We’ve been here just over a week now in St Helena. I knew when I landed here that I was always supposed to come to this place and I deeply feel that more than anything. But I am already feeling the stirrings of restlessness to be back on the ocean.
We’ve explored the land and I’ve felt a shifting of allegiance in my heart.
I always thought I was a creature of Warwickshire. I belonged to the rolling hills of the Midlands, the trees of the heart of England. I felt my blood was green as the ancient land I came from.
And maybe that is still true. Maybe I’m just belonging to another element recently.
I feel as though the sea has taken me under its wing since I’ve left England. Like it’s decided to become a guardian for me. Or a mentor.
It’s certainly taught me a lot.
The first day I felt that the land had betrayed me was when we were walking up Lemon Valley.
Once again as everyone may have gathered by now I am not the fittest member on Delos. Too much partying has left a bit of an effect.
A few salads, a little less rum and a temporary abstinence of partying is required, folks.
“We’re going to do Lemon Valley tomorrow guys,” Brian announced. “And then we’re going to clean the boat in the afternoon.”
I prepared myself for an hour or two of walking, packing an oat bar and a boiled egg. I watched the others as they shoved more food into their bags with a frown.
We were only going for a couple of hours, why all the provisions? I shrugged it off, filled up my water bottle and soon we were on our way on Maggie, skimming across the waves with the sun beaming down on our backs.
I sometimes wish I could be as enthusiastic as the others are about walking. But the honest truth is that I find joy in other pursuits, and like exercise in other ways. I’ve hiked before- but nothing like how the Delos Crew have showed me. If they say they’re going for a hike, expect it to last for most of the day with your endurance, strength and will being tested to the limit.
In all honesty, I worked out like a madman in Australia before I came over because I didn’t want to fall behind on one of the Delos treks. Wanting to get in peak condition to prepare myself.
I did Table Mountain in Cape Town, and I did Lion’s Head. Now it was time for a new challenge. I stared at the island as we went around it, telling myself that it wouldn’t take long.
What a fool I was.
We left at 9:30am and were not back till 6:30pm.
Scolding breath heaved into my lungs as I told myself to keep a brisk pace. Step, step, step, Elizabeth, you can do it! My mind screamed.
The others paused to take photographs and I carried on, not knowing how to take a slow pace, too afraid to stop because I wouldn’t want to start again on someone else’s time. I had to set my own pace, decide when I would take breaks and decide when I would start again.
I have that opinion with any exercise I do. I tend to work out alone, going out for a run and enjoying to have the freedom to stop whenever I want, not feeling too pressurised to keep going if I don’t want to. In a group, I always want to make a special effort because I’m competitive, I suppose. I want to feel proud of myself that I’ve accomplished something. So I decided that I was going to keep up this pace, and I was going to get to the top first.
I was going to smash Lemon Valley.
But with every hill I climbed, there was another. With every turn I turned, there was another. I fixed my eyes on a particular tree or a rock that I would tell myself: “You can rest there, Elizabeth, but not before. Reach it! Reach it!”
Hours passed and sweat dripped down my face. I tripped and bent down to do up my shoelace, blood rushing to my head. I straightened, my world spinning for a moment as I teetered on the path, a sheer drop down the rocky hillside to my right. I blinked several times and took control, forcing my steps onwards, the path becoming more and more vertical. I attempted to walk backwards at times to give my legs a rest but it didn’t work, so I told myself the hard way would just have to do.
One more hill, one more set of trees, one more turn, turn, turn, hill, hill, hill, trees, trees-
And then the path changed. The hill became less steep.
My heart started to calm and I was able to take in my surroundings with an appreciative eye. My world of rock, ocean and woodland reached every corner of my vision. People built their houses on the rolling hills, hidden by the trees, their chickens and sheep happily grazing as they went about their days, tending their homes and cutting wood for the fire.
I started to smile, feeling a peace wash over me, feeling this idyllic life seep into my soul.
When I was a child, I had always pictured my life as an old woman in a house, surrounded by woodland with the rain pattering outside. I would be cosy within, a tea service on the table with my granddaughter. I don’t know why I had that image, but it’s a memory I can recall feeling good about. That was where I wanted to end up as a child. To be content, cosy, with family and surrounded by vivid green.
With tea of course.
I wondered whether this was how the people of St Helena felt as I trudged up the last of the path.
The hike ended abruptly into a winding road ahead. Joy spread through me as I simply lay down on the grass, content to sink in that moment of my achievement.
I did it. I bloody did it!
I waited for Lisa to reach me, then Brian and the rest of the crew then followed. We sat there by the roadside as we tucked into our lunches.
I shook my head, thinking how it had taken much longer than I had expected. “We’ve got to walk down it now,” I said tiredly, stretching out my legs.
We met a woman as we sat there, contentedly munching our snacks. Her name was Cathy and I don’t know how I knew it but I instantly felt a pull to her. She reminded me of my own Nan back in Warwickshire as we spoke. It turned out that the world was indeed a very small place. She lived partly in St Helena and the rest of the time in Nuneaton- exactly where I lived. We knew of the same streets and the same areas as she spoke of the places I used to play in as a child.
As I gave her a sweaty hug goodbye, I truly hoped that I would see her again.
It’s not often you meet someone like that- the people where you know straight away that they have a wonderful heart, and I knew with Cathy. I knew she had the most amazing heart.
“What’s up that road?” Brian asked Cathy, pointing to the steep one upwards she had just come from.
She told him and I would be lying if I said I carried on listening.
No, Brian, was the thought that kept repeating in my head. No Brian, no Brian!
But it was decided. We were to explore further. “You know what’s good after a hike?” I muttered as we started to walk up yet another steep incline. “A good walk!”
We walked for hours, exploring areas of St Helena that were utterly beautiful. My legs were tired and my feet ached, but I was content to laugh and joke with the others as we unconsciously split into two groups; Brian, Karin and Lisa were in one with Alex, Brady and I in another. Time went on, we visited a church, went to the Governor’s house to see a Tortoise that was nearly two hundred years old- (I didn’t see it because two dogs were barking at me, so I made a quick escape) and enjoyed some more St Helena countryside.
One thing that got me about this amazing place was that every person that passed us waved. It made me smile each time how this island was made of people who wanted to see how your day had been so far.
Then the rain came. I was wearing a vest and shorts and was soaked very quickly. Alex pulled on her raincoat and sighed deeply as she looked up to the sky.
“Wow, isn’t this amazing?” she enthused.
I looked at her, trying to stop my eyebrow from raising and failing miserably.
“It smells so good,” Brady agreed. “Everything is beautiful when it rains.”
I stared at them incredulously as the rain dripped down my face.
Bloody hippies, my Nuneaton brain grumbled.
I shivered, trying to keep a brisk pace through it all. Yes it smelt nice. Yes it was good for the land. But those facts didn’t make the fact that I was ravenous, tired, sweaty and now freezing cold and wet. I said nothing and stared ahead, concentrating on getting over the next hill.
It’ll stop raining soon, I told myself. And we’ll be walking back to Delos.
Delos, Delos, Delos.
I repeated the word like a prayer.
Despite my grumpiness, I knew they were right. Looking on the bright side of things. Being positive. For a moment I wished I could be more like them. That’s the beauty of being here together. We teach other new things and help each other grow.
And I’ve grown a lot.
But I think one thing is first. I do actually like myself, and it’s taken me a long time to actually accept me as a person. So self acceptance is a pretty big deal and I’m accepting it, goddammit.
If I’m grumpy because I’m wet, tired and hungry? Then it’s going to be so- as long as I don’t affect others or complain about it. I am a different person from Alex, Mr Brady and the rest of the crew. I have my own personal reactions to different events and things like everyone else. Whether that’s being in awe over a flower, the rain, an old book, the way an old couple hold hands or hearing a song for the first time in years. We all have our own ways to express ourselves and it’s important to remain so.
Eventually the rain subsided and we found Lisa, Brian and Karin huddled under an overhanging tree at the side of the road.
Being it Bank Holiday Monday, we had a problem in the sense of finding somewhere for a cup of tea and to grab something to eat. We were all officially famished and none of us had anything else to eat. After being given some directions, we ended up outside this beautiful country house.
I walked over the hill towards it and down the lane, passing sheep and their lambs bleating in bewilderment as to why we were there.
“Please have tea,” I begged to the Gods. “Please have tea!”
The image of being turned away burned brightly in my mind and I could feel the beginnings of grumpiness coming upon me.
“Tea?” I heard a voice. “Yes, of course! Come on in!”
My world was restored once again and suddenly the plight of Lemon Valley was utterly worth it.
We sat there in a grand country house where Napoleon himself had wanted to stay. He had been refused and told he would have to stay back at his own estate at Longwood. As I stretched out my legs, sitting on an antique settee, I was surrounded by paintings of the battle of Waterloo.
A kind man named Stephen spoke to us about his life in the Navy, how he had met his wife who was busy making us tea and coffee in the kitchen, and some interesting facts about Napoleon.
“That was his sofa that you’re sitting on now,” he said, gesturing to me.
I blinked in surprise and looked down at the craftsmanship that was below my rain-soaked, sweaty and smelly body.
“Is it?” I gasped, making Brian laugh at the surprise in my voice. “Really?”
Stephen nodded seriously and I sat back for a moment, trying to appreciate the gravity of where I was sitting.
Lisa came and sat next to me, bewildered at my expression. “What?” she asked, confused.
“This was Napoleon’s sofa,” I said, hollowly, my hand trailing down in the intricate engraved woodwork down the arm. I glanced where I was sitting on the right and where Lisa was sitting on the left. Which side had he preferred? I looked where Lisa was sitting, sure that he would be sitting on the left and squashed down a pang of jealously.
“Tea’s ready!” Stephen called, jarring me from my seat-envy.
I was three chocolate chip cookies in when I felt the sugar returning to my body. Sighing in gratitude for some sustenance, I leaned back in happiness as I listened to Brian and Brady ask questions about the history of the house, leading onto Stephen’s career at sea and the Falklands. My mind drifted off as I watched everything going on around me.
Karin hugging Brian. Lisa lying own on the lawn, spread eagled as the dog stared at her in confusion. Alex wandering around with her camera and then laughing at the sight of our little Austrian. Brady leaning over the history books, trailing his finger over the pages in wonder. My spoon as it span around and around in my tiny china teacup. Staring out into the endless green around me, feeling at peace, feeling one with my Delos family, feeling the energy from the land seep up through my lungs, into my blood and through my bones.
I was always supposed to be here. With these people.
“Be careful as you go back,” Stephen warned us. “It’s going to be slippery after the rain!”
We left the house and began our trek back to Delos. Karin and Brian walking ahead, Lisa, Brady and Alex paused to take some photos. I must have been thirty paces within the walk down before my knee started to twinge.
I frowned, taking another step, the pain getting worse. As the land started to slowly pass me by as I retraced my steps, I could feel something not right become aggravated and twist even more. Suddenly, my foot slipped and I fell down, rocks rumbling down as I fought to not fall further. My knee protesting at the sudden movement, I shakily stood up again, eyeing the fall to the left of me.
“Be fucking careful, Elizabeth,” I told myself in annoyance. As the crew asked me how I was and passed me by, Brady handed me the walking stick he had found on the way up.
“Here you are, mate,” he said. “Try that.”
I did, hobbling down, slowly, slowly as my knee shot with pain in every step. Everyone in my family have weak knees and I had thought myself lucky to escape it thus far. But the curse had found me somehow, wracking havoc in my fledgling hiking career.
As I spotted the tiny dots of the crew get further and further away, I slipped again, falling hard on my backside. Tears warmed my eyes as the five year old in me screamed that I wasn’t going to take one more step. My crew had left me. The sadness of that ripped through me as I realised I was going to have to do this alone, without help.
I continued to trek down, rocks skimming past beneath my feet and falling a few more times until the pain in my knee was almost unbearable. I continued to walk, holding my weight on Brady’s cane as much as I could. I looked up ahead and saw two small figures sitting on the rocks ahead and felt a surge of relief.
It was Alex and Brady, waiting for me.
Happiness tore through me and I actually spilled a couple of tears in gratitude. They waited for me!
I tried to walk faster, keen to reach them and fell again down the steep slope.
Taking a moment, I got back to my feet and after a while finally made it to them both.
“Are you ok, mate?” Brady asked.
I knew my face was already contorted with pain, but I pouted and nodded. “My knee hurts real bad,” I mumbled.
“We’ll get back home soon, mate, just keep it slow and low, Liz. Slow and low.”
I took it slow and low for as long as possible, until I slipped. Rock skidded down and one thudded into my ankle, my leg tearing into a cactus and my hand grazed by the ground. I sat there on the ground as Alex and Brady stopped walking.
“Liz? Are you ok?” Alex called.
I couldn’t help it as I tried to hide my face. I cried. Right there and then. I was frustrated, in pain, hungry and fucking tired.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I said when Brady stood in front of me. “I mean, it’s no big deal. I just fell over- I’ll get back up.”
“There you go, mate!” he said with a grin and helped me up. “That’s the way to see it!”
We continued down the slope.
“Slow and low, Liz! Slow and low!”
I would be lying if I said I didn’t slip again.
“Don’t you fucking cry again, Liz!”
“I won’t!” I lied, tears brimming.
I stared at the horizon ahead. The ocean seemed so far away, the landscape forbidding, sharp and covered in steep inclines, drops and rocks that never seemed to stay in one place.
“You’re punishing me, aren’t you?” I mumbled, not to myself but to the land.
The ocean waited there patiently, blue and serene as it waited for me, promising to cool my overheated body, soothe my throbbing head and wash away the dirt.
“I’ll look after you,” it seemed to hum. “Come to me.”
I knew the sea was a fickle lover. One day she was a stormy nightmare and the next a smooth calm and serene paradise, promising peace. But I believed her. And for the first time in my life, I felt disconnected to the land.
The land was punishing me for forsaking it, leaving it for its neighbour. It was as if I had betrayed it, was no longer a part of it. It no longer recognised me.
I kept my eyes on the blue ahead.
“Slow and low, Liz! Slow and low!”
Eventually, the stick became useless and I had to hold onto Mr Brady’s shoulders as we stepped down.
“I’m going to make you fall!” I warned him.
“No you’re not!”
Two seconds, he slipped and we both skidded down the slopes, rocks tumbling down towards Alex. Managing to avoid them, she looked up at us incredulously, oblivious to what had almost happened.
“You two ok?”
“Yes!” we called.
“You nearly fucking took her out with that rock,” I muttered quietly to Brady.
Eventually we made it to the bottom, the rest of the crew waiting for us. Brian started to laugh.
“Lizbef!” he chuckled. “What happened?”
After stories were shared, wounds compared, we eventually made our way to Maggie and were soon skimming our way back to Delos.
I sighed in relief, my hand slicing in and out of the water as Lemon Valley became smaller and smaller. Delos bobbed up ahead in the distance, a tiny dot promising a haven, a safe place.
“I’ll look after you,” she seemed to say.
I knew she would.
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