The smell of frying bacon means I am not alone
|The backpack - the one that hadn't been there a few moments ago - leaned against the tree trunk as if taking a rest. Funny thing was, I thought I'd been the last person alive on this earth for past three years.
'Hello?' My voice was familiar in my ears. I had developed the habit of talking aloud just to hear a human voice. 'What are you doing here?' The backpack did not answer me. After all, the first sign of madness is talking to yourself. The second one is when a backpack replies. I sidled up to it. It was old, scuffed, dusty, although today was the first dry day for a long time. I was not sure how long, my smartphone had died quickly in spring, year zero. My watch in mid-summer, year one. Since then, time had been marked by the rising and setting of the sun, the changes in day length and the colour of the leaves.
It was not my backpack. Mine was blue, not red. Mine was on my back. I reached round to touch it, just in case. I could feel it, familiar, heavy, moulded to my shape, part of me. Under my fingertips it was still slightly damp from the morning's rain. Red backpack leaned lazily against an ash tree, he was not going anywhere. It came to me, sliding up from behind, that if there was a backpack, then there should be a backpacker nearby. A person. A real, live person.
'Halloooooo!' It echoed through the trumpet of my hands and bounced from trunk to trunk, losing itself in the green gold of the underbrush. The backpack looked at me with an imperturbable air hanging off its straps. I hallooed again. And coo-ed. And yelled. And screamed. And cried. And whispered. And went unanswered.
A backpack. A red backpack. Resting against a trunk. Why? The owner must be off trail, relieving himself. Why did he not answer? He could not be far away. Was he deaf? Dumb? Injured? Unconscious? I refused to think the final word. Scanning the undergrowth, I saw signs. Flattened grass. A broken twig. I crashed along, shouting, searching. Nothing. Eventually, I returned to the tree.
There were two backpacks, side by side, taking a break. The new one, pale green, leaned in easy familiarity against the red one. Male and female. Partners. Lovers. People. Plural. I sat down on a damp boulder and looked at them. Who were they? Where were they? If I waited, they would return. Wouldn't they?
With impatience a slow burn that twitched my legs and made my hands mime washing, I waited. It was hot. Flies buzzed. Somewhere, a bird croaked. Standing, I eased my stiffening joints by walking up the trail to the bend where an elm had fallen, blocking the path. There I turned and retraced my steps. Woodsmoke? Wildfire? Impossible. It the woodland was drenched. I ran.
A small fire, in a scraped out pit, was blackening small branches. A pot, dangling from a notched stick held water, coming up to the boil. The red backpack was open, a scarlet cloth draped over it, a disembodied tongue. The green one had fallen on one side. Sleeping. Or dead. My head spun. Who? Where? What were they playing at? We were the last three in all the world. I wanted to talk. To converse. To be not alone.
I ran the other way down the track. It was steep, loose stones barely held in place by mud and gravel skittered underfoot. On either side the trees leaned over, ash and oak and beech making a dark, dank tunnel. Nothing. No one. Scrambling back up to the site of the camp robbed me of breath. But I could smell bacon cooking. Bacon? Bacon! It hit me then. Bacon is a processed meat. People had to make it. People had to rear the pigs to make it. People. People. People.
I had it wrong. I was not the last. I wept.
The campfire was low embers, over it an aluminum dish held sizzling meat, crisping to perfection. On another plate, slices of real bread, beside them, a tube of mustard. I wiped the drool off my chin. My stomach growled that it had not had anything like that for years. I reached out to touch, to take. At the last instant, my hand snatched back. I did not want the first people I saw to think me a thief. Smoke swirled into my eyes, blinding me for a second, no more.
They sat together. Him, tall, rugged, ugly, in a pleasant, manly way. She, shorter, her mousy hair held in place by a red bandana, her eyes the colour of a January sky. They were too wrapped up in each other and their cooking to notice me. I shuffled forward.
'Hi.' They ignored me. I tried again, louder. They were putting hot rashers between bread slices, smeared with ochre mustard. Delicious. 'Hello?' The girl looked up, those blue eyes searching the trail.
'Did you hear that?' She spoke to Him.
'Whaaa?' He mumbled around a mouthful, glancing around.
My innards knotted. I wanted to scream a denial. Moving to sit opposite them, right in their line of sight, I stared at them and their sandwiches. They weren't be ignoring me. They could not see me. The girl shivered.
'Wassa matter?' His mouth was still full.
'Someone walked over my grave.' She shrugged and laughed. Then stood. 'Be back in a while.' Picking up a trowel and wipes, she stepped off the trail.
'Not that way!' I wanted to howl as memory drilled a hole to my past. Not that way. That is where my bones are lying, whitening under the bough of a beech tree. Those trees are not called widowmakers without cause.