Just before my seventeenth birthday I went on a school trip to Switzerland. There were thirty of us on the tour, two teachers, or chaperones, and twenty-eight giggling girls. We girls all innocently dreamt of romance. Our collective dream was that this idyllic setting, away from the restrictions of home, might afford us romance and excitement. Our idealist search was for a man, any man, to sweep us off their feet. So, imagine how the party throbbed to find, on arrival, that our assigned Swiss guide was a mythically handsome young man. His mere presence was enough to turn, even my inexperienced seventeen-year-old heart. He filled us with yarning. In the evenings we discussed his every attribute and action. We discussed his bronzed face, his piercing blue eyes, his blond hair, his broad shoulders, the way he walked, his voice, and his attractive accent as he told us about the Swiss sights. Even I, who had previously been unaware of myself, suddenly noticed my body. I was no longer just a person who was, I was a mind housed in a body whose shape and proportions I noticed and worried about. For the first time in my life I looked critically at my legs. I began to try to catch surreptitious glances on myself in mirrors as we passed by them. I looked at shop windows not to inspect merchandise but to evaluate my reflection.
Uli, for that was his name, guided our tours into the surrounding countryside. Never were bus expeditions so popular, or the participants so eagerly well prepared. Uli lived somewhere up the mountainside overlooking Lake Geneva and the lakeside town in which we were staying. We picked him up each morning at the bottom of a tiny dirt road just outside town. It wound away from the main road disappearing as it twisted up the mountain. One morning our bus arrived and gently sounded its horn, but no Uli appeared from the turn in the road or leapt from the roadside greenery. We sat and waited. There we were – twenty-eight young bodies, powdered, flutteringly female, all waiting, for the enslaving thrill of his presence. As we waited our young hearts throbbed and the air in the bus was laden with the odor of our desire. After half an hour our lead chaperone decided that a volunteer should be sent up the mountain to seek him out. All were willing to go but I sat closest to her and so I was selected.
I began my climb up the deserted mountain road. It was rutted and looked so desolate that it seemed to me as though it ought to have been a film set for a war film and that I ought to have been making my sortie covered by guns. But, I was covered, not by guns, but by eyes. I was the only moving thing in the landscape and I was covered by some fifty-eight female eyes – twenty-nine pairs, including our two chaperones. Their intensity riveted my back and made me feel small and ridiculous as I negotiated the deserted slope. I flexed my muscles and pushed resolutely forward without a backward glance. I didn’t need to look or wave; I could feel their attention and their envy. AMong t he girls I could almost distinguish each stare individually. There were Anne’s, their ice cool anonymity piercing through the fresh morning air, and Dianne’s with their whimsical layer of mascara, catching ironic glimpses through bushy eyelashes, and Jane’s, doe soft, reflecting my image like dark unlit windows, and Vivien’s behind orange rimmed spectacles and orange eyelashes, glaring with a hot red stare, and Libby’s and Jill’s and… Now, the track gave a turn and I was alone, with the warm Swiss sun beating down on my back. It melted away the chill of those twenty-nine stares. I forgot everything except my climb.
The track could hardly have been called a road, although it was wide enough for a motorized vehicle and there were parallel ruts in some places which could have been made by wheels. It was so rugged and stony and had been so torn by spring rains, that I was sure that only a four wheel drive land rover could have negotiated it. It zigzagged and wound up alternatively throwing the valley below first to my left and then to my right. At each turn I paused to catch my breath and to enjoy the view down to where the steep mountain plunged into the lake, cool, silent and inviting. I would swim there on our return in the evening. Across the lake I could see the far shore where the land also shot, almost vertical out of the water and rose towards the sky to an apex where I caught a glimpse of a forsaken patch of snow. It glistened in the sun like a pearl. The scene reminded me of a childhood story of a little girl, Lucy, who climbed up such a mountainside to suddenly come upon Mrs. Tiggywinkle, the hedgehog washer lady with her hedgehog prickles projecting in all directions through her wash-day clothing. But my climb was not in search of Beatrix Potter’s Lake District laundry and instead of seeing neat little bundles of clothing along the road I saw tiny blue alpine flowers sparkling in the grass.
As I climbed higher I was greeted by the smell of the Alps and its own special silence. The odor of hot grass shedding its dewy mantle, of pine needles gently shifted by a stray breeze and at each turn something new to excite my senses. I heard no human sounds only the crickets chirping their eternal song and birds singing in the day. The sun shone so brilliantly in the rarified mountain air that it, also, seemed to be singing.
By the time that my school-girl’s dress was beginning to get moist under my arms and my face flushed I caught sight of a steep-roofed chalet. It was nestled under an overhanging crag so far above me that it looked small enough to be Mrs. Tiggywinkle’s abode. As I approached the hillside became smoother and less steep, until I found myself walking across the verdant patch of pasture which surrounded the dwelling on three sides. I could now hear the tinkle of a brook close at hand but otherwise everything slept on in the brilliant pollution-free morning. There wasn’t a sign of life, and yet, somehow, I instinctively knew that there was someone inside the chalet, that it was inhabited and was the place that I was looking for. Its solitude seemed to tell me that I had no business to be there, but now it was too late. I kept walking. When I was close enough to be wondering how I ought to make my presence known he emerged. He opened the red door and stood in its portal bathed in morning sun. Godlike, he stood, immobile, tall, bronzed, blond, his body silhouetted in its open shirt and white trousers against the dark interior behind him. He seemed to be sniffing the air like an animal awakened from hibernation. He stood legs akimbo, yawned and stretched his arms above his head. He was unaware of my presence.
I paused a moment, spellbound and unwilling to break this moment of magic. I felt stupid with my red face and sticky clothing, but I knew that I was an intruder and needed to make my presence known. I spoke,
“Hi there, Uli – you are late. We are all waiting for you below. The bus is ready.”
He turned his gaze to me and his look became disdainful. I thought his calm to be ruffled almost as though he were saying,
“Well, here I am. What on earth are YOU doing here intruding into my privacy?”
Instead he spoke authoratively in his attractive broken English accent. I detected no embarrassment, no apology. “I overslept. We shall go down on my ’cycle. You wait here.” With this he disappeared into the chalet.
In a few seconds he re-appeared from behind with a huge motorcycle. He stopped and mounted it. He kicked it into life. Its roar tore the silence, its sick sweet smell of petrol and oil exploded the gentle air, and its shining parts glistened in the sun. I drew back. I was afraid of this huge throbbing machine which so eclipsed the whole sensory field. I remembered my mother’s warning, repeated warning, to never ride a motorcycle because of the danger, but before I could gather my surprised senses together to do or say something Uli was in command.
“Jump on,” he ordered, “hold tight.”
His bisque instructions were not to be discussed or disobeyed. I climbed on behind him, and, thinking of the hazardous road ahead, gripped him tightly in my arms.
I hardly had a second to savor his masculinity before the pulsating machine between our legs burst forward like a runner at the firing of the race starting gun. It leapt up in its enthusiasm to move forward. The air, suddenly cool, came rushing up and bathed my face. It lifted my damp hair into the trail of dust and debris behind us. Down, down we flew. At each hairpin turn the valley below got bigger. Indeed, it seemed to be coming towards us so quickly that we could almost have been gravity falling down the precipitous path. Down, down we twisted. Down we turned. Down we thrust. Behind us we left a tail of noise, the odor of heat and burning, and a cloud of dust. Downward we sliced the crisp air ahead as we hurtled through the unsoiled mountainside. A last twist and we came, with yet another swerving skid to a dusty giddy halt in front of the bus. Suddenly there was silence.
Twenty-nine pairs of eyes gazed out of the windows as the entire party strained to get a better look at us. Fifty-eight eyes focused our image onto fifty-eight retinas to be conveyed by optic nerve into twenty-nine heads. It was time to dismount, the machine had stopped. I remained immobile, for somehow I had become part of the motorcycle, as though the heat of my fear had welded me to it. I sat. Uli, was unruffled, “Jump off,” he ordered and lifted my trembling inactive body down. He gave me no further glance as he hurried off the hide his precious possession in a bush. My body trembled as I climbed into the bus still covered by those fifty-eight eyes. He followed. Neither of us spoke. The bus driver pulled the bus onto the main road and began our day’s excursion.
Thank you, thank you Wyon. I needed this comment as it got varied responses. I will amend the eyes thank you for pointing this out. Although, in fact there is also a chaperone whose eyes are also in the mix – numbers still don’t tally – hey hoI. l also heartily acccept your image suggestion. I am tempted to change the person from memoir style, first person, to the third person so that it is more story-like. Do you think that it would lose or gain with this change? Love, Jane
In answer to your question I prefer it first person because it is easier to convey the internal thought/feeling process of someone this way rather than as a telapathic narrator which, although it is a common narrative convention always seems a little weird to me and can tip the balance towards tell not show.
Loved it. One of your best! especially the exploration of nascent sexuality. There were many bits I liked in particular – the character’s sudden awareness of her body though I think she might be analysing rather than savoring her reflection in the shop windows given what you have said about her being critical of her legs. Also liked the great alliteration of ‘giggling girls’ and the thoroughly plausible context of them all being after the same thing. The fact that he had a motorbike and was laid back about being late and lived in such a lovely places are all great touches. A tiny detail: there were 28 girls initially = 56 eyes. But this mysteriously becomes 29 pairs of eyes (and 58 eyes) at the start of paragraph three which turns back to 28 pairs at the end of paragraph 3. Whereas in fact If there were 28 girls to start with there would be 27 looking at the narrator or 54 eyes. Very beguiling tale. Thank you.
Just “corrected” the eyes and then changed it all back as the narrative gives thirty in the bus – 28 girls and 2 chaperones. Maybe the chaperones wouldn’t have stared with envy but I had them looking also – hence the 29 pairs and 58 eyes.