That night they insisted on hitching to The Selous Star again, however. Cue a repeat performance, but this time Roberto and ‘darling Dino’ stayed the night. Lindsay went to bed and locked herself in her room. Sabrina and Bubbles spent the following day, after the guys had finally left, doing their nails and comparing conquests. That night, Saturday, the guys came and picked them up to go dancing. Lindsay stayed at the cottage: home alone; her own hollow Hollywood joke made at her own expense.
This morning, before dawn, she'd put on her shorts and boots, packed her rucksack with provisions, taken her compass and map, and left the cottage at first light. She was going to climb Nyoka Mountain.
The Italians' hired Toyota Hi-Lux was parked in the yard.
It was a long walk to the base of the mountain - not always visible from the faint path that Lindsay followed through the bush and Msasa woodland. The summit was an outcrop of igneous rock, produced by ancient volcanic activity. From a certain angle it was said to resemble the head of a serpent. That was how it got its name: Nyoka meant snake in the Shona language. The map showed a path running up its western face. All Lindsay had to do was follow that path.
By the time she got to the base of the mountain the path had disappeared, reclaimed by the relentless creep of vegetation like a cut scabbed over. It was mid-morning and the sun was high and searing in a cloudless blue sky. Lindsay followed the map as best she could, 'bhundu bashing' her way through tall grass and plants which snared her ankles. There were scrubby trees and savagely spiked cacti but no shade. After an hour or so of tough going, Lindsay rested by a babbling stream, drank a little water and filled her canteen. Saving the fruit for later, she ate some macadamia nuts from her provisions and reapplied the sun-cream that had washed off her face in rivulets of sweat. She lay back and shielded her eyes with her arm.
Sabrina and Bubbles. Why had they come?
It hadn't been easy to ask them. Lindsay was used to not having friends at school, familiar with being the odd one out. She didn't expect anything else. Though she was involved in sports, pretty damned good at the academic stuff, even if she did have to say it herself, and not antisocial, she wasn't popular. She didn't fit in. She was neither a maverick nor an outcast, just peripheral. It didn't bother her anymore, not really. She'd found a place, an island within herself.
Then, just this term, in Upper Sixth, Sabrina started to talk to her. They hung-out at break times, did A-level prep together. And, of course, where Sabrina went, so went Bubbles. But that was okay. Try as she might to help, though, Lindsay thought that Bubbles’ potential for any exam of success was extremely limited. Sabrina might just make it, if she could only keep her attention on a subject and not be distracted by make-up, gossip, dieting, boys... Most anything, really.
Both girls had been enthusiastic when Lindsay shyly proposed walking in Nyanga for the holidays. Sabrina thought it ‘a Mega scheme with a capital Meg’. ‘Anything to get away from the Wrinkly Ps’, Bubbles said, meaning her parents. Which was about the closest she came to expressing enthusiasm. Yet, once here, neither girl had taken a step outside the cottage except to go ‘man-trapping’ at The Selous Star. Yesterday afternoon, Sabrina had sneered at Lindsay's suggestion that they leave Bubbles with her copy of Cosmo and her violet nail polish and at least investigate the immediate surroundings.
‘What for? It’s just trees and bugs. And blacks. What if we met a gang of blacks?’
At once the most terrifying and titillating of prospects.
The sounds of the day drifted in to keep Lindsay company: bird-calls, crickets, the faint scurry of leaves disturbed by the wispiest of breezes. She watched a large black and yellow butterfly flit past. A Scarlet-chested Sunbird settled on a Protea nearby and busied itself extracting nectar. A Bataleur eagle swept lazy over the landscape, circling low enough for Lindsay to make out the red shock of its mask. This is what she'd come for. This is what she'd wanted to share with Sabrina.
Two hours later, ‘Nature’ seemed much less idyllic. Lindsay was lost and no matter how she turned the map or aimed her compass, she couldn't find a way out of the tangling undergrowth that beleaguered her. She couldn't even see the way she'd come: her tracks had been consumed as if she'd never been. The lowering grey face of the mountain no longer expressed a challenging invite. The noises from the bush no longer thrilled and encouraged her. She tried striking off in different directions, but each time she faced an impenetrable barrier. Thorns raked her, blackjacks stuck to her clothing, spiky seed pods prickled through her socks. She had to remove three ticks from her bare legs. Eventually, she gave up and sat down in the scant shade of a stunted Msasa. Tired and afraid, she fought back the feeling of panic that threatened to engulf her along with the jungle. Lost and alone, disaster compounding disaster. After a while, something caused her to look up.
A boy was watching her.
Rather, he wasn't watching her. He stood about a dozen paces away, chewing on a stalk of grass and looking away from her, towards the mountain. An African boy, hatless and bare-foot. He wore an old pair of blue jeans with the knees out and a faded olive T-shirt with no sleeves. Lindsay summoned all her exclusive public-school resolve, wiped tears she hadn't noticed from her eyes, and stood.
'Is there a path up the mountain?' She heard her voice, small and edgy, pathetic, yet still inflected by precedence. The boy didn't answer, didn't look at her, but pointed to the South, away from the glare of the sun. Lindsay picked up her pack.
'Can you show me?'
The boy dropped his stalk of grass and began walking in the direction he'd indicated. Lindsay followed. They climbed steadily, the boy somehow finding a path of sorts. He kept his distance of a dozen or so paces in front of her, moving easily, almost silently. Whenever she tired and needed a breather, he seemed to sense it and stopped to wait. After some time, they emerged from the bush. The grass gave way to rock and they made their way between implausibly balanced stands of boulders. If you studied them, there were huge recumbent abstractions of women, men hunched in postures of deep introspection, children's faces, megalithic animals... It was as though Henry Moore, whom Lindsay had enthusiastically learned about in Art, had been given carte blanche to sculpt the terrain.
An occasional tree somehow flourished, growing wherever there was the slightest of fault-lines in the rock. There were mountain flowers, myriad reds and vibrant purples. Krantz aloes prospered. Here and there a spectacular candelabra tree grew. A cabbage tree sprouted impossibly from the rock face. Lindsay squeezed its pale, corky bark as she passed. The vegetation was primal, totally disconnected from an age of four-by-four cars and holidaymakers.
It was stunning.
Lindsay stopped for a drink of water and the boy stopped too, leaning against a boulder, not looking back. Lindsay watched him as she drank from her canteen. He must be around seventeen, a year or so younger than her. It was difficult to tell. She hadn't had the chance to study his face, only caught the odd glimpse. He had long lashes that whispered over his eyes like a child's. There wasn't a spare ounce of flesh on his body. His fine frame was enfolded only by muscle and tendon, sheathed with skin: velvet skin, the colour of dark chocolate. Lindsay had watched him move: the sinuous flow of his back, his legs, his buttocks. Lithe. Lindsay swallowed harder than water. She should send him back, tell him she could manage from here. But she couldn't. Then she should back-track; it was getting late. She shouldn't be up here when night fell. Alone.
'Would you like some water?' she asked. He turned his head slowly and looked straight at her, his face expressionless. There was a kindness about the eyes, though. And an incongruous wisdom, beyond his years; beyond her. The boy didn't answer but put a finger to his lips, turned and pointed.
'A Milkwood tree?' Lindsay confirmed and queried at once. What was the big deal?
The boy turned to face her, meeting and somehow redirecting her gaze. He continued to point at the tree with its spreading branches and dark, luxuriant foliage. A parasitic red creeper gave its host a flowering crimson crown.
'So wh...' Lindsay began.
But then she saw it, flattened along a stout branch, one front leg hanging down. Frame by frame she pieced it all together, discerning its distinctive coat from the dappled shadow pattern of the leaves. She saw its tail trailing along the branch. Lindsay drew a sharp but silent breath. The harder she stared the more impossible it seemed.
Though the space stretched and expanded for the image to imprint itself forever on her memory, there was really only a heartbeat to take it all in. As she gaped, the leopard’s eyes opened - sending an electric thrill coursing through Lindsay’s entire body. The end of its tail flicked and flickered. For an instant the creature looked straight at her, the amber peril of its eyes. Then it languidly undid itself from the tree, of which it had seemed such an integral part, and slid to the ground, soundlessly, raising not the slightest puff of dust. In a few unhurried, silky movements it made the cover of the bush. Lindsay exhaled, heard herself breathe, was aware of everything.
Absolutely everything tingled.
One hundred percent alive.
The boy detached himself from the rock and gestured for her to follow. He climbed away to their left, skirting the Milkwood tree. Hurriedly, clumsily, gathering her pack, Lindsay followed, glancing back often towards the tree and the place where the leopard had been absorbed into the earth. Her legs were jelly.
The boy did not pause to allow her to rest again, however, maintaining a steady pace up the mountain. Lindsay didn't try to speak, wasn't sure she still had a voice. Her tongue sensed her mouth as an arid, barren cave. After about an hour of pursuing a rocky, zigzag route they reached the summit. It was flat, smooth rock, almost bare. The sun was beginning to sink into a council of mountains, magnificent beyond human sculpture. Shadows stretched across the plane, settling for the night. The whole of nature seemed to yawn, wondrously weary. Sabrina and Bubbles would be doing their make-up, painting themselves to be picked up and taken out to the hotel. Lindsay sat down to watch the sunset paint the sky purple and navy, red and orange. The amber of the leopard's eyes. Too late to think of going back tonight. The African boy settled on his haunches only a few yards away, turned aside, selecting a dry stem of grass to pluck and chew.
But he accepted the apple Lindsay offered.