MarkhaM Markham

 

David sat in the bus listening to random sounds of strangers, feeling each bump of the semi-formed road, and sensing the sun through his closed eyes. The light formed a strobe effect as the bus moved through the dense canopy of the bush. The voices he heard bouncing around the bus were that magical song you could only hear in Papua New Guinea. The varied accents mixed with the multi-rooted local “tok pidgin” to create a living historical record that only a linguist could truly read.

Mixed in with the local native language he could also, of course, hear bits of German and English spoken with at least three distinct accents.

 

“Onepla pidgin, em com up long hia”

“Did you see that bleedin bird?”

“It was rather magnificent, wasn’t it?”

 

An on it went. But the words, and the pattern of the light through the trees, even his very presence in New Guinea, all seemed so random. How had he arrived in this spot? Why was he going on a walk into hostile terrain with a group of expatriates from all points on the globe that he didn’t know from Adam? Was it for adventure? Was he seeking something? Or was it just one more desperate attempt to forget? To put it all behind him as if nothing had happened to drive him to this desolate spot.

He knew what he was doing, of course. He was assigning his future to the fates. He wanted no part in it, and if life was just a random series of events, then so be it. Ever since he lost Timothy he had been like this, in a free-fall. Although there was no pattern to the steps that had led him to this trip, looking back he could see that there was some sort of association. The association was hard to see, rather like looking for a constellation. You knew it was there, and thought you could see it, but could never be quite certain. The relationship between losing his brother and ending up on a bush walk in Papua New Guinea was like connecting the points of the Southern Cross, or no, that was too obvious, more like seeing Cancer, or Gemini, or some other vague etching in the heavens. Yes, that was it, Timothy’s death was like half of Gemini flickering out.

In fact, sometimes he felt his whole life was like that. Random events that only had meaning when you forced yourself to assign a meaning to them. He and Timothy, a random splitting of an embryo. Timothy ending up as he did, his eventual illness and death, all seemed random. But you could also assign a meaning to it. You could see something sketched out for you, but was it real? And what of his own life? His relationship with Mary Beth, their marriage and divorce, it could have easily gone some other way, but it didn’t. So now, New Guinea, it had seemed like the perfect next step, so completely incongruous with everything that had gone before, and yet, so natural.

That was the thing that no one else could ever understand. Ever since Timothy died everything had been hay-wire. He was like the local expression; “Em got wire loose”. Mary Beth had been as good as she could be, but there wasn’t really anything she could do. In the end, it is impossible for anyone else in the world to understand what it is to lose a twin.

The bus began to slow as they rolled up along side a line of small trees bordering a field of pampas. The chatter of his fellow hikers began to fade as they prepared for the upcoming ordeal. The scent of sun screen and insect repellant filtered through the bus and David began to take in his compatriots for the first time.

Two women close to his own age were immediately in front of him on the bus. Farther ahead he could see a teenage couple. As he made his way down the aisle he could tell from their accents that she was Australian and he was freshly out from home. Home, odd that he still thought of it that way. He and Tim had been only five when their parents decided to join the great British migration to the Southern hemisphere. Now, some thirty years later, he still thought of it as home.

They assembled near the front of the bus, and a man who David believed to be a banker named Malcolm, began to speak.

 “Right, well while we are all here together I just thought I might review the schedule. We will proceed down this trail for approximately three kilometers, it should be easy going most of the way. After lunch we may run into a bit of bog, but shouldn’t be any real worries. Everyone just try and keep together. Best slap on some sun screen, it looks to be a scorcher. In the afternoon we will meet up with some boys with canoes at the Markham. They’ll take us across and we will hike back to where the cars will be waiting. Any questions before we start?”

David’s only question was what the hell he was doing there, but he kept that to himself. They headed off down a trail through tall pampas grass. The group settled out into small clumps of twos and threes. David was walking by himself, but he didn’t really mind. In fact, he preferred to be alone. He wanted time to think, and in some ways, being on his own in a group was the perfect situation. He could be insulated by his solitude, and let the slow pounding of the trail lull him into a trance of self-reflection. That was what he needed more than anything, to sort out where he was, and what came next.

When he tried to trace backwards, to find the starting point of this path, David’s earliest memory was being in a bathtub with Tim, playing Navy. For some reason he had this idea that the song “Cherish” by “The Association” was playing, but then he also wondered if that wasn’t just his mind playing tricks. And one of his last memories of Timothy was laying him in the bath. The week before he died, his body but a leaf, David had taken him to the bath and laid him in like a twig in a stream. Tim had been so strong through it all. He could still see his face, beaming out through the pain. And lying there Tim had suddenly startedeÿ singing another song. It was from that summer they had spent on the East Coast of Tasmania “Now its too late to say your sorry,  how would I know, why should I care?” And David had known immediately what he meant by it, the whole summer came back to him.

It was like seeing a film but with a commentary dubbed in by the director. For it was during that summer that the big split in their relationship had started. It was that summer that they both became aware that there was something fundamentally different between them, and it was this difference that had driven them apart. It shattered their innocence. At the time, of course, they didn’t have any idea what was happening. Now he could see that the way Tim had treated Pip was pure jealousy. He and Tim had been in love, in a way, and Pip was the other woman. When he and Tim talked about it during those last few months it had been hilarious. How stupid they had been. How hurtful, and serious, and for a ridiculous chance to hold the hand of some pimple faced girl.

As the morning wore on the group spread out along the trail, and David found himself walking with the two young women he had noticed on the bus. They were intent on drawing him into conversation despite his barrier of indifference. Both were nurses teaching in the hospital’s training facility. The younger of the two, Diane, was perhaps thirty. and fair. She had a small face, and curly blonde hair that David noticed was slightly matted about the edges from sun screen. He probably would have found her attractive if it were not for his current total lack of interest in anything vaguely connected with sex. Her partner, Maurine, was an older woman with a slight hesitation in her walk which explained why they were so near the end of the group. She was graying and well into the middle-aged shape. David took her to be close to 50, which would have made her one of the oldest members of the expedition.

As they approached the mid-point of the morning the trail lead out of the grassland and into a dense canopy of trees. They hadn’t ventured very far into it when the threesome came upon the rest of the group, lounging on a small outcropping of rocks. They moved together to the only remaining rock and settled down to eat their snacks and restore the fluids they had already lost in the steamy New Guinea morning. Maurine was intent on engaging David in conversation, asking about his home and family, which was, of course a mistake. The sibling question resulted in the “I had a twin”, leading to a long awkward silence. Diane finally said she was “Sorry” and they all three searched desperately for somewhere else to take the conversation.

The young couple he had noticed earlier were sitting on the next rock over, and David observed how intent they were on each other. Desperate to turn his attention to something he tried to follow their conversation. It soon became apparent that they were in the early stages of courtship. He was uncomfortable with her, and trying to make an impression, while she was demure, and aloof. Sitting there in the bush, with the dense trees in the background and the sunlight highlighting their young faces, David felt that he could be watching a courtship from any point in history. He felt that there was something essential, and deliberate about their presence. As if it were a performance that had been arranged just for him. But, what was the meaning of the play? That was the question.

The hike started up again and they were soon in deep grass. Their progress was slow as in several spots they had to hack their way through a mix of bamboo and pampas grass, and David began to wonder how Malcolm knew they were on the right path. His skepticism became profound when they waded into a mud swamp and he found himself up to his chin in a thick gooey substance that smelled of rotting organic matter. He looked back at the young couple immediately behind him. They were both beaming with ecstasy as if they were in a glorious bath. David tried to adjust his attitude and slogged on.

After what felt like a life-time they arrived at their mid-day rest spot. The heat was now in full force, so despite the morning’s efforts none of the party seemed to attack their packed lunch with much gusto. David sat this time with the young couple, hoping to be infected by their energetic innocence. The young man was also named David. Just nineteen he was out from England to visit his father who worked at one of the local training colleges. His girlfriend, Nicole, did not offer her age, but appeared to be a bit younger. She was from Brisbane, and apparently had met him on a trip to England the previous summer. David had a broad face, with handsome features, deep brown eyes and a vaguely Italian nose. He seemed to be loaded down with cameras and spent most of the lunch break either snapping shots of Nicole or changing lenses out. Nicole had the broad smiling face of many young Australian women, with the mandatory hair turned blonde by the southern sun. She was completely absorbed and captivated by young David’s attention.

When they had rested for a short time Malcolm stood up and briefly outlined the remainder of the journey. They had another five kilometers of hard walking before they reached the Markham and their rendezvous with the canoes. So, they needed to get moving.

 

During the afternoon walk David began to wonder if he could survive the heat. Periodically he would stop and take long deep drinks from his water bottle, which was quickly becoming empty. The water did little, but at least it counter-acted the waves of dizziness and nausea that were coming on. He wondered if he could be experiencing the early signs of malaria, which were the constant fear of most ex-patriots in Papua New Guinea. 

He first sensed the Markham as a low roar that permeated the bush. It surrounded them, a presence they gradually all became aware of as a background to the slow steady sound of fellow hikers’ feet moving through the grass. David felt drawn to the sound, as if he was coming upon a giant magnet hiding in the jungle that was drawing him in. The closer they moved, the more aware he became of the river’s immensity. The sound grew ever louder, and with each step his expectation grew ever stronger. The magnet was sucking him towards the shore.

When he finally reached the river the group was gathered around the trail’s opening. The river’s edge was strewn with rocks and branches that had been casually tossed up by the current. The churning water moved fast and looked angry. Malcolm and the walking guides were deep in conversation which David assumed was about the location of the canoes and additional guides that were to take the group to the other side. Malcolm seemed concerned.

David looked around and saw that Diane and Maurine had settled down in some shade and were passing around a bottle of water, which seemed the most sensible plan, so he joined them. Maurine was philosophical about the delay, “Either they will show up or they won’t”. David saw the obvious flaw in this attitude. If the guides didn’t show up they would have to turn around and re-trace the seven hour trek they had just completed. After a few minutes he noticed some activity at the water’s edge. Two of the guides seemed to be lashing together a primitive raft out of some banana tree stalks. Malcolm called the group together.

 

“Right, the guides haven’t shown up. It seems that we have little choice but to try and cross”. He turned to look at the river, “Ben and I will go first, just to see how bad it is. When we get to the other side we will call back to tell you whether to try. In the meantime, the boys are putting together a small raft. If we do cross you can put your day packs on the raft, and anyone that isn’t a strong swimmer can hold onto the side”.

 

Within a few minutes Malcolm and Ben, who seemed to be an informal second in command, were wading into the river. They all stood watching as the two bodies moved farther and farther into the stream, only to be caught up and dragged in like a pair of twigs. Soon they were swimming, and seemed to be all right although they were clearly  struggling with the current. At last they could be seen crawling up on the far bank. After a brief rest they stood and started yelling, but their words were drowned out by the river’s roar.

The remaining walkers considered each other. Without a leader they were unable to make a formal decision, so without anyone saying a word, they just began moving towards the water. Just as they were entering Maurine turned to David and said “Do you think this is right?”

David did not say anything. He felt paralyzed with the danger, the responsibility. He couldn’t bring himself to assure her, or to warn. Either action seemed equally perilous. Within seconds of entering the river, however, he knew they had made a horrible mistake. He could see the others bobbing out in front of him. The banana-raft with Maurine, Diane and Nicole was quickly being dragged down stream. Several other swimmers seemed to be struggling, and it was just then that he saw what Malcolm was trying to signal, but it was too late. He felt his feet lose their grip on the river-bed, and then, as if someone had grabbed him, he was sucked out into the stream. The river spun him around and he could see Nicole looking back at him from the raft, her face full of fear. He called out “It will be..” and then he was under.

The cold water grabbed and shook him back and forth. Then all he was aware of was blackness and a deep cold force, pulling him down, down, down. The stink of the river-bed was all around him, the horrible taste of it in his mouth, as he was pulled deeper and deeper . Then it struck him, like a log or a stone floating through the water. Fear. Genuine terror gripped his mind and there was but one thought, ‘This is it, I am drowning.’

Suddenly, there was something in the water, something moving just above his head, a dark object slicing through, all the Markham’s force pushing it downstream. He tried to grab for it, but it was gone and he was left alone in the blackness. He gathered  his remaining strength and pushing his arms backwards he burst through the blackness onto the surface. His lungs burned from the taste of air, but he forced his mind to calm and discovered that his submerged journey had actually left him both far downstream and over half way across the river. He also realized that his heavy hiking boots were at least partially responsible for pulling him under. He slipped the shoes off, rolled onto his back, and pushed his way over to the rocky bank.

The group was scattered among the rocks, gasping and exhausted. One or two of the members were coughing up the black water. Malcolm approached and said “You shouldn’t have come”. David looked up “Yes, I realized that too late. We were already in the water.”

And that was when they heard it. A sound breaking through the river’s roar. Nicole, screaming “David, David, Oh my God, where is David?” was running down the river towards them. Malcolm joined her and they continued making there way among the rocks, calling the young man’s name. David stood and ran his eyes down the far bank, hoping for some sign that he had turned back. Finding none, he quickly counted the bodies that lay scattered among the rocks. Fifteen in total, someone was definitely missing.

He followed Nicole and Malcolm down the edge of the river. She never stopped screaming, and was growing more and more hysterical with every minute. After progressing half a kilometer the girl simply collapsed, weeping on the ground. David and Malcolm carried her back to the group where she was greeted by Maureen, who swept her up in a matronly hug. They all stood numb, watching the girl in her grief, and staring helplessly out at the roaring stream.

After several minutes of stillness, waiting and hearing nothing more than the river, it became obvious that there was really nothing else they could do. Malcolm announced that they should make their way to the cars that were waiting over the hill and notify the officials. The group moved slowly over the rocks towards a small path in a group of trees that marked the edge of the riverbed. As they entered the path’s opening David turned to have one last desperate look at the river. Somewhere in that roaring torrent he felt certain lay the body of the other David. A young man, perhaps struck in the head by the log or rock that he felt tumble over him while he was submerged.

He turned to head up the path and saw Maureen, bracing Nicole and almost pulling her away from the horrible scene. The scene she would never be able to erase.

As they made their way towards the waiting cars the rain descended, like a curtain falling on the scene too soon, and David’s mind began forcing an order onto it all. A horrible order, a plan, as if there was some devious force that was pulling all of the strings, to show him something. This other David, was he a sacrifice? Was this done for him? To show him something, to make him turn his back on his suffering, and loss. It all seemed so horrendous, and yet, also so perfect. Perhaps it was just the illness, the malaria, or some other form of jungle fever combined with exhaustion. But deep within him, for some reason that he was too frightened to try and comprehend, he felt a tiny glow of some new life starting to emerge.

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© 2017 Charles Freeman

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