When things aren’t the way they should be, something occupies a space it normally wouldn’t, our brains lock onto it like a homing missile, even when we’re not particularly paying attention.
Things like a white, plastic chair in the middle of the pine forest.
I’m only casually paying attention to the rural landscape outside the car as we drive along a country road through miles and miles of stone pines. The presence of the plastic chair registers a couple of hundred metres after we pass it; my head swivels backwards, but it’s already lost in the undergrowth, so I don’t mention it to my fellow passengers. People dump all sorts of shit near the road, even out here apparently.
A couple of kilometres further on and I spot another plastic chair ahead; my mind’s more acutely tuned in to its surroundings now. This time, as we pass, I notice a woman standing in the shade cast by a tall tree a few metres away from the chair.
“There’s a woman and a plastic chair in the forest,” I blurt out, bemused.
“What?” A turns her head to look at me.
“There’s a woman standing beside a plastic chair in the forest,” I repeat.
It’s especially strange as there’s nothing out here. No towns, villages, shops, nothing. It’s just a country road linking A with B.
“She’s a prostitute,” J says knowledgeably from the back seat.
“Get away,” I laugh. “Why would there be a prostitute in a random spot in the countryside?”
Just at that we pass another plastic chair under the shade of a tree. This time there’s a blonde woman wearing a slinky red dress sitting on it. She looks like she belongs in a club rather than a pine forest. Her wildly out of place clothing seems to confirm J’s suggestion.
But why here? It’s not in the middle of nowhere exactly, but neither is it near, well, anywhere. The very idea of prostitutes in the forest throws up all sorts of questions.
Do drivers just accidentally spot these women lurking in the dappled shade and think “well, that was good timing, I just had a yen for a quick one beside the road” in much the same manner they might develop a hunger a burger at a roadside cafe? How do the women get there? There’s no car nearby. Is there a pimp bus which drops them off in the morning and picks them up again at night? How long is the shift? It must get pretty lonely out here on your lonesome for hours and hours. Is there an app which tells drivers which forests are best for a bit of off road action?
It seems random, bizarre. On a seedy, city backstreet we wouldn’t think twice about passing ladies of the night plying their trade, but when it comes to ladies of the forest that’s something very different. It’s a scenic scene which simply doesn’t equate.
Six months further down the line and we’re driving along a different country road in the wilds of Alentejo when a man in a blue tee-shirt and denims emerging from the forest catches my eye. My initial reaction is that he’s stopped for a piss; the parked truck on the opposite side of the road appears to back this up.
And then I spot the plastic chair.