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Black Ice: Chapter 39

...Nature woke me just in time to be principal witness at my own death-bed scene. Or so it seemed to me.

It was the cold that snapped me into consciousness. The stiff mountain wind had almost dried my trousers, shirt andjacket, and driven the aching cold of the waterfall deep into my bones. I could feel my whole body shaking. My teeth weren't chattering - they were taking burger-sized bites out of the air...

Journalist and reluctant spy Sam Craven enlists four-legged help as he attempts to renew contacts with civilisation.

Colin Dunne continues his superb Cold War story.

Nature woke me just in time to be principal witness at my own death-bed scene. Or so it seemed to me.

It was the cold that snapped me into consciousness. The stiff mountain wind had almost dried my trousers, shirt andjacket, and driven the aching cold of the waterfall deep into my bones. I could feel my whole body shaking. My teeth weren't chattering - they were taking burger-sized bites out of the air.

Yet my mind was diamond-sharp. I felt as though I could solve the mystery of the world's creation and still go on to do the Daily Mirror crossword. I was that good. I was so amazingly alert that I even knew the alertness itself wasn't real.

But I still couldn't see. Easy. Rip off bandages. I said it again: rip off bandages. No one did anything. Right. Hand, I said, with more severity this time, rip off sodding bandages. Slowly, lazily, hand plucked at them. Fortunately, the soaking and the drying had weakened them and eventually they fell in a thin rolled collar around my neck.

My eyes flinched from the light. I clapped my hands over them, massaging them slowly as they became accustomed to it. I'd no idea how long they'd been bound. My watch had gone, ripped away under the waterfall.

As my eyesight cleared, I looked around. The sky was a uniform pale grey and the light was the pearly dream light of the northern night. It was still night then.

They'd dropped me fifty yards or so from the waterfall. I'd heard it for so long now that its thunder was a perpetual background. The river came down from my left in a wide smooth sweep which broke up when it hit a series of stepped falls, each ten or twenty foot deep. There the water whitened among the first rocks, fell into a deep pool where it slowed and circled, recovering its dazzling blue, then gradually inched up to the cliff-edge where it crashed in one unbroken cascade. From where I was, it stretched out in a pretty lace curtain that had nothing to do with the boiling spitting mass which had pounded me. Around it rose the spray, in glittering clouds. After the falls, the river ran off unseen in a chasm across the wide flat lava field, whose perimeter was ringed in the far distance by saw-edged, white-tipped mountains.
Around me were bare rocks, every shade from black to bright rust red. Beyond that, a few yards away, was a long sloping incline of springy moorland grass, with deep tyre marks showing where the car had gone. The nylon rope was on the ground beside me. It must've been fastened to the bumper of the car which explained why I'd risen so swiftly.

That was the way they'd gone. That was the way I'd have to go, too. Somewhere down that track there must be a road, and a road meant tourists and traffic.

So. All I had to do was to get up and go.

Up we go, wobble for balance, step forward, one two three four, crash, down. Damned legs withdrawn labour. Sit up. Try again. Stand. Slowly this time. Better. Straighten, right foot, left foot. Knees like broken hinges, legs go again. Christ. Down again. In the mud.

Stay here. Lie here. Till they come. Aha. Trick. No one coming. No one knows. No one cares. Unwanted orphan. Always alone. Dying, on cold rock on top of world.
Legs, I said, move. Up again. Right foot, left foot, right foot. Again and again. Brow of hill. At last. View across lava field. Oh, my God! Miles and miles of it. Thin brown track runs in long straight line to base of mountain range. Road at foot of range. How far? Three miles. More. Hours of walking. Can't make it. Never. Never.

Next time, it was the heat that awakened me. Before my eyes opened I felt the hot stable breath around my ear and neck and thought that Oscar had come back to give me another shower.

I turned my head and half-rolled over. A pony, its black rubber mouth and nose nuzzling my neck, swung its head round and trotted off. Then I saw I was surrounded by them. There must've been nearly twenty of the rough-coated ponies that run in herds there and come down to the road for salt.

As I sat up, swords of pain cut into me and my diamond-sharp mind felt about as brilliant as a bucket of mud. I knew where I was all right. And I could see the line of the road under the mountains in the distance. It must be another two to three miles away still. Two or three yards I could manage. Miles, never.

Some of the clouds had shifted now and pale sunlight was painting the lava field in moss-green patches. The night was over. I squinted again at the distant road and saw a cloud of dust moving jerkily along its course. A car, probably taking tourists up to the waterfalls at Gullfoss.

I looked at the ponies again. What's good enough for an Icelandic shepherd is good enough for a Fleet Street hack, that's what I always say. You never know: they might be on a good mileage rate.

But first I had to see what shape I was in. Christ! I lurched up, feeling terrible. The journey in the boot of the car and the hammering I'd taken under the water had beaten every ounce of strength out of me. I felt like a cut-out-paper man I had the general shape, but none of the substance. Still, I was for the moment at any rate upright.

The ponies had moved off when I got to my feet. Now I had to address myself to horse psychology. It was around thirty years since I'd done that with a little fat grey kept by an even fatter girl near Sevenoaks. She let me ride the pony if I kissed her in the stable. I was crazy about horses, so I did. It was my first conscious act of compromise and the first bitter realisation that nothing comes without a price. It would probably have been more acceptable the other way round.

One thing about her pony, she didn't like being caught. So I had to learn all sorts of subterfuges.

One thing horses don't like are creatures taller than themselves. Which is why they moved off when I stood up. But something low on the ground, like a smaller animal, often makes them curious. That's why they were giving me the onceover when I woke up.

Knees creaking, I bent slowly, agonisingly, to my haunches. And I inspected the opposition.

The one that had come to have a look was the boss, a big grey, fourteen hands or more. He'd trotted off with neck arched and his tail in a proud curve. Any other day I'd have loved to ride him. Today, with no bridle and no saddle and no strength-no thank you.

What I wanted was something small, dull, placid and safe. Then I saw her, Doris. I thought of the name immediately. She was a little piebald, black and white, and by the look of her she'd dedicated all her waking hours to eating. The basic design was card-table, flat-backed with a leg at each corner. She was just what I was looking for. And when I moved and the others twitched their ears and shuffled off, she stayed, nose down, hunting one last blade of grass. Doris. She had to be a Doris.

The problem was, how could I interest her? The second problem was how could I hold her? And the third was how could I mount her?

First things first. I looked around to see what natural resources nature had given me. Answer: rocks. I could knock her out with a rock and sit on her until she woke up.
Ha, ha. I checked my pockets. If only I hadn't stopped smoking . . . shake a matchbox and horses are always curious. Ah, the car keys. They'd survived the buffeting.

Doris was already having a good look at me while she ate. When she heard the keys, her ears went on red alert and she lifted her head. Then she turned her head on one side. Did she like it? Was it worth coming over for a look? Or was she far too sophisticated for all that catchpenny stuff?

Not Doris. She came swinging over, not too quickly, but definitely interested.
As she came I pulled my tie undone. It wasn't much more than a damp piece of string now, but a piece of string was exactly what I wanted. I looped it round into a thumb-knot and held it in my left hand.

Then I jangled the keys again. I made those clicking and cooing sounds that I used all those years ago. I don't know about ponies but the Sevenoaks girl always liked them. On came Doris. Good as gold. Then, a yard away, she stopped. She stood there. Come on, old girl, come on, darling, come here.

A whinny vibrated in the air and Doris looked up. The herd was at the top of the bank now and just about to disappear over the top. The grey, acting as courier on this package, was giving her the last call. As soon as I saw he was going to whinny again, I began coughing. Not too loudly, not enough to frighten her, but enough to cover his last call and to distract her from the herd.

Then, without any encouragement, she swung down her beautiful head and pushed her nose into the hand which held the keys.

'Oh, you lovely big softie,' I said, and the soiled, stained, ragged neckwear officially authorised by the Groombridge Cricket Club slipped over her head and tightened just behind her ears. I'd got me a hoss. Question was, could I ride it now I'd got it?

With pain springing in every move, I weaved unsteadily to my feet. Doris didn't panic.

This is the point in all good cowboy films where the hero grabs the horse's mane, leaps astride and gallops off. With most horses, if you tried that you'd be left with a handful of hair and the dying clatter of hooves as it vanished over the horizon.

But Doris wasn't an inch over twelve hands. Tired as I was, there had to be some way I could get on board her. I leaned against her, resting and thinking. She dropped her head and started casting about for breakfast and, when something caught her eye, she moved off a couple of steps - and down six inches.

She'd stepped into a gulley. Still hanging on, I edged my way up a bump of rock so that I was now almost looking down on the broad, black and white back of our Doris.
I could mount her easily from there. Except for one thing. I couldn't.

It hadn't struck me until that moment. I was far too weakened to ride her. I couldn't even begin to sit upright on a moving horse. I'd caught her, got her in position, and now there wasn't a thing I could do about it. I could've cried.

In despair, I flopped against her. She stood there, willingly enough. Then a thought occurred to me. Whatever the Pony Club might think, there's no law that says you have to have a leg on either side.

I put my arms over her back. Then, with a small hop, I draped myself stomach-down across it. At first I felt dizzy and couldn't get my breath because of the weight on my stomach. But gradually I got used to it. I reached out my hand and took hold of the tie and gave it three sharp tugs. At the same time I tapped on either side of her ribs with my knee and hand, to impersonate the rider's leg action.

'Walk on,' I said. 'Walk on, old girl.'

Now I don't suppose Icelandic horses speak English, but the tones you use to animals are universal. Doris, not in the least unsettled by this flopped-out wreck on her back, lifted her head and began to amble down the track.

My face was full of her coarse scratchy hair and the sweaty stink of her and I could feel her strong warmth rising up through my own body. She reminded me of a girl I once knew in Aberdare. 'I know I got a big bum,' Hazel used to say, 'but it's only so I can roll nice for you, see.'

Doris rolled on.

I counted every time her front right hoof rose and fell. When it got to a hundred, I began again. Time after time after time. I watched the rough lava and the green moss rise and fall beneath my eyes. I rocked and rolled with Doris, love of my life, and I'd have been going still if she hadn't pressed the ejector button.

One minute I was hanging there, like a western baddie being taken back to town. The next, I was flat on my back on the floor looking up at the sky.

It wasn't malice that had done it. It was hunger. Doris just chanced to see a tempting clump of grass, put her head down to grab it, and I was fired down the chute.

Well, I'd done it before, I could do it again. I pushed myself into a sitting position and I was reaching out for the cricket club tie, when Doris threw up her head, pricked her ears and with a swerve and kick of her fat haunches tore off back up the track.

I looked towards the road. It wasn't more than four hundred yards away. From where I was, I could see two coaches and one car curving their way slowly up the hill. Even I could make that, somehow.

If it hadn't been for the Triumph Trophy that came kicking and skidding towards me. Oscar Murphy had come back to tidy up after all.

And everywhere you looked, on either side of the track, there were gulleys, ravines, sinks, potholes and craters - a hundred places where you could discreetly tuck away the remains of a discarded diurnalist.

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