Land Of Fire - by Jan Jones
Tierra del Fuego. The tip of the world. Behind me lay a frozen road; in front of me the ice flecked foam of the South Atlantic seas. After this there really isn't anything else. Rob told me once that a ship could sail east out of the Beagle Channel, travel right around the globe, and enter it again from the west without ever changing course to avoid land.
Rob. A tear turned cold on my stinging cheek. I saw him in my mind's eye now, sitting at the kitchen table eagerly tracking through the pages of the big atlas, planning the route, estimating how long it would take.
Rob. My Rob. Adventurer Rob. We'd been to so many wild, lonely places together, places I wouldn't have dreamt of going to alone. Our first summer we'd ignored the need for vacation jobs and climbed the French Alps instead. I remember sitting three-quarters of the way up Mont Blanc with him, drinking hot chocolate from his flask, feeling his presence beside me, and knowing that if life held no more it would still be perfect.
Life had held more, much more. Half-way down Mont Blanc, Rob had said the Alps were getting too crowded and why didn't we try the Massif Central instead. And perhaps have a stab at the Pyrenees before it was time to go back to university. And then Greece next summer; Olympus down to Parnassus, maybe. Rob had visions of places I'd never even heard of spread out like relief maps in his head. His dreams were so enormous that it was all I could do to sit in one corner of them and marvel. And when he asked me, in Annecy that night, whether I wanted to get married there or leave it until we got back to Durham, I was so happy and vastly content that my joy could have filled an ocean.
We never did learn to sail. I don't really know why because Rob loved scrambling around coastlines and gazing out over the blue-green depths of the sea. I think perhaps he felt that while his feet were still on rock, he was in control, in command of his own destiny, that the sea was too fickle and unpredictable a medium to be taken lightly. Anyway, once the children arrived there was no time to learn new skills; so much simpler to just pack them into the camper and be off, off to wherever Rob had in mind for us next. Rob. For years he'd been our lode star, our bright banner, our guide. He'd taken us to the Andes, to the Gobi desert, to the Great Lakes, to Ayers Rock... and then a year last Tuesday he'd been walking down the High Street and a drunk driver had ploughed into him as he crossed the road to Woolworths.
* * * * *
I kept the video camera relentlessly pointing out over the wide expanse of grey-blue nothing that is the Atlantic Ocean. When I'd told the man at the hire garage where I wanted to go, and that I wanted to stay overnight, he'd nodded in sad-eyed compliance, folded my pesos away in a work-stained denim pocket and explained to me the intricacies of the ancient Primus chained to the back of the van. If there was a hint of condolence, a vestige of pity in his manner, I shut it out. I wanted no-one's speculation, no-one's sympathy. And so I'd finally stood on the frozen grass yesterday afternoon and shot four hours of Antarctic sea, and I was shooting four hours again this morning. It had to be done in one go, Rob always said, because otherwise you'd forever wonder what was missing.
As I filmed, the only sounds those of wind over waves and the far-off cries of the seals, I thought about the heartbreak of this past year. Of how I'd painstakingly had to learn all the things that Rob had known automatically: stupid things, like how to change a tyre and where the stopcock was; important things, like money. Of how I'd had to accept that the children were growing up, learnt to let them help, learnt to trust them. Of how, in spite of everything, the family was still together. I remembered how the tears had coursed down my cheeks the first time I'd heard Laura's voice behind the closed door of Rob's study pouring out a desperate monologue on life and exams and the break-up with her boyfriend. I remembered Nick strolling easily in and out of his father's room to consult the encyclopaedias Rob always swore were the finest learning aid in the world. Nick and Laura. Our children. God, I was proud of them. This was the first trip ever that they hadn't come on, but it was winter at home, mock GCSE/mock A-Level time, I couldn't take them away from that. Besides, this wasn't an ordinary journey; there was a lot more to it than finishing what Rob had started. It was something I had to do for myself.
Tierra del Fuego. When Ferdinand Magellan sailed along his Straight in 1520, he saw the far bank covered with the bonfires of the Ona Indians, and that's what he named this most southerly portion of the world: Tierra del Fuego - The Land of Fire. I could feel the Ona Indians' fire burning in my gut now as the cassette clicked to an end and I brought my weary arms slowly and painfully down. Mission accomplished. I stowed the camera, stowed the precious cassette. At home I'd make fifteen different copies and store them in fifteen different places. This journey wasn't one I wanted to repeat. Stiffly, I jiggled with the primus, made the cocoa, let its warmth seep into me. Tierra del Fuego had been the last trip Rob had planned and it had taken me nearly a year to set it up. Oh, it would have been simplicity itself to have flown direct to Ushuaia, driven down here to the tip of the world, and flown out again, but that had never been Rob's way. For him, the journey was an experience in its own right, back as well as to. How can you appreciate the scale of what you've done if you're home five minutes after you've done it?
The solicitors couldn't believe their ears when I told them what I was spending the damages on: a new camper so that we could still go to all the places Rob loved. It's waiting for us now, on the other side of the Beagle Channel, waiting for us to drive it back through Argentina and then the 8,000 miles or so home. By the time we get back, Mum will have been looking after the kids for five weeks. I owe her and Dad a debt of gratitude I can never repay. They've supported me right from the start, ever since the accident. Even now I don't think the hospital believe me when I say I know that there's a sentient mind trapped in Rob's flaccid, powerless body. Even when I brandish ECG scans in triumph, taken when the children and I have been talking to him or when he's been watching a favourite programme or listening to an argument, they twist their lips sceptically and trot out condescending little doubts about theory versus practice. But Mum and Dad believe me. So do Laura and Nick. And when their friends come round they insist on including their father in the conversations just as they always did, even though he can't talk back.
I carefully spoon the cocoa into Rob's unresponsive mouth as he looks out over the wild, lonely seas, muffled to the chin in a wheelchair at the very end of the world. Once we get home, he'll watch the videos for hours on end and I know he'll remember sitting here and seeing it for real.
We finish the cocoa and I begin the laborious process of making ready to travel. Already my mind is on the journey home. But just before I wheel the chair up the ramp into the van, I manoeuvre Rob as close to the edge of land as I can safely get him and link my arms round his shoulders. "Tip of the world, Rob. There's nothing any more, nothing as far as the eye can see." I swing him round again to face me and drop to my haunches, burrowing inside the thermal covers until I'm holding both his hands in mine. "You know what that means, don't you? The only possible way we can go now is back."
Rob stares at me with his sea-blue eyes and I know inside his helpless frame he loves me as powerfully and strongly as ever he did that day on Mont Blanc. My tears run free at last, there at the edge of the land; not the first I've shed for him by any means, but the first in a year and a day that I've let him see.
"Don't give up, Rob," I tell him, "because I'm not going to. And believe me, one day we'll get to the top of Mont Blanc again, crowds or no crowds."
Strapping him into the seat, joking about how nice it will be to get back to our own camper tonight, speculating on how long it will take us to get out of Argentina's nether regions and into its warmer climes, I catch my breath in sudden unbelieving hope. There is a single tear clinging to the lower lashes of Rob's left eye. I take it gently on to the tip of my finger and brush it against my lips. "I hear you, Rob," I tell him softly. "I hear you." And I start up the engine to take us home.