I should probably explain how this all came to pass.
We are perennial escapologists, Menna and I. We met some sixteen years ago, at a point when I was already deeply committed to an escape plan. I had had enough of my unfulfilling tech sales job, I needed to get away from an unhealthily hedonistic social life and mostly I wanted to quieten the various internal voices who muttered about the slippage of time and the death of ambition.
The plan was simple: 1) I would tone down the partying quite considerably 2) I would destroy my sales targets and get a serious bonus, 3) I would then give work the old two finger salute, jack everything in and fly off to Costa Rica. 4) I would spend a year alone, living an ascetic life in a place somewhere where the rainforest met the water, surfing, meditating and writing a novel which would probably change the course of modern literature.
There was only one snag to this otherwise flawless plan, and Menna was it. We collided in a nightclub one Friday evening (a relapse) and before long she was entwined around my life like ivy round a drainpipe. I hadn’t intended to get romantically involved with anyone at this point. I certainly hadn’t intended to fall in love. It was a serious spanner in the works.
I remember 2004 as a highly intense year. I was planning a twelve month solo mission, I was working long hours, chasing an elusive bonus which I needed to fund the project, and all the while submerging deeper and deeper into a new relationship. An explosive relationship at that, with wild surges and retractions, always dancing around our commitments, my future departure unspoken but present between us like a doleful prophesy. In the end I conceded. One night in Paris, in a restaurant somewhere in the Latin Quarter, I took the plunge and asked Menna to come with me. She told me she had already bought tickets.
And so it happened. We escaped together, barely knowing each other really.
I never managed to write the epoch-defining novel. It turned out that Costa Rica had a surf culture which was even more consuming than the scene we had escaped in London. We had no jobs, no itinerary, no deadlines, but we had a Jeep and we had surfboards and this was all we needed. We probably fell too much in love with the idea of chasing storms and adventures. We wandered barefoot through Central America following waves and winds and any roads that would take us away from reality.
I look back at it now and it all has a dreamlike feel. The memories are sun-bleached and faded like over-exposed photos; the throbbing reggaeton soundtrack has been softened by time. I can see a collage of gradated forest landscapes fading into mist; filaments of sunlight deep in glass-green waves. I remember eating fresh-caught tuna with lime and chilli, drinking cold beers, making huge bonfires on the beach. Howler monkeys screamed at us in the night. Menna giggled at some now-forgotten joke, as we floated drunkenly on our backs in phosphorescence.
We didn’t see another human for two wild weeks on a hidden beach in Nicaragua, but we shared our shack with tarantulas and tree frogs. I got to feel the cold squirm of a stingray under my foot in the shallows, the burn of a jellyfish tentacle across my back; I knew the smell of mangoes rotting in the sun. I lent my surfboard to a ragged kid in El Salvador to use in a contest and watched as he carved crazy lines which I could never dare dream of copying. We arrived by boat into a Panamanian island archipelago, late at night, and we saw it glitter and recede on the water like a mirage, like the afterglow of a firework.
We are the vientos de poniente that rise on the sea; we are dustballs rolling on the Mexican highway. A wave forms and grows and we are flotsam on its crest. It breaks in thunder and spray, leaving some of the foamy residue to seep into the pools of memory, while the rest is pulled in riptides back out to sea. Somewhere in the Nicaraguan badlands I crashed our Jeep into a truck, and I can still see Menna perched bravely on the crumpled bonnet, clutching a machete as she guards all of our worldly possessions. Her face fades into darkness as I walk off down the road to get help.
It was one of the most surreal and epic years imaginable. It turned us into quite different people.
Our plan in 2006 was to return home when the money ran out (check), sofa surf until we could get jobs and our own place (check), and then save up enough to move swiftly onwards to New Zealand or Argentina for the next big escape (fail).
I can only assume someone slipped something into our drinks, because we woke up ten years later, married, with two children, a cat and a mortgage, living deep in suburbia. I had a career in sales leadership and Menna was a senior doctor, holding down several important-sounding posts in a large hospital. We were numb, institutionalised and fully wired back into the system. I found myself driving an German SUV – even though we lived in South London where the closest thing to a mountain was the ramp onto the South Circular. Our beloved surfboards caught only dust and shadows in our garage, gradually sinking under a pile of junk. They looked reproachfully at me whenever they caught my eye.
I know the skies exploding with lightning, and waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the dusk,
The dawn, exalted as a population of doves
And at times I have seen all that man believed he saw!Arthur Rimbaud. 1871.