9. The Villages
Within 20 minutes drive in his van, Neil could reach a number of village shops, roadside convenience stores and petrol stations that sold food and drinks, as well as a few other useful items. He wasn't able to carry everything he needed on his coach journey to the caravan, so being able to buy things locally was vitally important to his plan.
Because he wasn't driving a road legal vehicle, Neil had to stick to small country lanes. Where there was a major road, Neil would find a crossroads so he never had to drive any distance on a route where he might encounter police.
It hadn't been Neil's intention to stay so long and he had planned to avoid visiting any establishment more than once. It was winter and there were few tourists in this remote rural area anyway, except further towards the coast. Inland, it was quite possible that residents would start to discuss where he was living, if he started to be recognised more and more in the local viscinity. However, he had been getting more and more tired and sick and had little option other than to visit the places that were most likely to stock whatever he needed at the time.
Living in a caravan without running water for weeks and months, posed some practical issues when Neil came into contact with the general public. The caravan's water tanks were empty, so he washed with bottled water. In fact, buying and carrying back as much water as he could, without attracting undue attention, was his main problem. Washing himself used a lot of his precious drinking water, but it was necessary because his appearance and odour would otherwise betray the conditions of his existence.
At first, Neil had set aside some clothes to be kept clean and only used for his forays into the civilised world. With wet wipes and deodorant spray, he spruced himself up adequately. However, he had become thin, pale and sickly. He looked exhausted. He was dirty and smelly. Washing his hair and cleaning his body became necessary to attain the bare minimum standard of presentability to allow him to even enter shops without risking shock, fear and mistrust.
Knowing that there was a wild and dangerous looking vagrant sleeping rough somewhere in their community, the local residents would be on alert to find whereabouts this frightful creature kept appearing from. Neil was afraid that somebody would tail his van, as he made his way back to the caravan, to see him disappearing deep into the forest.
Buying larger and larger quantities of food, drink and other supplies from small local shops meant that he had to make fewer trips, but it drew considerable attention when he would clear the shelves of all the bottled water and a substantial proportion of the tinned goods. Neil's diet consisted mainly of cold beans, cold spaghetti hoops and cold ravioli, all in sweet tomato sauce. He ate very little anyway. He was increasingly gaunt and malnourished each time he went out for supplies.
Neil considered various cover stories he might use if confronted by 'innocent' smalltalk with the shopkeepers. Every story he could conceive of was likely to generate more questions that he didn't want to answer. At some point he might give a hesitant or regrettable reply. Instead, he chose to say that he was "just restocking" to which he had received mirthful replies to say that the shop would have to as well after his visit.
"Restocking again?" one woman had asked him, worryingly. He vowed never to return to that particular shop, which was frustrating because it was conveniently nearby and had most things that he needed.
Being deliberately vague was becoming increasingly hard.
"Have I seen you around here before?" asked a man.
"I don't think so" replied Neil, although he had seen him before.
The man hadn't pressed him further, but he knew that the questions would not always be so easily dodged.
"Do you live locally?" asked a female shop assistant.
"No, I'm just visiting friends" replied Neil.
"Oh. Where abouts?" she said with raised eyebrows, studying him.
Neil said that he had friends in a couple of the nearby towns. He had started to get to know the area quite well, and was able to name two towns that meant it was plausible he was travelling between them. The towns were larger than any that he would visit and outside his area of operation.
"I know Harminster quite well. Where abouts do your friends live?" she pressed him.
"I'd love to stay and chat, but I've really got to hit the road. I'm running late, sorry" he said with an apologetic smile, picking up a couple of bags of shopping. Embarrassingly, he had to return to the shop a moment later to collect the bottles he had bought, which he carried loose. The shop assistant held the door open for him, watching him load everything into his van and waving as he drove away. Another source of supplies was off-limits. His paranoia grew.
Neil cursed not using his expertise in CCTV and intruder detection to allay some of his fears of discovery. There were battery-powered motion sensitive cameras that had night vision, that could transmit their pictures wirelessly. Installing one of these cameras, hidden in the trees, would be able to monitor the track. It would be an early-warning system to know if anybody entered the forest while he was inside the caravan. When he parked his van, Neil would walk down the track to see if there were any tyre tracks or footprints indicating activity other than his own, but it didn't allay his fears, when he had only the sound that penetrated the walls of the caravan to alert him of approaching danger.
How much sleep had he lost? How many meals had he skipped? He reckoned he slept only a few nights each week. He would go days without eating. His stomach had shrunk and he didn't feel hungry very often. He was hypersensitive to noise and movement in the shadows. He was on high alert, despite his exhaustion and malnourishment. He had stopped sleeping in the conventional sense and instead started to micronap with his eyes open. The real world and the dreamworld sometimes melted into one. He would have blackouts and jolt suddenly back into consciousness, suffering confusion about where he was and what was going on.
It was thirst that usually spurred him into self-preservation activity. Despite a sense of hopelessness accompanying his pain, discomfort and suicidal thoughts, he was desperate for something potable to drink.
Neil wondered if he should waste time and energy trying to rescue some knotted and stretched clothing, damp and dirty, lying on the floor. The urgency of his thirst drove him to abandon his worries and make his way painfully to the outside door or the caravan. An immense fear of what was outside caused him to hesitate, swaying as he tried to support himself on his damaged legs.
Finally finding the nerve to open the door, Neil was blinded by daylight even though it was grey and overcast. The clearing was shady, but his eyes struggled to adjust from darkness inside the caravan. His temples throbbed with pain.
Deposited by the entrance was a shopping bag. Neil reached down, grabbed the plastic handles and hauled the bag into the caravan. He shut the door to stop heat escaping and the warm moist air inside being replaced by the cold dry wind that blew through the treetops outside. Depositing the shopping on the kitchenette work-surface which was covered with dirty food wrappers and empty plastic bags, he began to rifle through the contents in search of something to drink.
Bright blue mould completely covered a loaf of bread inside its plastic wrapper. Sliced ham and chicken were well past their sell-by date. Neil couldn't possibly risk food poisoning in his fragile state. He had purchased these food items when his eyes were bigger than his belly. Eating had become a sporadic thing where he greedily gulped down the contents of a can before curling up in a ball and falling asleep, with uncomfortable sensations of nausea and indigestion washing over him.
There was a bottle of Worcestershire sauce that he had purchased in order to add more flavour to his bland diet of canned food. There were bags of jelly sweets, containing high quantities of glucose that his body desperately needed. There were salted crisps intended to keep up his salt intake, but he had previously found these to be inedible with his mouth dry and full of sores and ulcers. Then, finally, Neil spotted a can of cola amongst the food that he had bought. Grabbing the can, Neil didn't allow his hopes to soar too soon. Too many times he had picked up a container with joy, only to find it opened and the contents consumed.
The sweetness and the refreshment of the liquid in the can was divine and Neil guzzled as fast as he could without burping or throwing up. It was unfortunate that the cola was fizzy, as it meant he had to take small hiccuping gulps rather than quickly pouring the can down his parched throat into his empty stomach.
Neil paused to momentarily examine the rest of the contents of the shopping bag, but he knew he had purchased only this one can of drink, as a treat that he had intended to consume on his drive back to the forest.
After his last trip for provisions, Neil had hastily made his way back to the caravan after parking the van, only bringing with him a single bottle of water, bag of shopping and the precious envelope that he had collected. With his heart pounding with excitement, his body shaking with anticipation, his palms sweaty, he dumped the shopping bag outside the caravan and went inside with only the bottle of water. How long ago was that? A week maybe?
The envelope was now torn open on the floor with a leaflet for a tourist attraction half unfolded next to it. The writing on the leaflet was in Chinese.