December 28, 2011
Suffering agonies in my shins, I manage to limp to the door of the big house and peer uncertainly in. In a dim, wood-panelled hallway rows of coat hooks gleam on the walls. In the murky light I see two children dressed in creepy, Puritan-style clothing, standing absolutely still and staring at each other.
I don’t like the look of this at all. This can’t be the place I’m looking for. So despite the stabbing bolts of pain that shoot up my legs at every step, I hobble on down the road. Darkness has fallen, and I’ve been walking for almost ten hours. I started at first light, tracing the bank of the River Waal, the great grey river that runs westwards through the Low Countries towards the North Sea, back where my journey started. I followed the dike for most of the way, past windmills flanked by osiers, alongside polders full of geese, under a swollen sky. Rain swept in from the river at midday, driving diagonally up the dike to soak the right side of my body, and the wind heaved at my back, pushing my legs onwards.
It was about four o’clock that I realised I’d been far too cocky in trying to walk from Gorinchem to Tiel comfortably in a day. The light was already starting to fade, sort of folding itself away across the landscape, and I still had twenty kilometres to go. I noticed a dull pressure in my shins, and tried to ignore it when it became a steady, repetitive ache, but before long the pain became sharper with every step. Around this point the dike path ended and I found myself walking beside a road, trying to stick to the sloped grass verge – the high impact surface of the tarmac jarred my legs too much – and tried to take my mind off the pain by guessing the colours of the cars as they thundered past me. It was a game – I got one point for a correct colour, and minus if I was wrong. At minus seventeen I gave up, finding it too depressing.
Around five o’clock I found a service station and bought a bottle of Coke, mixing it up in my thermos flask with half a bottle of whiskey. I thought perhaps this would help with the pain. It didn’t work – I was still in pain, only now I was drunk as well. Darkness rolled over the landscape, and in the distance I could see the glimmering lights of the town I was heading for, inching closer step by step with agonising slowness. I counted down the last ten kilometres like a prayer.
And now, searching for the address of the place I’m staying in tonight, all I can find is the big stone house with the weird frozen children. I hobble up and down the street, almost gasping with pain. At last I return to the door – it’s the only possible choice. And then lights blink on in the hall, a figure waves from the window, beckoning me in.
I stay in this refuge for three days while my shins recover. The damage isn’t serious – ice-packs, arnica gel, ibuprofen and rest are all I really need. I put up my feet in the high-ceiling room, read books and drink coffee. The rain falls ceaselessly, the bells of the nearby church elaborately toll every quarter hour, and the interior of the rooms are submerged in a grey, dreamlike twilight.
My host, an ex-rock guitarist with a face like a friendly conquistador, rents this enormous building cheap to keep out squatters. It used to be an orphanage. The children, of course, are just statues. Two smaller statues flank the door, crumbled stone effigies of a boy and girl with distressed goblin features, covered in a slimy layer of green.
After it was a home for lost children, it was a hospital for the disabled.
Both of these incarnations, it seems, are appropriate to my condition.
This was my unhappy condition two weeks ago. Since these days of rest my shins have recovered greatly, and I’m now in the town of Bingen, most of my way down the Rhine.
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