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Every morning Eric swims while Eleanor stretches out on the bench beside the pool. His body plunges through the water again and again and at each end he tumbles over causing a wave to fall on the mats and trickle down into the gutters and from there drain into the thirsty sand. Twenty, twenty-five, forty. At fifty he stops and presses himself up onto the decking, chest heaving, hair flattened against his skull. She holds a towel out to him and then lies back watching the sky and the black angular birds orbiting in the thermals, hawks, desert eagles, shrikes.
‘What do you think they eat?’ she muses as one closes its wings and hurtles down. ‘I mean in this desert? Bugs, rodents?’
Eric pads away rolling his shoulders and stretching from side to side. ‘Probably rubbish,’ she thinks. ‘Rubbish from the town’.
‘Ungh.’ Eric is panting into her shoulder as she watches the fire’s approach. It’s rushing down the slope and catching in the long grass at the edge of the lawns.
She lifts herself onto one arm. Neck cords straining, he starts cursing her. ‘Battona. Con avere rapporti sessuali. Fica. Fottere.’ The fire has whirled up a storm of burnt leaves and ash which is falling onto the pool and the deck. Tourists are running about swatting at their hair. The cabana is alight and flames are along the gutters heading for the main buildings. Some resort workers have dragged a hose over and are squirting a thin stream at the flames.
On the second day they had signed up for a bus tour. While waiting they had made polite conversation with the other tourists: incidents with itineraries, accommodation inexperiences, flight discombinations, landscape options. But when a cheerful honk announced arrival of their bus the conversation died. Tension ran through the group, as they each had to face that in-between moment: the moment of exposure to raw space between airlocks; cross the gap between the stewed-coffee air of the lobby and the pine-freshened air-con of the coach. It was only a step, maybe two, but the heat of the day and the essential desert waited for each of them.
Then they were off.
She pressed her head against the glass as scenes of the town passed like postcards:
- A white man sitting in the gutter with no shoes and no shirt;
- A brown dog with a broken paw snarling at a small black dog;
- A woman in a floral dress scolding a child and dragging her by the arm, the child reaching back for a doll dropped in the gutter;
- A tall boy playing a didgeridoo, resting the body of the instrument on the bare shoulder of a girl who walked in front holding a cap out for coins;
- A black man staggering through the arcade, two policemen in khaki uniforms leaning, watching;
- Two women and a thin boy joggling a laden shopping trolley along the dry riverbed.
As the bus left the town behind she watched the hills and the grasses and the low bushes flash by—
The ocean had returned and once more inundated the desert and she was a diver signed on to catalogue the flora of this pre-Cambrian reef. But the current was huge and unexpected and now, helpless she’s carried in the flood over mountains. She was just more flotsam ready for the sea machine to abrade and render opaque like the glass she used to find on the shore walking with her father.
‘Aboriginal artefacts and cultural centre,’ said the driver as the bus slowed. Coming into view was a flat plain where children sat in the dust. The bus stopped and with a hiss of pneumatics the door popped open. ‘Fifteen minutes.’
Eric was already up and down the steps and strutting about making expansive Mediterranean-style arm movements. The rest of them sat where they were, anxiously peering across to the tables set with trinkets.
Two old women strolled over to the bus.
Behind Eleanor a man was whispering gently to his wife, ‘Come on Alice, it’ll be fine.’ But Alice would have none of it and started crying softly while clinging to her seat.
Eleanor put on sunscreen, a hat and wrap-around sunglasses and climbed down but on the last step she slipped. ‘Ay you want a watch your step laydee,’ said one of the old women, eyes twinkling like stars. ‘Doan want to hurt yesself on our land now.’ The women cackled at this but one offered a strong hand, which Eleanor took.
She walked unsteadily across to one of the tables on which some small squares of art were laid out like hankies. ‘Whachew got behind them glasses missus?’ said a young girl in a Nike sweatshirt. She reached up for Eleanor’s sunglasses. ‘A wonder you can see anythin.’ The girl took the glasses by the frames and lifted them gently away. Part of Eleanor wanted to pull back but instead she lowered her head so the girl could reach more easily. ‘That’s better eh?’
And the light came rushing in.
Afterwards on the bus Eric berated her. ‘…And what’s she going to do with a pair of Vespucis? They don’t need glasses, this is their home, they’re comfortable in the brightness, they’ve been here for ages, for millennia. It’s us who need the protecting.’ She sat silent feeling the place where the girl’s fingers had touched her forehead.
Back in their room Eric was doing push-ups, ‘ventiquattro, venticinque, ventisette…’ while Eleanor was in the bathroom. The spot where the girl had touched her stung. She examined it closely in the mirror adjusting the lighting. She felt a trembling hot nervousness: perhaps she should vomit. Maybe the girl had some deliberate allergenic dust on her hands or was a carrier for some form of canine eczema. No matter how hard she looked there was nothing there, really nothing.
She filled a glass and took a mouthful of salty tap-water and then held the tumbler up, feeling the weight, the bulbous rim and the heavy base in which a spritz of bubbles were fixed—what would it take to…?
Glass exploded across the marble floor and jagged into the soft mound of her palm. Rubies ran across her wrist and dribbled down her elbow.
‘Shit,’ Eric said, ‘you’ve…’
‘I feel…’ she said holding her bloody hand out to him. It stung and burned but she was oddly pleased. Here was proof that she was alive or at least had some capacity. That was something surely? ‘I feel,’ she repeated, trying the phrase out. Yes, this was definitely something.