Travel Narrative competition - Runner Up

David Jackson

Runner Up
There Is A Green Hill
Travel Narrative competition


David Jackson is an ex-civil servant, management consultant and academic. Born in Lancashire, his working life began as an apprentice in an engineering factory on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens and later included spells in Sweden, France, Nigeria and Morocco. He now lives back in Lancashire, in Bolton. On taking early retirement nearly ten years ago, he completed an OU BA in an eclectic mix of Mathematics, Creative Writing and Psychology. Since then he has concentrated on writing short stories and poetry. He tries to write stories based in some kind of reality, but which hinge on the question ‘what if’ some factor whether important or trivial had been different. He finds entering competitions provides him with a subject to focus on and a deadline to meet, which gives him the impetus to complete each project. He has also collaborated with his son, Rob, a graphic artist and illustrator, on a light-hearted attempt at family history (The Storytellers) and a look at life on an allotment site entitled Tales from the Plots.

There Is A Green Hill By David Jackson

It’s been forty minutes since we’ve passed any habitation.
Our white Mercedes slows to a halt at a crossing over a single track railway. In the moonlight, the rails form two parallel lines of silver disappearing into the endless desert.
A jackal, or maybe just a starving dog, slinks by.
‘Are we nearly there yet?’ I ask Aziz, sounding like a querulous child on an outing to a safari park.
‘Long way,’ he grunts.
We bump across the rail tracks and continue our journey. Slumped in the back seat I think ‘How the hell did I get into this? I don’t know where we are or where we’re going.’

The day had started badly. At Heathrow, the promised ticket to Casablanca wasn’t waiting for me at the Royal Air Maroc desk.
I’d rung O’Brien. A woman answered.
‘It’s Rob Eldon,’ I said, ‘I need to speak to Sean.’
‘No-one of that name here.’
‘Sean O’Brien?’
‘Sorry, wrong number.’
The line went dead.
It wasn’t the wrong number, O’Brien obviously didn’t want to speak to me, or maybe anyone else. It didn’t necessarily mean something was up. Probably one of his underlings had screwed up on the tickets. For a moment I wondered whether to just head home.
But work’s been scarce in recent months, I needed this assignment, so I decided to gamble. I’d just enough funds left on my credit card to buy an economy single to Casablanca.
A few hours later, standing in baggage reclaim at Mohammed Vth Airport exchanging grumbles with the gay French fashionista who was taking the transfer flight to Marrakesh, it occurred to me, ‘what if this whole thing’s been cocked up, or worse it’s a sham?’ What if there’s no contract, no work, no-one to meet me, no hotel booked?
Retrieving my battered rucksack I headed out into the arrivals area.
Then I breathed a sigh of relief.
Ahead of me stood a tall Arab in a dingy white suit holding a white card that said ‘Mr Eldon Robert’. ‘Eldon Robert, there’s a neat name,’ I thought, ‘bit like that detective, “Jackson Brodie”. Maybe I should change?’
I went over to him.
‘You Mr Robert?’ he said, ‘me Aziz, PCO. I, your driver, come please.’
He led me to a white Mercedes parked outside the terminal. He put my rucksack in the boot and signalling me to get into the back, climbed into the driver’s seat. We set off, in silence.
Ten minutes later we reached a cross-roads. One sign pointed to Casablanca, the other to places I’d never heard of. We didn’t take the Casablanca fork.
‘Hey’, I said, ‘this isn’t the way to Casablanca!’
‘You no go Casa,’ Aziz replied, ‘Mr Khalid explain in morning.’
An hour or so later we reached a village.
‘Need drink,’ Aziz said. He got out and disappeared into a roadside building.
If I’d gone with him into the bar, maybe I could have asked where I was, tried to speak to someone, but the village was tiny. No-one would have spoken English and my Arabic is non-existent. I’d no local currency, you can’t get Moroccan Dirhams outside Morocco. My contact was supposed to supply me with “living money” when we met. Along with some items of equipment I hadn’t felt it wise to carry on a scheduled flight.
It was midnight. Down the street, I saw what seemed to be a butcher’s. There was a carcass hanging up, an eerie blue / black shape in the naphthalene flares. Men were standing in the shadows, silently watching the car.
Aziz returned, we set off again. Forty minutes later we were at the railway line.
So now I’m worrying, ‘What if Aziz really did come for “Eldon Robert”? What if I’m the wrong man in the wrong place? Was the real Eldon Robert even now making an angry phone call to Mr Khalid? And was my contact, who I’d been supposed to meet at the Toubkal Hotel in Casa, phoning O’Brien to say I hadn’t showed. And what would the mysterious Mr Khalid do when the mistake was realised? I told myself, ‘Calm down, this trip into nowhere will just be something else about this job that O’Brien hasn’t bothered to mention.’  
Two hours or so later, we’ve reached a town. We drive through deserted streets until we reach a guard-post, manned by two men in dilapidated army cast-offs. Their assault rifles look modern enough though.
Passing through a gate, we start to drive up a road that climbs steeply upwards like a helter-skelter. We enter the driveway of a large building. A single light shines in the porch.
Another Arab appears. He opens the car door and invites me to get out.
‘Bonsoir, M’sieu, welcome to the Engineer’s Club, welcome to Youssouffia. We have a meal prepared for you. Please follow me.’
He shows me into a room where a table is set for dinner. He fills a glass with a Clairette from the Beq’aa valley and sets the bottle before me, before leaving.
The wine’s good. I try to eat some of the food, I don’t want to be rude. But I ‘m exhausted, it’s nearly three in the morning. After a few minutes, I call out to him, ‘I really need to get some sleep.’
He slips back into the room. ‘You have a bungalow in the Garconerie, Hassan will drive you there.’
Another white Mercedes is waiting for me outside. We drive through the dark until we enter a guarded, walled compound. Hassan indicates a white bungalow ahead of me, and hands me a bunch of keys.
I open the front door and switch on the hall light. A doorway off the hall leads into a bedroom. The bed’s been made up. I turn off the hall light, enter the bedroom and place my rucksack on a chair. I lie down on the bed staring up at the ceiling.
A noise at the bedroom door startles me. Hassan’s standing there. ‘You have breakfast with Mr Khalid,’ he says, ‘I pick you up at six thirty.’ And he leaves as silently as he’d come.
‘Welcome to Youssouffia,’ I thought, ‘wherever that is.’
At 5.30 the alarm on my mobile phone rouses me from a fretful slumber. I find the bathroom and shower and shave. Delving into my rucksack I retrieve my least crumpled pair of trousers and a dark blue linen shirt. ‘Should I wear a tie?’ I decided that my yellow tie with the blue pattern is a suitable option. I’ve only one linen jacket with me so that’ll have to do.
I locate the kitchen. It’s fully equipped, hobs, oven, pans even crockery. But the refrigerator’s empty and all the cupboards are bare. No chance of making a morning cup of tea or coffee.
‘If I’m here a while,’ I mutter, ‘I’ll have to find the shops, that’s if there are any….. And if I can get any cash.’
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Hassan.
‘I take you to the Club now. Mr Khalid will be there.’
Another Mercedes, another short drive.
We travel along wide boulevards lined with cypress and cedars with large white villas set back behind high dark-green hedges. Each villa has an imposing gateway with tall white painted gateposts. And besides each gateway stands a wooden sentry-box, like those outside London palaces, each manned by an ex-soldier in his ‘cast-off’ uniform holding his rifle at the ready. They salute as the Mercedes passes.
We reach the Club and pull up outside the doorway.
‘Mr Khalid is inside,’ said Hassan.
I get out of the car and enter the building. The Arab who had served me my supper materialises in the hallway.
‘This way, m’sieu,’ he says.
He leads me into a bright, cheerful dining room. A group of Arab men in business suits are sat at a huge circular breakfast table set with fresh breads, fruit, cheeses and cooked meats. Carafes of coffee quietly steam on a side table. Another holds large jugs of orange juice.
A large, smiling man stands up and holds out his hand.
‘Mr Eldon, I am Ahmed Khalid. Welcome to Youssouffia, welcome to PCO.’
He indicates an empty chair next to his and I sit down.
A white jacketed servant appears at my elbow, ‘Café, M’sieu? Jus?’ He pauses. Khalid smiles encouragingly. The servant, continues in halting English, ‘Some bread, some fruit perhaps?’
I gratefully accept the offer of bread and fruit and a cup of very strong coffee.
Khalid turns to me, ‘You see, we are very keen that English is spoken and understood at all levels in the company, and not just at high levels in Casablanca. And that is why your appointment as an Englishman to the post of Management tutor here in Youssouffia is so important to us.’
He smiles, ‘we use English in our dealings with the Americans, but …..’ again a pause, ‘our …. Patron …. Is not too keen on the Americans. He feels perhaps that they do not share his …. Values …. or his interests.’
He wipes his lips with a serviette, ‘You have your first class in 40 minutes, Hassan will drive you there.’
And so begins my assignment proper.
I’ve been here a while now, and got to know Youssouffia. A company mining town, a citadel of corporate order and rigid hierarchy. Standing on its hill, its trees and gardens irrigated by the water pumped up from the mine workings deep below, it stands out like an emerald beacon in the arid, barren landscape. An old hymn from my Lancashire Sunday school runs through my mind “There is a green hill far away”’. Well, I’m certainly far enough away from home.



Judges Comments

A sense of foreboding permeates There Is A Green Hill, David Jackson's runner-up in our Travel Narrative competitition, to hugely atmospheric effect. Robert Eldon (or Eldon Robert as his driver calls him - another careful detail that emphasises how ill-at-ease this character feels in his surroundings) is a narrator giving off a fritz of anxiety that transfits itself effectively to the reader. Nothing is spelled out but the mounting sense of discomfort is palable throughout this story of a trip into the unknown that reaches its climax with the information – which in this context where everything seems sinister can only be received by Robert with alarm  that 'our Patron is not keen on Americans'. Physical unease is used to create the impression that Robert has travelled off the map into a place with a different, and dangerous moral compass.

Nothing is made obvious in David's storytelling but from the beginning There Is A Green Hill creates a taut sense of unease: out in the middle of nowhere, endless desert, Robert way out of his comfort zone, deplaced into an environment where everything is unfamiliar. Names, places, even the time of arrival all add up to create an overwhelming impression that everything is skewed and unwelcoming. It's very well done on David's part, with the reference to the childhood hymn at the end and in the title giving the suggestion that Robert's excursion is into the dark heart of something sinister and even unholy, with what is good and familiar left very far behind.