Once again, the old man was there.
He drove up the hill in his beaten Lada Niva - the old model - sputtering black clouds of smoke that probably killed a few trees in the rainforest, and ground the tormented gearbox in that dreadful shift from second to first gear. Miles, squatting behind a bush in ambush, winced at the metallic sound of the car suffering.
Lada Niva stopped at the exact same spot it always did, driving over the established tire marks, and parked by the side of the road. Miles checked his wristwatch. 6:00 in the morning, exactly. And so it begins, he thought.
The car door swung open with a dry squeal, the metal sheet bulging inward on the door frame, as a result of some previous incident. Miles observed as a foot lowered on the gravel, followed by another foot, both wearing the same old gentleman’s shoes as always, with the same white socks pulled too high up above the shins.
A wrinkly hand grabbed hold of the inner door handle and the car swayed a little as the driver tried to pull himself out. One, Miles counted. The man fell back into the seat, then tried again. Two, Miles leaned closer behind the bush. The old man fell back once more, huffed, and then grunted as he heaved himself again. Three!
The old man came out from the car, joints cracking audibly. Same as every time. Unbelievable. The old man wore white shorts, but Miles suspected they weren’t white originally, only bleached so much by the sun that they appeared white. He also wore a similarly pale Hawaiian shirt and a straw hat, to protect the eyes from the sun.
Miles glanced at his watch. 6:03. The old man stretched and let out a fart. Then he shuffled his feet to the back of the car and produced a key, unlocking the trunk. He lifted it open with a familiar squeak and had to hold it open with one hand as the steel rod that was supposed to support it was missing. He searched the insides for what Miles knew it was going to be a foldable lawn chair.
The man’s hands shook as he had to balance the effort between holding the trunk open and taking the chair out and that took quite some effort. 6:06. The trunk slammed closed and the man set up the folding chair at precisely the same spot as he always did. Miles was smart enough to mark the spot by placing a bottle cap there the other day, so he could tell from a distance that it was the same spot. He wouldn’t be surprised if the chair fell into the same hole-marks in the soil.
What on Earth are you doing, old man? Why? Why the same thing every single day?
Chair set, the man returned to his car and opened the passenger doors. He took out a straw basket, covered with a cloth. He hesitated for a moment, basket in hand, and then reached inside again, taking out a small portable radio. Both hands occupied with objects, he kicked the door closed with his foot and - as usual - cursed at the pain in his back from doing so. It disturbed Miles to the point of agony, seeing the man doing the exact same things so precisely. Even the ones he should have learned not to do, he did them with mastery. It was almost awe-inspiring.
Will you sit down now?
Of course, he will. He did it every day. Miles watched as the man walked to his chair, placed the basket on the ground on one side and radio on the other. Then, he grabbed the armrests of the folding chair and hovered above it, easing his old back into position.
And sat down.
Miles glanced at his watch. 6:10. Exactly. On. Time.
The man then leaned down to his radio, pressing a button, and a rush of static came blowing out of the two-inch speaker. The man cursed and fiddled with the nub, adjusting the antenna and searching for a signal. After two more minutes, he found the one station he always listened to and it was some news reporter that explained in painful detail all the things that the political party went over the other day.
Then, he fixed his eyes on the mountain slope and eased into his chair, listening to the radio.
And that was it.
Miles’s heart was pounding in his chest. It was three weeks now since he first heard the sputtering of the Lada Niva and noticed the old man, sitting there, staring at nothing all day. He noticed him from his cottage, lower down the slope. At first, he thought the old man was just a tourist, going on a little sightseeing in the mountains. Stopping by the road for breakfast, or to read his newspaper in peace. There were rarely any cars that went up there anyway, and most of them were either local sheepherders or tourists.
But no. This man was not reading, not a newspaper, not a book. He did eat from time to time, taking food from his basket, but that was about all he ever did. He would sit there and that was that.
Miles thought perhaps the man was writing a book or a memoir, recording his voice perhaps, and then typing it at home or giving it to someone else to type. But as he observed the man closely these past few days, he could see no laptop, no voice recorder, no nothing. Just the crappy radio, the folding chair, and the food basket.
I must be an idiot, he thought, stalking someone in the bush. And not even a sexy hiker, but an old man!
But he couldn’t help it. He became obsessed with this man. Who was he? What was he doing here all day, sitting? Why? Why was he here?
Miles first noticed the man one day when he was looking out the window and searching for inspiration for his writing. His mind was so bored that it latched onto the first unusual thing it found and this man was all but usual. He watched him from afar at first, simply curious if the old man was an artist, like Miles. Then, as he saw the man just sitting there, he thought the fellow had a heart attack or something and took his binoculars, through which he saw him scratch his chin from time to time. Or swap a fly. Or drink some water. The man was neither dead nor was he sleeping. He was just sitting.
Miles tried ignoring him, but the window in his writing room faced in the exact direction where he could constantly see the white Lada Niva, planted against the background of dark brown rocks and lush green grass of the hillside.
Miles thought that perhaps the man was a gypsy, on the hunt for scrap metal. But why come to the mountains? There was nothing here!
It bothered him so much that he had to go out and investigate. He didn’t want to just go straight up to the man and ask what the hell is he doing all day - that would be rude, although stalking him was probably even ruder. So Miles opted for a close up on the man’s business, hiding behind a bush. And so far, he learned nothing.
Miles waited patiently for a little while, listening to the crappy sound of the radio and watching the old man watch the mountain slope. He glanced at the wristwatch, bored. 6:21.
What the hell am I doing? I should be writing my novel, not stalking old people!
But he knew he would get no rest until he solved this mystery. Even if he were to close the window and roll down the shutters, he’d still know the old man was out there, doing nothing. And the thought would irritate him, preventing him from writing.
Was the man some secret agent, on the lookout for Interpol’s most wanted criminal, who was hiding in the mountains? No, probably not. Though it could be a good story idea…
Perhaps he was meditating as the monks do? He was surely old enough to be a zen master.
Or what if he was just some deranged old coot, with no one to look after him and make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid?
Miles couldn't take it anymore. He stood up from behind the bushes and walked over. His heart was racing as he passed by the car and came up to the old man from behind. He cleared his throat and tried to put on a casual voice.
The old man glanced back at him. “Morning.”
“I live down there,” Miles said and pointed at his cottage. “And I’ve noticed you come here every day. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what do you do here all day?”
The old man smiled. “I sit here and I watch if there will be a landslide.”
Miles blinked. “Excuse me?”
“Yep,” the man nodded. “That’s my job. I keep a lookout for landslides.” He glanced down the slope to where Miles’s house was. “Why you’re in luck, friend. I’m watching here so you can rest assured, knowing your home is safe.”
“But-” Miles glanced from the man to his house, to the slope. “But landslides rarely happen. You just sit here, all day? Staring at the slope?”
“Don’t you get bored?”
“And what if a landslide triggers, what then? Those things can move very fast, how would you warn me, if I was in the house?”
“Well, I’d scream for you.”
“Scream? And what if I wouldn’t hear?”
“Then I’d scream louder.”
“That doesn’t seem very efficient to me.”
“I’m a simple man, doing simple work.”
“Wait, someone pays you to do this?”
“Who’d be so stupid to pay you? You just sit there, and even if you spot a landslide, your warning is useless!”
The old man glanced up at Miles, smiling warmly. “You pay me, friend. As part of your natural disaster insurance.”
Miles shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“This is ridiculous, I never heard of bigger nonsense. And what if a landslide happens at night? I’ve seen you, you come at six in the morning and leave at six in the afternoon. As useless as your ‘job’ is, you’re only doing half of it!”
“Of course,” the man said. “I’m only one man. My brother holds the night shift.”
“You mean… there’s another one of you out there somewhere, watching me sleep?”
“No, not watching you, watching the slope! Who’d be so disturbed in the head to watch another person without them knowing?”
Miles pulled a poker face. “You’re insane, right? This is a joke.”
“Why would I be insane?” the old man asked. “I didn’t build my house on an unstable slope, without consulting with the geologists prior to building. I’m just a man, doing my job, and doing it well, I might add.”
Miles held up a hand. “Wait, what did you say? What unstable slope?”
The man pointed to the slope he’s been watching all along, the one directly above Miles’s cottage. “That unstable slope. See the bulges under the grass? That's the soil slumping, creeping slowly. See those bent trees? More creep. And that stream that crosses the road over there? Water, wetting everything. My friend, this slope is a ticking landslide bomb.”
Miles felt his heart sink as he regarded his luxurious little cottage, his oasis from the modern lifestyle, his safe haven for recovering inspiration.
A ticking landslide bomb?
“My friend, you look pale. Want some water?” The old man raised a shaky hand and offered Miles a glass bottle.
Miles looked at the old man. Is this my guardian angel? I need to go over the insurance contract again!
“I’m good, thanks.”
A silence fell between them, both watching the slope, but contemplating it in different ways.
“You can go now,” the old man said. “No need for the two of us watching, is it? There are too many people getting paid for doing the same job in this country as it is!”
The man’s laughter echoed in Miles’s ears like the rolling of phantom boulders, crashing through his cottage, destroying the fine wood to smithereens. How could he ever sleep in peace? How could he ever write? He’d be anxious, on the lookout all the time for this ticking bomb to start rolling down.
Oh, why did I ever speak to the man?
Miles turned and left. What else could he do? He returned to his little cottage, looking at it like a parent looks at their child leaving for college. He ran a hand over the wooden railing, the one he made himself. I don’t want you getting crushed by a landslide, he thought.
Could he really trust the old geezer to keep an eye for him? What nonsense was this? It felt like he was part of some hidden camera joke, but now that the man pointed out the possibility of a landslide, Miles couldn’t help but notice the bumps in the slope - which seemed cute before but looked disgusting now. The bent trees, once resembling womanly curved lines, now seemed like old evil hags. And the lovely singing of the stream now sounded like the raging torrent of ten thousand waterfalls.
I’m overreacting. Stupid old man, now I’ll never be able to write-
And then, magic happened. Two previously unrelated things suddenly came together in his mind, merged into a greater union that either of them alone. An idea popped into Miles’s head.
I could write a story about a man buried under a landslide inside his house!
It terrified him. Sent shivers up his spine. He could feel the threat. He could use it, exploit his fear.
But he would have to write fast. Wouldn’t want to really get buried.
With that, Miles ran inside, opened the window wide, so he could hear the old man, and sat down to write.