Archive for the ‘feet’ Category

It was raining again when I entered Glen Dee. The sky was as rugged as the ground, clouds, torn, chasing each other, sunlight coming through the ragged opening in scattered bursts, the way a gunman might occasionally strafe a besieged house with bursts of automatic fire. The hills on both sides of the glen grew into mountains and the path itself plodded ever upwards.

In the evening I reached a mountain whose lopsided peak jutted out impressively over the glen, like a cock straining against tight trousers. As I found out later it’s called “Devil’s Point” in English, which was the polite translation of its Gaelic name as it was told to Queen Victory when she travelled through these parts. A more literal translation would be “demon dick”.

There was a small stone hut at the foot of the Devil’s Point. I thought about spending the night there, but when I got close, I saw that a group of happy hikers were just getting cozy inside, hanging freshly washed socks from the window sill and busying themselves with the fireplace. I greeted them half-heartedly, without breaking my stride. I hurried past the hut and up a small path that lead to the ridge joining the Devil’s Point and several other peaks to a plateau.

I had not intended to climb any of these peaks. I had wanted to stay on the trail along the valley. But the path to the stone hut had taken me away from the main trail, and once I was there and saw that it was occupied, I only had the choices of either staying, or turning around, or walking on, uphill.

I didn’t want to stay. Helen and John had been all the company I craved that day. And I didn’t want to turn around, because doing so would have made it only to apparent to those hikers that I was avoiding them. And somehow that moment I couldn’t have born the shame of my cowardice becoming visible to them. Even if it meant having to drag myself up that devilish mountain.

I cursed myself every exhausting and agonizing step. Each made my shoulder throb with a deep, dull fire. And when the night had quietly done away with the last of the dusk I found myself in a large corrie, illuminated only by the wan light of a distant, gibbous moon – an immense natural amphitheatre made up of moss-covered rocks and steep slopes. And I felt very lost, and small, and terribly exposed to the heavens.

The corrie was lines with little brooks. I found a dry, sandy spot between two of them, had the last of Helen Campbell’s sandwiches, emptied the bottle, tended to my feet, and finally smoked my last fag and gazed down into the Glen, and the tiny flickering light of the hearth fire in the stone hut far below me at the foot of the mountain.

As I sat there I was still mulling over the things Helen had said. And her question whether I believe in God and in Jesus Christ.

Just to be clear on this, I do believe in God. I do. I do. But… how do I say this?

My Dad had been raised a Roman Catholic, and my aunt had converted to the Church of England when she married. My cousins had been raised Anglicans. My mum is from a family of strict Prussian Lutheran protestants. My oldest friend and neighbour, Orcun, was from a family of moderately devout Muslims. And Hector’s parents were lapsed Communists and strict and vocal atheists. From the beginning I had known that whatever anyone wanted to claim about religion, there was always a way to look at things differently.

My mum had me and my siblings baptized in the local Lutheran parish, and all but me went to Confirmation class from 12 onward. I was the only one to flat out refuse to go. But that was the extend of my mum’s involvement with the Church. The only times I ever saw her even talk to the vicar was during ‘Nette’s funeral, and at Nicky’s baptism 2 ½ years later.

Primary school offered religious instruction for Protestants and Catholics, but none for Muslims, so it mainly served as a segregator for the main ethnicities – the German kids mostly went to the Lutheran class, Polish kids to the Catholic, and the Turkish and Arabic kids had a free period (but usually visited a Qur’an school some afternoons of the week.) Again it seemed to me that somehow religion was less about truth and more about belonging, about identity and taking sides.

I remember how astonished I was when I finally received religious instructions how boring and meaningless everything was that I was being told about God and Jesus. How God – supposedly almighty and all-knowing – was this soppy stern chap who in some never fully explained way was supposed to love everybody (like, what does that even mean?) and watch over the entire world and every littlest critter in it, and who for some reason was to be credited with every good turn but never to be blamed for everything that went wrong. And Jesus, the son (or incarnation, they never could tell me which) of this almighty God, had brought even more love and forgiveness into the world – I kept wondering what a perfect God needed a version 2.0 for – but then got killed rather badly for it.

And then I looked around in my world, and inside myself, and saw all the violence, and the callousness, the pettiness, and how messed up and dirty and run down everything was, and I thought, kurwa, He sure is doing a terrible job.

I also began to seriously resent my teacher, and God, because if there was any truth in what she told me about God’s intentions and power, then God must either hold one hell of a grudge against me, or – and that was even worse – I must be so unimportant that in all his omniscience He never noticed me.

And then ‘Nette started her confirmation classes, and in the nights we would talk about what she had learned, and what she was thinking about all of it. And we’d try to make sense of it ourselves. And once again I was astonished, this time because the stuff we read was nothing like that boring, pedantic, and utterly ineffective God the grown-ups had been telling me about.

The God of the bible is a truly wicked bloke. He is rash to anger and totally overreacts to everything. He blunders along and often acts before he thinks and then comes to regret it later, or changes his mind in mid-stride. He blusters and boasts, sulks, and refuses to admit when he’s made a mistake. He’s bloodthirsty, and untrustworthy, and incredibly vain. But He is full of love – and not that boring, serene love my dried-up teach was going on about, but a love that years, and hurts, is proud, and tender, and that knows how to forgive, not for morals butt for passion. Who could read the story of God and David and not be moved by the flawed, fiery passion for one another?

The bible is full of great folks, and I was pissed off that the teach had made them all sound so dull. There was David, and his suggestive, well, not even love-triangle but love-quadrangle, with King Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan and saul’s daughter Michal. I mean, talk about kinky. David’s career as an outlaw and rebel, his ascent to kingship, his trouble with his own sons, and his less than glorious old age.

Or take Jacob, the thief, liar, and runaway, who got into actual fisticuffs with God, and who God loved so much that he re-named him Israel. Or Job, who took God to court and forced Him to show His true colours. Or Moses, who I think it can be argued is the only person other than Mary who has a reasonable claim to the boast that God made love to him, but who was still turned back at the border of the promised land and had to die, alone, in the desert.

At the age of 10 the New Testament was a bit boring for me and often very hard to understand. But even there were hidden gems that the grown-ups had withheld from me: Why do they gloss over Herod’s mass child murder in the Christmas Story? And who came up with these three boring old kings, when the actual text tells of an numberless group of wise men – possibly wizards! – from the East? And then there are moments like the one when Jesus begs God to spare him, when he is filled with fear and doubt, but God refuses him and Jesus is nailed to the cross anyway. Later when ‘Nette’s tumour had metastasised into her bones and she had to be given morphine, an still it hurt her so badly, I had to think of the crucifiction and what it would feel like to have nails driven through my wrists and the spans of my feet.

This God of the bible was a God who made sense, a God who fit the world I was living in. It wasn’t a God I could approach about a new bicycle or a Playstation, sure, but it was one I could somehow respect.

Until he murdered my sister.

That long Saturday afternoon, as I walked up Glen Dee and climbed the Devil’s Point, He was a lot on my mind again, and for the first time in years I asked myself if I still had faith. If I was, as Helen had said, putting my fate in the hands of God.

The idea bothered me, it bothered me a lot. I mean, if I allowed for God as the charioteer of destiny, I could hardly avoid it, could I? But it rankled with me: Since her death I had never begged. I preferred to take what I wanted and be damned the consequences. I didn’t want handouts from Him.

When I was sitting up on the mountainside, shivering in my damp clothes in the night’s chilling breeze, I tried to see the world through the Atheist’s eyes. It was surprisingly easy, under those racing clouds, with the cold and distant stars blinking through them from afar. It was easy to imagine the vastness to be empty not only of matter or warmth, but of meaning. But it remained a thought experiment. It didn’t truly relieve me of my conviction.

It did make me remember those nights, though, when I’d lain in my sister’s bed, had felt the warmth of her body against mine, smelled her skin and the shampoo in her hair, and when we had gazed out through the narrow window, so high on the wall – the same window that I would try to flee through from that lady rozzer only a few years later, condemning myself to jail and all that followed – and through which we had looked at the very same stars that I was seeing now, from the slopes of the Devil’s Point. And the memory hurt. It hurt with a raw, sudden intensity I had not expected, and I wanted to cry out in pain.

Instead I bit down on that pain, and spit it onto the gravel, and snarled: “Yeah, well, fuck you, too!” And I curled up as tight as I could, under those cold stars, and surrendered myself to the nightmares once more.

***

It would be easy to leave it at that and to move on to the scary White Van Man from Beauly, and that beastly night in Cannich, and my near death experience in the Mullardochs, but that would be dishonest.

When I woke up I was very cold and did a double Aikido session before walking back down from the Devil’s Point. The day was misty and gloomy and I was hungry and very thirsty. By the time I reached the hut the hikers had moved n. I looked around inside, vaguely hoping to find some left over food, or to warm myself on the ambers of their fire, but only warm ash remained, not enough to do me any good.

My shoulder hurt if anything even worse than the day before. It made me think of Ponyboy, and I knelt down in the middle of the room and wanked. That made the pain flare up, but I gritted my teeth and brought myself to a sad, whimpering ejaculation onto the floor. Still kneeling I pissed on it as well. Then I buttoned up and left.

I drank of the cold waters of the Dee, filled up the bottle, and walked on. The sun came out for a while, and to my right be Ben Macdui reached for the sky. Clouds came and went, but the mountain remained, its peak dipping in and out of the wisps of mist.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the mountains in Scotland, but they are nothing like the Alps, or the mountains of the Balkans. The Cairngorms may have rocky cliffs here and there, and sometimes there are clumps of trees at their feet – pine, and birch, and aspen, and bushes of juniper and rowan – but other than that they are these rounded humps, steep, but startlingly smooth, overgrown with heather and lichen in the valley, but the tops  bald and covered in immense fields of lose, round, fist-sized stones. Walking amongst them is like paddling a small sealskin canoe through an immense herd of gigantic whales.

And so, their steep, smooth walls flowing out ahead of me along the valley’s sides, the valley floor itself rising like a wave to the distant pass, in spite of my anger and resentment, it made my spirits lift.

And when I passed a gushing creek coming down the mountain I veered off the path and began to hike up a pathless mountainside. It was hard going, and soon I was out of breath, but I didn’t slow down. My eyes were constantly on the lookout for the next good foothold, my brain kept calculating distance and balance, and once again it was his magic of movement, the trance of the trop, that pulled my heart along.

From time to time it rained, and the cold water ran down my body underneath my clothes. Then the sun came out again and dried me. And then, finally, in densest fog, I reached the heap of stones that marked the highest peak of the Ben Macdui, the highest peak of the Cairngorms.

Look, I don’t want to take back anything I just told you about my relationship to God, or life, or anything. It didn’t change anything, it didn’t convince me of anything. But still… while I stood there, catching my breath, the sky tore open, the mists around me blew apart, the world unrolled all its horizons, and the sun set everything ablaze. All the wetness caught and magnified her fierce fire, like a universe of jewels. No religion or philosophy dreamed up by humans can say as mayn good tings about the world, or say them as convincingly, as the sun, the air, the water, and the rocks did just then.

After that it was all downhill. By afternoon I surrounded by trees again, where I promptly got lost. By nightfall, tired beyond endurance, I ended up in Inverdruie, where I spent the night. Monday I first had a look at the Aviemore Centre, a piece of daring architecture from the 1960s so incredibly uncool that it is actually kind of cool again, and hitchhiked to Inverness, where I arrived in the evening.

Continued here

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The lorry park offered free showers and a Transport Café. When the suczka  in the BP shop wouldn’t sell me fags, I went into he café for a coke and swiped two packs from tables I walked past. The driver had gone for a shower and a meal and I idled away the time at the Outdoor Activity Centre net to the petrol station, studying advertisements for white-water rafting and bungee jumping and other exciting adventures for rich pussies. Later the driver cam back carrying a pack of four large cans of Stella, which he shared freely. I got the narrow top bunk, and together we listened to a Best of Italian Opera mix and talked for a while about the Highlands, and the freedom of the road, and how it was disappearing a little bit every year. Then we settled down for the night.

I felt very comfortable in the cosy shelter of the lorry cab, in spite of the pain in my shoulder. I enjoyed the smell of patrol, beer, male sweat, and aftershave, the hypnotic lights from passing cars that came through the cracks in the drapes and moved white bars across the walls and ceiling, and the sound of the petrol station and the rain on the metal roof directly above my head. Eventually I drifted into sleep, and for a few hours I found rest in the deep sea silence and darkness of dreamless sleep, before the nightmares started again.

My dreams of that time came in two shades. Either it was that of the madding crowd. I would be in some place thick with peeps. Sometimes it was my old school, or the Prinzenbad public pool, where I used to go with my mates in the summers in Berlin, or it could be something from my recent life, like, say, a theatre or gallery I’d hit with Charley in Edinburgh, or the Headrow in Leeds, where I’d worked with Julie, or the camping site at the Big Chill. Wherever it was, it always began with me going about my business, alone. But then something would happen with the crowd. Sometimes they would start to mutter and talk amongst themselves, too low for me to understand. Sometimes I realized they were talking in some language I didn’t know. And then they’d begin to stare. Someone might ask me something in gibberish and get angry when I couldn’t respond. Or they’d start pushing me around, and shouting all together at me in an unintelligible cacophony of exclusion. In the end though the real horror wouldn’t come from those crowding me from head on but from someone being suddenly in directly in my back, touching me from behind, hot breath on my neck, too close to bear.

In the other kind of nightmare, I’d be stalked. Those would begin with me alone in some place that had been populated on moments ago, you know, Mary Celeste like. There would be food on the tables, and steaming mugs of tea. Tellies were on, flickering, but set to a quite murmur. There might be open books about, or fluttering newspapers, or unfinished letters, the pen still lying on the paper, the ink not yet dry. At first it wouldn’t be eerie, but seemed perfectly natural. As if I knew where they all were, and why. Sometimes I could hear peeps nearby, around a corner or behind some wall. Never loud, but, you know, present in their absence somehow. I knew they weren’t far.

But then something would enter. I’d notice motion behind a row of trees perhaps, or hear a floorboard creek beyond a door that’s been left ajar. Whatever It was, It would slowly come closer, prowling, lurking, circling me, moving behind furniture, or behind me. And I would realize that all those peeps that moments ago still had been just around some corner, that they were all gone now. I was all alone. Even if I’ start to shout for help, nobody would be there to hear me. Nobody would come. And I would become afraid. Terrified. I never had a clear idea what It would do to me when It caught, but I knew that anything would be better. Anything. Anything but that.

That was the dream I had that night. When I woke up with a start I painfully hit my head on the ceiling of the cab. For a moment I was convinced that It had followed me from the dream and was now going to grab me. Then a large lorry passed outside. It’s headlights illuminated the entire cab and I saw that nobody was there except for me and my still snoring host.

Too shaken to lie down again I got dressed in the darkness, grabbed my bag, and crept out. I lit a fag, crossed the A9 and the fields beyond, and climbed down the bank to the shore of the river Tummel. There I stripped and stepped directly into the cold, rain-swollen waters, and washed the stink of fear from my skin. The current was pretty strong. The water surged and swelled around me. In the distance I saw otters glide through the waves, look up, and disappear.

The overcast sky was beginning to grow grey when I walked back onto the shingle beach. I was shivering, partly with the cold, and partly still with the tension from the nightmare. I stepped into my boots, tied the lose laces once tightly around each ankle, and began training Aikido, hard enough to break out into a light sweat again. I kicked shadowy enemies, blocked their invisible blows, and rolled across the ground to evade their attacks, the pebbles scratching my back bloody. When I was done the shivers had passed.

There was hardly any traffic sounds from the A9, down there in the river valley, and when I finally got dressed, the birds around me began greeting the new day. My aunt is mad about songbirds, you see, she got her garden planted especially to attract them, and she is always pointing out one or the other of her little feathered friends, which is how I knew most of those that started singing all around me then: Thrushes and Robins, Tits, Siskins, and Blackbirds. And with their dawn chorus my soul, too, suddenly took wing, and soared, rose above the gloom of the night, rose, and rose, and revelled in the glory of the new day.

“All your life,” I sang quietly. “You were only waiting…”

“Blackbird” echoed with Aimee Mann’s gentle, hesitant voice in my mind, and I hummed along as I walked back up the riverbank and then northward, between the river and the road.

Continued here

Step out the door and it feels like rain
That’s the sound on your window pane
Take to the streets but you can’t ignore
That’s the sound you’re waiting for
– OneRepublic: All Fall Down (2007)

Edinburgh’s northern boundary is the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the River Forth. I crossed it on the road bridge from South Queensferry to North Queensferry.

It felt good to be on the move again. It felt good to walk once more with the long, even paces meant to cover distance. The drizzle on my face felt good, and the street under the air cushioned soles of my new boots.

In the middle of the bridge I halted, leaned against the eastern railing, lit a fag, and looked out, across the firth and through the bars of the old Victorian railroad bridge beyond at the sea beyond. I had glimpsed it every now and then when I’d been on Carlton Hill, and Arthur’s Seat, but I’d never paused and looked at it.

I thought about it and figured that the last time I’d really looked at the North Sea would have been as I crossed it on my way from Berlin to Wotton-under-Edge – I counted the days in my head – 39 days ago.

Tolkien came to my mind and his famous lines about the dangerous business of going out your door, about those who wander, and about whither their road will lead. And Gaiman’s comparison of how change might be less this big, swooping thing that carries your off, and more like a thief who steals little things, night by night, until nothing familiar remains to keep you.

It all seemed so long ago, Berlin, my aunt’s, that day I had set next to Alice by the pond under Wimley Hill. Even the Big Chill, and bloody Leeds. As I stood on the Forth Road Bridge, smoking my way through half a pack, and watched the ships go by, and he trains on the other bridge, and the as the drizzle slowly soaked through the hood and began to trickle down my neck, as I stood there, I became aware that something had changed in the two weeks I’d spent in Edinburgh. Was it something fundamental, something inside of me, or just one of the little things, just one step along the winding road that was taking me ever onward? I didn’t know.

Behind me the setting sun was a piece of burnished silvery sky shimmering through a frosting of clouds, and the Firth of Roth was an arrow pointing towards that failing light. Slowly they were inching towards each other, the one about to extinguish the other. My shoulder ached and throbbed, past love bites of Leeds and Edinburgh not quite yet letting go of me.

The cuts Julie had given me had healed well, initially. But Ponyboy, endlessly fascinated by them, had again ad again toyed with them, probing, prodding, making me squirm and squeal. Again and again he had asked me how I had gotten them. Every time I made up another answer: My crazy father had cut them into my wanking arm so that Jesus would deliver me into faggotry. Drug dealers had tortured me to et me to betray a lover who’d turned narc. I had cut out the tracking device implanted by aliens and was now on the run from Men In Black.

Two days before I had left he had all of a sudden held me down and rubbed the mushy salt-and-vinegar soaked remains of a fish’n’chips cinner into my arm, and the black sludge from a beer can we’d used as an ashtray. It burned like battery acid. I twisted and screamed, but he just held me harder, and rubbed it in more forcefully, until I was bleeding again.

“What the fuck are you doing, you aşağılık herif?!” I screamed and punched him hard into the face. He sat back, and smiled quietly through the blood.

“Noo ye’ll ne’er forgit, ma wee sluagh. Noo ye’r kenmerkt.”

And indeed the salt and vinegar had made the lips of the wound puff up, and the beer-ash-mix had seeped under the skin like tattoo pigment. And now, two days later, everything had grown angry red again, and hot, and painful.

I flicked the last cigarette butt out into the gusty air between me and the waters below, watching its glowing tip fall and tumble and disappear. The I shortened the shoulder strap of my satchel and walked on.

A few hundred meters down the A90 on the North Queensferry side of the bridge, at the North Access bus stop, a lorry stopped at my thumb. The door opened and from high above me a small face smiled out from behind thick, black horn-rimmed glasses and a wiry, black moustache.

“Hey, lad. Gaeing north?”

“Sure,” I said and took the hand he offered me and hauled myself up and into the cab. Later he stopped at the lorry park in Ballinluig for the night, and offered me to stay in his cabin if I wanted.

Continued here

Just because you don’t understand it
doesn’t mean it isn’t so.
– Lemony Snicket (The Blank Book, 2004)

Their names, of course, weren’t really Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Louie was Louise Thomas, and Dewey was her daughter Drew. Drew had been 3 years old and her biological father long gone from their lives when Louise met Hugh. I don’t know how they came up with those nicknames, but once they got them they stuck.
They were on their way to the Big Chill music festival that is being held every summer in Deer Park at Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire. This would be the fourth year that they attended. The festival started Friday, two days after we met.
Huey had pre-cooked the chilli Louie had been heating over the camping stove, and after he was done taking care of my feet, and checking – for the umpteenth time, because of the accident – Dewey’s pupillary light reflex, he relieved Louie of cooking duty for some last minute seasoning.
Louie disappeared in the camper. When she came out she tossed a heavy, clanking bag to Dewey. “Better set it up while there is still some light. It’s bugger to do by the light of a torch.” Dewey groaned and looked at me, but before she could ask, Louie interrupted. “Huey has just spent an hour patching up this young man’s feet. He is not going to do the work for you and ruin all of that again, you hear? Get going.”
Then she pressed a pack of clothes in my arm, topped by a towel, and some soap.
“Over there is a barrel with rain water. Please wash. Thoroughly. And then, I don’t know, burn your clothes or something. You stink. Oh, and…”
She put a fourth pair of flip-flops on top of the pile. They were black. I wondered if she sold them or something. “So you don’t get your feet messed up again.”
I put on the thongs and limped across the orchard to the barrel. The water was reasonably fresh and deliciously cool. I stripped and washed, head to toes. The clothes turned out to be hers: A pair of black unisex briefs, black shorts, and a black men’s shirt. When I came back she looked me over.
“Looks better on you than on me. Keep them. Now let’s eat.”
The chilli was good. They had crackers with it. Dewey drank coke, Huey and Louie had beer. At first Louie handed me a can of coke, too, but when Huey saw me look at the beer, he said: “Go ahead, take one.”
Louie looked cross but didn’t say anything.
Afterwards I shared my last fags with Louie and offered to do the washing up, but Huey wouldn’t hear of it.
“You keep off those feet until the morning, you hear! Just stay here with Dewey, Louie and I will take care of it.”
To that Louie added: “And no stealing.”
I was too relaxed to be pissed off by the remark. “Not on your watch, ma’am.” I said, grinning. (Come to think of it, she did look a bit like Demi Moore.) Dewey sat down on the chair next to me. Huey and Louie left for the rain water barrel.
Dewey and I made polite chit-chat. We talked mainly about music, and films. When there was a natural pause in the conversation like they sometimes happen when nobody really has anything more to say about the current subject, Dewey suddenly asked:
“What if I really did?”
“Did what?”
“Try to, what you said. With the car.”
“What?” I was puzzled. “What did I say? Hump it, you mean?”
She nodded shyly.
I stared at her. Above the cloudy sky was still a bright, if faded pigeon blue, but down here shadows were crowding in on us, and the trees, deadwood and underbrush had run into one another in the murk. Even the dark red camper was beginning to lose its definition. But Dewey’s face stood out clear and pale, like a frightened apparition on an age darkened painting.
“Dewey, that makes no sense. I was just making a stupid joke.”
“Never mind, hey, wanna come to the festival with us?”
Her conversational zigzagging made me vaguely queasy. “I don’t have tickets.”
“But it would be so cool. You could sleep in the tent with me. And it’s fun. But sometimes it’s boring, and it would be more fun with you. Please?”
“I don’t have any bloody tickets. I bet there aren’t any to be had one day before it starts. And if there are, they’ll be terribly expensive.”
“Can’t you just steal one? You’re a thief aren’t you?”
I hesitated. “Yeah, I am. And I suppose I could. But I don’t know…”
“But you will stay with us tonight, right? Sleep in my tent?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think your rents would be cool with that.”
“Why? Cuz you could steal something?”
“No, that’s not what I mean.”
It took a moment for the penny to drop. She blushed, giggled, and swatted me. “Nah, never mind that. I’ll manage that.” And she jumped up and bounced off, to join her rents at the barrel.
The three of them began lengthy deliberations, a dubious murmur punctuated by drawn out pleas, with the occasional sharp exchanges between Louie and Huey rising above the rest. For the second time that day I thought about scarpering, and if my feet hadn’t hurt so bad, I probably would have.
The night settled around me, and with the darkness clamminess crept into everything. Huey and Dewey returned the dishes to the camper and Louie sat down on the chair next to me.
“Well, thanks for the supper and everything,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you are welcome.” She hesitated. I was still thinking about how I could extricate myself from it all without sounding rude or crude, when she began: “Look, Dewey…”
“It’s okay, I’ll tell her I can’t stay.” I interrupted. “I’ll make it, like, totally my idea if you want.”
“No. Well, the thing is…” She floundered.
“If you’re not cool with it, that’s totally okay with me. If she was my daughter, I’d probably feel the same. And I’ll be okay on my own, really. What difference does it make if I go now or tomorrow.”
She swallowed. “No, we will not make you leave in the middle of the night. Yes, you will be on your own tomorrow, and that’ll be for the best, but you stay with us tonight. Don’t even act the tough guy, now, okay, it’s really just about you staying in her tent.”
I looked at Louie levelly. I don’t know, she was a bitch, no doubt about that, and I had no idea what kept Huey and her together, but somehow I respected her. So I decided to make that leap. I took a deep breath and said:
“Okay, listen. I don’t know if my word means anything to you, there isn’t any reason it should, but Dewey isn’t really my type. I mean, I like her, she’s a sweet kid and all, but it’s not just that she is a couple of years too young for my taste, she’s also not equipped the way I like ‘em. Chromosomally.” I adjusted my crotch. “And anyway, I’m way too knackered for any funny stuff tonight.”
“Oh.” She thought about it. “You mean, you’re…”
“As a bottle of chips. So, if there is anyone you need to worry about me hitting on, my first choice would be Huey. I like big and bearish. Just, don’t ask me to prove it, that’d be awkward. I don’t perform well in front of an audience.”
At that she had to laugh. She leaned back in her chair and looked at me. Then she nodded.
Dewey returned and told me I would read to her now. I asked if she wasn’t too old for that that but she gleefully said, nope, she wasn’t. So, after a second nod from Louie I crawled into the tent and Dewey switched on an electric torch and gave me the big brick of a book she had brought along. It was Inkheart, which gave me a bad sting. The last person I had read this to had been ‘Nette.
Dewey showed me where she had stopped reading. I began, and soon I was lost in the harsh, dangerous, and hauntingly beautiful world of Meggie Folchart. Eventually Louie poked her head in, handed me a second iso-foam mat and said:
“Don’t stay up too late, girls.”
Dewey did one of these happy little squeaks that only girls her age can pull off, hugged me, and then hugged her mum good night. After that Huey also came by. He was a bit more sombre and gave me a tube of zinc oxide cream for my feet before wishing us a good night.
After they were gone, Dewey snuggled up to me and had me read on. And while I did, she rested her head on my left arm and let her fingers trail the long, silvery scars on its inside.
Continued here

He was surprisingly gentle, after the rough choke-hold before. He carried me the way a groom carries his bride across the threshold, and with total ease. His chest felt good, big and strong. There was definitely a lot more muscles than fat underneath his absurd flowery shirt. And he smelled faintly of healthy sweat, soap and Rive Gauche.
His hands were also very gentle as he washed my feet and tended to them, humming of all things “Us or Them” from Dark Side of the Moon all the while. Turned out he was a paramedic and ambulance driver. The woman had tried to argue, hell, I had tried to argue, but he had brushed our objections away with a grunt. Seemed in his view of the world you just didn’t leave hurt people by the roadside, no matter what they’d done before, or if they even wanted your help at all.
The camper was parked a good way into the orchard, so that it was almost invisible from the road. Most of the ground was covered by high grass dotted with buttercups and high stands of nettles. Here and there someone had heaped a lot of dead branches, but that must have been long ago, judging from the rot and moss. On a clearing next to the camper they had set up a couple of foldable chairs and table. Dewey was loitering in one of the chairs, watching me with an unabashed and disconcerting fascination. I was sitting in the other, legs stretched out, Huey kneeling in front of me.
“By the way,” Huey had said at the beginning. “I’m…”
“Huey,” I interrupted him. “I know. And the wanna-be hood ornament is Dewey. Which makes your lady…,” I nodded towards the woman who was reheating a pot of chilli con carne over a camping stove. “…Louie?”
Huey laughed. “Yep. That’s right.”
“What’s your name?” Dewey asked me.
Louie, who had tried to hide her own grin, shushed her. “Let him be, darling. He won’t want to give us his real name.” (Right she was.)
“Well, what shall I call him then?” Dewey demanded. “I can’t very well just call him Strange Boy, can I?”
“You can call me Ishmael,” I muttered, a meagre attempt at wit. More half-hidden grins from Louie – Huey seemed to miss the reference entirely – but Dewey was delighted. She tried the name as if tasting it, rolled it around her tongue a few times and then declared she would call me “Ish.”
“What have you done to your feet, Ishmael?” Huey sighed when he had cleaned them. I had told him to leave them be, I would take care of it myself. He had frowned as if trying to make sense of what I said. “If you could take care of them yourself they wouldn’t be in such a state.”
“I walked a lot.”
“Yeah, from where? Siberia?”
“No, just…” I interrupted myself. Again Huey didn’t take any notice, he was too absorbed in his task of making me better. However I caught Louie looking at me sharply. “Wales,” I finished. “I got relatives in Wales. Been hiking for two days.”
“In those?” he asked me, nodding to my red canvas trainers lying in a heap next to my socks and t-shirt. When I nodded, he shook his head.
“Bad choice. And then no change of socks, either, no tape. Man, you don’t know the first thing about hiking, do you?”
And thus I got my first lesson in how to take care of my feet when on the road. And whatever else happened later, I never forgot that lesson, and never again let my feet take the punishment for my negligence. Even if I didn’t take care of anything else, I always made certain I had fresh socks to change into, not too warm, nor too cold. I tried to always carry a roll of surgical tape with me, and to protected spots that got irritated as soon as I became aware of them. If possible I would have moleskin rings on me to take care of blisters if they did form after all, and a safety pin to lance them, and some form of disinfectant, even if it was just hard liquor. The feeling of not being able to run away when they caught me, of being betrayed by my feet (though I suppose it was me who betrayed my feet) was too horrible for me to ever allow to occur again.
“Are you really no good as a thief?” Dewey asked me, when Huey was done explaining.
“What do you mean? If you hadn’t tried to hump a Land Rover, I would’ve gotten away with it,” I snapped.
“Language,” Louie snapped back. “At least try to behave as if you’re a bloody guest and not just street scum.”
And after a brief uncomfortable pause I sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Dewey. That was a dumb thing for me to say. And maybe you are right, maybe I suck at this.”
At that Huey finally looked up from my feet, where he had been busy cutting away lose flaps of torn skin. He was laughing silently. “Nah, well, I don’t know about that. But I think Dewey meant that Louie called you a no good thief before, isn’t that right, honey?”
He glanced at Louie who threw him a dirty look that confirmed his speculation.
“Look, Dewey, what your mother meant is that Ishmael here is a thief and that being a thief is not a good thing. Even if he is really good at stealing, it’s still bad to do that at all.”
Dewey chewed on her lower lip and thought about that for a while.
“If you do something, you ought to do it well. That’s what Mr Bishop says anyway. If doing something is bad, but you’re doing it anyway, is it better or worse being good at it then?” And when nobody answered her, she did so herself. “I think it’s still better to be good at it, even at something bad.”
You know, that was what I always thought myself.

Around where Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire kiss there is a field almost entirely surrounded by a high hazelnut hedge. To the west of the field is a small hill, and to the east, beyond the hedge, a lonely country roads runs past. Along the northern end of the field, reaching from the hill to the road, and separating the hedge from the field, is a shallow ditch.
Around 6 o’clock in the evening I was sitting at that ditch, cooling my aching feet in a puddle of water, and wishing for something to eat. I had just been on the hill for a look around. All I had seen was more of what I had been walking through for the last couple of hours: Fields, narrow roads, more fields, the occasional cottage, even more fields. No village of more than three houses anywhere. I could have tried to hitchhike out of there, or I could have gone to one of the farms and asked to buy some food from them, and if I had, peeps might even have given it to me for free. But both would have felt like begging, and I am not good at asking. Never was.
I couldn’t have been far from Little Malvern. From the top of the hill I could see the Worcester Beacon, no more than two hours to the northeast, and behind that the Malvern Hills. But I didn’t think I could walk another two hours. I didn’t think I could walk another 2 meters.
My feet were a bloody mess. Sores and blisters everywhere, some of them rubbed raw and suppurating, others still filling with puss. The mere thought of putting my shoes back on was pretty horrifying. But I knew I couldn’t go walking around barefoot in the dirt in this state either, or I’d have gangrene first thing in the morning. Well, or something.
Lacking anything else to use I had taken off my t-shirt and was carefully drying my feet when I heard a car approaching. Nothing surprising in that, there had been cars on the roads every now and then all day. This one didn’t sound like the hoarse whisper of a Rover engine, however – Land Rovers were apparently a big thing with the local farmers – but the distinct put-put-put of a Volkswagen Camper. And instead of driving past like the others, it rolled to a stop right next to me. Doors were opened and a heated argument spilled out, with expletives flying every which way like stray bullets. I almost ducked.
“I bloody know exactly where we are, dickhead. Get back in the bloody car!” That was a woman’s voice and it came from the open passenger door, just on the other side of the hedge. A man, who apparently had gotten out the driver’s side and was now walking off, shouted back that they had been going in circles for almost an hour and he was going to ask for directions.
“Ask where? There’s nobody here!”
I couldn’t make out his answer, but her next one was only too clear: “That’s a stable, you blithering idiot. And the bloody roof has caved in. If you can’t see that from there, you shouldn’t bloody drive in the first place, you blind fuck!”
Whatever it was he said in return, he closed with a “stupid cow!”
I crawled to the hedge and laid down on my belly to have a peek. The dense hazelnut curtain between me and that stage-worthy performance ended about 20 cm above the ground in a fringe of high grass. I carefully crept forward until my face poked out on the other side.
They drove a VW T3 alright, autumn red, and both the front passenger door and the sliding door were open. Of the shouting woman I could only see tan shorts and naked feet in green flip flops. Her toe nails were the same shade of green as the sandals.
“Look here,” she yelled, and from the sounds probably waved some roadmap about. “This hill over there, that’s this hill here. And Huey? That path you’re on, it doesn’t lead to any farm but only back to the road we’ve been on ten minutes ago!”
There was a pause and then Huey’s voice was coming closer again, explaining in how many ways that couldn’t possibly be true. The woman stepped around the door to meet him, telling him that she had gotten one bloody turn off wrong, and that it had been twenty minutes, not an hour, and it had been his bright idea to avoid the M50, not hers, and on and on.
I had by then lost all interest in their argument since I had just discovered something else: In the back of the camper, amidst assorted travel clutter but right at the open sliding door was a high quality backpack, such as I had considered getting for myself. The zipper was open and inside were sandwiches, pears, packs of cookies, a large bottle of water, and a thermos.
Carefully I crept forward through the grass. There was just enough space between the hedge and the camper that I could get onto my knees next to the open door. I zipped up the backpack and lifted it out of the car. The plan was to push it underneath the hedge, get through myself, and extricated it from the other side, gather up the rest of my clothes that were still lying by the ditch and clear out.
Huey and the woman were still carrying on their argument in front of the camper, if a bit quieter and more constructive than before. I glimpsed underneath the car to check on them, and right enough, there were two pairs of feet at the street-side front corner; the familiar one of the woman and a much more hirsute pair, also naked and in flip-flops. Huey’s flip-flops were red and he didn’t paint his nails. The feet showed that the couple was now facing the car; they probably pressed the map to the windscreen, trying to figure out where they had gone wrong.
When I turned away I suddenly saw a third pair of legs. It was behind the T3. These were also naked and in flip-flops (blue ones), but they clearly belonged to a kid. The kid was facing away from the car and appeared to be dancing.
I crept to the back and peeked around the corner. Sure enough, there was a girl of maybe 12 years, with long, blond hair. All she was wearing other than the flip-flops was a too large men’s shirt. In one hand she was holding an iPod the way the silhouettes do on the adverts. And just like on those she was tossing her hair around, dancing to the rhythm of what I faintly could make out to probably be Amy Macdonald’s “This is the Life”, volume set to stun. I thought: Sick of mummy and daddy fighting? Who could blame her. Anyway, my luck, she wouldn’t notice if I stole the whole bloody Volkswagen behind her back.
I got the backpack and pushed it underneath the hedge. From up ahead of the bus another of those ubiquitous Land Rovers came towards us. I checked for the arguing couple. They were still there. The Land Rover slowed down. Sensibly they both stepped away from the road without losing a stride in their argument.
Satisfied the driver of the Land Rover began to accelerate again. I checked the dancing girl again, only to see if the approaching car had caused her to turn around. It hadn’t. If anything she was dancing wilder now. Over the rumble of the approaching engine I thought I could hear the bass of some fast electronic track, possibly that summer’s reissue of the Utah Saint’s “Something Good.” Whatever it was, it seemed to fill her completely.
I got onto my belly about to crawl back under the hedge, when there was the screech of breaks, the squeal of tyres, a bump, a thump… and then, after a breathtaking long pause, a howling scream.
I looked back under the car. The Land Rover had come to a standstill next to the T3, blocking the road. I couldn’t see the girl, but from her howls she must have been lying in front of the Land Rover. Huey was running around both cars on the far side, but the woman was coming right my way. I panicked and rolled underneath the camper.
Huey and the driver of the Land Rover went to the crying girl. For some reason the woman remained standing at the corner of the camper, as if afraid to come any closer. She just shouted to Huey, hysteria flickering at the edge of her voice: “Is she alright?”
The driver of the Land Rover was babbling a mix of frightened apologies and angry accusations, oscillating between “Oh God, I didn’t see her, I didn’t see her” and “Can’t you watch your bloody kids; what kind of a father are you, letting her run in front of my car like that!?”
However, everything was well. “Nothing broken, just bumped her shins and her head a bit,” Huey informed the woman. To the driver he said: “Hey, mate, thanks for breaking. She must have been listening to her earphones. Your reaction saved her life.”
My escape route through the hedge was still cut off by the woman dithering at the side of the car. I crawled away from the accident towards the front of the camper. Huey politely brushed off the driver, no-thank-youing offers to call an ambulance, and carried the girl to the sliding doors, to lay her down on the back seat inside the camper.
The Land Rover took off again, and I slowly got out more or less where Huey and the woman had been standing before the accident.
That was when the woman asked: “Where is the backpack?”
And: “What’s it doing out there? Did you hide it under the hedge, Dewey?”
(Dewey? I thought. What the fuck?)
I was trapped… I couldn’t stay in front of the camper. When Huey went back to the driver’s seat he would see me there, or if I could escape detection by staying crouched down, they would run me over. I didn’t think that I could get away unseen on the open road. I considered getting back underneath the car, but I didn’t quite dare to let them simply drive off over me. What if I miscalculated the path the rear wheels would take? Or if I somehow got hooked to the chassis and was dragged to a bloody face down death? I could imagine less horrible ways to go.
So I circled around the camper instead, keeping my head down. My feet hurt badly on the gravelly road, bad enough that I had to grit my teeth not to yelp in pain. Eventually I was behind the camper. Checking underneath I saw that Huey was sitting in the open sliding door, with the woman half crouched outside and going through the backpack. I couldn’t see Dewey, so she must have been inside.
The plan was to stay behind the car until they drove off, and then quickly roll under the hedge, hoping they wouldn’t see me in the rear view mirror. It was a good plan until Dewey said: “My iPod. I lost it.”
I heard the woman approach. Before she could come around the corner I dived under the hedge and wiggled through. She screamed. I got to my protesting feet and limped across the field, through rows of high wheat. Huey broke through the hazelnut hedge like a tank. He was a big guy, broad shouldered. On the whole he was probably more teddy-bearish than menacing but at the time I wasn’t in the mood to make the distinction. He wore Bermuda shorts and a flowery shirt that in an emergency might have doubled as a tent. He had me in three seconds flat.
He grabbed me in a choke-hold, wrestled me back through the hedge, and slammed me against the side of the camper. My head connected with a side window, making a hollow sound. I stepped on a pointy stone, grunted as a sharp pain lanced up through my leg, and fell to the ground.
“Who the fuck are you?” Huey yelled.
“He took out the backpack,” the woman cut in. “Oh my God, he must have been under the car the whole time.” I got my first clear look at her. She was slender and androgynous. Her tan shorts were accompanied by a black tank top and an open men’s shirt (the same size as the one Dewey had been wearing, and definitely not one of Huey’s). Her hair was short, spiky, and dyed jet black, and her face was pointy and pinched, disapproval cast in skin and bone.
“Is that true? Did you steal the pack?” Huey hollered.
“I bloody did not,” I yelled back at him. I can’t stand being screamed at. “If I had, it’d be gone, wouldn’t it?” At that he was taken aback for a second.
“I only tried to. But I failed. Satisfied?”
Both Huey and the woman looked down at me, as I lay there in the dirt, naked but for my jeans with the legs rolled up. Dewey stuck her head out of the door.
“Shall we call the police?” Huey asked.
The woman was quiet for a moment. Then she shrugged.
“What’s the point? He’s right, he didn’t take anything. Let’s just get out of here.”
I slowly got up. Gingerly I stepped away from them. I hate being caught. Not the rozzers, not even jail so much, though I certainly don’t relish that. No, punishment is fine with me, I mean, kahretsin, I deserve it, don’t I? It’s the stares, the uncomfortable silence between a thief and his mark. We do not live in the same world, they and me, we aren’t meant to cross eyes, not without our masks.
“Thanks,” I said awkwardly and tried to make another step backwards. Again I stepped on something and more pain shot through my legs. I winced and looked down. My feet were black, glistening with wet dirt, puss and blood. More blood was seeping out of them, smearing the grass and stones I stood on.
“Fucking Hell,” Huey said. “You can’t walk like that, boy.”
I stared dumbly at the mess.
“No shit, Sherlock,” I mumbled and sat back down.
Huey looked around, and then pointed to an old, overgrown orchard a few hundred meters up the road.
“It’s late anyway,” he said. “We’ll camp there.”
He tossed the car keys to the woman.
She stared at them. “What?”
“I’ll carry him. You bring the car.”

Continued here