There are a lot of strange people out there and the joy of the internet is that it makes it easier for them to find you. Luckily this one lived a bit too far away to be a fully fledged stalker, though he did his best by email. It just shows you should never respond to the advances of strange men, even the ones who just want you to accompany them overland through Afghanistan.
Late one night it had seemed like a good idea to register myself on a website for people interested in finding like-minded companions for overseas trips no one you knew was interested in. I was bored, had some wine … you know how it is. However there were no like-minded people, so I forgot about it. Having described myself as “can cook, sing Petula Clark songs, will go to war zones”, I wasn’t sure whether to expect many replies anyway. The website wanted money to show details of others to get in touch with, and it was all too much trouble. I did receive one email from a bloke who wanted to take me on “an all-expenses paid trip to watch football in Germany” (like Germany, but not football), so rejected that. But then there was Travelman.
He decided that I was “the one” to accompany him across Iran, Afghanistan and a few more dangerous countries because they are there. He was of the opinion that just because the Foreign Office says stay away, that’s no reason not to chug on in, over or through. To be fair, the trip sounded interesting, but I’d just committed to various things that demanded constant injections of money.
I’d said I would go to war zones. But if you’re going to a war zone, you want to go with someone fun. I didn’t think he was much fun when we first met, and he just became less fun as time went on.
“He’s deranged,” said a colleague by way of assessment when I showed him the emails a few weeks later.
By then Travelman emailed me constantly, up to half a dozen times a day. I started to curtail my replies, leaving longer and longer between them to calm his frenzied correspondence a bit. Apart from anything else, I was tired of his hackneyed expressions and his annoying use of quotation marks to delineate anything he thought was a “challenging phrase”.
The initial meeting was in a large railway station, in the wake of some recent terrorist activity in Central London that had made everyone a bit jumpy. I had approached one wrong strange man, so was naturally a bit wary when I approached strange-looking Travelman. I was also perhaps a little constrained by something in my subconscious that hoped it wasn’t him, while unappealing evidence indicated it probably was. He later accused me of not being very friendly when I came up to him, though I wasn’t entirely sure I had the right person. And this was England for god’s sake, no one bounds up to anyone like a Labrador puppy there, and many would say good thing too.
Balding but beardy, he was rumpled and nerdy yet exuded a kind of frustrated belligerence. I knew in the first five minutes I didn’t want to to go anywhere with him, let alone Pakistani hinterlands and Taleban strongholds. We spent an hour or two together, where he flapped large maps around, talked manically, apologized for talking manically, then talked manically again. And he gave me a huge pile of books to look at. Some he described as gifts, like a large coffee table book on Rajasthani palaces he said he had picked up at a fete for a pound. I didn’t know how to refuse without being rude, and having declared myself to be interested in Rajasthani palaces, I couldn’t claim indifference.
We parted, I went to a job interview, then he started ringing. He complained that I hadn’t spent enough time with him. Out of guilt I offered to come to Sussex on the weekend and discuss it further. I don’t know why, I couldn’t see in any way that I would change my mind. But he kept hinting mysteriously that he had solutions for my problems. So many problems … I am such a sucker for people who say they can solve my problems.
I’d tried to fob him off by saying I couldn’t take off for six months in the next few weeks like he wanted me to for minor reasons like a job, a car, a lease on a flat, possessions … As an expat in the UK there was no one to take care of these things for me.
There was an argument because he didn’t want me to come to his country town in southern England when I had time. When I didn’t have time and had to work he insisted that I make the journey and then sulked when I said I couldn’t abandon my colleagues. He hinted that this was a grave betrayal, a test I had failed that would rankle in his mind as he wandered the village talking to homeless people and scavenging for free stuff.
Eventually I went, bundling up the books he gave me, except for a couple I thought were “gifts”. When I arrived he told me my sense of humour needed development, my appearance did not live up to expectations, and later he yelled at me when I didn’t want to let a friend down (whose father was dying of cancer) and cancel all my arrangements to help him re-organise his attic. Well, his mother’s attic. He lived with his mother and she was going away for the first time in four years. The first time in four years. The mother was alive – I saw her – so he was no Norman Bates, but it was a bit creepy. I mean, what would we be doing with the stuff in the attic that we couldn’t do when his mother was around?
One of his “solutions” was that I could put a few boxes in that attic. And I should quit the job, because job security was a fantasy, and sell my car. I wasn’t very impressed with these “solutions”. “You don’t need a car,” he announced airily as drove me to the station in his mother’s automobile. Houses, indeed possessions of all kinds, were a simply a hindrance to an interesting life according to Travelman, who had full use of his mother’s home.
He wasn’t fond of the police, and I got another rant about them when I arrived, in particular how he felt uncomfortable yelling at them when they carried weapons. Walking along a country path he enthusiastically described his foraging ways, ie searching for food and who knows what else in public areas. Later his eyes gleamed as he relished the tale of how he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, threw the butts in his mother’s garden, roamed the garden and collected the butts when he’d run out of tobacco, and then made another rollie out of them. “That last cigarette,” he confided, “is the one that tastes best of all.” As he told me this I wondered desperately where I could find a copy of the train timetable and thought the subtle flavors of train catering on the way back to London would be the best taste of all.
He seemed to be one of those men who spend way too much time alone in their bedrooms with a computer. You think, poor sods, they should get out more. Then they do get out, and you wish they’d go back in.
We went on a “nature walk” during which he took it upon himself to quiz me about things we saw and the countryside in general. If I didn’t know the answers he would say: “Come on Carolyn, you can do better than that!”
Maybe I didn’t want to. Scuffing my toes I entertained evil thoughts of pushing him into a blackberry bush while he stripped it of berries and then making a dash for the nearest police station.
Between rants about the constabulary, he also quizzed me about baking. Then he manouvred me into making pastry and I wasn’t even allowed to see how it turned out. The apple pie was delegated to his mother while in the oven, then incarcerated in the freezer where it stayed. Later he wrote he hoped I’d come and eat it. Who makes a guest construct a tart for no reason and freezes it? I thought we were making it for consumption. But it seemed that as I was there, I was required to provide some form of domestic service. Or maybe it was another test, another one I didn’t care about passing.
Next on the agenda was looking for badgers (there were none) and an agonizing drink in a pub where he expressed his many disappointments regarding my inadequate person, and told me what a colossal beast I was for insisting on visiting the friend nursing a dying father instead of dragging cartons around for him.
He ranted more about my various shortcomings in the car on the way to the railway station, and said he’d be happier going to Iran on his own because people there were very hospitable.
“You’d only hold me back,” he snapped.
“Fine,” I replied, thinking please hurry, I don’t care about trains in Turkey, I just want to get on the locomotive that will take me away from here.
When we did get to the station he stopped looking angry and went all sad puppy. I was terrified he was going to try and kiss me. While he clutched at my torso I submitted to being lightly mashed against his cheek.
I escaped from him then but there was no let up in the emails, whether complaining about cleaning the attic on his own, or being affronted I’d kept the “gifts” – whining that the chunky coffee table book was in fact a “shared resource” to be taken on the journey, despite being extremely heavy and mainly photographs. He demanded I send it, and some other volume, back. After wrapping them, I labelled them, took them to work and left them at security, informing Travelman that he could collect them on his next trip to London. This was another test I failed to pass. Several times a day I was updated on his dealings with the security staff and those books – all two pounds’ worth – and how I was the cause of an unending and distressing saga of woe and pestilence. That was when I showed the emails to a friend.
I stopped writing back, even when Travelman triumphantly re-embraced his books and found other people to travel with, all much more attractive and useful than me, including someone who owned a canoe. I really didn’t care, after all, we’d only met twice. Weirdly, dealing with him was like enduring a bitter ex, except there had been no relationship, just a miserable ramble in the woods. And one pie, interrupted.
The last time I heard from him was when he invited me to come to Stonehenge to see him off at sunrise at the start of The Trip To The East. I really thought he was deranged then, for all kinds of reasons. Anyone who knows me is fully aware I do not do early mornings. TTTTE, as he called it, would commence without me. I wasn’t even tempted.