I needed to catch up with Danny, my mate, my old roomie.
‘Hey, Danny, wait on. Let’s go back home…’
He didn’t falter. I heard his footsteps echoing in the passage onto the street. I made to follow but my leg wouldn’t work. I dragged it to the doorway. The outer door was ajar – left open by him as he went out. I stepped into the roadway, with a sense of relief to be out of the house. Thankfully I was starting to receive the world on a normal waveband; the crack on the knee had cleared my head. The scattered street-lights showed as clear points: no rainbows, no mergings, no dazzle. I looked both ways, hoping to catch sight of Danny. Panic set in until I spotted him passing a lamp-post, slipping through its pool of light like a spectre.
He had made some ground and was perhaps a hundred yards down the road. Although he was stockily built, Danny was a good athlete. I set off after him, but found it impossible to close the distance between us. My leg hurt. It had gone weak. I was obliged to limp in a mimicry of his listing stride. I settled for tailing him through the darkened streets, like his displaced shadow. I sometimes lost sight of him, and was obliged to stop and listen. My ears became those of a hunter, acutely tuned to detecting the uneven rhythm of his steps on the pavement. He moved with tireless purpose, ungainly but steady – going where? I didn’t recognise the streets we took, apart from knowing we weren’t heading back into the city, and, therefore, weren’t bound for home. Thanks to my friend the fly, my dosage of Matteo’s cocktail had been less than Danny’s. His trip was still happening. It had become a fugue, an end in itself. I told myself I had to keep tabs on him; I needed to wait for the effects to wear off.
Dogged and bent on my resolve, I shambled on, all sense of time lost; the only thing that existed for me was this journey through strange undifferentiated places. At a certain point, the hitherto deserted roads discharged stinking eruptions in the form of trucks, laden and ponderous, setting out to provision the day ahead. Sometimes our unforeseen presence would spook their drivers and they would exorcise us with a long jarring note on the klaxon. Indigo rinsed from the night sky. The morning star hung in the pure ether of a day in waiting, defying the sun to erase its pinpoint.
~ o ~
Danny’s pace didn’t slacken; and so we forged on, as if we were climbers roped together. We marched through the marginal fringes of the city, a territory of dumps, and yards, and odd isolated houses, the last outposts of conurbia. There was more traffic now, its proximity deafening. The gathering hubbub of the morning had no use for us in its pageant of purposive actions; it cast us as a pair of hobos, the objects of suspicious glances, even gestures of hostility or derision. Indeed, we did have a ragged look about us, and the telltale trudge of the desperate in our stride. Also, I had one foot unaccountably painted red, a warning to all I might encounter.
Towards midday, I became desperate for water. Every dip in the road before me contained a shimmering pool whose shores forever receded. I spotted a filling station in the distance: a flat-roofed bunker cowering beneath the confident yellow canopy of SAGIT, the fire-spewing lion.
The road was straight for as far as the eye could see. It was a featureless section of three-lane highway. Infrequent trucks could be seen approaching in the far distance, giving notice to stiffen against a buffeting from their slipstreams. I decided it was safe to dodge into the kiosk to get water, without losing touch with Danny.
There was an elderly lank-haired woman behind the counter, fanning herself with a magazine. It was dingy indoors, and perhaps her eyesight was poor. In any case, the incongruity of my presence caused her no pause. Her greeting as I entered – ‘Fine day for a lovely walk’ – was quite without irony.
She sold me a bottle of water from the crate behind her, but the transaction got bogged down in the search for change. There was a failure of the monetary system in the country. Coinage had all but disappeared from circulation, a conspiracy of the politicians and bigwig industrialists to ramp prices, ran one rumour. Another had it that there were now so many killings in Italy – variously ascribed to the mafia and to far-left extremists – that all the coins were getting used up: weighting the eyes of the dead. Whatever the theory, the missing coinage was a mysterious but tedious reality.
She rejected my suggestion that she keep the difference, and instead rooted around behind her for something to offer in kind. Eventually, I accepted a couple of tomatoes, a deal that left both parties satisfied.
When I re-emerged, there was no sign of Danny. Half running, weighed down by the bottle, and juggling the tomatoes, I set off up the road as best I could. Maybe there was a dip in the terrain, and I would see him climbing out the other side? However there was nothing. I covered easily half a mile, which I judged to be more ground than he could have travelled in the time; then I retraced my steps part of the way, but there was still no sign. I sat and took a long pull on the water, trying to gather my thoughts. I found I had very few, apart from being tired and thirsty. I could hear birdsong. I could hear the wind humming in the power lines beside the road.
I am not sure how much time passed. As I sat savouring the taste of the water, I was aware of a moped approaching from the opposite direction. I could see it was ridden by a youth, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old. Instead of passing me, he stopped, the motor still running.
‘We’ve got your friend,’ he said, not meeting my eye as he spoke.
‘Where is he?’ I asked, presuming he was referring to Danny, but wondering how he knew he had anything to do with me. The kid didn’t answer. He held out his hand and gave a shrug. He was a young chancer. For a moment, I thought he was trying to say they had kidnapped him.
‘Where is he?’ I repeated, standing up and approaching the moped. I must have looked a desperate type. He thought better of holding out for his fee. He made a gesture with his head, indicating back up the road.
‘I wanna see him. Take me there.’
He vacated the seat of the moped, so that I could mount it to ride tandem behind him. The machine did a struggling U-turn, and we set off up the road. Some way further on was a farm track, flanked by a ditch. It led to a quadrangle of buildings, partly hidden by a stand of cypresses.
We stopped where the track joined the main road. I saw Danny. He was lying on his back in the ditch. His head rested beside the water collected in the bottom; his feet were angled up the slope, pointing skywards. There was another kid, a bit younger than the first, wearing shorts. He was sitting watching Danny, like a shepherd boy on guard.
‘Hey, Danny, it’s Adam. Hey, man, are you OK?’ He didn’t move or answer.
With some assistance from the elder boy, I heaved him out of the ditch and got him sitting on the bank. I offered him the remains of my water, which he drank but still made no sign of recognising me. I sat beside him on the ground, waiting for him to revive and snap out of his passivity. The boys stood by, watching to see how this strange business would go.
‘Danny, we can’t stay here. We need to move. We can get some more water, then we can try and get back to town.’ I thought I could detect signs of his hearing what I was saying. I stood up, and hauled on his arm. Thankfully, he offered no resistance, but got to his feet.
‘C’mon, let’s get going. Let’s walk.’ I set off, then turned; to my relief I saw he was following me. ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ I resumed walking. The elder boy held out his hand as I passed him, a last attempt to make some profit from the episode. I proffered the two tomatoes, reasoning that they had the status of currency. However the offer was declined. His look of pity suggested he didn’t share my thinking.
~ o ~
We retraced our journey, in inverse fashion to the way we had accomplished it: I led; he followed, at a distance of twenty yards, his eyes fixed on his feet, yet never falling back or failing to mirror my changes in direction. I was weary, and so must he have been. I would have dearly loved a lift, but our dishevelled appearance made the hope unlikely.
Yet, to my surprise, we did get one ride: in a trailer hitched to a filthy tractor that blasted mud from its wheels. We sheltered in the shadow of the trailer’s boarding, among dirty sacks, sharing the space with the farmer’s deranged mutt. By the time we reached the peripheries of the city once more, we had undergone a transformation into a rankly untouchable sub-species. We rode the bus to our area of town, attracting looks of disgust from fellow passengers, in their Sunday best, heading for the swanky streets to join in the passeggiata.
I looked across at Danny, filthy and dishevelled and broken – I realised as much even then. In a way, I was looking at my own reflection: I was as filthy and stinking as he was; we both now dwelt in the wilderness of estrangement from Love. The thought returned to me: ‘What is happening – to us, all of us?’