His mother’s ankles were like puff balls from the flight, her sandal straps embedded in billows of wintery flesh. She had booked in for a spray tan before they left but his father had misread the travel arrangements so she had to come in her original colour: Irish white. She was not happy. His father had steadily sipped beer since they left Dublin: half a day away. His hangover was just kicking in. He wasn’t happy either. They hardly ever spoke to each other, and if they did it followed an inevitable pattern, with either taking the lead:
‘Don’t you start.’
‘Oh, here we go.’
He and his father hadn’t spoken for weeks. In jetlagged silence Ronan watched his parents drag their suitcases up the two flights of concrete stairs—bumb bumb bumb. It was seven in the morning and already thirty-two degrees. They’d been travelling all night. Nobody had bothered to show them up to their accommodation. Once the padlock—no handle, just a padlock—had been undone, their door opened into a very basic bedroom: a double and single bed, a wardrobe, a table ringed where drinks had once been, two plastic chairs and a cracked mirror. Three threadbare towels had been twisted into a shape on the bed. It may have been a palm tree. Ronan began to panic. Even though he was sure his parents didn’t have sex anymore—he’d heard his mother on the phone to her sister say, ‘I’d leave him if I had the money,’—there was no way he was going to sleep in the same room as them. Not a chance.
He let his backpack drop and loped around the rest of the apartment; he was sixteen and all limbs. Peering into the dark bathroom he noticed only ants. He closed the door quickly before his mother saw in. Next to it was a long, narrow room with an industrial type sink, a small fridge and a very small window, way up high, out of reach. Stifling. A kitchen but for a cooker. But space enough for the single bed. No door but at least he wouldn’t be in the same room as them. Yep, that would do. He kicked off his runners:
they stank, and peeled off his socks. He had lambs’ brains for feet.
‘It’s like a flat in Galway or something,’ his mother said, as she deflated like a soufflé on one of her suitcases. Ronan had never been inside a flat in Galway nor had any of them been to India before but he sort of knew what she meant. It was unlike any place they’d ever stayed in before, was what she was saying. Holidays were her chance to be more upmarket than she was at home. This would not do.
‘A kip,’ she spat.
Ronan was warming to its studenty functionalism and had an idea that maybe he’d move to Galway when he finished school—if he finished school—to do a course or something. Yeah. Or even get a job. He was in his transition year, he was meant to be thinking about what to do when he left. That’s if he wasn’t suspended first. One more strike and he was out. He’d been warned twice already this term, first time for smoking—he’d since given up—and then for calling the soccer coach an asshole. Starlings were nesting in a broken floodlight at the pitch and perfectly imitated the ref’s whistle. All the guys knew the difference between the birds and the ref, any fool would, but the new coach didn’t and tore into Ronan for not obeying the referee’s call. Ronan didn’t bother to explain, just shook his head and smirked, ‘Asshole’. The way he saw it, the coach was the one on probation. The team needed him, soccer was the one thing he excelled at, but he didn’t know whether he’d bother going back. Probably not. So, he could smoke again with impunity. There, he nodded to himself that was the thinking done, his future was sorted, he was going to move into a kip in Galway.
His father, an electrician, flicked a switch near the door and the enormous fan over the bed juddered to life, rotating in a buckled circle before speeding up to a blur. It sounded as if there was an aircraft in the room. Ronan and his father stepped back and stared up at it, expecting the ceiling to take off, while his mother put her head in her hands. His father jabbed at the switch; the fan slowly flapped to a halt. Assuming his parents would take the renewed silence as a signal to flare up—it was only a matter of time—Ronan stepped out onto the balcony. Bare concrete draped in some plant, plastic chairs and a rickety table. Beyond, the world was lurid, electrified, hissing with insects, sprinklers, unfamiliar smells, a boom box of birdsong. He overlooked a group of squealing, barefoot kids carrying each other around a scrubby yard. No adults were in evidence. The kids waved and shouted, ‘Hello, hello,’ when they saw him and ran at the dividing fence. One of the them plucked some iridescent red flowers: huge blooms in the process of turning themselves inside out, revealing a bobbing proboscis at their centre. Offering them up to him, she said, ‘Welcome. My brother. My friend.’ She had a harelip. Their blatant friendliness embarrassed him. He didn’t know how to react to such openness. He felt moved but didn’t recognise it as such, it wasn’t a feeling he was that familiar with. He half waved back. Then, a man in a washed out military uniform, complete with beret and gun, an Indian Che Guevara, stepped out from the shadow of the balcony beneath, looked up and said something that sounded like ‘Nice day.’ Ronan, feeling like a king, leant over his security man and subjects and said, ‘Yeah, for Galway.’ He returned to the bedroom and dragged the single bed into the skinny room as his mother undid the first of her suitcases and unpacked her make-up bag which was wedged between layers of new clothes bought on credit. She took out her eyebrow tweezers and did what she always did in testing situations: she began to pluck the disappointment from her frown. His father stood in the middle of the room at a loss.
While his parents slept off their jetlag Ronan went to change some money into rupees. It was meant to be cheap here; he figured fifty euro should keep him going until he saw something he wanted to buy. On Saturdays he washed cars at the local garage, it was a handy number, he doubled his wages in tips. He emerged with a wedge of notes, fat as an airport novel, held together by a crude copper staple, wrapped in newspaper. He had no idea what it was worth here but he felt inordinately rich. This is what it must be like being a bank robber or politician, he thought, this unearned wealth. Fluttery with excess, he sat by the pool and ordered a coke. No ice. He wished he could think of something more extravagant. The waiter brought him a tray with eggs, toast and flowers; it was included in the package.
The other guests having breakfast were predominantly fat, old and English. He resented them for making him feel less intrepid. What was the big deal about India if even grannies came all that way? And where were the hippies and stoners? Probably asleep half the day. No one was younger than ancient. A single child, he was used to being on his own but wondered how his mother would fare. She made friends easily on holiday; within minutes she’d be sitting on a lounger with a woman she’d never seen before in her life, swapping secrets and sun cream while his father lay in the sun and baked. That was what did it for her, chatting to strangers and dressing up. And his dad? It wasn’t so much that he zoned out, he was as good as not there. This would probably be his last holiday with them anyway.
Plastic chairs scraped beside him. A granny said, ‘Sit down.’
‘Can’t drink me facking tea can Oi?’ a tattooed geezer with smudged glasses whined. He was thrusting a cup and jug at the waiter. Liquid slopped onto the waiter’s shoe.
‘Facking milk’s hot again, innit? Told yeh yesterday, diddin Oi? Oi wannit cold.’
The waiter remained serene. ‘Hot drink, hot milk,’ he replied with unimpeachable logic. When he spoke it sounded as if he was gargling simultaneously, a lovely gurgly sound. Accepting the cup and jug onto his tray, he waggled his head in a figure of eight and retreated. Now that was a good answer Ronan felt, nodding the waiter his due. Difficult to argue with that. Asshole seemed weak.
An elderly man, edging the grass with a scissors, looked at Ronan as if they were in a reciprocal zoo, and said the ‘Nice day’ thing. Was that it? Nice day? Why would they need to say nice day here when every day was nice. Surely, only people who lived in miserable climates needed to comment on it. ‘Can you believe it? Nice day.’ No, that wasn’t it; there was an ‘m’ in there somewhere. And possibly an ‘s’. Ronan figured it meant hello and said, ‘Hey.’ The man was tiny, dressed only in a loincloth. His body didn’t have a scrap of fat, just sinews, muscle and bone. He unwound the fabric from around his head and wiped his sweaty face. Little walnut head on him, he was eighty if he was a day. Ronan slipped his hand into the newspaper package on his lap and detached the top note. He had a moment of panic—what if it’s worth only about two cent? So he pulled a note from the underside of the bundle, figuring they would be of a higher denomination, scrunched the two together and passed them to the old man. Secreting the cash into his waistband, the man bowed his head graciously and continued bowing until he was on the ground again, back at work, snipping away. Ronan sat back. King one minute, Robin Hood the next. He had never given money to anybody before and had no idea what had prompted his largesse. It wasn’t like the guy was begging or anything. He looked down at the man whose feet were as knobbled and taut as fresh ginger, and felt great.
At the opposite end of the pool, a tawny girl stepped out of her halter neck dress, took a deep breath and dived into the water. Her bikini was the same tone as her skin. She swam the length along the bottom, a gold filament, darting from side to side. Ronan played the camera game with himself, where he blinked like a shutter, recording images, no analysis, just lodge and store, for editing at some later date. He thought she smiled at him when she came up for air. Blink. She did a flip, light bouncing off her barely covered bottom. Blink. His skin tightened. Each time she swam towards him he implored her to look at him. Blink. Please. She did ten lengths in ten breaths—his eyes followed every stroke—and then hopped out. A pool boy offered a towel, she said something touching his arm, and he smiled shyly. She put her dress on over her wet bikini and disappeared. Her neck, her neck, her neck. Blink. Blink. Blink. Longing hurt his chest. Hiding his hard on with his money Ronan went off to lie down.
‘Stand back, they buck,’ Ronan’s dad said, declaring an emergency and physically barring his wife’s path. Their guidebook had warned of unpredictable wildlife. Sure enough, here they were. The goats reversed into each other, tottering on their hooves, clearing the track. A slow procession of women in saris carrying baskets on their heads climbed a vertical catwalk of bamboo scaffolding on the building site beside them. Children making bricks didn’t give them a glance. Predictably, the goats ate whatever was handy. Parents, thought Ronan, what doesn’t shock them, frightens them. They were halfway already, and he decided to risk it and lead the way. And when they got to it, the beach stretched on to forever, palm trees, massive waves, thundering foam. They stood there, the gangly teenager and his white parents, in awe. His mother visibly thawed. It was so blindingly beautiful not one of them could think of a thing to say. The spectacle was too big for them. They picked their way across scorching sand to a shack and sat in the shade. Each scrutinised the menu; they often had Indian take outs at home so they weren’t afraid.
‘Look, Ro,’ Ronan’s father said, forgetting that he hadn’t spoken to his son since the asshole incident. A whiff of entente. ‘Cauliflower with cheese saucers.’
Giggles erupted from each of them.
‘Number twenty one,’ his mum said.
The men scanned their menus. 21. Leg of Lamp. And howled. He couldn’t remember when last he’d laughed like that with his parents. If ever. It was like they were stoned. Convulsing, he had to put the menu away and ordered what he thought was a smoothie. A mango lassi arrived. They each took a sip. His mother winced.
‘Smells like…oh Jesus, the inside of a rubber glove.’
And they were off again, hysterical, ridding themselves of the greyness and dampness of home.
An arm ending in a stump placed a tattered card on their table. It declared the carrier of the card to be a leper. Officially. They looked at the biblical creature that had placed it. Bearded and upright, he exposed a running sore on his leg. Ronan’s mother shook her head and said, ‘No thanks.’ His father put some money on the table. They averted their eyes as the man picked it up. He bowed in thanks and moved on. A hot breeze shuffled the palm frond roof. The ocean rolled to and fro. So much blue. Ronan stared out at the uninterrupted horizon and wondered how people ever thought the earth was flat. There was clearly a curve.
‘He looked like Saint Patrick,’ his mother said, feebly breaking their silence.
‘A bit,’ his father conceded and called for the bill. Ronan stopped him, saying, ‘I’ll get it.’ His father looked at him in amazement. Ronan always let them pay. But here, here was different. He was loaded.
‘Wey hey,’ he shrugged and waved away the change.
‘Right, back to the pool for me,’ his mum said. ‘That’s enough unpredictable wildlife for one day.’
Diving quickly under the wave just before it broke, Ronan somersaulted underwater on the edge of panic, the violence and scramble of the swirl surprised him, and he thought he might drown. Surrender, he told himself. Surrender to its force. He rotated in the murk, with no sense of which end was up. The wave broke, sunlight through the water, and it spewed him back out. Breathless, he was stunned to have survived it. Other seas he’s swum in weren’t half as rough. Second time he tried, he grazed his forehead off the bottom. The tide dragged him down the beach away from the tourists. It was the best water, the best beach, he felt unbelievably alive. He kept doing it over and over, not caring where he ended up. A massive roller came towards him, and under he went. In the underwater chaos he crashed into one body, then another, wriggling elvers, teenagers like himself. They surfaced, startled. He was encircled by a group of boys around his own age, shy that they’d snared a tourist.
‘Namaste,’ one of the Indian boys said.
The others stood waist deep, watching.
‘Namaste,’ Ronan ventured. He felt himself redden, but maybe it was just the sun. They laughed, and then each of them said it. ‘Namaste.’
One of them shoved his mate, dunking him under, and soon they were all at it.
Diving off each other’s shoulders, swimming between legs, flinging each other out to sea. Ronan gave as good as he got. Anywhere else it would have felt gay. They horsed around until the sun began to slip down the sky. One of them held Ronan’s arm and turned him towards the sunset.
‘West coast, best side,’ he explained earnestly.
And he was right. The sky was like nothing Ronan had ever seen before. Ridiculously orange, the water pinky glass. The sun dropped into the sea like a dunked biscuit. Within a minute it was dark. Ronan waded to the water’s edge where a silver little fish was flipping out its last seconds of life. He stood watching it. That’s what things are like here, he thought, straightforward, dead or alive, black and white, day or night, brilliant, shite. The boys waved him goodbye and headed off in the opposite direction.
‘Tomorrow, my friend?’ one called out.
‘Football?’ Ronan shouted after them.
‘Yes, football.’ Their voices strayed into the night.
With difficulty he found the track back to the hotel. Without light it was a warren;
he ended up in several back yards. Families eating, smoky fires, huddles of people chatting at the base of trees. Eyes jumping out of the black of night. He wondered whether goats sleep.
When he got to the road, the place was hopping: cars, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, cows. All whizzing up and down. Barely a light between them. Music and food smells drifted on the breeze. The neck girl wafted out the gateway of the hotel wrapped around what must’ve been her boyfriend. Chloe popped into Ronan’s mind. Oh yeah, Chloe. She did have great breasts but no neck to speak of. Still, he thought, maybe he’d send her a card. The security guard appeared out of nowhere and grabbed Ronan’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks.
‘Be careful, Sir. Please. A frog,’ he whispered, pointing at the ground.
One more step and Ronan would’ve stamped on it. Squashed it to death underfoot. Only then did he realise he’d left his runners on the beach.