OK, so here's a story. Story, as in fiction. If there is such a thing as autobiographical fantasy fiction, I suppose this is it. I've toyed with 'outing' this story for quite some time now, partly because I do not know if it is any good as a piece of writing, but more because ... well, with some fantasies once you speak them they can never come true. You'll see what I mean. Right then. (Breathes in, breathes out.) Here starteth the story:
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It's such a quiet and beautiful place out here, but the sky plays funny tricks on you. Driving all those miles across the flatlands, the big blue seems to swing between being a cool wedge above you, almost oppressive, as the tall whipcane and dense shrubs press close to the road, then suddenly it splits completely apart like the pages of a book falling fully open as the taller scrub rhythmically clears, and you can see forever – the heavens now a majestic, immeasurable lightness all around. I'm glad we came.
Then you come to the gorge, another sudden thing. There is no warning, no real incremental change in the complex patchwork monotony of intertwined tall scrub and flat low desert grassland; you just, well, you reach a carpark. And there it is. That arching infinitude of sky now plays another trick when you step out of the van and walk to the edge; you can feel it pouring in to the massive cleft – you can almost imagine the potent air rolling about the chasm of ancient fossil beds and red rocks like a second river above the silvered thread of water that runs far below, the sometimes-mighty Murchison. It's like the sky has vertigo.
I wonder what B's thinking now. I bet it's something like “What will I tell her?” or “How will I tell her?” Maybe not. Maybe he's not thinking much at all just at this moment; just letting it all sink in. It's very early in the day after all, and we sat up late last night around the campfire not saying much, just enjoying the peace and the sky, so maybe there's some thought like “Well, it's not like there's any hurry to sort it all out now.” Probably though, underneath it all, B's really pissed off at me, as well as sad. I would be if it were the other way around, but I know that he knew that I knew that he knew that this moment, or something like it, or even totally different but with the same end result, could have happened at any time on one of our trips. It does not strike me as especially odd that I find myself unable to read B's thoughts; nothing new there. It does strike me as odd that I find myself here at all though. I am dead, after all.
B must feel so incredibly alone right now, out here at the edge, looking down unseeing, knowing that somewhere down there my torn and useless body lies silent and still – I wonder if he can only imagine it whole, or if he has more horrendous visions, you know, of parts and flesh and bones sticking out and such. Of course, he is in no real doubt about what has actually taken place, he is as sure as anyone could ever be right now, but to have this burden placed so brutally on his shoulders, to feel this loss, this hurtful love, and undoubtedly some sense that he must now do the right thing also, well, it's not something one could ever take lightly. I may not be able to read his mind or his heart, but I can still feel, I notice, and I do feel for him deeply. And too I feel deeply that he will do what's required, in his own way, perfectly. Such a friend, even now.
It's funny, as I got sicker and slowly more and more limited, the 'Lotto Dreaming' changed. You know, most people have it; the instant set of answers to the questions of what you'd do first if you got a large lump of money suddenly. Better house with leafier views and more quiet, that stayed. Philanthropic ambitions towards helping my fellow-travellers and our planet stayed. But things like new cars and travel plans changed a lot, as it became obvious that I wouldn't even be able to drive a car soon. I'd let go on motorbikes already, as it got too dangerous riding my last bike. But the urge to travel did not abate, as I've always loved to move through the landscape, and seek connection with the earth and her people in different places and ways. Nature travel, that's me. And when I thought of travel, I thought sometimes of travel as a couple, and other times of travel without her. I'd imagine special places experienced together, a refreshing of our loving bond in the cathedrals of the world away from civilization, in the forests and on the coastlines. And equally, of visiting such sacred places as just … me.
But I'd need a travelling companion for that, either way. There was always going to be a clear first choice, old friend B. So you can imagine my delight when a little money did come our way, and my weird joy that it was, in perfect reflection of the modus moriendi currently expressed in my illness, not an extravagant sum but instead just enough to do a little more with life. Improve the house a little. Upgrade the car a little. Do a little travel. Importantly, not to have to concern ourselves with the usual bills and such for a few years if well-husbanded. Just the right amount, really.
So re-started my adventures with B. We used to live in the same town and once were thick as thieves, living an oddball bromance as extrovert cafe-culture cognoscenti, doing life as art and damning the consequences, he the errant artist and me the young gadabout musician. Japes and scrapes, beauty and abandon, all that romantic stuff without the homoerotic undertones. Times changed but our connection only deepened, even when we moved apart. We found ourselves in the same city again later on, and began a new chapter of our odd and intense little friendship. And again, apart. Always there for each other in spirit, if not fleshly available. We had the sort of friendship that spawned its own culture of in-joke and innuendo, language and the transcendence of language, and the sort of mutual respect that can only come from knowing precisely what it is about the other that really gives you the shits and which you judge so harshly, acting it out, and getting over it. Letting each others' sleeping dogs lie comfortably, whilst not transgressing our own moralities and ways. Where you can spend the whole day being an asshat if you need to be, and knowing that your friend will see straight through it, and be OK anyway.
Then there was the thing about The Road. We'd often hatched great dreams of travelling adventures, many times designed around some artistic notion or endeavour or event but mainly just for the fun of it.
Thus is was that we started our first little trips together. It worked out that buying a decent older large campervan with a view to re-selling later on, or maybe giving it to B at The End, was going to be smarter than hiring. And then you can have fun with fitout. Ours had an annexe attachment too, so there was a whole extra canvas room where B would usually sleep, unless he slept out under the stars, which happened a lot as we chased fair skies whenever possible. The first shakedown trip was a blast, all full of laughter and giggles and good weather – and enough space for he and I to properly see how well I was able to manage this and that, to adjust to a new relationship reality. For as much as we were equal friends, there was always underneath the issue to be settled, of transactions. He was driver, and in a large way carer. Contributed no money. I covered our costs and was essentially looked after. Decisions were mainly mine, based on where I wanted to go and how much travel I could manage on any given day. It took time for it all to be OK, for the power dynamics to go away. For us to feel out and accept the unseen edges, those things that need to go unspoken so often; like exactly how much monetary freedom there was, and wasn't, when it was only one of us doing the paying.
Forests and beaches and the wonderful nostalgia of sitting in a sidewalk cafe, the two of us as of old, in what amounts to eccentric dress and style most everywhere we go, especially when I have my coffee in a “small jug, double shot espresso, a dash of cold milk” through my feeding tube. All those years spent idling, 'contributing culture' as we liked to say, in a cosmopolitan port city, now writ small and a little gentler, but no less close and alive, in small towns along the way. Parking the van in a fine quiet spot in the bush nice and early, making a fire and not talking until tomorrow, as the stars come out and wheel about. Driving down “that road there” because it looks like it might be a more fun way to get close to our originally intended daily destination. Some days not having one at all. After all, at every moment, for me at least and often poignantly for B I'm sure as well was the underlying knowledge that this would likely be my last time here. My last time anywhere, even.
Right at the outset, I had laid it out: my illness might rear up and suddenly make me very ill, threatening to kill me, and possibly doing so in a quickish fashion. That was fine by B, naturally, in theory. But what to do in such a moment? I had to be explicit, to feel safe. If it was a case of creeping 'unwellness' then we'd manage it in real-time, and head homewards if possible. Hospitals were to be a very last resort. In all other cases, there was to be no panic, and no resuscitation. I may for example begin to choke on my own secretions and be unable to clear them. It would be ugly to watch me drown, but there it is. One of the whole deep meanings of our travels for me was to live out the dream of “at any moment,” and to walk a meditation on “in any place.” B needed to be OK that he might have me die on him at some point. Typically, he allowed that he might do the same. Snap. Philosophical intent notwithstanding, we had forged through the years a most loyal trust, and with this sprinkling of sunlight, this little explicit commentary, it was recharged and avowed afresh. He would be my friend as I died too, and I his, if it came to that. We would allow each other choices that included not being 'saved'.
We used to be such talkers. Then as my speech got harder and harder and eventually all but disappeared, we fell more and more silent together. B was still happy to ramble and be heard on whatever topic took his fancy, especially when he'd had a toke at the end of a day's driving, and I was happy to listen and nod and enjoy. It rather polished my own habits of speech really, the difficulty of it. Timing was impossible, so I became a speaker (using my text-to-speech program on my smartphone mainly) of one-liners. Zen-like utterances. Pithy witticisms. Such speech tends towards the surreal, really, and after a time it became a habit of the mind, to think in shorthand as well. That's what led to me one day mentioning, as we drove, that “An accidental demise would be just so much neater, all things considered.” I watched B's face as he took this in, his eyes ahead on the road, poker face in place. I caught just the slightest micro-flash of twinkle before he abruptly and expertly flinched at the wheel, wobbling our van alarmingly for a moment, then bestowed upon me his beamiest and most mischievous, loving smile. It said “I'm with you, brother. I get it.” The details we once would have chatted about, back-and-forth, for hours, enumerating all the practical, emotional, personal, omenological … any and all the reasons that a sudden death would trump this agonising lingering that had become my life, and just as importantly, defined so much of the lives of others. One other in particular. Oh, the relief to know that she is free of the attrition at last.
The wind blew quite hard last night for an hour or two, enough to polish the top layer of dust around the campsite and remove all yesterday's foot prints and scratching, if not the tyre tracks. So what an observer from up here would see, surveying the scene from above, is very little, in terms of clues. Footsteps fro the van to the fire and back, a few times. A dead-end trail to the edge of the scrub, still the odd droplet splashmark at the end of it, under the shrubs, if you were to look closely. And two sets of footprints only leading from the fire to the edge of the gorge; one of which of course is B's.
He squats on his haunches, curling in upon himself a little, sobbing gently now. Again I am keenly aware of just how much I feel for him right now, feelings clearer and stronger than those I had only yesterday, when I and my body were all of a piece. The hurt is profound, and I am sorry. I feel no remorse, I am not sorry for what has happened, but I am sorry for B's pain. I wonder if I will see her again now. I do not feel pain for her. Perhaps because this is not yet real for her.
It's right there, right up close in his face, you can see the lines and ridges reflected in his glasses. Stands up at length, stretches a little, wipes his eyes and drops his hands heavily to his sides. B looks out and up, far away, then his gaze slowly, slowly lowers. From the horizon, the opposite side of the gorge, down through the strata of fossil layers, back in time, playing along the sparkling kinks and bends of the river, down to his feet. He breathes in slowly, deeply, knowing he is not thinking this all through properly, but that it doesn't matter, this is right. Breathes out. You can see the tingle of fate about him, you know this is one of those moments where lives turn and gyre into their new directions. Watches himself as if from above, as if from where I am, pushing one foot forward. Shuffles it out to the side, and then in one-two sweeping motion erases the five letters written there in the sand with a stick, in clear hand, only very recently: “I fell.”
You can help me with the cost of my natural burial here, if you wish. Thanks.