Beyond the shipping container sat a group of small lorries and utilities daubed with house paint, waiting in phlegmatic silence for the inbound men, representing the human presence absent from the view through her dirty window during their descent. She discerned at a glance that none of the vehicles were intended for her; several of her fellow passengers looked back at her solitary presence on the runway, even more suspicious of her in retrospect. Susan turned from their scowls and sat down on her pack, contenting herself with a view of the hills.
The wind in her ears began to replace the ghosting sound of the propellors that had laboured alongside her, sweeping the smell of mist and unfamiliar trees along the ground, the two elements crowding the walls of the valley around her and the sky overhead. Her water bottle tasted stale and clunked as she squeezed it idly, loathe to empty it onto the gravel for fear of the local alternative. A glance toward the mare-grey sun informed her that it was already midway through the afternoon. From her mirrored tote she took some care to extract a fresh fig, angelica-green and rose-blushed, still immured in its fluted skirt of cellophane; it had suffered a degree of lateral compression but remained the voluptuous Parisian speciality that had attracted her forty eight hours before. The smell of Gideon’s laundry puffed up from her collar as she zipped her parka closed, the austere, masculine elements of lavendin evoking a regret that surprised her. By the time her gaze had wandered back toward the container, the trucks had pulled away and disappeared into the trees that seemed bent on reclaiming the airstrip, rendering her its sole occupant. Though she could not have imagined William standing patiently amid the rustic vehicles, his absence was difficult to rationalize, given the painstaking detail of her itinerary. She tapped her toes inside her boots and leant over, scuffing a hole into the quartzite gravel until her shadow stretched out along the ground at some exotic behest, replacing her shape with another. Its owner looked down on her with a smile.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.
“Twelve.” Susan replied, her own smile opening into an astonished peal of laughter as William walked around her. He stood in a narrow, long-sleeved shirt of stiff, featureless khaki, buttoned to the throat and tucked into the high waist of his army-issue trousers, hair reduced to a neat black crop by a recent and complete depilation; he took a plastic comb from his pocket, smoothed it conscientiously and performed a short robot break. The sight of him so dismayed her for a moment that she could frame no meaningful response as she accepted his embrace. “My god, what do you look like?” she exclaimed. Half-forgotten in her grasp, the gift she had so carefully husbanded crinkled in its wrapping beneath his ear, and she slid down with it, shaking her head.
“Christabel... you give a fig.” he laughed.
“That’s all the way from Paris on flying shitboxes, so don’t... eat it all at once...” she sighed, to no effect. He stuffed the cellophane into his pocket.
"Sorry about the ride... now you can say you survived not just any dodgy old Crate, but one that should have been parted out ten years ago... come on, that’s rock and roll.”
“It was five hours of sausage-breath and wet farts. What happened to you?”
“I’m in disguise. This is eastern Europe, baby...” he said, patting his waist. “Belts aren’t just for knocking the attitude out of your childbride, and midnite madder is for ladies."
“Undo the top button before I fucking choke to death.” Susan complained. He exhaled heavily, sagging from his affected posture and dragging his shirt from the waist of his pants, forcing them down on his hips and stooping to pick up her backpack. “Those horrible XYY dicks on the plane have been looking at me the wrong way since Odessa. I nearly had a bloody heart attack when we landed there... I could have come straight from Frankfurt, you know.” They walked together past the container and into a dirt-paved clearing that served as a car park amid the scuffed trunks. “Is this really Romania?”
“This bit still is. Think those army guys were onto you?”
“I wouldn't really know.” They stood enjoying the sight of each other, his smile reinstating her own and she seized him again, grasping his rump and sighing against his chest. "My god I missed you. You have no idea."
"I've got plenty fucking idea. If I could have made Kala'amātya put on a dress and nag me at gunpoint, I would have." A filthy green dirt bike stood against a tree in the dead grass at the edge of the clearing and he led her to it, her pack dangling from his arm. “We’re going through town, so you should probably change, and keep that on...” he advised, nodding at the helmet on the back of the bike. She stared, lips moving slowly as they formed unspoken words, her gaze making several involved passes over his person, at which William smiled again, half-uncertainly, and set down her bag.
“I'd almost forgotten." Susan admitted, addressing her own preoccupation obliquely. "I should... have a wee.” She carried her distraction into the trees while he sat down on the bike.
“How was Gideon?”
“Fantastic. Great cook... knows the filthiest jokes... taught me how to bone a pheasant...”
“You’re lucky. All I got at Chateau Aubergine was alcoholic poisoning. And a few pearl necklaces.”
"Thanks for that." she groaned. "To tell you the truth I was quite surprised by his gigantic penis, but then you never really know what you’re going to get, do you? And Étienne... I think I could watch somebody spraying him with a hose all day.” she confessed as she emerged.
“So that was an I fucked a French guy fig...”
“He only asked three times, and he was just being polite." The breeze swept the sweetly green scent of his skin back to her beneath the powdery smell of his virgin army surplus, making her reluctant to pull the helmet over her head. Climbing onto the seat behind him she shuffled forward, setting her bag in her lap and granting her hands the freedom they so desired, reaching up to stroke his head with both. His shoulders flexed in appreciation of the gesture, and she spoke softly. "Now I can see your neck... I’ll be at you all the time.”
"And all I had to do was go away and get a haircut."
"Why did you take so long to send for me?”
“I wanted to give you a chance to go home... then I was too scared to find out if you had." William stood up to kick start the bike and she passed her arms under his own.
The tree-lined trail had been so deeply rutted by trucks that he was forced to pilot them along its narrow verge, the shadows flicking past her eyes while she held on to his belt. The view through the shade of her helmet scarcely exaggerated the tea-stained patina of the trees crowding tightly around the hovels set back from their route, half of them derelict, looking like the basis for some baleful nursery tale with their steep roofs and tiny, heavy-browed windows, stacked to their chins with stove wood. Christmas red and green had curled and flaked from their weathered flourishes; women bowed by age and heavy labour sat on the steps of their porches slicing the product of their gardens into bowls of cold well water, slim wheaten dogs lying beside them in a shared appreciation of what little warmth the afternoon could spare. They came to a lean vein of village, the houses butting the stricken tarmac like boats about a wharf. Two bunker-like concrete structures formed depressing nuclei, one selling the various staples of rural life alongside bales of smuggled and traded luxuries, the other staffed by the region’s disgraced daughters, making desultory offer of the local liquors and their indifferent persons. Masculine idlers clustered outside, the gazes shaded by felt hats following the bike as it wove between sluggish clots of local vehicles. The faces blurred as their figures receded; William slowed as they cleared the edge of the town and she pushed back her visor, raising her voice over his shoulder.
“Everyone looks pissed off.”
“Communism, now capitalism, run by cannibals." he called.
“Where are we going?” He nodded toward the forest that rose over the northern edge of the village on the shoulder of a foothill, its conifers enlivened by the rusted and golden heads of beech and alder.
At the end of the bike’s ability to negotiate the goat tracks winding up into the wood, William killed the motor and put out both feet to steady them on the uncomfortable slope. She slid down into a fern-swathed hollow and stood watching while he lifted the machine from the track and dumped it against the hillside, climbing a little way then returning with a rifle on his shoulder and a shopping bag, from which he shook out a square of green tarpaulin.
“It’ll grow back.” he promised, conscious of her attention to his head. She watched him cover the bike with the plastic and set dead branches over its narrow shape, looking as though he had absconded from the ranks of some eldritch militia. William held up two flat packets bearing pictures of slightly differing single-berth tents, one camouflage print, the other plain green. “Ladies’ choice.”
“I hate those things. They’re like sitting in a bloody jiffy bag.” Susan complained. “Camo, I suppose, and do not joke about pitching one in any way.” Disappointed, he hid the rejected item beneath the tarpaulin, handing her the firearm. Taking the slope at a run, he swung up into one of the alders and climbed to a vantage that offered a view of the valley below toward the distant airstrip.
“It’s loaded and I took the safety out so don’t... you know... floss with it.” he told her in regard to the weapon, swinging down when he was satisfied they were not followed.
“How far are we going?” The sight of his gaze wending away prompted her to shake her head. “Don’t give me a gun and then decide to be vague. Where's your brother?”
“Around here somewhere...” William sat down in the bracken and unlaced his boots, blessing their removal before hoisting her pack once more on his shoulders. “Today there’s just this hill to get over, and maybe an hour up another valley. We won’t see anyone so it should be cool. What?” She said nothing; he lit a cigarette and threw the packet back to her, shrugging. “Three weeks with werewolves would make me cranky too.” he conceded.
"Ferme ta... C'est des... was it... conneries?" Susan sighed. "Merde. I learnt so much swearing and now it's gone." She swung the rifle around toward him and lowered her eye to its sight. "Never mind."
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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