Backpackers

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We Can Be Heroes

London, February 2014 and Chiang Mai, Thailand, 09 June 2003 and Perth, Australia, 15 January 2004

“What?” I said. “What do you mean she jumped into the river?”

“I was there, Jack.” Matt was sitting in my north London flat in an armchair, his clasped hands hanging between his legs, head nodding at the floor.

“What, and you didn’t think to fucking mention this months ago when I said I wanted to find her?”

“Mate, you said you wanted to find out what happened to her. And that’s what happened.”

“So what? She’s..? She’s dead?” I couldn’t believe it. Months of talking to people, of having to listen to them drone about their own stories, just so I could hear a few things about Cath, and what? I eventually find out that she’d committed suicide in northern Thailand. “How could you fucking do this to me? If you knew?” There were empty Coke cans on the low table in front of me. I kicked them across the room.

Matt just stayed quiet and pulled his phone out of his pocket.

“What now? Tweeting about me are you? Hashtag JakWolfIsACunt? Fuck this, you know what? I’ve been clean almost six months now. I’m back in control. I’m going out to get cunted.”

“Mate. Ja – John.” Matt put his phone down, “I was just sending an important message, that’s all. Just, can you be calm? You’re coming across as a bit angsty.”

“Of course I’m fucking angsty. She’s the only person I’ve ever sodding loved. How the fuck am I supposed to feel?”

“There’s more. More to the story.”

“What?”

“Jane wanted to be sure that you were serious. About finding Cath I mean.”

I stood up and for a moment I felt like flying at Matt, punching his face in. I could feel the anger, the rage building inside me, trying to break my control. In my mind’s eye I could see myself pummeling his face, the smug arrogant, manipulative twat. The rage let me say, “Go on.” I walked to the window, away from Matt, so that I wouldn’t do anything stupid. I’d stood at this window for months now, watching the weather strip the trees bare of life. I hadn’t noticed, but spring was coming earlier than it had when I was a kid. Maybe it was climate change. The trees outside were just breaking out into blossom.

At my back, I heard Matt shift in his seat. “I wasn’t going to let her drown you know.”

I turned, the rage vibrating, unsure what to do with itself.

“I dived in after her. She was drowning, it’s true. I mean, she can obviously swim, but she just wasn’t bothering. I dived in, swam after her and pulled her out. We took her to hospital, me and her mum.”

“And?” I couldn’t bear the tension.

“It was touch and go for a while. Her lungs were full of water and she was on life support. But eventually, yeah. She was well enough to move back to Perth.”

“Oh thank God,” I said. I had to sit down. “Thank God,” I was crying by that point. “I don’t think I could face it if...” I put my head in my hands.

“I don’t mean to be mean, John,” Matt said, “but it’s nice to see you caring about somebody other than yourself.”

“Harry says it’s an obsession,” I managed, wiping my nose on my sleeve.

“Well, I believe you, mate. It’s a shame you didn’t know at the time that her dad had died. Maybe things would’ve worked out differently. You know, in Bangkok that time.”

I was silent for a few seconds before replying, “That’s nice of you.” I looked up at him, “But I don’t think it would have. I’ve been the most arrogant wanker you can imagine. I was like that then and nothing would have changed it.”

“Well, you seem different now.”

“What happened? In Perth? You do know right? You said Cath was in touch with Jane and Sandra still.”

This was what happened.

Six months passed in tears and break downs.

Sylvie Pearson took her daughter to rape counselling, horrified at what her daughter had endured, and proud, too, at what her daughter had fought and survived.

And one day, after six months back in Perth, Cath woke up and went through her backpack. Properly, not just taking the clothes out to wash. She went through the odds and ends that backpackers collect, the bus ticket stubs and park entrance tickets and information sheets. The future nostalgia squirrelled away for a sometime rainy day.

And she found a piece of paper. Curious, she pulled it out, unfolded it and scanned the contents.

She stared at the paper and re-read it. She bit her lower lip.

Carefully folding the paper, she placed it on her bookshelf, wedged under a toy owl a friend had given her for her fourteenth birthday. She walked downstairs to the utility room where her mum was sorting through laundry.

“Hiya love,” her mum had more grey hair now. More than almost a year ago, when her dad had died. “I’m doing a whites wash,” she said, “You got anything?”

“Yeah, work shirt. I’ll get it in a mo’.”

“OK.”

“Mum?”

“Yes love?”

“Um.”

“How did these get in here? Red socks. Tch.”

“Oh those are mine. Sorry.”

“Never mind. Can you get that shirt?”

“Yeah. Er, Mum, how er...”

“What is it?”

“How would you feel if I applied to finish Uni? In Melbourne?”

Sylvie Pearson put down the laundry and rested her hand on the washing machine to help her stand up. She reached out a hand to Cath’s upper arm, “That was your dad’s favourite city,” she said, “He’d be made up. And so am I.”

“Thanks Mum.” Cath didn’t move.

Sylvie smiled at her and looked in her eyes, “Get that work shirt?”

“Sure.” Cath walked to her bedroom and somewhere at the back of her mind, the most sensitive parts of her perception buried the sound of her mum starting to cry.

In her bedroom Cath took down the piece of paper and opened it again.

You are Cath Pearson,” it read.

You are Cath Pearson. A fighter. Never you forget that.

You will never be in my debt. Your first ‘thank you’ was enough.

I want you to remember something. No matter how much time passes between our meetings, you will always be my friend. Me and the girlfriend will be in Melbourne. It would be great if you could visit us. My email address is below.

Stay in touch,

Robert x

She went to the mirror again.

“I am Cath Pearson,” she said.

Her eyes went blurry. The corner of her mouth twitched.

She blinked away a tear.

“That’s the end of it,” said Matt.

“I’m glad,” I said. I actually was. For the first time in my life, I was glad about someone else’s life. That things had started to turn out OK for them. That Cath, after trying to commit suicide, after the adventures, the highs, the lows, the conflict and the wankers she’d met on the backpacker trail, had finally faced up to life again and got on with things. “I guess she’s out there, then? Having a life? Doing alright?”

“Yeah,” said Matt.

“Good.”

“And you? What are you going to do now? The music papers mention you occasionally, wondering if you’re really in retirement.”

I shrugged, “Let them. I’ve enough money to keep me going. You know what? There’s more to life than the record industry. And my audience will always be there for me, waiting for my comeback.”

Matt stood, “Well I’m glad to hear that. Listen, time I was off.”

“Just before you go. I was so busy asking about Cath I forgot to find out how everyone was.”

“Of course. Krishna and Tom you’ve met. They’re doing OK. Did Krish tell you he went backpacking himself? Anyway, both still engineers, Tom’s married. Krish still thinks he’s a ladies’ man. Lars you talked to. Married to Sandra still, and still my Creative Director. Sandra’s about to have another kid, did she tell you?”

“No.” I started to cry again, “You know once you start being happy for other people, it just leaves you in a mess.”

“You rock stars are sensitive people when you let your guards down.”

“Everyone else OK, then?”

“Michelle’s a lecturer now, married with kids. Jude I never hear from, obviously. That’s about it, I reckon. Listen I have to be off.”

“Sure. It was... Thank you for everything Matt.” I felt awkward saying thank you to someone and actually meaning it. Life now was very different to five or six months ago when I’d tried to end it all with an overdose. My emotions were all over the place. I cried at the drop of a hat now. I did have a slight obsession with Cath Pearson, I guess. Arranging meetings and coffees and Skype calls – and even flying over to Copenhagen to meet Lars – was perhaps not normal behaviour. But I had written out all their stories and arranged them, like Harry had suggested. There had been a lot of creativity in deciding how to tell them, too. The ones from Cath’s perspective were especially hard. I’d had to put myself in her head, and to feel her emotions. It was draining, but I think I have enough of my own heartache to empathise. And now, if I could just anonymise the stories, and come up with some kind of ending I might be able to expand my career into writing. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll go back to music.

But whatever I do, I’ll always have my audience; I know they’ll always be there for me. I think I was starting to adore my audience, for the first time.

“John, it’s a pleasure.” Matt shook my hand, “Listen, I know you’re clean, dunno if you drink anymore? But if you ever want a normal night out, you know, no super models and coke, or whatever it is you lot do, just give me a ring. You’re alright, you know? Can’t promise super rich night clubs or anything.”

“You’re a good man, Matt. Yeah, it’s a plan. And I am grateful for everything. Wish I’d managed to meet Cath, but you know. I feel more settled now. I’m almost human.”

“Great.” Matt walked to the door and opened it a bit, slipping through. When he was halfway out, he popped his head back in. I was still standing by the couch. I rarely saw guests to the door. I couldn’t stand saying goodbye.

“Listen, John. One last thing before I go.”

“What is it?”

“Sorry for sending that important text message. It’s just, I was trying to arrange something.” He disappeared, leaving the door half-to. “We’ll go for a drink soon!” he called from the hallway, and I heard him tramp down the stairs, the door still open.

“Fuck’s sake, could’ve closed the door,” I said. I moved to the door and grabbed its edge. A shadow was falling on the wall outside. I peered round.

“Well,” said the shadow maker, with that characteristic rising inflection, “are you going to invite me in?”

end

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