You know those car journeys where you don’t realise until you pull on the handbrake that you’ve just driven for miles with your mind elsewhere the whole time? It was after the interview with Diane that I made one of those.
In my apartment, I downed two shots of malt before my hands stopped shaking. Then I had a couple more. It was late and I was exhausted. Transcription would have to wait ‘til morning.
The moment I pressed ‘play’ I was back in that room with Diane sitting opposite me, hands folded in her lap, petite, demure, startling blue eyes and that smile. Always that smile. I’ve heard friends describe old movie actresses they’ve interviewed. They say things like ‘You can tell she was a beauty in her day’. Well, Diane must be thirty years my senior and was never in the movies, yet she radiated an effortless, captivating beauty.
“That’s Bert. Don’t mind him,” she says. The sound is distorted slightly by a half-echo – a special feature of the room’s acoustics. “He always volunteers to escort me and they let him. Well, he gets me better than anyone. You know exactly how close to get, don’t you Bert?”
She turned and winked across at him. He cast a sideways glance then quickly faced front. He’s one of the most enormous men I’ve ever seen – not far off seven feet tall, muscles bulging everywhere. He said not a word the whole time he stood there on guard, his hands clasped in front of his crotch. A wedding band gleamed from his right hand that was holding his left.
I clear my throat and say: “Shall we start?”
She nodded her assent so you can’t hear it, then it’s my voice again.
“So. Whose idea was it, yours or Barb’s?”
“I honestly can’t say, David,” she says. Her voice is soothing, calm as a gentle rain shower on a hot day. “It started off as a joke - a glib comment. I think I might have suggested it, but I wasn’t being serious and Barb didn’t take it seriously, not at first. It was a running joke that cropped up in our conversations over weeks, months even, and always after a glass of wine.”
Diane paused, looked at me from beneath lowered eyelids. “Or five,” she says, then giggles as though playing the role of a teenager embarrassed by carnal desires that she doesn’t yet understand. She’s hamming it up, knowingly.
I press pause. It had been so unexpected that I hadn’t trusted what my gut was telling me at the time. I’m quite sure of it now: she was flirting with me. When I press ‘play’ again, I hear the sudden uncertainty in my voice when I ask: “Something serious must’ve happened to make you actually do it. I mean, to sell everything you own and take off in an RV to live in the untamed wilds of British Columbia? Especially having lived in Albuquerque all your life...”
“Crazy, right? Coldest winters here are forty-seven degrees. Out there, height of summer it’s sixty five and as for the winters – twenty three degrees.”
“It can’t have been easy for you at your, erm, I mean, being at that stage of your life...”
The way she looked at me while I stumbled over my words – she was laughing inwardly, enjoying every second of my discomfort.
“Anyway, what was it that made you do it in the end?”
“It wasn’t just one thing. But first off, we got that racist clown in the White House. That really pissed us off. Then Barb found out Jim had been cheating on her, and not just some stupid infatuated-old-man affair. He’d been at it behind her back for years. I was so angry on her behalf. His buddies - Ralph, my ex, being one of ‘em - seemed to think it was no big deal. Barb had lost interest so why should she mind if he went elsewhere for his ‘comforts’?”
She gives out a long sigh before continuing: “As she’d been there for me over a dozen years earlier, I was there for Barb. I listened, cooked, cleaned and made sure she got out of bed every day. Her kids visited, but it was difficult for them - they’d all moved out of state. Even phone calls and emails were hard to find time for with their über-busy schedules. One day, over fish tacos, she fixed her beady dark eyes on me in a way I’d known for over twenty years, so I knew she meant it when she said: ‘Let’s do it, Diane! Let’s get out there and leave all this bullshit behind us. Because that’s all it is, Diane. Bullshit.’ I guess that’s when it changed from what should have only ever have been a silly dream for us to talk about into something that we thought we could actually turn into a reality.”
“What did she mean exactly by the ‘bullshit’ she wanted to leave behind?”
Diane looked at me with an incredulous sneer.
“You only have to open your eyes and look around you, David. Endless consumerism that you have to go along with otherwise your kids are the only ones who don’t get everything they might ever want for Christmas, birthdays and hell, just because they want it! Gadgets, Internet shopping, everyone staring endlessly at their cell phones, ignoring actual people all around them.”
“That’s why you didn’t take a phone, even for emergencies? On principle?”
“I’m not an idiot, David. I insisted we take a satellite phone. It vanished mysteriously in the first week. She liked to get her own way, did Barb. Like with the community garden. We grew mostly everything she wanted. I went along – well, I didn’t mind too much what we planted. That’s what made me think we could do it - venture into the wilderness and survive, on our own, with only God, Nature and each other to rely on. That, and Survivorman. Do you know it? It’s on the Discovery Channel. We were such big fans of Les Stroud. Les taught us everything we’d need to survive in the wilderness. That’s what we thought. Of course, it turned out we knew nothing about how hard it would really be, especially at our age. We discovered that a boreal forest isn’t exactly teeming with wild nuts and berries, especially in winter.”
She lets out a throaty laugh at the memory, then her soft features harden, a glint of cruelty flickers in her eyes. I knew Diane had tapped into the basest of human instincts to survive. She’d had to, to make that journey on foot across a terrain so vast and treacherous that it would have broken most people. Being with her was like being whirled around on a fairground ride; in a beat my perceptions could flip one eighty, causing my stomach to lurch up to my throat.
“It started out great. We loved the real, genuine peace you don’t get anywhere else. The only noise came from the stream trickling by, forest trees whispering in the breeze, birds singing. It was everything we’d dreamed about. Then Barb took a tumble on her way to fetch water. With her laid up with a twisted ankle, it was up to me to dig over the earth with Barb shouting instructions all day long. We were late sowing and the cold came earlier than expected.”
She shuddered, stared into space for a time before carrying on: “That cold. Barb didn't get it – that it could end us. I suggested we use the generator only when it became unbearable. I told her we had to preserve fuel, at least enough so we could drive out of there in an emergency. She wanted to know what emergency. She’d die there happy and was never going back.”
Diane’s eyes brimmed. I began to lean towards her, intending to offer a handkerchief, but the slightest of movements from the hyper vigilant guard reminded me not to. Diane recovered and got back into her flow.
“When I had the energy, I’d build a fire and we’d sit outside next to it during the day. It helped a little. Then the Cree people came.”
“Were they surprised to see you?”
Diane laughs. “They couldn’t believe it. They never expected to see anyone around there except other Cree or maybe other First Nation folk. But definitely not two old white ladies. They told us to get back to our comfortable lives, that we were in real danger. When they realised we were too stubborn to give in, especially Barb, they gave us a rifle and fishing gear. How did we expect to survive if we weren’t prepared to hunt and fish, they wanted to know. They had to give us a lesson. Neither of us had ever fired a rifle, or any kind of weapon. I told them I didn’t think I could. But they smiled, all knowing, saying I would, soon as I got hungry enough. Before they left they showed us the best places to fish and where to find edible roots and mushrooms.”
“You hadn’t learnt any of that from Les Stroud?”
“Barb wanted to be vegetarian,” Diane said with a sad shake of her head. “But we did have a field guide to fungi – only trouble was, all the sketches were in black and white. We were too scared to try anything until the Cree showed exactly what was safe and what wasn’t. That staved off the hunger for a little while. But once the snow came, it really kicked in. All either of us thought about, talked about, was food.”
“So you went hunting?”
“’Course I did. Barb wasn’t going to. She’d turned into a pain in the ass, lying around all day moaning about the cold, even though it was all her idea to use up all the fuel. Moaning about the hunger, even though she turned her nose up at every goddamn thing I hunted or foraged and cooked for her. Then one day I thought, why should some poor innocent animal have to suffer and die because we’re so stupid, so arrogant? What right do humans have over all other species when we’re the most destructive and cruel of all? Did you know there are over seven and a half billion people on the planet. That represents nought point nought one percent of all living things and yet we’ve caused the loss of eighty three percent of all wild mammals and half of all plants.”
“It’s true then?”
“Yep,” she nodded vigorously. No trace of remorse or shame. “I shot Barb.”
“Why didn’t you just leave her there and go for help?”
Chains rattled as she leaned her folded arms on the table. Bert’s head turned sharply towards us. He unclasped his hands and suddenly I understood the ring on the wrong hand. The ring finger of his left hand ended just before at the point where the knuckle should’ve been.
“I was sorry the moment I’d done it,” Diane said. “The second Barb died, all the birds in the forest fell silent. I knew at once there’d be no forgiveness for me. I was a human-shaped stain on a place of beauty. So then it all became a simple matter of survival. I didn’t eat all of her. I’m not greedy. Just what I needed for that mammoth journey.”
“But now you’re stuck in here.”
“Sure, in the warm, with three squares a day. And the occasional snack.”
She leaned her head in Bert’s direction. “Black, white – we all taste the same, don’t we Bert? I’ve written Trump to tell him so.”
“You gave everything up to be at one with Nature and now you’re not even in natural light for more than an hour a day. You must miss it?”
Diane stared at me, then shrugged.
“D’you know what, David? The only thing I miss is hearing the birds sing.”