The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 15 New Year’s Eve

A PIERCING scream tears through the night.

I hear the minibus drive away. A receding voice shouts: “I told you we’d know if you took your blindfold off.” And he laughs. It’s most definitely a male whatever Justine may choose to believe.

“Shut up!” Justine hisses. “You’ll let the others know where we are and they’ll slaughter us.” I realise that the scream was my own. I am standing about half a centimetre away from the edge of a cliff which has no apparent structure beneath it but, contrary to my earlier imaginings, there’s no beach below strewn with evidence of previous falls or otherwise. In fact there’s just a black void. Almost nothing is discernible in the dark. I can perhaps just make out the reflection from some water below, however I’m not sure. The formerly inky, though relatively clear bright sky has clouded over completely hiding the crescent moon and the stars, reducing visibility to a few feet. Help.

I wonder whether to fall flat to the ground as you would if you were trying to spread your weight on thin ice. Since the overwhelming need is to remove myself from this situation as quickly as possible, I stay upright and back slowly and steadily away from the edge until I hope there can’t possibly still be any void beneath where I’m now standing. In fact I’ve nearly reached the barbed wire fence around the grassed area atop the cliff. I see a board attached to the other side of the fence. I climb gingerly through the strands of barbed wire and reach into my rucksack for my small torch. They’ve let me keep that. The sign says: ‘DANGER. DISUSED QUARRY. UNSTABLE. DO NOT ENTER’. So not a sea cliff. Justine had said we’d be dropped at the coast but‒

“For fuck’s sake come back,” yells Justine.

“Are you mad?” I yell back.

“If we go too far from the drop off point, when we set the compass we’ll be heading in the wrong direction. Come back.”

“Surely a few feet won’t make any difference.”

“Well it might. Magnetic north varies with place and time.”

“Oh, really. OK then, you take the bearing and work out which way we should be going and I’ll join you when you’re not in danger of plummeting fifty feet. You can be the hero.”

“OK. But stop raising your voice.”

“Yeah, like you didn’t just then either!”

Justine doesn’t reply. I can make out that she’s checking some paperwork and pulling a device out of her rucksack. She told me earlier when we were changing that she has a far more sensitive compass than those handed out by the management and that it’s legal to use it.

“Legal!” I said at the time. “What do you mean legal when the whole thing’s completely outside the box.”

“Well, you know. It’s within the rules.”

“OK. I get that.”

So now I can just about detect Justine’s shape walking diagonally away from the cliff edge towards the fence further along and she’s flapping her hands at me. I squint at her and realise that she’s beckoning me. I walk along the outside of the fence to a point where our paths converge and help her through the barbed wire. She has with her an OS map of most of East Anglia. We open it and with our torches we scrutinize this together.

“Do you know where we are?” I say.

“No. Do you?”

“Not really. There are loads of quarries in this area. Probably lots of old disused ones. During the Ice Age, there were glaciers right down to this latitude and it made the ground stony in many places so‒”

“Thanks. I’ll take the geology module some other time. And for God’s sake whisper from now on. Your voice sounds like a foghorn out here.”

“You should listen to yourself.”

“Come on anyway. It’s that way.” She points directly ahead of her, folds the map roughly and takes off at a trot. I follow, looking down all the time in case of rabbit holes or other features waiting to trip me up and break one of my legs.

We run across the open field, nothing to obstruct us. It’s dark and freezing cold but the way before us is open and‒

Suddenly a high fence rears up before us. It’s about seven or eight feet tall. It’s just a black impenetrable wall. We draw nearer to it and I see that in fact it’s a hedge. Well, I think, we should be able to get through a hedge without any trouble. We stand two feet or so from it and regard it.

“Come on then,” I say.

“Do you want to get ripped to shreds?” says Justine.

“It’s just a hedge,” I say.

“Yes. A dense, hawthorn hedge.”

“So?”

“So, they’re used to keep livestock in. You know, big, strong, four-legged things with thick hides. Not small, feeble, puny female humans with skin like gossamer and‒”

“That’s really poetic,” I say.

“Well. You’d better hope that if there’s any cows with calves the other side, that they’re asleep and don’t attack thinking we’re about to harm their offspring.”

“What?”

“It’s what animals do.”

“I’ll take your word for it. So how do we get through this thing? To the other side.”

“Well, we hack our way through it, of course.”

“Impossible.”

“So what’s your suggestion then?”

“Obviously, we go round it. The hedge.”

“We can’t. You know the rules. We have to stick to the bearing.”

“OK then. Since it’s impossible to get through ‒ look at it ‒ one of us has to get to the other side and have the bearing … instrument or whatever it is handed to us by the other and then the other person has to walk round to the other side too! Simple.”

“Well it might work,” Justine says. “Go on then.”

“What, me?”

“Well it was your idea.”

“But it’s dark and cold and … OK then. But when I get to the other side you have to be there. To hand me the device. No sneaking off somewhere else.”

“Like where?”

“All right then. See you in a minute.”

And I turn to our left and walk along the side of the hedge expecting to see a gate at the corner but there isn’t one so I turn left and carry on. These fields really are pretty large. I walk to the next corner and hey presto. There’s a gate in front of me! Admittedly it’s padlocked, but I climb straight over it and turn to my right and walk on. What I’m looking for is a way back to the other side of the hedge we stopped at. Unfortunately, I soon realise I’m walking away from it. This isn’t going to work. I retrace my steps and get back to Justine who’s using a small axe she must’ve had in her rucksack to hack a way through the hedge at the point at which I left her.

“How did you know there was no other way?”

“There never is,” she says.

She’s made a small opening and we wriggle through it. My flash skiing jacket won’t recover from tonight. She checks our bearings. The way before us is open again, if impenetrably velvet black. And away from the shelter of the high hedge, there’s a strong wind. It bears us before it, pushing us along, getting more blustery and louder. The clouds are now roiling and black. I do hope there’s not going to be a storm.

Before long we come to a depression in the ground. I can’t think why I’m not freezing cold but I’m not. It really is perishing. It must be the adrenaline. We slither down the bank and step forward. I think I hear a distant rumble however the wind is whipping around the hood of my anorak and I’m not sure. It’s pitch black. I stop for a second and the sound gets louder. I feel disoriented and blunder about in the dark.

“Come on,” urges Justine. I start to cross the flat area at the bottom of the bank, trying not to trip up over some hard things on the ground. I pull out my little torch and shine it down to light my way. Moving slowly forward, I realise with horror what the hard things are as I feel a wind on my back. A fast-moving projectile roars past me. I gasp. I know immediately that it was a train going at speed. Or it certainly felt like it. I can’t imagine we could have easily gained access to a main line. It must be a branch line. But it hardly matters whether it was doing forty or eighty miles per hour if the inertia of several hundred tons of train ploughs into you. A vague moving darker patch above me tells me that Justine is safe at the top of the bank and I scramble up it in that direction.

“You nearly just got me killed.” I yell at her above the roar of the wind.

“No I didn’t. You have to look out for yourself. That’s the point of this exercise.”

“Don’t give me that shit,” I say. “You’re an adult. You know apparently what may happen and yet you choose to pretend you don’t. You’re a hypocrite.”

“I don’t think that’s helpful or constructive right now.”

“Screw you,” I say. “Have you worked out where we are yet?”

“No have you?”

“Well there can’t be many branch lines around here.”

“Perhaps it was just for freight. Anyway come on.”

And I trot towards the next open area hoping that it’ll somehow magically lead me back to the rendezvous point, or some familiar terrain. Of course it doesn’t. I just encounter bracken and briar in a thicket that feels like razor wire. Justine has a spare hand axe and we hack away at the barrier, making little impact until suddenly we break through into open ground again. We’ve been out here ninety minutes and I’m starting to be convinced that we’ll never make it through tonight, when the surface beneath me starts to sink away. It’s like soft sponge with pools of whipped cream here and there into which my feet sink six or more inches above my walking boots which squelch loudly as I pull them out. My feet feel like ice after a few such soakings. It slows down my progress substantially. I get my torch out again and look for tussocks and little mounds where the grass is taller and the footing hopefully firmer.

“Cut the light!” Justine hisses at me.

“Sod off,” I say. “I’m not prepared to die tonight in a quagmire.”

I move ahead gingerly and somehow manage to avoid any more immersions, aware of Justine to my right picking her way forward. I hope her feet have been similarly dunked in the mud. The soggy land seems to go on and on. It must come to an end soon. I’m starting to pray that it will just as the ground falls away in front of me. Oh no, I think, not another ruddy railway line.

In fact it’s not. If anything, it’s worse. It’s not quite wide enough to be a river but…

I notice that Justine is stripping off.

“You really can’t be serious,” I say.

“You’d better do the same, and pack your clothes in plastic bags before you put them in your rucksack. Water’s bound to leak into it. We’ve only covered about five miles. You don’t want to have to do the next five miles in sodden clothes.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant. I’m not going in that water at all.”

“Suit yourself,” she says. “You’ll have to go and look for a bridge at some point up- or down-stream. I’ll see you later at the campfire. Or if you don’t make it, then back at work on Tuesday.”

She’s already hoisting her rucksack back onto her shoulders and skidding quickly down the bank. I watch as most of her naked white form disappears into the dark water. She doesn’t make a sound. No squealing or whimpering at the cold. She strikes out. I can’t tell if she’s wading across or out of her depth and swimming. She looks back at me briefly. I see her white face, then it turns back towards the other side of the waterway. Very soon she’s scrambling up the bank on the far side.

I cast up and down the stream. There’s no sign of any bridge, as far as I can see at least. I consider setting out on my own back to some sort of civilisation; losing my way, being unable to find the campfire, wandering around all night until I succumb to hypothermia, dying out there somewhere, alone, desolate, friendless; never seeing Dennis and Trixie again.

Sod it I think, it’s not far across the stream. Justine is rubbing herself down with something or other and now she’s starting to put her clothes back on. I hurriedly follow suit, tear my clothes off, bag them up and before I can think about it too much, I plunge into the water. All the breath leaves my body as I gasp. Cold isn’t the word for it. It perishingly penetrates every fibre of my already freezing being and I know if I don’t get out soon, that I’ll seize up altogether. I wade and splash across the stretch of water. At one point I’m in danger of getting caught up in some long clinging weeds but I summon all the strength that the cold will allow, tear myself free and carry on.

Up on the other side, I fumble, teeth chattering, for my towel. But I have to say that, as I rub the towel briskly all over me, my skin tingles deliciously and suddenly it feels as though a furnace has fired up inside me heating up my body from the inside out and I’m no longer cold at all. One bonus of the exercise is that I get to wear my clean, dry pair of spare socks. I pull plastic bags over my feet before shoving them into my hiking boots and running in the direction Justine will have gone.

By the time I catch up with her, she’s covered several fields. The wind has died down and I become aware of a sound nearby. I realise that it’s music.

“It can’t be,” Justine mutters. “We must have at least another four miles to go.”

We pass through an opening in the hedge, over a deserted lane and our compass bearing takes us straight through a gap in the high brick wall opposite.

Dark buildings loom up around us and the music is louder here. It’s the middle of the night for heaven’s sake, miles from anywhere. Weird. Eerily, old Doris Day and Vera Lynn numbers are being belted out from inside the buildings. I worry that we’ve stumbled into some crazed psychopath’s hell-hole, a trap created to ensnare the unwary nightime traveller for what unholy purpose I can’t possibly fathom. However, a memory is forcing its way into my mind. A country ramble with the Arsehole on a hot sunny day; the public footpath passing by some deserted-looking ramshackle buildings with classical music playing inside; peering through gaps in the wooden cladding and seeing hundreds of ducks in there. The Arsehole said later that he’d heard somewhere that farmers play music to their livestock to keep them calm and quiet.

Luckily, our course tonight takes us between the buildings rather than directly through them. I start to think that this particular potential hazard has been quite easy and that we’re getting off lightly when I hear loud hissing from behind. A leaky gas pipe? A large snake? A vampire! We turn slowly to see a goose, its head down straining its neck in our direction, advancing on us. And other geese coming to join it, all hissing and, to my fevered imagination at least, spitting at us. I can see their hot breath steaming before them. Guard geese! And I see that bringing up the rear is a man in what looks like a dressing gown wielding something. Thankfully not a shotgun, rather a long pitchfork which he prods at us over the heads of the geese while grunting like a pig.

Now, I don’t know if geese are perhaps all mouth and feather-covered pyjama bottoms, the man even as well, but it seems pointless to wait and find out. Justine clearly has the same idea and, as one, we turn around and run between the buildings until we come upon a wall. It’s quite low. Perhaps it’s a boundary wall. Without bothering to check, we vault over it. Straight into a full slurry pit. I don’t know why the smell didn’t warn us. Perhaps because of the stench emanating from the buildings. The man laughs maniacally from somewhere behind us.

Whatever manner of animals was responsible for the liquid content of the pit, it’s thick and viscous and difficult to get through. It’s also quite warm as it bubbles away, methane popping up at the surface. Stumbling, I reach out for any hand-hold there may be. I have visions of myself falling into the concentrated feculence, my lungs filling with the evil substance. I take a deep breath. Mistake. The fumes make me dizzy. It must be deeper near the middle. I’m being sucked under.

For my sins, I’m going to die in this Slough of Despond.

As I come up for the third and last time I’m ashamed to know that at my funeral, people will be aware that I drowned in animal poo. Please, instead, let my tissue and bones be digested by the enzymes, my whole body dissolved and never recovered, my‒

Justine grabs me and drags me to the other side and over the wall. I cough up the worst of the unspeakable turbid mess and we put distance between ourselves and the poultry farm before we stop for a breather. My hair, my boots, every nook and cranny of my clothing, every last orifice is covered with and penetrated by vile smelling excrement. To very little effect, we roll on the cold, wet grass in an effort to wipe the worst off ourselves and our clothing. So much for my clean dry pair of socks.

“Shit!” I say.

“Very apposite,” says Justine. “We’ll just have to plunge into the sea when we get there to clean up.”

“What, even if it’s minus ten degrees?”

“Couldn’t be. The sea doesn’t freeze.”

“I didn’t say if I meant Fahrenheit or centigrade.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I allow that this is probably so.

Bickering and grumbling away, we squelch off again into the night.


WE’VE been plodding along for what seems like hours, crossing endless fields, occasional minor roads and lanes, without running up against any more difficulties. We’ve had to hack through a fair number of hedges, but of course this would be a frequently encountered obstacle if you think about it, England being a patchwork of irregularly shaped and sized enclosures since feudal times. The hedge hacking has become an accepted necessity.

We fell into silence about half an hour ago and have been doggedly pacing along. I shut up after Justine last told me that talking uses up vital energy. I refused after that to reply to any of her comments, so she accused me of being childish. Still I wouldn’t be drawn into any rejoinder. Next I was stubborn. Then I was a moron. Bloody hypocrite, I thought. But I kept my own counsel and now she’s sulking. I can just tell.

At length, I soften as I always do. I dig about in my bag and offer Justine a Mars Bar, which she accepts with ill grace, and a five hundred millilitre bottle of Martini and lemonade which she declines on the basis that alcohol causes fatigue and expands the capillaries leading to a false impression of warmth while lowering your core body temperature. This effect can, she says, lead to fatal hypothermia in cold conditions. She relates these facts in an annoyingly righteous tone.

I stowed these items away in my bag during my sleepless period in the small hours last night, together with a similarly sized plastic bottle of red wine for me. I won’t let her see that she’s succeeded in getting under my skin. I shrug, wipe my own Mars Bar and bottle on the damp cold grass, take a large swig of the wine before putting it away and we make off again munching our chocolate treats. I think I will save for later the fact that a sugar-induced insulin spike can also cause tiredness. Stuff her.

In an effort to relieve the monotony of our march across the flat, featureless, not to mention almost pitch black landscape and, if possible, to introduce a little levity, I ask her what went wrong between her and Sheila. At this, she becomes more animated, telling me in colourful language what a little perisher Samson is.

“It’s not surprising. She spoils him like mad. He nicks other kids’ toys, beats them up, has massive tantrums if he can’t get his own way and he swears like a trooper. But she won’t hear a word against him.”

I know I shouldn’t but I can’t resist teasing her just a little, after her high and mighty attitude earlier about the alcohol and the talking.

“Sounds like you were jealous,” I say. It works.

“I was not!” she stops and faces me. Then she lowers her voice. “That’s a mean thing to say. No one could put up with him. You’ve no idea.” And she stomps off. I follow.

We lapse into silence again.

It’s no wonder that those past intrepid explorers and scientists, who travelled to far flung parts (wearing wigs and frock coats if old drawings are to be believed) with a view to working out the circumference of the Earth or its weight or whether the globe is flattened at the poles or the equator and all those things we now take for granted, often used to fall out spectacularly. There are many accounts of members of teams flouncing off in a huff, or just refusing to speak to each other for months or even years. I suppose most of them had to have been pretty eccentric to begin with to undertake such expeditions in the first place given the lack of information about the natural world, the absence of any support structure, the uncertainty whether they’d ever return. A bit like those people who volunteered to go on the first trips to Mars. One-way trips of course. Videos of some of them were shown on the TV giving reasons why they wanted to do it and I can’t say that they necessarily all looked or sounded totally balanced and‒

Our way is suddenly barred by an open area of water. A pond. Actually a mill pond as I see the vague shape of a building and a large waterwheel. The expression ‘as calm as a …’ certainly doesn’t apply here. The wheel is turning quite quickly and the water is churning and foaming as it’s forced through into the mill pond before us. It’s been raining quite a lot in recent days, therefore no doubt there’s plenty of flow from upstream to keep the wheel going. The waterwheel is being driven by presumably the current coming from the other side since the wheel rotation is away from us as far as I can make out in the gloom. About the bottom third of the wheel is in the water and the top quarter or so disappears into the building.

I notice Justine fiddle with something and, looking down, I see that it’s the compass which is pointing directly at the wheel.

“No,” I say. “No, no, no. It’d be utter madness. You’ve no idea what’s up inside that building, whether there’s any clearance above the wheel. You could be crushed to death!”

“No, we could be crushed to death,” she corrects me.

“No way! I’m not doing it. It’s suicide. You do it if you must but I reckon this thing has gone far enough. There are limits. You’ve got to be sensib‒”

But she’s already wading in. She hasn’t even bothered to strip off this time. She must think we’re very near the end by now and of course our stinking clothes are hardly worth preserving. My old wind-up watch with luminous hands and numbers which I put on for tonight which I was allowed to keep and which incredibly is still working tells me that it’s three in the morning. If it were summer, dawn would be breaking by now but in mid-winter, dawn is still many hours away. However the strong wind earlier has blown away the clouds and the sky is clear again, stars still twinkling and the moon to the west still well above the horizon. We are going in the opposite direction. East.

I swallow as I see Justine battling against the current to reach the wheel. Her rucksack must surely impede her, weigh her down. I gasp as I see her make a grab for the wheel with one hand but she fails to gain any purchase and she’s pushed back by the force of the turning wheel. I hope she hasn’t been hurt already. Her next attempt is similarly unsuccessful. Finally I see her bouncing up and down in the water and I realise that she’s trying to get some height for the next attempt. Won’t work, I think. The wheel must be treacherously slippery. Justine bobs up again just as a paddle is passing and launches herself at it with both arms this time and incredibly she manages to get her arms around the paddle. My heart is in my mouth as I watch Justine disappear into the bowels of the building.

“Watch out your rucksack doesn’t get caught on anything,” I yell, knowing she won’t hear me. I picture the rucksack getting hooked over some cog or other contraption as Justine herself is being propelled away from it, her arms being wrenched from their sockets, the top of her head being sliced off by a sharp protrusion, her legs getting broken and mangled.

I think I hear a scream. I can’t be sure. It spurs me into activity and I run both ways, trying to find a route past the mill building and the water. I have to go out onto a road. The road is narrow and winding and thickly overhung with trees both sides. I run along it until I spot an opening to my left which should take me back to the stream somewhere on the other side of the mill. I force my way through undergrowth between trees into an open area. The mill building is now to my left with the fast-flowing stream in front of me. The terrible thought strikes me that the turning wheel and the strong current may have taken Justine under the water back again to the millpond on the other side. In my mind’s eye, I see a floppy rag doll floating away across the millpond. The image is very vivid. I have to do something.

I run towards the building and, blessedly, I see a shadowy shape huddled on the grass against the blackness of the building. It’s gasping a little but it stands up on seeing me. Its face is covered with a dark liquid which looks suspiciously like blood and its clothes are ragged and torn. Nevertheless, it smiles widely at me and, unaided, walks in my direction.

“Thank God Justine. You’re all right. Well…” I examine her face and see a nasty cut on her forehead, the source of the blood.

“We’d better clean that up and get a bandage on it,” I say.

“Not likely,” she says. “You’ve obviously forgotten that all our stuff has been covered in crap. I don’t want to die of blood poisoning thanks. Don’t fuss. It’ll soon stop bleeding.”

I aim my little torch at her and look more closely. I see that indeed the blood is already congealing around the wound. She flaps me away.

“Does it hurt much?” I say. “You must have hit it hard on something. You might have concussion.”

“Stuff that,” she says. “Nearly drowning was the most difficult bit. I almost got pulled under at the bottom of the water wheel. I only just managed to catch hold of a bolt or something sticking out of the wall and hang onto it for dear life and then I found some others and hauled myself out of the water. Otherwise I reckon I’d be dead now.”

“Well, there’s a little wooden bridge just along the stream,” I say. “We can cross over there. Come on then if you think you’re OK.”

“I’m fine. A near-death experience is always reviving.”

We walk on. “You’ve had one before then have you? A near-death experience?” I’m dubious about that.

“Oh, quite a few,” she says airily. You can’t win with Justine.

I go ahead of her at the bridge. It’s only one person wide. It has steps at both ends, quite slippery with algae or something. Justine stops to tighten her bootlaces so I’m over the other side before she steps onto the bridge. I look ahead and I’m not sure, but I think I may see smoke in the distance with the orange glow from a fire beneath it. My spirits lift. It could be our destination. If it is, then we would should start to encounter others with unfriendly‒

I hear a bit of a commotion from behind and Justine screams shrilly. Turning, I see that she’s on the ground on her back, nursing one bent leg with both her arms. She’s groaning as though in great pain.

“Stop messing about,” I say. She doesn’t reply so I go over.

“OK,” I say, “I know I’m obviously pretty credulous, but you can’t fool me now. Look we’re almost there. Come on. Get up and get moving.” I kick her leg gently with my foot. She screams again and I draw back a step.

“I’ve broken my leg,” says Justine. In fact she’s sobbing.

“You can’t have. You’ve just come through a waterwheel largely unscathed. How then?”

“I came down the steps too quickly and slipped.” She says this between gasps.

“Yes but … I mean … it’s ridiculous.”

“For God’s sake stop pissing about. It’s bloody agony.” She stops and whimpers. “Don’t you know that more accidents are caused in the home by people falling down stairs than anything else. Stairs and steps are lethal.”

I shake my head. It’s completely barmy. “All right then. Can you get up and walk?”

“Oh, yeah. Course I can. I’m ready to run a half-bloody-marathon. What do you think!” Tears are coursing down her face, washing some of the blood away. I can’t believe this is happening.

“Er, right then. I’d better go and get help. Will you be OK here on your own?”

“I’ll have to be.”

“All right then,” I say again. “Try to keep quiet in case any of the others hear you and come and do something to you.”

“Gee thanks! Just hurry. Please.”

“D’you want to be left with the Martini and lemonade?”

She nods and I hand it to her. I fish about in her rucksack for one of the hand axes.

I take off. Needless to say the ground is uneven and humpy and I keep tripping up. I start to see some others and they see me. Like a mother bird I hope I’m drawing them away from Justine and I reach for the knife in my pocket. It comes out with about a pint of faeces. I brandish it in one hand and the axe in the other.

I carry on running and soon there are some people only yards away from me as we race towards the orange glow of the bonfire. A man, I think it’s a man ‒ it’s big anyway ‒ cannons into me but fails to floor me. He then tries tripping me up. I swing my axe at him, but he backs off, a look of disgust spreading over his face. He doubles up coughing and retching. I had been about to rush him, knife and axe held aloft while emitting a loud roar. But there’s no need. “Oh, God!” he groans as he frantically brushes faecal material from his clothing. He reels away from me holding his nose. I seize my opportunity and run on. Others however take no notice of me. In fact they redouble their efforts to beat me to the finishing line. Justine and I must’ve been ahead of the field. If the silly cow hadn’t gone and injured herself in such a thoughtless, negligent fashion, we’d probably have won.

Damn! I hadn’t realised I cared. But of course we wouldn’t have won anyway. We’d have been disqualified by my not going through the waterwheel. I run on hoping, in view of what Justine said before, that the organisers won’t heartlessly ignore my pleas for assistance. If so, I’ll tell them I’m a solicitor and threaten to sue them. That’s bound to make them quake in their boots. I don’t think. I’ll just have to think of something.


HURRAH! It’s over! We’ve done it. It’s finished and we’re both still alive. The event is a lot better organised at this end than Justine indicated it would be. OK, there’s the huge campfire and heavy metal belting out from some speakers. But also there are large tents offering different food and beverages. The booze is mostly homebrew, however it’s not just a dive-in-and-drink-as-much-as-you-like affair. People are serving the booze and ensuring no one has too much. They determinedly offer coffee after a few pints. There are loads of people here, all hyped up and in high spirits; everyone’s so relieved it’s over. There are a few walking wounded though not many.

There are also older people, quite a lot of them, who didn’t do the orienteering tonight. They are previous contenders who so enjoyed their experiences in earlier years that they’re prepared apparently to cough up the full one-fifty just to be here on New Year’s Eve.

Further, there is a campervan except it’s not a beaten up old Volkswagon. This is a super-big long shiny white motorhome, wherein Justine is, even now, being attended to by Dr. Phil. When I arrived on the beach breathless, filthy and in a panic, the organisers wasted no time despatching two men with a stretcher to the mill according to my directions, one of whom was Dr. Phil. I just hoped at the time that he was a real doctor and not some fringe medical practitioner, a quack who would try to treat her with crystals, joss sticks and chanting.

Notwithstanding, I was so relieved to have the problem taken from me that, after making a few enquiries about any spare garb on offer, I threw off my stinking attire and raced into the sea. By gum it was perishing, but I’d been mightily impressed by my inner heat asserting itself after my immersion in the stream earlier on. I think I could get hooked on this cold-water swimming. It starts a trend and others do likewise and soon the sea is full of hooting, cheering, naked people jumping up and down.

Having washed the animal dung off my body and out of my hair and every little other crevice, and having vigorously towelled myself dry, I am now togged out in a ski suit issued to me, one of the old-fashioned all-in-one sort. It’s obviously ‘pre-loved’ but it’s clean and ideal for the situation. OK you have to more or less strip off every time you go to the toilet (or you do if you’re a woman), but I’m warm and toasty inside it and I now feel up to going to the medical van and seeing how Justine is getting on.

Pretty well it transpires. Dr. Phil has got her cleaned up and into a bathrobe. She has steri-strips across the gash on her forehead. He’s splinted and set her leg and is binding it up thickly with gauze. As I enter after knocking, he looks up at me and smiles. Beatifically. Like an angel. I of course return the smile and say hello but I’m fascinated by his appearance. The first word that springs to mind is ‘ladyboy’. He has short hair and isn’t wearing makeup or jewellery or anything like that. But his eyes are large, his features are feminine and his skin is smooth. Is he I wonder a transvestite, or just a cross-dresser even.

My internet service provider always opens with news items, if you can call them that. Some are serious news but there’s lots about Katie Price and Kim Kardashian and their ilk, and their uninspiring goings-on. One day recently it opened with an item about love dolls. I’d heard of sex dolls but never love dolls. Intrigued, I looked them up on google and they were astonishing. Silicone full-sized, lifelike models of beautiful girls in skimpy clothing and all sorts of poses. You could just see the mould lines down the legs or arms of some of them. Without going into detail, they were said to be fully anatomically accurate. They were ludicrously expensive, though, I reflected, possibly cheaper than a proper girlfriend.

Further searching brought up male versions which weren’t so lifelike as they seemed to have been adapted from the female ones but with bigger muscles and short hair. They had large eyes and smooth faces like this Dr. Phil and so they looked rather strange. Like Dr. Phil does. However the effect he appears to be having on Justine is dramatic. Allowing for the fact that he may have administered morphine or some such to get her on the stretcher and back here to the trailer, she seems totally fixated on Dr. Phil. She’s gazing up at him raptly as he gently carries on binding up her leg, explaining that he can’t put it in plaster since she ought to go to hospital and have it X-rayed to make sure it’s been set properly. He will, he says, take her himself quite soon in the motorhome once he’s been round and checked that no one else needs medical attention.

Probably unsurprisingly I suppose, his voice sounds like Julian Clary though his manner isn’t obviously at all camp. Well now, I think, Justine could do worse. I’m having a lot of fun though and decide to stay on myself. I haven’t had my full share of homebrew and the full English breakfast is yet to be served. Everyone’s friendly and wants to dance with everyone else. Now I’m here, I want to see this thing through to the end.

I ask Justine if she minds. She tears her eyes from Dr. Phil for a second, shakes her head and tells me sweetly to enjoy myself. The transformation is incredible. It has to be love. If I were to tag along with them, I feel I may well be de trop. I check out Dr. Phil’s left third finger and see no ring. I cast an eye over him again. He is looking at Justine. He puts out a hand, actually quite a masculine hand, and smooths her hair. It looks promising. We’ll have to await developments.

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