I have always enjoyed being outside in wide open spaces. There have been so many that I’ve appreciated in my time. This is the first time that I’ve ever been so overwhelmed by how vast a true wide open space is. A wild expanse of nothingness. The sunlight and clouds reflecting in the peaceful white-blue of the sea. The sky and water becoming one. Endless. A desert wilderness like nothing else to be found on Earth. I could feel the weight of the world, and it was nothing. Weightless. Standing here on the tiny island of volcanic rock I am just atoms lost to a universe.
I feel my face where it is burning, the salt drying on my skin like a Sunday pork loin. The touch adds a new prickle of heat, itching beneath the skin. I blink a few times to remoisten my eyes. It is hard to reopen them, squinting in the soft reflected light. I lick my lips, my hand playing around the the bottle in my hand. The plastic feels soft, as if it is melting. It may be. I lift my hand to touch my skin once more but stop inches from my face. With my hand suspended there it feels as though I am holding a mask, a cool mould of my features. It feels soothing. I close my eyes. I have no tears left to cry. Except for the burn, I feel numb. The pain is a rock in my heart. My stomach is hollow. A gull begins to screech from high above me. Looking up all I see are orange dots on a charcoal veil.
Shifting my feet makes the sharp rock cut in to my bare skin. The rock is like the water, formed of sharp angles and contours. A dinosaur shell. It is maybe thirty feet wide, rising nearly ten feet out of the water at its highest point. There is nothing living except for the rock. It is hot, as if the lava had only recently solidified. I heard once that volcanic islands shift yearly with the tide. Perhaps as much as a couple of inches. In my lifetime this rock could have moved up to 12 feet from its hotspot. I can’t see them but know that there are more beneath the surface. I curl my toes. I look around three hundred and sixty degrees once more. Out in to the wide open space.
I look down at the boy. The sun is already burning his skin, turning the milk-white to pink. He is perspiring heavily, covered with dew. His fair hair has darkened with sweat. Dripping. Sticking to him. I crouch down on one knee and place a hand on the slick skin. He’s flaming. With a grimace, I readjust my knee. I look in to his eyes. ‘Andrew. I’m not your daddy.’
‘Where is daddy?’ Andrew asks, his features closing. Perhaps because of the brightness of the light. My mouth dries even more. I can feel the corners of my lips twitching. ‘Where’s mummy? I’m sorely.’
Opening my mouth cracks the salt covering my skin. Does he somehow not remember what happened? I’ve identified traumatic amnesia in some of the kids at school in the past. That glazed over look about Andrew is sadly familiar. I cannot speak. The memory of what happened, mixed with the relentless heat of the sun, makes me lightheaded. Our eyes are fixed on each other.
‘I want to go and play on my bike, daddy,’ he says, a hopeless look of sadness coming over him.
‘Andrew.’ I pinch the skin on his shoulder. He doesn’t flinch. I breathe more hot air on to him. ‘I’m not your daddy.’
‘Where is daddy?’ Andrew asks. ‘He said that he’d help me build a treehouse.’
‘Here, have a sip of water.’ I hold the bottle to Andrew’s dry lips. ‘Just a sip.’ Like me, Andrew is only wearing bathing shorts. ‘Good boy. Let’s try and make it last. What does Bear say?’
Andrew turns Bear’s head and looks in to his eyes, mimicking the frown on Bear’s brow. He can’t quite look back at me, still frowning, fixed on a point over my shoulder. There are no clouds in the sky. He’s pensive. His cheeks are apple red. His bottom lip begins to droop. ‘Bear’s sad.’ He draws out the final vowel.
‘What’s Bear sad about, Andrew?’ I ask.
‘He wants Lollie and he wants mummy and he wants daddy.’
I inhale. In the heat my chest is weakening. The air is dry. ‘Let’s sit down a while.’ A pick Andrew up and gently place him against a rise of the rock. I sit down next him.
‘Ouch!’ Whatever pricked him, Andrew settles against the rock and puts his thumb in his mouth. He looks at Bear. Bear looks at him.
~ ~ ~
‘Jeff, if you can tell me why on earth you need to bring a bicycle when we’re going on the boat then you can bring it.’ Tilting her head to one side, Julie folded her arms.
‘Andy wants to bring it. Right, Champ?’
‘Yep.’ Andrew tucked Bear under his armpit and nodded, smiling up at his father. He didn’t stop looking or smiling. With a wide grin, Jeff held his gaze for a moment, before turning back to his wife.
‘See?’ Hands wide apart, he raised his eyebrows. ‘Andy needs his bike.’
‘Needs? But, why?’ Julie shook her head. ‘Look, we’ve already got both families to fit into one car, and enough food and drink to last us a year if we get stranded on a desert island! Bike? No. He won’t get a chance to ride it.’ Julie slapped her thighs, her floral sundress fluttering on the faint breeze. She tucked her hair behind her ear, tight behind the arm of the designer sunglasses. The car door slamming drew her attention. ‘Laura, please get back in the car.’
‘I forgot Elsa,’ Laura said, striding past. ‘If Andy gets to take Bear and his bike, I’m taking Elsa.’
‘Quick as you can, please, Lollie.’ Julie watched her go. Moving tote bags and a cool box out of the way, Jeff began to angle the little blue bike in to the stuffed trunk. ‘Jeff! What are you doing? We just discussed this!’
‘There you go, Champ,’ he said, ignoring her. ‘Like a glove. Hop in now, sweet pea.’ He turned to Julie. ‘What does it matter, Jules? He can have a ride down on the marina, then we’ll just leave it in the car. Come on, hun. Let’s not start off on the wrong foot.’ Jeff moved closer to Julie. She stepped away towards the holiday house.
‘Come on, Lollie. Just one toy,’ she said, seeing Laura attempting to load an armful of dolls in to her school bag. ‘We’re only going to sea for a couple of days. We’ve got your pens and pencils –’
‘Travelling lightly, then?’ said Scott, approaching the S.U.V. carrying a Moses basket. ‘Room for a little one?’
‘Hey, matey! And hello you little beauty,’ Jeff said, leaning over the basket. With one hand stroking over the bundle of sheets, he looked at Scott. ‘What is she now? Six months?’
‘Just over four,’ Scott replied, unable to take his eyes from his sleeping daughter.
‘Well my little niece is going to be quite the heartbreaker when she grows up. Coochie-coo, little you.’ Jeff itched his skin beneath his vest, and pursed his lips. ‘She sleep at nights? I mean, is she going to keep us up?’
Scott shook his head. ‘She’s been really good, actually. And I think that the boat will probably rock her to sleep for us.’
‘True that.’ Jeff reached in to the trunk and popped the lid of the cool box. ‘Here, you want to join me for a beer before we leave?’
‘Uh, no thanks, mate,’ Scott replied, looking over his shoulder at Marie, who was walking up the driveway with a small changing bag over her shoulder and a leather weekend bag in her hand. ‘Starting early, are you?’
Twisting the top from a bottle of Budweiser, Jeff winked. ‘Already started, mate?’
‘Jeffrey!’ Julie called, walking to take a bag from Marie, having ushered Laura into the back of the car and strapping her in. ‘It’s not even lunchtime and you’re drinking again! I’m definitely driving now.’
‘It’s a holiday, isn’t it?’ he called back to Julie. ‘You definitely married the right sister,’ Jeff murmured to Scott.
~ ~ ~
I watch Andrew pat Bear down next to him to join us in looking out at the wide open horizon. I watch the beads of sweat pouring from him. His complexion has turned to a deep shade of plum. The anxious and thoughtful look has not left him. He keeps turning his head, as if looking for something, until he suddenly leans his head back against the sharp rock. Without complaint.
‘Can I borrow Bear for a second, Andrew?’ I ask. He looks from me to Bear and back. Without a word, he hands Bear to me and leans his head back once more against the dark headrest. Grimacing with each step on the black rock, I make my way to the water and dip Bear in, soaking him.
‘Don’t let the sharkies get him!’ Andrew calls out. When I turn to look at him his eyes are closed. Gazing in to the dark depths of the water I can not say that I am afraid. A peace settles over me. My hand lingers longer, further from the rock. Dizziness almost topples me. I wipe away a dribble coming from my nose. I put a hand to my forehead and close my eyes, dropping on to my backside. I inhale in jolts. Exhale in gasps. I try to steady my hyperventilation. Breathing out is harder than breathing in. I put my hand in the cool water and begin to scratch my knuckles against the rock. I see a piece of clothing floating in the open ocean.
When I return to Andrew I gently pat Bear against his boiling brow and cheeks. ‘Bear’s just going to help you cool down a while, okay?’ I say. His eyelids remain down. His breaths are short and rapid through his stubby, wrinkled nose. His little ribcage rising with each call for air. ‘How old are you these days, Andy?’ I ask.
He looks at me through one eye, caring not for the salt water pooling near to his tear ducts. With a little uncomfortable noise, he readjusts his back. ‘Four nearly five,’ he says, his voice weak. ‘But Lollie’s already over six and a half.’ The expression on his face is of smelling something bad. He swallows.
‘Six and a half!’ I say, glancing up at the blazing sun. And then around the crest of the rock that Andrew is leaning against. Into the pitiful shade. ‘When are you going to be five?’
‘Umm . . .’ Andrew licks his lips, and then chews on his bottom lip. There is a splash in the water from somewhere behind me. My heart jolts. He doesn’t answer me. Continues to lick his lips. I continue to pat Bear against his warm skin. He looks as though he may have cooled. The bottle of water is leaning against his side. The irony of the Volvic label is not lost on me.
‘Would you like another sip of water?’ I ask. It must have been an hour since his last sip. Bear is almost dry again. There is maybe as much as two-thirds of the one-point-five litres remaining in the bottle. Again he doesn’t respond. I hold the bottle up to Andrew’s lips and he begins to sip. ‘Easy.’ I can’t deny him a little more than last time. And then he suddenly opens his eyes. They appear bright and clear against the dark red of his skin.
‘Did the sharkies eat daddy?’ he asks.
Biting my lips together, I stroke my face. It is tender all over. I dare to look at the water. It would have been best if we hadn’t come up upon the rock. It would have been best if we had remained in the sea.
~ ~ ~
With one hand on the throttle, Jeff poured the remainder of the beer down his throat and then gripped the wheel. The fat Cohiba Behike cigar pouted from his lips. Scott looked him up and down, though not as far down as the tight trunks that Jeff was wearing. He remembered Jeff telling him that the bank has a gymnasium that he uses before his day’s work; sometimes at lunch too. It seems to have paid off. He would have been on the floor if he had drunk as much as Jeff, particularly in this heat, never mind the breeze created by the speed of the boat. The cigars and the boozing had not damaged his pearly smile.
‘Beer me,’ Jeff said, still smiling at Scott after a moment.
‘Sure?’ Scott asked, taking a sip of his lager shandy. ‘Another? Don’t you want some water first?’
‘Man, you’re like the missus.’
Scott glanced over towards the sisters, chatting at the back of the boat. He could smell the sun cream on his skin. What he hadn’t sweated off. ‘Would you like me to drive for a bit?’ he asked.
‘Jeffrey,’ Julie chimed, holding her straw hat to her head, ‘can you please slow down?’
The boat hit a soft crest of wave, lifting the nose clear of the water. The engine purred with glee.
‘Can I drive, daddy?’ Laura asked.
‘And me! And me!’ said Andrew, Bear dangling by the arm at his side.
Easing back slightly on the throttle, Jeff turned again to face Scott. He pointed with the cigar. ‘Man, we’re out here in the South Pacific, in the middle of nowhere, on the most beautiful day we’ll see in years. There are no rules here. If I want a beer, I’m having a beer!’ Jeff leaned back his head, facing the sky, and closed his eyes. A waterfall of cigar smoke puffed from the corner of his mouth. ‘This is the life,’ he muttered.
‘Just thought I’d ask,’ Scott said, smiling. He opened a bottle of Bud and handed it it Jeff, now with Laura standing between him and the console, sharing the responsibility of heading the boat in a straight line in to the distant nothing. Her sunhat squashed against her father’s waist. Moving to the back of the boat, Scott sat down on the leather seat next to the Moses basket and spread his arms over the back of the seat. Marie adjusted the fixed umbrella over the sleeping baby. Thinking, Jeff’s right, this is the life, Scott took another sip of his shandy. And then, jolting him from his reverie, Bear was plonked on to his lap.
‘Bear wanted to say hi to Uncle Scott,’ Andrew said, wiggling Bear’s arms.
‘Hi, Bear!’ Scott said, patting Bear on the head.
‘Herro,’ Andrew growled. ‘How is you?’
‘I’m good,’ Scott growled back. ‘How are you? Do you like the sunshine?’
‘Res,’ Bear growled,’ nodding with Andrew. ‘Do you like beer, like daddy?’
Scott laughed. ‘Maybe not quite as much as daddy. But sure I do!’
‘Jeff!’ Julie yelled. He might not have heard over the yell of the engine and the speed of the passing air. ‘How’s the school, Scott?’ she asked through tightened lips, after shaking her head yet again.
‘School?’ said Scott, putting the empty plastic beaker by his feet. ‘School’s perfect, thanks. Any day when I’m not there is perfect.’
‘And a promotion to Head of Department,’ Marie added. With her long dark hair trailing behind her, she smiled at Scott. The closed-mouth smile that had first entranced him. Her dark eyes were smiling within the subtle mascara. The sun had brought out soft freckles on her nose. They both looked down at the baby at the same time, their eyes once more joining a moment later. He mouthed the three words.
‘Oh yes, congratulations!’ said Julie. ‘Promotions all round then, as Mister Pisshead over there’ she whispered, curling her top lip, ‘is now on the board of directors at the bank! In all honesty, we could use the extra money, though.’
Reaching over the basket, Scott squeezed Marie’s hand. He knew that the same thing would be going through her head as his. Like they would have been able to afford a couple of days on a luxury speedboat out in the Pacific on his teacher’s salary.
‘Faster, daddy, faster,’ Laura said, wiggling the boat from side-to-side.
‘Hold on to the wheel for a second, babe,’ said Jeff. ‘Just got to get myself another –’
~ ~ ~
A broken piece of the fibreglass hull drifts in front of the island. I try not to picture again the image of little Lollie and Jeff, what happened to them before I could even work out what had happened. Even before the sharkies. That frozen moment in time. The strange and never-ending feeling of flying. That weight of nothing. The feeling of being on the outside looking in. Everything else impossibly passing by me as I float. Stuck in cushioning molecules. The noise of the exposed propeller shrieking like an ancient garden strimmer. As if listening to the world from beneath the surface of water.
Watching the National Geographic channel, as I so often do – used to do – I have often wondered what it might be like to be eaten alive. Whether that would be the worst possible death. Even worse than an unimaginable slow torture. The ocean encourages that fear like no other. What might be waiting beneath you in the deep unknown. I’m quite certain that they weren’t conscious. I actually had a grip on Marie’s ankle. She was floating nearby me. Andrew was clinging to my neck. Bear over my face. Feeling Marie being suddenly tugged from my grip . . . it was exactly like fishing trips from my youth, when the float disappears beneath the surface. I wonder even more, however much I don’t want to, about being eaten alive. In the burning heat, my skin goes cold. I feel my hand on her ankle. I feel her being tugged from my grip. Blood fills my mouth from where I bite my lip. Where earlier I felt that it was hard to open my eyes, I now feel that they can’t close. I am struggling to breathe.
‘Did the sharkies get Lollie, daddy?’ Andrew asks, now looking around the rock again. He settles back down, picks up Bear and holds him to his chest. What can I say to him? That we’re lost and they’ve gone for help?
‘No, Andrew,’ I said. ‘They’re lost and we’ve gone for help.’ I pick up the bottle of water and play with the lid. ‘I mean, we’re lost and they’ve gone for help. I mean . . .’ I shake my head. I lose the grip on Marie’s ankle again. He responds with a startling glare. Should I tell him that we’ll be okay? That we’re not stranded in the middle of an ocean in an outrageous heat, with only a pint and a bit of water? That the sharkies . . . ?
‘We’ll be okay?’ I say. I look up at the sky. The pale blue is deepening as the sun moves. Or as this world of water and our rock orbits the sun. ‘Hold on one second, okay?’ Andrew pulls Bear up to his chin and closes his eyes. I watch him for a moment. I look at the water, rippling against the rock.
Stepping over the sharp patterns, I move behind the rise of rock that Andrew is leaning against. The small shade that it created is no longer covering all of the Moses basket. Little Molly’s bare feet are exposed to the sun. She is awake, just staring upwards at the sky. She has Marie’s eyes. When she sees me I think I see a trace of a gummy smile. I lift her out of the basket and hold her to my slippery chest, careful to keep a tight grip. Closing my eyes, I lift her to my chin in the way that I had seen Andrew hold Bear. I kiss her gently on the head. She gurgles. She seems okay. Not too hot. I smell her skin, that beautiful buttery smell. I run a finger over her soft hair; over the nape of her neck. Lifting a blanket carefully from the basket, I carry her to where Andrew sits with Bear, staring out at the endless ocean.