2 am. It's Miriam on the phone. To her it's 9 pm. She's in Peru and sounds stressed. I'm in England, dream cracked open, asking her what's wrong. When I opened a restaurant eight years ago, 10000 ft up an Andean mountain, a knock on our door was the usual signal of a developing crisis. Now in England a baby son, a call from South America spells trouble. Crisis, trouble and indeed calamity burst from our cook's lips. 'We've locked ourselves out of the restaurant' I visualised the steel shutters, the heavy door cut into the bottom, our group of distraught staff huddled outside and a bunch of keys hanging in the kitchen. As usual with any Peruvian disaster a creative solution had been sought and executed. Breathless explanation rushed over the phone line. 'But it's OK, we got the door cut off and it’s just being welded back on.’ From six thousand miles away and in the middle of a gloomy British night it was hard to know how to react. My mind toyed with anger at the stupidity of the key lock in, delight at the ingenuity involved in acquiring late night use of an angle grinder and puzzlement at why I needed to know about this chain of events quite so urgently. I thanked Miriam for letting us know and went back to bed.
A year later the phone trilled from Peru again. Miriam. Calling at 6 pm on a rainy Sunday, not with news of emergency welders, but to tell me about a fruitless search. Lost keys were nothing compared to this new horror. The story unfolded quickly, Miriam's silent colossus of a husband, missing for four days, found drowned in the Amazon, by Miriam herself. He hadn't returned from his latest spell down through the cloud forest, his fellow workers on the small boat navigating near Boca Manu had heard him go overboard, watched him flail briefly in its impenetrable brown, then nothing. They had searched for hours with no sign of him, they speculated on rip currents, caiman and an unlikely recovery which saw him waiting patiently on a beach down river. Miriam could not give silent, strong, honourable Pancho up to the river. She took a twelve-hour truck journey into her own heart of darkness.
The end, the beginning of unexpected life as a widow, came surprisingly quickly. An hour into her one woman search and rescue mission Miriam found a body. Luckily, she said, it wasn't him, the corpse in shore reeds was much fatter, the facial features bloated and grey-blue. Tantalisingly this four days waterlogged boatman wore the exact same clothes as her husband had as he left Cusco, days or a lifetime of hurt earlier. Even the logo on the mud streaked, vegetation clogged T-shirt was identical, a cruel coincidence thought Miriam. Then the ring, glinting like a stop light from the dead man's finger, the Andean cross necklace around his neck black and shiny like some stamp of death. Finally, for now, the three-inch scar on the cadaver’s right arm, a teenager falling from a tree in Calca twenty years before had bled his way home from attempts to impress Miriam. 'It looked nothing like him Señor Michael, this thing.' Bloated beyond recognition by gas, the world's greatest river and death, the man in the water was her Pancho. Speechless as I had been by the ridiculous nature of her previous call, this news, drowned out at times by Miriam's sobs, was almost impossible to react to.
Bereavement platitudes briefly crossed my mind and crossed out again. What to say? I told Miriam I loved her, cared about her, wished I was there to support her, but I wasn’t and, the door on my Peruvian adventure ended soon after as the lease on our restaurant ran out with me stranded in England. Now I communicate with Miriam via Facebook, heart her posts, engage in occasional chat, stare at her profile picture of a man in a T-shirt who never changes, a huge river in his background, her foreground forever.