The road to Bugarach is lined with them, these fear-drunk milksops. Some pray to a God long expired, some cling to their women and weep, and some march stony-faced towards the mountain. The road to Bugarach is long, and we all know they’ve left it too late to make it there before tomorrow.
I never hear them speaking of themselves, only of the Mayans and their calendar. They pass through my camp in their hundreds; sweat-soaked, nerve-wracked and resigned, believing in their heart that tomorrow will never come. ‘They’ve never been wrong before’, they say; ‘The apocalypse is coming’, they say; ‘We’re safe on the mountain’, they say.
My roadside tent, full of whisky and warmth and the smell of sex, is not for these men. They would watch the world burn from up there, the mountain the Mayans say would be saved. I am here for the ones that cannot make it, the ones that came too late to ascend, the ones for whom that mountain will be nothing more than a silhouette against the last sun.
I took the first one for free. I wanted to feel his weight on top of me, the prickle of his hot, unwashed skin against mine and the way he looked as he fucked me to forget. I met him on the mountain road, in the line of those waiting to ascend. I told him he would never make it up, that they’d blocked off the road and that he should enjoy his last night on earth. He didn’t ask for my name, but he told me his was Arnau. His English was broken and his eyes were blue. He followed me to my tent, and we spent our time together in silence. Afterwards, as I wiped the mess from my thighs, he cried. It was hollow, and the small, wet tent did nothing to contain it.
When the silence broke, he told me about his wife, who he said would not make the journey from Barcelona. She did not believe in the Mayan truth, he explained, and now she would die. I didn’t tell him that the Mayan truth was a lie.
‘You same as her’ he had said, and just when I thought he knew my secret, he added, ‘your hair same’. Short and ale bottle-brown, I presumed, filled with dust from days spent sleeping on the side of the road. The one mirror I had with me was cracked, but I could see that my skin looked darker under the weight of three days’ dirt.
‘You have boyfriend?’ he had asked me, as I lay in my sleeping bag, waiting for him to leave. ‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t want a boyfriend.’ Not knowing the Catalan words to explain to him why I prefer to live on my own, I decided to leave him to puzzle it out for himself, as he dried his eyes and went back outside to join the masses. A little lighter, no happier. I waited until I saw him disappear into the crowd before I produced the blue pot my grandmother had given me as a girl. It was then that I decided to charge by the minute.
I came here for the spectacle, not the sex. The news these last few weeks has been nothing but images of restless crowds and short, fast headlines, telling us that the world may end, all the while implying that it won’t. The real story is the spectacle that unobstructed belief brings with it; newscasters asking us to imagine how, in this modern world, people can possibly believe that the earth would burn the day the Mayan calendar was finally spent.
I wanted to know why they believed, what else they believed, and if I could believe too. I didn’t want to come here with friends, neighbours or fellow travellers. I knew it was important to do this alone, to learn how I really felt, standing amongst these people that had resigned themselves to the end, based on nothing more than ancient numbers and a belief in a community long dead.
I had no job to worry about, no family to speak of since my grandmother died, and I still had most of the money she had left me in her will, though it was by no means a significant amount. I boarded a flight from London as soon as I could, and I pitched this tent on the ice-bitten ground the moment I arrived in Bugarach.
I didn’t take another man that first night. I lay there wondering about Arnau. I wondered what he would do the day after tomorrow, when he saw the sun rise and the earth unscorched. I wondered if he would tell his wife about me, if he would cry again, and if he would be disappointed or relieved to learn that it was all just a mistake.
I didn’t think as much about the next man I brought to the tent, the first man I charged. Guillaume lived close to Bugarach, he told me, knowing that I was only half listening. He came to me looking for shelter, and it didn’t take much for me to persuade him that he needed more.
I showed him the blue pot, and he asked me why I wanted money. ‘It will be nothing after tomorrow’, he said. I told him it was for comfort. I said I wanted to die with money in my hand, but the real reason is I want to live with it in my pocket. Years of barely surviving with my grandmother had left me with a thirst for more. I wanted to make as much money as I could while I lived, so that when my end does come it will all have been for something. The condemned aren’t concerned with money and privilege. They come to me because I take their fear and turn it into comfort, and in your last hours on earth, that is worth all of the coins you can spare.
Sometimes I think about my mother. I wonder if she would have done it if she had money or a man to help her. It was quick, my grandmother told me when I was old enough: a razor to the wrist. No prophecy predicted it, the world went on, and my second day on this earth was spent in mourning for the woman who brought me into it. I stopped believing that love was enough when my grandmother told me how she died.
I didn’t share these thoughts with Guillaume. Instead, I told him about my fantasies, my likes and dislikes, and when we were finished he dropped a wad of notes into my pot. We had never agreed a price, I realised, but we had both known I was after more than I would have asked for. In the pot was enough to pay my rent for two months, but when he left the tent I felt immediately shortchanged, and set out straight away to find the next one.
I stopped taking their names after the third. I didn’t want them to tell me where they had come from, or who they had left behind. I could see all that in their faces. My blue pot filled quickly, and soon there was a line outside of my door.
‘Don’t you mind the others?’ I asked one man, in his early forties with salt and pepper hair and a belly that gave away years of overindulgence. ‘I would have done, back home’ he said, with a broad London accent, ‘but it’s not really the time to be picky, is it?’ I reeled, lay back, and waited for the satisfied groan that I knew would signal the end of the encounter.
The last one left in a hurry: number 33, keen to find shelter. By the time he’d emptied himself I was red raw, the cloudy stench of sex warming the tent. I didn’t wash. I waited.
It’s close to midnight now, and I can hear them praying. A mass of different languages, Gods and words all connected by one thought: please, help us. These people had come here because the Mayans said they would be preserved on the mountain, but they were denied that safety by men and their rules. I had expected rioting, protesting, an angry mob storming the hillside, but the crowd are at peace. Scared, hurt and repentant, but oddly still in their togetherness in what they believe is their last night on earth. I fall asleep thinking of the hundreds I had made, and if Arnau and the others would wait until morning, or embrace death on their own, just like my mother did.
I wake as the sun rises. Hysteria.
‘Thank God’ they say, ‘It’s a miracle’ they say, ‘We’re saved’ they say, as they dance and sing and hug. I smile to myself, and start packing up what belongings I have, wondering if one of the men I have met would return to me to say goodbye. There is laughter and music outside, and the sharp wind does nothing to cut through their happiness. I decide to wait a while, and as the day goes on, I watch them head for home, content that they will live to see another day.
Hours pass, and the road to Bugarach empties. With my tent packed, I decide to climb the mountain, now that no men stand guard and it no longer means the difference between life and death. I climb slowly, perspiring all the while. Sunlight penetrates my dirt-encrusted skin, and I start to burn. Sand and dirt collect under my fingernails, and I tire as the sun grows larger in the sky. After a while, I hear weeping.
An old woman, toothless and barefoot, is crying into the arms of a younger man. Her son, I presume. ‘It was a lie’, she is saying, ‘they made me believe and it was a lie’. The man has her in a comforting embrace, though silent tears run down his cheek. ‘Are you OK?’ I ask, knowing it is none of my business. ‘It was a lie’ she repeats, and buries her head in his chest.
I look around, and realise I have walked into a camp of people who had given up their lives to come here, believing it was the end. They were no different to the people below, but today would change everything for them. Just like the others, they have been proved wrong, only they were not rewarded with their lives. They are left with doubt and sadness and an emptiness where their conviction should be. This time, there would be no prophecy to help guide them home.
She picks up an old blanket, moth-bitten and well-worn, and hurls it off the mountain, finding strength from her pain. She howls to the sky, shouting loudly in a language I’m not sure I could ever I understand. I stare at her: wordless, exhausted.
I ask the young man if I can help, but he shakes his head. I think about offering my services to him for free, but I know it would be a mistake. Instead, I reach into my bag, pull out my blue pot and stare at my pile of money. Guilt wrenches in my stomach.
‘You cry too’, the young man said, and I realise he is right. I touch my hand to my face, wet and hot. ‘Yes’, I admit, and finally, I know why I came. I hadn’t believed in anything for a long time. I curl the money in my fist and drop it into her lap. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ the young man asks, disbelief etched into every line on his face. I don’t answer him. I don’t need to.
I pick up my tent and climb down the mountain, heading home on the road from Bugarach, knowing that I had given somebody something new to believe in.