I'm fairly set in my routines. For the last couple of years I have spent Wednesday evenings with my Wednesday Friends, and I spend Tuesday evenings with my meditation group. Until recently, I spent most of my other evenings at home.
What changed? Well, I went out to a particular club to hear a local band playing. It's as simple as that. Since then, I've spent most of my Monday and Thursday nights there, too. I'm not all that interested in alcohol, and I'm not all that interested in gambling. So why do I do this?
The first time I went, I took refuge from the volume on an outdoor balcony. It is spacious, providing several sets of tables and chairs and a bit of walking-room. It also is glassed-off instead of having a concrete or wooden railing. You can see across the club's mini-golf range, then one of their carparks, then a bit of a field that I believe some of the local schools use for team-sports. Past that is a fringe of native trees, planted as a sound aural and visual shield against the nearby arterial road, and beyond that are low hills, partly developed and partly left covered in bushland.
The day the band played, I took refuge out there a few times, and communed quietly with a cigarette. What the hell, it gave me a chance to be away from the crowd, the noise and the sweaty, human heat. At twilight, I was out there, looking into the distance and thinking of nothing in particular, when the girl with the black camel came over one of the hills, walking towards me.
She wasn't a normal spirit-shape - she looked as solid as the trees, and more solid than the cars, barely visible on the road behind them. She would have been in her early to middle thirties, I suppose, walking on the left side of her camel, leading her by a nose-string. She was wearing a long, dark robe of some sort that hid her hair, was very pale, and had bare feet. In fact, I still love watching her feet - those little white things that become visible briefly at the very beginning of each step before her weight moves forward and her robe catches up.
The first day she walked gravely down the hill to the arterial road, paused, looking both ways, then led her camel out across the road during a gap in the traffic. Then she walked across the field diagonally towards me, wound her way between parked cars in the parking lot, and before she emerged from the corner of the building which obscured her at that point, she vanished. Or, perhaps, took a different route than I was expecting.
Only when something else demands my attention do I miss out, now. I have been going back every Monday and Thursday evening to catch a glimpse of her walking in her slow, measured pace. She is wrapped in silence. She is wrapped in her own purpose. She comes only on twilight, never before or after. She waits for a gap in the traffic to cross the main road, but traffic never seeems to see her - in a town like this you'd expect cars to slow down to take a look at the unusually-dressed girl leading a camel, yes?
Usually she arrives from the northwest, coming over that hill and steadily walking towards me. Just occasionally she travels in the opposite direction, coming from around the building I am in, wending her way through the carpark, over the field and through the trees, where she waits gravely for a gap in the traffic to cross the road and climb the hill on the other side.
She must feel as solid as she looks - a ghost or spirit-shape wouldn't wait for traffic to pass, as it poses no danger to the traffic and traffic poses none to it. Yet traffic doesn't see her and people in the club don't see her. I often don't have the balcony to myself, and once when she was in the parking lot I pointed and asked the woman at the next table: "What is that?" The woman looked in the direction of my finger and said: "A Fiat, I think." If she had seen a woman leading a black camel, she wouldn't have been trying to identify car models, I'm pretty sure.
I watch for her twice a week, and I see her nearly every time. She never looks up, but after all this time I feel as if there is some kind of budding relationship between us. I feel her insularity, and her profound privacy. If she ever leaves her camel in the carpark and comes in for a drink, I can see myself sitting near her, but not to talk or even to look at her. Just to enjoy a companionable silence, something I love sharing with people on the occasions when I find someone who knows how to be silent.
As far as I have been able to find out, there is no history of camel-use in this area. And in areas where camels are or have been used, you wouldn't ever walk barefoot - the ground is either freezing or frying, and good footwear is a basic essential. Is she an analogue memory of someone from another area and/or time, which has somehow been transplanted here? She seems to know about modern traffic. She seems to know about the club. She seems to consider both of them irrelevant to her and her purpose for taking that walk.
After a couple of months, it occurred to me that I could learn something about her by looking at the camel. Its tack was very simple: brown leather straps buckled under the belly and tail, and a simple nose-piercing holding a string that she uses to guide the camel, a traditional way of managing their speed and direction. I noticed when I looked carefully, that the belly-buckle is clinched slightly to the left side of the camel. There is no colour, no glitter, no showmanship. It is not saddled-up - it is wearing some kind of dark pack, which I assume contains water, food, bedding, and the bumps in it are consistent that that - and with a lot of other things, too.
Does she stop at night in a sports-field or bushland, and pull out a swag or small tent? Does she light a camp-fire, refill her water containers at polluted creeks, campsite taps or service stations? Does she hobble her camel according to tradition, and let it graze at night? Does she eat at McDonalds? Does she not eat at all? Does she walk endlessly, steadily, through all the nights and days, on an endless route that only she knows for a purpose that only she understands, that just happens to bring her close to the club when I am there?
If other people could see her I would speculate that her guise would be a great cover for smuggling: is any cop ever going to pull over a barefoot girl with a camel? I'm certain nobody else can see her, though - none who have been around when I have been in her vicinity. They may be others like me, individuals in a population which ignores her, individuals that do see her and wait at other points along her route to catch a regular glimpse of her and wonder.
There is something very beneficial about unanswered questions: they allow your mind to play in a way that ordered thinking and finding answers doesn't. I enjoy it immensely, anyway. I am going to continue spending two nights a week sipping water and waiting for her to take her walk with her camel. I'm going to watch her fluid, graceful pace, and the lope of the camel. I'm not in the business of getting to know anybody at the club - these two evenings a week are not about being social, they are just about being me, in my strange, unconnected, silent relationship with her, with the girl with the black camel.