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Friendship Contemporary Holiday

Over and Out

John slowed as he approached the corner of his street, took out his mobile phone and checked the message again. It was short, unambiguous, impossible to misinterpret.

“ 2 x 200 missed. Tues pm. We know where you live”

The final phrase was one that nobody in Liverpool wants to hear or read. John had spent all his Student Loan before Easter, and to keep body and soul together during his final year he’d been obliged to turn to Loan Sharks with punitive ‘interest charges’. Inevitably he’d missed payment dates – two, now – and the threatening messages on his mobile were becoming more hostile. He peered cautiously around the privet hedge: the quiet suburban road appeared empty, as he’d hoped it would be at this time on an early, somnolent summer afternoon. Ducking low, he sprinted the twenty or so paces to the student house and burst through the front door, slamming it behind him.

He surveyed his own room. There wasn’t a great deal to inventory. He’d managed to sell off his books once he knew he’d passed his exams, the only valuables remaining were his hi-fi and computer, probably worth at least a grand but he knew neither CashCo nor any of the other Instant Cash businesses would give him anything remotely approaching the £400 he owed some Very Bad Men (who “knew where he lived ...”. A thought suddenly struck him. Silently praying it wouldn’t start ringing, he pulled out his mobile once more.

“Hello, Bernie? Listen, mate, I need a favour ...”

By the time Bernie’s car pulled up outside, John had packed a rucsac and parked it discreetly out of sight.

“You’re a star, Bernie. You know as well as I do, ‘Uncle’ down the Cashie’d never give me enough to pay off the Sharks, an’ they’re breathing down my neck!”

“Listen, John, if it’s any help you can buy it all back once you straighten yourself out. That’s what friends, do, yeah?”

Bernie had completed his studies twelve months earlier and set up a successful, profitable business.

“That’s generous, mate, and coming from you I’m not surprised. I’ll help you move the stuff as far as the door, but I’m not keen on showing my face outside ...”

With a handful of notes (and his passport) in one hand, John closed the door as Bernie strode out to his car. By the time Bernie reached the corner of the road John was out of the back door, down the garden path and over the fence into a neighbour’s garden, heading back up the alley leading to Childwall Fiveways roundabout. He glanced left and right, weighing his options. Some distance away on his left, a 79 wheezed up the hill heading towards town centre and Lime St station, major rail hub for the North-West. On his right (and much closer) was an 81A heading out of town towards John Lennon Airport. It was a no-brainer: from the airport he could be further and faster Out of Dodge – or, like Bonnie Tyler, he could be “Lost in France” (or anywhere else in Europe ...)

Two of the three budget airlines operating from Liverpool JLA had a standard policy of issuing Single Tickets. With a little flattery and flirting this worked to John’s advantage. He even managed to use his maxed-out Debit card to make a Contactless purchase, as the ticket to Hamburg cost less than £40. By the time the bank queried the transaction he’d be long gone, and had no intention of ever using the card again He was comfortably in time for Final Boarding, hand baggage only, and was in the air thirty minutes after arriving at the airport.

John declined the offer of an outrageously overpriced thimbleful of indifferent coffee and used the short flight to relax, breathe deeply and calmly for what felt like the first time in months. He pondered his immediate future. Not ‘plans’ he told himself. Plans were for others, a luxury he couldn’t afford. Staying free from danger, even staying alive, might depend on him acting in a random, unpredictable manner.

Hand luggage meant that John could bypass the scrumdown at the luggage carousel and was one of the first to arrive at Passport Control. He made a point of thanking the Customs official in faultless German as he retrieved his pass, provoking what might lust have been mistaken for a hint of a smile in return. He was chasing the sun: there was still plenty of daylight left to enjoy before he needed to decide where and how he was going to spend the night. If he’d owned a wristwatch it might have needed re-setting but John neither knew nor cared. He’d always had an excellent sense of the flow of time, close enough for his own convenience. He’d never been late for a lecture or seminar, and as yet hadn’t had to ‘tune in’ to the rigid timekeeping of full time employment..

Outside the airport John zeroed in on a chart which was so like a London Tube map he could identify it at fifty paces: the only difference, this was a schematic which showed above ground rather than underground routes. Without hesitation he ID’ed the tram line leading south out of the city and bought a ticket to the Terminus. Don’t think: just go ...

He had the carriage almost to himself and although the tram pulled up at every stop, the journey was smooth and uneventful. He hitched his rucsac comfortably onto his shoulders and sauntered off on a road which hinted at open country not far away. The sun was dipping low, causing lengthy shadows. This was John’s first visit to Germany, and he noticed that individual properties were almost entirely detached, and each villa-style house nestled in spacious but not pretentious gardens.                                    

There were only about a half-dozen houses each side of the southbound road before the neatly trimmed hedges opened out to fields: he could just make out an old-fashioned fingerpost which would no doubt record fairly short distances to local villages or similar destinations. Don’t think, just go he reminded himself: it was becoming a mantra.

He paused to read the information on the signpost, not expecting the names or distances to mean anything, and was therefore not disappointed. It was too early to change direction, wander off the main road: he had no intention of turning left or right, yet.

“Good decision, my friend.”

Friend? Not possible! Who would address him in such familiar terms, and in English? Was it even audible, or something he’d ‘heard’ on some weird sub-verbal level?

A quiet but sincere chuckle. This time \john was almost completely convinced the laughter was in his mind rather than in his ears.

“Don’t worry! Friend, I say, and friend I mean! And in answer to your second question, I speak to you in a perfectly normal manner!”

A slim figure materialised, apparently rising directly from the lengthy grass and bushes around the foot of the signpost. His lips were moving, but John wasn’t sure if the subtle movements corresponded entirely with the sounds he was hearing, almost like a spliced soundtrack not quite in sync with the film.

The apparition extended his right hand, as if daring John to test if he were real or not.

“Piet,” he announced, “ though I’m not quite sure if you’re ‘hearing’ me in my language, or your own, or something completely different – but I believe you understand me...?”

John had automatically copied Piet’s action. The hand he felt holding his own was as solid as any  he’d ever shaken, the grip strong and convincing.

“My name’s John” he managed to stammer before the hesitation became long enough to be embarrassing. “I’m guessing you’re speaking German, but English is what I’m hearing!”

Piet’s free hand landed solidly on John’s shoulder. He laughed once more.

“Every Traveller on any road speaks the same language, friend John: the language of freedom! Come: our paths lead in the same direction, at least for a while. We can enjoy each other’s company for as long as it may last ...!”

They had already settled into a comfortable, rolling pace which cost no strenuous effort but covered the still-vacant road ahead surprisingly quickly. John discovered it was easy to confide in his fellow Traveller, revealing many of the things both petty and significant which he’d kept concealed over the past few months while hiding from those he had cause to fear. It was cathartic, and he felt his spirits eased as the words tumbled from his lips and into the non-judgemental ears of this relative stranger whom he sensed instinctively he could trust.

“There are NO Strangers: only Friends we have yet to meet.”

The words appeared in John’s mind and were without doubt spoken with Piet’s Voice: but John was gazing at his companion steadily, eye to eye, and knew that his lips were sealed. It sounded like an aphorism, a maxim, a bon mot with the wisdom of ages behind it, but \John was reasonably certain he’d never heard the words uttered before. Their eyes had grown accustomed to the gradual waning of the last of the evening’s light, and it was now almost full dark. John looked around and was about to ask the obvious question: there was just enough light left for him to see Piet cock his head slightly to one side. John caught his breath and concentrated, listening ...

“Here there is good, sweet water. We can stop for the night.”

Piet’s words registered, either through John’s ears or directly in his mind: the difference was unimportant, anyway. At the very edge of his consciousness John heard the soft tinkle of a stream chattering over pebbles and he turned to follow Piet off to the left of the road they had been following. A prolific stand of sweet blueberries provided a late evening feast: they slaked their thirst and stretched out on the soft grass. John was asleep before he laid his head on his rucsac.

“I graduated from Uni with top grades, but the jobs market in the UK is worse than useless, especially for anyone with an Arts degree. No job means no cash ...”

“ ... and no way to raise the cash to repay the people you had to borrow from, I’m guessing.”

Piet’s calm statement was studiously neutral: not critical, not sycophantic, not a platitude.

“You’re right,” John sighed, “and as far as I could judge I was left with no choice other than to get out of Liverpool (and preferably the UK)  as fast as possible, not just for my own sake but to protect my family and friends. Everybody knows, thugs like that take no prisoners.”

“I’m certain you did everything for the right reasons, John. I don’t mean taking out the loan and putting yourself in debt: I mean, what you’ve done since then”

“In Germany we’d say: ‘Wer durch Fliehen sich mag retten’  - Your English would be ...?”

John was up for this one. “He who fights and runs away  Lives to fight another day” Yes, Piet, I understand: and I’m glad you don’t think I’m a coward!”

Ice cold spring water and another raid on the blueberry bush was all they needed for breakfast. With as many berries as they could carry in their drink mugs without crushing them they were heading south before the daytime temperature had begun to spike towards what was likely to become another record high.

“Do you have any particular destination in mind, or a purpose in your travels?”

They still had the road more or less to themselves shared by an occasional car, most of them travelling in the opposite direction. A comfortable silence had settled on them, and John asked more for the sake of conversation rather than because he needed to know.

“I follow the sun,” Piet replied. “The weather is set fair, and will remain warm as we travel south. I notice you don’t wear a watch, and I have no need of one: I suspect we have much the same reasons for our choices.”

“I’ve never liked being hemmed in by timetables, deadlines, other people dictating how I spend my time” John said with a shrug of distaste. “I realise that if I decide to use my Arts degree to apply for a teaching position I’ll have to observe timetables, calendars, planning ahead and everything else, but I have to confess it doesn’t appeal to me! Tell me, what are your skills? Where and how do you work for your daily needs?”

“My needs are simple” Piet replied. “and as you saw last night, there is plenty available to eat and drink all around, for anyone who knows where to look for it!”

“I tend to stay on the lesser roads. The stink of fuel fumes makes the very act of breathing an unpleasant task, so side roads with little traffic suits me better. If I find I need some cash for things I cannot find or make from nature, I’ll stop off at a small village and offer myself for hire, harvesting crops. I might also sharpen knives and scissors, or entertain with songs and stories in a wayside tavern.”

“As the weather turn cooler I head further south. In bad weather there is always a barn or cattle shed, and if I need shelter I always leave it in better condition than I find it! Simply thanking a farmer for shelter from the storm is usually thought as payment enough, especially when he sees my handiwork – often I get an extra day or two payment for my labours Each houseowner can see I take nothing with me when I leave: a light load can be an advantage in more ways than one, my Friend!”

Without a glance or a break in his step Piet announced:

“It would be wise for us to rest now, in the warmest part of the day. There is cool, fresh water close at hand: come!”

He disappeared through the smallest of gaps in the hedge which John would never have noticed: he hastened to follow, before he lost track of it altogether.

“Do you ever feel the need to plan ahead? If the weather looks likely to turn, or when you know you’re running short of something you’ll have to buy?”

Piet nodded.

“Less often than perhaps you might think” he said, “but the weather doesn’t affect my plans too much. Stocking up, though, and earning a modest sum to trade with, that’s different.”

“That’s where we differ” John sighed, “For me it wouldn’t be possible to get by in a busy city without constantly checking on everyone’s diary, or consulting timetables. This is only my second day away from the stresses of city life but I’m feeling better for it already”

“And the ... problems you left behind. Do they still seem as important ...?”

“I know they’re still there, and I’ll have to tackle them: they aren’t going disäppear! But I need time to think things through ...”

“And Time is one thing we have plenty of, John: and best of all, it’s Free!”

They both laughed as if this were the best joke ever told and settled into their established pattern, a comfortable stride, interspersed with snatches of song, or listening to Piet playing his tin whistle. For John almost every melody was new, and every so often Piet would mimic the call of a bird hidden in the hedgerow or high in a tree, which provoked a chorus of responses from all sides.

There was still plenty of daylight left when Piet slowed, nodding to a huddle of houses ahead of them, the first signs of a village they’d encountered.

“We’ll sleep here tonight. There‘s a Gästhaus I always stop by and sing for my supper ...”

“So many people with small jobs for you, Piet!”

John had bought two glasses of pils when the tavern doors opened, and Piet was busy before he returned from the bar.

“They knew when to expect me” Piet replied, “and they’re also full of good advice. I think you may have found that out for yourself ...”

They’d only been travelling together for a couple of days but John was no longer surprised how deeply and correctly Piet could judge his mood, even his thoughts.

“I can see my own concerns and cares in comparison with others,” John admitted slowly, “and I realise they aren’t as urgent as I thought even a few days ago. I have my life, my health, and thanks to you I’ve learnt that my ‘needs’ are far less than I once thought! If I can lay aside whatever I can earn, I can return home with my head high”

“You’ve already taught me how precious and fragile a thing Time can be, Piet. Let me learn more by following with you, until I have gained what \i need in patience and possessions, so I can return home.”

“Then there will be only one more thing I must do” he added “something I should have done long ago. I always knew what these moneylenders do is illegal. I must do what I know is right: report them to the proper authorities and let Justice be done ...!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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September 08, 2021 20:26

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