Bedtime Story

Wild camping in France

Wild camping in France

Our bespoke story – Written by Tim – Shambala Festival 2012

BEWARE OF PANDAS

We had cycled two miles down a rutted dirt road when I turned to Li and said: ‘I think the pandas are following us.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t look.’

It was late evening and the sky was a puddle of wine. We had stopped a few hours earlier in a little roadside tea shack, an old colour TV up in one corner with the vertical hold gone, so the incomprehensible costume drama kept scrolling off the bottom of the screen, to be replaced by an identical one descending behind a curtain of static. The owner wore a green polo shirt with a unicorn insignia stitched on the breast. His right eye was covered with a wad of cotton masking-taped to his head. He was engrossed in the act of tormenting a parrot with a pencil stub, prodding its red belly with the eraser, tapping the metal rim against the smooth white conch of its beak. Every so often he would mutter an imprecation in the local dialect and hiss like a cat. The only other customers were three pandas.

We sat with our hands up, trying to beckon him over for close to ten minutes. I didn’t have the energy to walk to the bar; I felt like I had spent the day cracking coconuts with my thighs. When the rain had cleared up around midday, Li had taken the opportunity to go showboating off into the distance, legs remorseless pistons, bamboo bicycle clattering with a frightwig of keepsake bric-a-brac: horse brasses from a pub in Dover, a Napoleon Bonaparte scented candle wrapped in an Ich Liebe München handkerchief, a blue glazed Bucharesti teapot swinging by a seashell necklace from the shores of the Bosphorus, an otter (not really a souvenir, more a stowaway since Chichester – he seemed an amiable enough little chap; Li had named him Terry). When she pedalled, her bike chattered like a skeleton army, like a bucket of dice.

Back in the bar, the owner with the one eye padded over to our table. He jerked a thumb back at the parrot.

In heavily-accented English, he said: ‘If you wish to speak to the parrot, then I must tell you you are wasting your time. The creature is a coward and a scoundrel. Long ago I divulged to him a secret.’ We waited for him to continue but apparently it wasn’t that sort of story. I looked at the wad of cotton over his eye. In the wet heat it had yellowed and plumped.

We ordered coffee and while he disappeared through a curtain of neon pink butcher’s strips, I noticed the pandas were staring at us and muttering to each other.

‘They’re staring at us and muttering to each other,’ I told Li in an undertone, shielding my lips with a roadmap that was wilting in the afternoon heat. I flashed a glance at the pandas. One was pouring green tea with a look of simmering disgust. Great bushes of steam rose from the cup below.

‘You’re crazy. You’re imagining things,’ she said.

It began to rain. Fat droplets pounded the corrugated roof with a noise like a Lewis gun. The parrot experienced some kind of flashback and started flying about the room, defecating copiously while shrieking in Morse. When the proprietor re-entered, the bird went straight for his good eye. He dropped our coffees and flailed about like a melting witch. Eventually, he managed to pin the parrot to a table and sang to it, aggressively, in a rasping contralto. Its wingbeats entropied to a gentle waft. When at last it fell still, the man leant in and placed a kiss on its hard shining jaw. Sometime during all this, the pandas got up and left, walked right out into the monsoon.

‘See,’ said Li, watching them go. ‘I told you there was nothing to worry about.’

Now as we steered down a narrowing track I caught black and white flashes out the corner of my eye, heard the growl of a flatbed truck struggling up the gears.

Li looked back.

‘Oh God.’

‘I told you.’

‘Keep pedalling.’

‘Of course I will. What else am I going to do?’

We both wore our sweat like a glaze. In the purpling light we shone.

‘It’s the bamboo,’ I said. ‘It has to be the bamboo.’

Li turned to look at me. ‘When I count five, we make a break for it. We go offroad.’

‘Wait – what do you mean?’ Either side of us jungle rose like a vast and cluttered umbrella stand.

‘Five…’

‘Li! We can’t just-’

‘Four…’

‘You know I can’t keep up with you!’

‘Three…’

‘I’m not going to go, I’m not ready.’

‘Two…’

‘We’ll get lost!’

‘One.’

She wrenched her handlebars to the left and arced straight off the track, into the trees.

‘Wait!’ I turned, pumped the pedals. I heard the pandas gunning the engine. Undergrowth crunched and snapped beneath my tyres. It was very dark. The close, sweet smell of jungle hit the back of my nostrils. ‘Li!’ The bike bounced over roots. I could hear the rattle of her trinkets somewhere ahead, but the lush profusion of creepers, mosses and dripping foliage deadened sound – it was like biking with two pillows tied round your ears.

A set of headlights slammed on behind us. A fist beat the horn. They had parked the truck. They were following on foot.

‘Li!’ As always, she had peeled off ahead, assuming that I could maintain her pace. I jerked the handlebars right and left, dodging thick, banded trunks, low-slung vines, amber plate fungus bubbling with spiders like wet garnets. ‘Li!’ My sense of direction was completely shot away. I powered on through boggy ground, my clothes soaked, my forearms scratched and bleeding, no longer hearing the rag and bone man clatter of her bicycle, just knowing that I could not stop, forcing myself onward, onward, pushing into the black, seething jungle, the dark atavistic belly of the earth. A branch snagged my backpack; I nearly fell. Then the jungle ended.

I clenched my brakes; the bike skidded on the slimy ground and I had to kick out against a tree to stop. At the edge of the treeline, a ravine fell away into rainbow mists and darkness. A clod of soil slipped over the precipice and I watched it drop and break apart in midair, turning for an impossibly long time before it vanished in the vapour.

I looked up and down the treeline.

‘Li!’

Nothing.

And then: ‘Jules?’

The reply was faint and echoing, like someone calling from the bottom of a well. I scanned the far side of the ravine, and it was only when I glanced down that I saw her: Li swinging from a single parched tree root some thirty feet into the ravine, bike and attendant mementos clamped between her lean, road-conditioned legs, dangling like some abstruse, post-modern baby mobile.

‘Help!’ she called, redundantly.

I glanced around for a creeper, a long branch, for anything, really. I took off my backpack and rummaged through the camping gear, cursing myself for not picking up that forty foot ball of mason’s string from Poundland when I had the chance. The camping stove hit a stone and rang like a breakfast gong. I reached to pick it up then my hand disappeared beneath a black paw.

I looked up into the panting face of a panda.

For what seemed like a very long time, neither of us moved. Then the panda lifted its paw. A second panda, then a third, emerged from the jungle, colossal, breathing in low growls. They closed in around me. Six red-rimmed eyes regarded me with brooding menace.

I gritted my teeth.

‘You win,’ I said. ‘But know this. We’ve been planning this for years, and you touch those bikes over my. Dead. Body.’

The pandas stared. The great wet weight of their chests rose and fell.

The one in the middle raised a paw. On it, sat an otter.

‘We think you dropped this,’ said the panda.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Hello Terry.’

‘You’re going the wrong way, by the way,’ said the panda.

I was about to say, we thought you wanted to eat our bikes, but all at once our erstwhile fear felt grubby and small and beneath us, so instead I said: ‘Thanks, Mr Panda.’

‘My name’s Esther.’

I held out my hand. After a pause she reached out with her right paw and we shook. Terry looked on approvingly, smoothing his muzzle with a washing motion.

‘Look um.’ I scratched behind my ear. ‘Sorry about the uh, about what I said about the bikes and the dead body thing. You can touch them if you like.’

Esther glanced over at my bicycle, which was propped against a tree.

‘They’re neat,’ she said.

‘Thanks. We made them ourselves.’

We stood there for a moment, then a wavering help floated up from the ravine.

Esther said: ‘What was that?’

‘Oh yeah. Uh – I don’t suppose you happen to have a tow rope back in that truck of yours?’

One of the other pandas said that they did, under the passenger seat, and she went back to get it, macaw squawks echoing through the trees like a distant parade.

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