He was surprisingly gentle, after the rough choke-hold before. He carried me the way a groom carries his bride across the threshold, and with total ease. His chest felt good, big and strong. There was definitely a lot more muscles than fat underneath his absurd flowery shirt. And he smelled faintly of healthy sweat, soap and Rive Gauche.
His hands were also very gentle as he washed my feet and tended to them, humming of all things “Us or Them” from Dark Side of the Moon all the while. Turned out he was a paramedic and ambulance driver. The woman had tried to argue, hell, I had tried to argue, but he had brushed our objections away with a grunt. Seemed in his view of the world you just didn’t leave hurt people by the roadside, no matter what they’d done before, or if they even wanted your help at all.
The camper was parked a good way into the orchard, so that it was almost invisible from the road. Most of the ground was covered by high grass dotted with buttercups and high stands of nettles. Here and there someone had heaped a lot of dead branches, but that must have been long ago, judging from the rot and moss. On a clearing next to the camper they had set up a couple of foldable chairs and table. Dewey was loitering in one of the chairs, watching me with an unabashed and disconcerting fascination. I was sitting in the other, legs stretched out, Huey kneeling in front of me.
“By the way,” Huey had said at the beginning. “I’m…”
“Huey,” I interrupted him. “I know. And the wanna-be hood ornament is Dewey. Which makes your lady...,” I nodded towards the woman who was reheating a pot of chilli con carne over a camping stove. “…Louie?”
Huey laughed. “Yep. That’s right.”
“What’s your name?” Dewey asked me.
Louie, who had tried to hide her own grin, shushed her. “Let him be, darling. He won’t want to give us his real name.” (Right she was.)
“Well, what shall I call him then?” Dewey demanded. “I can’t very well just call him Strange Boy, can I?”
“You can call me Ishmael,” I muttered, a meagre attempt at wit. More half-hidden grins from Louie – Huey seemed to miss the reference entirely – but Dewey was delighted. She tried the name as if tasting it, rolled it around her tongue a few times and then declared she would call me “Ish.”
“What have you done to your feet, Ishmael?” Huey sighed when he had cleaned them. I had told him to leave them be, I would take care of it myself. He had frowned as if trying to make sense of what I said. “If you could take care of them yourself they wouldn’t be in such a state.”
“I walked a lot.”
“Yeah, from where? Siberia?”
“No, just…” I interrupted myself. Again Huey didn’t take any notice, he was too absorbed in his task of making me better. However I caught Louie looking at me sharply. “Wales,” I finished. “I got relatives in Wales. Been hiking for two days.”
“In those?” he asked me, nodding to my red canvas trainers lying in a heap next to my socks and t-shirt. When I nodded, he shook his head.
“Bad choice. And then no change of socks, either, no tape. Man, you don’t know the first thing about hiking, do you?”
And thus I got my first lesson in how to take care of my feet when on the road. And whatever else happened later, I never forgot that lesson, and never again let my feet take the punishment for my negligence. Even if I didn’t take care of anything else, I always made certain I had fresh socks to change into, not too warm, nor too cold. I tried to always carry a roll of surgical tape with me, and to protected spots that got irritated as soon as I became aware of them. If possible I would have moleskin rings on me to take care of blisters if they did form after all, and a safety pin to lance them, and some form of disinfectant, even if it was just hard liquor. The feeling of not being able to run away when they caught me, of being betrayed by my feet (though I suppose it was me who betrayed my feet) was too horrible for me to ever allow to occur again.
“Are you really no good as a thief?” Dewey asked me, when Huey was done explaining.
“What do you mean? If you hadn’t tried to hump a Land Rover, I would’ve gotten away with it,” I snapped.
“Language,” Louie snapped back. “At least try to behave as if you’re a bloody guest and not just street scum.”
And after a brief uncomfortable pause I sighed. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Dewey. That was a dumb thing for me to say. And maybe you are right, maybe I suck at this.”
At that Huey finally looked up from my feet, where he had been busy cutting away lose flaps of torn skin. He was laughing silently. “Nah, well, I don’t know about that. But I think Dewey meant that Louie called you a no good thief before, isn’t that right, honey?”
He glanced at Louie who threw him a dirty look that confirmed his speculation.
“Look, Dewey, what your mother meant is that Ishmael here is a thief and that being a thief is not a good thing. Even if he is really good at stealing, it’s still bad to do that at all.”
Dewey chewed on her lower lip and thought about that for a while.
“If you do something, you ought to do it well. That’s what Mr Bishop says anyway. If doing something is bad, but you’re doing it anyway, is it better or worse being good at it then?” And when no one answered her, she did so herself. “I think it’s still better to be good at it, even at something bad.”
You know, that was what I always thought myself.