He stretched out his arms to embrace me
But he was no longer strong, he hadn’t
The force he once had ….
The Odyssey, 392-4:
Odysseus’ lament for Agamemnon when in Hades
Peter Sands heard the wretched braying again. He wasn’t able to tell where it was coming from because of the mist which had started settling in about a quarter of an hour ago – together with the strange mournful braying.
He knew the mountain hut he was searching for was just on the other side of the crest he had seen in the distance before the mist had wrapped itself round the mountain top. Now he couldn’t see a thing.
The donkey sounded again and Sands started. Where was the filthy creature?
Sands carried on following the well-marked path wondering why the unseen donkey was carrying on so. As if warning a ship to stay away from the rocks.
After a few minutes the path got steeper and the braying more intense. It seemed like an alarm now.
The row that morning had been terrible, Sands reflected, stumbling on some large rocks because he had been straining to look up through the mist to where the pass should be.
Well… where was the footling pass?
He had come to ‘relax’, ‘unbend’. But now all he could hear was this foolish donkey and all he could think about was the row this morning with Clara – even though he couldn’t at all remember what the row was about.
And as for seeing the sights, there weren’t the beautiful valley panoramas he had been savouring, only fog…
‘Maybe it will lift,’ he half-heartedly said to himself.
Sands soldiered on trying to relax. By now he walked by intuition. Even though it had been a splendidly sunny morning, the sky was now twilight. The only light was the eerie glow of his mobile that he had noticed having momentarily opened his bum bag a few seconds ago to consult his map futilely.
He wasn’t very keen on the cellphone. Clara had given it to him for his birthday. Being an electrical engineer, she was convinced of its practical applications for Sands. So convinced that she had hidden it in Sands’s clobber – evidently late last night when Sands had already gone to bed in preparation for the day’s grand trek.
Smiling to himself while thinking about it, Sands saw Clara making her case for the mobile phone: Sands was always round the city giving English lessons so it was very practical if students had to get in touch with him, or if he went trekking and there was an emergency…
Sands had arrived at the pass and looking down he could see the valley he was headed for, since the mist was beginning to be blown off by a nascent wind. He only realised then that he could no longer hear the donkey.
Brian Clay wondered how Peter Sands was while sitting at his computer which didn’t work. He couldn’t sort it out: firstly, why the computer would only bring up the same odd image of mist it had been producing for the past hour and secondly why Peter had come to mind. They hadn’t seen or heard from each other for years. Peter had gone off to Italy ages ago.
Brian yawned, scratched his sparse beard and noticed that it was nearly two in the morning. He wanted to go to bed but decided first to wheel himself over to the window next to the door to see if his wife was walking up the path yet. It was ‘Ladies Night Out’ and she would be home soon.
Pulling the curtain to one side and looking out into the courtyard which was an abandoned lumber room of tricycles and toys from that afternoon’s estate play session, Brian only saw the reflection of the computer screen in the window with its image of mist.
The mountain hut manager had certainly been odd. The encounter hadn’t really rattled Sands, but it had left a strange taste in his mouth. Usually the hut keepers were jovial types, but this one – he hadn’t exactly acted like a bastard, but he had been cold. But perhaps not even that – just too off-hand and distant like an apathetic civil servant in an obscure office somewhere.
Sands couldn’t even really explain his own actions. He had left the mountain hut straightaway and had continued on his way. And now he was feeling ratty, but for no reason at all. He should have been feeling the bright spark. The mist was gone now and the sun was shining.
Was it accumulated stress? A combination of the row, too much studying and too much teaching?
Sands decided to stop thinking about it all and enjoy his brief holiday trek in the mountains.
Sands walked on. Carefree he watched the clouds, the stream rushing below in the valley he was following. He saw a squirrel dart along the path and disappear.
But it had seemed a strange squirrel…
No, this is over the top, Sands thought. What on earth was happening?
Then a little dog arrived trotting up the path accompanied by the not too distant voices of his master and his master’s companion.
As the dog passed aloofly next to Sands, he crouched down to stroke him.
Just as soon as Sands had touched the animal he recoiled from the synthetic-feeling fur. It felt like a soft toy dog. The dog had frozen. He stared at Sands with lifeless button eyes.
Then the voices came.
‘How do you do, Mr Brown?’
‘How do you do Mr Smith?’
‘Now, let’s talk about doing that deal.’
‘Yes, let’s talk about doing that deal.’
The two fools the voices belonged to passed in front of Sands and went along their way still speaking in their idiotic banter and completely ignoring Sands. The dog hurried after them.
All this was odd. Not only because they were blathering in English in the Italian Pre-Alps, and not only because they were dressed in British lounge suits, but because Sands had heard this git-speak before.
‘Is Peter coming today for the lesson?’ Italo asked Beppe, in Italian.
‘I don’t know. Maybe he’s on holiday. I tried ringing him this morning and got the answerphone. I’ll try his cellphone.’
Beppe dialled Sands’s cellphone number from their open plan office in the electronic engineering firm where Sands gave English lessons.
Beppe and Italo had to finish a technical report and wanted Peter to sort out a few rough grammar spots.
‘Hello, is that Peter?’ Beppe asked when Sands answered. ‘…You can stop taking the mickey out of me, Peter.’
‘What’s he saying?’ asked Italo.
‘Today’s he’s round the twist,’ Beppe replied.
They shrugged their shoulders philosophically and got on with correcting the rough copy by themselves.
‘Peter, leave it out!’ Clara said. ‘Where are you? Are you still angry with me? You can tell that your mother was German and your father Sicilian! You’re so mulish! Capatost, capatost!’
‘Dissi: <<Va’, ch’i son forte e ardito!>>,’ was all that came from Peter’s end.
‘Peter, stop speaking in Fourteenth Century Italian, you faggot!’ After a few more attempts Clara finally gave up. She rang off.
Clara thought about the strange fog that had passed slowly through their borough that morning and then vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. The bells in the church opposite their flat began to chime as she wondered what Sands was talking about. She tried to imagine where he was. She thought and thought about it while stretching out on their bed where she had been telephoning from and then slowly fell asleep.
Sands was relaxed, reassured. He was calm. He was sprawled out on a large flat rock admiring the green valley below and trying to work through things.
The episode with the geeks and the dog had been mere signs of the severe stress he had been under: swotting up for an exam, too much teaching, spiv estate agents (He and Clara were looking for a flat.), then the row…
So in fact Sands reassured himself that he wasn’t yet mad. But what had got him hotted up and now so strung-up was the fact that he had brought the wrong book with him.
He had wanted to bring along his New Testament with alternating pages of Greek and Latin (it was a trick he used not to forget Greek while studying for a Latin exam for a long stint or vice versa). Instead by tragic accident he had managed to put one of the pathetic textbooks he taught English with in his rucksack. The two books were more or less the same shape and colour.
This one was supposed to teach Business English to the poor Italians who had bought it for the thicker end of fifteen quid. There were two protagonists really, Mr Smith and Mr Jones…
‘… and the footling dog with the dead button eyes,’ mumbled Sands who had stopped flipping through the pages and had stopped at the photo of the dog. The same dog he had seen about an hour ago with the lounge suit boys Messrs Smith and Jones.
The cretinous textbook slipped out of his hands and thudded to the ground while Sands stared up to the pass he had come over that morning.
Suddenly there was a chiming. Sands jumped up, turning violently to look behind him. After a few seconds he realised that the tone was the idiotic mobile phone buried at the bottom of his rucksack.
He quickly dug it out and responded: ‘Sì?’
He heard Clara’s voice, but she wasn’t speaking regular Italian or her dialect. It seemed like Mediaeval Italian.
‘What the devil…?’
What on earth was she on about? Sands couldn’t work it out. She kept on repeating the same verse over and over again: ‘<<Guardaci ben! Ben son, ben son Beatrice, Come degnasti d’accedere al monte? Non sapei tu che qui è l’uom felice?>>’
Sands’s Mediaeval Italian wasn’t exceptional but Clara should have been saying something like: ‘Observe me well. I am, in sooth, I am Beatrice. What! and hast thou deign’d at last approach the mountain? Knewest not, O man! Thy happiness is here?’
All Sands’s attempts to communicate with her were futile. She would only speak and not answer. In the end he rang off. Just as he pushed the slender aerial back into the Flash Gordon gadget, it started chiming again.
He muttered ‘not again’ as he pulled out the aerial and flipped open the little flap which let you answer.
‘Sì,’ Sands said cautiously. He didn’t want to guess what language she would be speaking now.
‘Hello Peter, I am Italo. Listen, I want to tell to you a thing…’
‘What the hell? Sands thought. Not really surprised for the call, but for the caller. It was Italo, one of his students who worked in an electronics firm where Sands held courses. No one had ever been accustomed to phone him on the idiotic cellphone and now when he wanted to get away from civilisation, everyone was phoning. It seemed that not only did civilisation not want to leave him be, it also wanted to drive him insane by making him hallucinate about Messrs Jones and Smith and the dead button eye soft toy dog (Sands had convinced himself that the whole episode was a hallucination due to stress). Who would telephone next? Lady Thatcher? Morecambe and Wise?
But what was really worrisome was how Italo was speaking. He usually spoke English very well. He was forever in contact with English companies and travelling abroad. He knew how to speak so why was he messing about now?
‘You can come today in company? For to show us…’
Sands tried to communicate a moment, realised that Italo couldn’t hear him and just kept rattling on as Clara had, then rang off.
He was mightily tempted to pitch the mobile phone into the valley he was overlooking. But then he resisted the temptation and bunged it into the rucksack.
Looking up at the rocky mountains above and behind him and then to the green valley below he asked himself what was happening. It was like a practical joke which had been played too long that was now a sick joke.;
Brian knew he had to help Peter. He hoped that Peter would be able to follow his motions where he was trapped in the valley on the other side of the mountain.
Brian rolled over to the front door and awkwardly opened it and then using almost all of the force he could muster, pushed open the screen door, simultaneously nudging himself out of the house. He rolled down the ramp which brought him gently down to the front garden of the Californian back-to-back house.
He hadn’t been so weak before, but his disease was progressive. A few years back he had been able to get round the local university buildings with his giant oversized oldster tricycle and the Zimmer frame he always carried along in the cycle’s very large wire pannier mounted behind the saddle.
He had never let up with university. He had studied a couple of degrees. He had always kept the fire of his mind burning.
His inertia sped him along a path past the usual group of playing children. Brian smiled, wheeling by. They would play all day in the sunshine of the estate’s common close.
Brian had first sorted it all out on the computer. He was going to follow a precise pre-established path round the estate that he hoped Peter would understand and be able to follow where he was, there in the valley.
Sands had tried sleeping, but it was impossible. He kept on getting the same pictures in his head: Kafkian characters from his textbooks with demonic vapid expressions on mannequin-like faces or white light with Clara’s voice cooing the same bit of Dante to him she had kept on repeating on the mobile:
Observe me well. I am, in sooth, I am
Beatrice. What! and hast thou deign’d at last
Approach the mountain? Knewest not, O man!
Thy happiness is here?
It wasn’t dawn yet. The sky was full of stars and a stark wind was blowing. It wasn’t really a cold wind, but simply, dreadfully, annoying. It had been going all night, whistling all about him where he slept on a peak overlooking a valley that had lights at its farthest end. When he had been sleeping Sands had kept on imagining them as eyes observing him. And when he had often woken during the night to look back at them, he had been convinced they had changed position in a west to east fashion.
Just like the sunrise now. It seemed like the west and not the east had the beginnings of Homer’s rosy fingers.
Regardless, he decided to break camp and move towards the light which would bring him back over yesterday’s foggy mountain col. That would at least give him some way of using up his
paranoia about the lights, and maybe even the other odd noises he had been hearing as well would pass away once he started walking.
Since just before going to sleep yesterday evening at sunset he had heard noises which, well, reminded him of his Shepherds Bush flat of years back. He always used to hear his neighbours walking about in the flat above his.
Every ten minutes or so he heard something similar. But now it was a rolling sound. Something was rolling round above him, which was absurd, of course, because he was on the side of a mountain.
Having chucked all of his kit into his rucksack and his eyes burning from lack of sleep he tossed the rucksack onto his back and started towards the light in the now fleeing darkness.
Sands was almost tempted to reassess once again all the odd events (all attempts of which had been futile) when he heard the rolling noise again. It was above him as before, and also in front of him in the direction he was heading, but it was also echoing inside him.
He refused to start in on any new Monty Python-style metaphysical speculations and went on walking. And on he went not only towards the light but also towards the rolling noise he now heard knocking about inside him which was now also accompanied by images of Clara at the seaside (her favourite place) swathed in the bright summer sun. She giggled and motioned to him to follow.
Perhaps a couple of hours had passed. Sands found himself under the same mountain pass of two days before. He felt exhausted but wanted to climb out of this unpleasant valley. At the rate things were going, life on the other side of the pass had probably become just as zany.
He stopped thinking about it so as not to bring bad luck upon himself, as the Italians would say, but in a version a bit more earthy. Sands made the sign of the Italian ‘luck horn’ with both hands while simultaneously touching his testicles. This was the fully-fledged, authentic Italian version of warding off evil. It seemed very appropriate at the moment.
Sands had reason to be concerned. There was the mist again at the top of the mountain, or rather an eerie wind had picked up and was quickly bringing the mist to the summit. He didn’t panic, but kept on walking up the now steep path.
When the donkey brayed he didn’t half want to panic, but restrained himself. It started in again with its ominous sing-song chorus.
Sands tried to suss it. He tried to work it out. He still heard the rolling noise in front, above, and inside himself, just as he saw the brightly burning sun through the mountain mist and saw Clara in his mind’s eye. He kept calm and walked and thought and thought.
He was entering the mist now, hypnotised. His shadow was thrown into the gloomy twilight behind him where the valley lay.
Thousands of images flashed through Sands’s mind. Thousands and thousands of memories from when he was a child up to now. Spates and spates of the most insignificant happenings. But all of them secondary to the rolling sound, Clara on the beach in the sun, and now Brian.
He hadn’t thought about Brian for years.
No, no. Wait for it. He had to sort out the donkey. Sands was walking straight into its tannoy-like voice, a foghorn voice, but it didn’t matter. The sound didn’t bother him anymore.
And then Sands thought: is a foghorn really bad? The donkey’s braying was really like a foghorn you see. Actually, a foghorn was for what? To lead a ship away from the rocks or whatnot. Well then, it’s a good thing, because it helps; just as this sound was helping Sands since he could no longer see and it was guiding him up the path towards the light and away from the darkness.
The ass is the wisest of animals say the Irish, Sands reflected.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ Sands chuntered, more exhausted than ever and nearly sleeping even though his legs were still pulling him along. ‘Right… the ass is the wisest …’
Then his legs felt strange and all the pyrotechnics in his head were now suddenly very subdued. They were like whispers, like the ‘shhhhh’ of Mum wanting to put you down to bed.
Sands’s legs felt strange because there was level ground under them, which was now giving way to descending ground. And the reason he had trouble seeing was because the squinting he had done to see, to see in the mist, was now squinting against the bright eastwardly sun and its burning omnipresent light.
Out of the corner of his eye Sands sensed the motion of skittering hooves. His impaired vision and pathetically slow wheeling about left him with only the noise of stones being scattered and a final friendly bray from that strange Charon-like guardian and guide of sorts: the wise ass.
As Sands struggled to keep his balance and aimed himself for an enticing patch of luxurious soft grass, the cellphone started.
Sands made it to the grass and fell to his knees while slipping out of his rucksack’s straps. He collapsed into a foetal position and closed his eyes.
The only thing not making his paradise complete was the wretched mobile phone. The cellphone was in his bum-bag which he always kept positioned in front of him as if he were a kangaroo. He groggily pulled it out and flipped open its lid after having battled a bit with the bum-bag zip.
It was Clara’s voice and she was going on about something, fortunately in completely normal Italian.
‘Sì, sì,’ Sands responded, not having a clue as to what she had said.
As Sands started making snoring noises, Clara’s voice was no longer audible. Quite probably she had rung off.
Some lovely dream pictures were filtering into his head now. Before starting his grand trek, he had noticed an inn at the beginning of the walking path. It was certainly owned by a Bergamasc family – the Bergamasca was a not-widely-known zone of Lombardy whose population was probably the world’s most unpretentious and sensible, and even extremely good-hearted once they got to know you. Certainly, there at the tavern they had grilled cotechino sausages. Yes, yes, of course they had…
Then another picture popped up. It was Brian. Sands hadn’t thought about him at all, for years and years; he hadn’t really thought about Brian at any length, not since he had died.
Finally, Brian’s miserable bloody wasting disease had got the best of him. But Brian had fought until the very end, only studying, smiling, and being cordial to fight the pain.
Sands saw him smiling now. Brian smiling through his dark-rimmed glasses, his face beaming with a Cheshire-cat grin. A grin which now mingled with the group of Bergamaschi in the inn that Sands would soon be eating sausages in.
by Gregory Santo Arena