(c) by the author
‘I think we took the wrong turn.’
Theo and Gavin contemplated the path that meandered uncertainly through a field of tall weeds. They had left the main road several miles back. The ordnance map showed that the side road eventually arrived at the lake, near the hostel where they planned to spend the night. The main road had been filled with traffic, and the walk path beside it was muddy. All too often the choice had been taking a chance on being struck by a car or becoming mired up to their ankles.
They had stood at the entrance to the side road, regarding the map and its reassuring claim that the road would eventually get them to their destination. The narrow road stretched between rows of poplars up a slight incline to the crest of a hill a half mile off. From a farmhouse near the top of the hill came the noise of a machine, a small tractor by the sound of it. The road with its hard-packed dirt surface looked dry. Their decision was made for them when a passing driver stood on his horn and cut very close to them. The wind from the car blew grit in their faces.
They turned away from the main road and began walking up the hill. As they came abreast of the farmhouse, a black dog ran to greet them, a stick in its mouth. He dropped it in front of Theo and leaned back on his hind legs with his front legs stretched out in front of him, ready to turn in any direction, his brown eyes shifting between the stick and the two of them. Theo picked the stick up and threw it as far as he could. It swung end to end through the air. The dog kept pace with it, and when it began to descend, he leaped into the air and caught it in his jaws. He whirled about, his tail wagging. He tossed the stick up with a jerk of his neck and caught it again. The noise of the machine halted, and a man walked around the corner of a building. He yelled something at the dog, who turned and ran toward him. When the man saw Theo and Gavin, he pointed down the road and shouted something at them in the local dialect.
‘Do you know what he said?’ Theo waved back at the man.
‘Something about the road ahead,’ said Gavin. ‘I think he said something about the lake.’ Gavin waved and called ‘merci’ as loudly as he could. The two of them walked on. The farmer watched them briefly and then shrugged his shoulders and returned to his work. Two miles or so further on, grass began to grow in the centre of the road and soon the tire tracks became ruts separated by a continuous hummock of grass and weeds. There had been no further houses along the road. Just the occasional opening between the poplars that led to a small turnoff and a field of grain or a grove of olives between stone walls. The road was cool in the shade of the poplars, and the rustling of their leaves only made the silence more intense. The road came to a halt at a turnaround. Ahead of them was only a path that led downward through a field of grasses.
‘I think we took the wrong turn.’ Gavin eased the pack off his shoulders. It was the first time he had been hiking. Theo had assured him that a walking tour through the south of France was easy and that he would discover talents in himself he hadn’t known existed. So far he had discovered only that he liked hotel beds and privacy and indoor plumbing and hot showers better than the pallets and the communal toilets and the fitful supply of water in youth hostels. But he kept those thoughts to himself.
Theo, who had more map-reading skills and was the more experienced hiker, consulted the map, the compass, and his watch to check how long they had been walking. ‘We’re over halfway there. Even if the path ends, we can just keep walking southeast, and we’ll eventually run into the road by the lake.’ He held the map up and traced the probably route with his finger.
‘But you’re just pointing to the road on the map. There isn’t anything like that here.’
‘This map isn’t that old. The road was here a few years ago. We be able to see where it was. Come on. It’s just another five miles or so.’ Theo shifted his back pack on his shoulders and then started down the path. Gavin watched as Theo’s legs disappeared behind the weeds that overhung the path from both sides. Only the waving of the grasses as Theo disturbed them betrayed that he still existed below the waist.
Gavin turned around and thought about the road back. He knew that even if he made it back to the main road, he would have no idea of which way to turn. He hastily pulled on his pack and hurried after Theo. He was certain they were lost and Theo didn’t know where they were. But it was better to be lost with Theo than by himself.
They almost walked past the wall. The flash of green caught the corner of Gavin’s eye and he turned to see what it was. A section of an old stone wall stuck out above a small patch of dark green plants. The wall was the first remnant of human activity they had seen along the path. ‘Oh, let’s sit down. I need to rest my feet. We can eat lunch here.’ Gavin didn’t wait to see if Theo had adopted his suggestion. He simply walked over to the wall and sat down. He unlaced the heavy walking boots and then pushed each one off with the toes of the other boot. The cooler air felt good on his feet. He nudged one of the boots with his foot, and it tipped over on its side into the green plants. A faint sharp odour filled the air.
‘What’s that smell?’ Theo placed his back pack atop the wall and sat beside Gavin.
‘I think it comes from these plants.’ Gavin bent forward and pinched a leaf off one of the plants. He rolled it between his fingers and then sniffed at it. ‘Some herb, maybe.’ He held out the crushed leaf to hand it to Theo.
Instead Theo took Gavin’s hand in his own and drew it to his face. He took a deep breath in. ‘Oh, that is nice. It smells familiar. I don’t know what it is, though.’ He kissed Gavin’s hand and held it. ‘This is the first time we been alone together in days. I wasn’t thinking ahead when I suggested we save money by staying in hostels. We’ll have to rent a room in a hotel soon.’ Theo smiled and Gavin and nibbled on his fingertips.
‘Maybe we can find a spot on the other side of the wall. We haven’t seen anyone for an hour. And there’s no one in sight. Even if someone came over that hill, it would take them half an hour to reach us. We could spread one of the bedrolls open.’
They both turned and looked behind them on the other side of the wall. ‘Oh, there are more of these plants. We could lie down among them. It would be like making love in an herb garden.’
The day was warm and bright, and it felt good to be naked beneath the sun, with the heady scent of the plants billowing around them every time they moved. They didn’t rush. It was like being in green paradise, with the plants surrounding them. When they had finished, they lay tangled in each other’s limbs.
Gavin was the first to move. He rolled over on his side and lifted his head. He moaned with satisfaction as he kissed Theo on the lips. Theo opened his eyes lazily and then let them drift shut again.
‘A penny for your thoughts,’ said Gavin.
‘I was wondering if it was too soon to tell you that I love you and would like to spend my life with you.’ Theo kept his eyes closed, and his lips barely moved.
‘No, it’s not too soon at all.’
‘Look what I found at the market.’ Theo held out a plastic carrier bag. From the top spilled a profusion of light green leaves. ‘It’s in a peat pot. The clerk said that it’s a new way to keep it fresh. This is from Italy.’ A mild peppery scent filled the house.
‘Is that basil?’ Gavin inhaled deeply and laughed. ‘That brings back such memories. But it’s never as green as that wild basil in that field, is it? Remember how we ran around naked picking as many leaves of it as we could and rubbing it against ourselves. They must have thought we were crazy bursting into the hostel with our packs stuffed with those leaves and demanding to know what it was called.’
‘You smelled of it for days. Every time you moved, I could smell the basil. I hated it when we got to that hotel and you showered and then took our clothes to the laundromat to wash. Everything came out smelling of soap. It wasn’t the same.’ Theo held the basil to his nose and sniffed at it again.
‘We were beginning to smell of more than basil by that point. And I don’t think we needed it any more.’
‘No, we were past that.’
‘Do you want to go back? We should be able to find that field again.’
Theo lifted an eyebrow in a rueful shrug. ‘That was forty years ago. Those plants are long gone by now.’
‘No, they’ve never been gone.’