“I feel sick, unsteady-like, honestly Viv I think I’m going to throw up."
“Just go for it. Let it out. I remember this shit from those anthropology textbooks Jessie used to leave lying around. In a lot of places, tribes see vomiting as purging yourself of demons so that you can see the world as it truly is.”
“You believe that?”
“No – all drugs impair the brain in some way. Hallucinogenics especially tend to shut down some of your mental filters – allow areas of your mind to which you normally pay little attention to dominate. I don’t know how strong this brew Felix made is, but be prepared for memories and fantasies to seem more real than what’s around you. A little taste of madness, but it’s only a drug and it’s only temporary. Remember I’m here, I’ll try to ground you in reality wherever possible.”
“I am going to throw up.” Michael steadied himself against a young oak tree as his stomach added its contents to the floor of leaves and mossy roots.
“Hardly. Should I be feeling any effect yet?”
“Maybe a few visuals. Here.” Viv lit his lighter and moved it in a slow circle. “Did that leave any trail?”
“Yeah,” said Michael, starting to giggle. “Give me a go.”
“Not likely – you’ll burn the bloody forest down.” Suddenly, to Michael, this seemed like the funniest thing he had ever heard. His laughter echoed round the forest and he had to sit down. Tears blinded his eyes as he howled. Viv joined his friend on the ground, “You know what? This might not be so bad.”
Michael managed to bring himself back from the brink of paroxysm. “Do you feel anything yet?” he asked Viv.
“Oh yeah. Something’s kicking in alright.”
“You seem so normal.”
“I’m trying to stay grounded – it’s easier if you are in control from the start.”
He was alone in the woods. Someone was supposed to be with him. No, he was supposed to be looking for someone. He’d come a long way to find… Neibh. Was she here? ‘I’m always here.’ Where? ‘Right here.’ He needed her. He had waited too long and then he had travelled so far and now just when he thought that he had lost everyone she was here but he couldn’t see her. ‘I love you.’ He loved her too. He wondered where she had gone. It was so dark deeper in the forest. She could be right next to him.
“Try and think of something you can hold on too, a thought you can return to if things get scary.”
“Yeah, but make it a specific memory. If you just think about Neibh in general you might start fantasising. The next thing you’ll convince yourself she’s up some tree and you’ll fall and break your neck trying to reach her.”
“Okay – camping on the beach at Cromer.”
“Perfect, go there now. Get everything in mind, the smell of the seaweed, the warmth of the sand and whatever. Feel secure. Feel safe. Feel Neibh’s arms around you. Sit still and comfortable. Okay. Now if you get lost, if we get separated for whatever reason, sit down in this position and go back to the beach at Cromer with Neibh. I’ll find you.”
Michael was pinned to the ground. He could see Viv’s face above his own. Viv was holding him down. Why? There was something wrong with Viv’s face. The flesh was too white – like bone now in the moonlight. When had the moon risen? For that matter, when had the sun set? He looked up at the white hands pinning his arms to the damp floor. Bony hands. Skeleton hands. What had happened to Viv? Viv was supposed to be protecting him. Wasn’t he supposed to be the ground or something? Viv’s mouth was moving, but what was coming out didn’t sound like language any more. It was as if he was possessed. With a lunge, Michael threw all his bodyweight forward and heaved the hideous skeletal body off him. Thus freed, he ran off deeper into the woods.
“Can you see that?”
“We’re in a forest, Michael.”
“I know but…”
“Come on, keep walking. If we can get on to higher clearer ground, I’ll be able to show you something a bit more spectacular than a leaf.”
“I doubt it.”
“I mean, have you ever considered, really considered just exactly what it is a leaf does.”
“Well, it’s not just about the photosynthesis and all, it’s also beautiful. Like a tree in microcosm. Like the whole tree, the trunk, the branches, the twigs, are represented in the stem and veins of this single leaf.”
“Yes very good, very chaos theory. Now, come on.”
“I think it’s beautiful.”
“Michael. Put the leaf down now.”
‘You’re just in my head, aren’t you?’
‘What difference does that make?’
‘I thought it was really you. I thought I’d found you.’
‘You don’t know that. You’re just me and I’m mad.’ But only temporarily, he thought. Someone had told him that. Viv, where was Viv? He was real. Viv would help him.
“Now wasn’t that worth it?”
“My god!” Michael and Viv had arrived at a clearing at the top of a steep incline. They stood gazing at the sunset. “All those colours, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so… vivid!”
“I thought you’d appreciate it.”
“I never knew it could be so beautiful.” Michael reached out for his friend’s hand. Viv clasped it gently. “This may sound ridiculous, but I think I’m going to cry.”
“Go ahead. I’m going to make a fire.”
“I’m not cold.”
“I know but it will be dark soon and, in this state of mind, the old primeval fears can come out.”
“What do you mean?”
“The caveman fear. The fear of the unknown. The monsters in your head come out after dark. Stay there and watch the sunset.”
‘I think you’ve lost your way, Michael,’ his lover said. ‘You were coming to find me, remember?’
‘And look what happened. I put our friends in danger. I've lost Viv. He might have driven back for all I know. I should never have let him drive. God knows what happened to Felix. But I found this place. We can be safe here. I won’t put them at risk again.’ They were sat side by side on a tree trunk, his hand clasping hers for the first time in months. ‘I need you.’
‘You’re strong enough, you always have been. You shouldn’t doubt yourself.’
‘You can’t hide here.’
‘I’m not hiding.’
‘Why are you tripping in the woods?’
‘Oh Michael, haven’t you worked it out yet?’ As he leaned forward to receive her kiss, he remembered.
Viv was right. The wood was a different place after dark. Every cricket call and branch creak took on a new and menacing meaning. A moth fluttering into Michael’s face elicited from him a scream that brought Viv running back to the hilltop clearing. Michael heard this as a crashing through the woods and ran into the darkness. Shit, thought Viv as he chased after him, rugby-tackling him before he managed to get too far away. Michael’s arms flailed at him and Viv was forced to pin them to the ground.
“Calm down, Michael, remember what I told you. It’s just the darkness. But you are in control.” But Michael’s eyes were wide with terror and he did not seem to understand a word his friend was saying.
It’s just the brew and it’s only temporary, he told himself. What was Viv’s advice? Think of Neibh, camping on the beach at Cromer. He shut his eyes, shut out the dark wood, focused on the swirling colours behind his eyelids and took himself back to the beach. A pleasant weekend of beach walks and pier-fishing that might have been a thousand years ago for all that had changed. He re-lived every moment he could remember. And when that was over, he did it again.
Viv found Michael soon after sunrise. He had not run far. He was asleep – his head rested on the lumpy roots of an ash tree.
“How do you feel?” he shook his friend gently.
“Cold, tingly. Where have you been?”
“Physically, I’ve been sat by the fire I lit. Mentally, I’ve been on quite a journey.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“I spoke to Neibh.”
“You know that wasn’t real, right?”
“Yeah, I know. But I think I spoke to her memory. Sort of inside me. Does that make any sense?”
“That depends. What did she have to say?”
“I can’t stay here with these folks. We have to move on.”
"I still didn't say goodbye."
"I know, bud."
"I'm not sure I want to yet."