When I was sixteen and my sister Annie was twenty-one, we went hitchhiking around Europe. Not Inter-railing, hitchhiking, getting in strangers cars. Two young women alone, it did occur to me that maybe it wasn’t a great idea, but Annie knew best, she was my big sister. It was only when we were jumping out of a moving lorry as it slowed down on a hairpin bend in the Swiss Alps that I thought, ‘Maybe Annie doesn’t always know best.’
We were sexually harassed across five countries, but you don’t get good stories by making sensible decisions. In France we got a lift from a handsome older man. Annie sat in the front and chatted away in French. This was what Annie wanted life to be- chatting in French to an actual French person. This was living a big life as she would say. He then drove off the main road into a wood. Then he drove further into the wood – driving young women into a wood is classic horror movie stuff, it’s Little Red Riding Hood for fucks sake, it’s clearly a bad sign. Alarm bells were banging and clanging in my head.
The road became a dirt track. I whispered to Annie that we should stop or ask him where we were going. I could tell Annie was worried, but she didn’t want to let on, she didn’t want our adventure to go wrong. He stopped the car saying this was an excellent place to camp. We watched him drive away.
Maybe it was a good place to camp – alone in a wood, about three miles from the nearest main road, just as it was getting dark… Annie seemed to think it was fine, so I acted like it was fine. We started to put up our tent and talked about how the man had looked like Clint Eastwood. Very Handsome. I looked up and there he was, about a hundred yards away. ‘Annie he’s back, he’s coming towards us!’
Annie looked up at Clint Eastwood. She went forward to speak to him. They exchanged a few sentences, and then she swore at him. I stood behind her clutching a saucepan, ready to step in if the reasoning in French didn’t work. ‘Que a la main’ I picked out that phrase – did that mean just a hand job? He was gesturing and shouting as though he was complaining about bad service in a restaurant. One last Gallic shrug and he turned round and went off down the track. Annie turned to ask if I was OK, she laughed and hugged me when she saw the saucepan. How different our reactions were – maybe I have always been more of a saucepan wielding realist. It makes my heart ache to think of how young and inexperienced we were, but she looked out for me; always putting on a brave face.
The ‘Bad Clint Eastwood’ as he was then referred to, had put some money under a windscreen wiper when he picked us up, apparently that was a sign and we should have known that he was going to take us into the woods and to get a blow-job, or some sort of job.
We discussed the likelihood of him coming back; ‘Bad Clint Eastwood‘ knew where we were. We packed up and made the long trek down to the road. I thought every approaching car was him coming back, I was helpless with fear and laughter as my sister repeated ‘Bad Clint Eastwood, Bad Clint Eastwood ’ until the car disappeared.
It was night and we didn’t have anything sensible like a torch so we were stumbling around in the dark not quite sure where we were. I don’t remember setting up the tents, I think were very ‘overtired’. We woke to the sound of bulldozers. Looking out of the tent in daylight it appeared that we had camped in some sort of quarry. It was very much a working quarry and we were perched on the very edge of it, on a tiny square of un-excavated land. Men in hard hats were stomping about only 20-feet away and Annie was casually doing her usual morning routine of cleaning her face with Anne French cleansing milk.
Later in the trip we somehow ended up back in the Alps, but much higher up, we were wearing shorts and hitching by the roadside in the snow. We were freezing cold and I’d missed breakfast, so I was sure I would be dead by lunchtime. Salvation came in the form of two young Japanese men in a tiny Fiat. They showed no desire to do any raping and instead fed us biscuits and put jumpers on our legs.
Annie approached cancer much as she had approached that trip. Too much research and knowledge might not be the way to go. I think she may have realised very early on that her chances were slim – she’d opened the ‘be fully informed door’ and shut it again. That wasn’t helpful.
She wanted to do this well, be a person with cancer in the best way she could, her own peculiar kind of bravery. She was always brave, all her life. Because she would be scared and they are the really brave ones, the scared people, not the sporty warriors who go bungee jumping and white-water rafting. She would be scared and worried and usually unprepared but she’d just take a breath and charge ahead. I can see her small head, with short blonde hair, see her face thrust forward, grabbing life, worried but wanting to be one of the brave people.
Being driven into the woods by a stranger at dusk…that might turn out well.