We were three days into the trek to Mount Toubkal, Morocco, before I had a proper chance to speak with Ilka. Usually she walked and ate with Sally and Tom. I’d noticed her from day one – tall, slim, with long grey hair in a pony tail. She had high cheekbones and her skin was smooth except for lines around the eyes. She wore khaki shorts and short ankle socks with brown leather boots, the old-fashioned kind. I noticed her breasts were small and hard from the petite lumps they made in the drab grey and olive-green T-shirts she wore. She walked with long strides of her slim, tanned legs, reminding me of a giraffe. There was something mysterious about her. “She has stars in her eyes, Phil,” said Tom, “and she has a sadness about her, I don’t know why, she doesn’t say much.”
“Where’s Tom and Sally?” I asked her.
Ilka kept her eye on the path, looking straight ahead. “Sally’s got diarrhoea. Tom’s staying with her at the Gite d’Etape. A couple of guys from the mule team will pick them up later.” She spoke softly, with an accent I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps Swedish or Norwegian?
“I’m sorry to hear that. Food hygiene is rubbish here, isn’t it?”
Ilka didn’t reply. She just kept walking with those long, tanned strides. I walked alongside, hoping she wouldn’t mind.
The track was rough, made of irregular stones and boulders. We passed through a small village, the houses built from blocks of dried red clay. Some women in brightly-coloured dresses tended crops on the slopes above but there was no sign of life in the simple dwellings themselves. Where were the men and children, I wondered?
Just past the village, a stream tumbled down from the mountains and there was a wide space with flat rock and some grass. Mohammed, the guide, clapped his hands. “We stop here. Forty minutes. The next section is steeper. The water is OK to drink.” He was very dark, slim and tall, the tallest of the group. He gave the impression he was ambling along slowly yet it was hard to keep up with him. He headed off to pray. It was Ramadan and Mohammed claimed he would neither eat nor drink during daylight hours. Not easy when leading a dozen walkers up the highest mountain in North Africa.
We sat on a large, smooth boulder. “I bet Mohammed is drinking from the stream higher up,” I said.
Ilka drew her lips back in a semblance of a smile. “He’d dehydrate, walking up the path in this heat. Why follow a stupid rule like that?” She sat and pulled out an apple from her day sack. She bit into it with perfect white teeth.
“My name’s Phil, by the way,” I said.
She chewed a mouthful of apple and swallowed. “Why are you here, Phil?”
“To tell you the truth, I’m fifty. I wanted to do something challenging for my age.”
“Fifty. God, I wish I was fifty!” She took another bite.
“How old are you then, if you don’t mind me asking?”
She looked up into the pale blue sky, as if looking for the answer there, whilst chewing and swallowing. “Fifty-nine. Next year I’ll be dead.”
Her lips drew back into that strange semblance of a smile once more. “I’m speaking figuratively. Sixty’s as good as dead, isn’t it?”
I thought of my dad, still bustling around in the garden, cutting down trees, banging in fence posts at the age of seventy-four. “That’s what I used to think about forty.”
Ilka looked me directly in the eye and I noticed hers were blue, almost exactly the same colour as the clear sky above. “Gravity’s not our friend, Phil. It makes everything hard, like this walking. When I was young,” she looked away, “I ran marathons. I ran like the wind. Now, in this ‘bittersweet autumn of the body,’ these old bones struggle to walk up this mountain.”
My heart warmed to her odd turn of phrase. “You look pretty good to me,” I said, then blushed.
She chewed a mouthful of apple, looking at the ground. I watched her eat. “What did Tom mean? He said you have stars in your eyes.”
She swallowed, then looked at me and for the first time her lips drew back in a real smile. The years fell away. I wondered why she didn’t colour her hair? She would look half her age.
“I’m an astronaut, Phil. Well, I was an astronaut. I don’t think I’ll get another chance.”
“What, you’ve been in space?”
She nodded. “Yes, up there.” She pointed up at the sky. “And when you’re up there, and you look down, you feel something. You feel like God, looking down on your people, and wondering why they can’t get along on this beautiful planet.”
I was brought back to earth by hands clapping. “Five more minutes, people, then we move.” It was Mohammed, back from his prayer and short rest.
Ilka threw her apple core into some bushes and went to the stream. She rinsed her hands and splashed her face, then filled an empty water bottle. She came back and pulled her day sack on. Then, without speaking or even looking at me again, she took off after Mohammed.
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