October 2nd 2019: River
Bea is no expert, but the order of events is not what she would have expected. The thin tree she is leaning against explodes behind her, sending pallid yellow splinters and clumps of dark lichen-encrusted bark careening in all directions. She is dimly conscious of the loss of support as she begins to topple backwards. Then follow the crack of the two gunshots, the violence of the tightly compressed sound waves assaulting her eardrums and jarring her bones. Only after she hits the ground does the vivid shock of pain force the air from her lungs, leaving her gasping with her face deep in musty leaf litter. Her mind clutches at these disconnected events, trying to piece together what has happened, until she has her answer. She has been shot.
Through the confused fog of her thoughts, shouts and crackling undergrowth tell her that her attackers are closing in. She can feel the weight of her legs, and is starting to drag the thick moist rainforest air down into her chest, but she needs to move, now. Stifling sobs of pain, she draws her legs up beneath her, pushes herself into a crouch, and then slowly unfolds to a standing position. After allowing herself a fraction of a second to register that she is upright, she runs. Adrenaline burns through her veins, numbing her limbs and making them feel alien and unresponsive. Branches scrape her shins, threatening to send her sprawling onto the forest floor. Twigs and keen-edged leaves leave welts on her face and hands, her reflexive blinking turning the blurred forest into a flickering animation. Given what she had seen seconds earlier, she estimates there are probably at least two armed men in close pursuit, with three or four more not far behind. Her breath comes in ragged gasps, but her panic means she is running almost at full pelt, which is no mean feat on this terrain. If nothing else, the last few months have taught her how to navigate the dense, woven fabric of this jungle, how to avoid the mischievous tree roots that seem intent on forcing her prostrate in the mulch, how to evade the cotton-thick fibre of the orb-web spider’s snares.
The way the forest muffles and distorts sounds makes it impossible to tell how near they are, but they are close, and getting closer. Risking a panicked glance over her shoulder to get a fix on them, Bea overbalances, smacking her right shoulder against the huge buttress root of a fig tree with the full force of her weight. At once she is aware of the all too familiar feeling of the head of her humerus popping free of its socket as her shoulder dislocates. She can’t stop herself issuing a short bark of pain, but instantly regrets it as she hears a voice shout,
‘¡ahí! ¡ella está por ahí!’
Now they have an accurate fix on her position, and like hounds on a scent trail, they start to run down their quarry. The men fan out behind and to the sides of her so that she can’t double back. Another voice that seems further away shouts in Portuguese,
‘Stop! No! Stop!’
There is something odd about the tone which means she can’t work out if it is directed at her or the men chasing her, but there is not time to consider that now. She is running as fast as she possibly can, but she is now having to pin her dislocated right arm across her chest with her left hand. This forces her to shift from fluid sprint to an awkward lurch, wincing as she twists her body to navigate trunk and scrub. They are perhaps only twenty paces behind her, if she is lucky, and she knows they will have her soon.
The ground is now rising steeply towards a ridge she recognises, and she knows she only needs to get a little bit further. Her lungs are on fire, every breath rasping in her throat and dragging at the bullet wound in her side, but she continues pounding her legs against the treacherous ground. They are so close she can hear their breathing now, they are almost on her. They are strong and fit, and are moving through the jungle with the confidence of lifelong familiarity. Just as the lead pursuer reaches out to grab the back of her shirt, she reaches the ridge and launches herself into space as the ground falls away beneath her. His grasping hand closes on thin air as he skids to a halt to avoid the drop. She knows that the small escarpment drops steeply about six metres onto the treeless river bank, which the recent rains have made slick with thick ochre mud. Moments later she lands heavy on her back, and slides down the bank feet first at tremendous speed, half-blinded by the mud her sturdy boots are spewing into her face like the prow of a boat carving through waves.
There are shouts from above as the men squabble orders at each other. Some of them begin to climb down the side of the slope, using plants as hand holds to steady their descent, while others remain up on the ridge to take aim with their weapons. Bea is about half way down the bank when the shooting begins. The crack of gunfire slices through the air, and she is aware of bullets thudding into the mud around her as she toboggans down, but she can do nothing but pray that she can make it to the river.
Her little wooden canoe is waiting for her at the water’s edge where she had left it, hastily beached just enough to stop the fierce current taking it. In normal circumstances she could just step into the sturdy handmade craft, push away with her paddle, and float serenely away with the current. But it is useless to her now. If she tries to board it and paddle away she will be easy pickings for the gunmen at the top of the slope, and if they don’t get her, then the men climbing down after her certainly will. Another shot is fired, and this one is so close that it rips the bottom off the cargo pocket of her combat trousers. Almost at the boat, there is only one thing she can think to do.
Squinting through the mud, as she reaches the canoe she jabs her heels into the ground just in front of it, using her momentum to pitch her forward and up. As she flies over the canoe, she uses the hand on her still-functioning left arm to grab the gunwale closest to her, pulling it with her as she goes. The effect is for her to land hard in the water on her back with the capsized canoe on top of her. In the dark air pocket she finds herself in, with her good arm she has just enough time to grab hold of the small rucksack she had left sitting in the boat. She tries to take a deep lungful of air, but fails as she partly inhales some of the choppy water. Nevertheless she submerges herself, kicking away from the canoe as hard as she can as the current drags them both away from the bank with increasing speed.
From the gunmen’s perspective up on the ridge, the turbulence of the river and the dull rust colour of the water means that she is difficult to spot. Assuming that she is hiding underneath it, they direct their fire at the stricken boat as it spins woozily downriver, and it is soon riddled with bullet holes. From her vantage point submerged some distance away, she can see the occasional bullet streaking through the water like the fizzing umbilical of a diving bird, but then suddenly the shooting seems to cease. Perhaps her ruse has worked after all.
She now has two further challenges to overcome. First, her bag, and the little air that she managed to force into her lungs, are fighting to buoy her up to the surface. To counteract this, she is having to grasp the bag painfully with her dislocated arm, whilst pushing herself down in the water with frantic movements of her good arm as she is buffeted by the turbulent river. Second, she feels like she is about to drown. Her chest is convulsing as she fights the coughing reflex triggered by the water burning her windpipe. She is battling the urgent panicky need to JUST INHALE that she associates with the end of a long underwater swim. Having paddled up it shortly before, she knows a bend in the river is close, and she just has to hold her breath long enough for the current to carry her out of the gunmen’s line of sight, but she isn’t sure if she can make it that far.
At that moment, something changes. Through the torment of oxygen deprivation, a remarkable calm descends upon her, as if she can view herself from outside her own body. It feels quite unlike any other addled state she has ever known, like nothing matters anymore. On balance, she thinks this is probably not a positive sign. Perhaps this is what it feels like to die. All I have to do is breathe in, and then it will all be over. How ridiculous, she muses as she drifts in this new state of tranquility, to evade a gang of armed men, only to drown yourself as you escape. How bloody typical, Bea.
Then, from nowhere, a cold fury at the betrayal that had led her there wells up inside her. The anger reignites her wits, and with the last remnants of her strength, she kicks up towards the light.
June 2018: Cold
It had been several weeks since Bea Hawley had learned the details of her best friend Lou Tolhurst’s death in the Amazon rainforest. The Coroner’s report had set out how she had been found, and the condition of her body. There didn’t appear to have been a sexual assault, so the Coroner concluded Lou had perhaps been the victim of a mugging that had somehow got out of hand. This was of course possible, as the Amazon basin suffered from crime just like everywhere else. Also, Lou was a fighter, and was unlikely to have given in easily, which may have escalated the situation. Bea remembered a time at a nightclub when a drunk guy had groped Lou, leering as he tried to pull down her strapless top. Without hesitation she had pivoted at the waist like a boxer and put her full weight into punching him square in the face. Her knuckles had been bruised for days afterwards, but during the many retellings she had said it was worth it to see his shock and humiliation as blood spurted from his nose, spreading across his white shirt like a badge of dishonour.
So a botched theft was a possibility, but Bea also knew that Lou was good at reading people, and was indifferent to possessions, almost to a fault. The Lou she had known would have put the loss of a camera, wallet or even a passport down to experience. She had always shown remarkable resilience in that way, and it seemed odd to Bea that Lou would have fought to keep something easily replaceable.
There was something else that had been preying on Bea’s mind. After Lou’s death, her Mum had asked Bea to go through Lou’s emails, knowing that Bea would know the password to the account. They had gone through them together, finding nothing out of the ordinary, except for one unfinished email in her ‘drafts’ folder. It had been addressed to Bea and their friend Mikey, the day before Lou was killed. She must have started writing it in an internet cafe in Coari before getting distracted or losing her connection. It had no subject, and a single query had been written in the body - ‘Horsha?’ Neither Bea, Lou’s Mum, or Mikey had any idea what it could mean, and all manner of internet searches had drawn a blank too. Was she trying to tell them something? To ask for help? In the end they concluded it must have been some kind of typo or unfinished word that she had become distracted whilst writing, but it hovered at the edges of Bea’s thoughts nonetheless.
Bea’s imagination had taken the Coroner’s stark facts, moulding and shaping them to create a scene that tormented her night and day. In it, Bea saw a bird’s eye view of the jungle with a huge river snaking mercurially through it. From her lofty perspective it was a patchwork of greens, fresh and vibrant, the air clean, the skies china blue. As her imaginary self swept earthward, rainforest filling and darkening her horizon, she could eventually see a tiny body adrift in the water. It was floating face down, moving with the fast current, being buffeted by merciless rocks and floating branches. The body was making its way towards a group of fishermen in a small cluster of wooden canoes, who soon noticed it coming towards them. As it got closer Bea could see the body had a tattoo of a vine running from finger to forearm, the fingernail underneath its smallest leaf missing, along with two others on the other hand. As the fishermen hauled Lou’s body from the water, her face was revealed to show that she had been cruelly beaten. Her lips were split, one eye was red and swollen, and her front teeth were missing. She had a gunshot wound to the side of her head.
The state of Lou’s face was the one element of this scene that was not open to interpretation. Lou’s family were a tight-knit bunch, and Bea had stayed with them frequently over the years, developing a close bond with them. As a result, when Lou’s body had been repatriated to the UK, her dazed mother had offered that Bea could come along with them to see her if she wanted to. Bea had been torn. On the one hand she felt quite strongly that she didn’t want to go with them, preferring to retain the memory of her friend as vital and alive. At the same time, she also doubted whether she would be able to come to terms with the loss unless she saw Lou one last time. After much mental contortion, in the end she did go, and it turned out to be one of the most harrowing experiences of her life.
When Lou’s parents and younger brother arrived at the reception of the hospital, Bea was waiting for them. They all looked like she felt. Desolate, and somehow more insubstantial than usual, like a stiff breeze could snuff them out. A compassionate nurse took them to a small room that looked exactly like a normal hospital waiting room. Bea supposed there was no reason for it not to be a normal room, but for her it jarred with the abnormality of their situation. The group sat in blue plastic bucket seats in near silence, unable to focus on anything. Ten minutes later a police liaison officer came to take Lou’s Mum into the morgue to carry out the formal identification. Her husband clutched at her hand as she stood up, squeezing it. She didn’t seem to notice, and disappeared with the officer. Another ten minutes passed before the police officer came to fetch the rest of them. As they walked she told them that Lou had some bruising around her face, just so they would know what to expect. Entering the morgue itself, Bea hung back out of respect for the family, fighting to control the sickness squirming in her stomach.
Lou was lying on a table with a sheet covering her up to her neck, apart from her left hand, the one with the tattoo, which it transpired the staff had left uncovered for the family members to hold if they wanted. That was exactly what Lou’s Mum was doing when they entered the room, gazing down blankly at her daughters face, silent tears streaming down her cheeks. The rest of the time in that room was a blur. Lou’s Dad let out a guttural wail when he saw her, and stumbled around to stand on Lou’s other side, leaning heavily on the gurney for support, his breathing spasmodic and laboured. While this was going on, Lou’s younger brother Will just seemed to shrink silently like he had been punctured. Bea helped him to a chair where he sat with his head in his hands for a few minutes before he could pluck up the courage to lift his gaze and drag himself to a standing position to say goodbye to Lou. After what felt like an age Lou’s Mum took a few steps backward, and it was finally Bea’s turn. She had wanted to say something that mattered, that represented the loss she felt. She hadn’t planned anything, but had thought that perhaps some kind of fitting tribute would come to mind when the time came. In the end no sound at all would come out. Instead she just reached out for Lou’s hand, and was shocked by how cold it …