The Perfect Stranger
Ian R MacLeod
As I watched the flying boat alight in the bay, I thought, this is what heaven must be like. Along the quay, the other island guests were smiling, expectant, nervous, sharing, whispering their secret hopes; laughing, even, at the strangeness of it all. Above the stuccoed buildings of the little town, huge lips on a hoarding formed the word Welcome, a warm breath that carried on the breeze across blue water, was held shimmering in the arms of tropical hills.
The props of the flying boat slowed and her prow drifted to face the breeze. A passenger tug fanned across the water. Soon, reunited couples were walking back along the quay, hand in hand, arm in arm, but still — and understandably — uncertain of each other. I checked the note again in the pocket of my shorts. Meena. Was that an Indian name? Should I be looking for someone with black hair, dark skin…
Lin the tour guide came over. She was dressed in a gorgeous blue sarong, busy with her clipboard. “Still haven’t found your wife, Marius?”
I shrugged. “I wouldn’t know if I had.”
“Of course.” She smiled brightly. She took my arm and led me through the happy press of bodies along the quay.
“Marius, this is Meena,” she said.
A tall and elegant woman turned at the sound of her name. Tall, yes, I’d somehow imagined that. But there was no trace of my Indian lady. Meena had pale brown skin, marvellous green eyes…or was that just this tropical light? No, I decided. It was her, she was beautiful. I stared at Meena. Meena stared back at me. What else was there to do?
“It’s true, isn’t it?” Meena said, her face suddenly breaking from seriousness. Laughing. “What they say — I really can’t remember you.”
I stepped forward. “Anyway, Meena. I’m glad you’re here.”
She held out her hand. Unable to tell if she was being ironic, I took it in both of mine. Then she leaned forward and let me kiss her cheek. We stepped back and smiled again. On the hillside above the harbour, the lips on the hoarding smiled with us. They breathed the word Welcome.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” Meena asked as our jeep took us along the rough coast road to our bungalow. She seemed happy and relaxed, her right foot up on the rusty dashboard, her kaki dress pushed back to her thighs.
“Not long,” I said. I lifted my hands from the steering wheel and leaned across the gearstick. Meena let me kiss her, parting her lips, pressing with her tongue. The jeep slowed, then took control. It rumbled on between the brilliant sea, the white sand, the chattering jungle. Better than us, it knew the way.
When my hand strayed along her thigh, Meena caught it firmly.
“Let’s wait,” she said. “It’s sweeter to wait.”
So I sat watching Meena as she drifted across the pine and rugs of our bedroom, lifting dresses from her case. All the doors and windows were thrown wide. She was seemingly casual, absorbed. But sometimes, she would lean close to me, let her bare arm brush my cheek. Or she would stand and stretch at the window where white curtains billowed with the beat of the waves. I wondered if it could ever feel this way with a true stranger, whether this slow, delicious dance was some pattern we instinctively remembered from our life together. Are people ever this happy? I wondered. Could things have ever been this good?
“There’s one odd thing,” Meena said, closing the doors of the wardrobe, turning to face me. “The tour people don’t let you take anything with you, do they? But when the flying boat was over the ocean, I looked in my case and found this.”
It was in her hand. She held it out.
“A photograph of me. Now, Marius, isn’t that odd..?”
I found the evidence quite by accident one day when I was going through Meena’s drawers. We worked different hours. I generally saw my prospects mornings and evenings at their homes. The people Meena dealt with were mostly retired, available during what would once have been called office hours. But I liked having the middle of the day to myself, I liked the cold solitude of our flat, being able to get stuff done, being able to go through Meena’s things.
I was in a good mood that morning as the Volvo took me home through the ruins of the city. I had completed two sales, and another one looked likely. All three were for the Grade A security package, which cost the most, tied the client to an open-ended maintenance agreement, and paid the highest commission. Sensing my mood, the Volvo played Dvorak’s American Quartet.
Through the automatic gates leading into our estate, the Volvo cruised past sooty Grecian pillars, weeping stucco. But for the perpetual absence of sunlight, it could have been an old Hollywood slum. The flats were higher on the hill, for people like us who couldn’t afford houses, closer to the ravaged sky. One of the Big Companies had recently put up an advertising hoarding on the roadside. Huge lips parted and smiled down at me. Overriding Dvorak on the Volvo’s speakers, they murmured close to my ear, a voice creamy with digitised sexuality. Escape, the voice purred, stretching along my spine like a cat. Treat yourself to the one luxury that money can’t buy. Well, maybe only just…
I picked way across the damp underground car park, unthinkingly ducking the concrete stalactites and shelves of glowing fungi. The lift was in a good mood. Hello, Marius, it said, and took me straight to our flat without demanding an extra credit.
The flat was cool, grey, empty, softly humming to itself, smelling faintly of toast. As she often did, Meena had left our bedroom window running, ticking up the cost of the rental. It showed a scene from an tropical island, nostalgic waves beating the shore with a sound like an old-fashioned record in the run-out groove. I rummaged under the duvet for the remote control, but the flat beat me to it. The window snowed, then cleared to transparency. I stood looking out, feeling the cool, faint breath of reality. We were fairly high here, up on the eighth floor. I could see bruised clouds ploughing over the of the estate, the lips mouthing silently on the hoarding, the grey tangle of the city beyond.
Meena could never understand why I liked daylight. Plain, muggy daylight. There was hardly enough of it to fill the room — but that was the point. It was faint, evanescent, dreamy. And anyway, what did she understand nowadays? I wandered over to her drawers. The top one was always a little stiff. You had to lift and then pull. Here, she kept her jumpers and cardigans. Woollens, as — anachronistically — she liked to call them. Here was a fairisle, still almost new. I held it up, remembering a rare, happy day, the three of us together. Little Robin in his bobble hat, laughing unsteadily as we swung him between us. Then I folded it back carefully, the way Meena had done.
The next drawer down was for her underwear. Everything was loose here, just stuffed in anyhow. In the cobweb shadows, my hands wandered through her things, feeling the poppers, the loose pull of elastic. I liked the specificness of underwear, the sense of secret purpose, that this fits here… These days, it was the only time I felt close to Meena. When I was alone. Unlike the Meena-of-now, the vision I touched was pliable, loving. The drawer smelled of salt and linen, white memories of freshly crumpled sheets. It reminded me of times when the words came easily, when they didn’t even matter.
I was about to close the drawer when a glimmer of light caught my eye. Down in the tertiary layers of bras she no longer wore, knickers that were starting to wear through. Light. Bright daylight. And a small voice. It came from a corner of the drawer.
My fingers tangled under an old sachet of lavender, then closed on a piece of card. I lifted it out. The light shone on my hands and face. A photograph. It spoke to me.
” — don’t — “
Meena, in some park.
” — don’t — “
Turning towards the camera.
” — don’t — “
A smile of surprise brightening her lips. Her hair a loose bun, strands of it clinging to her cheek. Blue sky. Dappled light from a whispering tree.
” — don’t — “
Meena, endlessly turning towards the lens.
” — don’t — “
I put the picture down. It went dark and silent for a moment, thinking that I’d gone away. But I had to pick it up, look at it again, hold it in my shaking hands.
” — don’t — “
Don’t. How could a negative word sound so loving?
Lin the tour guide came down to see us in her jeep that evening, to check that we were settled in. Meena and I were sitting out on the veranda. The air smelled leafy, salty, earthy, wet. An hour before, there had been rain, flapping the palms, chattering in the gutters. We had been lying tangled in the damp sheets of our bed, too happy to move. Just in time, as the first heavy drops fell, the sensors in the windows had banged them shut. The sound of the rain pressed down on us. Smelling the sweet sudden change in the air, my fingers had traced the streaming shadows across Meena’s skin.
“Hi!” Lin waved. She picked her way between the puddles and climbed the wooden veranda steps. “You like it here?”
We both smiled at the understatement. Out to sea, the sunset was under way. The clouds were fairy mountains.
Lin sat down, clipboard on her lap. Her bright blue sarong of the morning had been replaced with an equally brilliant red one. Despite the heat, she always managed to look clean and fresh. She asked us if we’d managed to work the bath and shower, found the food in the kitchen, explored the entertainment facilities. Of course, we had done none of these things, but we nodded and said everything was fine.
“Some people find the amnesia a problem.”
Meena said, “I still feel like myself, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s exactly it.” Lin smiled. “Some people don’t”
Meena leaned forward in her rattan chair. In this twilight, against her white dress, her skin was incredibly brown. “We must have chosen to come here, right?”
Lin tapped her clipboard. It glowed briefly, but she didn’t glance down at it. “Meena, I don’t have your particular details. That’s deliberate, of course. Company policy. But I can tell you that it costs a great deal of money to come to this island. Not that everyone is a billionaire or anything. People win prizes, the Big Companies give out these holidays as performance incentives…you might just have saved.” She tapped the clipboard again. It threw shadows across her face. It was growing darker by the minute. “Whatever, make the most of it.”
“But why would anyone want to forget everything?” Meena asked. “To leave themselves behind?”
“All sorts of reasons. Just think, you might both have demanding jobs or some other worry. What better way to forget all that?”
Meena nodded, although she didn’t look entirely satisfied. Personally, I couldn’t see what the problem was, as long as we were happy.
Lin stood up, but she obviously hadn’t quite finished. “There are some specific advantages I can tell you about. The books, the music, the holo library, for example. You won’t remember any of that. So you have a whole world to re-discover, if that’s what you wish to do. There’s a guy comes here every year for two weeks. He re-reads the same book. It’s new for him every time.”
We watched Lin walk back towards her jeep, her red sarong aflame in the twilight.
We made love in our flat that night. Had sex, anyway. I turned over in bed to grab Meena, and Meena didn’t push me away. I was self-absorbed, uncaring of her reaction: the photograph gave me a passion that I hadn’t felt in years. Have you done this with him? I wondered, Your photographer friend? Or this? Meena was puzzled, although not un-cooperative. But she insisted on keeping the bedroom window running. Moonlight. That bloody tropical shore. She used to say she liked the way it shone on our skin. Years before, I had found the habit arousing. Later on, I decided it was narcissistic. Now, I guessed that she simply wanted something interesting to watch while our love-making was going on.
I didn’t sleep well. I spent a lot of time gazing at Meena’s face on the pillow. The waves in the window frothed irritatingly on moonlit sand. I couldn’t find the remote control without turning on the light, and the flat itself got confused when Meena and I had conflicting views about something.
We used to make love anytime, all the time. Now, it had to be in bed, at night, with the window running, a silly ritual that still often ended in hundred different versions of Not Tonight Marius anyway. Before we were married, before we had Robin, before work became more than just work and money didn’t matter, Meena always kept some piece of clothing on. One stocking, a necklace, a scarf. I remembered that she had a specially expensive scarf tucked down in one of those drawers, something I’d bought her one Christmas years ago, supposedly to wear in her hair, although we both knew what it was really for. It was night black, sprinkled with stars. It spread out and out, cool layers of darkness. I remembered kissing Meena through it. I remember feeling the salt sparkle of Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, the way she used to sigh from the back of her throat when she came.
People change, they drift apart. But how could we have lost so much? Don’t. That smile. So much. Without even knowing. But I took comfort from that photograph in her drawer. I knew now that it wasn’t just me, or even simply us.
After showering, changing, making love, we lit a fire from the white bones of driftwood we found on the beach. Looking up, the stars were everywhere. A crab-like robot scuttled out from beneath the veranda and across the white sand to see to our needs. It even offered to light the fire, but that would have spoiled the fun. Instead, we sent it running obediently into the phosphorescent waves.
Meena brushed sand from her feet and sat crosslegged, watching me. “Marius and Meena,” she said. “Don’t you think it’s strange, to have such odd names that match?”
“Everything about being here is strange,” I said.
“Tell me what you remember.”
I recited the names of the Big Companies, dates from history, venues for the Olympics. Meena chipped in, disagreeing over these little facts in the way that people always do. We both found that reassuring, to know that there was a real world out there, and that together we were part of it. It became a game. Capital cities, kings and queens… Beyond the firelight, the dark wall of the jungle wailed and chattered.
The crab-robot returned from the sea out of a rising moon. It shook itself like a dog, then ran proudly up to us, a gleaming fish thrashing in each of its five claws. We both had an idea how to gut them, but we left the robot to get on with it, then rigged up a kind of spit from odds and ends in the well-stocked kitchen. We sat in the firelight and ate the meat with our fingers. It was steaming, pink, delicious.
Meena lay back on the sand. I took her hand and licked away the juice and fish scales, worked my way up her arm, parted the buttons of her dress to kiss her breasts. Inch by inch, I eased the cotton from her flesh. The fire crackled, the logs sighed into glowing dust. She had a scarf in her hair. I reached to loosen it and throw it away.
“No,” she said. She sat up in the soft white sand to tie it above her knee. “I feel more naked if I keep something on.”
“You remember that?” I said.
She lay back. “Yes,” she said. She parted her legs. She took hold of me. “That, I remember.”
I didn’t show Meena the photograph, nor mention it. I simply put it back in her knicker drawer where I had found it. Anyway, I’d stared at it for long enough to see it without looking. Meena turning, smiling. There, in my head. Don’t. I didn’t recall the scene — and I was sure I hadn’t taken it — but I could tell that the photograph was a recent one from the soft lines around her eyes, from the slight hollowing of her cheeks, the things that age was starting to do to her. Just seeing it made me realise Meena hadn’t smiled at me in that warm, open way in years. Warm, open. Not that way in years. Probably not since we had had Robin, when we were in love.
Meena came home midway through the evening, after I’d had time to get a little drunk. I grabbed hold of her in the narrow hall before she could push past, kissed her on the cheek, smelling her work clothes, feeling her work manner. My nerves were tingling. I was trying to detect some difference in her indifference, even though I knew that the only thing that had changed since the morning was me.
I watched her in the bedroom as she undressed.
“Good day?” she asked.
“Six sales,” I said; I always added a few for luck. “You?”
“Nothing special. You didn’t pick up Robin?”
“No,” I said, feeling the usual pang of guilt.
“We must spend time with him at the weekend. Um, hold on.” She hopped out of her tights. “I’ve arranged to see this client Saturday morning.”
“Isn’t that unusual?”
“Look, there’s big money in this one, darling.” She hated it when I queried anything about her work. She thought I didn’t take it seriously enough. “He wants to drown in a vat of malmsey.”
“Happened to someone in Shakespeare.”
“Marius, you can’t expect these people to be original. They want some point of reference that they can talk about at the party. I’ll have to lunch him, but I’ll be back early in the afternoon. And then we get Robin out of stasis, right? Take him to the funfair, give the kid a treat.”
She padded into the bathroom and told the flat to turn on the shower, successfully killing any further conversation.
I watched her through the streaming glass. The figure of a woman, no longer Meena. Like a painting by Seurat. A cypher, a stranger. Someone I might once have known.
She came out in a cloud of soapy steam, fumbling for a towel, strands of wet hair clinging to the intricate bones of her neck.
When I reached to touch her, she turned towards me.
“Don’t,” she said, vaguely annoyed.
A tropical morning. Meena asleep beside me. Sounds of the jungle through the open window beside our bed. I kissed her shoulder. She stirred and smiled, too beautiful to wake.
The white curtains swelled. A light breeze cooled my body. Beyond the window, palm trees swayed. The whole jungle was alive. Movement, colour, light, a thousand different shades of shadow playing across the thick trunks of the palm trees, the dense labyrinth of ferns. A small monkey clung to the bark of the nearest tree. He swung up and along, hand over foot over hand, and hopped soundlessly onto the window ledge. He blinked. A tiny hand worried at his mouth. Everything about him was quick, shy, almost birdlike.
I eased myself up slowly from the bed, expecting the monkey to vanish at any moment. But he froze to watch me. Blink, blink. His irises were silver, the pupils black as a camera lens. He was probably used to visitors — and he wanted food. I padded quickly to the kitchen. I rummaged for biscuits or crisps, but settled on the sultanas I found in a jar, which were probably more suitable anyway.
Meena was awake when I came back, leaning on her elbows and smiling at the monkey on the window ledge. A step at a time, I crept towards him. Meena slid out of bed behind me. The monkey crouched motionless, watching us approach. Meena and I sat down on the sun-warmed pine beneath the window, looking up at him. His tiny pelt was immaculate, lustrous brown, flecked gold where the light caught it. I held out a sultana. The hand took it in a blur. Then another. Meena held out a third. He ate each sultana fastidiously, nibbling around the edges, his eyes flicking from Meena to me, taking everything in. He had a scholarly face, our monkey. Sitting crosslegged beneath the window ledge like naked penitents, it was hard not to feel that Meena and I were in the presence of wisdom.
He didn’t run off when the sultana were finished. And I was sure now that he was gazing at us from curiosity rather than wariness or fear. The palm trees murmured. The warm air burnished the filaments of his fur, stirred Meena’s hair. It was a strange moment of equality between one species and another. I felt that he knew us. From the wild serenity amid the treetops, he had come down to consider these strange, sleepy creatures. To see our flesh, our bones, our dreams.
I cancelled my first appointment of the morning so that I could leave the flat after Meena. I was tired, a little dazed. I half expected the photograph not to be there. But it was, and I tucked it into the flap of my briefcase.
The Volvo hummed and harred about what music to play me. It finally settled on Martinu, an ethereal dance. Escape, the lips called after me from the hoarding as we pulled out from the estate, looming over the rain-rotted villas. Escape. Treat yourself to the one luxury that money can’t buy. Well, maybe only just…
I visited my first prospect. After I’d done my usual spiel, he sat staring at the brochures I’d spread on the coffee table. He was old, with graveyard blotches on his hands, turkey wattles for cheeks. Almost old enough to be one of Meena’s clients.
I’d played him this way and that, taken the objections and tossed them easily back. Of course, I agreed, security on your estate is excellent, but that only has to be the first barrier. Why only yesterday, there was that terrible thing on the news. Someone about your age. The kids from outside broke in when the electric fence shorted out, crucified the poor old guy for laughs on his kitchen table…
The prospect risked a glance up at me. The loose flesh of his throat bobbed. Was he about to speak? But, no, he looked down again. His trembling fingers brushed the cover of the Grade A booklet. It was printed in red and deep green. They were christmassy colours, the colours of apples and firelight, childhood and home. I knew, of course, that he ached for me to say something, to break the silence. But I could wait here all day, my friendly-but-serious expression locked into place.
I was good at my job. But then, is there an easier thing to sell than security? Who wants to be without that? I mean, it was important, I was doing these people a favour. I’d explained that to Meena often enough. And although she denied it, Meena was in sales too — these days, who isn’t? Our two jobs even followed on. After security, death. What could be more natural? And when the time comes and the surgeons can do no more, why not go out with a bang? Attend your own funeral. Jump from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Shoot yourself with an antique Luger that Hitler once owned.
At least, I thought, it’s unlikely that Meena met the person who took that photograph through her work. But the idea clicked inside me. I saw trembling, age-stained hands clutching a camera. I saw it all. Someone with the greed and the money to get everything they want. And Meena comes to arrange their last needs. A glimpse of her knees as she spreads her quotes and folders. And why not go out with a bang? Why not indeed.
“Have you ever thought about dying?” I asked my prospect, genuinely curious.
“What?” The withered face looked up at me, then firmed into an expression of refusal.
We had breakfast. I wandered around our house. One storey, bare wood and big windows everywhere. Sunlight gleaming, and the smell of the sea. You almost felt as though you were out of doors. I paused at the entertainment box, remembering what Lin had said. I skimmed though a few book titles. The famous ones rang a bell, but I had no idea whether I’d ever read any of them. I mean, who ever reads anything now anyway? Billionaires on tropical islands, maybe.
I asked the box to play me some music, just anything it thought I might like. I was curious to know how it would react, whether had some idea of my taste in these things — which was more than I had.
The sound of a string quarter filled the room. Dvorak, the screen told me. The American Quartet. Opus 96. Beautiful stuff, and every note of it was new to me, as fresh as the day it had flowered in the mind of that emigre Czech stuck in some New York hotel. But at the same time, I felt a warmth towards the piece that I didn’t associate with unfamiliar music — as much, that is, as I could associate anything with anything. Yes, I decided, this a kind of memory, or at least a memory of a memory. It’s how I feel when I look into Meena’s eyes. Like the stranger you recognise without knowing.
At lunchtime, I went out from the office to the repo shop opposite. There was a kid at the counter. He had acne, specks of blood on his suit collar. Don’t, Meena said to him when he turned her over in his hands. He asked me whether I knew if it was taken on a Canon or a Nikon. I told him, Just get the bloody thing done.
Home early, I put Meena’s original photograph back in her knicker drawer with a feeling of relief. At least now that I had my own copy, I wouldn’t have the indignity of constantly having to steal hers.
I sat down with the computer in the study, shoved the photograph into the drive.
” — don’t– “
Meena turned to me on the screen. I zoomed in on her smiling face as she turned. Then over her shoulder. Some kind of path. Rainbowed at the edge of the shot where the lens was weakest and the digits were thin, I could just make out the wire of a litter bin. The bough over Meena’s head was dipping in the breeze, freezing, dipping again. I worked my way through it leaf by leaf, saw flashes of blue sky, a caterpillar in close-up, then snatches of a glittering lake, and a old sign on the far shore. BOATS FOR HIRE, in peeling paint.
Meena said, ” — don’t– “
I killed the sound of her voice, killed the picture, tumbled down a stairway of menus to maximise the rest of a sound. The murmur of open air. Agitated birdsong. Trees whispering. It was a warm spring day. Somewhere, not too far off, I could hear splashes, shouts. The unmistakable sound of kiddies in a paddling pool. I saw orange waterwings, the fanning blue water frozen forever.
I silenced the birds, the trees, the splashes, the shouts. Then there was the murmur that lies at the back of sound in any open space, like the grinding of a huge machine. I killed all of that, too. Turned up the volume. Listened to what was left.
Someone breathing. Whoever was holding the camera. Huh. Half an intake of breath. Huh.
Huh. The sound was amazingly light, almost feminine. But not quite. My suspicions had moved on from a geriatric to something with pectorals and sweat. Maybe I’d have to rethink again. Huh. It was over so quickly, so hard to tell. Huh. I tried to visualise the hands that held the camera, that touched Meena, that parted the secrets of her flesh.
“What the Hell are you doing, Marius?”
Meena stood at the door of the tiny study. In her work clothes, her work face, laptop in hand.
I turned, hit the Exit key. Huh. Do you really want to Quit? Huh. You bet.
I said, “Just pissing around.”
“That strange noise…like someone crying.” She shrugged. Marius. “Have you eaten?”
“No,” I said, “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“You didn’t pick Robin up?”
Meena shook her head. “Marius, just how much time do you think I have these days?”
Next morning, after the monkey had come again to the window ledge, Meena and I found our yacht at anchor around the headland. In a pirate cove, the water so clear that the yacht seemed to hang suspended above the blue-pink coral.
We swam out towards her. As soon as we had climbed the rope ladder aboard, her ghostly crew set white sails to the fresh breeze.
We dropped anchor out in blue nowhere, alone to the rim of the horizon. We swam. The water here was impossibly deep, inky blue all the way down to dreams of pirate wrecks, the fallen marble of lost civilisations. Lying beside Meena on the gleaming deck, I wondered at the person I had been. In some grey city. This is the tomorrow that never comes, I thought, trailing my hand down Meena’s belly, gently kissing her ear. This is the future.
“How do you think they made the island?” Meena asked later.
I was lying on her. Inside her. Breathing. The water was scudding at her shoulder. Brown flesh, brown wood, white foam. The yacht had filled her sails. The dolphins were leaping ahead of the prow. We were heading home.
“The beaches can’t be natural,” she said. “There are no beaches left since the icecaps melted.”
I lowered my head to her shoulder, licked down into the hollow. Climate change. Yes, the fact was there in my mind. Climate. Change. But the gleam of brass, the scent of her hair…
“It’s an island,” I said. “Adrift from all the change.”
She chuckled. The sound came though my spine. “So you think it’s floating?”
I kissed her. Don’t all islands float, the proper islands that you dream about?
She raised her arms. Then she pushed me back, rolled over on the warm deck, was astride me, caressing herself against my face, the sky pushing through. I thought of the island, our magical floating island. Anchored, drifting on the shadowed deep sea chains amid doublooned wrecks, the whispered bones of pirates.
Next afternoon, after five unsuccessful prospect calls and some more sleuthing on the computer, the Volvo took me to pick up Robin from the stasis centre on my way to the park. I couldn’t remember asking it to. Perhaps the car was developing a conscience. Maybe it enjoyed having its back seat thrown-up over, little bits of broken toys wedged down between the upholstery. The Volvo parked in the plastic twilight beneath the stasis centre’s massive wigwam roof. Bright arrows beckoned me through the thickening smells of coffee and polythene towards Reception.
Day on day, Robin’s stasis bill had mounted up like an old-fashioned library fine. Even the receptionist seemed to think it was a lot. I gave her my card, and stood waiting for the red Account Out Of Credit light to flash. But today whatever software God presided over the link to the bank was on my side. The receptionist dragged out a smile from the back recesses of her teeth. That’ll do nicely.
When Meena and I had gone through the financial details necessary to have a Robin, the plan had been that she’d look after him most mornings, I’d have him afternoons. And unless we were going out, we would invariably let the little kid spend evenings in the flat, sleep with Mickey Mouse and Pluto in the little bedroom we’d had specially made. It all seemed fine when you looked at it on a spreadsheet. Stasis wasn’t that much cheaper than using a nursery, but the big advantage was that Junior experienced no elapsed time. Mummy or Daddy dropped you into the stasis centre in the morning. Five seconds later, they picked you up again. It could be five hours or — increasingly with us — five days. Still, there were no nannies, no Well Sarah Says I Can, nothing to conflict with the parent’s role. Robin was all ours — but the way things had worked out, we had to keep him mostly in stasis so that we could earn the money to keep him there.
Robin ran out to greet me. He gave me a hug.
“What day is it now, Daddy?” he asked. That’s one thing they don’t tell you about in the brochures. Kids aren’t stupid.
“Wednesday all day,” I said. “And Daddy’s going to take you to a park.”
Robin was silent in the Volvo. Gazing out of the window at the sunless city, gazing at me.
“You’ll be starting school soon,” I was saying. “You’ll have other kids to play with.
“Yeah,” he said.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel, pretending to be absorbed in a process I wasn’t even performing. We drove in hushed silence. I wished the Volvo would play one of its kiddy tunes. The Little Red Train. Or the one that went Scoop, Scoop at the end of every verse. But the car didn’t seem to think that music of any kind was appropriate, and Robin would be sure to notice if I did it manually. Green eyes under a blonde fringe watched me, the movement of my hands, the expression on my face. Blink, blink. Click, click. Meena had had Robin seven years before. He was now three and, oh…ten months, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the wisdom of those extra years hadn’t somehow seeped in.
It was billed as autumn in the park. A big red sign flashed over the broken concrete outside the dome, endlessly scattering a neon tumble of falling leaves. It cost a fortune to get in. You got a free Nikon if you paid an extra 10%. Throw away the camera, keep the pics.
There was a guy standing at the wicker gate that led into the smoky twilight. I’d seen him and his sort many times before. At the funfair, the Big Toys R Us that Robin was always wanting to go to, even outside the stasis centre. Quick as a pick-pocket in reverse, he tucked a card into my hand. Sweet kid you got there, the card whispered. Got a list of prospective parents long as your arm. Give a good price, and no fancy paperware, no questions asked. I tore the card up and threw into the nearest bin.
Dead leaves clattered on the paths. The low sky trailed through withered trees. The ice cream stall was boarded and bolted.
“Do you like it here?” I asked Robin, crouching down to help him on with the mittens that hung from elasticated straps.
“It’s good,” he said, breathing a little grey cloud at me.
“Have you ever been here before?”
“I don’t know” he said. “Have you taken me?”
We walked across the damp grass to the swings. I pushed him slowly. The wet chains creaked. Ahead of us, the paddling pool had been drained. A bowl of flaking blue concrete, filled with leaves and the sludge of autumn. I remembered the children’s voices, the water wings, the bright spray.
“I thought Mummy might have come here with you once,” I said. “In the spring.”
“It would look different then?”
“Yes. All the birds would be singing. The sun shining. I thought Mummy might have taken you, perhaps with a nice uncle.”
“A nice uncle?”
“You know, a grown-up friend.”
Robin tilted his head back from the swing to smile at me. He seemed to think it was some kind of joke.
“Come on,” I said.
A gardener was tending a bonfire beside the damp greenhouses, raking the endless fall of leaves into a wheelbarrow, tipping them over the flames to produce more smoke. Robin and I walked over to him.
“Autumn’s a popular season,” he told us. “You’d think people would want sunshine, but they seem to like this melancholy place.”
“What about spring?”
“That doesn’t go down so well,” he said. There was a dewdrop on his nose. It looked authentic, but as he raised his arm to wipe it on his ragged sleeve, I heard the faint whir of a faulty servo. Not snot, I supposed, but machine oil.
“But you do do spring?”
The smoke spiralled into his face. He didn’t blink.
“Spring? Oh, yes. A week or so every couple of years.”
“And when was the last time?”
He shrugged. “You’ll have to speak to the mainframe about that. I don’t have a long-term memory. I’m just a gardener, you know.” The dewdrop was growing on his nose again: it made you want to sniff.
Robin got bored as we walked along the aimless paths, around the boating lake. The boats were locked up for the winter. The sign above the boathouse said BOATS FOR HIRE. Close to, I could see that the peeling paint was actually carefully moulded plastic. I gazed across the black water of the lake. I checked the copy of the picture in my pocket.
” — don’t– “
Robin looked up, surprised to hear his Mummy’s voice. I shrugged, patted his head. This is grownup business, Son. Meena turned and smiled. She said Don’t.
I found the spot. Inevitably, it was a disappointment. Here in a different season, with minty smell of decay and the wind ratting the litter baskets. I gazed down at the picture again. Turning, smiling, saying Don’t. There, in sunlight, she looked happy and more real.
Robin was busy clambering up onto the park bench beside me. He was a little unsteady as he stood up. I lifted him in my arms, surprised at his lightness, his weight.
“Will you take me home?” he asked, looking me right in the eye.
I gave Robin a kiss at the stasis centre, ruffled his hair before he scampered off through the sliding doors. I waved. Back at the weekend, I promise. A different woman at reception smiled. Perhaps I should follow Robin through those sliding doors. Thirty years from now, I could return to Meena, see the sags and wrinkles she couldn’t afford to put right. Know her for just what she was, laugh freely in her aged face. But the thought was only a game. Although there was nothing to stop those who could afford it from going into long-term stasis, everyone knew from the bitter experience of the last hundred years that the future was a joke. The only guarantees were that the climate would be worse, and that everything apart from wristwatches, computers and disposable umbrellas would be more expensive.
When I got back into the estate, I saw that the lips had gone from the hoarding. There was a picture there now. A tropical beach. But the voice was still there. Escape, it whispered. Treat yourself to the one luxury that money can’t buy. Invisibly, the lips smiled. Well, maybe only just… Escape. Beckoning palms, white sand. Escape. There, in the car, I couldn’t help laughing. The Volvo innocently played me a little Dvorak, thinking I was happy.
Meena and I often talked about who we might be. Do you feel like a billionaire? Well, no, neither do I. If one of us was rich, it was probably Meena, we decided. She was more decisive, I was more romantic. We were noticing things about ourselves as much as about each other. The whole idea of this process of discovery was charmingly odd. How Meena liked some time alone walking on the beach each afternoon, my interest in the music the entertainment box provided. The foods we liked, the things we hated, the way we made love.
And were we in love? There was a sense of delicious honesty, sitting out on the rattan chairs with the palm trees dripping and the sea still grey after the afternoon rain, talking about ourselves as though we were other people. The things that we surprised each other with came as much a surprise to ourselves.
Yes, we agreed, holding hands as the sun came out and the jungle began to steam. This is a kind of love, a unique childhood innocence, the love you first feel for someone. When you really don’t know them. When you ache with the specialness, the closeness, the new sharing. I mean, whoever said that love was about knowledge? And we vowed that we would remember this time, carry it with us like a jewel through whatever lay ahead.
Meena and I ran to the sea before dinner. We made love in the white bridal foam. Then Meena swam towards the sinking sun. She stood up and waved, then cried out as her foot struck something.
I helped her hop back to the bungalow. It was a deep, clean gash in the sole of her right foot. She must have caught the edge of a block of coral that the waves had washed in. She sat patiently as blood and seawater tricked over the veranda. Our little monkey ran out along the wooden rail. We had to smile when he saw Meena and pawed his face, chattering with what sounded like concern.
I called for Lin. You’d think they’d see to this sort of thing, I thought irritably, thumping the digits on the box. With the money we must be paying. But she arrived amazingly quickly. This time, her sarong was green, shot through with golden yellow. She sprayed Meena’s foot with something from the bag she was carrying.
“It’ll need stitches,” she said. Meena leaned forward to watch with curiosity when Lin got to work with silver and tread, as though it was someone else’s foot.
Lin dropped the needle. It fell between a gap in the veranda boards. Lin sighed, then sat back and took a blade from her bag. She used it to cut open both of her wrists, then grasped the dry flaps and peeled the skin away from each hand. Beneath, there was clean steel.
“It’ll be a lot quicker this way,” she said, snipping her fingers like scissors.
When Lin had sprayed on Meena’s bandage, she pulled the skin back onto her hands, smoothing out the wrinkles.
“It’s so much easier to hold things, metal to metal,” she said, smiling, looking cool and beautiful in her sarong. “I really don’t know how you humans manage.”
I found out about spring in the park. The last time they’d run it had been two months before. A special promotion, linked in with a new fashion design. Spring Is For Lovers…Of Style. Well, how ironic. I asked the park mainframe if it kept a list of visitors. Hauling out some ancient privacy programme from the depths of its memory, it told me to bugger off.
So I started to follow Meena. I hadn’t made a sale all week anyway, and was running out of fresh prospects. I’d lost the edge. It’s a hard life, being in sales — everyone’s at it. It’s the only job left now that the machines see to all the important stuff.
The Volvo enjoyed tailing Meena’s Casio. It took to playing Mahler. One minute, the music was yearning, the next crashingly ironic, I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or not.
Meena went to pre-death receptions. She attended performance reviews at Head Office. She visited clients. I sat in the Volvo under sick skies, watching from a discreet distance amid the rubble and the chattering hoardings, the tightly fenced estates. Mahler rumbled on, symphony after symphony. I gazed at my copy of the photograph, propped on the steering wheel. Meena. Turning. Smiling. Don’t. The clients Meena saw had money, big houses. After she’d ducked back into the Casio and driven off through the rain, I had ten or so minutes to check at the door before the Volvo lost contact. Ding, dong, nice place you’ve got here, Sir. And when was the last time you thought about security? But they were all old, old. I could tell that all they truly were interested in was dying. So, for the Hell of it, I started trying to sell that to them instead. And the joke was that they were all interested. Sure, Meena was busy seeing a lot prospects, but sure as death itself she wasn’t closing her sales.
Meena criss-crossed the city in her Casio. Apart from wildly exaggerating her success rate, she did exactly what she told me she did when I quizzed her each evening. I thought, so this is your life, Meena. Another prospect, another meeting. And just exactly when is that you smile?
I couldn’t sleep that night. This island, the false beach, Lin a robot…
The moonlight fell brightly through the window nearest our bed. The jungle beyond was black, white. The trunk of the nearest palm was gashed by shadows, like the clawmarks of some huge animal. And clinging to it with tiny hands, motionless, precise, was our little monkey. Gazing through our window, watching us with his gleaming eyes.
At dawn, with Meena still sleeping, I took a bucket and walked along the shore until I found a scatter of rockpools. The morning light was still incomplete, misty grey. I fished for little crabs amid the anemones, dropped them into my bucket where they clambered over each other’s backs like the celebrants of an orgy. When I’d collected a dozen or so, I squatted over a wide flat rock, tendrils of the waves running between my toes. I broke the shells open one by one. The first three crabs were pink inside, smelling of flesh and salt. But the forth tried to scuttle away, trailing a silver necklace of circuits. I hit it again. It gave off a thin wisp of smoke, and was still.
When Meena awoke, and after we had made love, we took the jeep for a picnic in the jungle. It found us a waterfall, a clear pool to dive in. Shining rocks, drifting clouds and rainbows. Far above, impassive as a God, the great mountain at the centre of the island was half veiled in cloud. As we sat like savages in the humid shade, eating with our fingers and drinking chilled wine from the bottle, we wondered if you could really touch the sky from up there. We planned an expedition to find out one day before the holiday ended, knowing that time was already growing shorter, knowing that we never would.
“Look!” Meena pointed as we climbed back into the jeep. “Up there.”
I gazed up into the green canopy.
“Can you see?”
I nodded. And after a few moments, I could.
“Our monkey,” she said.
He was looking down at us from a thick vine. Those wise eyes.
“That’s not possible,” I said, shaking my head.
So I arranged a party. I invited all our friends. Meena said, But you hate parties. I insisted. I fixed the catering, bought the booze with money we didn’t have. I wanted everyone here, everyone that she knew.
I was drunk before the guests arrived. It was a strange feeling, wandering, smiling, saying Hello, knowing that one of these people was probably The One. That here in my flat at this very moment, drinking my wine and tracing the circles of dust were The Hands That Touched, The Lips That Kissed. The room swayed; the flat was having a good old time crammed with all these bodies, playing rock and roll. I watched Meena as she squeezed her way from group to group, looking for those secret signs, the smiles, the brush of fingers. Plain avoidance.
But there was nothing. I’d made a fool of myself. I went to throw up. I was swaying against the pull of the room. People were looking my way. I staggered into the cool of Robin’s bedroom, slumped down on his tiny bed. Over the music, I yelled at the flat to close the bloody door. Then I lay back in the linen darkness. Mickey Mouse looked down at me, smiling.
Meena came in. She had left the door open and there was silence outside. The party had ended, and the air was stale yellow from all the drink and the talk. I must have slept.
“What the hell is the matter with you, Marius?”
“Too much to drink.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“Do you love me?”
“Look,” she said. “I’ve got a busy day tomorrow. A new customer wants to suffocate in a vat of Venusian atmosphere, something original and expensive for a change.”
“You used to wear things when we made love. Said it made you feel more naked.”
“You should have some water, take a paintab.”
“What’s gone wrong with us?”
“This isn’t really the time to talk, is it?”
“Are you seeing someone else?”
She gazed down at me. I could hear the dark silence of Robin’s little room hissing the word Yes.
“Meena, are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Seeing someone else?”
“No,” she said. “Yes. Make up your own answer.”
“I need to know the truth.”
“What difference would that make? You can’t imagine what it’s like, Marius, living with you.”
“We used to be happy.”
“Yeah,” she said. “We used to be happy.”
She turned away.
“No, wait!” I shouted. My voice made the room spin.
She folded her arms. “What exactly is it that you want, Marius?”
“I found…there’s a photograph of you, in a park. Turning and smiling. You look so happy. I found it in your second drawer.”
“My drawer. How fucking typical.”
The flat slammed Robin’s door behind her.
On another day, we went into town. The flying boat had just landed — more new arrivals, with people waiting for them on the quay. The lips on the big hoarding breathed Welcome across the bay. Feeling vaguely envious, Meena and I stood and watched for a moment, then wandered on through the narrow streets. There were little shops everywhere, windchimes and mementoes drooping outside in the brilliant heat, interiors that reeked of mystery and leather and donkey dung. Of course, there were other tourists here, walking arm in arm, all deeply tanned, deeply in love. It spoilt things somewhat, to see your own feelings mirrored so easily in others. People only visit the town here late in their holidays, a ancient shopkeeper told us after we’d bargained for a soapstone box. When the novelty starts to wear off, he added. I looked at him sharply. Wet eyes, a slack, toothless mouth. Would the tour company ever programme a robot to say something like that? I could even smell his breath. No, I decided. No.
We sat and took coffee in a white colonial square, resting, assessing our purchases, knowing that everything else would soon be a memory. We felt we’d bought wisely with our money. Not that the cash we had told us anything about what we could normally afford; every visitor to the island was allocated the same amount.
After a while, a couple sat down with us at the tin table. They were both blonde, handsome. I wondered if Meena and I could possibly give off the same scent of easy money. And I vaguely resented their intrusion — I was starting to count the remaining hours of our stay together — but they proved to be friendly, amusing. Of course, conversation was limited by our lack of memory, but that proved to be a surprising advantage. There was little scope for back-biting, point scoring. It was an egalitarian society here on the island — everyone could pretend to be a billionaire with reasonable conviction. So we laughed and joked together, fantasised outrageously about our real lives, wandered around more of the shops, watched the natives at work along the harbour until another marvellous tropical sunset began to tear the sky to glowing shreds.
A headache woke me in the morning. I was still dressed, crammed into Robin’s cot with Mickey Mouse leering down at me. I hauled myself out and leaned against the window. This one was clear; we hadn’t been able to afford the special glass for Robin’s room. Not that I was complaining. As far as it was possible to make out from the dismal sky, the sun had been up for some hours. And the flat sounded quiet, empty. Meena had probably left hours ago. No chance of following her today.
I rubbed at my face, probed the weary bags under my eyes. Oh, Meena, Meena. Why can’t we just fall back into love? Down on the estate, the lips were back on the poster. They seemed to smile specifically at me through a black flurry of rain. Escape. Treat yourself to the one luxury that money can’t buy. Well, maybe only just… Yeah, I grinned back. If only.
I padded around at Robin’s tidy little room. All the toys put away, no fingerprints or crayon marks on the walls, no Playdough sticking to the carpet. The poor kid; he was hardly real, hardly here at all. And whose fault was that, I wondered. Whose fault was that? I picked up Teddy from on top of the wardrobe. He grinned at me and said, “Hello, little fella, want to play?” I put him back down. He slumped, looking disappointed.
I opened Robin’s top drawer. His tiny clothes. Red dungarees, white socks, blue mittens. Just like Meena, he felt more real to me this way. No sulks, no moaning Daddy Daddy, no wanting stuff we could never afford, making us feel like inadequate parents. Not that he was a bad kid, but still. A couple of drawers below, I found some of his baby things. I held up a romper suit, still stained around the front from some battle in the high chair. Jesus, had he ever been that small. As I moved to put it back, I heard a voice. I glared at the teddy bear to shut up, thinking for a moment that it was him.
” — hey Mu — “
But it was Robin’s voice. I looked down into the drawer. Beneath an old bib, I saw daylight, some photographs held together by an elastic band.
” — watch m — “
A park in spring. A tree nodding. Robin by a bench. Then Robin climbing onto it.
” — careful dar — ” Meena’s happy voice behind the camera.
Robin standing on the bench, giggling. One shot of him from the other side of the path, then another much closer.
” — let me — ” Robin’s hand reaching out towards the lens, the fingers huge, unfocused.
Then a shot of the gravel. The dancing spring shadows of the trees. Meena’s voice saying
” — e careful — “
” — now — “
The last shot had drifted somewhere else, got lost in another drawer the way these things always do. But Meena said Don’t. I didn’t need the photograph to hear her voice.
The palms were swaying wildly against the moon when the jeep took us back from town. But there was little wind — we had spent the evening dancing in a lamplit square and we were both very merry, very drunk.
We stumbled around the bedroom in the bungalow, falling over our clothes as we tried to get out of them.
“Today’s the last but one,” Meena said with sudden clarity.
I flopped onto the bed to watch the ceiling revolve.
“It’ll be your turn to leave first,” Meena added, her voice fading off into the bathroom. “Seeing as you arrived here before me.”
I heard the shower running. When she came back out, drying her hair, the room was still spinning. I pretended that I was asleep.
She turned off the light, shuffled and grunted, then started to breathe heavily, her bottom sticking out into my side of the bed. I could see the bright darkness of the jungle out of the window. It all looked pretty and safe. No mosquitos, no snakes, no spiders. And even if there were any such beasts, they would be charming and eccentric. User-friendly.
There on the shadow-slashed trunk of the nearest tree, the wise-faced monkey gazed down at me. Eventually, I had to get up and close the curtains.
Escape. The lips smiled at me. Treat yourself to the one luxury that money can’t buy. I drove in silence. For once, the Volvo was lost for an appropriate tune. When the automatic gates from the estate failed to open I had to get out and do it manually, battling my way through a sleet of soot and litter. Escape. The voice was loud on the wind. Marius, it called after me. Marius. I climbed back inside and the Volvo slammed the door, getting my mood right for a change. Marius. Marius. Don’t. I froze. But, no, it was just the wind, just my imagination.
Jealousy, I decided, was like one of the pure states of the soul that the mystics used to strive for. All encompassing, it lit your every thought. Like moving underwater, or through another world, things had a different life. I realised that, for a while at least, the photograph had given my life meaning. It had helped me remember the Meena I had loved. She had twirled ahead of me on this pointless trail, flowing in bright ribbons of memory, beautiful and strange as a temple dancer. Meena, my smiling Meena. The Meena that existed only in my head. Somehow, she had led the way.
Robin ran out towards me through the sliding doors at the stasis centre. I scooped him up, gave him a hug.
He asked, “What day is it, Daddy?” He smelled like the place itself, of coffee and polythene.
I had to think. Yes, Wednesday. Another Wednesday. Seemed that poor Robin’s life was a succession of Wednesdays. Face facts; we weren’t good enough for him.
“Let’s go to the park,” I said, taking his hand. “There’s a man there I want you to meet. Or if he’s not there, we could go look for him at Toys R Us.”
Robin stared at me, mittens swinging on their elastic on the ends of his sleeves. Blink, blink. Click, click. He asked, “Was that the man at the gate, Daddy, the one who gave you the talking card?”
I managed a smile. A sweet, bright kid. Was there anything he didn’t notice?
Our last full day together on the island went quickly. The sun was as bright as ever, the beach as white, the sea as warm. But everything was pervaded with the cool melancholy that comes like a wind from nowhere on these occasions. We had planned on going out again on our yacht, but when we walked to the little cove, we found that it had gone, presumably re-allocated to one of the new arrivals. With that discovery came the awkward thought that perhaps we hadn’t been able to afford to keep a yacht for the whole of our holiday, and also of the days that it had been floating unused in the clear water, muttering sea-shanties to its ghostly crew, clocking up a bill that we would perhaps struggle to pay.
Lin came around in the afternoon. Now that I knew the truth, everything about her seemed artificial. Her smiles, her sarongs. And when she went inside our bungalow, I couldn’t help thinking that she was simply checking that we hadn’t broken anything. She asked about Meena’s foot. She asked if we’d had a good time. I sat on the veranda, listening to the sea, hardly bothering to answer. And that night on the beach, we sent the crab-robot into the sea and lit a fire just as we had done on the first night. But the fish was bony and ill-cooked, and afterwards, even Meena didn’t taste the same.
Crab-robots were dismantling the hoarding when I drove back to the flat, crawling over the silent lips like ants on a corpse. I had the tickets to the island lying on the passenger seat, so I guessed the lips had served their purpose, managed at least one sale. Everyone’s at it nowadays, selling things — even the machines. And soon they’ll be better than us, and what the hell are we all going to do then?
Through the dripping car park, the lift wanted a bribe to take me up. In an expansive mood, I gave it what it asked for without haggling. The flat smelled of toast and damp daylight, cheap wine still from the party, cheap living, cheap lives. There was a sound coming from the bedroom. Someone was groaning, going uh, uh, uh.
I stood in the narrow hall, my heart racing, the tickets going damp in my hands. Meena’s voice. Uh, uh. From the bedroom. I felt vindicated — wronged — but at the same time, my mind was a blank. Step by step, a million miles at a time, I walked towards the half-open door.
Meena was lying on the bed under the light of a tropical moon, tangled in her work clothes, her glowing laptop thrown open beside her. She raised her face and looked up at me through streaming tears.
“I thought,” I said. My shoulders slumped. “I don’t know. I just thought.”
“You know what they’ve gone and done, don’t you?” she said.
I stared at her. She was fumbling under her pillow, searching for a tissue, trying to sniff back the tears, embarrassed to be seen this way, even by me, her husband.
“They’ve given me the sack.” She blew her nose. “Say my performance has dropped below…below an acceptable level.” The tropical moon settled in the pool in each of her eyes. “Now where the hell does that leave us, you tell me that, Marius? You tell me that.”
I sat down beside her. I took her hand. My movements were slow and solid. I felt heavy with control.
“It’s alright, my Darling,” I told her.
She looked at me, wanting me to take over, to take care. Here whole face was shining, washed clean. Like an old-fashioned street after some old-fashioned rain, like something from the past.
She began to sob deeply again when I showed her the tickets, and even more so when I told her what I had done. But I sat patiently, gazing at her in the light of a tropical moon, listening to the sound of waves. My Meena. I held her hand. My Meena. She trembled to my touch, but she didn’t push me away. I kissed her face, and she tasted like the waves, of a warm tropical sea laddered by moonlight. Then I told the flat to blank the window, and for once the flat didn’t argue, and it was just the two of us and the darkness and the faint humming that lies at the background of everything, like the turning of a huge machine. My Meena. My heart was thick and slow with gratitude, control, love. My Meena. I took her in my arms, knowing at last that she understood.
Meena was up early on the final morning, putting all her lovely clothes back into their case. It had been so hot — and we’d been so much in love — that she’d had little chance to wear many of them. Would we be able to keep them? I wondered, watching. When we get back, will we care?
“What are you going to do this afternoon?” I asked Meena after I’d packed my own things. “When you’re alone after my flying boat has gone.”
“It’s only a few hours wait, isn’t it?” she said, pulling out her drawers to check they were empty. “I’ll just wander around the town. I mean, Marius, what did you do on the first day?”
I shrugged. Quite honestly, I couldn’t remember. Inevitably, and for the all the lovely charade at the harbour, you seemed to drift to and away from this island rather than reach it with the solid bump of one moment.
“It’s a nice idea, though, isn’t it,” Meena said, holding up a final blouse. “Arriving and leaving on different flying boats. Makes everything more happy and sad… Look at this.” She fished something from the silk pocket, the photograph she’d found in her case on that very first day. “I’d quite forgotten.”
I nodded. So had I — but now I was standing at the bedroom door. I hated hanging around like this, protracted goodbyes. Although there was still plenty of time, I wanted us to leave the bungalow now, get into the jeep and away.
She held the photograph up to her face. The light from it had a different quality. It was softer, bluer. Her voice said, ” — don’t — “
“I wonder how this got here?” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that it was purely an accident. Perhaps it’s some kind of message.”
” — don’t — “
“Yes,” I said. “More likely, we’ll never know.”
“Well, I’ll just wander along the beach for a while. Say my goodbyes,” Meena clicked the catches on her case. “There’s plenty of time yet. You don’t mind waiting here, darling, do you?”
She had wandered off down the steps of the veranda towards the sea before I had time to compose a reply.
The bedroom seemed to close and darken behind her. Ready now for someone else, it shrugged off our traces so easily.
Hearing a sound on the window ledge, I turned. The monkey, sitting there. Somehow, he’d grabbed hold of Meena’s photograph, and was studying it. The strange sunlight shone on his wise, nervous face. ” — don’t — ” Meena said. Don’t. He just stared. Blink, blink. Click, click. He put the photograph to his mouth, nibbled cautiously at the plastic the way any real monkey would have done. Then he looked at me. A challenging stare, filled with smug knowledge.
Feeling sudden anger, I ran over to him. The monkey was slow, conditioned by our affection and sultanas. I grabbed a thin arm. He was light. He didn’t struggle, but went stiff with fear — or more likely, was conserving battery power for a sudden burst of speed.
Right. I spreadeagled him with my hands on the pine floor. Right. I was sick of being watched, analyzed. The sliver eyes blinked. I stared into them, seeing though and down to a control room somewhere, guys in greasy vests with their feet up, sipping preform cups as they watched the screens, saying, Hey, will you just see that lady. Right. I looked around for something hard, sharp. But the bedroom was clear and empty. I grabbed the monkey roughly by the neck, hauled it into the kitchen. The floor pattered behind me, a watery trail of ordure. Yeah, I though, how realistic, picturing the guy in the vest at the far end of the link, hitting the appropriate button.
I held the monkey down on the cutting board and reached for the nearest thing on the antique rack. Which turned out to be a meat tenderiser. Through the window, there was blue sea, palm trees, lacy waves. The monkey still wasn’t putting up a fight, which I found somehow disappointing. He just stared up at me, his tiny mouth half bared, showing his tiny teeth, his helpless pink tongue. I released my grip slightly, daring him to try to nip me. The monkey just shivered, stared at me with those old, wise eyes.
I let go, wondering if this was a demonstration of mercy or a simple failure of nerve. The monkey pulled himself up and stared, squatting on the work surface. He gave a shill chatter and rubbed at his face. Then he looked hopefully up at the jar of sultanas. I had to smile, but when I reached for them, he started, jumped down and sprinted from the kitchen, though the bedroom door, up out of the window, blurring into the green shadows beyond.
I stood for a while at the window, but there was nothing to see but the tangled beauty of the jungle. Turning back to the bedroom, I saw the photograph of Meena lying on the pine floor. I picked her up. She turned towards me and smiled.
” — don’t — “
I smiled back, then tucked the photograph into my back pocket. My Meena. A memory. A odd kind of memento of this odd, happy holiday.
I got the crab-robot to clear up the mess the monkey had left, then carried our cases out to the jeep. Sitting down on them, I gazed around at heaven for the last time. There was no sign of the monkey, but through the gently nodding palms I could see the white speck of the flying boat as it turned along the island, preparing to touch down. Listening to the faint and somehow reassuring hum of its engines, I sat and waited for my Meena to return along the shore.