There are no flights landing on the island anymore. Ours was the very last one. At Palma—gingerly, ears ravaged by the faulty air-pressure of an economy flight from Dublin—we hauled our bags off the lethal treadmill and staggered out into the sunshine. Didn’t get lost once. You couldn’t miss the Arrivals Hall; there were no other tourists in it. Just the clerks and the baggage-handlers, clerking and handling baggage.
On holiday in Mallorca. Isabel, Chris, Eimear, and my good self. White rented rooms, sapphire heft of a lilting pool. Female flesh set quivering by my playful slap as I walk past Isabel, who is draped across a poolside plastic lounger as I write this, reading an airport paperback called Sex Lives of the Nazi Doctors.
Our block is called Palm Tree Villas. There is one withered palm tree, and a pudgy fair-haired boy who stands beside it. He’s about nine years old. That’s what he does: he stands beside the tree, from noon to midnight. I’ve seen him there every day so far. That first afternoon, as we shuffled past on our way to the apartment, I spotted a fat, brown three-inch cockroach squatting on the bark of the tree. The fair-haired boy was watching it— scrutinising it, really, like a doctor worrying over a stool sample—and as I came level with him he reached out a hand and closed a sweaty, patient fist over the twitching segments of the insect’s body. I don’t know what he did with it.
Today is my first sober day. I got out of bed early, at noon, and I had all sorts of holiday plans… but it’s late afternoon now, and you don’t want to go outside in that murderous heat. It punches you in the gut every time you step outside. The gut, the face, the shoulder blades.
But the holiday is doing us good. I can see it in Isabel, of course, but in Chris and Eimear most of all. Their drinking has improved. I take this to be a good sign. They’ve stayed in bed with hangovers all day, which means I am alone with Isabel. So. Things are looking up.
This morning Isabel and I went to the supermarket. She was wearing ragged cotton shorts, and if I let myself fall a few paces behind I could take in the peerless sway of her ass as she walked through the shade under the awnings. We stocked up on beer and whiskey. ‘You’ll dehydrate yourselves,’ Chris said as, lounging on the terrace, we punctured our first cans of the day. But I already feel comprehensively dehydrated. I feel like a husk, laid out to dry beneath the stinging sun. I’m not quite drunk as I write this; a few more rum-and-cokes will take me nicely towards bedtime, and for those I’ll have to head to the bar in Paradise Isle, the neighbouring apartment block. There’s a barbecue on there this evening. Americans and Brits in Hawaiian shirts are already assembling by the clear pool, counting the roaches and mosquitoes that flap against its surface tension.
The fair-haired boy was there again today, keeping his perpetual vigil beside his wilting tree. Still no sign of his parents.
Isabel and I skulked by the edge of the pool as Chris and Eimear waited for food at the barbecue. Some of the Americans had found a haunch of beef for sale at the supermarket, and were doling out chunks of it from beside the grill like bourgeois businessmen at a charity drive. I was watching Chris, who was in shallow conversation with a loud-shirted American.
Eimear arrived, carrying drooping paper plates of bloody meat. ‘I don’t know how cooked it is,’ she said, ‘ I don’t even know what it is. But it beats having to cook for ourselves.’
I didn’t touch any of the beef. Alcohol used to sharpen my appetite, but now it seems to do the opposite: my appetite is crushed, blunted, pulped. Yesterday I picked up the book that Isabel totes around and read that Dr. Mengele liked to sodomise young Jewish maidens before ordering that they be flayed alive. I think I saw a film about this once.
Chris brought his American friend over. ‘This is Jerry,’ he said. ‘He’s from Australia. From Cranberry, Australia.’
Jerry grinned, as though this were a terrific joke.
‘Oh,’ Isabel squealed, ‘I lived in Canberra for three months!’
‘Cranberry,’ Chris insisted.
We stood around, holding our drinks. Jerry studied Isabel with creased, alarming eyes. I put my arm around her freckled shoulders.
Jerry leaned into us. ‘Have you guys heard the rumours?’
I smiled a Buddhist’s smile: sharer of knowledge, hoarder of inner peace.
‘No,’ Isabel said, wriggling out from under my arm. ‘What’s the story now?’
Jerry gave a professional’s grimace. ‘Someone was telling me the other day that for five minutes CNN was reporting strikes over the DRC. They killed the story, though, right after. You know, cos they didn’t want anyone to know about it. Like the
massacres in Tennessee.’
‘We still don’t know,’ I said loftily, ‘what actually happened—’
‘And what would that mean?’ Isabel asked.
‘Fallout,’ Jerry the Australian said. ‘Just fallout. Here, there, and everywhere.’
My memories of the rest of the night are confused. I can tell you what I saw, or what I think I saw: Isabel talking to Jerry, Jerry talking to Eimear (he’s talking about birth defects: how reports of them are spreading from somewhere to somewhere else), Chris bellowing Cranberry! at anyone who’ll listen, Isabel and Jerry disappearing somewhere, the gasps of amusement and fear as a helicopter makes a flyby overhead; an American screaming that he’s burned his hand on the barbecue; Chris telling me he’s discovered something important but he’s not sure what; the blackened, furry remains of the side of beef being thrown into the pool, turning the water a misty charcoal grey; me, searching for Isabel, but there is no Isabel to be found. I don’t even remember finding my way back to our apartment. I folded into my own bed, though, and I lay there, eyes riveted on the ceiling, listening to the angry sounds of the barbecue as they faded with the first light of another burning day.
From the balcony this morning—crinkled newspaper in one hand, sprightly orange juice in the other—I saw the fat blonde boy move for the very first time. He abandoned his tree and went to look at the ruined pool, fixing his equable gaze on the black corpse of beef under the water. ‘Hooray,’ I said, ‘it’s alive.’ But there was no one around to hear me.
With this morning’s hangover came the sad slow-burn of remorseful jealousy. Of course Isabel had fucked Jerry. Every morning now, more people wake up in the wrong room. I decided that if I found Jerry, I would kill him.
Chris shuffled onto the balcony and winced down at the remains of the pool. ‘That was a good one.’
‘I don’t remember it.’
‘Neither do I. I’m going on the physical evidence.’ He took from his pocket a little black notebook, and began to scribble something.
Inside my gut a miniature Chernobyl, a toy town Three Mile Island, fizzed and crackled. Chris closed his notebook. ‘Shall we begin the hunt?’
‘For Eimear. She’s out there somewhere.’
‘She went off with the Cranberry Man. Made me promise to track her down this morning, if she didn’t find her way home.’
‘Where’s Isabel?’ I croaked.
‘In bed,’ Chris said. ‘Better bring her some juice.’
Two hours later we found Eimear in an empty apartment, identical to ours but with a smashed television, and with an investigative line of ants powdered across the kitchen lino. Eimear didn’t wake up, so we carried her home. The room we found her in had drugs. You know what I mean? It had drugs like other rooms have carpet or furniture. But there was no sign of Jerry, our man from Canberra, and no food in the fridge, no clothes in the wardrobe.
They still haven’t cleaned the water. Now you can’t swim (nobody dares to go near the ocean), and you can’t sit by the pool: its restful shimmer has been replaced by a static grey slime. Parties have moved inside. You can hear them, faintly, at the peak of noon, during the worst of the heat. This evening I went for a walk along the beach. The sand was full of insects, white skittish things that scattered along in your footsteps. I ran into Jerry. We went for a drink at one of the beachside bars. Of course I had no reason to kill him now. The bar was one of those ex-pat places, run by a middle-aged British couple. Pinned on the walls was a lifetime’s worth of football memorabilia (remember football? It seems laughable, now, all that organisation). Jerry talked at length about the political predicament. Some friends of his arrived: a hippy girl with tie-dyed shirt and braided hair, and another young Australian named Alex, who told us he was on his way home from Morocco but was stranded now, marooned. ‘It’s Eden here,’ Jerry told him. ‘Paradise, mate.’ We ordered more Sangria.
We headed back to the apartments, but as soon as you leave the little seafront the streets are empty, voices rebound from the whitewashed walls. Turn a corner and there they are: a dozen men in black military gear, gas masks slung casually around their thick necks, building a roadblock. Jerry, Hawaiian shirt open at the collar, palms raised in a placatory advance, shouted something in pidgin Spanish. ‘It’s alright,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘they’re just setting up a checkpoint.’ He went towards one of the soldiers, who greeted him by gently slinging the butt of his rifle into Jerry’s stomach. A skilful, pinched chop to the back of the neck sent Jerry all the way down. The lead soldier motioned to two others—it was a lazy wave, a valediction almost—who came over and kicked Jerry until he stopped moving.
The lead soldier stared at us for a minute. Then he smiled cheerfully, like a prosperous maitre d’, and waved us on.
After a while we wound up in a dead-end street. Dry sheets flapped below washing lines, short steps led to barred doors. The girl sat down beneath some railings and began to cry: she was pregnant, and Jerry was the father, and now what would she do? I embraced her. It seemed to be what she wanted. When I looked up, Alex had gone. When I tried to stand I braced my palm on a shard of glass. Blood welled, generously. I used a fragment of my T-shirt to bandage it.
When I got back to our apartment Isabel and Chris were cooking dinner, and Eimear was curled in a chair on the balcony, smoking and turning the pages of a newspaper. They were busily happy. Chris noticed my wounded hand. And the boy was there, again, today. What does he know about us, about me? What’s his game?
Last night Isabel and I slept in the same bed. I pressed my bandaged palm to her flesh where her T-shirt rose a little. I dreamed of a bristling Irish woodland, after rain. Broken branch and rustling twig, a microscopic ecology of glinting rain and shaken leaves. The sky opens itself above me. Someone is out here, heart beating too quickly—not from a chase but from something else, a sense of otherness. Guilt or ghost or apprehension.
Chris has shut himself in his room with his notebook and the newspapers. He speaks to us through the door. He asked me to get him more tabloids, more broadsheets. I went to the supermarket, where the shelves are emptying. The corridors of Palm Tree Villas are filling with rubbish. This morning I found three suitcases in the third floor stairwell, bulging with clothes and ready to go. But nobody arrived to claim them, and they were still there this evening, as the parties kicked into gear.
The fat boy. His clothes change. This much I do know. He wears a different T-shirt every day. There is always a white shield of lotion on his nose. And what does he do? He guards the palm tree. This palm tree seems to need guarding, too. It needs him to look after it. He touches it occasionally, reaching out a raw hand. He takes away the swarming cockroaches. I watch him, from the willowy shade of the poolside showers. He gently lifts away the querulous roaches and… I know what he does with them now.
Chris has not emerged. He has a theory, Eimear insists, about why all this is going on. ‘It has to do with the durability of tourism,’ he tells her through the door. ‘It’s essentially an amoral activity. Calamity has no effect on its processes.’ Isabel and I lie awake at night, listening to the punctured cascade of broken glass as windows break all over the complex. I can feel a sort of toxic swell, flowing outwards from the wound in my hand. I shouldn’t have cut it, in retrospect. That was a bad move.
Isabel and Eimear sent me down for more drinks. In the Palm Tree Villas bar half a dozen Englishmen were aimlessly perambulating. When they’d calmed me down (I must have been shouting) they told me that the bar appeared to have run out of alcohol. I went back upstairs and told the crew.
‘How could they have allowed this to happen?’ Isabel asked through her tears. At the sink I unwound the bandage from my injured hand. I may have just imagined a greenish tinge to the edges of the folded cut.
I was woken at five in the morning by what sounded like a gaggle of kids trouping past my window on their way to school. I stumbled to the balcony and looked out over the blackened swimming pool towards the edges of the complex. Down the little seafront street they came, a hundred of them or more, tourists in their shorts and sunglasses, carrying rucksacks and suitcases, clutching bundles of clothes and bottles of vodka like refugee mothers fleeing a war zone. No one appeared to be hurrying. Isabel joined me at the crumbling parapet. ‘Where are they coming from?’ she asked. I could hardly see her in the dawn light. ‘From the hotel,’ I said. Some of the women were carrying televisions and trouser presses, and the men brought with them cordless hairdryers and shower caps. As the dawn began to subtly burn, the march continued, young men and women with varying degrees of suntan pressing their sneakers and flip-flops to the concrete road. I watched them until the sun came up and the last of them had disappeared into the town. Isabel went back to bed, squeezing my hand as she left. I barely noticed the human warmth of her fingers. I can’t say why, but I was fascinated—even mesmerised—by the stately progress of the hotel guests. I knew there was no reason for it. Even if I had seen military men, densely powerful in their uniforms, shepherding (gentle word) the walking masses, I would have known. There was no reason for it. Throughout it all, the fat boy stood stoically by his palm tree, unstirred by the spectacle of abandonment taking place a hundred yards away. I watched until the last of their cushioned feet had drifted out of earshot, and I was left alone with the contents of my own astonished heart.
Then I went inside and drained the last mercurial shimmer from Eimear’s bottle of vodka.
The hotel looms above us now. Chris believes something serious happened there, and that whatever it was will soon happen to Palm Tree Villas. Eimear has collected all of our bottles and emptied their listless dregs into a single tumbler, from which we are allowed to take hourly sips; but it isn’t working. I’m sobering up. The cut in my hand has taken to bleeding peaceably during the night. This is no longer the holiday I envisioned.
Chris has begun to pass notes underneath his door. One read: This is all we have left: the poetry of sun and shadow on a fuselage, the poetry of airports and coach travel, the poetry of unnoticed electrical sockets and wipe-clean floors. Another read: Can’t we all just get along?
Eimear stares at them for hours, attempting to make sense of them. The boy the boy the boy the boy the boy
Last night, at around midnight, my fever broke. While everyone else slept I cleaned out the cut on my hand. I checked out the dawn. I looked over my notes here. I don’t remember a lot of this stuff, or why it seemed important—the exodus from the hotel, the soldiers, Chris’s notes. What is important—what deserves my immediate and full attention—is the fact that we have totally run out of beer.
To kill time I left the apartment and wandered round the complex. Several rooms had been taken over by feral cats, little walking bags of tetanus and fever. Two floors above us a party seemed to be in progress. The lifts were broken, so I risked the stairwells: two unconscious girls in football jerseys, but nothing to be afraid of. The penthouse door had been taken off its hinges. I went inside, kicking my way through crumpled cans and spinning bottles. Three girls and a guy were basking in the balcony hot tub. The guy was Jerry, tenderly cradling a bottle of Jack Daniels and squinting at me through two poppy-coloured black eyes.
‘Howdy, mate,’ he said guardedly.
‘Jerry,’ I said. ‘I’m looking for beer. Have you seen any?’
There was a silence.
‘No,’ Jerry said. ‘Not here, mate.’
When I got back to our apartment the fair-haired boy was standing on our balcony, staring down at the motionless swimming pool.
We gathered around Chris’s locked door and confronted the reality of our situation. What we decided was this: Isabel and I will take the fair-haired boy and go to the empty hotel, to check for supplies of food and drink. The idea was Chris’s. He is curious about what happened at the hotel. We’ll set out at nightfall, when things are quiet, when the screams from Paradise Isle have dwindled into restless silence and the troops by the seashore have gone home for the night.
We set out along the beach, at the edge of the incoming tide. The hotel had its own section of beach, marked off by a cluster of baking rocks. The building still had electricity: yellow light flickered in some windows, and the open-air bar—the only way into the hotel from the beach—still cranked hilarious holiday tunes into the summer twilight. We picked our way among the tables. The boy led us through the bar, with its rolling tables and spilled drinks, into the main lobby.
‘It’s deserted,’ Isabel said. And deserted it was. The revolving door had partly shattered: spidery contortions of seminal white threaded their way through the sheets of glass. Clothes, condoms, and books were scattered on the plush floor and across the leather couches. Behind the mahogany reception desk the keys still hung in their numbered slots. Newspapers waved with the breeze from the air conditioning. Most striking of all, the cash registers had been overturned. An eruption of paper money and credit card receipts covered the floor behind the desk. There was blood and beaded glass in the pile of the carpet. And there was silence: tombal, meditative silence, silence that does not expect to be disturbed.
The fair-haired boy went straight through the devastated lobby to the alcove where they kept the elevators, and pressed the call-button.
Isabel kicked at a crumpled, bloody T-shirt. ‘What do you think happened?’
‘They cleared out,’ I said stupidly. I looked around, turned a complete circle, but there was nothing, and nobody, just the invasive stillness of evening on the island, that time when all the kids come out to play.
A feathery ping, like a microwave’s cue, announced the arrival of a lift. The boy’s excitement caught our attention. We followed him into one of the glacial, mirrored cages, and he pressed, without giving it much thought, the button for the fifty-fifth floor. Isabel and I glumly preened our reflections in the golden wall.
I wasn’t surprised, of course, when the doors opened into total darkness. But Isabel was. ‘Shit,’ she said. Even the fat boy seemed to hesitate a little. He scratched a blistered ear with his pudgy fingers. We stared into the black corridor. It reminded me of a dream I had once, as a child, with a child’s unreasonable fear of unlit spaces. Monsters, I thought, we’ll find monsters in the dark. But the boy led us inevitably forward into the corridor, and turned left, into a patch of cool air. It was even quieter up here: the bristling, ogre’s silence of a large hotel. I took Isabel’s hand and we followed the boy.
It was a strangely peaceful pursuit. We could have been calmly stumbling for a quarter of an hour. Eventually we hit a cold wall, the end of the corridor. Off to our right, a tongue of amber light lolled across the carpet. The boy stood at the door of an open room, looking at something inside. I walked towards him. Did Isabel come with me? She must have. We were alone now, waiting for our monsters. The boy disappeared inside his room.
It was an ordinary hotel room, odourless and without character. The only thing you noticed was the TV, squatting in the corner. Ghostly programmes trickled through the intermittent static. It seemed to be a news report: you could see roadblocks, piles of dead Americans, freeze-frame shots of a grey explosion. The fair-haired boy watched it with touristic awe. Isabel went to the window and looked through the curtains, out at the fires that erupted beyond the bay.
I stood behind her, and somehow—you know how these things work out—I put my arms around her little waist, and she arched her back welcomingly. When she turned to kiss me I wasn’t surprised. I fitted the cup of my injured hand to her breast (all the time tuned in to the permanent crash and buzz of the TV news) and we kissed more earnestly. We began to climb out of our clothes. The fair-haired boy watched television while we fucked on the edge of the hotel bed. Around us the hotel did not wake. We were very quiet, Isabel and I, and afterwards we cried as undramatically as we could.
When we had finished I noticed that the fat boy was holding a box of matches that bore the logo of the hotel bar. He offered them to me without emphasis. I took them and set a fire in the corner of the room, at the feet of the drawn curtains.
We left the boy watching television in the room on the fifty-fifth floor and found our way back to the lobby, and then to the beach. Still naked, we ran off along the temperate sand, feeling sick and filthy, desperate to find our way home.
Mum rang today to tell me that I passed my exams and that my enrolment papers for next year are in the post. Our flight home, she reminded me (as if I were still a kid) was in three days. ‘Dad and I missed you,’ she said. She was even starting to cry, a bit. I have to move out next year. There’s only so much of his parents a man can be expected to take.