My phone goes off. It is 4:20AM. I have had two hours of sleep. These thoughts drift vaguely through my brain… everything's a bit vague. I dress in the black wicking shirt, the brown hiking pants, fetch my toothbursh, paste, cheap rain jacket, and cap (with feather!). I'm ready. All this has taken maybe five minutes.
Walking across the downs to Blackboy Hill, I understand, again, why I am a morning person. The sky above me has twinkling stars and the deep, deep blue of early morning. Walking the quiet streets of Bristol, I'm amazed that a city of 500,000 or so can go entirely to bed. I walk the streets alone until somewhere near the city center, when a cleaning truck drives by.
I almost take a wrong turn, but surely it can't be coincidence that that lady's wheeling a suitcase the other way? It isn't. The bus is quietly purring, waiting for me.
|On board, I try my best to sleep on the way to London and, mostly, it doesn't work. I'm tall, there isn't too much leg room, the sun is rising, country-side is whizzing past. Looking around, I seem to be the only one with this problem.|
|But, on this morning, I think that's okay.|
London descends on us and we're caught meandering its streets. I'm supposed to arrive at 7:30AM, rest a half hour, see the sights, leave at 8AM. I arrive at 7:52AM, don't rest, search frantically for food, search frantically for bus, it's in a different building!, search for other building, search for bus, it's here, no, it's there, it's at this gate, no it's not!, oh wait… what's that!, RunRunRun, it's the bus! RunRunRun… and I'm the last person on.
On the bus's upper story, I relax in the front seat next to a dark-haired girl wearing a fuzzy jacket and blue scrubs. After failing to sleep for an hour or so, contorting myself, trying to prop up my head with my winter cap and a quick-dry towel, I begin to want to converse. But she's plugged-in - an iPod zombie. I glance at the road. I glance at the clock - only eight hours to go. I glance at the girl, "BRRRRRAAAAIIINNNSSS!!" I try to sleep.
How I know I'm going the right way…
(I love this sign)
And so the cycle goes. Finally, I decide to try my hand at resurrection. I nudge the Creature. It does not move. Does it feel? Does it sense? If you prick it, does it bleed? I look back at the road, but now it's awkward… once you pull the zombie-killing trigger, you can't stop the zombie-killing bullet. I use my hand to grab the sight-lines of the Creature, which responds by pulling out its ear buds.
The Creature, who does not tell me her name, is a rather nice girl traveling home to Scotland (near Glasgow) aftering seeing her boyfriend off in London. The Creature says the Scottish - the people up North - are much friendlier, they have a "just weird" sense of humour, not so "haha" as the Southeners. The Creature tells me that there are three things I must do in Scotland and they are, in this order: (1) Enjoy the scenary, (2) Have Hagis, (3) Go to Glasgow (for the accent). I decide that a place where the prime concern is to enjoy the scenary, is probably a place for me. The Creature tells me that Glasgow's a nice city, but also the "stab capitol" of Europe and, if I hear a fight or see one, I should just go the other way. I'm sure the Creature means only the best, but I can't actually see myself doing that.
The Creature goes silent and then, occasionally interjects a comment or story. TC got chashed by two men who were "off their faces"/"blue-sterd"/"drunk", but ducked into a bar - "haha". TC finds scrubs comfortable, TC wears them because she randomly decided to be a pharmacologist after not getting into medicine. TC enjoys pharmacology, but may do medicine again later. TC hates this bus; "this bus is f***ing cold" (TC swears passionlessly, and only this one time). TC has only been to Wales once, when she was very young (I am amazed by this). TC "can't feel [TC's] arse". I try to respond and keep the converse going, but the spell is wearing off. From somewhere in TC's pocket, the tentacles rise up and strangle her consciousness and TC's gone again, lost to the world.
I consoled myself with this view
I read my book. I scrawl in my journal. TC occasionally moans for brains. The bus wends North through some beautiful scenery. We arrive in Glasgow.
Disembarking, I watch TC stumble away, without a parting word, to feast on the flesh of still-living victims. I on the other hand, find my way to a coffee shop and try to figure out if I'm being met here by certain of my relatives. After a good long while, I determine that I am not.
I wander the streets, searching for a place to buy a blanket, and fail. I try to find Trader Joe's skipper (Portland's has been rumoured to contain all manner of tasty delicacies), and fail. I wander (perhaps even purposely, dear Reader) through a few alleys anticipating stabbage, and fail.
Glasgow! No blankets, no over-flowing skippers, no brutal knifings in the shadows… what sort of city is this!? I resolve to leave. (Before TC's zombie hordes come for me.)
On the MegaBus, I strap myself into the very front seat, the road rushing up to meet me. My grandmother and I did this in my youth - the world was our oyster - and those wonderful memories rise up, unbidden, to meld present and past together. Alas, this time I am alone.
To break the loneliness, I chat briefly with TPF on my computer-come-phone - it's been two years - she's married and doing ministry. Wow. On hearing what I'm doing, she asks what the average person can do to effectively be "green". No one's asked me this before and I'm saved from answering as the bus pulls out into open country losing the pesky Wifi signals (I hope to write on the subject later). The computer stowed, I rejoin the present/past as the bus driver whistles and hums to himself tunes only we (and my grandmama) can hear.
The sun sets in epic glory o'er scattered tors and cuestas, throwing bright colours about like a tot finger-painting. A couple near me makes to leave the bus as we enter Edinburgh, but a strong female voice invites them to stay on and take an easier path with her. I turn around and the speaker is not the middle-aged fitness buff I'd envisioned, but, rather, a grandmotherly lady with a sort of white afro.
At the stop, I follow afro-lady and the couple to a prominent square where the bobbing-white-curls direct me to the far side. Still several minutes till the bus comes… I pop into a bar. Around me expensive suits and evening dresses mingle with bottles of champagne. Glasses clink. My backpack and I slide through the crowd with narry a ripple: first, the WC, then the bar.
I ask for a glass of water and the barkeep, with great artistry, fills a huge glass with ice: each cube has its place. A lime is dutifully added, angled just right. The water goes in at an angle, the glass swirling about. The light is shone through the water - crystal clear. The glass is set before me somewhat unceremoniously atop a skewed napkin: art only goes so far for this tender.
I sip at my glass, glance up, and have my gaze caught by a girl down the bar regarding me coolly over a pale amber pint. She's wearing a tight black leather jacket, even tighter black jeans, and her focused expression says, "Speak with me." I'm sure, standing there, that there are particular social schemas, certain incantations, particular gesticulations for this sort of situation. I don't know them, but I can improvise! I stare back, pointedly. Raise my glass, slowly. Take a prodigious swig of the water, and, tipping my hat, dance out the door into the night. Twice through Gusty's Frolics on the pennywhistle and I'm seated on the bus. Upstairs. Next to Florion.
You may be wondering, by this time, dear Reader, where I am going. Perhaps you're wondering why I didn't stay in Glasgow, where I knew there would be inviting hostels, warm beds, and hungry knives. Fear not, dear Reader, for I am wondering too.
Is this bus going the right way? Florion nods excitedly, short, sharp blonde hair slicing the air. Yes! I drop a place-name; he sees the backpack - you're going to the woods. That's right, but how did Florion know? Florion explains that he went there once and it was like no place he'd ever been - he'll warn me when we get near. As we go along, Florion and I talk about life and I realise he has the special gift of making any story you tell fascinating - his enthusiam and the passionate, expressive way he conveys it catches you up, makes you something better than you are, and I find myself rather liking him.
I can't place Florion's accent and some of what he says flies by me, but laughter translates well. We chuckle long and loud as he suggests I use pen and wash it out of my waterproof notebook to make it new again. His left pinkie nail is painted pink, the only one. Though mine's been various colours in the past, it's au naturale tonight. I wonder at this coincidence. He asks what I do, and I explain. I return the question and he responds with a low chuckle, then silence. After a pause, he rummages in his bag and hands me a photo of himself with five naked girls.
But wait, they aren't really naked - those scraps of cloth and metal put them a hair's breadth away. Reading the writing, I realise it's a thank you note from a troop of belly dancers: Florion is a drummer and his trap is also featured. I have infinite admiration for drummers and say so as Florion gives me directions. Then the bus stops and I get off, but too early! It drives off with Florion gesticulating and mouthing directions at me from the upper story.
I follow the road around a corner, in the direction of Florion's pointing and there's a lonely bus stop and next to it… a dark path going into the woods.
The Reader may now have the sneaking suspicion (or is it a full-blown accusation?!) that I'm about to plunge into the dark woods. If this isn't so, please read the preceeding paragraph.
I plunge into the dark woods as a car of screaming teenage boys flies by on the dimly-lit road. The trail is dark, but had Florion mentioned something about a torch while I was on the bus, so I pull a concealed one from my sock. The trail is muddy, water-pooled in places, and ducks below low-hanging trees. Thorns and nettles make successful grabs for my legs. The path winds on. Suddenly, I'm beneath a graffiti-splashed bridge.
"But Richard?", you say, "Why the woods? Why this madness?!" I beckon you closer and we huddle in the ooze beneath the ancient bricks where encrouching vines entwine themselves around a fence of welded bicycle rims. "Do you recall, dear Reader, when Raina was coming to visit?" You nod, vigorously, of course you remember. "Well,", I say, "she mentioned in passing, some sort of hippie commune, protest site, thing." You stare at me incredulously, "That's it, that's why we've come to this dark portal in the dark woods? We've sacrificed safety and sanity for a rumour?!" I nod, simply, "Yes. That is why."
Hunting around I find a false trail leading out into the grass. Then I notice the real trail, a rope winding down and around the bricks of the bridge towards the sound of burbling water. Never has a trail looked so dark and foreboding; I beckon you follow and you do because, after all, dear Reader, what choice do you have?
The flashlight throws crazy shadows as I tread carefully down the slimey steps. The bridge makes another arch and my light ignites in dim yellow a weeping yellow skull overlaid on the Shell logo. I pass it by and the muddy trail gets sucked between two fences and into a little square surrounded by a couple of ram-shackle buildings.
A xenon-flame shoots out of one of them as I spin my own smaller light to meet it. For a moment the only sound is babbling water, then I cross to the light, walk up onto creaking boards. "I'm Richard." "I'm Alex." We shake hands and his grip is firm, his face hidden. "Do you have somewhere I can stay for the night?" Wordlessly, Alex stands; thinking, he starts walking off into the night, "I think that's free."
I follow him over a creaking lashed-together bridge, the dark waters sliding past beneath, and then up a slippery hillside path. He grabs a ladder and climbs upwards, dropping down a moment later. "You can stay there. There's no food in your pack?" There is none and Alex turns, his light suddenly out, and vanishes into the night. He asks no more questions of me, nor I of him.
I have acute memories of trying to sleep on the hard floor of an Alaskan forest cabin with TJ and Rosemary… and failing. This time, there's no choice. I cinch my straps tighter, stick the torch in my lips, and start climbing. The platform I reach, twelve or thirteen feet up, creaks as I climb on and I know, somewhere, that Juko is exclaiming, "This isn't OSHA-approved!" Not understanding such things, I clamber the rest of the way on, ducking beneath an out-stretched rod.
Inside, it's not a bare floor! There are books on my left and right, two hiking backpacks, sandles, a lighter, a matress, sheets, blankets, a sleeping bag! Climbing in farther, there's a slight unsourcable smell. I look at the bed and it occurs to me that one should either sleep naked to prevent whatever lives in it from infesting one's clothes, or fully-clothed to prevent the inhabitants from feasting on one's skin during the night. I carefully move the blankets around, torch burning inquisitively. Nothing. Some more digging, nothing. In fact, everything's very clean. My shoes off, I squish myself down on the mound of blankets, intending to lie on top, but they slowly win me over and I have an increasing feeling of trust, till finally, I'm buried.
I stare up at the patchwork of flowery table-cloths, vinyl curtains, shower curtains, et cetera, which make up the ceiling, all supported by PVC beams. By my feet and by my head, windows look out into the pitch night. Judging by the clothes and feminine undergarments I've shuffled around to get to the bed, this isn't a guest house.
With the torch shut off, the dark is not total: the ceiling glows slightly, as does glow-in-the-dark tape on some hoops in the corner, and the dim blue of night-glow seeps through the windows. I lie there, the river gurgling by directly beneath me, in my tree house, thinking how great the world is.
A few hours later, I'm awakened by creakings on the ladder. A light appears, and then long, illuminated hair. I wait till she's stably situated, "Good evening." She starts and then explains how she missed all these buses getting home. Indicating a pile of pillows at the other end of the bed, she asks me to move over, and climbs into her sleeping bag. I'm waiting for her to settle as she says, "I'm Kirstin." "I'm Richard." "I'm a little sick, Richard." "Not the swine flu, I hope." "No, not the swine flu."
"Good night.", we say in simultude.
I lie there a while longer, the brook gargamurmaling in its unknowable tongue, the implacable Kirstin-come-caterpillar a firm lump of down pressing on one side. Life is indeed strange.