The Last Road Trip by Gareth Crocker is a novel about adventure, rediscovery and friendship.
It is the story of four elderly friends who decide to take a final road trip from one side of South Africa to the other. Along the way, they discover that it’s never too late to start living.
The excerpt below introduces Jack, Sam, Rosie and Elizabeth – the four friends about to embark on a journey of epic proportions – and their impetus for the trip.
Read the excerpt:
* * * * * * *
Within hours of the funeral, Jack was back in the water. As usual, he had lost count of how many laps he had done. Given how long he had been in the pool, he knew it had to be a reasonable number. At the age of seventy-one, it surprised him that he was still capable of swimming prodigious distances – more so than he ever imagined possible at this stage of his life. Not that feats of endurance mattered much to him these days.
However, intrigued to see just what he was capable of, he had recently decided to test himself and had embarked on a swim with no end goal in mind. When boredom, rather than muscle fatigue, had brought a premature end to the experiment, he was astounded to learn from his friend, Sam – who was sitting poolside and counting diligently – that he had managed a rather remarkable 238 lengths. The equivalent, almost, of six kilometres. Still, it meant little to him. He was no longer obsessed with fitness the way he once was. The competitive urge that used to gush through his veins – that drove him to swim internationally for a time – had long since left him. He swam now because it was a form of escape and he still savoured the sensation of cutting through the crisp blue water, the comforting rhythm and solitude of it all. It was also the one place where he allowed himself to think about those things that, outside of the water, he knew were better left alone. More than anything, swimming was his way of connecting back to Grace.
He had met her a little over ten years ago. In a public swimming pool of all places. He was stepping into the water just as she was climbing out. Without thinking – and he still had no idea what had made him do it – he offered her his hand. To his surprise she accepted it and, as she ascended the last few steps, favoured him with a smile, which, as it proved, irrevocably changed his life. Able to think of little else, he returned to the pool twice a day for the next three weeks in the hope of seeing her again. When he eventually spotted her swimming on the far side of the pool late one Sunday afternoon, he waited patiently for her to finish. And, when she finally emerged from the water, he was once again standing there with his hand outstretched.
Within a week they were dining together. Within three months he had proposed. Ahead of a honeymoon in Cape Town six weeks later, they had married beside an old stone bench on Robben Island. With no family left to call on, their only guest had been the young minister who presided over the service. Etched against a deep-blue sky and the backdrop of Table Mountain, it had been a cool and windless day. A day beyond a postcard. A day of dreams.
In the years that followed, they continued to swim together. The pools changed with the seasons, but their routine seldom wavered. After almost eight years of a gentle and cherished marriage, they had even spent some time in the hotel pool the day before Grace’s operation. It was, as it turned out, their last swim together. Some days Jack wondered what hurt the most: that Grace had been taken so soon from him or that they had met so late in life. After all, eight years wasn’t a life together. It was a glimpse of one. And some days that weighed more heavily than anything else. She had been gone for almost two years already, but sometimes when he swam it felt as though she were still in the pool with him. On those days he could stay in the water for hours.
‘What lap’s he on?’ Rosie called out from across the pool.
Samuel Lightfoot sat back in his chair and cupped his hands around his mouth.
‘Thirty-seven at my count.’
As Rosie laboured around the top of the pool, she shrugged and shot him an unimpressed look. ‘Thirty-seven? Why bother even getting in the water?’
Sam felt a wry smile tug at his mouth. Rosie Banks traded in sarcasm and irony the same way that lungs traded in air – almost constantly and with little respite. Standing five foot five and weighing north of 260 pounds, Rosie waddled from place to place with all the elegance of someone whose legs had been denied the benefit of knees. She was often rendered breathless by the slightest exertion and it seemed a wonder to everyone – Sam included – that her heart continued to serve her. While some of the others on the estate badgered her about her weight, Sam let her be. He was very fond of her just the way she was. Besides, he knew that Rosie had long since given up on her battle with obesity. It had triumphed over her years ago and, knowing she had been well and truly beaten, she had done the only thing that made sense to her: she had turned it into the running joke of her life.
Rosie lowered her considerable frame onto a deckchair and took a moment to catch her breath. ‘Actually, have I ever told you my view on exercise?’
‘Not that I can recall,’ Sam replied.
‘Well, it’s like this. I figure our hearts are a lot like engines. Car engines. With me so far?’
‘I think I’m keeping up.’
‘OK, so we all know that there are only so many miles to be squeezed out of any one engine. Right?’
Sam cocked an eyebrow, but played along. ‘Right.’
‘So why the hell would anyone want to force their heart to burn through so many extra beats? Nobody ever extended the life of their truck by driving it 3 000 miles a day.’
Sam smiled and shook his head.
‘If you ask me, the best way to look after your heart is to keep perfectly still and do as little as possible. One could argue, in fact, that I did a certain amount of damage to my heart just walking here. We’ve got money, Sam. Maybe we can pay poor people to carry us around. Their hearts aren’t as important as ours. Their blood is like cheap wine to our Chardonnay.’
That, as it proved, was as much as Sam could take, and he began to laugh. Which, in their never-ending verbal joust, meant that Rosie had won the point. Again.
‘Damn it,’ he muttered. ‘Car engine? Really?’
‘It’s like competing against a child who has suffered some unfortunate brain trauma,’ she said, leaning over and kissing him on his forehead.
‘Hello, Rosie,’ he said, cupping a hand around her arm.
They chatted for a while, mostly small talk, until Jack climbed out the pool to join them.
‘Nice going,’ Sam said, tossing his friend a towel. ‘Close on fifty laps at least.’
‘He’s being kind. You were dragging arse out there,’ Rosie interjected. ‘It was embarrassing to watch, if I’m honest.’
‘My apologies, Rosie. I’ll put in more effort next time,’ Jack replied, running a towel over his head.
‘You know, Jack, with your hair all wet like that you bear a striking resemblance to an older George Clooney.’
‘Is that right?’
‘It is. Of course I’m not talking about the actor, but rather the homeless drunk who used to pound on my gate back in the day looking for free food and a good time.’
Jack smirked, but resisted any attempts at a witty comeback. Instead, he reached for his shirt and slipped it on. He then leaned over the cooler box and, without having to take any orders, handed a wine spritzer to Rosie and a lemonade to Sam – always a lemonade. He took a beer for himself. ‘So where’s Queen Elizabeth?’
‘Probably polishing her cheekbones,’ Rosie suggested.
At seventy-four, Elizabeth Shaw was the oldest of the four of them. But only on paper. Physically, she was something of an enigma. Her long brown hair seemed to be largely unaffected by the passage of time and shimmered with a vitality that belied her years. Her smooth skin and clear blue eyes suggested she was, at most, in her late fifties. And, if she was not already fortunate enough, she possessed the sort of facial structure and slim body that marked her as a classic beauty. It helped, of course, that she had spent most of her adult life in London – far away from the ravages of the African sun – where, after a brief career as a model, she’d spent the better part of forty years heading up an international fashion house.
‘There,’ Sam said, spotting her leaving the clubhouse.
As Elizabeth made her way towards them, Jack noticed that she was wearing a silk scarf despite the oppressive heat. It made her look like an old-school air hostess.
‘It’s unlike you to be late, Lizzie,’ Sam said, as she joined them.
Elizabeth went around the circle, kissing each of them. ‘Sorry. I was reading and lost track of time. How are you all? Good swim, Jack?’
‘According to Rosie, not good enough,’ he replied. ‘What were you reading?’
‘Just some novel. Never Let Go, I think it’s called. Nothing important. I just wanted to see how it ended.’
As she sat down beside Rosie and they launched into a discussion about one of their common friends, Jack turned to Sam and frowned. Sam nodded and then shrugged. He had also seen it. Something was troubling Elizabeth. Of all her many talents, being able to disguise her emotions was not one of them.
As Jack poured her favourite drink, lime and soda, Elizabeth turned to look at him. ‘You were wonderful this morning, Jack.’
‘I think wonderful is a strong word.’
‘Don’t be so modest. Paul was right to ask you. It was a remarkable letter. You did it justice.’
‘You did,’ Sam agreed. ‘Everyone’s been talking about it.’
‘You really didn’t read it beforehand?’ Rosie asked.
Jack shook his head. ‘It didn’t seem right.’
Sam took a sip from his drink. ‘I think his message really touched people. Struck more than a few nerves. It’s a pity we never really got the chance to know him.’
Jack watched as Elizabeth nodded. Her eyes were wide and intense. Holding his beer aloft, he regarded each of his friends with a warm smile and then rose to his feet. ‘To Paul. Quite possibly one hell of a guy.’
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