Just as we get to the half-way point of the climb up Ben Nevis, the rains come down—a torrential downpour. My feet ache in my new boots and my hands are freezing. Barry, our guide, indicates we should start our descent. I continue plodding upwards.
Jane catches my wet sleeve. "There's always another day, Alison." She's using the same big-sister calming voice she's used since we were kids. "We won't see anything from the top anyway. Not in this weather."
"There isn't another day," I tell Barry. "We have to be in Edinburgh tomorrow. We’re catching a flight to Singapore."
"’Malicious mountain’," Barry says. With broad shoulders and a solid build, he seems almost a part of the mountain. He peers at us, his face a blur through the wall of water. "That's what Ben Nevis means in Gaelic."
I adjust my hood. "I thought you said it meant 'mountain with its head in the clouds.' "
Barry laughs and gestures heavenward. "Things change, don't they?"
Heads down, we slowly work our way back to where we'd started. Greg would never have given up because of a little rain; he'd have stayed with it, made sure he reached the top. Had he realized he'd put a malicious mountain on his list?
Back at the hotel, Jane watches me hunt in my suitcase for Band-aids to cover my blisters.
"Poor dear Greg would never have believed his eyes," she says. "You climbing a mountain."
Why on earth had Mother made her come with me? I'd wanted to be alone. With Jane tagging along, I feel like a delinquent schoolgirl.
Jane doesn't approve of what I'm doing—she thinks I'm being ghoulish. I keep trying to explain but can't seem to make her understand that, from the moment I'd found the list in Greg's desk, I knew this was something I had to do. Sixty-three things he'd dreamed of seeing and doing but now never would. All because of a freak accident, because of a derelict old building that should have been demolished years ago. If only he'd gone somewhere different for lunch after morning clinic. Or taken a different route back to the clinic. That wouldn't have stopped the cornice from collapsing—it would have come down anyway. But he wouldn't have been there, on the sidewalk right at that very moment. No chance for him to say, Hey, wait a moment. Hold on. Not yet, I'm not ready—I've still got stuff to do.
“If I live his list for him,” I tell Jane, “it would—”
"It would what?" she asks. Her look is always so full of pity that I can never remember what I wanted to say.
"Funny thing to write on a van," I point out as we leave the restaurant that evening, making our way along the cobbled street back to the hotel. I try walking so my shoes don't touch my sore feet. Jane looks at the white van. "See? 'Donne and Must, Survivors'."
"Surveyors." Jane turns to me. "That's what it says."
I can't help laughing. I long to pop my blisters, but know that will only make things worse.
On to number twenty-three.
At the top of the wide steps leading to the ornate yet worn red and gold doors of the temple, I'm told to avoid the snakes with a red dot on the head. Or maybe it's the ones without a red dot that are defanged. I forget as soon as I'm told.
I peer into the shadows, my eyes still adjusting from the bright sun outside. At first I see no snakes. The ones I finally manage to make out are motionless, and for a second, I wonder if they are plastic replicas to satisfy demanding tourists.
I know what Greg would have done. I ask the attendant in the temple to choose a snake that is safe for me to hold. He tells me they only bite if they're frightened. Or if they smell certain foods on you.
"Green tea and toast," I say. “That’s what I had for breakfast.”
His whole body straightens and I see he is much younger than I'd thought. His smile is dazzling, and his eyes dance with surprise and laughter in the same way Greg's would when I made some comment that he found hilarious. What was it I'd said that very first time we met?
I'd been with my friend Lynn, coming out of an exam I was sure I'd failed.
"Forget it. Too late now," she said when I asked her how she'd answered one of the questions. "I'm starving. I could eat a horse."
"But you're vegetarian," I'd objected, my mind still on the exam. The lanky guy walking just ahead of us had stopped and turned around. He grinned at me, his brown hair flopping over his forehead. "I'm Greg." He held out his hand.
"I meant rats or mice." The young snake-handler’s smile lingers.
It's not that the snake is slimy—surprisingly, it isn't. What I don't like is its flicking tongue and the way it swims through its skin in coils and loops so one doesn't know which bit will move next, or where.
Jane didn't come with me. She said she wanted to make sure of our train tickets back to Singapore as there was bound to be a problem if we left it to the last minute. In any case, poor dear Greg wouldn't have expected her to worship snakes just because he wanted to. If she says poor dear Greg one more time, I might have to throttle her. I think she'd prefer me to sit at home and draw the curtains and put a black cloth over the mirrors like people did in the old days.
"You don't have to do everything on the list," she said before I'd left for the temple. "Just pick the ones you like."
"That's not the point," I told her.
I catch sight of the gun as I climb into the Land Rover.
"For emergencies," the tracker says, pulling away from the hotel entrance before I can climb out again. I tumble into the seat behind him, Jane falling on top of me. As we right ourselves, she nudges me with her elbow—a sharp, painful nudge that says how exactly did you find this guy? She tries to strike up a conversation, but he's clearly not one for chitchat. I glare at the back of his Tilley hat, at the wisps of yellow hair and weather-roughened neck between it and his khaki t-shirt. He'd never have ignored Greg in this off-hand way, but then Greg would probably have been over at his house within five minutes of meeting him, asking his mother about her bunions, his wife about her stomach ailment, and checking the kids for scurvy, or whatever dread disease they have in these parts. And—out of nowhere—he'd have somehow rustled up a ball and everyone would be playing soccer.
We drive for several hours. The tracker peers to his right and left as we bump along. He finally finds a spot that satisfies him and without a word, comes to a stop and turns off the ignition. We sit in silence in the still African heat.
A touch on my arm. Greg? I am instantly awake. But it's Jane's face just inches from my own. Before I can open my mouth to tell her to leave me alone, the tracker is between us, his finger against his lips. Two reflections of myself—one in each lens of his sunglasses—look at me, mouths agape. He points behind me. Elephants—dozens of them—stream across the bush, through the trees.
They travel silently, slipping by like grey shadows, despite their tremendous size and mass. Yet there is nothing shadowy about their unwavering commitment to their path, to the direction they are heading in.
"Did you know," I ask Jane, sawing at the chicken we'd both ordered for supper later that night, "that when an elephant dies, the rest of the herd gather round the body, and gently touch it with their trunks and feet?" Outside comes a howl from the dark. The candles flicker on the table. "And when they pass that way months or even years later, they'll pause at that very spot?" The chicken is tough—I’m still sawing.
Jane puts a forkful of chicken into her mouth. "I'm flying home at the end of the week."
"Home?" I stare at her. "Why?"
"It's not me you want here."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Living the things Greg wanted to do. It's like you're trying to summon him. It gives me the spooks."
"That's nonsense. You make me sound like some sort of crazy—"
"You're not enjoying this any more than I am," she interrupts. Her cheek bulges from the wad of meat and I remember—it must be thirty years ago at least—when we'd been confined to our shared bedroom with mumps for a week. Strange to think that little house in Toronto no longer exists, that it's now part of a block of fancy condos. From our bedroom window, we'd shout to passersby please, please, rescue us! We're being held prisoner! Then we’d collapse on our beds, shrieking with laughter while the neighbors stopped in our front yard, craning their necks to see through the leaves of the maple that shaded our window.
"I loved seeing the elephants today. Greg would have loved them, too."
"These aren't things you want to do. You've always hated hiking and climbing mountains, even when we were kids. Why not make your own bucket list? Why not do things you love doing before you—"
"I just said I loved seeing the elephants." I pop a piece of chicken in my mouth and start chewing.
"Oh, come on, Alison. You know you've never been an animal person. Don't you remember on my birthday when you tried talking me out of a puppy because you were afraid it would poop in our bedroom?"
What a stupid thing to say. What does not wanting a puppy when I was a kid have to do with enjoying watching elephants cross the bush? I glare at her, but my mouth is too full to say anything. We sit chewing in silence.
Make my own list? What would I put on it? I can't think of anything. Summon Greg? She makes it sound like we're at a Victorian séance. Ridiculous. My jaw aches. Would this chicken never disintegrate? Is it totally indestructible? I look up to see Jane bent over, her face buried in a paper napkin.
"Whatever that was, it certainly wasn't chicken." She sighs with relief at having gotten rid of the lump of food. She drinks all the water in her glass, looks at me and looks away. I chew on, glowering at my plate. She refills her glass from the carafe, stares around the room, fiddles with her spoon, glances at me again. I can see her lips twitching. She bites her lower lip. "Remember when we had mumps? How furious Mother was when Mrs. Trenholme, that nosy old bat, came to tell her we'd tied our sheets together and were climbing out the window?" A squeaky snort bursts from her and then she can't stop laughing. "For heaven's sake, Alison," she says, seizing my napkin from my knees and holding it out to me. "Just spit it out."
Without a second thought, I sign the release form saying the company is not responsible in case of death or injury. But when the plane door opens, I just can't do it. I can't jump. Jane, who'd looked more than a little queasy when I'd told her I'd booked the highest jump as Greg would have done, slips out as easily as if she's been skydiving all her life. The plane banks and circles again—and again—over the drop zone for me.
Alan, the instructor, tries to pry my fingers away from the door-frame. My harness is attached to his, and he's so close behind me that I can feel his sinewy body ready to jump. He's older than Greg and jumps out of planes several times a day.
As we made our way over to the plane, I asked him which he thought was most dangerous, jumping out of a plane or walking along a city street.
"I'll look after you," he said with a bland blue smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I've been doing this for a long time."
My hands are still gripping the door-frame. He stops pulling on them and tells me to breathe.
"I am breathing."
"You don't know what breathing is," he says.
I glare at him over my shoulder. "Don't be stupid! I'm alive, aren't I? I wouldn't be here if I wasn't breathing."
A gleam in his eyes, just inches from my own. He grins and I let go.
The wind buffets my face and body into a rippling rubber mask. A blur of sun, blue sky and desert way, way below. A jolt as the parachute opens. Then calm—almost nothingness. Down we drift.
Jane wants to jump again. On her own. Her hair sticks on end, her face is bright pink, and she's grinning like a kid who's just tasted sugar candy for the first time. I want nothing more than a long soak in a hot, foamy bath.
It's odd Greg never told me about wanting to jump out of a plane. I wonder when he started the list. Before we met at the university? Or long before then?
If push came to shove would he really have done everything on his list, or had he just been dreaming? Was it easy to make a list and simply put it away? I lie on the bed in the hotel room, and long to talk with him, to be with him.
On our first holiday together, we'd missed a flight from San Francisco back to Toronto and couldn't book another until the following day.
"Might as well make the most of it," Greg had said, and we'd jumped into a taxi and blown the last of our holiday money—and nearly half of the next semester's food budget—on one night at a five-star hotel. We examined everything in the room: the little soaps, the bathrobes, the safe at the back of the wardrobe (though we didn't have anything to put in it). Then we threw ourselves onto the bed that was twice the size of any either of us had ever slept in. We lay together, legs entangled, his arm holding me close, gazing at the sparkling ocean stretched out at our feet.
"How did we get to be so lucky?" Greg murmured.
"Shush! You're tempting fate," I said.
He laughed and kissed me. "Come on, Alison, you know it doesn't work like that."
I'd thought jumping would be easy, that I'd hurl myself out of the plane without a second thought. Why should I care? But I'd clung on for dear life. I'd only let go because a semi-cute guy had grinned at me. Why did I jump for him? That wasn't what I'd wanted.
Originally from England, Susi Lovell worked her way around the world as stable-hand, ski-bum, secretary, orange picker, conference organizer, market researcher, before settling in Montreal. She has taught, performed and choreographed dance and physical theater for almost thirty years, and written on dance for The Montreal Gazette. http://susilovell.com.