‘Actually, he was supposed to be here too. You see, it’s been an annual tradition of ours since we were younger, but for about ten years now, I…I think it has been ten years. Hold on…one…two…three….’ He counted through the years of his loss by tapping lightly on the white cotton tablecloth. A ceremonial order aimed at conjuring a memory. A moment. Possibly even a soul. ‘Yes, ten years now, I’ve been coming here on my own.’
This man speaking wore sadness heavily. It dripped down his face and into the strongly brewed earl grey tea he was stirring. It flowed across the table spread of carton-fresh concentrated orange juice (the kind with bits) and plates of fried eggs and locally sourced sausages that had aged dramatically under a prolonged stint on the breakfast serving hot plate. This man’s sadness then made its way over to the unfortunate fellow diner left with little choice but to sit at this small round table set for two. The Stranger had hastily scanned for other options when he entered, but a dearth of alternatives designated this corner table on the far side to be his seat. A chorus of clinking utensils on quaint English bone china formed a strange harmony with the baritone hum of pre-caffeinated morning voices circling the dining room of this highland Bed & Breakfast. Dawn sun slowly warmed the environs, and beyond the windows, to the east of the house, a gradient of rapidly declining horizon gave a jolt of drama to the calm of this little spot perched on the hillside. A well-kept lawn was pockmarked by rock defiantly stating its place in the history of this part of the world, and the window panes, gently kissed by morning dew, gave the diners some ethereal ambience to their breakfast. The sad man slowly spread a smudge of honey onto some cold wholemeal toast. No butter.
‘So, what keeps you returning here?’ asked The Stranger generously. The sad man didn’t answer immediately, pondering the question via a slow, methodical stirring of his tea.
‘I suppose…I hoped…’ he paused, ‘one day I might see him sitting here with me for breakfast, I guess.’
The Stranger eyed him curiously but with some sympathy, wondering what percentage of the stark, oddly straight silver hairs he could see jutting out abruptly from the otherwise thick and curly black beard—of the otherwise youthful face of his breakfast associate—were a result of his loss.
Now, to be clear, The Stranger hadn’t been immediately plunged into the anguish of this breakfaster. They had opened cordially enough, as one might do in a little Bed & Breakfast in the Scottish Highlands. The Stranger, now disarmed by this surprise engagement with someone else’s pain at quite so early an hour, had taken his seat with a curt British nod and hello. His attention wasn’t with his new companion but rather the breakfast buffet’s comforting aroma, which wafted across the room like smell lines in a comic book. A small bell tinkled to notify the guests that it was 9 a.m. and the dried out buffet was drawing to a close.
‘Anyone for more coffee before we shut up shop?’ the waitress trilled.
‘I made my first trip here six years ago,’ said The Stranger. ‘With my now ex-wife. First time back here since. I’d missed the walks. This air.’
‘Are you travelling alone?’ asked the sad man.
‘Yes,’ replied The Stranger.
‘Won’t it be strange for you to take the same walks without her?’
‘I suppose I’m about to find out,’ The Stranger grinned in an attempt to lighten the solemn mood of his new associate. ‘Though I’m not here to retrace my steps as such. There is more than the past.’
‘I suppose so,’ said the sad man quietly, looking out of the dew-damp window. Quiet settled upon him.
‘Isn’t it difficult for you to return here year after year without your…brother, is it?’ asked The Stranger to fill the silence.
‘Something like that,’ the sad man said, his voice still low. ‘Well, he was like a brother, as much as I can imagine what having a brother would be like.’
‘Oh, so he wasn’t a relative? It’s just when you said you have been coming here since you were kids, I just assumed.’
‘Actually, we met here. Many years ago. I’ll never forget. It was so strange, just like looking at myself.’
By now, The Stranger, though mildly intrigued as to where this was going, was also enviously eyeing the other diners shuffling out to prepare for the day’s outdoor activities. He wondered what he had let himself in for and how abrupt he might need to be to craft a suitable exit. He looked at the sad man sipping slowly from his tea, which must have been cold by now.
‘My parents were into walking,’ the sad man said. ‘When I was a child, we came here and to other well-known rambling spots around the British Isles. Every holiday would likely be a ramble of some kind. The preparations were always the same. We would rise early, having packed the previous night, always to my chagrin, as this task had likely disrupted my immersion in the world of a Conan the Barbarian comic. Or some late-80s dystopian movie, adding further bombast to my youthful discovery of what the West referred to as “The Cold War” and our capacity for complete self-annihilation. For nigh on two years after this depressing and life-altering revelation, I’d wake each morning abruptly to the trace of a mushroom cloud unfurling through its natural slow motion terror-beauty—a centrifugal force devouring all matter, spewing out the earth and our decay and misunderstandings right back at us. I’d see recordings of soldiers on nuclear test sites huddled behind reinforced walls, protecting themselves from the blasts, wondering how those bunkers could be at all effective.
My nightmarish depiction of our end sat somewhere between the claustrophobic despair of the early 80s nuclear drama Threads, and that scene in James Cameron’s Terminator II, within which Sarah Connor clings on—with only the defiance of will—as the force from a nuclear blast shreds her away layer by layer. Skin. Muscle. Ligament. Off into a white heat. Only her exposed, bony fingers remain clutching at the wire fence, the last whisper of humanity to leave this torn earth. Ever since those images, I guess I have been somewhat obsessed with the apocalypse.’
‘What is Threads?’ asked The Stranger.
‘Oh. When I was about twelve, I think, my English literature teacher sat the class down to watch a film. It was a British-Australian film made for television. Its central premise was what would happen to the United Kingdom if a nuclear bomb was dropped on one of its towns during the height of the Cold War. The film effectively and horrifically dramatised the terror leading up to the explosion, the immediate fallout, the nuclear winter, even the rapid degeneration of societal rules, and then, language itself. Exposure to the horrors man was capable of at such an impressionable age had a profound impact on me. I remember poring over history books with equal parts fascination and disbelief that human beings had actually created something capable of wiping them out. It blew my mind. And then, later, again, under Albert Camus’s direction that suicide is the first thing one should explore before engaging with philosophy. That made me think about Threads again and made some sense, I guess, but humanity’s rage at itself was profoundly confusing to me at that age. I suppose it still is.
‘Many years later, through some chance conversations, I discovered that quite a few children at British schools had to watch this film as a curriculum requirement back in the 80s and 90s. I guess it’s a real signifier of the tension we lived under during that time. I was intrigued by this. There’s a generation of us carrying these memories, faded scars of a terror so large and foreboding, yet in itself invisible and inherently unreal.
‘Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. My father would line up Tupperware boxes and cooling bags of freshly made salads, sandwiches and fruit. He was methodical about it, my mother less so. I think I took after her more. Packing our kit into the station wagon was borderline ritualistic for my father. Always beginning with the camping equipment to ensure tent poles and other more cumbersome items were in place. Then we would layer our hiking gear accordingly over the top, with windbreakers and fleece gilets at the ready in preparation for the crisp bite of altitude. Then our Tupperware boxes made a neat geometric stack atop all of this for easy access. I was responsible for supplying calories from the back to keep my field trip leaders from bickering.’
The Stranger gestured to the broad-in-build and equally broad-in-smile Scottish woman responsible for keeping our coffee cups full while he listened patiently to his companion ramble on but articulately so. Upon their first visit to the Bed & Breakfast, each traveller would be regaled proudly with the news that the woman was equal parts owner, manager, receptionist, and head waitress.
‘So how did you meet?’ asked The Stranger, becoming more interested in the story told by his new acquaintance. The last of the diners had left by now, so other than the two of them, the only person remaining was a callow young man carefully brushing breadcrumbs from the tables. They both watched as he handled this task so very dutifully, moving every last crumb precisely into the tray he held in his left hand, with a manner that hinted this was likely his first form of employment.
‘It wasn’t far from here. I had pitched up with my parents halfway up The Corkscrew for lunch. Though hungry, I’d had enough of bland cheese and pickle sandwiches, so I sulkily muttered that I was going off alone for a walk. The weather probably didn’t help my mood much. I guess I was a pretty sulky kid. Even when I was reasonably happy, it wasn’t visible. I couldn’t count how many a stranger had irked me with the same single word—“smile”—delivered as a command from a place up on high, where the grass caught a full sun.’
‘Just a typical teenager then,’ said The Stranger with a grin.
‘Maybe.’ he responded, head hung as before. ‘I remember trudging off a short way into the woods. It was early autumn, and wet, fallen leaves of shifting ochre squelched beneath my feet. I’d hear the occasional soft snap of a twig as it relinquished resistance to my weight. I aimed for a small clearing in the woods where the ground grew steep and sat on a fallen tree trunk feeling like shit, yet not knowing why. I became angry at the two I’d left back at the car. Something bubbled within me, a pressure I found difficult to contain. I wasn’t sure I was there. Did they see me? How did they see me? Did they see me as their son? Was I their son? I was irritably flicking at some moss when I heard a rustle of leaves.’ The Stranger looked on with an open face that suggested he was listening.
‘It was so weird,’ the sad man continued. ‘I looked up, and unbelievably, there stood a boy. There was no one else around, so this was quite a shock. From what little I could see with his back towards me, I guessed he was about my age. He seemed to be deep in concentration with whatever he was scratching into a tree trunk. The hood of his cagoule was up, so no part of his skin was visible. I sat there, frozen, a bit creeped out, wondering if he would turn around and whether he had already seen me.
‘The tree he was busy engraving looked to be a large oak. It had thick low hanging branches, making it easy to climb. The kind of tree that was typical of my tree-climbing activity when I had been a little younger. I remember—in lucid point-of-view style—the first time I fell out of a tree like that one. I must have been about six or seven years old. For a long time, the aftermath of the fall played out in my mind like a grainy super eight recording. The first image that appears is the small branch that seemed to join its end to a thicker one but did not. This branch was a perfect size for a little hand to grip. I grabbed the branch, which, as you can probably guess, chose to loyally accompany me head-first as I plummeted to the ground. Here the image vignettes, its edges fizz into darkness. Over the lens drips copious amounts of blood. My blood. My soaked vision. I remember running back to our apartment with the salty taste of blood filling my mouth. A first taste that was somehow familiar. I think we lived on the fourth floor. I recall my vision intersected by tributaries flowing from my newly discovered mortality. I left a trail winding around the stairs, spelling out my fear and confusion in splashes of red on the white marble floor.
‘I remember the front door opening and looking through blood at a black woman screaming. Her initial shock gave way instinctively to action as her medical training, a blessing of mobility—where the body is moved like raw materials—from the gods of colonialism, took over. I remember being covered and handled firmly but carefully as I was hoisted into the backseat of a vehicle. Then there was a brightly lit room, I am on my back, and silhouetted faces loom over me. One face belongs to the black woman, the other wears a beard, a stethoscope around his neck. I remember he spoke gently to me, and his stale breath enveloped my bloodied face. There was a needle piercing the thin skin on my forehead and that day I learnt to understand pain.
‘I had a rolled-up comic in my back pocket, which—unbeknownst to me—had dislodged between my rear and the uneven tree log I had been sitting on and fell onto the ground of wet leaves. The noise, though small, startled the boy, and he turned around sharply. Neither of us moved. We held a gaze like cats. He was more on edge than I, given I’d had time to acquaint myself with his presence interrupting the infinitude of this foliage.
‘I was freaked out by how much he looked like me. Well, his eyes were a little larger and rounder, and I’d say softer, but the shape of his face was so similar. His short afro hair, like my own, was just about visible as the front of his head poked out from underneath the hood of his cagoule. His nose was long and broad, distinctively evocative of a Yoruba lineage similar to my own. His lips, thick but cut with a precision akin to that of an exquisitely crafted viola, reminded me immediately of what I’d only just become comfortable looking at in the mirror. I was stunned.
‘At first, I didn’t speak. Neither did my doppelgänger. We stood, remaining the same distance apart. His arm dropped, and the small knife he’d been using to scrawl something into the tree dangled from his fingers.’
‘A knife?’ asked The Stranger.
‘Yes, a knife,’ the sad man said flatly. ‘Just a little camping knife. Eventually, I said, “Hey”.’
‘Hold on a moment—how old were you at this time?’ The Stranger asked, now clearly into this little story, or at least curious as to where it might be going. He found the lack of self-consciousness combined with the pickled melancholy of his new friend somewhat charming.
‘I think I was about thirteen or so.’
‘Okay, so what happened next?’
‘We just stood and stared at each other for a while. It was surreal. We looked almost the same, like brothers or something. I figured one of us should say something, so I did. “You walking too?” I asked him.’
‘“Yeah,” he said. “Not really into it. Got bored, so left them lot back there,” he pointed with an upward nod of his nose.
‘“Yeah, same,” I responded. “Always crap weather when they wanna come up here. Dunno, just get bored. Rather be at home.”
‘“With your mates?” he asked.
‘“Yeah,” I said.
‘“Yeah,” he nodded. “I gotta get back.”
‘“Okay, cool,” I said. He slid the knife into his pocket, turned on his heel with his head low and then walked back down a path that would lead through the other side of the woods and on to somewhere else.’
The Stranger quietly watched his companion, who had suddenly broken off from the story he was telling. The Stranger realised they had remained in the breakfast room for quite some time as the morning dew had long since given way to shards of sunlight that were now warming the thick maroon carpet underfoot. This sad man was now oddly quiet after such an oratorical session.
‘Hey,’ The Stranger prompted. ‘I need to get moving. There’s a route I’m keen to try today, and it’s a fair few miles. I heard it’s probably best not to still be on the trail after dusk.’
‘Oh, which one?’ he asked, looking up.
‘Glen Afric,’ replied The Stranger.
‘I know it!’ he responded enthusiastically, oddly perking up a touch. ‘I could come along if you like? Sorry, that is intrusive of me. I…I mean, only if you wouldn’t prefer walking alone, of course.’ The Stranger pondered quickly before the situation got awkward. For some reason, he felt resigned to losing much of the day to this chap. Though he could step away, he had become oddly compelled not to. Although the sad man was unusual, he was also intriguing. Where was this story going? Maybe he could coax more out of him. He also seemed to know his way around.
‘Yeah, sure,’ The Stranger said impulsively. ‘Let’s do it.’
He waited in the front garden of the Bed & Breakfast while his new companion, the sad man, went to change into his hiking boots. Rows of small and precisely spaced bushes held their muted autumnal poise. The air, now warmed a touch by the morning sun, was fresh and light. A small Aspen tree guarding the front gate beamed at him with its yellow leaves like a miniature sun.
They set off on the pre-planned route, which would take them first through a long valley flanked by steep, rocky, and inadvisable climbs. Beyond this, they should reach a wooded area, leading them slowly higher until they happen upon the hill that has been deemed safe to traverse. It’s a walk that takes a long, broad loop, periodically changing between ascent and descent and eventually looping back around to the forest.
A small, pebbly stream chartered the course for them to follow through the lush green valley. The Stranger’s companion would silently kick through pebbles, where the flow shallowed. Water circumvented the thick soles of his hiking boots and flicked up the back of his cagoule. They walked alongside for a long time without speaking. Rocks slippery with moss interrupted their path. Occasionally a black or red grouse swooped overhead, squawking assertively, but otherwise, only the odd tremble of wind and the pair’s footsteps crunching the lush damp flora would be audible.
After a time, they reached the wooded climb. The stoic valley gave both of them a sense of calm. The Stranger’s companion looked a lot less anxious than he had at breakfast. The sad man’s face had brightened. They had barely spoken since leaving the Bed & Breakfast, and their footsteps had often been in sync, as had the rising and falling of heavy breaths, a result of navigating the jagged earth.
‘Ah, this is quite close to where I met him actually,’ the sad man said finally.
‘Yeah, just up around the hill and over to the right.’
‘Is that along our route?’ The Stranger asked.
‘Yes, I believe so,’ said the sad man, looking up beyond the steep climb that loomed over them. The Stranger decided to probe a bit more.
‘Back at breakfast, you said you had both come here every year?’
‘Yeah, sort of.’
‘How do you mean?’ The Stranger asked, looking a bit confused.
‘We stayed in touch. Before I left, I bumped into him at the local petrol station while my parents were stocking up for the trip back down south. He was sitting at one of the arcade machines, bashing away at the joystick, looking bored. I can even remember what the game was—WWF! Worldwide Wrestling Federation! Isn’t that what it stood for?’
‘I don’t know,’ The Stranger said, looking a tad bemused.
‘I remember he was weirdly into it. I didn’t get it myself—a kind of theatre, I guess.’ The Stranger shrugged.
‘Turns out we were from different parts of the same town. We had agreed to meet at some point back down south. I was curious to find out who he knew. We were the same age, and it seemed to be that we moved through similar streets and spaces. I had never seen him before, though. Nor had any of my circle of friends mentioned a guy with such a close resemblance to me.’
The sad man shuffled a little off ahead, kicking up clumps of fallen leaves with now heavy legs. The Stranger stood awhile within the clearing, taking in the dappled light cutting through fractal patterns created by the branches overhead and looked around for a bird that sang an unusual melody somewhere above them. He walked a little in the direction of his companion, who—shrouded by bushes and tree branches—had now, disappeared. The Stranger decided to take a seat for a moment on a fallen log and wait for him. Looking up, he could now see the back of the sad man, with his hood up, an abstract form standing there, his oversized cagoule billowing cape-like in the breeze. The sad man appeared to be scrawling something into a tree, so The Stranger chose to sit and wait. Eventually, the sad man turned around and jumped, a little startled by him sitting there. He gathered himself and ambled over. The Stranger attempted to see what the sad man was scrawling on a tree trunk without moving his head, but he couldn’t. There seemed to be a lot of words.
Someone is sitting across the table from me, and I have no idea who he is. The thought that this was a blip, that you might come around, was strong. This thought grew fainter by the day and then by the month and then by the time I would again climb these hills. I know years later, your castigation of me grew and became part of what outlined the shadows that follow you, the ones you seemed to do your best to keep at bay with a holy book. At the time, I didn’t believe in the journey upon which you had embarked, a pilgrimage you had been making to ascend to something else. It came from a loss that wasn’t ever witnessed by others, but you grew within it knowing part of you is missing and where then was this missing piece to be discovered? In this land that you and I share with increasingly less for us to identify with? Where the leaves present themselves as uniformly as the faces peering at you? Where you never really saw another like you? Only now that I’m older can I dismantle this reality? It is a specific isolation. Acknowledged or otherwise, it remains. Though I don’t know how you saw what your journey would be and what it was that lay in your path to remove you entirely from the guiding rails of this world’s track. The same track the rest of us continued to trudge along. We had become flattened into place by our obligations, which sailed beyond your understanding of existence like light yachts at high tide. This world is a game we needn’t really have to master; follow the signs or feel the repercussions for any deviation. However, we dismissed your worldview as it didn’t sit with ours. The stigmata of devotion at which we sneered, but you embraced. I fled from predetermined wounds, and my disdain for these dogmas obscured seeing what you were saying to me and how. I could not patronise your cry. Now you are far—even if I could see you, I would sit looking at a face just like mine, yet having no idea who you are.
Back when the shadows began to loom, I didn’t understand what was breaking within you. When you flung your bag aloft into the night, and it crashed back down to earth, spilling out all of you and the wares you accrued from this world lay in random pieces. I looked at the ground and tried to study your belongings and secrets like tea leaves. I wasn’t yet able to hear your cry even though you crumpled into a heap before me. Maybe it is the intensity of witnessing a 6′4″ frame that seems suddenly relieved of its vertebrae. The drama and politicised weight of the ‘big black man’. He isn’t the one supposed to collapse in this way, just like that, there in the dark. The next day this incident was forgotten, but I might have listened more closely to both of us, but my fog hung low, a need to understand this delicate ascension into a person able to reflect and navigate the fragility of being alive. It lay within both of us if you look back and also to where we are now. Others would struggle to pierce the reality of this surface-level virility, due to the limits of their ability to perceive beyond their prescribed narrative, but this vulnerability is really there within, a soft knot of wilting petals and banana leaves that required more careful prying apart than what has occurred over these years. I think about the roads we have travelled and whom we have left along the way and wonder where next is one’s head going to lay. Your bed isn’t for lying in, this I know, and instead, you move through the streets, and it is the weight of your world I see huddled and strapped to your back in the images relayed to me by others reporting back when sighting you because they know I can’t. I break. Completely. I paint the picture of a soul I knew as my own, that now determinedly walks his path through arid lands and peoples that cannot read his face. Not as I can read your face, and I know this is why I can never again look into your eyes, as I will be looking into my own. We will transfer within our private cavern of memory those delicate petals, and we will be able to hear as they dry and crunch in someone’s hand, and we will both sit listlessly with a degree of understanding, that as much as we want to hold on, we slip and we slip. We slip.
Both our heads hang low now, and I cannot look into your eyes, but I can never forget their depth. You had eyes that looked at all of us through the most granular detail and a subsequent micro-examination of how I became you, and you became me and where we saw the skies. The imagination we shared transported us away from fear and on to the same plane of the most realistic understanding of what this existence meant. We would carry along on sensations as tiny as those that one wouldn’t be able to see with a naked eye, and this buoyed us across grasses, sands, lands and worlds that left indelible traces when we would touch back down. Except I don’t think you ever did. Those worlds grew in importance and materialised masterfully in front of you and told you some whispered truths about this world. The greying world. Those whispers told you although you were just in this one, you could inhabit that one. My only regret is not that you know not the necessary material comforts that determine you’re able to function with this world, but more, that this dream of yours was tainted by its early iterations of supposed guidance from something invisible governing the visible.
This invisible governance crept into your whispers and contextualised your anguish; it didn’t all begin with you. It was passed down through generations as a kind of inertia. A paralysis bestowed silently upon you and me by ancestral visitors telling us the invisible was our guiding light if you would only obediently listen to what they’re saying. While they took us afar and dropped us off and they weren’t able to reflect on this dogma, neither here nor back home. In reality, these are the wounds, and they run deep, and I deeply regret how they’ve filtered through every dream you have ever had since. Many of us were less obsessed with depictions of hell, more rather depictions of depictions, and I’ve been thinking of late whether I do everything I do because of and for you as really the original narrative penned you as being the one. You were the one that was supposed to contribute; to make some difference. Your absence tells me a great deal: How you drifted away from me when I rejected the path you had chosen. Seeing you does make me question the purpose of existence. All this reflection about you and your condition (at least what society would term it) brings me an interesting resignation to mortality and its purpose—looking at that one life, one life that can be destroyed and not at all owned. Or I am wrong, and it is if indeed you are just able to access another part of your mind’s function, one that doesn’t require adherence to this society’s structure and stigma. Even your use of food shelters shows a survival instinct. It makes me think you’ll be fine. I understood after some time that it remains pointless for me to ruin my life trying to save the impossibility that is yours. A reality I have grown accustomed to. I’ve already grieved. I made some dark peace with you (or at least the memory of who you used to be) a few years ago. I tried to whisper this to you. However, out there, I’m slow to trust or love. I question why I should have children of my own. A responsibility comes with bringing a little vulnerable piece of you into this world, a responsibility I may not be able to uphold. To be there and strongly so during those formative years where any rupture that might occur will likely plot out the path of that little life one way or another. When I look at you, it feels as though there is someone inside absolutely screaming for help, banging against the ballast of his instinct, but he is inaudible to the world. I always experience a dramatic jolt when I see another black man in the throes of this kind of illness, alone, amongst others that are doing their best to ignore him. He’ll probably be wailing, possibly with arms flailing, and his demons will be tearing at him, pulling in all directions, and he won’t even see those that are doing their best to ignore him. I’ll look at this man, and I will see you, imagining what you do when not under the family’s gaze. When you’re just another anonymous crazy, muttering under his breath to himself while under a bus shelter huddled against the wind and driving rain. Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually a bit jealous of you. Maybe I see you as more radical, more transgressive, and genuinely closer to some form of emancipation that could exist beyond the prescribed parameters of this regulated and imbalanced consciousness.
Maybe, I don’t know.
‘You made me jump.’
‘I thought I’d leave you to it for a moment. You seemed…busy,’ responded The Stranger.
‘Oh, I was just making a note,’ said the sad man. The Stranger looked a touch perplexed but decided against probing any further.
‘Shall we continue?’
They left the clearing and trod their way gingerly down a slippery, narrow path that led through the woods. The sad man led, holding belligerent branches out of the way for both of them to pass. Residual rainwater dripped from leaves overhead and harmlessly down the backs of their waterproof clothing.
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