Distant noises, scalding sun. Behind me, no, to the left. I can hear others, so close, but I’m silent and they pass. I can’t follow, they would see me, they would know then, my humiliation. I look at my watch again, it’s been two hours. I look at my phone, the text message telling me they made it, are safe, they will wait for me. I can’t let them down.
I wipe away a fresh trickle of sweat, crawling down my temple, it nearly reaches my jaw but I stop it. My sleeve is sodden, a short sleeve pulled and eased to reach, but it can’t be pulled and eased to cover my arms and prevent them reddening as I continue the journey. Now that the others have passed.
I take another path, the foliage less bushy. Is that right? Are these arching arms less tall than where I came from? I can’t be sure, I carry on anyway, swatting at insects. The dirt is hot and compacted, I can feel it through my canvas shoes, my sock-less feet slipping inside, sweaty, useless and tired. The arms, the reaching tendrils of living and breathing verdure, give no shade, no relief. I relive how I got here, not for the first time, not for the last, today or any of the others before; but there would be no clue there to getting back.
It had been easy, getting here, I remember it always was. It wasn’t the tortuous mind-meld that often encroaches, the slow agony as a good idea turns into a spitting monster intent on ripping your head off and feeding it back to you, for your sins, your pride. No, it had been easy. I’d had it too easy, I forgot how it could end, how days like this nearly always end.
Days like this, a blue sky holding a golden, heart-swelling disc, teasing, relaxing the defences, this is how it starts. It had been my job, my duty, to respond. I was programmed to react, I had become that way from being something else, the change in me almost imperceptible. One day, you’re running for the bus, or lining up for a place on the tube. You’re sitting at your desk, watching the numbers leach across the columns, as you type them in, or sweating over a report that nobody sees – they get a précis. You’re a clone, a cog, and you’re told you do great things; you’re appraised and you pass, to do more great things, for other people.
And then, it changes, and you start to think you are doing great things for yourself. You eat better, you clean up more, you are at home and you think you are living the dream. But all the while you are changing one set of code for another, and the reconditioning begins.
I stop to listen. More sounds approaching. I can’t let them see me, they’ll know. I back into the bushes. There is coolness here, a reprieve; why didn’t I do this before? Just for a few moments, to catch my breath, a break? While I wait I feel in my pocket, the bottle is there but the water is long gone. The envelope is there too, handed over at the beginning, still sealed. I hold it, look at it, and it laughs at me.
If I get back, I will never make the same mistakes again, I swear. I know I’m bargaining, for my sanity, my pride, for my future. But not just for me, for the others, they are safe, and they are waiting. My mistakes cannot be wrought on them, I take full responsibility, as team leader.
Training? What training? I hear the critics, a few years down the road, the ones who made it, the smug and the righteous, feeding off their superiority and the failure of others. Those newly triumphant do not make the best teachers, they don’t have the humility, they only have the relief, that they made it, got away with it, and they turn it against you, from their positions of safety. The best teachers are those with dedication, more years than is necessary under their belts; perspective. They know it never really ends.
Survival of the fittest? No, it’s more than that, it’s duty, a primeval calling, another kind of conditioning, one that you are born with. Can it be escaped? Do we have a choice? Yes, and I’ve seen those that make that choice, and they too look on with disdain, and deliverance. I think of them now, unblemished, assured, but ultimately untouched, ultimately isolated.
I shake my head. I’m not right, that’s not fair, the heat and fatigue are getting to me. Some choices are the hardest imaginable, for reasons that onlookers will never know, and they are dealt with, taken on, the downsides just as bad, just not obvious to others. I tell myself it gets easier, I bargain again, about my own choices; the failures will be forgotten.
I hear more sounds, but I don’t stop and hide. These sounds signal the end, they are of many voices and they tell me I’m nearly free. I see them, the others, those that are waiting for me and many more, waiting for others, ecstatic that they made it.
‘I didn’t open it!’ I wave the envelope at them, still sealed, that contains the map. I’m triumphant, exhilarated, but I think I must look unhinged.
‘You’ve been ages, Billy started to cry!’ Mo, the eldest, looked disapproving. Had I failed after all?
Katie, the middle one, was more pragmatic. ‘It’s ok mum, but we’ve eaten all the biscuits.’
This would be the last time, I wouldn’t be swayed again, nice day or not. The maize maze had seen the last of us. I’d given three years on the trot, each child had their memories, enough was enough. The next nice day to grace this corner of England would be spent in the garden; the kids can build a den, I’ll be in a deck chair.