ah, now that’s where you’re wrong.’
‘So go on, tell me. Who was it? Was it your wife?’
I give her a cryptic grin. ‘Later’ I say. ‘After breakfast maybe.’
‘Aw’ she says but I can tell she needs a distraction as much as I do. I wonder on the way, how this particular type of intercourse we’ve been indulging in stands on the scale of infidelity. I fear we may have entered the realm of loopholes and that thought doesn’t make me happy. I just want her so much and the idea of her going off with someone else out of sheer frustration is actually painful. I don’t know what to do. I can feel myself failing.

Journey XII – Mother Mountain

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.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.