The car stereo was playing “I wish” by the Longpigs: heartfelt, mournful, full of hope, and I was in the back, my knees jammed up around my chin, my feet on my backpack, Elias and Maya talking in soft Swedish in the front, as I gazed from the car window, the sun warming my face. Next to me, two Canadian guys slept, tanned and tattered, snoring and twitching in the heat.
A realisation draped itself over me: I was happy. Deliciously immersed in the moment, the smell of warm earth, the gentle vibration of the road beneath us, the soothing breeze from the slightly open car window, the music playing and the lyrical lull of the Swedes’ quiet conversation – everything felt perfect, significant and transient.
We rounded a long, sweeping corner around the edge of a mountain and in front of us loomed a lake so vast and so blue that it felt like the world had tipped upside down and we were driving toward the sky.
The Swedes fell silent, the car slowed to a crawl and I wound my window down fully and leaned out, to be closer to the beauty. Elias turned from the front. “Let’s stop.” he said and I nodded.
Dazed, hypnotised, we stumbled down to the water’s edge, took off our shoes and climbed barefoot over the warm rocks to sit on a wide, flat granite surface, feet dangling up to the ankles in the icy, crystal-clear water. The lake reached out over the horizon, wider than our field of view. We could see the curvature of the earth from that spot. Where were all the people? Why were there not hundreds of people stood here with us, agape, astounded, humbled? Why did we all live in tiny boxes in crowded cities when out here was this, just existing, just waiting?
Elias sat next to me, not speaking, while Maya walked around the water’s edge alone. After a while, I realised he was staring at me and I turned to him, squinting in the sunlight that reflected blindingly off the surface of the lake.
“I know nothing about you apart from your name.” he said, “Yet here we are, sharing this moment that I don’t think I will ever forget.”
I allowed myself a small smile in return and before I knew I was speaking, I said: “Ask me a question.”
“Okay” he replied, thinking hard, his body tense with surprise. “Just one?”
“Just one.” I told him, pulling my cigarettes from my back pocket, where they had been crushed flat. My fingers shook as I put one to my lips and Elias leaned in with a lit zippo.
“Why do you shave off your hair?”
Instinctively, my hand went to my head and stroked, pushing the soft, velvet stubble back and forth. A flicker of a memory, just enough to make me flinch, and he saw it – I watched him note the movement. At that point, I was still so transparent. I hadn’t yet learned to so effectively hide everything I felt.
“No, it’s fine. I just like it this way. It’s easy, I don’t have to do anything to it. Which is good when you’re traveling.”
“It looks good. It suits you.” he said and looked away, over the lake.
I smoked the cigarette down to the very end and we sat together in a strange bubble of joint silence, watching the Canadians run naked and screeching into the freezing lake and then flap around like dying fish. Although I didn’t laugh, I felt something like joy.
“So how come you travel alone? It’s unusual for a girl.”
“That’s two questions.” I replied, taking another cigarette from the pack, and Elias’s misjudged laughter died out awkwardly when I didn’t respond in kind.
“You’re very…I don’t know the word in English. Gåtfull.” he offered, not quite daring to look at me as he said it. I kept quiet. “It’s sort of like…mysterious I guess? Like you have a secret.”
Lighting the cigarette, I stared out at the lake, feeling myself disconnect, drift away from Elias. The adrenalin was now making me feel sick and I sighed with the nausea.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t.” I said, a little too quickly, and I attempted a smile as I stood up, then turned back towards the car.
I forgot sometimes, that I was not like other people. I would start to believe I could be normal and get along without standing out, maybe even make friends; but there comes a point with everyone I meet where they want more. They begin to share things, small pieces to start with: where they are from, whether they have siblings, their reasons for traveling, their relationship with their parents and then on to hopes, dreams, fears, neuroses. In the early days, I changed the story whenever I moved – I was Jenny from Manchester, Kelly from Somerset, Sarah from London – but after a while, it exhausted me so completely that I couldn’t even form the words. So I avoided the questions, didn’t allow people the space to even ask them, withdrew when I sensed a person opening up to me. Eye contact was best avoided, unless I was staring down someone who wouldn’t leave me alone.
It had been their advert – pinned to the hostel noticeboard, handwritten in a regimented typeface on a lined, yellow index card – that had brought me to the Swedes’ dorm room bunks. Travelling companion required, to share a car going east, to the Czech Republic. Ability to drive a bonus. Sharing of fuel costs a must. See Elias in bed 14 or Maya in bed 22.
I liked the formality of it, the lack of exclamation marks and promises of “fun” that most of the adverts so proudly displayed, so I sought them out and left with them the following morning.
There was something in Elias’s self-assured nerdiness (certainly not the more fashionable geekiness) that I found attractive, though he was not conventionally good-looking, being a little too wide-jawed, a little too skinny on the arms, a little too serious in expression and demeanour, to overcome the positive traits of good height and striking translucent blue eyes. His pale skin and light blonde hair were not something I had ever been drawn to in other boys, but in Elias they were endearing, adding to his delicacy. In somewhat extreme contrast, Maya was deeply tanned, sturdy and opinionated, with short brown hair that was always wrapped in a scarf and a voice that resonated when sober and boomed when she had been drinking. The two of them argued so frequently and so passionately that at first I assumed they were a couple; but over the three days I had so far spent with them, it became clear they weren’t. They were more like family, like brother and sister, and it transpired they were in fact childhood friends, brought up together from the crib. Elias seemed keen I understood this.
We dragged ourselves away from the lake and drove on, the two soaking wet Canadians laughing and talking, naked but for their now see-through underwear. We finally pulled into a town as the sun set, checked in to a hostel and all fell quickly to sleep, the day’s events, scenes and conversations ringing loudly in my mind, a strange mingling of happiness and dread.
Without discussion, we left the Canadians behind the following morning, told them our plans had changed, but the truth was they didn’t fit. The two boys, with their brash enthusiasm and puppy-dog physicality, ruined the placid, perfect scenes we were creating. The three of us – Elias, Maya and I – found a gentle, quiet rhythm in which we all had a place; it was the most comfortable I had ever felt in my life.
After the questions at the lake, Elias asked little of me other than what mattered in the present. Maya was happy just to exist alongside me and we only talked when Maya drank, in the long warm evenings sitting on youth hostel bunk beds, leaning on overstuffed backpacks and sipping from plastic beakers. My method for drinking was carefully planned: I would take sips whenever Maya did, but rarely swallowed any, allowing the liquid to go into my mouth and back out again. Being drunk was not something I could manage in those days, the past was still too present, too close to the surface, and with my inhibitions removed, things floated up that I didn’t want to think about and I definitely didn’t want to say out loud.
Telling people you don’t drink tends to inspire one of two things: a fervour in them to convince you of its merits, or a dissection of your personality, as if not wanting to be drunk is a defect that must stem from something dark and terrible. Perhaps there’s some truth in that. Perhaps all those people, like me, fear what will be revealed when their guard is down. Regardless, I found it easier to feign drinking, and as soon as the other person was a little tipsy, I would make sure I was the one going to the bar or pouring the drinks so that I could swap my drink for something that looked the same, but had no alcohol.
Because of this, our drinking sessions consisted mainly of Maya talking and me listening, while Elias watched on, smiling but removed. Maya told me about life in Sweden; the small town with its turreted, brightly painted buildings, and the small minds of the people who lived there; her hatred of school and the so-called friends, all of them so involved in each other’s lives that she could find no space to think for herself; her parents, who didn’t understand her need to break free from the comfort of home, and were stuck in their ways; her need for more. Upon hearing this, a small part of me felt some kinship with Maya, some connection to her feelings, this need for freedom and hatred of the banal; but another part of me thought Maya simple and ridiculous. Maya could return to her life at any point, she was risking nothing, just playing a game, experimenting before she went back to her small town, feeling smug with experience, only to discover that she belonged there after all, among the small-minded people and their everyday tasks and worries.
I know now this was the blindness of youth. There is nothing to say that Maya’s feelings were less than my own, but at nineteen, I couldn’t believe anyone had ever felt like I did, and when other people expressed anything similar, it was false, exaggerated, a tenth of what I experienced every day.
We travelled east. Sometimes I drove. The car was an automatic and Elias didn’t ask if I had a license, he simply threw me the keys one morning and said “You drive.” Maya thought I drove too fast, but Elias would defend me, saying it was good for the car to let loose sometimes, that it stretched out the suspension, whatever that meant. There is no better feeling than driving on long, sunny, empty roads. The world felt so open and painfully beautiful in those days, when I was still hopeful and romantic. Traveling was exciting and I always believed that I was on the way to something better, where I would feel better and be better.
It was a hot day in late summer when we finally reached our destination, the sweat pooling at the base of our spines and our legs sticking to the fake leather seats throughout the long car journey, and the sun – low on the horizon – burning black spots in our retinas. We reached our hostel just as the light was fading, and fell out of the car gratefully, into the cool evening air.
A heavy wooden door, studded with rusted iron spikes, lead us into the hostel reception, which also appeared to be a busy, raucous bar, filled with people dancing around the tables in a long, drunken conga, shouting, singing, making out in corners, pouring spirits into each other’s mouths from great heights. I sighed heavily but inwardly as I viewed the scene, wishing I could feel part of it all, but hating it no less for that desire. Having asked around for a while, battling to be heard by the drunken guests over the joyous commotion, we finally uncovered the owner: an aging, bearded hippy only just managing to stay upright as he leaned heavily on the bar, the drunkest person in the whole place. He lead us to our bunk beds, situated in a dorm right next to the booming party room, and despite the thick, stone walls of the medieval building, we knew there was no chance of sleep that night. Wearily, we dropped our rucksacks onto our bunks.
Maya tied her scarf more tightly around her head and pulled out her makeup bag, applying eye-liner liberally.
“If you can’t beat them, join them, right?” she grinned before disappearing into the throng.
We watched Maya leave, a tense intimacy taking hold as the door closed behind her. Elias leaned awkwardly against a bunk, his skinny elbow slipping on the metal pole.
“I don’t know if I have it in me tonight.” he offered.
“Me neither.” I replied, dropping onto the bare bunk with a loud creak. “I’m done in.”
“Are you hungry?” I nodded a reply and from his rucksack he pulled out a bag of dried pasta and a jar of sauce, waving it temptingly in my direction with a gawky, jokey smile that made my heart hurt a little.
The kitchen was occupied by another ten or so young people, all jostling politely for space and tools. I watched Elias cook, his movements precise and measured, his mouth twitching with concentration as he finely chopped the onion and mushrooms he had bought from another traveler. He reminded me of a giraffe, a sort of practised elegance forced from a body not fit for purpose.
“I will feed you up.” he said, placing an overflowing bowl in front of me with a satisfied flick of the wrist. Smiling, I began to eat, sleepy but grateful.
“It’s good.” I told him.
“No, it’s not.” he said. “It’s dried pasta and a jar of sauce. If we were in Sweden, I would cook for you, and that would be good.”
“Oh yeah? You a good cook?”
“What would you cook for me?”
“Köttbullar med gräddsås. Meatballs and gravy. You’d love it. I do it very well. I do lots of things very well, and cooking meatballs is one of them.” His grin was wide with innocence and I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.
As we ate, I became increasingly aware of a small, plump, dark skinned girl, a little younger than me, with wide brown eyes and a furtive stare that followed me around the room. My cheeks filling with blood, the capillaries expanding, I turned away from the girl, still feeling her eyes on the back of my neck.
Elias saw the shift in me, felt my tension. “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned. His forearm brushed mine and I felt an urge to touch him, to fold myself into the crook of his arm and rest my cheek against the pale skin of his prominent collarbone, and touch my nose to his willowy neck. Instead, I nodded brusquely and looked out of the window. “You seem down today.” he persisted, “Can I do anything to help?” I did not feel good, it was true. Glancing up, I saw the girl was watching me in the reflection of a glass door, a curious frown now settled over her somewhat sharp features, her eyes narrowed.
“Is it this place?” Elias prodded, trying to meet my middle-distance stare. In the reflection, I saw the girl approaching, head tilted at an inquisitive angle, and I stood up, heart accelerating, ready to speed me from the room, but as I turned to leave the table, the girl appeared in my way.
“Hey.” said the girl, her smile genuine and her intentions friendly, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“No, I don’t think so.” I mumbled, looking at the floor.
“Are you sure? You’re so familiar! I feel like I know you quite well, but I can’t for the life of me think where from. You’re British though, right?”
I felt Elias’s intrigued presence next to her and knew I couldn’t lie. “Yes.” I replied.
“Whereabouts are you from?” continued the girl.
“Manchester” I lied.
“Oh right. What’s your name, sorry?”
“Emily.” The girl stared at her, puzzled, studying my features as I descended into panic.
“You know what I think it is? You are the absolute spit of someone I know from my hometown. I’m from the Midlands. A little place just outside Birmingham. Do you have any family from round there?”
Don’t react, don’t flinch, don’t even blink. I shook my head.
“No, I don’t think so.” I said, my home town suddenly flashing into my mind. Leafy, sleepy, curving roads; hidden cut-throughs and snickets; the common across from my house where children ran and tumbled; neatly tarmaced dark driveways; the trill song of the ice cream van; the repetitive red garage doors tapping out a steady rhythm along each gently undulating street.
“Huh. Weird. I swear she could be your twin. Except, no offence, I think she’s a bit younger than you.” The girl turned away momentarily, and relief flooded in that the inquisition was over; but then there she was again, holding a camera. “I just have to get a picture to show her.” she grinned.
Without any other option, I pushed past the girl and out of the kitchen door.
I lay on my bunk for some time, praying that the girl wouldn’t appear in the dorm, hoping that nobody would come to find me or check up on me, wishing that I could be free of it all: the guilt, the fear, the anxiety.
The door creaked open slowly, bringing with it a wave of raucous noise from the bar, and Elias sidled into the darkness, settling on the very edge of my bunk, by my feet. I pretended not to notice him and stared into the corner of the room.
“I did something for you.” he said, “Don’t get mad.” My insides tightened, like my own organs were trying to strangle me. Elias’s hand found mine in the half-light and I flinched with surprise as he pressed a cold key into my palm. “I got you a private room. I thought you might need it.”
I sat upright in bed and faced him, his features strange and melted in the dark. “How much did that cost? I can’t afford that.”
“It’s okay, it’s on me.” he said, reaching for me again, but changing his mind.
“Why would you do that?”
“Emily. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I know there is something. And I know you are having a really bad time.”
“I’m fine.” I said quickly.
“God, you are not fine. I’m not an idiot, you know.” He was angry now, but not with me, with himself: for not anticipating this total lack of gratitude, for being naive enough to think it might get through to me, that I might soften toward him because of it.
A roar of delight erupted from the crowd next door as the music kicked up a level, and the two of us sat in silence, waiting for something to change between us.
“Have you already paid for it?” I asked, relaxing my shoulders, forcing myself to sound less harsh, knowing that I should, because he meant well, because he genuinely cared about me. Because I genuinely cared about him.
Later, we lay curled together in the tiny single bed, beneath an unzipped sleeping bag, breathing each other’s air, our fingers resting lightly on each other’s bodies through the thin fabric of our clothes, the party still booming through the walls and doors.
“I want to talk now.” I said. “Tell me who you are.”
In whispers, he told me how much he loved cars: fixing them, unpicking them and seeing their inner workings, never from books, always from looking and understanding, how he liked to get his hands dirty and felt it was romantic, to stand over a car bonnet and push his hands deep into its guts. Books about vikings were his favourite, because he came from those strong, seafaring adventurers and liked to imagine wielding a sword, rowing across oceans, conquering lands, but he would be a fair and just viking, he said, he couldn’t bear to rape and pillage, he would integrate into the lands he discovered, bring them democracy and freedom as he went, gaining their trust and their love and building a new, modern society. As a child he had run away to become an astronaut, his parents having told him he was too young. He thought it he could get to America, he could find NASA and knock on their door. He made it to the end of his street and when the bus arrived, he realised he had no money for a ticket.
Slowly, I unbuttoned his shirt, listening out for the increase in heart rate, letting energy flow into my fingertips as I dragged them lightly down his chest and he groaned.
“I’m not who you think I am.” I whispered in his ear.
“Yes, you are.” he replied, and I knew it was true.