Sunday, December 31, 1995
John Martin leaned forward in his seat rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he peered through the cabin window. Below him, in the morning sun, he saw the snow covered mountains of New Zealand's Southern Alps. The sight made him catch his breath — it was the first time he had flown over such mountains and they seemed to stretch for as far as he could see, range upon range. He knew that some of these peaks were three times the height of those back home. John wondered whether Claire had seen it like this when she had come to New Zealand.
John and Claire had always been close. Only a year separated their birthdays and, even though John was the elder, it was Claire who had the ascendant spirit. It was she who hatched the more outrageous plans, who pushed John into 'dare do' deeds, and yet managed to leave him with the impression that he was the leader.
Their close bond somehow survived the adolescent years. Claire had a couple of flirtations with boys, but they came to nothing. Both Claire and John seemed to find their need for friendship better met in each other's company.
Then, a girlfriend had seduced Claire with stories of a fantastic holiday spent in New Zealand. Video of wide open places, high peaked mountains, and young people enjoying outrageous adventures, all captured Claire's imagination.
Claire had to go -- there was no stopping her. Unlike John, she had enough money saved and, almost before John knew what was happening, he was waving to her through the departure gate at Gatwick airport. He felt the loss as soon as she had gone.
Later, the loss had turned into panic when Claire was reported missing, and then to grief when they found her body. He had never even said "goodbye". The airport embrace had only been "so long, see you next month". So much of him had been wrapped up in her life. Now she was gone and he felt as though one of his limbs had been amputated.
They hadn't let him see the body when it was returned -- decomposition they said, quite horrific. Better to remember her as she was. They were probably right. But then the nightmares had started. A face with rotting skin -- empty eye sockets where sparkling blue eyes had been -- dirt blackened hair, which once had been the brightest blonde. The nightmares made him wish he had seen the reality, it couldn't have been worse.
For twelve months he was immobilised by grief. It only took the sight of a blonde head in a crowd, or a girl to laugh in that merry-giggle way of Claire's, or any one of a hundred similar triggers and John's gut would knot. Then a hollow gasping would rise from within, culminating in a river of tears.
The thought of going to New Zealand built gradually during the year. It first came as an unbidden, renegade idea which he instantly dismissed. But it returned again and again -- each time more difficult to shake off. By the end of the year it had become a clarion call -- a beckoning voice which took on the ringing tone of his sister. Finally, he made up his mind to go and se where she had died.
He set a feverish pace that second year, working hard to save for his fare. Whether it was the decision or the work, he didn't know, but the nightmares ceased and his emotions stabilised.
Now he was nearly there and, as he looked out the cabin window at this foreign land, his mind seemed to fill with a strange voice, as though it were calling him, beckoning him to come . . .
She was alone when she came to me,
her golden tresses dancing merrily
as she laughed her way along my paths.
"Sky," I called,
come and see
who it is that plays with me.
But, spoiler that he was,
he came with shouts of wind and snarled with rain
to wreck this frail child's dancing game.
Down she went,
her body crushed and bent
like many who had come before.
Beneath my feet she lay,
her laughter spent, her dancing
only sweetest memory etched in my stone.
A Fair One came to tend her there,
to hold her head, caress her hair,
until the time had come for them to go afar.
The locals called it a 'township', but to John Martin's eyes, Oxford was like a small English village. He had spent two nights here now, resting up after the flight from Gatwick Airport. Now he was ready.
On the table he spread Claire's map, which had been returned with the rest of her belongings. On the map Claire had marked the path which she had taken into the Mount Thomas Forest. The Search and Rescue team had also marked the spot where Claire's body had been found. Now he was ready to go and see the place for himself, to see the stone cairn they had built and, perhaps, to lie where she had lain with her broken leg. To look at the trees which had been her company, for who knows how many days . . . before she finally died.
Mrs Morris was in the kitchen when John went downstairs. She looked up at the sound of feet and called out to him; "Your lunch is ready for you, Mr Martin." She hurried towards him, her somewhat plump frame swaying from side to side like one of those children's toys that can shuffle down a slope unaided. She proffered a small package, "Cheese and Vegemite, just like you ordered." she said with a warm smile.
"Thank you, Mrs Morris. I'll be back for dinner."
"You mind the weather now. Could be a southerly blow later. That wind and rain make driving mighty tricky."
"Thanks for the warning. I'll make sure I drive carefully."
She was watching him from the door as he threw his jacket and the cut lunch onto the back seat of the rental car, and waved cheerily when he finally drove out the gate.
He didn't like deceiving Mrs Morris, but he hadn't wanted the hassle of explaining what he was really doing, and having to answer the inevitable, painful, questions -- 'going for a drive' was much simpler.
He headed north through the Ashley Gorge, over the Garry river bridge, then up a shingle road. Finally, about five kilometres further on, he parked the car under some trees. As he got out of the car, he was struck by the stillness of the place. Even when he had tramped the Pennine Way with Claire, they were seldom out of sight or sound of a road, or some other sign of civilisation. This place was almost eerie in its isolation.
Looking up at the bright blue sky, he smiled, remembering Mrs Morris' warning of rain. It was a beautiful day, but he donned his jacket just in case, slid the map into one of the pockets, the sandwiches into another, and set off up the track -- 'Track 2' it said on the map.
It was a steady climb and, two tiring hours later, he broke through the trees to find himself on a high and bare summit. Immediately he noticed how strong and cold the wind was. Not a steady wind that you could lean into, but a blustering, bullying westerly wind that pushed and shoved, making him stagger as he took each step. Between the tussocks of grass lay a covering of ice crystals, testimony to the weakness of the winter sun.
Looking around, he was surprised to see nothing but tree-clad mountains to the north, west and south. Only to the east, and then very far off, could he see the plains, cris-crossed by a couple of roads. His earlier sense of isolation seemed to gain weight and, for a moment, it became fear -- not his own, but Claire's as she lay dying in this emptiness. He closed his eyes against the pain -- wrestling with his feelings.
Then the cold wrenched him back. Zipping up his jacket, he squatted in the shelter of a rock and fumbled in his pocket to remove the sandwiches. It was only eleven, but the climb had given him quite a hunger.
While eating he studied Claire's map. Tracing the route with his finger, he could see that he would now make his way along this ridge for a few kilometres and then descend into the valley by the Pinchgut Stream. He smiled again at the name, and the image of someone bent double by the exertion of climbing in this terrain. It would be about an hour-and-a-half to the valley he reckoned.
Groping into the bag for another sandwich he was startled to realise that it was the last. He had only intended to eat a couple, and here he was having scoffed the whole lot without thinking. One sandwich isn't much good on its own, he thought, so he ate it anyway. Screwing the empty bag into a ball, he stuffed it into his pocket, turned towards his path and descended once again between the trees.
The walking was easier with the trees sheltering him from the wind and he made good progress, sticking to the ridge, avoiding the steep slopes on either side. As he strode along the trees seemed to form a tunnel which drew him steadily onward. The wind seemed to shout encouragement through every branch: "This way, hurry, hurry, hurry." And if he tried, he could almost imagine hearing Claire's gentle voice among the clamour of the wind-whipped leaves: "John, I'm here John . . . I'm here." He hurried onward, lost in a dream-like trance.
He comes, not dancing as she had done in seasons past,
but bearing grief, heavy in his severed soul.
My stone etched memory,
recalls her laughing ways and,
yes, her gift of life spilt beneath my feet.
Has he come to listen to my memories,
to watch the trees sway and rustle in the breeze,
an echo of her laughing dance?
Oh frail and mortal man,
Beware what dangers lurk
in my domain.
I bear no grudge, harbour not an ill,
I welcome any who will come
and pass beneath my gaze.
But, remember Wind, remember Rain,
who, in jealous anger come
to keep my virtue clean.
An hour-and-a-half went by and he still hadn't found the way down to the Pinchgut. After two hours, he broke through the trees onto another plateau and saw a valley just down to his right. The gully where Claire had died, and the cairn marking the spot, should be half-way down to the valley -- about half an hour by his reckoning. He felt the excitement rising within him -- he was nearly there -- the place where his sister had died. It was this excitement that drove him onward now, recklessly down into the valley.
The descent was not too difficult, but after an hour he was down to the valley floor itself -- without sighting the cairn. Anger quickly replaced his excitement. Anger with himself for missing the spot. Anger with the map for not being clear enough. Anger with Claire for getting lost in such a stupid place. He kicked at a stone, then slumped down sullenly, onto a log, yanking back his jacket sleeve to look at his watch. Two-thirty. He lowered his arm and stared about him. Two-thirty? He pulled up his sleeve once more and watched the second hand ticking by. Two-thirty -- sunset was at six -- that gave him four hours at best to get back to the car before it got dark.
Excitement. Anger. Now his driving emotion became panic as he realised that it had taken five hours to come this far. Out here in the dark, alone? No, he mustn't let that happen.
Leaping to his feet, he attacked the steep hillside at a run. No longer concerned with finding the cairn, he managed to get back to the top in an exhausting forty-five minutes. Stepping out onto the plateau, he was stuck by an icy blast as a new wind howled about him, like a pack of hungry wolves. This was an Arctic wind -- straight from the frozen south. It came, it seemed, not to bully like the earlier wind, but to beat into submission. It crushed his thin clothing against his chest and legs, while behind, the loose garments flapped frantically, caught in the teeth of the hungry wind-wolves.
Mrs Morris' warning of a southerly change came tauntingly to his mind as he tugged the zip on his jacket through the final inch and turned up the collar. Then, the rain started. It wasn't the half-hearted rain of the English homeland, but a horizontal driven rain, mixed with flecks of sleet. It lashed at his face feeling as though it might rip open a cheek or blind an eye. He pulled up the hood of his jacket with hands already becoming clumsy from the cold. Head bent low, he made off toward the shelter of the trees.
It was a ten minute run to the trees. Before he made it, the wind and rain reached a ferocity beyond anything he could have imagined. His shower-proof jacket had already succumbed to the viscous assault and he was now soaked, his arms and legs beginning to stiffen as if he were being frozen alive.
The comfort he sought beneath the trees was not to be found. The wind was ripping at the forest, making branches crack and crash as it sought its victim. The rain poured through the wind-smashed foliage. Then, as if all of nature now conspired against him, darkness joined the fray -- instead of having three more hours of daylight, the massed clouds and the trees at once drew a dark shroud over John Martin. He stood in the half-light, soaked and freezing, and began sobbing at the hopelessness of his position.
But he knew he must press on. Pressing on became his instinctive reaction. Pressing on with branches swiping at his head and briars ripping at his legs. Pressing on when his jacket and clothing beneath were wet and torn. Pressing on when the relentless cold drained the heat from his body, numbing his limbs and dulling his mind. He pressed on mechanically, pressed on relentlessly, blindly, stumblingly, for who knows how long. Then, the earth seemed to make a grab for him and he surrendered to its outstretched arms.
Come, lay you down on leafy bed
and rest torn limbs,
and bruised head.
Let me hold you safe
while violent Sky,
rents with Wind and Rain from high.
Come, place your head
on mossy breast,
close your eyes man-child, and rest.
Then, as I watch through rancoured storm,
a Fair One comes
before the dawn.
To hold his head and soothe his brow
with balm of peace and whispered words
which wing their way beyond Sky's angered howl.
He tends in ways I cannot understand,
then bares him up, still within my realm,
but sheltered from Sky's vengeful arm.
John Martin woke with the sound of wind-driven rain beating on corrugated iron. He was lying on wooden slats -- a bunk with another berth above him. He tried to raise himself on an elbow but it was no good; the effort was beyond him. He closed his eyes again. Some time later, he opened them once more, tried moving, and made a silent scream as pain seared up his leg. Then, he heard a door opening.
Turning his head, he could see a figure framed in the doorway. It was dressed in a dark brown oil skin cape, a wet pudding-basin hat pulled down over most of the face. The figure was tall. So tall that there was little doubt that it was a 'he'. Water dripped from hat to cape and from cape to floor making puddles which seemed to inch their way, menacingly, towards the bunk. The man moved into the room closing the door behind him.
"G'day mate. Y're still in the land of the living then?" Throwing aside the hat, he unwrapped the cape from around his shoulders. He looked rugged, his white hair pulled back across his head and matted, wet, against his skull. His face furrowed deep with lines which ran across his forehead and around his squinting eyes. His skin looked dried and hard, and a couple of days worth of white stubble covered his chin. But his voice seemed strangely soothing, almost melodic.
John didn't answer, and the man came to the bunk, kneeling down beside him. "How'ya doin' then?" He asked.
"Cold," John whispered. But his tongue didn't seem to work and His lips felt numb.
"Yea, it's cold all right. Found you up on the ridge unconscious and had to carry you here. Darn near froze myself."
John didn't hear the words he wanted: 'Yes, I'll light a fire' would have done. Again John croaked out; "Cold." The man nodded, briefly closing his eyes.
"Sorry mate. I'd light a fire, but everything here is sodden, and I've got no matches. 'Fraid I got no food neither, so we're just gonna have to sit this one out."
The news came as a blow, and John collapsed again into unconsciousness. Some while later he came round to find the man lying by his side on the bunk, some old sacking covering them both. Later, he woke again and the man was not there. Then again, and he was standing looking out of the door.
Once when he woke, the man was lying there, pressed against the length of his body, sharing his living warmth. He seemed to sense John's consciousness and said; "Name's Bruce by the way. You get back to sleep, it won't be much longer now."
There were more times of consciousness while the wind and rain continued their siege of the hut. Light and dark seemed to merge into a continuing greyness and John had no idea how many days passed.
He awoke to silence, and sunlight showing through the cracks in the wall and around the door. He didn't feel cold any more, and the throbbing pain in his leg had gone. Bruce was standing by the doorway.
He looked back at John; "I think we'll be ready to move soon. There's a search party only half-an-hour away. I can hear them up the valley."
"Good." said John from the bunk, surprised that some strength seemed to have returned to his voice. Bruce stepped out through the doorway and a flood of sunlight entered the cabin. Somehow, John knew that everything would be all right.
A short while later, Bruce returned. "They're just coming mate, and you're ready to go." Bruce reached out a hand, helping John to swing out of the bunk and onto his feet.
As John stood, a figure dressed in shorts and plaid shirt entered the door, walkie-talkie in hand. He stood in the doorway, raised the radio to his mouth and almost shouted. "Bob, I've found him at the hut. Better get across here right away."
John smiled at the man, but he hurried straight past to kneel beside the bunk. John turned and watched, puzzled.
The man unzipped the jacket from the body on the bunk, placing his ear against the chest. He paused, then moved his head a little and paused again. Finally he turned away from the body, slumping to the floor with his back against the bunk. "Too bloody late again." he said out loud to himself.
Bruce tugged on John's arm, "Come on mate, there's nothing for you here. We have to go now, Claire is waiting for you."
Together they left the hut, moving effortlessly through the trees.
They came to dance again today,
to laugh and sing and shout and play
around my feet.
Sky will not touch them now,
for they move beyond the reach of mortal harm,
and find themselves complete in perfect unity.
And looking on, the Fair One stands,
glad of heart to know that ends,
wrought before the dawn of time,
now, have come to pass.
©David J Ford 1995
Pictures © Ferrilyn Sourdiffe 1995