On The Wagon
Once Upon A Time, there was a group of men at the top of a mountain. They all wanted to get different places on the mountain, but the one thing they all had in common was that all the places they wanted to be were lower than the top.
The mountain was dangerous. There were thieves and highwaymen lurking in the shadows. The roads were treacherous and poorly-kept. There were sudden and frightening vast ravines and crumbling cliff faces. You could die.
The men decided there was safety in numbers and so when two of them, Kurt and Pierre, suggested travelling together the others agreed. It took a little work to get them to agree though. After all, the men were all quite different to one another. They had different mannerisms and personalities, they didn’t always get along, sometimes they were downright grumpy with one another. But they did all share the goal of being lower on the mountain and that was enough to bind them together.
The men built a huge wooden cart. It was an impressive vehicle. Vast wheels would eat up the downward miles easily and cling to the narrow roads, heavy construction would protect from external threats, clever suspension would cushion the bumps on the mountain passes. Almost everybody was impressed and climbed in. But one of the men, John, hung back. An Independent fellow who had long lived on a part of the mountain quite separate from the others and learnt self-sufficiency (and was, frankly, a little more suspicious of the others because he had fallen out with them so many times), was not quite ready to commit to the unknown. Instead, he trotted along behind the wagon as it began to roll.
Things went well, the wagon began to roll ponderously along the paths and around the corners. John kept pace okay, he was fit and healthy and didn’t mind the exercise. But he could see his fellows up front, whooping with joy at the ride, safe from the rain and the robbers, and he remained unsure about his decisions. He wasn’t lonely because his old friends Dafydd, Patrick and Hamish had stuck by him and were trotting behind too – even though they were less sure than he that this was ideal.
Hamish, Dafydd and Patrick were urging him to rethink, and often Pierre or Kurt would call back: “Come on John! Join us. This is a grand adventure.” Eventually, John became convinced that he was being a fool. His fears about the enterprise were groundless. He agreed to take part and his little group caught up with the wagon and pulled themselves inside.
Perhaps things could have continued like that forever, with the cart rumbling in the right direction and everybody feeling safer together? But some of the people inside were convinced that the exciting endeavor could be improved. Whenever they rolled past somebody they would invite them inside – even if they were nothing like the individuals who had began to journey. Inside the wagon, in an attempt to prevent minor squabbles some of the men began telling the others when they could look out of the windows, which bits of the mountain they could or could not visit in future. Rules began to be made about everything – what they should wear, what they could carry, when they could be active and when they should rest. Many of the individuals inside were used to deciding these things for themselves and balked at being told what to do like children.
At some point, somebody added extra paneling. A few robbers arrows had penetrated the hull and the response was to thicken the shell and seal the exits. They were safer now. It was a bit darker without windows and getting out for some fresh air was more difficult with so many locks and bolts on the doors. But security was important.
As the mountain roads descended they grew steeper and the wagon gathered pace. Corners were taken at speed rather than use unnecessary energy to slow down. This meant that when sharp corners were navigated everybody had to be instructed to lean inwards, towards the mountain, to prevent the wagon falling over an edge and crashing to the rocks below. During these regular scary twists and turns all the men were on top of one another, leaning inwards, pressed close and frightened. Even though they managed each time, somehow, to stay on the road, they became tetchy and surly with one another. Partly due to the unwelcome proximity and invasion of personal space, and partly to cover how terrified they were.
Some time later the wagon reached breakneck pace. It was now barreling down the road, screaming around the corners, everybody was clinging to their seats and making small talk – pretending there was nothing to fear. Pierre and Kurt had declared that slowing down was no longer even an option. They proposed that the most important thing was the continuing mutual journey, which had been taken with the best of intentions and was still the best option for them all. Their solution was to remove the brakes entirely. This would discourage anybody silly enough to even consider a slower pace. From now on, the route down the mountain was going to be an ever faster journey.
John had tried his best. He didn’t want to be a bad companion. But he had spent his life as a self-sufficient independent man. Being cooped up in here, being unable to change the way things were done, having Kurt and Pierre tell him how much they liked him being there but overrule most of what he suggested was really irritating. And he really really didn’t like the speeds they were at. He worried that sooner or later they would take a corner too fast, or hit an obstacle they couldn’t avoid. So one day he announced he was thinking about getting off the wagon.
They didn’t want him to get off the wagon. Partly because John was a useful guy to have around and they liked making use of his many skills. Partly because John was well-known and respected and they needed him there. But mostly because they had convinced everybody else that you simply couldn’t get off the wagon. It was going too fast now. Leaving a moving vehicle on a steep mountain road was suicide. Was he crazy? And if John managed to do it – others might think they could do it too. Kurt and Pierre didn’t always agree on everything, but they did agree that a huge wagon like this needed lots of people to keep it rolling.
“Listen,” said John, “You give me some changes and then maybe I won’t get off. I don’t want much. If you guys don’t want a brake, fine. But I’d like one put in for emergencies, even if its only me that pulls it. Also, maybe I could choose a different colour coat when you all agree to wear green ones? And I’d quite like to still be able to sell the wooden ornaments I carve to peaceful folk on the road as we pass them. Oh, and in the night, I don’t want everybody laying all over me, I’m getting almost no rest at all with so many people trying to share my sleeping space. It’s cramped and I don’t love garlic as much as some of you. No offence intended, old chaps.”
John had meetings with Oto and with Leon, with Daan and with Alfons. He tried to get them all to see that in order for him to stay he just needed them to be reasonable and a bit less bossy. He wanted to sell stuff when he could and sleep in his own bed, undisturbed. Was this so much to ask? They listened politely. They agreed that instead of a green coat, John could wear a light green coat on Thursdays, in the afternoon, sometimes. He could sell his wooden widgets, but only if he could conduct the transaction with the person on the road as the wagon passed by at fifty kilometres per hour. And only if he could get the goods to the buyer in one accurate, careful throw. (And as long as he didn’t mind paying a tariff.) They even promised not to be so bossy – on the condition that he did as he was told afterwards. The bed thing was a no go though. Being in the wagon meant sharing beds and that was that.
John pondered what to do. Hamish was absolutely refusing to leave and John was worried about their friendship. The others had agreed to some reforms, so that was good. But he couldn’t ignore the fact that the wagon was still getting faster and the mountain roads were not getting any safer. They had nearly lost Alexandros earlier in the week in a particularly nerve-racking maneuver. John looked at the mountain wall, flashing by in the late afternoon sun. He looked at the vast cliff on the other side of the wagon. He wondered if, as he leaped off, he would be dashed on the rocks or plummet over the edge. His friends wouldn’t be there to help him – they’d be rolling off ahead and into the sunset.
“What to do, what to do,” John wondered. It was a stay of execution, or a leap of faith. The familiarity of the known versus the fear of the unknown. “I didn’t used to be so scared,” He said to himself. “When did I become so dependent?” The wagon had changed everything. John just had to decide whether to stay on and see where the ride ended. Or throw himself off the back and take the fall and its consequences. Anybody who said there was an easy answer simply wasn’t paying attention.
Not The End.