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The trail

A Christmas short story by Anthony Horowitz
Illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy

17 December 2011

11:00 PM

17 December 2011

11:00 PM

A Christmas short story by Anthony Horowitz
Illustrated by Carolyn Gowdy

They were spending their first Christmas together in Antigua, Simon and Jane Maxwell, enjoying not just a holiday but a honeymoon after a courtship that had taken them both by surprise. It was his second marriage, her first — and perhaps it was because she had waited so long that she had jumped into it so readily. Of course, she was a modern woman with a perfectly successful career… in publishing, as it happened. She might be single but she would never have described herself as ‘on the shelf’. It wasn’t as if she kept cats or anything dreadful like that. But her 40th birthday was fast approaching, her two younger sisters were not only married but with child (her father was a vicar) and she had begun to feel that if an opportunity did come her way she might as well grab it for better or for worse — reflecting at the time that it was an appropriate choice of words.

She knew that she had disappointed her parents by marrying in a registry office but it wasn’t as if Simon had put undue pressure on her. They had all agreed that it was for the best, given the age and status of the couple plus the fact that all their friends were in London. Had Jane allowed herself to be rushed into the decision? No. It had been a lovely, bright December day. There had been the ceremony, a wedding lunch at the Dorchester and then, in a cloud of bio-degradable confetti, a taxi to Heathrow and the long flight to the winter sun.

Simon had chosen the hotel; an intimate, whitewashed, wooden construction built in the manner of an old plantation house though one with room for 80 guests, two swimming pools, a water sports centre and a bar with Italian furniture, right on the beach. It was situated close to Galleon Bay on the southern tip of the island with Nelson’s Dockyard, a perfect souvenir of Georgian England, just a five-minute boat ride away. There were palm trees and the sort of lawns you only find in the Caribbean… very English actually, flat and almost too well tended. And then came the sea, a strip of improbably white sand and blue water with boats bobbing, children playing and, on the horizon, the island of Montserrat with its volcano throwing extraordinary pillars of smoke into the otherwise cloudless sky.

The hotel was expensive. Even though Simon was paying, Jane had been alarmed by the menu where a simple salad or club sandwich commanded a price that would have equalled a three-course meal back home. And as for the well-stocked fridge next to the television in their room, if it had been a storage facility in a deadly biochemical research centre, she could scarcely have opened it with a greater sense of unease. How could a miniature, indeed a minuscule, whisky cost that much? What secret did the three-dollar Mars bar contain? The truth was that Jane wasn’t used to holidays like this. In fact she had never been away from home at Christmas before. To her, it seemed quite the wrong time to be abroad. And what was it about the second week in December that allowed flights, mysteriously, almost to double in price? After all, it wasn’t as if they suddenly had to fill up with a different fuel from the one they had used the day before.

Simon didn’t like Christmas. ‘It’s all so commercial these days. I swear to God I saw mince pies in Waitrose in the middle of October and as for the lights in Regent Street, they’re a bloody disgrace. Have you seen them this year? They’re promoting some sort of Disney film. They’re just advertisements! And let’s face it… there’s nothing on television except Downton Abbey and we can SkyPlus that. What do you say?’

Jane hadn’t said anything. It hadn’t ever really bothered her what hung in Regent Street as she had always spent Christmas at the vicarage in Devon. But from the moment she had met him, she had rather admired Simon’s brash, no-nonsense view of life. As the senior partner in a well-known architectural practice, he was a successful businessman but there was a creative side to him too. Over the years he had become used to life in what he would doubtless call the fast lane. He had no fear of cliché. He travelled all over the world and, unlike Jane, he knew what it was like to turn left on a plane. More pertinently, he had already been married and had a 19-year-old son at university.

It was at the start of their second week that Simon suggested that they break away from their Piz Buin and their eBooks and go for a proper walk. They had strolled once or twice to the very end of the beach and had noticed a path that twisted round the corner and then climbed steeply up towards Shirley Heights, an old fortress that lay abandoned for most of the week but offered rum and reggae every Sunday. Jane, who was finally catching up with Stieg Larsson but who wasn’t enjoying the violence and the interminable tracts about right-wing Sweden, readily agreed.

They set off together, walking along the sand with the waves lapping at their feet until they reached a jetty, broken and picturesque at the end. At that point they turned inland and began the ascent. It was a beautiful day. The sunlight was brilliant and intense, accentuating the extraordinary colours of the island. Simon and Jane hadn’t brought water with them. Nor did they carry maps. But, as Simon pointed out, that was what made the experience so pleasurable. It was spontaneous. Their life together, he said, should always be like this.

They climbed higher and higher. The path was completely natural and there were moments when he had to help Jane along quite narrow and precipitous ridges. It didn’t help that she was only wearing flip-flops. But the one good thing was that the way ahead was clearly identified. It took them a while to see it, but someone, an Antiguan presumably, had marked the path with occasional splodges of white paint on stones or on the trunks of trees. It had been done quite cleverly. Just when they thought they might have taken a wrong turn, they would spot another white splash and would find, sure enough, that this was the easiest way forward.

‘It’s just great,’ Simon exclaimed. ‘In England there would be footpath signs and fences and probably a list of by-laws too. Health and safety rules OK! But out here it’s so simple. They just let you discover it for yourself!’

‘How far do you think we have to go?’

‘You’re not tired are you, old girl?’ He had only started calling her that recently. Old girl. It was archaic and slightly insulting but she knew he was only trying to be affectionate.

‘Not at all. But I’m not sure I came properly equipped…’

It was true that Jane, who was wearing shorts and a shirt tied around her waist, was beginning to burn in the afternoon sun. She had also scratched her calves and her ankles on some of the gorse bushes, which were unusually prickly. But she didn’t want to complain. The fact was that the trail was strikingly beautiful. In her whole life she had never seen a landscape quite like it. Strange flowers and cacti and plants that seemed to be somewhere between the two sprouted out of the reddish soil, looking to all intents and purposes as if they had somehow drifted here from another planet. The sea was far below them now, glittering, metallic. She saw the waves crashing on the rocks and thought how romantic this was, or how romantic it would be if only they could find a bench perhaps and rest for a few minutes with a cold drink before climbing down. But Simon was very much the active sort. He had played rugby into his thirties and although a damaged knee had put an end to it, he liked to keep himself fit. He was the only man Jane had ever met who owed a home gym. He was already ten paces ahead of her, marching up the slope. Another white splodge directed them over the roots of a particularly convoluted tree, somehow sprouting out of a bed of solid rock.

&#
8216;Full steam ahead!’ Simon called out.

‘Aye aye, captain,’ Jane returned.

They made their way up a last slope covered by longer, wild grass shaped like kitchen knives, and came to a bitumen road. They had been walking for almost an hour but Jane realised they had actually reached the top. The fortress with its gift-shop and makeshift stalls — the inevitable Antiguan women selling the same beads and T-shirts that you could find all over the island — was to their left. If they followed the road to the right, it would eventually bring them back down to their hotel. But Simon had noticed a broken wall directly in front of them on the opposite side. And there, with the dry paint trickling down, was another irregular white daub.


‘Maybe we should take the road,’ Jane suggested.

‘What’s wrong with the path?’

‘Well, it looks a bit overgrown.’ It was more than that. Beyond the wall there was a wide expanse of woodland, the sort of wild, densely packed vegetation that covered much of the island. ‘At least we know the road will take us back to the hotel,’ she added. ‘And it is getting a bit late.’ This was true. The sun was already setting, a glorious red on the horizon but with a colder more silvery streak in the sky.

‘The road goes all round the headland. It’ll take us hours. And the path is clearly marked. I say we cut through.’

‘Well…’

‘Come on. No point standing here. We’ll be down in 20 minutes… in time for a planter’s punch.’

They crossed the road and passed through the wall. Jane’s immediate worry — that they would get lost — was eased by the sight of another white paint mark, just a few metres ahead, on the side of a boulder. The trail did seem to be very well delineated with the spots carefully positioned so that there could never be any doubt which direction to take. That said, though, it was clear to her at once that the return would actually be quite a lot more difficult and rather less pleasant than the climb up had been.

To start with, there was no sea view. Trees, gnarled and misshapen, enclosed them. The afternoon breeze had been cool and encouraging as they clambered up but now they felt hot and oppressed. It was surprisingly dark in the wood. The sun had dipped on the other side of the hill and the thick foliage kept out what light was left. Jane flapped a hand in front of her face as a fly — was it an irritating, single fly or were there swarms of them? — buzzed around her. She was already regretting this, wishing they had taken the easy route, but at the same time she reminded herself that this was an adventure, something she would talk about when she got home. Where tourists fear to tread. It couldn’t be that much further. They would probably emerge onto the same road they had just disdained and given a second chance Simon might take it the rest of the way.

The trail was getting steeper and much more uneven underfoot. The two of them soon found that they weren’t actually walking. They were climbing, easing themselves over really quite huge boulders with Simon having to help Jane down. At times it was quite hard to work out how to proceed. They could see the next target, the next paintball, but how were they suppose to reach it? The further they went, the more vicious and alien the trees seemed to have become, with the trunks covered in vicious spikes and jagged branches almost wilfully reaching out for their eyes. The ground was covered with twisting green tendrils and, wearing only flip-flops, Jane had to take her time, working out where to put her foot.

‘You realise, if we got lost, no one would ever find us,’ she said. It was meant to be a joke but even as she said it she recognised its truth.

‘We could go back, if you like,’ Simon suggested. He was sweating. There were damp patches under his arms and his shirt — with its cheerful Hawaiian pattern — was clinging to his back.

‘No, no. I’m all right.’

‘Are you sure?’

Actually, there was no going back. The white paint spots were brilliant for anyone climbing down the hill but they were less successful for anyone trying to make it the other way. The last splodge must be about 20 metres behind them but looking over her shoulder, Jane realised she couldn’t see it and, indeed, she was quite uncertain which way they had actually come. The slope behind them was just a great big tangle. The trouble was that she had been entirely focused on the ground immediately in front of her. She’d had to be to prevent tripping and falling or stepping into a bed of needles. She had therefore lost any sense of the bigger picture. She wasn’t even sure how long it had been since they had left the road.

Simon had stopped in front of her. He was breathing heavily.

‘Are you all right, Simon?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’ He paused. ‘My knee’s hurting.’

‘Did you bring any of that stuff?’

‘It’s back at the hotel.’ He slapped himself on the side of the face as if punishing himself for forgetting the embrocation, although he was probably just swatting a mosquito. The moment the sun had set, the mosquitoes, it seemed, had risen.

‘I suppose we’d better keep going.’

‘Yes.’

And it was the way he said it, that single word, that made her wonder if this marriage had been a good idea, whether it was actually going to work. It wasn’t — ‘Yes, we’ve got to keep going.’ It was — ‘Yes, what other choice do we have you stupid woman?’ Perhaps marriage itself was a series of white splodges that would, for the rest of her life, lead her in a direction she didn’t really want to go. After all, given a choice, she would not have left England at Christmas. She would certainly not have come to Antigua. Her father was right. If God had wanted you to have sunshine all the year round, He wouldn’t have invented seasons. Right now, she could have been in Bideford — dear Bideford — in the rain, in the cold, hurrying home to a huge log fire.

‘Come on then…’

It couldn’t be much further. It really couldn’t. Two circles of white paint, one on a tree, one on a rock, guided them into a narrow, dried-up river. The ground here was soft and crumbled underfoot. More boulders. Simon wasn’t helping Jane any more, which was fair enough as he was barely able to make it himself. The slope became so steep that he actually had to slither down, tumbling over the dirt and weeds for the last few metres, ruining his shorts. Jane lost her balance and fell, collapsing almost on top of him. She saw that there was a nasty cut on Simon’s neck. His face was covered in mosquito bites.

They had come to a dead end.

They were in a sort of pocket, a clearing in the wood. There was a rock face in front of them, curving all the way round. It was absolutely sheer. Even with ropes and proper shoes it would have been impossible to climb. Jane looked back. There was no sign of the path that had disgorged them here, just another wall, this one made up of hostile vegetation. Before, she had been aware of the closing darkness. Now, it was simply dark. She became aware of the sounds all around her, the whine of the mosquitoes, the rustle of creatures — insects and perhaps snakes? — in the undergrowth. She looked at her watch. It wasn’t there. Somehow it had been torn off her wrist.

‘Jane…’ Simon muttered.

‘We shouldn’t have come this way,’ she said. ‘It was a stupid idea. But we can’t hang around here. We…’

But then she saw what he had seen and the words died in her throat. She got to her feet, reaching out to steady herself against a tree.
She didn’t even feel the spikes penetrate the palm of her hand. She stared ahead of her. Then she began to scream.

There was a dead man, quite alone, stretched out on the ground with his legs and arms spread-eagled, lying in front of the rock face. She hadn’t noticed him before because the undergrowth had sprouted all around him. He had already begun to decompose. Flies or maggots had eaten out his eyes and there were ragged holes in his cheeks, showing his teeth. He was horribly emaciated, almost mummified, his torn shirt open to reveal ribs that jutted out of his flesh. He was an Antiguan — that much was obvious — in his early twenties. He was wearing filthy jeans and walking boots. In this climate, he could have been there for months or weeks or even a few days.

Jane was still screaming. She knew that it was unseemly, that she was behaving like a character in a bad film. Why was it always the women who had to scream? But she couldn’t stop herself. It wasn’t just the dead man. It wasn’t even the fact that they were trapped here with him. No. It was his hands.

The right hand with the paintbrush which had dried and glued itself into place. The left hand still clutching the paint pot even in death.

White paint.

Her screams echoed out in the darkness but nobody heard.


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