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Eleven-year-old Anton scuffed his feet in the dust, and then sat down with his back against the graffiti-covered wall. He stretched out his thin brown legs, and began to munch the apple he had just helped himself to as he passed by the fruit shop.
He looked up towards the distant mountain range – at least what could be seen of it above the shrouding mist – and began to contemplate, as he had done so many times, what might be beyond.
He coughed as he breathed in the heavily polluted air of the valley where he lived, and thought to himself, there must be a better place than this, but I don’t know where to go and find it.
He coughed again as fumes belched out from the factory chimney at the other end of the valley and wafted towards him. “Aw shucks. It just gets worse,” he said aloud.
“What does?” asked a familiar voice, and Anton looked round to see his friend. Pedro, who had crept up stealthily and was now grinning down at him.
“All this pollution of course,” answered Anton as Pedro squatted beside him. “I’m sick of having to wear a mask, and anyway how can I while I eat an apple.”
He looked at the apple with distaste.”It doesn’t taste nice any more,” he complained as he threw the offending object across the road where it joined the pile of empty cans and rotting food.
“Let’s go to the beach,” suggested Pedro. “I feel like a swim. Come on.”
Anton got up reluctantly, The beach was a short walk from the fishing village where they lived, and, as Anton had expected, was strewn with empty cans and cartons; there was a strong smell of sewage in the air.
After a brief swim, they lay on the beach, watching the activities surrounding the fishing boats as the men prepared to go out for night’s catch.
“Not much fun swimming when all that plastic gets wrapped round your legs,” complained Anton.
“You’re always grumbling these days,” said Pedro, who was two years older. “You have to get used to it like everyone else.”
“I don’t intend to get used to it,” retorted Anton. “I’m going to find a better life somewhere.”
“Oh, you’ve been dreaming again,” teased Pedro. “All those stories your Grandma told you, about a better country the other side of the mountain. Believe me, it just doesn’t exist.
Anton shrugged his thin shoulders and said nothing. But that evening, when his father had gone out with the fishing boats and he had helped his mother clear away and wash the dishes, Anton approached Grandma where sat in a dingy corner of the two-room shack. She surveyed him with a toothless smile.
“Grandma,” he began, “those stories you used to tell me about a beautiful country the other side of the mountains, where the sun shone in a clear blue sky, the birds sang and the leaves on the trees were bright green.”
Grandma started to cackle. “All myths, boy. No one believes that anymore. Ain’t no such place.” She pulled her blanket round her and closed her eyes.
“Stop bothering Grandma with your nonsense,” said his mother who was listening. “Here, mind your little sister while I go get some eggs.
Anton’s little sister looked at him appealingly out of her big brown eyes set deeply in her pale thin face. “Play ball,” she said producing a large warn ball that Anton had found on the beach.
But even as he complied, his thoughts were still elsewhere. Why does no one else want to find a better country, he pondered.
Two days later he decided to seek out the oldest man in the village; he’s even older than Grandma, he thought; maybe he knows something, he reasoned, as he wandered down the dusty streets, kicking empty cans out of his way, and dodging the old cars which whizzed by emitting even more fumes into the air.
He found the old man sitting on a bench outside the village tavern, smoking a dirty old pipe, an empty glass on the table in front of him. His rheumy old eyes surveyed Anton with interest.
“Heard about you,” he said as Anton sat down beside him, “You’re the boy who is always asking questions, always talking about a better country. Let me tell you, boy, there ain’t no such place. That’s what people used to think when I was a boy. But they is better educated now.”
“See, they are building another factory in the town at the other end of the valley. Plenty of jobs there for boys like you. It’s a good place to live.” He indulged in a violent fit of coughing, as Anton walked away disconsolately.
A year passed. Anton was being groomed to take over his father’s fishing business. But it seemed to him that there soon wouldn’t be any fish to catch. Frequently his father came home with an empty boat and took his frustrations out on the rest of the family before heading for the tavern.
Anton decided to see for himself what was the other side of the mountain. One night he crept out of the shack and made his way to the foot of the mountain, equipped with what he thought was necessary climbing gear – a pair of his father’s old boots, a torch stolen from his mother, a bottle of water and a few biscuits he had codged from Pedro.
He found the torch was useless, as he soon realised he needed both hands to push aside the scrub and climb over rocks as he began his ascent. In the total darkness, he tripped over a jutting out rock and fell headlong. Beginning to slide down, he grabbed at some nearby scrub and managed to stop his fall. Sore and scratched, he sat for a while panting for breath.
I won’t go back, he vowed, as he started again to climb. He had no idea how long he had been going when he suddenly looked up and saw a pair of red eyes gleaming in the darkness not far away. They seemed to be moving closer.
Anton had heard stories of wild animals on the mountains; for a moment he was petrified with fear. Then he turned and fled, dropping his bag of possessions, as he stumbled, slithered and clawed his way down the mountain. Scratched, bruised and bleeding he made his way home.
It’s obvious that I can’t hope to get over the mountain however hard I try, he admitted to himself. From time to time he thought of making another effort, but his failure had left him very disheartened, although he still hung on to his dream.
Another year passed and a few concerned villagers had banded together to try and clean up the beach and the village streets. Maybe this is the way to go, thought Anton, as he joined in. But they had little support from the majority of villagers and enthusiasm waned. So the idea was abandoned and even more, garbage lined the streets which began to be haunted by mangy dogs looking for a meal. There were a few minor earthquakes but the villagers were used to this and ignored the debris left from badly constructed shacks, which now lay in the streets.
Pedro was planning to get a job in the newly built factory in the nearby town. One day he persuaded Anton to walk with him in that direction along the base of the mountain. Neither had ever walked that way before.
To their surprise, they came across a group of people standing by a large noticeboard at the foot of the mountain. They were even more surprised to find, as they got closer, that in the centre was a woman in full climbing gear.
“I am Grace,” she announced, “and I am your free official guide over the mountain to the country beyond. We leave in two days time and all are welcome to come”.
Anton couldn’t believe his ears – his chance, at last, to get away from this gloomy, unhealthy valley where even leaves on trees all turned yellow, and birds had long since left.
Excitedly he turned to Pedro. “Let’s go. This is what I have been looking for, and it was here all the time.”
But Pedro’s heart was set on his new job in the factory, and he also had a girlfriend. The pull of the valley, polluted though it was, made him reluctant to move. “I’ve got a good future here, and I can make lots of money and get married,” he argued. “I want to be like everyone else.”
Sadly Anton left him and went home to pack and share his new venture with anyone who would listen.
His father began to abuse his Grandma. “It’s all your fault, putting those ideas into his head,” he shouted. “Now who’s going to take care of the family when I’m too old to work.”
With tears in her eyes, his mother begged him to stay, and his little sister cried lustily. But Anton was adamant, and clutching his few belongings, he set off two days later.
The group was large, but as Anton came closer he noticed that a few were leaving. He was puzzled, until he heard one girl say, “I can’t go and leave my pet monkey. Who would look after him?” She started off with the monkey on her shoulder followed by a boy who was clutching a radio set.
“It is a narrow, steep path and you need both hands to climb,” Grace was saying. “Everything must be left behind.”
One or two others walked off carrying their possessions, and Anton looked longingly at the bag of treasures he had brought with him. But there was something about Grace which made him feel he could trust her. So he reluctantly added the bag to the pile already there and began to climb.
However, he had barely started when he heard his name called and turning round saw his little sister running towards him calling, “Anton, Anton wait for me. I’m coming too”.
Anton was fond of her but he hesitated; she seemed so young and the journey would be arduous. But Grace had also heard her cry, “All the children are welcome. They just need a little more help,” she said. “It is good for them to get out of the polluted area as soon as possible.”
Then as Anton looked round, he saw several other children in the group. In fact, there were people of all ages from different nearby towns, and soon a strong camaraderie developed among them. If someone fell or grew weary, there was always a helping hand, a strong arm to lean on. Anton realised that his little sister was not so little now, and she certainly knew what she was doing; he helped her along the way.
As he looked back at the village he had lived in all his life, he was horrified to see the thick pall of smoke which hung over it like a light brown mist; the sea too seemed dark and turbulent.
“Makes you glad to be out of it, doesn’t it,” said a fellow traveller, following his gaze.” I had no idea it was so bad.”
The group kept close together as protection against the wild animals which, Grace had warned them, roamed the mountains. They lost all sense of time as they journeyed on happy in each others company, and the hope of a better land ahead. But the mountain did not seem as high as they had thought from the valley below, and soon they were in the clouds and could no longer look back.
They emerged from the clouds to find a clear blue sky with the sun shining brightly on the rich green foliage, and the sea sparkling below them. There was a strong fragrance of flowers, and birds singing in the trees. Grace indicated this was their new home and they were free to go where they wanted, and would be welcomed by the present inhabitants.
As Anton, with his arm around his little sister, stood gazing at the vista before him, his joy was inevitably touched with sadness that his family was not there too. – his mother, father and even grandma; But maybe, he thought, one day they will come. I did explain the way to them. He thought too of Pedro, who had been his friend for so long and with whom he had shared so much, and hoped that maybe he too would change his mind and come one day.
Meanwhile, Pedro had been thinking a lot, and one night he couldn’t sleep. As he tossed and turned in the bed he shared with his younger brother, he thought about Anton and wondered if perhaps he should have gone with him. But I can always go later on if things don’t work out, he reasoned. At least I know now that there is a way.
He was still awake when the earthquake struck. As he felt the shaking of everything around him, he ran into the street, yelling as he went, pulling his brother with him.
Buildings were falling and people were screaming all around him. This was not the usual slight tremor – it was massive. Pedro ran towards the beach for safety. But to his horror, he saw a large wall of water rising up out to the sea and heading straight towards him.
It was the last thing Pedro saw!