Part 1 here.
Strange pictograms are there and gone, blinking past with whispers of rivers and mountains and temples. They squiggle and twist as Alice looks at them, squirming away when she tries. Then they vanish again, winking away as if they were never there, leaving only memories and unknowns.
What are you staring at? questions Veerle. The story of how a Dutch girl ended up with them was relayed to Alice at one point the night before. She thinks.
Alice mumbles back a reply.
The signs… they’re all in Chinese.
Yeah, it is notable, is it not? Still, I think since three or four years, there’s been a lot of Chinese investment here. Lots of Chinese companies doing business here.
Oh, cool, thanks.
Alice rests her head against the window of the bus and closes her eyes. The juddering just makes her headache worse, so she straightens back up again, but the sudden movement causes something in her stomach to shift and a wave of nausea rises up her throat.
It’s a lot different to when I was travelling in Asia, continues Veerle.
Ah, you are still feeling a little hangovered? Sure, you’ll need some rest.
Alice nods her head as much as she dares and closes her eyes again. The sickness swells like a rough ocean, billowing and roiling horribly. There’s an acrid smell hanging in the air, sweat and people and stale cigarette smoke.
So she opens her eyes, peers out at the landscape flowing past the bus. A tangled jumble of factories, higher than the buildings in the city, scrawled with incomprehensible, geometric patterns, brightly coloured, with yellow plaster and redly corrugated roofs. Chimneys cough and sputter smoke skywards. Thick, grey, impenetrable, melting into nothingness in the clear blue of the sky. The factories peek out at the tourists over towering walls topped with twists of wire.
The bus crosses an intersection. The factories are gone, sneering from the far side of an invisible line. This side, the side they’re on now, huddles in mud and bare concrete. Buildings are everywhere, filling space, expanding with relentless greed. Businesses advertise themselves with shouted, blared promises in bright colours. The edge of the signs are peeling and faded. Music hammers groups of men standing drinking outside what Alice guesses are bars, from the speakers and the drink. She can’t see anything to mark them from houses otherwise.
And then it’s gone.
Choking traffic releases its grip, loosens the noose and the bus is in countryside, marked and demarcated and portioned. Alice stares, remembers green.
More signs, more adverts, with flashes and stars and imprecations. They promise perfect crops, implore someone to come and visit the perfect show plot, a garden of eden of perfect productivity and maximum yield. Ruler straight fences square off right angles, neat trees march in lines beside the ploughed rows. A snout, a face poke out from behind one of them, then snaps back again. Birds wheel overhead in liquid circles.
Seeds and earth and growth are measured and dissected and planed off. Then sold.
Alice’s stomach lurches at a sudden, jolting stop. Her head tips forward and she bumps it off the seat in front. It aches, the pain clanging around the inside of her skull in a dull, methodical procession. The tips of her fingers are tingling, trembling. She can’t raise her hands to rub her eyes, so she closes them again.
All she can smell is the people, the sweat and the spice and she feels the twisted writhing in her stomach and it heaves and she opens her eyes and gasps, sucking in huge gulps of air to calm herself.
A baby begins to cry, woken by the braking. It howls, wails tremulously, a tiny wan banshee dooming everyone who hears it. Nobody else on the bus notices or turns.
Alice shuffles in her seat, pressing up against Veerle in the half space she has to herself. There are five people in their row of four seats. Alice has her feet tucked sideways under the bench, and she’s pressed against the window like an exhibit.
She puts her jumper on the window and balls it up. The juddering through the cushion is soothing, a mechanical massage. She lays her head there and watches the farm displays roll by.
You want my headphones? queries Veerle, looking up from a book. You look like you would do well with some sleep.
Oh, thanks, I’ve got my own, murmurs Alice, somewhere. No wait, they’re in my big bag, I think. I haven’t used them yet.
Veerle locks her elbow and drops a mess of cable into Alice’s lap. Here, just take these for now, I am not using them anyway.
Thanks very much.
Alice unzips a pocket, fishes her phone out from the depths, plugs the headphones in. She flicks through the five or six albums she hasn’t bothered to delete. A random stab at the screen gives her music, enough to drown out the baby and the low rumbling clank of the engine.
She closes her eyes and concentrates on the music, ignores the pulsing of her guts. That note goes there, key change, what do the lyrics to this one actually mean? I’ve listened to it a thousand times before but never thought about what it means, what they’re trying to say, or is it just to sing with, to dance to, to bounce along mindlessly.
A crocodile looms, deep, glittering viridian. Eyes jewels, glint, dark. Coated in something, sheening.
Unfathomable. Crevasses falling away into forever.
She is awake.
Scrubby nothingness rolls away outside the windows. Sweeps across plains of low bushes and stunted trees, towards ridged mountains stalking menacingly on the horizon. Waiting to pounce.
No humans are there. There is nothing but the road, straight and black and white and edged, slicing through the wilderness in front of them. And the bush, browning and starved, barren. Flecks of green are sprayed there, the aftermath of careless, wanton graffiti. But it wilts.
The bus is emptier, roomier. Alice has stretched herself, curled herself. Snuggled protectively in the nest of her jumper.
She unbends her knees from their tuck. Rises to a low stoop, bending and flexing groaningly as much as she can under the low roof. She wiggles and cracks her joints, flexes her neck, and peers around to see what’s going on.
The minibus is now mostly their group, about fifteen white women, sprinkled throughout the seating. Locals dot them here and there, but the pressing crush of earlier is gone. The windows have been opened and the bus smells dry, earthy, like ancient parchment.
There is a tap on her shoulder. Alice gradually rotates, dragging her body around.
How you feeling, shagger?
Daisy’s tone doesn’t match her words. There is a kind warmth in her eyes.
Em, yeah, alright.
You wanna talk about last night? He any good?
Maybe later, thanks, Alice demurs. Still feeling a bit out of it at the moment.
Don’t blame you, accepts Daisy, you were pretty blown away. Not that I was a paragon of respectability myself, to be fair. Ah, what the hell, sleep when you’re dead.
Alice giggles. Her head is pleasantly weary, hazily tired.
Her stomach is demanding. She is sagging, empty. She reaches down to her bag, tears it open, reels out a greasy paper bag.
Christ, have you not eaten yet? Bloody hell, you must be starving, Daisy exclaims. And more hungover than I thought, if it’s taken you that long to recover. Or just catching up on sleep after your stallion?
Alice looks up from the bag of cold sausage and chips.
Sorry, I’ll drop it. Still, if you wanna talk any time, I’m here. Daisy switches gears, hammers onwards. You know much about where we’re going now? Because I know fuck all, just go along with whatever the better organised ones say. Been that way for years, since I first met Reggie.
She talks to fill the gap, lets Alice chew a faceful of congealed fat. Half paying attention to the chatter, half sighing with deep satisfaction.
Not a lot. I didn’t do as much reading before I came here as I meant to do, just with school and time and stuff.
Reggie! Reggie! None of the locals turn their heads at Daisy’s stridency. They stare at their feet, or their sewing, or the window. Out over the treeless bush.
What’s this place we’re going to?
The witch doctor place, remember? Village on the slopes of the mountain, genuine authentic juju stuff.
Oh yeah, the one that that guy at the hotel said cost like twenty beers worth each.
You can drink at home. I didn’t come all this way to miss out on culture.
The local brew is culture! Daisy laughs. But yeah, fair enough.
Regina replaces the one headphone she removed to listen to her friend. She stares out over the rolling landscape, tapping her foot in time to a song only she can hear. The officially licensed soundtrack of the bush is Katy Perry.
Alice looks back down at the Styrofoam platter in her hand. She chews mechanically. The chips taste of oil and salt.
She finishes the portion off and looks around for somewhere to put her rubbish. There are crumbs, papers, wrappers littered wantonly over the floor of the bus. The bus takes a turn and a bottle rolls down the aisle. A toddler peers after it from his seat, longing.
Alice glances beside her and sees the wrapping Veerle has stuffed into her seat pocket. She hesitates, then wraps the Styrofoam in as much of the clingfilm covering as she can, trying to contain all of the crumbs. She slides it into her seat pocket, snatches her hand away, looks around. No one sees her. Veerle’s head lolls over onto her shoulder.
The weight of it presses on her. She smiles, feels a spray of hair fanning across her exposed skin. It flutters, light, ephemeral, in the breeze of her breath. Alice shifts a little in her chair, letting Veerle rest more comfortably on her. She curls her body up and stares out the window.
There is a disturbance on the horizon. A ripple in the landscape mars the bristling expanse. They drive towards it, the road straight and unwinding, flying true across the bush.
Then the road begins to turn, begins to rise and fall. The bus goes with the dictates of nature. Ridges and crests protrude from the earth, shadows are cast by their overhang on the scrub beneath.
Passing one, Alice sees something move, dart away as the bus approaches with its trail of dust and stink. Something snaps back into the darkness and the dust cloud of the bus’ passage washes over the hollow, coating everything in a powdery matte. The country is dulled as they pass. The green of the leaves and the bushes is concealed beneath a sullen brown.
The setting sun isn’t reflected on the ground. It flares orange, a defiant burst against the darkness already rushing towards the bus. A few clouds straggle across its surface and are lit with an incandescent glow. They give off no more light than the sun does. It sinks further, touching the horizon and grandiosely slinking away, defeated.
Darkness is there. Black and instant. Alice can see nothing past the window. She stares into the eyes of her own glassy reflection.
They are climbing now, creeping upwards from the floor of the world. The road begins to wind more and more and the plants living alongside the road change as they twist their way upwards. Less exposed to the wind and the scorching sun, moisture gleams in the headlights of the bus. Whenever the light fully catches them, these new plants are vibrantly, intensely green.
They press in, closer, looming, insistent. Every turn they take leaves a momentary impression on Alice’s eyeballs, an imprint of light and patterns that she has to blink to get rid of. She sees shapes, writhing, curling around and between and through one another. She closes her eyes, hard. The glowing patterns float on the inside of her eyelids, purple and yellow and red. They fade.
She snaps her eyes open again with a start. Again, she has slept, disturbed, shallow sleep. Veerle’s head is no longer on her shoulder. She feels a pang at the loss of unconscious companionship.
Then it’s gone as she stands and stretches, shivering and contorting with the pleasurable ache of tired muscles. Others around her are standing, stretching. A few of her friends fish bags out from under their seats, hauling on straps to retrieve their things. Others have already jumped down the stairs, plunging into the darkness outside.
No-one hears, or answers. Either way. The engine’s off, the bus is emptying. Alice grabs her own bag, reeling the little rucksack out from the corner it had been crushed in to beneath her legs.
The fluorescent strips stretching along the ceiling highlight the pen marks, the stupid in jokes etched onto the surface of her rucksack. Hearts and stars and names are scored into its surface. The lost messages of another tribe, the crude sign language of school. A couple of badges, bands and causes, are scattered across its surface. Alice throws it over one shoulder and jerkily steps down the aisle, lowers herself down the stairs and falls into the outside.
She is surrounded by faces looming out of the darkness.
Where you going?
A galaxy of little torch lights, phones shining on noses and cheekbones, faces appearing out of the dark.
Arms are waving, miming an exaggerated steering wheel at her, questioning. They press up to her, surround her. She walks away and they follow, encircling, a protective cordon. She goes towards the back of the bus, towards the compartment where she saw her luggage stowed earlier. One of the taxi drivers jumps inside, pointing, gesticulating.
This one? This?
Alice tries to wave the arms away, reaches for her own rucksack, gleaming in the light of the torches the taxi men are carrying. Reflective panels flash. Bright new colours twinkle. The taxi man crouching inside the hold of the bus sees where she’s reaching, brushes her aside, swings the bag up onto his back.
She snatches at the bag as she sees it float past her. Disappearing into the darkness. Her things. Her stuff. Being taken.
She chases after the taxi man, grabs at his shoulder. He turns and faces her. Breaks into a broad grin.
Cheap taxi to wherever you go, yes?
Alice shakes her head, tries to say no. Thinks about where she is going, where she wants to be taken. She doesn’t know.
Tree branches wave in the darkness, brushing in and out of the phone light the taxi man is using to see his way. He steps around holes in the surface. The enormous backpack sits loose on his back.
It occurs to Alice that he really should adjust the straps if he’s going to be carrying that a distance.
She giggles, and stares after the taxi man. She trips after him, legs still stiff from the bus, feet slipping into ruts and cracks.
A shout from somewhere, back near the bus, the constellation of lights.
Alice tries to shout back. Tries to say something above the rushing blood in her ears, pounding, throbbing, the rhythm of her panting, gasping breaths. She sees her bag, reflecting the lights around the bus, twinkle into boot of the taxi.
Something comes out. An inchoate, animal cry of distress and anguish. A calf separated from its mother.
A couple of the lights detach themselves from beside the bus. They bob over, floating in the darkness.
What you doing?
A couple of shouts. Lights shine on the taxi, reflecting off the metal. The driver raises a hand to shield his eyes.
Alice! You OK?
Yeah, I’m fine.
Why you over here? What’s going on?
He’s got my bag, he took it, I couldn’t stop him, and he walked off with it, he’s a taxi driver I think, and I followed because he had my bag and I think it’s in the boot and-
Slow down, calm down. Did you ask for a taxi?
No, he just said taxi and followed me and grabbed my bag off me and put it in the boot.
Hey! She doesn’t want to go in your taxi, we’re together.
Cheaper for three to get taxi together?
Thank you, but we’ve got friends waiting for us. The lodge we’re staying at’s sending a bus to come pick us up.
Can you just open the boot please and we’ll take the bag and go?
But she said! She said she wanted a taxi and I could carry bag for her-
I’m sure. But I’m very sorry, we’ve already arranged a bus with the lodge and it’ll be here any second.
The driver nods, the spark of hope in his eyes vanishing. He climbs out of the car. There is something in his hand, long, thin, twisted, a piece of metal. It’s an old coat hanger. Pulled and bent into a sinister hook.
The driver strides round to the back of the taxi and stabs the coat hanger into the car, into the gap between the boot lid and the body. He jimmies it for a second, listens to the rattling. He flicks his wrist and it catches something. He pulls.
The door springs upwards, freed with a clunk. Alice snatches her bag with both hands, swings it up onto her back. Staggers under the sudden weight. She almost topples with inertia.
We’re very sorry for your trouble.
It’s just OK, madam, no problem.
Come on, Alice, what the hell?
She is dragged away, hauled by an arm back towards people.
It’s OK. Just get back over here and you’ll be alright.
Thank Reggie. She was the one noticed you were gone.
Alice walks back into the circle of girls, hudddled. They peer into the night, trying to spot something. Regina is there, Daisy, Veerle, all the rest.
Hey, guys, Alice murmurs. Sorry, he just grabbed my bag and I had to follow.
Nah, that’s cool, happens all the time, grins Daisy. She thumps a solid hand on Alice’s shoulder. Once, I was on a bus in Egypt, right, it stops, I get off, go to grab my bag and find where the hell I am, it’s some godforsaken hour of the morning, this guy starts trying to grab my bag off me. I’m pulling at it, he’s like ‘Madam, madam, I will take your bag to good hotel, nice rooms, very cheap’ and I’m all ‘no way Ahmed’ and he’s pulling and I’m pulling and I lose my grip. He goes sprawling on his arse, my bag bursts open, and he gets my vibrator right in the face!
Alice laughs, deep, until her stomach aches. The others smile, stay looking outward.
Come on, Dee, we’ve all heard that one before, someone says.
She hasn’t! Anyway, Daisy continues, he goes redder than a slapped arse, scrambles up and calls me a whore right in front of everyone, all the other people around looking to see what’s going on, and there’s such a stramash that I had to get straight back on the bus and leave again. So calm down, it could’ve been worse.
Something hurtles out of the darkness. It careers towards the group, panting, gasping in huge breaths as it thunders over the ground.
Alice stands and watches as the ground shakes beneath her feet. Her breath is even and measured. She is cold. She is comfortable.
No one else is looking where she is. They stare into the dark, scan for signs of an approaching bus. Ignore the vast beast hammering towards them.
Alice sees it. The beams from phones fall into the wrinkles and shadows of flat, leathery skin, shine off a spur of white. Then the footfalls, the drumming roar in her ears, stop.
The animal skids into the circle of phone light, carried onwards to a sliding halt, sides heaving, pulling at the rich, damp air. It comes to a stop in front of Alice.
It exhales, gale-like, in her face. Alice’s hair ruffles; the breeze is warm, and sour. She hears a slight buzzing. There are hundreds, thousands of tiny insects swarming around the thing’s flanks, darting and flicking in a thick cloud. It has an overwhelming smell, of dung and earth and plants. It smells alive.
Alice looks up, past the gaping mouth and lolling tongue. There is a black eye watching her. She sees herself reflected in it, small, pale. Alone.
The rhino lowers its head. Its horn is dull, flat, dirty. The point is blunt. It raises its head back up again and looks Alice in the eye.
Greetings young one.
Greetings, Alice echoes. She looks around. Nobody seems to notice what’s going on.
You are unlike these others.
The great beast doesn’t move its mouth. It stands and stares at her, its black gaze boring into her brain, the words reverberating of themselves in her mind.
You have not felt it yet? I have called you, protected you, guided you. And you have come to me.
I’ve come where my friends planned to go.
Did you see this plan beforehand?
Alice walks up to the rhino. She reaches out an arm, a hand. The animal doesn’t move. Slowly, tentatively, she places her palm on its cheek.
The skin feels warm and soft beneath her fingers. It is pliable, rough and loose. And real. Present.
What are you? She breathes.
One saturnine eye swivels, fixes on her face.
I am what has been lost. What has been forgotten.
The rhino pulls its face away from Alice’s hand. It raises one mighty knee, then another, and it is gone, galloping away into the forest. Alice’s head rattles with the memory of its departure.
Her hand is still outstretched. Still warm. She can still feel the supple skin on her palm, still smell the thick animal taste on the air.
Hey, you alright?
Regina looking over. Alice flexes her arm, her palm, as nonchalant as she can manage.
Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Any idea how much longer this bus is going to be?
That’s it now, Regina points down the road. A pair of beams are tracking their way towards them. Good thing too, I’m shattered.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m tired as well.
Part 3 is here.