'What is your name?' asks the policeman.
'It is very close, Leo, it won't take a minute,' the policeman says in Spanish.
They step out of the clinic into the blinding evening sun and a wall of heat. The huge central plaza sprawls before them. A bustling South American market in full flow. On one side live cattle are being auctioned, llamas and cows foul the floor and chickens, foot-tied in hanging clusters, fill the air with fevered clucking. The fruit sellers sit on blankets in rows with their produce fanned out before them, and the wealthy Ottovalo Indians, hair in long plaits, hawk their multicoloured hand-woven hammocks and ponchos. Leo breaks out into a sweat. How unbearable the world is, so callous and indifferent. He shudders and recoils like a snake prodded with a stick. Lives beset with trivia and humdrum chores. Tedious mundane pathetic existences spent serving material gain. He is looking at the world through binoculars held the wrong way round. All is small and distant, unreachable and detached. He belongs to another world now, a bubble where he can hear his heartbeat and feel his skin wrinkle. The marketplace is a muffle a million miles away. Sounds are cushioned and unreal. He is underwater and no one notices that he is drowning.
On his previous visit to that square he and Eleni could barely walk a yard before being swamped by hawkers and draped in clothes or jewellery they did not want. They resisted all offers until Leo caught sight of two tiny carved Inca heads, one male and one female. He bought them without haggling, and gave the male head to Eleni as a keepsake.
But now as he walks through the square the traders instinctively turn away. For once he is avoided and ignored. There is something in the eyes of this man who is locked in a state of tragic bewilderment that disturbs the stallholders and dries the throat. This man is definitely not on a shopping spree.
The policeman leads them to a small hut at the bus terminal. Normally it is full of bus drivers and ticket collectors but today they are huddled outside animatedly discussing the accident. They fall silent when they see Leo approaching. The hut is packed high with bags and there, right in the middle, are two large rucksacks. He clambers towards them, unsure if they are his. He tries to lift the bags but a wave of dizziness overcomes him and he totters and winces. The doctor steps forward and picks the two bags up. Leo notices an ice pick and a pair of crampons sticking out from one of the bags. He stares at them curiously. He double-checks the nametag and sees Leo Deakin written on it.
As they walk back across the square Leo's eyes flick side to side as he desperately tries to remember. Neurons and synapses spark inside him and suddenly something bolts out of the gloom. They are in a mountain hire shop in Quito. Leo loved climbing mountains; it was one of the most perfect pleasures in life. Perfect, because once you had gained the summit you knew you could go no further. You had a complete sense of achievement. This was a rare sensation for him in a life where so many activities were ongoing, never-ending, where you had to look into the future for any sign of contentment. Cotopaxi, which towered over the plateau like an alluring cone-shaped exotic dessert, was going to be a huge challenge. The assistant in the shop told them to spend the night at the mountain lodge at five thousand metres, maybe even two nights to acclimatize.He advised them to set off at 2 a.m. on the day of the climb so as to reach the summit for dawn, and return before the afternoon thaw, which would be treacherous. Crampons and picks would be a necessity, but if the weather held the walk would not be too difficult.
'Are you both going to the top?' he asked.
'Not me,' said Eleni. 'I'm climbing to the lodge and that's as far as I go.'
From Random Acts of Heroic Love. Copyright Danny Scheinmann 2008. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the pubilsher, St Martins.
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