He Set Off on Foot One Day - A Short Story
About this Story
This is a story of fiction, although a little part of me may be in the story it's not about me. It's about someone seeking to make his dream a reality - that of getting away from his current lifestyle for a while by walking and exploring the back roads of his country.
We were at school together - The story evolves from there
Our final year of school together cemented the friendship; in the days that followed I watched as Ben's beard & hair grew long.
“You look like a character from another century” I quipped, “just your clothing isn't the same as back then.”
His deep blue eyes gave me a penetrating look. Somehow I felt I'd said the wrong thing.
Six months passed, we both found work in different fields, Ben in a conveyancing company, I in a department store. He climbed on the bus every day to get to work - I went by car.
I squeezed my way into his flat through the kitchenette straight into the tiny living room. The couch barely fitted but he seemed happy living there. Exploring the night life made sense to us at the time but two years down the line Ben began to change.
I was sitting in my cosy room at home listening to music when Ben appeared, my mother had let him in.
“I need to talk to you” he said, looking serious.
“What about?” I asked.
“Well, I'm finding that I'm getting tired of my way of life: working, going out at night, playing pool, all the typical stuff, you know...”
“Oh, so what do you have in mind to change it?”
“I'm thinking of exploring the country on foot.”
I was somewhat taken aback.
“You want to become a country bumpkin” I joked, trying to hide the alarm I felt at his words.
“No, I'm serious, I want to see life in my own country but not through the eyes of some kind of luxury tourist.”
“Oh, okay, so what's your plan?”
“I'm going to walk along the back roads of our country, probably on or near the coast, take my time, try to stay in caravan parks overnight. I'll travel as light as possible, take the bare necessities with.”
“You're not likely to find a park with amenities every time you stop somewhere, and what about the dangers of going alone, did you think of that?”
“Yes, of course, I've thought a lot about what I might encounter, I'm not worried though.”
Ben was determined to make his dream a reality, he'd accumulated enough savings to set out on this rather ambitious venture.
I sipped steaming coffee as Ben did some last minute packing. The following day he would set off on his travels - I would go to work. There his backpack stood, leaning against a chair, in it went a sleeping bag, some covering for rainy weather, food, a cooking pan, money, a change of clothing and not much else. His hardy, waterproof boots sat ready on the floor.
He said he'd write to me, it was in the days before internet, email and cellphones. He beamed with enthusiasm as he spoke of the sense of freedom he felt about going.
The warmth of the night flooded my car as I made my way home, in two minds about whether what Ben was embarking on was a good thing or not. We'd been close friends - with him leaving, I wondered when I'd see him again.
At work the next day I couldn't stop thinking about Ben, trying to imagine how far he'd walked, where he would spend his first night and what he'd do for company. I worried about his safety too. An almost sleepless night followed where all kinds of disturbing thoughts about him went constantly round in my head.
A month or two passed, there was a letter in the post box, it was from Ben. Taking a seat in my favourite chair on the verandah at my parents home where I lived, I read.
How are you, I'm doing good. I promised I'd write so now you get to hear from me at last, ha ha. I walked about 15km along the coastline the first day and stayed in a clearing amongst some rocks on the beach that night. It was warm but I made a fire anyway - sitting watching flames is kind of comforting.
I swam in the ocean the next day, then carried on walking until I found a caravan park where I could have a much needed shower. I'm getting walking fit, when I find a camping park I usually stay for a few days.
I met with some campers recently, they invited me for supper one evening; there was a guy who played guitar and sang. We had a few drinks together talking and laughing into the night.
At other times it does get lonely, I've had to pretend I have a friend walking with me, you've featured in that a lot! I've gone inland at times and stayed the night off the road mostly.
I walk all day long, it's a great way to ponder and meditate on things, with nature all around I feel completely at one with everything.
On the practical side of things I estimate my money will probably last two years, after that I might come home and find some work again. I really love what I'm doing; having said that I must confess it's not all easy, definitely not, there's all sorts of things to contend with.
I had to buy some sheeting to put on the ground to prevent bugs and dirt getting to me, The ground is hard, I'll have to get one of those foam mattresses in the next town – as you know, I'm travelling light but can't help but have to get a few extra things. Wind and rain is challenging, I fear the dark at times.
What I like is when I can find a place to have a decent meal. I've had quite a few of those along the way, good filter coffee is heaven. I've been journalling every other day, I must show it to you when I get back.
As I don't have a fixed address you can't write to me, but I'll keep you posted. Will see if I can phone you sometime from a public phone to hear your news.
He seemed to be in good spirits, he was doing well.
“You haven't been going out at night much lately” my father remarked over supper. “That must be because Ben isn't around these days?”
“Yes, that is the reason, there doesn't seem much point in me going out on my own,”
“No, maybe you can find another buddy to hook up with.”
“Yeah that's a possibility...”
Months passed, then I received an unexpected phone call from Ben.
“Hey Pete, I'm staying with a family on a smallholding. It's a rustic old house with a metal roof, there's tons of trees in the area and the people grow all kinds of vegetables and fruit trees, you should see it.”
“I'd love to, If you're going to be there for a while I'll come down for a weekend when I can.”
“I'm staying in a caravan just near the house, it's great! I even get to have a bath a few times a week. There's a generator for electricity, after 10pm its switched off and its light out.”
We spoke at length, I asked him to keep in touch, to write to me more often. Afterwards I felt I could've kicked myself, I'd forgotten to get his address, if there was one - so I could drop him a line or visit, for that matter. He'd phoned from a pay phone in town so I couldn't get him there either.
Those days I was mostly at my desk at work, the clothing sales were going well. I was promoted to sales manager so no more floor work for me.
Some time later a second letter from Ben arrived, a short one.
Things haven't been going so well for me lately, I had to leave the smallholding because the people moved. I was mugged and robbed when on my way to a store one day. Recently I came out in a rash all over my body which itches like blazes, I scratch it and my skin gets really sore. Found a clinic, they gave me a cream to apply, it doesn't help much. The cold weather is getting to me.
I'm staying in a park at the sea now, it's quite close to a town where I can have a meal sometimes and post a letter or two. I can't swim because my skin is too sore, there's not many people staying here. Perhaps I'll come home sooner, not having a good time right now.
I'm sleeping during the day a lot, I think I'm depressed, I've got to get out of this mood soon or I'll end up in hospital. I dunno what happened but things just started to go wrong and I'm battling to get back on track.
Will keep you posted,
With no address or indication of where exactly he was, I was at a loss as to what to do about him. Why he never left the name of the town he was living in, or near to, I could never figure out. Why I never asked him? Somehow I didn't think of it at the time, being so glad to hear from him, it just went out of my mind.
A year went by and I heard nothing more from Ben. Nothing.
I contacted other classmates and people who'd known him to find out if they knew anything of his whereabouts or any other information.
At home one evening I received a call from an acquaintance from school days. He had some sad news, informing me that Ben had died a month before. He'd been walking in a mountainous area and fallen to his death.
A tremor of shock and disbelief overcame me as the news sunk in; in a flash all kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. In some way I felt partly responsible for his death, I felt convinced now I should have gone to look for him after receiving his last letter.
My school acquaintance didn't know much else about the tragedy that had befallen Ben, he was passing the little information he had about the incident, on to me.
I would never really know whether Ben had accidentally fallen or decided to end his life. He'd seemed negative and despondent in his last letter and then I'd heard nothing more.
The effect of the news was devastating, and the mystery of his death remains with me to this day. The journal he'd told me about was never found.
I experienced guilt thereafter, and now, years after the incident I have mostly come to terms with what happened, but still – there's a nagging sensation of uncertainty that lurks in the depths of my being from which I'm not entirely free – if I'd just made more of an effort to try find him, he might still be around. He might.