Switzerland in the Rain
I’m holding my guidebook firmly, like a Bible. I’ve just asked David – a stranger who happened to be passing – to take my photograph. My posture is stiff and apprehensive. You can see in my eyes I’m thinking he might steal the camera. Behind me, the Rhine Falls are bright white – the sunlight is catching the spray. I’m wearing the Ireland cap that David complemented me on while he was taking the picture. I look disarmed. I’m fighting the instincts of a well-prepared woman travelling alone. It made my smile genuine. I was glad when he offered to join me.
David is stood on a wet log with both arms outstretched. In the background, the swollen Rhine is brown, full of debris, overflowing across the trail. Trees on the opposite bank hang right over into the water. The proud incline of his head, accepting and defying the rain, is completely characteristic. He made that pouting face everywhere, half-joking around his conquering of nature. He had no maps, no equipment and no plans. All he had was the backpack and a tatty, heavy tent that let in rain. I was amazed by the idea that this wandering soul was English.
The rainwater spills off my anorak into my canteen as I reach for the camera in David’s hand. I look worried that it might be damaged by the rain. We’ve just worked out we’d lived within a mile of each other in East London, though he’d given up his flat completely for the trip. He seemed almost unaware that the referendum was taking place that week, and did nothing to acknowledge that as an Irish citizen I might be adversely affected. He laughed off my suggestion that he could’ve made a postal vote – not cruelly, but with genuine disbelief.
I’m sat on a tree stump with two red, wet hands at my cheeks, probably just a few minutes after the referendum result came through, trying not to cry. You can see me preparing to snatch the camera from him, my accusations already rising in my face, ready to villify him for his apathy. He’d simply stared up into the dripping trees as if I was criticising the weather or the price of bread in Switzerland. His nonchalance frustrated me but we stuck together. I needed someone to talk to, even if I considered him part of the problem.
David has his arm round a hiker with a grey beard. The two of them are laughing, with absolute sincerity and openness – the kind of laugh that David provoked in almost everyone he stopped along the trail. The hiker has just congratulated him on the referendum. He spoke about the EU with polite derision. David shook his hand. The hiker congratulated me too. I nodded politely but boiled inside. Later, when we crossed into Germany to buy cheap food, I criticised David for his irresponsibility. We crossed quietly back into Switzerland, but he never stopped celebrating with the hikers.
He must have taken this picture of the Ireland cap when I was elsewhere. He’s sat it up on a wet stump in a muddy glade, beside an empty wine bottle. Water is falling from the surrounding leaves. This was the day we got drunk and I described my grandfather’s face the first time I’d brought an English boyfriend back to Ireland. David laughed and impersonated an angry Dubliner. I tried to chastise him but I couldn’t help laughing. His child-like lack of conscience was sometimes endearing. Later I wondered if I was letting him interfere with my principles.
The trail has been dramatically severed by a tract of fast-flowing water set into a deep ditch. The juncture of thick mud and river water forms a natural aleph, which David has caught the shape of from his vantage point in a tree. I’m stood with my map stretched out in front of me. You can see I’ve already made up my mind not to cross. My mouth is open – I’m explaining that we’ll have to follow the flooding east to eventually rejoin the trail. My eyes are low. I already knew what David’s response was going to be.
He’s holding my camera at arm’s length, pulling a face. Somewhere behind the lens, I’ve already asked for my camera back and started to argue with him. For all his profound sympathy and openness, he couldn’t perceive why I wouldn’t follow him into the ditch. He just laughed when I told him the risk was pointless. I told him if he didn’t value his own life – if he really didn’t care about anything – then he could go on along without me. I marked my ballot openly, and made sure he understood. He simply tightened the straps on his backpack.
This is the only picture of us together. David insisted we take it before we part company, even though I was still calling him stupid for bothering to ford the flooded path. My face is unsympathetic, bored. His is placid and warm. He said afterwards he understood why I couldn’t follow him. We wished each other good luck and I made a cruel quip about him surviving to see the apocalypse after Brexit. He just pouted, turned his face in profile, and then scrambled carelessly down the bank towards the water. The photo does neither of us any justice.
The campsite at Kreuzlingen is empty but for one hiker looking out to where the Rhine meets the Bodensee. Their silhouette is cut against the fading light over the lake, their feet planted in the pale grass where the floodwaters have receded. From here he looks like David, though he’s not. I wonder if he were to turn, and photograph me in the dusk beside my tent, whether I would look like David – like another wandering soul, heading out into the world with no plan and no apprehension, and only a damp Ireland cap to indicate where I’d started.
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been published widely, including in Litro and The Mechanics’ Institute Review, and have been placed in various prizes across the country. His work is available at joebedford.co.uk.