30. Wish You Were Here
Leaving Exeter on a dual carriageway, Lara, Colin and Matthew zoomed along at 70 miles per hour. The countryside was fairly flat and uninteresting with roadside scenery flying past them at high speed until they turned off and joined the main road going East. The dual carriageway went North from that junction, towards Somerset and they were headed into the heart of rural Devonshire. The terrain grew hilly and their progress was slowed by trucks and tractors, crawling up the steep hills. There were few places to overtake.
The motorway journey to Bristol and down to Exeter had been bland and monotonous, with little to look at other than the bright blue signs displaying the distances to major towns and cities on the route. Now, the road they were driving on passed through small towns, villages and hamlets. There were pretty country houses and inviting pubs, fields full of cattle, rivers, as well as the exciting twists and turns of the road as it traced the contours of the hills and valleys. Lara found she was working through nearly all the gears in her gearbox and having to use her brakes as the car climbed, descended and tackled sharp corners.
Emerging from a thickly wooded area where the ancient trees leaned over the road from both sides - making it almost dark enough to require headlights - the woodland thinned out and a large flood plain opened up.
"We're not far away now" Matthew said.
A sign said they were crossing the River Harmyn as they went over a bridge. Soon, they started to gently climb out of the valley bottom, curving right in a long sweeping corner that they could not see around because of the slope of the hill. They drove past a petrol station and a few other buildings. There was a small shop that doubled as a post office, a pub and a small garage forecourt selling second hand cars. Beyond the roadside hamlet there was thick woodland and the road continued up for several miles before it plateaued at the top.
"OK, turn right here" said Matthew.
"Where?" asked Lara. She could see nothing but a ditch, thick hedgerow and trees beyond.
She slowed the car.
A tiny single track lane revealed itself. Although it was tarmacked, it was in a poor state of repair. They reached a crossroads with some faded road markings indicating Lara had to give way. There were no signs.
The road dipped down and all they could see was tall hedge on either side. Occasionally they would pass a gate into a field. There was no other traffic on this quiet country lane. They reached another crossroads.
"OK, go left."
The road dropped sharply and then started to climb gently. At the top of the hill the road forked.
The road now traced the side of a valley, dropping away to their left and descending into murky darkness at the bottom. Across on the other side of the valley were fields and woodland. They drove through areas of thick trees where their view was obscured. There was a long right hand bend.
"OK. Take this right."
"Where?" Lara asked again.
"Up that track."
The road was slightly muddy with tyre marks and a gravel track forked off to the right. The track led up into a forest with two dark brown grooves worn deep by vehicles in the grey stone chippings. Weeds sprouted out of the middle of the track. Lara stopped on the tarmac for a moment, engaged first gear and drove into the forest.
Passing through a wooden gate that was open, the track went uphill and then plateaued in an area where huge piles of logs had been stacked up.
"OK, go right here."
"Up there?" Lara asked.
"Yep." said Matthew, pointing up a steep side track that was covered with dead leaves and twigs. It looked muddy and slippery.
"Will we make it in this car?"
"You'll be fine. Just try not to spin the wheels."
"Do you mind driving the last bit? I doubt you're going to get in trouble for driving without insurance here" Lara said.
Matthew drove them up to the end of the track. The forest and the tracks all looked the same. It was like a maze. A maze of trees.
"We're here" he said at last.
Colin got out of the back of the car and stretched his legs, looking around in all directions.
"We have to scramble up here. I did say to bring sensible footwear" said Matthew, leading the way up to the top of the ridge. Following him through the trees, Lara and Colin forced their way through the undergrowth and into the clearing.
"Why didn't you say it was a caravan?" Colin asked.
"Well, it's not like you can drive it anywhere. It hasn't got any wheels and you couldn't get a car up here."
"How do you think it got here?"
"I thought that the foresters might have craned it in from the track below. Neil reckoned that a farmer brought it through the fields the other side on an tractor trailer, when the forest was being planted up here."
"There are fields the other side?"
"Yeah, behind us. The other side of the hill from where we parked. Just rolling fields for miles and miles."
Colin went to open the caravan door.
"Hold up there a second" Matthew said, putting his hand out to stop him. "Look at that" he said, pointing to something above the door. Attempting to peel a square of dirt-covered duct tape off, he found that it was stuck fast. "That's funny" he said.
"Well, Neil and me used to stick duct tape over the door frame like that at the end of every winter so we'd know if anybody had been using the caravan, but it won't come off."
"Let's have a look" Colin said, pulling hard on the tape. The top part ripped off leaving two lines of the sticky underside on the door and the frame above. "It looks like somebody glued the tape on. Why would they do that?" he asked.
"Well, I guess the dirt makes it look like the tape has been there for a long time, but we have no way of knowing how long it's been glued there for."
Matthew opened the door and stepped inside.
"Holy shit!" he exclaimed.
"Come in. Have a look."
Matthew stood by the bedroom doorway. Lara and Colin stood by the dining room table.
"What? What is it?" Lara asked.
"Well, it's nothing like I remember it" Matthew replied.
The dark maroon carpet had been replaced with slate grey lino. The pink floral cushions had been re-upholstered in white fabric with a navy blue stripe. The dining room table and the kitchenette storage units had been painted a glossy duck-egg blue. The whole interior had been painted white and the walls and ceilings were smooth: the textured wallpaper was gone. Stepping into the bedroom, the bed was neatly made with bright bedclothes. Everything smelled clean and fresh.
Lara reached for the bathroom door handle.
"I'm not sure if you want to look in there" said Matthew.
Inside, the chemical toilet had been replaced by a comode. Underneath the wooden toilet seat, there was a clean empty bucket. Hanging from the ceiling in the shower was another bucket with holes in the bottom.
"A shower!" Matthew chuckled with surprise. "Well, a primitive one anyway."
"How do you heat the water?" Lara asked.
"You don't" Matthew replied.
There was a hiss as Colin turned one of the knobs on the two-ring gas cooker. "I guess you just heat it up on the stove?" he said, with a raised eyebrow.
"This is not like it used to be. It was a shithole. It used to keep us dry and that's about all".
The skylight and the windows on the side of the caravan opposite the door had been cleaned and it was bright inside, lit by daylight. Colin flicked a lightswitch and the lights came on.
Matthew was absolutely gobsmacked. Lara and Colin didn't know what to make of it, having no idea what it was like before.
Upon closer inspection, a gas bottle, a leisure battery, a small solar panel, rain collection and water filtration systems had been installed. The original gas and 12 volt electric installation of the caravan operated as normal.
The trio started opening cupboards and cubby holes. There were plates, mugs, glasses, cutlery, pots, pans and other kitchen utensils. In one cupboard there was some tinned food. There were no personal effects anywhere. Closing the exterior door, there was a cork-board behind it.
"What's this?" Colin asked.
"I don't know. Looks like... postcards" Matthew replied.
Pinned to the cork-board were bright glossy pictures of the Great Wall of China, Terracotta Army, Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Taking one down, Colin looked at the back.
"They're postcards all right" he said, handing the one he was holding to Lara.
Mr Romet Kukk
Post Office, 12 High Street
DEVON, EX27 9LR
There was nothing else on the postcard except for the name and address.