Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson, Theo – and for himself. Theo was seven months old at this time.
It was, of course, absolutely of my own making; my fault, no-one else’s.
And yes, before you rush to point it out, it was entirely ridiculous to think that I could get away with it – walking for six strenuous miles in gathering Cretan heat, taking barely a sip of water.
Not that I was thinking about it; that was the trouble.
But that said, I have to admit that when it hit, it was one of the bigger shocks of my life. And, in truth, I am not sure I have come fully to terms with it yet, these months later.
Because there was a moment – a brief moment of what I took at the time to be lucidity – when I thought it was over for me.
Lights out. Gone.
And I know how foolish and melodramatic that now sounds: but you had to be there to understand. In fact, you had to be there and be me.
You see, my body had never betrayed me before, never seriously failed.
The fortunate fact is that beyond the usual childhood ailments, and beyond being laid low by the very occasional cold or bug, I have never been ill, I have always enjoyed good health. Although ‘enjoy’ probably isn’t the word for something I’ve been able to take wholly for granted.
And that meant that I had no point of reference, no previous experience to draw on when it started. I couldn’t explain it to myself or anyone else; I wasn’t able to say, this is what’s happening.
Just this. Nothing more.
Not that there was any panic, you understand. Far from it.
Let me explain.
It was in September and we were walking the eleven demanding downhill miles of the Samaria Gorge of western Crete to Agia Roumeli and the Libyan Sea.
It had been an early and difficult start to the day. We had risen in the dead of the night at the villa we had rented high in the olive groves above Kissamos and had driven for an hour in enveloping darkness to reach an unlikely and unglamorous rendezvous – a Lidl car park on the outskirts of Chania. From there we were picked up by our guide and began a snaking drive through the White Mountains as the sun mistily rose. It was a brief interlude of calm. As the road climbed ever higher, we saw plenty of goats; not another car.
From the Omalos plateau we were to make our descent. We were not alone.
Within minutes of our arrival, we were joined by a jostling rush of coaches packed with fellow hikers. Hundreds of us then set off at the same time. As we inched forwards, it was more like being on London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve than the start of one of the most scenically dramatic walks in Europe.
Picking your way steeply downhill along narrow paths amongst so much shuffling humanity of every imaginable shape, size, age and physical ability is not easy. You quickly discover that you want to go faster than some and not as fast as others. You hear the exasperated tramp of footsteps close behind; at the same time, you can’t stop yourself becoming impatient with some of those ahead. For the most part though, you are carried on in a rapidly flowing river of people.
After a mile or so, it becomes easier. Not the walking – every step has to be watched along the way as you stumble on boulders and slip on treacherous scree – but the crowd at least begins to thin.
It is only then that you can relax a little, enjoy it, look around. And it is the most magical of places. Towering cliffs, lofty forests; birds swooping and calling, butterflies dancing.
After six miles we reached a resting place. And it was there, as soon as I sat down that it began.
Suddenly, my vision pixelated, began to fracture, disintegrate. I could still see Ann, my wife, sitting beside me; close but now somehow unreachable, too far away.
‘I can’t see properly,’ I told her, not entirely calmly but with no real desperation, no rising dread. It was as if there was a mystery I was trying to make sense of; for her, for me.
I said it three times, I think.
Distantly I then became aware that I felt seriously unwell in a way that I couldn’t explain. Then or now. It was a kind of numbed descent into a place of separation. As if my senses were being shut down one by one.
There was a feeling of finality, a sense of departure and the world was suddenly unhurried.
It was then that the question came into my mind.
Is this how it ends?
I was aware that I was asking it of myself with little more than a tug of disappointment and with gentle puzzlement. I was wryly conscious too of the fully formed sentence; grammatically correct, well-modulated to the last.
Is this how it ends?
And because time was no longer functioning in any way that I recognised, I didn’t leave it at that. I was able to provide an answer.
If it is, then it’s not so bad.
I felt momentarily content.
It had been a life beyond imagining; I’d done more, seen more, lived more than my young self would have thought possible. And I was now sitting in a place of beauty; I had walked (and I love to walk) where butterflies dance and birds sing; and the last face – the last anything – I was going to see was her face, the woman who has brought me more happiness than I have ever dreamt I deserved.
Where else would I rather be at the end?
Is this how it ends?
I asked myself again, peacefully, as the blackness came.
The answer, of course, was ‘no’: it was not how it ended.
Seconds later I came to and found myself stretched on the ground, Ann by my side, my legs being held aloft by a large German in unforgivably green shorts. He had apparently seen me toppling forwards and had helped Ann to catch me, ease me down.
An entirely humourless, conscientiously caring Swiss pharmacist came from nowhere and tried to take control, efficiently checking me over, asking me questions, taking my pulse.
Heart and stroke were quickly ruled out. It was dehydration that had kicked in, causing me to pass out.
I felt embarrassed, ridiculous, stupid; a fraud.
People’s kindness was though extraordinary. I was offered water, fruit, sweets, handshakes, advice, smiles of encouragement.
I recovered quickly and completed the last five miles of the walk, albeit at a more considered pace. I was chastened and apologetic – I had, after all, given Ann the most terrible shock – but physically untroubled.
But as I walked the answer to my question nagged at me – If it is, then it’s not so bad – and I quickly realised that I could not have been more selfish or more wrong.
To have gone there, then, like that, would have been the stuff of nightmares for Ann, for everyone. Apart from anything else, the only way out of the Gorge was on the back of a mule – and being strapped across a braying, swaying saddle is not exactly the dignified exit anyone would choose.
But what I struggled with most, as I walked those final miles, was why I had felt so peaceful and content? Why I had been prepared to submit to it so easily?
In the end, I concluded that it can only have been an effect of the dehydration.
Because, in truth, I’m not exactly the peaceful type. There’s not much in my life that I have readily submitted to and I never have had it in mind to go gentle into that good night. I have always imagined that I would follow the poet’s advice and go raging against the dying of the light.
And I think that more now than ever, now that I feel slightly less invincible, more aware that my body is not entirely to be trusted after all.
So it’s my hope, my intention – my resolution for this and every year – to go on raging.
Because there’s so much more living to be done: places to visit, people to meet, books to read, books to write.
Because I want to share every last astonishing moment with my wife.
And because I have a grandson, Theo.
Who I want to watch grow.
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