Beyond the Range of the Light

Dad had said that camping would be educational, and he was right.

I learned a lot that summer, on that camping trip.

GPS back then was your Mom, her legs blanketed in a huge map, issuing one-line instructions in a monotone that the GPS people later copied. Some of these instructions would be in the past conditional tense, like ‘you should’ve taken a left there’, and then Dad would yell, Mom would yell and the car would fill with a sulky silence.

We did arrive eventually, though, at a campsite high in the hills. Dad parked at the end of the lot, by the edge of the woods. We pitched our tent, our tiny home for the next five days, and I began to learn about nature.

I learned that by nature I was a city girl.

I learned that all trees look the same, even if your Dad tries to point out differences. I learned that all bird-song sounds the same, like someone is bouncing up and down on a squeaky toy.

I learned that tea with small twigs in it tastes like tea, that burnt sausages taste like grit, and that while rabbit-poo looks like raisins, it tastes like poo.

I learned that sleeping on the ground is hard, because the ground is hard. I learned that the zip of a sleeping-bag always ends up underneath you. I learned that the silence of the countryside is a fairy-tale, that the night air is filled with rustles, low snuffling and the wind sighing, as if it is bored with nature too.

I learned that in the countryside time moves more slowly, and that this is not a good thing.

On the third afternoon another car pulled up at the next pitch, about fifty yards away. The Mom and Dad got out, grim-faced and silent. I guessed that the Mom had been on map duty. They had a daughter aged around eleven, like me. She kept looking over as the Mom perched a pot on a small stove and the Dad wrestled with their tent using a process that made it look like he was playing Twister. He swore as he did this, the type of words that Dad used whenever his team was getting beat on TV, which was almost always. Still, my Mom rolled her eyes, as if she’d never heard such filth.

I went to the camp washrooms later, and met the girl on her way back.

“Hi,” I said.


“So,” I said. “How do you like camping?”

“It’s gross,” she said. “My Dad said it would be –“


She giggled. “All I’ve learned is that home is where the heart is, and also the toys, and the books.”

We chatted for a while, girl stuff, then a woman’s voice yelled “April!” loudly, urgently. The girl smiled, then shrugged.

“I’d better go,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “Talk to you tomorrow.”

Mom cooked our supper, and April’s Mom cooked theirs. The smell of burnt sausages was doubly strong. As night fell Dad began his ghost stories, while our neighbours took out a small radio. Mom sighed and glared as the music drifted across the warm air. Whenever Dad’s story would end with a loud “Yah!” and a clutch at my ribs that would make me shriek, their Mom would glare across at us.

Eventually the music stopped and the family crawled into their tent. We sat for a while longer, watching the moths flit around our lantern and gazing into the blackness beyond the range of the light. Then we too went to bed. I lay still, with the zip poking into my back, waiting for sleep to overpower the discomfort. Then I heard Dad mutter “gotta pee”. I heard him struggle out of his sleeping bag in a crackle of static electricity, and unzip the tent. I heard the soft hush of his footsteps across the grass. Then I heard the loud flump of somebody falling full-length onto a tent.

There was a yell and a scream, and the sound of frantic scrabbling on canvas. There was angry shouting and Dad apologising, then anger in his voice as he shouted too. Throughout I could hear April crying in fright.

Dad arrived back into the tent.

“What happened?” hissed Mom.

“Not now,” muttered Dad.

In the morning, while I flicked flies out of my cereal, Dad and Mom had a whispered conversation. Then Dad told me we were moving on. I asked why and he wouldn’t look at me, just said we needed a change of scenery. I said that all scenery was the same and he glared at me. We packed in silence. From outside their tent our neighbours watched us stonily.

The tent wouldn’t fit into its sheath. Dad tried for a while, then stuffed it into the trunk. We got into the car and started to drive off. April held up one hand.

“Don’t wave back,” snapped Mom. “They’re horrible people.”

I learned a lot that summer, on that camping trip.

As I waved furtively back at April’s little black hand, I realised that I had learned that my parents were racist.

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