The first indication we had that anything was wrong was a Chinese whisper that one of our parents had died.
The Aishalton medical officer, Bernard, came round and said he thought that one of our daddies, called Joaquim, had died, and we needed to go to the police station to find out more.
We went to the police station. There we were met with a barrage of angry questions- turns out we had gaffed badly by not reporting our arrival two weeks ago to the police. Once that was cleared up, they said there was no message or report of any such thing. We insisted that they transmit to Lethem to check. Crackle crackle. All that “Lethem Lethem 5310 come in” palaver. Crackle crackle eventually distilled into a yes from Lethem police; Father Joaquim (a Jesuit we had already met in Lethem) had passed on information that one of our mothers has died. Which mother? We don’t know.
I wonder if you can imagine the horrible lottery of loss in the pit of the stomach while you sit with someone you love waiting to discover which mother is dead?
They thought it was almost certainly James’ mother. Our internet access has been down since last Thursday, so we went to Burning Hills (the local fleshpots of Babylon) and begged them to start up their internet (it wasn’t due to be logged up till 6:30pm and we were there at 10:30am). They grudgingly said yes, but only had backup battery for the satellite modem. We only had 15 minutes of laptop battery left.
So we checked our email. Nothing in mine. Nothing in B’s. Looking back on it, everyone clearly thought that someone else had told us the news. But at this point, we at last found a detailed message explaining that Sue was very ill. And that was all. No-one was online for us to check with. Via an arcane set of links I managed to get hold of Dermot, the regional superior of the Jesuits here, who confirmed that it was true. Just before we logged off, a message came from Peter Lear, the cousin who married us, offering condolences. We eagerly read through the message from my mum to Peter which had triggered his, still attached at the bottom, and that’s how we found out what had happened.
That half-hour was a horrible, unforgettable tension- trying desperately not to second-guess, not to cross bridges, just to concentrate and to make the most of each of our 15 minutes before the battery died.
The battery died. We walked back into town. Completely shocked, bewildered, but at least knowing that we needed to get out fast. Getting out of Aishalton fast is not always possible. Not usually possible in fact. Father Amar was in Georgetown. Father Kuru was not heading North again until Friday. But B had made a friend through shared interest in photography, who went to huge trouble to whisk us up to Lethem. Not only that, but he got us there in time to get straight on the overnight bus to Georgetown, on which he had cunningly reserved the last two seats. We didn’t even have a chance to email Georgetown and let them know what was happening.
Angels came thick and fast. Paul, the ‘rugged teddy bear’ we attended the World Social Forum with, appeared out of the blue from behind a tree by the road in the middle of the night and joined us on the bus. He had walked from village to village for a few days and had been planning to catch a different vehicle. What are the chances? I suspect him of magic powers. He lent B his hammock for the rest stop, and he and I talked and talked for those four hours.
Dawn came up on the Karupakari crossing, revealing the ferry we had travelled on only three weeks ago, not expecting to see it again for about a year. The six-hour journey after the river crossing became rather dreamlike. The minibus is a wasp to the big bus’s queen bee- it blasts and rockets and rickets along at top speed whatever the potholes. The road is red dirt, and winds through rainforest for hours on end. Diesel fumes misted and illuminated the greenery with a strange blue light. As we entered a tunnel of trees I was suddenly struck by a sense of hurtling towards my own death. It was not a fear, but it did make me ponder whether we really believe death is coming to us all? We speak as though it’s a freak misfortune. After three hours or so, I found myself looking at the red streak through the lush plush green and being completely calm in it. We had set off. We had no internet access, no possibility of using a phone, there was absolutely nothing more to be done. I found myself utterly present and not at all past and future.
Now it’s 5:30pm. This day has been 36 hours long so far. We are in Georgetown and other people, bless their lovely hearts, are making all the arrangements for our onward journey. Three moments are sitting in my head like slices of a tree trunk. First, getting that “yes, I’m sorry, it’s true” from Dermot, and the rush of sadness that does not belong on paper. Second, waving out of the window at our new friends as we left Aishalton, knowing no-one could deserve such trustworthy and empathetic companions after a few short weeks. And third, sitting by B in the hammock, watching his face leak hints of what was inside him, and understanding that I should not talk. I always talk. My refuge is words. His is not, and he needed silence. It was not wisdom that kept my big mouth shut- it was just love.