It’s a windy spring day, and tree spores copter down in alien invasions. The sun blares out and scores of people wear the long-sleeved, broad-brimmed uniform of sensible outdoor workers. I can’t bring myself to join them. Even my shoes—runners with acrylic mesh across the top—are hardly the covered footwear outlined in the hastily printed posters, but they will have to do. Without the luxury of oversubscription, this particular adventure reluctantly embraces me.
Our group leader, who has a name something like Tarragon, is a bunch of bristles under a legionnaire’s cap with two deep-set eyes that I can feel do not like me at all. Those who impress Tarragon are the few who, like him, have arrived wearing wincingly reflective yellow King Gee jumpsuits, the fashion equivalent of four-wheel-drives never taken off bitumen. My legs have already sprung up in hives from the spiky pollened grass that grows waist high across nearly the entire valley.
We beat the grass with long identical sticks. Our team has been assigned a set of co-ordinates, marked in orange highlighter on a badly photocopied map, and we work our way along while each section is measuredly eliminated.
Keep to the line! shouts Tarragon, his voice carrying needlessly away over the valley.
Everyone looks up, searching for the out-of-step member of the party, and it’s me, a few steps behind, prodding the itchy grass attentively.
Stay together— there’s potential evidence everywhere! Tarragon shouts again, barbing his comment rather obviously in my direction.
I wave my hand deferentially, but hold my position. I keep my eyes fixed on the point continually opening for me in the thick grass as I bend it down with my stick, like when you push hair apart to see the scalp beneath.
I think he wants you to keep up, says a woman next to me who usually works in the newsagent’s. She touches my arm, as if I am actually in some way impaired and need gentle reminders of the way people behave.
I know, I tell the woman, but I’m not quite done here yet.
She looks at me quizzically. There’s a procedure, she says, touching my arm again. She thinks she’s just being understanding, that we’re all going through a lot right now, but if we all just pitch in together, everything will be okay.
The procedure won’t work if we’re half-arsed about it, I say. I’m taking my time, looking for details, not just thrashing around like a musketeer.
Most of the line stops, staring at the lady and I. Tarragon rapiers on oblivious, personifying my analogy rather brilliantly. Eventually he spins around and sees us all standing still.
What’s this? he shouts.
Someone thought he’d go at his own pace, sneers the newsagency lady, shedding her humanity like a fruit skin.
Tarragon’s black-marble eyes bore into me. Right, he says. You. Out of the line. Now!
I carefully step back.
Tarragon hoists a grin to his lips. If you think you’re so much more observant than us, why don’t you go back where the dawn team started, and see if they missed anything.
And where would that be?
Grid section J4. Hop to it! Tarragon waves his arms, and the line moves forward without me, enveloping my vacant space.
I swipe my black stick at the disappearing figure of our team leader. Grid section J4 is back behind where we all parked out cars—at least a twenty-minute walk. Tarragon obviously expects me to just jump back in my car and head home. I want to prove him wrong. If his ego is bigger than the importance of the day, then to acquiesce will be to let everyone else down.
I whistle as I walk, relishing my solitude in a day of forced cooperation. The hunching backs of search teams ridge every hill; foot-flattened grass stretches away in equidistant waves; low branches lie broken, wrested away by inquisitive hands. The broken call and response of walkie-talkies wails sullenly in the distance. I locate section J4 via a green cross spray-painted to a granite rock. A cigarette lies in the dirt, trodden down, peeking up like a periscope. I set off down the wide flattened trail, determined to be like those detectives in radio dramas who calmly find the clue everyone else has missed.