A man sets out on a journey of a lifetime
| This story has been published in Abandoned Towers Magazine
After a long, slow day in his cramped and musty book shop, Mr. Green was dying to close up and escape to the pub. As he hunted for his keys, the bell jangled and his friend Will Saunders came in.
"Evening all," said Will. "Got anything new for me?"
"Depends where you want to go," said Mr. Green. "South Pole? Outer Mongolia? A little jaunt among the Zulus, perhaps?"
"Anywhere, so long as it's warm."
"Let me see." Mr. Green rummaged under his desk. "Where did I put it…? Ah, here it is: 'Camel train to Mecca—Letters of a gentleman adventurer.' That should suit you right down to the ground." The thought of Will Saunders, plump, bespectacled and sixty, bouncing about on a camel, made the normally dour-looking Mr. Green smile.
"Have you read it?"
"Me?" Mr. Green looked gloomy again. "I saw enough foreign travel during the war."
"You don't know how lucky you are," said Will. His greatest ambition was to travel the world and experience all the wonders he read about in Mr. Green's books. Up to now, he'd got no further than Brighton, yet he could speak with such authority of Ankor Wat and the pyramids at Giza you almost believed he'd discovered them himself.
"Then why don't you just go?" said Mr. Green impatiently. "It's always the same with you…talk, talk, talk, but you never do anything."
"Go? Just like that?" said Will doubtfully. "I suppose I could, but…"
" 'Course you could," answered Mr. Green. "It can't be that difficult. All you have to do is buy a ticket and someone else does all the work. Even you can manage that."
Will returned to the book shop several days later, interrupting Mr. Green in the middle of his accounts.
"What's this?" asked Mr. Green. "Why aren't you at work?"
"Never mind about work," said Will. "I've given in my notice."
"What on earth for?"
"Because I'm going, Eric. I'm off," stated Will triumphantly.
Mr. Green stared at him. "Off? Off where?"
"First Paris, then Rome, Venice, Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem and then…Africa." Will sounded as if he intended to conquer Africa single handed.
"You must be joking. On your own?"
"You're the one who said there'd be nothing to it. Besides," Will reddened slightly, "who said I'm going on my own?"
"Well, well, well, you have been keeping secrets, haven't you?"
Mr. Green was not really surprised; despite his age and roly-poly appearance, Will Saunders possessed a mystifying ability to charm women like birds out of the trees.
"So who is it this time?" he asked.
"Her name's Dianne," said Will. "I met her at the bingo club."
Mr. Green laughed. "And now you're going round the world with her? You must be barmy."
"You'll see," replied Will. "I'll introduce you when I get back."
"I can't wait," said Mr. Green. "Just you remember to send me a postcard now and then, so I'll know you're really out there and not holed up in some cheap Brighton hotel."
The first postcard came from Paris. Will had little to say about the city of light, just that the Eiffel Tower was closed for repairs, and that in France the British were known as 'Les Roast Beef.' He wrote with much greater enthusiasm about their next destination, which was to be Rome. In Rome, however, it rained cats and dogs, so they did what the Romans did and stayed indoors. When they reached Venice, it was sinking, so they didn't hang around there for long. Athens was on strike. Istanbul shivered as freezing Black Sea winds howled down the Bosphorus. In Jerusalem they ate Falafel and in Cairo the pyramids were hidden by a choking yellow sand-storm.
Mr. Green shook his head at this and sighed. Why do they bother?
About three months after Will had set off a registered parcel arrived at the book shop. It bore an Egyptian postage stamp and lots of official-looking stickers printed in Arabic. Inside were several school notebooks. There was also an envelope containing a hand-written letter.
'Dear Mr. Green,
My name is Dianne Stevens. Will told you about me, I'm sure. I'm very sorry to inform you that Will died ten days ago, March twenty-third, in Aswan, a small town on the Nile in southern Egypt. We'd gone there to visit the famous Abu Simbel monument, but Will died in his sleep the night before we were due to set out.
He'd been ill for some months and his doctors had already warned him it was time to put his affairs in order, but this was his last chance to make the trip he'd always dreamed of, so he kept his condition secret even from you because he was afraid you might talk him out of it.
That's all I have time for now, I'm afraid, because I'm told the Consul has just arrived from Cairo. When we get back, I'll let you know about the funeral arrangements. We can talk properly then.
P.S. The postcards Will sent you were his idea of a joke. The real story of our journey is in the notebooks. He wrote everything down, so you'd know we didn't spend all our time in Brighton.'
Mr. Green took the notebooks home with him after work. He knew he'd have the evening to himself, as his wife was away visiting her mother and wouldn't be back until tomorrow. After supper he settled down in front of the fire with a glass of whiskey and began to read
The journal was written in pencil, and each entry was preceded by a water-colour sketch: boats on the Seine, the Colosseum, an Athens street market, a snow-filled Ottoman graveyard overlooking the Bosphorus, prayers at the Western Wall, the golden Dome of the Rock against a stormy sky and, finally, those same pyramids at Giza Will was always talking about.
Mr. Green read for hours, leaving his armchair occasionally to put on more coal whenever the fire got low. He was a little surprised by the beauty of the watercolour sketches, and guessed they must the work of Dianne, as Will had scarcely been able to draw a recognisable egg. Only the last entry, dated March twenty-third, had no water-colour sketch, just a rough pencil outline of a sort of yacht, with what appeared to be two people, a man and a woman, standing in the prow.
"Hotel Rameses, Aswan. 6.00 p.m.
I think I'll get an early night after writing this, because we're due to take a jeep to Abu Simbel at dawn tomorrow, before the sun gets too hot.
We made most of our way down here on the night train from Cairo and left the train early this morning, just for the fun of completing the last leg of our Nile journey on a felucca, one of those small boats with the huge white sails. The boatmen demanded such a ridiculous price for Aswan that Dianne wanted to return to the train, but it was already too late for that, so I paid up and loaded our baggage into the boat. The captain was all smiles by then and even offered to help but I said no, thanks, because I knew the 'help' would only be added to the bill.
In less than half an hour, we had everything stowed away, the sail was raised and we pushed off down the river. It was like sailing slowly back into another time. The view hardly changes at all: sand, rock, more rock and then more sand. The villages are surrounded by enormous palm trees and have flat-roofed houses that are sometimes painted blue against the Evil Eye. Veiled women walk along the banks with water jugs balanced on their heads and white-robed nomads bring their camels down to the water to drink. Occasionally, you can see ruined mud forts on the hilltops.
All this sounds very romantic but the novelty doesn't last for long, and then it's difficult not to doze in the heat. I think both of us must have dropped off immediately after lunch. I've been doing that a lot, lately. Sometimes I wonder if I'll have the strength to go much further, but I'm not giving up the ghost just yet. Perhaps I'll show those doctors there's more life left in this old dog than they thought.
When I woke it was late afternoon. A hot, dry wind was blowing and the Nubian crew sang as they pulled with all their strength on the ropes of the great sail, which flapped and boomed away above our heads. Dianne was still asleep on a pile of cushions in the stern. I was thirsty, so I got up for a drink, then went and sat on a pile of fishing nets in the prow. "Aswan, one hour, sir," said the captain.
The fishing nets made an uncomfortable seat, but I didn't care about that, because I was finally face to face with what I had come so far to see. And what a sight it was. The river ahead of us was filled with the triangular sails of boats like ours, but I could barely make them out in the glare, for we were sailing through a haze of dazzling, blinding light. Everything glowed: the sand, the rocks, the clouds, even the air, as if the entire world had turned itself to gold while we slept. When I glanced over the side I could see myself reflected in the water together with Dianne, who'd come up to stand beside me, and the water was gold as well, liquid gold, with our faces shining up out of it, all mixed with blue and silver.
As I sat there, with my hand shading my eyes, I suddenly had the oddest feeling—it took me a moment to realise what it was. And then I knew: I felt free; not your old, everyday kind of freedom, like when you wake up on a Saturday morning and remember you haven't got to go to work, but as if things I'd been carrying around with me all my life had simply dropped away and it was enough just to be me, boring old Will Saunders, at that time and in that place.
'Under a reddening sky, the Nile burns like molten glass.' I read that in one of your books, Eric, and it's true. It really does."
Mr. Green put the notebooks on one side and sat until morning, smoking his pipe and thinking and wondering what Mrs. Green would say when he told her they were going to Paris.