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You can become blasé about almost anything. Walking back through the verdant grounds of the hotel, I pass monkeys, monitor lizards and vultures and yet I barely eye a batlid. The ghost of heat haunts my peripheral vision.
[private]Let me try and explain the heat. You know that first blast of hot air you get when you first step off a plane and into a foreign country? Here, it’s like that all day long. It wrings you out. Especially just after lunch, when you’re at you’re meltiest anyway and there’s really not much else for it but to head to the room, flop by the fan, and wait it out.
Outside, the air doesn’t feel natural. There’s something manufactured about it. As though it’s part of some process, the bi-product of some work of filthy creation in some sweatshop or factory in the arse-end of the world. It thrums like an engine.
This is my first proper beach holiday and I’ve skipped the middle-of-the-road stuff like Greece or Spain. Headed straight for the centre of the sun, it seems. Thought I’d do something completely different this year. Clean break from the past and all that. Mark and I took winter holidays. Skiing. Snowboarding. The like. On account of him being ginger with the complexion of biscuits.
Clean break, she says. Like anything could be clean here. Wriggle a toe out the shower and already you’re sweating like you’ve spent a day toiling on a farm.
Can’t even think clean. Think in, like, these weird phrases. Phases. Can’t quite maintain a train of thought without it being baked out of me. Like I say, heat haunts me.
I thought here would give me time to reflect on some of the choices I’ve made over the past couple years. Choices which have led me to, well, here. But here I’m just as confused as I ever was back at home. Only here, I can’t scurry around at a hundred miles an hour busying myself like I do at home and so it feels as though I’m wasting time, lots of it.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m depressed—seen depressed every day in my job. I’m not it—but I’m something. Not me, I suppose. I’ve lost something about myself and I thought being here would help me rediscover it.
I’m uneasy. The heat’s haunted me into something transparent. Anybody could just look at me from their balconies and see my mistake inside me; something rotten and diseased. Heat’s made me uneasy too because of the rolling news they showed in the dining room over lunch. The kidnappings in Kenya. It has crossed my mind that there is nobody in my life who would stump up a ransom for me like the man did for his mother… It has crossed my mind Kenya’s not that far away. Right continent.
My unease works its way into my hands as I fumble the key into the lock on the balcony door, my fingers feeling like thumbs, my thumbs like knuckles. But it just won’t open and the sun’s beating down fierce on the back of my neck and…
And I realise that the reason the key won’t click just right in the lock is because the door’s already open. And suddenly it’s not hot any more. Suddenly, my arms are cloaked with goosebumps.
I slide open the door. Step into the room, imagining machete-wielding kidnappers crouched under coffee tables and gun-toting madmen hidden behind the curtains.
And what I see matches the new chaos inside me because it looks like an incredibly localised storm, or a poltergeist, has hit the room. My suitcase upended and clothes—dirty and clean—scattered everywhere.
Quietly, carefully, I check around for the intruder.
But there’s nobody here. I’ve entered the scene of the crime too late to hear the bump in the night (or day). Holding my breath, I move to the big wardrobe in the corner, and I’m amazed and gratified to see the safety deposit box is untouched.
My nostrils flare, because almost this is worse than kidnapping. Because this now seems like common or garden vandalism. It’s pick on the weak woman who’s come here on her own type-stuff.
I flick my bikini top off the phone and call reception in a fit of pique. It’ll have been the cleaner. I know it. He lurks like some baddie from a horror novel. I scream out the receptionist as soon as she answers. The ghost-heat on me now like almost never before.
We’ll send someone straight down, confirms the receptionist, once she manages to get an edge in wordways.
After a good ten minutes, a man turns up wearing the hotel’s standard uniform. Sand-coloured. Epaulettes on the shoulders. He walks up looking unhurried in the extreme and bows his head as he addresses me. First thing I do is I check his name badge, just to be sure he is who he says he is. Lately, I’ve been having trust issues.
He asks me what seems to be the problem and for a moment, I’m speechless. I whirl round, gesture to the room.
And he just stands there. Looks as though he’s slouching against something even though he isn’t. Then he asks me what’s the matter and I’m like wow, I’ve already explained this once. But I bite back my hot temper and start to tell him about the break-in. As I do though, the man decides to really take the biscuit. Amazingly, he starts to smirk.
My voice comes out like Cerberus’ bark. What’s the problem?
And so he tells me about the monkeys. Happens to nearly everybody he says. If they leave their balcony doors open. They’re only looking for food. They’ve learned how to open suitcases and make-up bags. And then he laughs.
And really it should be funny, but it’s just too hot, and I feel haunted out here, with my smalls on display all across the room like some world-stopping night of passion has taken place inside.
He asks me whether there’s anything missing.
Flustered, I tell him I’ll check. He follows me into the room. Stands at my shoulder like he’s my epaulette as I check everything against the itemised Master Packing List which is stuffed in the front of my case. Nothing seems to be missing.
He cracks a smile, tells me not to leave the balcony door open again.
And I start to explain that I didn’t, and I don’t know why it’s so important to me that he understands, but it is. It’s as though he’s read me, psychically, and I don’t like it because I can’t read him back. Not any more.
I can’t stay in the room now. It seems tainted, somehow, even though it was only monkeys broke in. Or was it? A shiver runs up my spine whenever I think on it…
I can’t sit round the pool either. Too awful. They host water-aerobics sessions every hour on the hour. The lithe instructor—one of the few hotel staff who doesn’t wear the sandy uniform—zigzagging through the beds trying to drum up interest, bawling, ‘Wakey, wakey don’t be lazy,’ at the tourists flopped like globules of fat round the edges of a frying pan on their beds.
And some of the sights. The family whose five-year-old is dressed in a t-shirt with BITCH ON HEAT emblazoned across it. The women doused in oils reading Heat magazine, their feet rocking off the end of the sunbed in time to beats which are only in their head. The fat men talking loudly on their mobile phones using their very best I told you so voices.
So I set out for the beach. A private beach, dontchaknow. Though it’s not as idyllic or expensive as it sounds. The private beach is like a roughly constructed mezzanine level, its purpose to ensure none of the locals can properly pester the guests. I lie down and try to read my book, but I keep catching sight of the locals walking by, like spirits. Tops of their heads, at any rate. They are selling all sorts. Macheted-open coconuts. Beaded bracelets. Paintings. Voodoo mobile phone covers. Whenever I look up, I meet the eyes of one of the sellers. Have to say, politely but firmly, as though I’m training a dog, NO!
Eventually, I decide to go for a walk on the public beach. It’s crowded. More sellers. Men from the juice stalls—little more than shacks—trying to entice me over for a pineapple juice or whatever. I ignore them all. Nice to be nice, they say, as I pass, and part of me wants to tell them that I am being nice. I could stop and talk to them but that would make them think there was a sale to be made when there is actually squat-diddley chance of that. I’m not carrying any money. Nowhere to put it. No chance I’d keep it anywhere near my skin. The money is so dirty, the bureau de change at Marks’ won’t stock it. It’s like it’s been buried, and dug up, like that telltale heart in the Poe story. After touching it, it’s tempting to apply some hand gel to wash away the germs.
So I perfect the head-down walk-on. Thankful that the sunhat almost covers my eyes. I walk and I listen. Listen to the soundtrack of Africa today: tinny mobile phone ringtones, the clatter of a vulture’s claws as it glunks down on the tin roof of a juice stall, hawkers shouting their wares, the muted crash of the waves. Things that go bump in the night, like I say.
When I open my eyes, I find I’m walking not far behind a young couple. Hawkers flock around them like flies. The young man is wearing a football shirt with the name ROONEY on the back. They want Rooney to go on a fishing trip with them. I see them gesturing off to their boats bobbing over past the breakers in the sea. Others want Rooney to have a drink with them in a bar which is just up the road. Others still want Rooney to give them some money because their sister/mother/daughter is ill and needs medicine.
Still others run on ahead, and drop down onto the sands. Start doing press-ups as though the beach is an army assault course. I know what they’re doing. They’re trying to prove their virility. Some men and women come out here and pick up more than a tan. Some come here looking for husbands or wives. The idea makes me feel a little queasy. All that horrible auditioning for a life which surely they wouldn’t want. Or maybe they would. How should I know?
Other things on the beach make me feel queasy too. Seabirds haunt an area where the contents of a bucket have been tossed. I see fish-heads. Entrails. Farther along, I almost step on a dead jellyfish. Its skin is transparent. Ghostly. Reminds me of the clear plastic bags they issue at security in the airport. I can see all the wiring inside it; looks like telephone cord. Like it has a circuit board inside it.
I used to think people were like that. That I could see right through into the heart of them. That I understood them. Thought that was what made me a good social worker. All it took was one misreading and everything fell apart.
I should have realised things were not as they seemed with Denise. And with Boy A. I should have realised the uncle wasn’t an uncle at all. I should have seen Mark wasn’t what he appeared too, waaaaaay before I did. But I became complacent. Heat of the job, heat of married life. Made me blasé. Blasé as in blazingly oblivious.
I peer into the washed-up jellyfish and for a while my mind floats off elsewhere, into darkness I don’t know. It’s like my mind’s a timeshare and somebody else occupies my body for a while, someone from beyond… I’m thinking about when I was young. Family holidays to Wales. There always seemed to be an infestation of something on those holidays. Ladybirds one year, greenfly the next. One year it was jellyfish. Hundreds of them atop the white horses riding down onto the shingle beach. Tide went out, me and my brother would go look at them. Scared and intrigued at the same time. There was one type of jellyfish called a medusa. These were the ones had a body shaped like an umbrella. And I remember thinking that the name was apt. Because of the sting. Could turn a person to stone, like Medusa could in the Greek myth. I suppose that’s what happened to me in the end. I was turned into stone, and only now am I realising what a mess I made of everything.
I’m drawn out of my reverie finally. A family have now clustered around the jellyfish with me. The dad pokes at it with a stick. The woman cringes and says don’t do that Mark, and the name gives me a sting. Then the kid chucks a stone right into the middle of the jellyfish. The dad tells his son that if a jellyfish stings you, the only way to cure it is to whack the old wanger out and whizz right on the sting.
I walk away from them, farther up the beach, drawing closer to depression as I go. Heat weighing down on my hat, on my head, like I’m Chicken Licken and the sky has fallen in.
There are fewer people now and I start to think maybe I should head back because this is becoming kidnapping territory and have you heard the one about the stupid, ignorant Englishwoman who thought she’d be okay on her own until she stepped right into the crocodile’s jaws?
And then I start to think maybe I’d be safer if I walked back along the road because maybe I could catch a taxi if desperate, and surely one would stop for me because the heat’s now making me bedraggled and there’s probably desperation chalked on my features now.
Soon as I think about how I look, the desperation becomes panic. Because there’s nobody on the beach at all now. It’s like the scene has suddenly become post-apocalyptic, ghost-story territory. First little rutted track leading off the beach I see, I take it, and head in the general direction of the road. There are various signs I think are vaguely familiar. Adverts for mobile phone providers. Messages of support for the president: THANK YOU MISTER PRESIDENT and ELECT HIM PRESIDENT FOR LIFE!
After a while, I hear a car. I stop in the dust at the side of the road and watch it creep past. It has tinted windows. And I think about being kidnapped. I think about being important enough to be kidnapped. It accelerates away from me and leaves me in no doubt about any of it. And it’s as though the world’s suddenly revealed itself to be much larger, much emptier, than I ever thought it was.
Apart from my ghosts, I am alone.
I stumble onwards. Sweat, tears and dust stinging my eyes. I pass a man resting in the shade of a tree. He might be asleep. He is lying on top of a sack of onions, as though they’re comfortable as a mattress. Soon as he sees me, he stands up, like he’s a stickler for manners and tradition.
I start to walk a little bit faster. My legs already starting to burn.
He draws level with me without even breaking a sweat. And now he’s so close I can smell the sweat of him, I see he’s only a little taller than me. Taller, but made of a different type of material somehow. Wicker maybe. His arms and legs look spindly. As though I could snap them easily.
He brushes the dust off his hands on a simple blue shirt, and proffers his right hand for me to shake. Very formal. And now I look at him properly, I see he’s not an old man at all. He’s young. Don’t know how young. But the way he keeps blinking like that, the nervous twitches to his mouth…
I ask him his name and he seems grateful. Salomon, he says. And he asks where I’m from. Where my husband is. I tell him I’m not married anymore, and it seems to confuse him. He asks me who looks after me then. I tell him I work. That I provide for myself. Which seems to confuse him even more.
So I start to tell him about my job. Usually, I’m rather tight-lipped about my work. I’m aware of the reaction the words ‘social worker’ elicits in people. They’re suddenly on their guard. Careful what they say to me. You know when I said I gave the boy a clip round the ear for being cheeky… I wasn’t being serious… Esther Rantzen put the cause of social workers like me back decades. Made us seem like witch-finder generals. Or the witches themselves. Current government put us back centuries. Laying off good workers here there and everywhere.
I look into people’s hearts, I tell him, finally.
And he smiles. Nods. Asks, and how is that working out for you?
I sigh. Not very well.
But you try, yes?
I did… do… Will…
People show you what they want you to see, he says.
I look off into the distance. Ghost-heat shimmers off the road, making everything seem blurry. I turn around, the words you’re a good boy hot on my lips. But when I turn, Salomon, my spindly boy, is gone.[/private]