The case of the accident, the wolf & good old instinct
I’m sitting in the car on the driveway of our house in the Austrian Alps, speaking on the phone to my Better Half who’s 6,000 miles away. The news isn’t good. In fact it’s getting worse. In the grand scheme of things, it isn’t that bad, but at this moment, I feel quite sick. (For the record, he isn’t confessing to an affair with a younger model). Time ticks by; I’m late for my dinner with some friends, but I can’t cut the call. After we say our goodbyes, I’m almost an hour late. Really, instinct tells me, I should stay at home, call my friends and tell them I can’t come. They’d understand. But no: I turn the key in the ignition and back out of the driveway and head down the mountain, along the valley and up the next mountain where the road narrows and steepens, leading you along a few hair-pin and hair-raising bends. As an aside, this mountain drive is beautiful and once you reach the hut at the top – Obereigen – you really feel like you’re in Middle Earth terrain from Lord of the Rings.
In this instance, I don’t really pay much attention to the drive; and that’s my downfall. First, I have to reverse fifty metres to allow a bunch of alcohol infused Germans to pass by in their chicy-mickey cars, following a rollocking afternoon at Rosie’s, (the place to go if you are (a) German and (b) of a certain type). I’ll be honest: I’m crap at reversing, particularly reversing down a mountain, and, around one of those hair-pin bends, in a car, which, I’ve told my Better Half countless times, is too big for little me. My reversing manoeuvre takes another ten minutes, causing many pink, German faces to turn a shade of scarlet. Second, a light comes up on the dashboard telling me I have almost zero petrol. Every swear word pours out of my mouth as my Better Half had told me he had put in a ‘full tank’ of petrol a couple of days before. Yeah right. His idea of a full tank of petrol is half full; or half empty. Whichever way you choose to classify it, he never fully fills up the car as it, ‘weighs the car down and affects its performance’. Like I’m focused on that kind of thing. So I crawl along, not wanting to waste the precious drops of fuel, arriving at Obereigen with a head as distracted as a two year old’s. And I park like a toddler too. I end up pulling into a space way too small, scraping and denting my car; and an Audi. I identify its owner: an Iranian gentleman named Massud, who had long since exchanged the terror of Tehran for the peace of the Alps, with a car he has kept in pristine condition for the last 10 years, only for a British Pakistani to crash into it. (Calculate the odds of that happening). Obviously, I ruin his meal and his evening.
So the moral of this story is, if I had listened to my instinct I would’ve stayed at home, thus avoiding said accident and thousands of pounds of damage and a higher insurance premium. To quote my three year old daughter, “Papa isn’t happy; not even a little bit happy.”
This whole instinct thing reminds me of the summer holiday I spent with my sister in Banff, Canada. Another spectacular mountainous region, we had a great trip, except for the time I decided to go for a run one morning. I’d heard about a route that meandered along the base of the mountains, cutting through a forest. There’s no way I’d get lost as long as I followed the road; and, I’d been told, no grizzly or brown bears had been seen in the area for the last few weeks. Even so, my sister said to me,
“Do you really think it’s safe?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, limbering up. “I’ll be back in time for breakfast.” My sister looked at me, her mouth opened, then closed, before she headed back to bed with a cup of tea in her hand. I stopped for a second, wavering should-I-or-shouldn’t-I, but then shut the door behind me and exited our hotel, setting off at a jog, easing my legs into my run and enjoying my surroundings: think dust-blue sky, rugged peaks, birds singing from the tree tops, a general serenity to the place. After about fifteen minutes or so the road headed into the forest. “All good,” I thought to myself, “I just need to stick to the path.” Never mind that the trees grew thicker, turning everything shadowy; never mind that the birds seemed to have stopped their chirruping banter. To fill the silence, my mind went through an array of music choices. What did I subconsiously select? A nursery rhyme from a Fisher Price music box I once had as a child:
Whenever I feel afraid,
I hold my head erect,
And whistle a happy tune,
So no one will suspect I’m afraid!
It didn’t stop me from thinking about bears. Grizzly ones. Apparently, females with cubs were the ones to watch. Just a couple of months ago, one chased a poor jogger up a tree and killed her.
“Remember not to climb up a bloody tree,” I said to myself. “All I need to do is to keep running and say, ‘heigh-ho’.”
Like I’d have the breath in me to shout out ‘heigh-ho’; and really, who on earth came up with that one? More importantly, could I out-run a bear keen on protecting her little one? I picked up my pace, my heart racing, my stomach churning as I ran through the forest which just went on for what seemed an eternity.
I saw a glimmer of light. Sprinting towards it, I thought I was near the end of the forest and near the end of my run. Hallelujah! I was out of the forest, although the road now ran alongside the woody mass. And no, this wasn’t the end of the run. There were no buildings in the distance, no markers or any such like telling me I was close to home. My heart sank. Little did I know it was about to get much worse.
About 100 metres ahead of me I saw something trotting out of the trees onto the path. It wasn’t a bear. “Thank you, God,” I said to myself, my legs relaxing, the tension lifting from my shoulders. I drew nearer. It looked like a dog. An oversized one. I took a few more steps. “Oh Christ.”
I came to a standstill. As did the wolf. Both of us eyed the other up. Was I his breakfast? Were there others? Didn’t they hang around in packs? Panic fluttered like a distressed butterfly in my stomach; my heart stopped – either that or it had gone into overdrive, beating so quickly I couldn’t even feel it. I couldn’t move either. It was as if my feet had been superglued to the ground. Not that it would’ve mattered as all my muscles had turned to jelly. If I looked in the other direction and pretended to ignore it, it would go away. I’m sure that was what I heard once. God, I had no idea. Anything to make the wolf grow bored and run along. So I turned my head to the blessed mountains, cursing myself for going on this run. I wouldn’t be back in time for breakfast because I would be the equivalent of this wolf’s bacon and eggs, and then my sister would have the relish of telling me ‘I told you so’ even though I wouldn’t be around to hear it. Then and there I could’ve wept, but even my tear ducts failed me. I just stood there, probably looking like an idiot, standing like a miserable statue in the middle of this road in the middle of nowhere for what seemed like forever. All the while out of the corner of my eye I could see the wolf standing there. Sweat froze to my body, I shivered, my teeth chattered. “Is this it?” I thought. To which the wolf gave his answer: he padded away into the trees. I turned my head slowly and spotted him take pause, his gaze still fixed on me. How long he watched me, I have no idea, but time stretched out further and I was aching to leave. Eventually he did disappear into the forest. I should have sped off, but I was still stuck, still afraid to move my feet and to get going. And when I did, it was laughable as I took these tiny tentative steps as if I were learning to walk, uttering some prayer or other under my breath while glancing over my shoulder every few seconds.
As the road curved away from the forest I started running for real, desperate to get back, wanting to see my sister and admit that she really did tell me so. Just as my nerves were settling down, two gazelles bounded over a hedge and crossed my path. I could’ve had a heart attack. Forget the wolf: two graceful, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly creatures near put me into cardiac arrest. So I legged it home, raced through the hotel lobby, deaf to the calls of good morning and how are you from the staff behind reception, and banged on our hotel room door as if in need of a safe haven from a mad axe-man on the loose.
My sister opened it. “Where have you been?”
“I. Saw. A. Wolf,” I said, gasping for breath.
“Right,” she said. “Be ready in five minutes. I’m starving.”
It’s funny how instinct always gets it right. And it’s funny when we choose to listen to it. Maybe in my case it’s the whisper of don’t or you can’t which leads me to ignore it. It’s also one of the holy grails of story telling: putting the protagonist in peril, having the audience tell him/her: no, don’t go there, don’t do that. No doubt, Max Gissing, my main character in The Silent Children, when faced with a wolf would probably be as cool as a cucumber. He listens to his instinct, until, that is, he arrives in Vienna, at his estranged mother’s house, discovering secrets which, perhaps, should never have been discovered.
Until next time!