It Happened One Night
Northern Amazon, Brazil
A month long trip to Brazil’s northern Amazon was just what I needed to get over a broken heart. I thought a break from the university where I taught would refresh my mind and allow me to see that there were more options than giving up and going home. I took a bus north for two days and then found hammock space on the first tramp steamer going up-river. I didn’t know where it was going or when it would arrive. It seemed the perfect place to sit, drink and write anguished letters. And then I met Ana.
We had stopped at a small riverside wharf to drop off essential supplies powdered milk, a crank shaft, four dozen boxes of contraceptives when Ana, her young son and her grandmother came screaming down the quay. Their cries sent the flock of parrots, which had perched on our bow, spiralling nosily into the air. A heated argument between Ana and the captain followed, the crux of which was that Ana desperately needed to take her young son up-river for medical treatment regardless of how full the boat was. Eventually, after much hand-wringing and pleading the captain relented and gallantly helped them aboard.
Sitting with my feet hanging in the warm chocolate-coloured water I had had a perfect view of the human drama that had just been played out, and it felt natural for me to reach out and offer Ana a hand onto the boat. What wasn’t natural was the jolt of electricity that I felt as I grasped her hand, or the flash of fire I saw in her dark eyes as she smiled at me. I thought: I am going to drown in her eyes, and I probably would have done so if the captain hadn’t chosen that moment to slap me on the back and offer me a beer.
Later, when Ana had slung her hammock next to mine and her son had taken up residence in the wheel house, we sat swinging in the soft breeze, oblivious to the warm looks the rest of the passengers were giving us. Ana was a few years younger than I was but had already had a troubled life. Widowed shortly after her son was born, she was taking him up-river for urgent treatment on an ulcerated leg. She hoped the doctor could do something miraculous, but we both knew the prognosis wasn’t overly hopeful.
We let the conversation comfortably fade until we sat in the disappearing light, lost in our own thoughts and the movement of the boat. Every time Ana looked at me I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my stomach turn over. Her son crawled into my hammock and feel asleep whilst Ana brushed out her long silky hair. It was the first time in my life that I wanted to give myself entirely to someone.
After dinner of rice and beans we laid in our hammocks and spoke about the different worlds we came from. I told Ana about London, the cold winters, my apartment that froze from November through March and my daily commute to work. In return she told me stories of her small village, the one-room house she had and how, as a girl, she had swum in the mighty Amazon. I closed my eyes and let the rhythm of her voice and the cantor of her words enchant me. It must have been apparent to everyone on the boat that I was bewitched.
Later that night, when the rest of the boat was asleep, Ana went to freshen up. When she slid back into her hammock a short while later her hair was neatly combed, and a faint smell of England in the spring wafted over me. Her smell, her curves and her twinkling eyes made my skin tingle. I was truly smitten. In the dark she leaned closer, until our lips were just a hair’s breadth apart. I thought: if we kiss now I shall never leave this river. Static danced between us. Instead of a kiss she reached out to stroke my cheek and said, “Thank you for bandaging my son’s leg.”
That night was long and calm. Whilst her son slept Ana and I lay chastely in our hammocks and shared our deepest dreams and fears. Eventually she fell asleep on my chest, and when the sun finally came up I felt reborn and cleansed.
We spent the next few days chugging gently up-river. I translated Crime and Punishment into Portuguese, and Ana taught me a Brazilian love song. Each night her son would curl up next to me in my hammock and ask me to tell him about London and my life there. When he finally fell asleep Ana would take his place and we would talk till dawn. There was never any question of consummating the relationship; it felt much too intense for that.
Three days, and one lifetime, after meeting Ana the boat chugged into the small docks of its final destination. When everyone else had melted away and the last of the stevedores had retired to the nearest bar, Ana and I were left alone in the watery twilight. Ana took my hand in hers and told me that she knew we were from different worlds, but could I wait a week for her? We could travel back down-river and start life afresh in her little one room house. As she took my hand and gave it a shy squeeze I thought: Yes, I belong here with you. But, deep inside I knew I could never stay. We came from different worlds, our hopes and fears were different, and I had a life away from the river.
Ana never looked back as she walked along the dock in search of a taxi. For this I was glad, as she would have seen the tears rolling down my cheeks and I would never have left her side. Months later, back in London, I received a card from her which said: “Be happy, be free… be in my dreams for ever.”