Body shocking cold. That was the only way to describe the rocky pool just at the narrowing of the river. The night before it had promised beautiful hangover cures and bodily refreshment but now Alan’s fingers were numb as the wind whispered softly over the wetted sinews he had quickly pulled from the water. It was the coldest thing he had ever touched that was not frozen solid.
The two other lads were still asleep in the tent that had moved on the sloped ground overnight; they would feel where the hard ground and rocks had been pressing against their drunken slumbering hips and ribcages soon enough. It wasn’t as bad as all that though, he was pretty much through the physical pain and into the hangover himself by now. His fingers were dried but the wind still felt cooling where they had been dipped. The sound of the water lapping the rocks as it travelled by sounded as inviting as that type of natural sound always does; it is the same as the wind in the dark under the trees beckoning you in. There is a need to discover what all the creaking and cracking is all about; what is it that they talk about all day in there?
He stretched his legs out in front of him when the burn of lactic acid accumulating in his thighs became enough to force him. Though he knew how bad it would be there was still an urge to dip his feet into that same freezing pool; an urge to go against his better judgement and experience. He settled for a tentative resting on the edge whereby they could slip and splash of their own accord as his mind wandered to other things; he could set the accident up and see if it came to fruition.
The heavy mist from the evening before, that had forced them to set up camp much lower down the mountain than they had intended, was now no more than thin gossamer wisps drifting now and then past the campsite and into the trees; you would almost expect to see them settle in the branches like cobwebs. As he watched one of these he could hear shifting in the tent. One of the lads was cursing the earth for his bodily suffering and discomfort. There was the noise of kicking off of a tangled sleeping bag and the sleep disturbed grumbling of someone kicked. Dave and Jamie would be out soon enough; Dave was doing the kicking and Jamie the grumbling. They were talking a little but Alan couldn’t make out even close to a word. They were laughing now; the joyous part of both waking in a tent and also with other men after drinking by the fire they had cooked on and nurtured for the night. He remembered how they had both looked as they went in different directions to collect wood for the fire; though you could see or at least hear the others all the time there was a feeling of isolation and loneliness. He remembered turning his back on them, looking deep into the trees and how he felt that excited fear of knowing that everything around him was more powerful than him; something could happen here at any second and none of them would be able to do anything about it.
Dave’s whiskeyed head appeared into the daylight; his eyes scrunched up unable for the morning glare and the bombsite that greeted them. There were empty cans everywhere and the plastic water bottles that had held the whiskey were tucked under rocks to stop them from blowing away during the night. It would only take a minute to tidy this entire mess up but the scene looks so wrong in the morning. Passersby would think that we had no respect for nature.
“You would swear there was about twenty teenage scumbags here last night!” he laughed pulling his uncooperative body from the folds of the tent door, his foot still stuck in the sleeping bag. He wriggled clear but the effort is did not do his hangover any good as his face showed. He stood still then with hands out as though he had been dizzy and is trying to keep his balance but this is not the case; this is something psychological to his own unique hangover; that thing that we all have we think makes a difference but that everyone else scoffs at as rubbish. Alan smiled back at him nodding and tossed a few pebbles into the pond; there are a few slight cool splashes but nothing to bring the extreme cold to his feet. Dave has made his way to the ashes of the fire which Alan already knows are still very hot.
“I’ll toss a few twigs on this and it will be going again in a few seconds” said Dave. There is still plenty of wood around from their drunken collections in the night; they all bear the scratches from invisible twigs and limbs clawing at them in that darkness outside the reach of the firelight. Jamie emerged from the tent and though he looks tired does not seem to be suffering in a bodily sense the way Alan would have expected.
They fried sausages and white pudding in garlic butter on the scorched blackened pan; throwing whiskey over the food for the last few seconds. There was tea poured from the blackened silver kettle, used only twice but already scorched with memory. They are silent as they eat apart from a few laughs as one drops something or loses their balance leaning to get more food or tea. The fire is allowed to die out again as they will be on the move soon. Jamie took the utensils and plates down to wash in the river while Alan and Dave collected all the cans and rubbish before starting to take the tent down. Jamie came back from the stream with some water for the ashes of the fire to make sure that it is properly killed and noticed that they had left the frying plate on the ashes. When he tried to pick it up with the detachable handle it broke into three large pieces before crumbling again without any sound and fell back to mix in with the ashes.
“Well that’s the end of that!” he said out loud. The other two came over to see what he was talking about. None of them actually owned the plate but it had been in Dave’s possession for years now and there is a moment of sadness about the fact that it is gone for no reason. These are the things that are ever present on these camping trips; the little things that make different woods and mountains feel less imposing and strange; taking away the power of some of the unknown. They are the familiar sights that you take for granted and until now they had never realised how important they were, not to the cooking as there were other pots and pans that could do the same job but the continuity of camping as they understood it. There was a constant gone now and they all knew that when they cooked the next hot meal that night it would not be the same; there would no longer be that taste of old whiskey and charred garlicky steel that made up their collected outdoor histories.
They walked. Soon the wind began to pick up though there were no clouds coming ready to shatter over their heads when it reached them. They continued on towards lunchtime. The wind shimmers grew wilder and faster as the copses on either side of the well walked path performed harder and more vigorous Mexican waves. They came to a stop at a rock formation that they knew well; it had perfectly smoothed shelves they used as seats. They made spicy tuna, cheese and lettuce wraps and sat eating. Food always tastes so good when you are camping. Dave broke the silence, stunning Alan and Jamie with his sentence.
“Things aren’t working out with Jenna; I’m going to tell her when we get back”
They couldn’t avoid the compulsion to glance at one another, though their looks were inexplicable to each other, when he said this but quickly their stunned open eyes rested on him again, giving him a moment to take back or expand on what he had just told them. In this moment Alan’s mind went to a time he had held hopes for Jenna and himself; times long forgotten and gotten over. Dave looked at him and then to Jamie; it was obvious that he was waiting for one of them to say something too. Alan felt guilty at his own thoughts and rushed to appease,
“Nothing happened” said Dave and the silence within the triangle of their bodies returned for a moment, “That’s probably the problem”
“Is this serious or just since we’ve been on this trip?” Jamie asked; if this could be explained away by absence or thought processes drowning in last night’s alcohol it could easily be solved.
“A few months” Dave said. Though he didn’t cry the foundations were there; the green around them spheroid in the damp sheen that gleamed tight to the corner of his left eye. This was a serious issue and they gave it the profound silence it deserved. Knowing that their minds would be whizzing about looking for a solution for him Dave spoke again to save them the effort.
“It’s a killer but we can’t go on the way we have been. It’ll get ugly and nasty for no reason and we’ll both be unhappy. This way we can both try to get on with things.” There was no holding back the tears now and the others put supporting hands on his neck and shoulders- the male code for ‘let it all out.’ There is nothing at times like these that cannot be said with the squeezing of the shoulder muscle or the fist of clothing at the nape of the neck.
“We better get back moving” Dave said straightening up and forcing a smile.
“Yeah, we’re eating into tonight’s drinking time here” Alan said, there was a laugh but none of them really felt it.
The next section of the walk brought them along two kilometres of raised planks through dense woodland. They had to walk in single file for this. The planks were about three feet from the ground, sometimes a little higher and they creaked and bounced as though they would collapse at any moment. Alan was at the front and he set a fast pace; small gaps of three metres or so opened up between them all. Dave brought up the rear and the others didn’t know if they should look back to him or leave him to himself. Alan knew that whenever anything had been wrong with him he would rather say things when he felt like it and leave it at that and not have people around him offering advice and opinions the whole time. He also knew that the best advice at the wrong time is worse than saying nothing at all. When it comes to heartache and relationships it is all about what is going on in the head of the person concerned; there is no thought process that you can latch into with them or symbiotic consciousness to be shared through non verbal communication that will elucidate what they think and not what you think you would feel in their situation. The creaking of their steps was the only sound this deep in where the wind couldn’t penetrate.
They stopped for the night on the bank of a river, one much bigger than the stream of the night before. It had become cold again and the early signs of a later mist weaved in the air just behind what was perceptual. They went through the motions, setting up the tent, collecting wood and getting the fire going. They could all feel the oppressiveness of the looming conversation that would come when they had eaten and had started drinking. They knew they should talk about it now while they were sober but no one had the opening line or anything else right now to follow it up. All the wonders of being alone in nature was absent from their thoughts as they worked like automatons to get everything done. They all felt that they should have been doing things slower than usual, to drag out the time before they would have to talk about this but things went smoother than ever as they all concentrated on their tasks rather than messing and joking the whole time.
It is a different type of drunk when you go camping; tolerance thresholds are increased and vibes are mellower. The fire cackled with them at some surreal or vicious joke and then they fell silent. The appointed hour had arrived.
“What’s going to happen with Jenna then?” Jamie asked.
“I’ll probably move out and then we’ll have to come to some arrangement about the house.
“You’ve been together eight years man” Alan said.
“I just didn’t see this coming”
“Neither did I” Alan smiled ruefully. It was in that smile that Jamie and Alan both knew that the decision was made and that this was really happening; there was nothing they were going to be able to do to help it.
“Is there somebody else?” Jamie asked.
“No. I wish there was; at least then I’d be able to say exactly what the problem is. I don’t know what I’m going to say to her”
“What is the problem?” Alan said.
“I can’t really say without it sounding like nothing. The bottom line is that my heart is not in it anymore”
“Pfph” Alan made this sound without intending it. Dave looked at him, black eyes dancing with firelight, forehead creased so that his eyebrows dipped and touched.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he was not happy. Alan held his hands out in apology and shrugged. He had been thinking about how badly Dave had treated Jenna a few times over the years and how he was lucky to have her and was an idiot to even consider leaving her. Dave was not placated by this.
“If you have something say then say it” he darted and then added, “I thought you’d be happy about this”
“Why the hell would you think this would make me happy?”
“She would be single and you could start sniffing around her again” there were years of contempt in the way he said this.
“We all know that I was interested in her before you were going out but that was long over before you two started. It was only in your jealous head that it lasted any longer than that!” Alan shot back and the memory of that time stung his pride.
“This is ancient stuff all long sorted Dave” Jamie said looking earnestly at him.
“I know this is hard Dave” Alan said. Dave nodded and looked at Alan, his drink hand raised in apology. Alan got up and got the plastic bottle with the whiskey and threw it to him, “Time to get stuck into this I think?”
They passed the bottle around and took swigs or varying lengths and depths. The full carcass of a tree was being fed into the fire and it was surprising what short work the flames made of it. The conversation swooped and dipped in the shadows. Jamie took some photographs with his digital camera; they were funny but the glow of the fire and the light it threw and its obstructions made it seem that there were so many other people there just outside the frame, like some massive party at the back of a concert crowd. He tried to catch the sparks that rose into the cold air that enclosed them but the image was never close to what they could see with their eyes, moistened by smoke, lost relationships, laughter and lies.
“I fancied her too years ago” Jamie said later. The other two looked at him, Dave with surprise and Alan with understanding. The silence that Jamie left after this and his mesmerised stare into the fire led them believe that he had more to say but that he was not going to give it up easily. Alan felt a scend in his stomach as he wondered if Jamie had ever been where he himself had always wanted to go- was he the only one of them not to have been held by her. Alan looked at Dave; it was for him to ask any questions. Was there a new mythology that intermingled with their shared histories, the stories that they all knew and that they had assumed was their lives up to this point? Did this mountainside bend in the river have the power to change the past, to make a mockery of old truths with new facts?
“When was this?” Dave asked.
“About the same time as Alan did” Jamie said still staring ahead. Dave continued to look at him but said nothing. Alan had some questions but he didn’t want to say anything before Dave did. After what seemed like a long time Jamie looked at Dave, the weight of his gaze finally drawing him out of the fire. There was something of a Machiavellian sneer in the way Jamie looked at him. Could it be that there was some level of animosity bordering on hatred in that look? Alan felt the waves of nervous energy rush over his stomach and he had to sit up straight to bear the sensation; Jamie was going to say something that would do as much damage to him as it did to Dave. The endless moment pressed on. They knew what he was going to say, it was just a matter now of the words he chose to say it. Slept with, were together, fucked or worse?
The drop in Dave’s head and the dissipation of Jamie’s anticipation told Alan everything he needed to know. Dave already knew or was fairly sure and Jamie knew Dave knew or at the very least strongly suspected. Why was nothing ever simple, neatly wrapped and permanent? All the shit Alan had gone through because he was open and honest about how he felt all those years ago and here was Jamie doing what he had dreamed about and there was never any maltreatment or prissy moody affairs with Dave that he had ever witnessed. How did Jamie get close to her anyway? She was everything to every bloke she ever met but he was nothing to anyone but the odd fat girl with a nights cider inside her. There was a total shutdown in personality around the women he knew, different on Sunday night than he had been on Saturday night.
Alan stopped himself here; he knew that he was searching for the worst in Jamie but that he had no right to do that. It was jealousy, which he also probably had no right to feel about this. All of the tenderness and the hugs he had shared with Jenna, the trust she had shown in him seemed wasted to him now but that was the crux of the whole thing; he didn’t realise how he felt about her all this time. He never felt that there was anything ulterior to his actions; she was a friend who needed him sometimes or rather he happened to be around a few times when she needed someone, anyone. All of this coming out now when they were all alone and miles from anyone; this truth, this earth or dirt truth is also amplified by the nothing of the outdoors. Though the fire crackles and whole trees burn it is from within, seeping to the cheeks where the real heat is being generated. It had taken this group many years for any semblance of the relationships they had managed to build to come to what it had; you don’t go into the mountains with people you don’t think you can depend on, but these twenty two miles and as many drinks had brought this to nothing, which sat seamlessly in the dark of this plummeting to freezing night. It wasn’t just out here in the wilderness that everything was more powerful than you.
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