katja willemsen

chapter 1

You could bake bread in the scorched heat of the mountain. Even the low stone wall next to the path seemed to buckle under the sun that blazed through the last of the morning shadows. A brown snake flashed across the pepper grey surface. Raisin froze. Up ahead, her brother disappeared over the crest with Pi, the rust-coloured mutt he had rescued in Andorra.
        She eyed the snake, wary but unafraid. Don’t move. Don’t give it something to attack.
        It looped into the path and stopped just ahead of her, arrow head raised, fangs close enough to puncture her leg. A black line zigzagged like a biker tattoo down its back. She wished she knew more about snakes in France.
        ‘Geoffrey!’ she called.
         Sweat dribbled between her breasts and her shirt clung to her back. The snake’s baleful stare unnerved her. It looked thuggish and far too confident.
         She took a slow sidestep off the path. The grass crackled. The snake snapped its tail into fat coils and lunged. She threw herself over the wall, pulled in her legs and waited, chest heaving. Nothing. She sat up as noiselessly as she could and peered over the wall.
        Still there, still staring at her.
        Damn Geoffrey. He was a loner at the best of times but a hundred times worse in the mountains. She still couldn’t believe he was here. He had come to her after a long-dreamed-of hiking trip in Andorra. To spend some long overdue time with her… or so he said.
         Where was he then, when she was in a face-off with a snake that was protecting its turf like a cocksure bouncer?
         Its amber eyes bored into her. The sun seared her London-pale arms.
         ‘Geoffrey!’ she shouted angrily.
         The snake didn’t move and her brother didn’t appear. She fanned herself with her hat and looked longingly at the cork oaks on her right. Path or shade? Who knew how long it would take Geoffrey to realise she wasn’t behind him. At the pace he walked, she would never catch up to him anyway. His problem. He would wake up soon enough. As long as the snake was there, the path wasn’t an option, and she needed to get the hell out of the sun.
         The snake’s head hovered sideways. She scrambled back. Damn you, Geoffrey. Then she kicked her way through thick scrub towards the trees, pausing at a bush that fizzed with hot pink flowers. Matt was a botanist, and if he were with her, he would be reciting their name and healing properties to her. She turned and kept walking. He was in London and she was in France, and she wasn’t here to think about him.
         The sun lost its fierceness the minute she moved under cover. She rubbed her arms irritably. By nightfall her skin would be bright red. What was she thinking, hiking on a boiling hot day?
         She looked for a place to wait. Enormous boulders lounged about like toppled sculptures on the shale-strewn terrain. The forest looked forsaken by the gods. Up ahead, a rocky shelf rose above the ground. Perfect. From it she would be able to see the path and watch out for Geoffrey.
        She clambered onto it easily enough, leant back on her elbows and let out a contented sigh.
         No skyscrapers. No crowds. Just silence so intense it felt sacred. Her only companions were the cork oaks, bent and crooked as old men with their wizened branches and gnarled bark. Matt once showed her how corks were hand-punched from their thick spongy underlayers. She balled her fists. No more damn Matt. That had been the whole idea, hadn’t it? But she couldn’t stop herself. It seemed like just yesterday that he had said so casually, while repotting his cacti, that it was high time they got married.
        Six weeks later she was gone. Found a potential buyer for her catering business, put a tenant in her home, and booked her trusty Golf on the Eurostar and driven eleven hours to Collioure in one stretch. There were worse places to forget someone than a small fishing village on the Mediterranean.
        Except she hadn’t forgotten him, and Geoffrey’s surprise visit had been a godsend. Although she had almost choked when he told her he was planning to stay until the 10th of July. Three weeks. A bloody lifetime. Right up until the moment he loped towards her at Perpignan train station, she didn’t have a clue how they would survive together that long.
        Years ago, they were close, but not anymore, and she could count on one hand how many times they had seen each other in ten years. They didn’t even look related. He was grim reaper thin with Dad’s olive skin. She was farmgirl buxom with unbrushable red curls she loved as much as she hated.
        But so far, so good. Six days down, nineteen to go, and they hadn’t fought yet.
        A bird squawked overhead. Raisin looked up. A black and white magpie bounced on a branch close by. She was probably near its nest.
        ‘Your chicks are safe from me,’ she laughed.
        It flitted to a lower branch, bobbing and screeching. She smiled at its indignant huff. It was heaven being in nature again, a million miles from London’s car-clogged streets. And Matt’s hurt eyes. Even the air here tasted like summer.
        She lay on her back and fanned her arms over the rock. It felt solid. Reliable. If she came back in a hundred years, it would still be here, waiting for her. She shut her eyes and explored its scars and grooves with her fingers. Here was a cross buried in its surface. Here a small crater. Another cross. This was more fun than finding shapes in clouds. Her fingertips traced a cone-shaped hole, another, then a cluster of crosses near her waist. She rolled onto her side for a closer look.
        A jumble of crosses and small pitted circles splattered the rock’s surface all the way to the edge. She crawled to the side. They disappeared behind a thick tangle of ivy. She pushed aside the long green branches and frowned. The rock was hollow underneath. She squinted into the darkness. It wasn’t just a small burrow created by an animal, but an open cavern big enough to hide a dozen people.
        She slid off the rock and circled it, intrigued to see it was actually a massive stone slab perched like a lid on a mound of raised ground. Long creeper branches snaked up the sides and bright fern fronds sprouted from its base. She grinned. Geoffrey would kick himself for not being with her. Curiosity was one thing that coursed through both their veins.
        She scanned the path. Perhaps she should wait for him. She prodded the greenery again. A soft draft whispered out. Gooseflesh tingled. She shifted the ivy curtain and squeezed inside. Just a quick look.
        It was dungeon-cold and not quite high enough to stand upright. She crouched uncomfortably and waited for her eyes to adjust.
       The sides were flat slabs of scabrous rock, easily a metre and a half high, and over two metres long. The back wall reminded her of the low stone walls that stuttered in uneven rows down the terraced vineyards around the village.
        She was in a shelter of sorts. How strange. Had terrified Jewish escapees from the Rivesaltes concentration camps hidden here? Or Catalan dissidents, running for their lives from Franco?
        She touched the grey granite. Whoever it was, their presence still thickened the air. Her eyes searched for a clue about who they might have been: a name etched into the rock, a date. She found nothing, not even a scratch.
        Geoffrey. A worried Geoffrey. She squinted at her watch. Forty minutes had gone by. She stifled a laugh and kept still, but Pi spoilt her fun and wormed his way through the overhang towards her. He nuzzled her with his bearded snout.
        ‘Raisin? Where the hell are you?’
        She shielded her eyes against the glare and wriggled out between the branches.
        ‘So you finally remembered you had a sister,’ she grinned.
        ‘How was I supposed to know you weren’t behind me? What happened?’
        ‘A snake.’
        ‘Really? What kind?’
        Trust him to be more interested in the snake.
        ‘The long and scary kind.’
        ‘You should’ve waited closer to the path. If it wasn’t for Pi, I wouldn’t have found you.’ He looked past her. ‘What’s in there?’
        ‘I’m not sure… I think it’s some kind of hideout…’
        He nodded but didn’t move closer to look. She looked at him uncertainly. Was he still so afraid of the dark?
        ‘Your eyes will adjust to the light,’ she said quietly.
        He slid his backpack to the ground. ‘Is it worth a look?’
        ‘I couldn’t see much, but it could be anything… maybe even a refuge from World War Two.’           She saw a spark of interest in his eyes. ‘It’s manmade though, and I don’t think anyone’s been in it for years.’
        He unzipped the side pocket of his backpack and took out a small red Maglight.
        ‘Such a boy scout,’ she smirked, pushing aside the foliage and going back inside.
        He followed her, head bowed low.
        ‘Wow…’ he whistled. ‘This goes back in time… way back.’
        ‘What do you mean?’
        ‘I think it’s a dolmen, Raisin.’
        ‘A dolmen?’
        He scanned the walls with the yellow light.
        ‘It’s very typical of prehistoric tombs. Flat granite slabs positioned on their sides with a huge capstone balanced on top of them… all of it camouflaged on the outside by earth and stones.’ He held a palm against the roof. ‘Complex bit of engineering…’
        ‘How could they have made it without modern equipment? These slabs must weigh a ton.’
        ‘More like tons with an s. No-one knows how they did it… probably some kind of leverage system with logs. Interesting… this back wall here doesn’t belong in a dolmen.’
He jostled a loose stone near the top and jumped back. Part of the wall crashed to the ground, leaving a gap the size of a small porthole. He shone the Maglight through the gap. They exchanged glances.
        ‘Looks like another chamber,’ he said.
        ‘What’s that thing on the right…?’
        She started pulling away more rocks but he caught her wrist.
        ‘Don’t. We should report it.’
        ‘Don’t be a granny. Be useful and shine the torch inside.’
        The light revealed a small statue in a shallow recess. She nudged him out of the way, reached inside and ran her hands over it. It was no taller than a school ruler and her palms easily cupped its base.
        ‘It’s cold… and wet.’ She tried to lift it. ‘It won’t move.’
        ‘Leave it, Raisin.’
        She ignored him and explored the ledge it stood on with her fingers.
        ‘There’s something here.’
        He shone the torch around her shoulder. She bit back a wisecrack. So much for wanting to discourage her. He was as intrigued as she was. She drew out her arm and showed him the objects in her hand.
        A small pink clamshell. Something curved and sharp that gleamed like a crescent moon on her palm. And a flat round stone the size of a large coin.
        She rolled the shell over.
        ‘What’s this doing in a cave?’
        He picked up the sharp object.
        ‘This looks like an animal tooth.’
        ‘What about this round thing?’ she said.
        He twisted the coin-shaped stone under the light.
        ‘No idea, but we really shouldn’t be touching anything. There are laws protecting prehistoric sites.’
        He carefully replaced the tooth and the round disk. She pulled her fist away when he tried to take the shell from her.
        ‘Put it back, Raisin.’
        ‘Later. No-one will know. And we don’t have to report it straight away. Don’t you want to see what’s on the other side of the wall?’
        ‘I came here to hike up to Massane not to break the law.’
        ‘It’s because it’s dark, isn’t it?’ she said shrewdly. ‘Look… it’s not even nine in the morning. We can easily get to your tower, go home for a bigger torch, and be back here by mid-afternoon. Please…?’
        He glanced at the broken wall. She knew that look. He was hooked. Hobbiting they had called it as kids.
        ‘Okay, but don’t take the shell.’
        ‘I’ll put it back this afternoon.’
        Outside in the light, she inspected the shell. Fine ridges rippled in curves from its base to the outer edge. It looked identical to the earrings her first boyfriend had given her. She prised it open with a fingernail, vaguely surprised to find it empty.
        ‘How do you think it got here?’ she asked.
        ‘Probably left by the same person who hid the statue… and the statue’s obviously not prehistoric.’
        ‘I like the idea of owning something really old.’
        ‘Old or not… you’re not keeping it. We’re leaving everything the way we found it.’
        ‘Once a maths prof, always a maths prof,’ she needled.
        He didn’t rise to the bait and ruffled Pi’s shaggy fur.
        ‘Dean, Raisin, I’m a dean now, and adopting a lost dog ten thousand kilometres from home is hardly what you’d expect from a prof or a dean,’ he laughed.
        Pi covered his face with grateful licks.
        ‘Have you thought about how you’re going to take him back home with you?’
        ‘On the same SAA flight as me. I’ll just throw money I don’t have at it. He would’ve died if I’d left him on that mountain. Besides, it’s high time I had a dog again.’
        She studied him quietly. ‘Do you miss the farm?’
        ‘Not one bit.’
        ‘That came out too fast to be true. We both loved growing up there.’
         He stood up and began to leave.
        ‘Maybe, but I don’t miss it. Come… we’re wasting time.’
        At the path, she hopped onto the wall and looked for the snake. Gone. Pity. She would have liked Geoffrey to have seen it. She stepped down and manoeuvred herself in front of him.      The only way to make sure she didn’t lose him again was to force him to walk behind her. She looked up at the sun and wiped the back of her neck. What had possessed her to hike on a boiling hot day like this?
        They climbed for an hour along a narrow track that took them past a jagged wall of rock towards a forest of beech trees. She groaned in relief. Shade at last. This was the last time she was hiking with him. Ever.
        The cool shadows soothed her skin but did nothing to ease the heat. The branches were sparse and sabre sunbeams still stabbed at her through the leaves. All too soon, the forest ended and they were in the scorching heat again and approaching a wide clearing at the top of the mountain. The stubby Massane Tower was perched high on a steep outcrop just to the right of them. Grassy terrain flowed from the tower as though poured from heaven. It was meadow-like and more what she would expect on a hilltop than a mountain crest. Nowhere near as majestic as she had imagined it to be.
        The tower itself looked both grand and frail, as if a nudge might send it tumbling off the cliffs behind it. She was disappointed that they weren’t alone.
        A small group of people sat in a semi-circle not far from the path, facing a man with wild white hair. Their stiff-necked posture and stern faces looked more suited to a London boardroom than the Pyrenees. She tried not to stare when they walked past, but the white-haired leader turned towards her, and his eyes were so fierce, she lost her footing. The whole group looked up when she fell. She glared at them, furious with herself for wanting to apologise. It wasn’t their damn mountain. She made a show of rubbing her ankle then hurried after Geoffrey.
        ‘What a cheek… they look pissed off that we’re here,’ she fumed.
        ‘They’re lucky we’re not a Spanish tour group,’ he shrugged.
        She followed him up the stone steps to the base of the tower. The mountain top itself might not be majestic, but its 360° views were. Blue-black peaks serrated the skyline towards Spain, and seawards, the Roussillon plains baked in the summer haze.
        ‘Apparently this tower dates back to medieval times and is part of a surveillance system that stretches the Mediterranean to deep in the Pyrenees,’ Geoffrey said. ‘They used fires to communicate between them. If you look carefully you can just see the one closest to the coastline. It’s called Madeloc Tower and is just above Collioure… on that mountain there. Can you see it?’
        She nodded and sighed.
        ‘Doesn’t being in a place this beautiful make you think there must be a God?’
        ‘Hell no. If there is a God then this beauty is probably just his way of sugar-coating reality for us. And damn right too.’
        ‘You don’t really believe that!’
        ‘What kind of a god allows babies to starve… children to get hurt?’ he said morosely.
        She pointed her camera at him.
        ‘Say cheese, Mr Cynic.’
        He blocked the lens with his hand.
        ‘I'm hardly a cynic. These mountains aren’t the real world.’
        ‘But you love them!’
        ‘Only because they’re my escape… I never forget what’s back home.’
        ‘What’s there that’s so awful?’ she teased.
        He gave an irritated snort and jumped down the steps. She photographed his back then impulsively zoomed her camera over his shoulder onto the seated gathering.
        The leader swung round.
        She quickly directed the camera towards the sea and when she glanced back, the group was already leaving. They walked fast, in single file, with their leader in front, his white hair gleaming in the sun. Good riddance. Their creepiness unnerved her.
        ‘That looks like a good camera,’ Geoffrey said.
         ‘It was a Christmas present from Matt.’
         She bit her tongue. Damn it. Get out of my head, Matt.
        ‘You don’t talk about him much, do you? How does he feel about you being in France?’
        ‘Haven’t a clue. We’re not together anymore.’
        She hated how blasé that sounded.
        ‘Oh? I thought you two would be together forever.’
        ‘So did he.’
        ‘So what happened?’
        ‘He wants marriage, white picket fence, nappies…’
        ‘And you don’t?’
        ‘Definitely not.’
        ‘Not even one little Raisin?’
        She stopped next to a feathery fennel bush and plucked a head of tiny yellow flowers. She broke off one of the slender stalks. Tell him. She snapped off another. Don’t tell him. Tell him. Don’t tell him. She crushed the last flower and held it to her nose. Liquorice. Tell him.
        ‘I can’t have kids,’ she mumbled.
        He stopped, face white.
        ‘That’s awful. Are you okay? You aren’t sick, are you?’
        Too many questions. She should’ve kept her mouth shut.
        ‘No,’ she said carefully.
        ‘I’m so sorry, Raisin. How long have you known?’
        ‘Since I had my tubes tied at twenty-one.’
         He winced. ‘Tubes tied? Why, for fuck’s sake?’
        ‘I didn’t want kids.’
        ‘I don’t understand. You’re only thirty-five, you can change your mind. It’s not too late.’
        ‘I'm thirty-three. And I don’t want to change my mind.’ She threw the barren flower away. ‘I don’t see you rushing to have any.’
        ‘It’s different for guys. Twenty-one?’ His voice softened. ‘Do you want to tell me what happened?’
        Tears pricked. She packed her camera away.
        ‘Nothing. I was scared to be a mum… responsibility and all that. It’s no big deal.’
        ‘Is that why he left?’
        ‘He doesn’t know. And anyway, I’m the one who left, not him. Have you seen enough of your tower? Can we go and get the torch now?’

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