I could see why he’d wanted the journal: “I wriggled my toes in the cold, red sands. Watching the sun rise over the dunes. I knew that before long, the sand would be too hot for bare feet: a blistering lesson from yesterday. The dry sandiness of my mouth focussed my attention. Water. I had to find water. Soon. But where? The silence was intense, almost painful, broken only by the whisper of sand in the wind, stinging my calves and ankles.
“Now what?” I spoke aloud, voice eerie in the quiet. “Do I stay, or do I go? If I go, which direction? South to the village I left behind, or North East, to Khartoum and to Tony.” Neither was close and without water, I wouldn’t get far. My bag had survived with me but held nothing of any use: lipstick, my diary, tissues, but no food or water. The fuzzy sweet nestled in its seams tasted of ambrosia but was just a memory.
What on earth had I been thinking, leaving the tameness of England for this rugged wilderness? I’d wanted time, space to think, to decide what to do next; a break from hectic corporate life, and the job that no longer thrilled me. I heard volunteers were needed to build a school in an African village. I hoped the lines I was writing in my journal would not form my epitaph.
Far away from my old life, I had wanted time and space to think about a new direction. But this was too alone. Surrounded by rolling dunes, scraggly bushes clinging onto scattered, a vast and empty space. Space was something Africa had in infinite quantities: vast, desolate, uninhabited areas, punctuated by tiny villages. I had loved it. Now I feared it. It could be days or weeks before anyone came past; days even before they began searching. If there was any way out of this, I would have to find it on my own.
“Which direction will lead me out of this mess?” I asked the silence. Whichever way I chose, I had a long journey ahead of me. My stomach rumbled. I licked at dry and chapped lips: water was a more pressing need. I needed a vantage point, an island in the sea of dunes. I shielded my eyes from the sun, scanned the area. A rocky outcrop in the distance looked promising. I walked, ignoring my screaming muscles, burning skin, and tearing blisters. An aeon, then I collapsed in the shade of the rocks.
Leaning against the rough, cool surface, I rested, catching my breath, summoning the strength to climb. An involuntary groan escaped as I stood up again, then slowly, one hand reached up, one foot followed. Repeat. I climbed. The sun burned. One hand, one foot. Repeat. “You can do this,” I whispered through chapped lips. Slowly, I scrambled to the top.
I was surrounded by a vast ocean of dunes. I howled with dismay, a primal cry of outrage, mocked by the voice that came out as a croak. I slumped onto the rocks, rested my head in my hands. My face felt gritty, sand ingrained. It was too hot to remain up here. I stood and turned.
Wait. A glint of metal? Raising my hand to shield my eyes, I peered towards it: a silver shape in the distant sand. The plane! It had been nowhere in sight when I’d regained consciousness. Whatever had brought it down had dumped me on the dunes.
Using my watch and the sun, I fixed my bearing and clambered down the rocks. The plane! Water! Shoes! I trudged on, each step a struggle against the sand that threatened to swallow me, clinging to my ankles like an unwanted lover. I stumbled, picked myself up again, struggled on, to the dune crest, tumbling down its side. I clambered up again, checked my bearings, lumbered down. Repeat. Again. And again. And again.
At last, a silvered wing loomed. I scrambled into its shade, flopped on the cool sand, breathing deeply. “This isn’t our plane.” This one was much larger. I reached up to press the latch on the door. It wouldn’t budge. I stood up, leaned against it, shoved with all my might, finally rewarded by a soft click. I turned the latch, and the door moved an inch. Wedging my hand into the gap, I pushed again, forcing the door to slide apart, enough for my arm, then my shoulder and chest. Finally, I pulled hips and legs into the plane.
Seatbelts securely fastened, three skeletonised passengers occupied faded seats. I screamed, the sound echoing through the plane, then mocked my stupidity – they held no danger. I staggered along the littered aisle to the galley. A tap! I turned it on. Warm brown liquid trickled out. Was it drinkable? Painful seconds staggered along, and the water cleared a little. I pressed my lips against the tap and drank. It was musty but wet. I drank deeply and then forced myself to stop, wait for a little. Then drank again.
I rummaged through cupboards, hit pay dirt with a first aid kit. Sitting on the counter, I placed my feet in the basin, rinsed the sand off the blisters, biting my lip to avoid screaming. How silly – there was no one to hear. It felt better when I screamed and swore. I’d worn out my vocab of swear words by the time my feet were swathed in ointment and bandages.
My stomach rumbled. Food – I needed to eat. I rummaged in cupboards, sorting through dusty packets and desiccated supplies, before finding a small stash of unlabelled tins. I opened one that looked intact and wolfed down baked beans, fingers cramming them into my mouth.
Slowly! I forced myself to leave half the tin and go rummage in the cargo hold. The temperature soared as the sun baked the plane. I kept searching, piling up a treasure trove of supplies, alternating with swallows of beans and sips of water.
I slumped into a chair and surveyed the haul. Now what? The plane had lain here undiscovered for some time. If I stayed, I had food and shelter, but I risked joining the skeleton crew. Not an option! I didn’t fancy dying wandering around in the desert either. I’d discovered a compass and a map in the cockpit. If I picked a direction, then the compass could keep me heading that way.
The light was dimming, too late to start today. “I’ll sleep here, then set out in the morning.” It felt good to hear a voice, even my own. I’d discovered a back pack and stuffed it with cans and bottles of water. Would it be enough? What if I could make some sort of sledge to pull along behind me – I could carry more that way? I rummaged further, before settling on a solid suitcase. Tipping out the contents, I filled it with food and water, blankets, first aid kit. I threw in the passports I’d found. Someone deserved to know what had happened to these people. It was too dark to see by the time I’d finished, and I settled in a seat, snuggled in blankets. I pulled out my diary and wrote. Just in case. Then for the first time in my life, I slept on a plane.
The howling wind woke me. Something was scratching at the side of the plane. Shivering, I pulled the blankets tighter. Moonlight spilled in through windows and the open door. I’d forgotten to close it. The scratching continued. Was there someone out there? A rescuer, perhaps? Or worse? My mouth was dry, and I swallowed, startled by how loud it sounded. I crept to the door, carefully stuck my head out into stinging sand. A sandstorm! I heaved and tugged at the door, forcing it closed.
A skull gleamed whitely in the moonlight, its smile a mocking grimace. “It can’t hurt you,” I reminded myself, then threw a blanket over it anyway. I washed the sand from my face, drank, snuggled back into my seat. My mind was alert now to every sound.
My mind drifted to Tony. “He was supposed to meet me at the airport. Would he be out searching for me yet? Or would he simply think I’d changed my mind?” We’d come all the way to Africa to meet, but he lived in the village next to mine in Sussex. There was an instant connection and the potential spark of something much more.
But along with my boring job, I’d left behind an acrimonious divorce, a failed suicide attempt, and a string of family feuds and bad relationships. Did I want to start another one so soon? Midlife crisis is such a cliché, but somehow the label fits. I’d come here to decide what to do with my life, to find myself. Now I was totally alone, and I understood: you can never escape yourself.
I woke to the streaming sunlight. Time to get moving. I opened a new tin, and ate, drank my fill. I swathed myself in a burka- shelter from the sun. I tied a rope around my waist, attached it to the suitcase, and stepped into the scorching heat.
My blistered feet protested, and the case grew heavier as the sun rose higher. At its zenith, I found shelter among some rocks, rested. I felt weightless without the rope at my waist and pack on my back. I attacked another tin, peaches this time, and drank. My muscles groaned in protest as I stood. I didn’t dare look at my feet; even in borrowed sneakers, they ached with a fierceness that threatened to make me quit. If I listened.
“I should never have come here! Look at the mess I’m in.” But the village had a new school – that had been worth the work. The sheer joy of physical toil had been a revelation. I’d seen the pleasure on the children’s faces, the eagerness to learn, even when their classroom was a thorn tree. I’d seen what it is to have nothing, and yet find happiness in little things, making games from scraps and imagination, shaming me in my misery and comparative wealth.
Everything ached. To distract myself, I began making mental lists: my favourite songs, films, books, foods. Food wasn’t a helpful topic – I was wary of the roulette I played every time I opened a tin. I stopped, checked, I was still heading North East, began walking again, one foot in front of the other. What else could I list? People I knew, acquaintances, friends, lovers, family. I wanted to see them again, to make it right. Tell my mother I loved her and was sorry I hadn’t visited in years. “I love you, mom, and I miss you,” I wept.
“ I don’t want to die.” The rope chaffed at my waist, the burka clung wetly. The pack grew heavier. A flash of white in the distance drew my eyes. In the hazy distance of swirling sand, I saw my daughter. She’d been so little the last time I’d seen her, but her features were unmistakable. Tall and blond, her face was a near facsimile of mine. But those eyes and eyebrows were her father’s. Her white shift blew in the wind. I rubbed my eyes, and the image was gone.
“You survived childbirth, you can do this!” I had a reason to live. I wanted a second chance, a chance to do it right. “God, if I get out of this, I promise I’m going to start afresh.” One step at a time. Repeat. A chance at a new life, one step at a time. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught glimpses of her white shift. I followed. Onward I trudged. And on. And on….
“So, did you ever find out what happened to her?”
“She was babbling about second chances when she staggered out of the desert a week later, into a little village. She’d lost the suitcase, her water was finished, and she had a fever. The local doctor had to soak her shoes to remove them. She’ll have scars for the rest of her life.”
“But she’s alive?”
“What are you going to do with her story?”
“Publish it, of course. It’s a great read.”
“Some people see mirages in the desert. Interestingly, she saw her daughter. She must have been pleased to make it back to her.”
“That’s a curious thing. Her daughter was stillborn.”