It probably doesn’t happen much these days but it was quite common back then. A couple of hippies had put in a personal ad for five or six people to share their trip up to the top of Scotland. “We’re moving to a commune up there. We’re committed to peace and love,” he said, as if announcing he was giving his life to God. “I hope that’s not a problem?”
“Only if you expect me to commit too,” I joked but they seemed nice enough on the phone and anyway, I couldn’t afford to be choosy. I needed to get away quickly and had very little money of my own. Scotland felt like it might be far enough and I had always liked the sound of Edinburgh.
The minibus was a ramshackle old thing with worn leather seats that were mostly taken up by the time it reached me. It was a chilly March morning but, even so, it was colder inside than out. I said a polite hello to the other passengers and took a seat next to a small women wrapped tightly in a fur coat. “It takes a while to warm up” advised Dawn, the other half of the couple, “you might want to keep your coat on.”
“It’s a bit slow too,” said one of the men in front of me. “Not in a hurry are you?”
“Not at all,” I said. The small woman gave me a faint smile as if she knew I was lying.
Just outside Birmingham, Dawn suggested we took turns to introduce ourselves. She was a librarian and Joe an artist, although not a very successful one it seemed. She was pregnant with their first child and this had prompted them to seek a better life more in tune with their ideals. “You’re very brave,” said the small woman, “what if… I mean in your condition…”
“Don’t worry Genevieve I’ll take care of her,” said Joe. Dawn beamed at him and messed with his hair affectionately. They were in love. I tried to remember what that felt like.
Graham and Eddie were lifelong friends, somewhere in their forties. They were like twins, even down to their matching red waterproof jackets. Eddie had recently been through a bitter divorce and Graham was single. Like so many at that time they had been made redundant so, with nothing new around the corner, were taking an extended holiday. “We’re going to take our time and slowly make our way back to Birmingham,” said Graham.
“Put a bit of distance between me and the ex,” explained Eddie.
“Give him a bit of space to think about his future,” Graham finished off.
“This is a bit like the AA,” joked the small woman. “My name is Genevieve and I am a widow. I’m just visiting a few old haunts. I shall be getting out at Penrith.”
“I’m Kate,” I began, “not much to say about me really. I’ve just left my husband and I’m going to start again in Edinburgh.”
“When did you split up?” asked Eddie; possibly sensing a kindred spirit.
“About two hours ago.” It went quiet. Maybe I had been too honest or too insensitive: for all I knew Eddie’s wife could have left him too although, I doubted it would have been for the same reasons. Eddie looked like an easy going sort with no desire to have complete control over those closest to him but looks could be deceptive, couldn’t they? My thoughts were suddenly broken by Genevieve who reached over and squeezed my hand. Her eyes held mine for a brief moment then she looked away. She said nothing and yet that small action had somehow been a confirmation that I was doing the right thing.
Joe broke the silence, “We’ll be picking up one more in Nottingham.”
“Robin Hood, he was a bit of a hippy,” said Graham five minutes later.
“How do work that one out Gray?” asked Joe.
“Had long hair and lived in a commune didn’t he?”
“Well now you put it like that…” We all laughed and it was enough to get us talking again. We pulled up at a pub on the outskirts of Nottingham and a young guy of mixed race opened up the door. “Roland?” enquired Joe. “Come in mate.” Roland sat down and nodded as Joe introduced us all one by one. He told us he was an out of work plasterer with a cousin and a job in Glasgow. He was good looking with an easy confidence and soon slotted into conversation with Eddie and Graham. They were talking about the state of the unions but I was only half listening. I was imagining Philip’s reaction when he returned home. He’d be annoyed that I wasn’t there cooking dinner. When he found the note he’d be furious but I’d be far away by then. I caught the tail end of Dawn saying, “So, technically speaking, this is a journey to Paradise.”
“Paradise is the name of the commune,” Genevieve whispered, “so we’re leaving hell and we’re on our way to Paradise, do you see?” I nodded. It was true enough for me but I wondered what piece of hell the others were leaving behind.
“How long were you married Genevieve?” I asked.
“You must miss him terribly.”
“No, not really: it was a bad marriage.” She looked thoughtful for minute then added “Maybe we have something in common. Maybe I should have left like you. Such a waste…” Her voice trailed off and she turned to face the window.
We stopped to eat in Sheffield. All morning we had pooled snacks and drinks but now we needed proper food. We found a roadside cafe full of truckers. “Are you ladies alright in here?” Roland asked. It was Genevieve in her cashmere, her neat slacks and expensive fur that concerned him but he was too polite to single her out. He was right. She belonged somewhere else, to another time and another place and only she seemed not to notice.
“Of course we are Roland but thank you for asking,” she smiled graciously.
“I think Roland is a little worried that this might not be the type of place you usually frequent,” said Dawn tactfully.
“To be honest Genevieve, you don’t look like the sort of person who usually travels in a battered old minibus full of escapees and no hopers, Roland aside,” laughed Graham.
“Well I suppose I’m not but unfortunately I’m not quite as affluent as I used to be and besides, I wanted to do something different. This is a great adventure.”
“Well if it’s adventure you want, you’d better try the steak and kidney pie,” said Eddie. “Judging by the state of that fella’s plate over there, you’ll be lucky to live after tucking into that.”
By the time we were back on the road the best of the weather was behind us and dark clouds were beginning to close the day in. Dawn had arranged overnight accommodation in Sedburgh, a small town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, so we turned off the motorway and cut across the Dales themselves. We felt for sure that the wind and rain would defeat the old bus but it chugged on, barely reaching the steep hilltops and then gathering so much speed on the way down that it was almost out of control. Once or twice we got out and gave it a helping hand but mostly we talked incessantly as if to distract ourselves from the feeling of impending failure. Dawn and Joe told us about Paradise and how it had been founded by some friends who wanted to create a different society based on a shared sense of community & trust. It wasn’t, as we’d all imagined, an excuse to eat magic mushrooms and have uninhibited sex. It sounded idyllic but it was not what I needed at that time. I had spent so long under Philip’s rule that I was desperate to create a life of my own with a proper job and my own money. When he married he told me he would always look after and protect me but all he did was crush me. Finally, I had summoned up all of my courage and left him but, even then, I had to wait until he’d gone to work and sneak out: I wasn’t brave enough to face him.
Although we had joined the expedition mostly as strangers by early evening, when we crawled into Sedburgh, we were friends. We ate together in the local pub recalling the highs and lows of the afternoon. These were the kind of amusing tales we would tell our children in years to come. It occurred to me that this was the first adventure in my new life and these were the only friends I’d made since I’d met Philip. I would make sure that they weren’t the last. Dawn and Joe were trying to persuade us to join them in Paradise. Eventually, the others agreed to go up there at some point, even Genevieve said she would follow them up after her visit to Penrith. “What will you do when you reach Penrith?” I asked her.
“I shall go out to Ullswater. We used to have a holiday cottage there; it was my daughter’s favourite place.”
“Oh, you have children?”
“Just my daughter; I always wanted more but my husband said one was enough. You?” I shook my head. “Perhaps that’s for the best: children can stop you doing the things you know you should. They blind you to reality and sometimes you can use them as a crutch.” She fixed a steady gaze on me. “My husband was a hateful man and a bully. He suffocated us but I didn’t leave him because I thought she needed her father. I was wrong.” Her face softened a little “What about you Kate? Are you glad to be free?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid he’ll come after me.”
“Will he hurt you?”
“Yes, but not physically.” She said nothing, she didn’t need to: her look told me she understood.
She grabbed my arm, “Don’t let him find you Kate.”
“I won’t,” I said, taken aback by her sudden strength.
We started the next day off with a hearty breakfast. Safe in the knowledge that Philip was far away I had really begun to enjoy myself. We piled ourselves back into the Paradise Wagon as we had renamed it and we were soon in Penrith.We all got outand said goodbye to Genevieve. She kissed me and pressed something into my hand, it was a St Christopher. “For good luck,” she said. “My daughter gave it to me but I think you’ll need it more than me.” I tried to give it back to her but she was insistent. “I have all the luck I need now that I’m on my way to Paradise,” she giggled, “it’s time to pass it on.”
She stood waiting for us to drive out of sight. Through the rear window we watched her gradually reducing to a small dot on the horizon. “I hope she’ll be alright,” said Roland. No one replied but, it was clear, we all had the same uneasy feeling: even though we had only known each other for a day it felt like an old comrade had left us and we knew too that the end of our journey was near and our shared experience would soon be over. As Roland had agreed to try the commune mine was the next stop. Like Genevieve, I watched the Wagon splutter off into the distance and then, with some hesitation, took a tentative step into my future.
About a year later I was working in a cafe on the Royal Mile and in walked Roland. He was finally on his way to Glasgow. Graham and Eddie had stayed in the commune and Dawn and Joe now had a baby son. I played with the St Christopher around my neck and told him I often thought about Genevieve. “Poor Genevieve,” he began, “I had such a bad feeling that day. I should have got out at Penrith.” I looked at him, confused. “I’m sorry Kate, you don’t know do you? She killed herself the day after we left her. The police came to see Joe because she had the address of Paradise in her bag. She went out to a cottage by the side of Ullswater and slit her wrists. Apparently her daughter killed herself in the same place, same way, ten years to the day. They said her husband died just a few days before we’d started the trip. She didn’t even wait for his funeral.”