When I was twelve years old my grade six class went on a camping trip to the Coromandel, a rugged peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island. Three teachers came to supervise the boys-only class. After a two-hour bus trip we pitched our tents at a campsite off a dirt road, thirty minutes from the small mining town of Thames. The site was surrounded by bush and mountain ranges, one mountain caught everyone’s eye, it had a long flat top, a teacher, Mr Larson, informed us it was aptly named Tabletop Mountain.
“We are walking up it tomorrow, first thing,” he said.
We all groaned, “It will take days,” I said.
“Seven hours there and back,” Mr Larson replied. We were city kids, the thought of such a long hike did not fill us with enthusiasm.
The evening was spent cooking sausages which had already started to spoil in the November heat. We overcooked them and they split, spattering the fire with grease globules and threads of burning fat. Camp-side stories which were a mixed bag of horror, tales of bravado in the school yard and wishful erotica kept us entertained while we ate the misshapen sausage meat. After dinner one of the boys trudged off into the bush with a toilet roll and spade, a group of us trailed him with torches at the ready. When we saw him squatting, we lit him up and laughed until our sides split as he rolled around in the dust trying to hide his bare bottom. I resolved not to crap in the bush for the entire trip.
After a few more high jinks such as pulling out tent pegs, farting through tent flaps and gassing the tents’ occupants and hiding soon-to-be-rotten sausages in the teachers’ backpacks we retired for the night. I was sharing a tent with my best friend, Jager, we called one another by our surnames in New Zealand private schools. The tent was very old, it smelt of mold and mothballs and drooped in the middle, Jager said it belonged to his grandfather. We lay chatting and listening to the strange sounds of the night birds, especially the mad cry of the morepork, its call sounding just like its name.
Loud shouts and bangs woke us, we all rushed from our tents to find out the cause of the commotion and stared in confusion at the ransacked campsite, clothing and food from the backpacks left outside the tents were strewn everywhere. The source of the shouts was Mr Larson, he was standing over a furry ball which he was eyeing warily, “Damn thing was climbing up the side of my tent, so I clobbered it.” I moved in a bit closer to have a look at the creature, it was a possum slightly stunned from the wallop but it soon recovered and scampered back into the bush. “If everyone had stowed their packs in their tents as I asked we wouldn’t have had this problem.” he shouted. We collected our belongings, salvaging what food we could and returned to our tents. In the early hours of the morning it started raining, water pooled in the corners of our tent soon turning it into a paddling pool. We abandoned ship seeking shelter with the class nerd who had a luxury four-person tent all to himself, he had set up extra camp beds in case of visitors. The rest of the night was passed in absolute comfort.
At dawn, a line of boys and teachers as long as a football field set off along the trail to Tabletop Mountain. The path, wet from the overnight rain, was lined with dripping ferns and domed by mighty pohutakawa and rimu trees and the occasional monolithic kauri. It didn’t take long until we were all enjoying ourselves. The boys fanned out into groups, Jager and I were joined by an Australian kid called Willoughby. The three of us fantasized about being in a primeval jungle and hacked and slashed our way to the top of the mountain. We were greeted by one of the most beautiful views in the world, miles of bush leading down to golden sand beaches and an azure blue sea, unspoilt by man. A part of me wanted to stay there in solitude for the rest of my life.
After a leisurely lunch, for some reason all anyone brought with them were biscuits except for one boy who had the presence of mind to bring a loaf of bread and was inundated with trade requests, Mr Larson ordered us back down the mountain. Willoughby excused himself, no doubt tired of our fantasies and Jager and I fought our way down the mountainside together. By the halfway mark we had exhausted ourselves and our fantasy changed to being prisoners of war on a death march. We stopped, attracted by the breathtaking view, at a precipice that dropped down into the valley far below, the ground was dappled in sunlight that had broken through the overhanging branch of a pohutakawa tree. The view and the serenity I felt was ethereal.
“Look how far down it is,” Jager said inching to the edge on splayed legs.“Don’t even think about pushing me,” he joked. I hadn’t thought about it but then I imagined Jager falling off the side of the mountain with his backpack full of biscuit crumbs. The image was frightening and thrilling. I listened, there was nobody nearby. I wanted to explore that feeling of thrilling, I pushed Jager, he tried to twist around to grab at me, the edge, anything but the shove carried him out into the sky and he vanished. The rush I felt was amazing, I imagined Jager’s thoughts as he hurtled towards his death, shitting himself too I bet. I laughed out loud, my mirth echoing into the valley. Then the magnitude of what I had done hit me, I started shaking and began to panic, what if I get caught? I must race back along the trail to find help. When I ran into the first group I was sobbing. They sent me back up the path, accompanied by one of the boys, to find a teacher whilst they ran ahead to see if they could see Jager’s broken body hundreds of feet below.
Mr Larson was the first teacher we found. Breathlessly I told him, “Jager fell off the edge of the mountain.” We ran down and joined the boys on the ledge. There were so many footprints there now, the police would never figure out that Jager was pushed. I told the story again and again to the teachers as we walked the remaining miles back to camp. How Jager had peered over the ledge into the valley, overbalanced and fell. I cried every time I recounted the story and the boys and the teachers comforted me with reassuring pats and told me it wasn’t my fault and how there was nothing I could have done to save him.
Mr Larson alerted the police and park rangers. At daybreak he led a recovery team to where he thought Jager’s body would be. He returned early that afternoon and told us a body had been located, refusing to answer the boys’ ghoulish questions. The police asked me for a statement. I was terrified my story would unravel but sobbed my way through it and they seemed convinced. Mr Larson told us that given the circumstances the trip would have to be cut short and we would be returning to Auckland that afternoon. I took down Jager’s tent and packed up his gear. The school bus arrived and while we were waiting for everyone to board and the luggage to be loaded, I saw Jager’s parents arrive, called back from a holiday with the news that their son was missing presumed dead, Mr Larson and a police officer took them both aside and told them the bad news, Mrs Jager sank to her knees crying while Mr Jager stood dead still, his face lily white.
What I did still haunts me, I look inside myself and realize that it is not guilt I feel but fear of my crime being discovered. I’m afraid that one day someone will come forward and say that he had seen the whole thing, it was so horrible that he had suppressed it until now. It feels as if I have a body buried in the backyard. I want to feel sorry for Jager, he was a good kid and a great friend, he didn’t deserve to die that way, if I were normal I would mourn him and feel regret for my actions.
I went back to the Coromandel on the twentieth anniversary of Jager’s death, I was looking for guilt and sorrow, I desperately wanted to feel normal. I pitched my tent in exactly the same spot I had when I was a kid. That night I lit a fire and thought I could almost hear the sausages popping out of their skins in the frying pan but it was just the wet wood. The moreporks cried at me from the bush, “Morepork, morepork,” and when the fire burned down low and I took myself off to my tent I could hear possums creeping around the campsite scavenging for food. In the night I woke to the sound of rain pattering on the tent and the hiss of the fire’s dying embers.
At daybreak I set off on the muddy trail for Tabletop Mountain, I could hear Willoughby’s and Jager’s voices, letting out battle cries and whooping as they slashed at ferns and trees. I arrived at the top of the mountain at midday and stood in awe at the view, it was still unsullied and the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I lunched on biscuits while listening to the jests and bravado of my class mates. Refreshed, I took the scenic route back down the mountainside and early in the afternoon I arrived at the ledge where Jager had fallen to his death, he was waiting for me there, smiling, ‘Don’t even think about pushing me,” he joked inching forward to the edge. The words electrified me, just as they had once before on that November afternoon. I stepped forward and pushed him, he turned around frantically to save himself and for a brief moment our eyes met, I saw betrayal and fear in his, he saw joy in mine.
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