By Catherine McNamara
Another pointless day, Ellis. They won’t have the girl moved into a clinic. She’s clearly suffering and should be on morphine now. In the mornings they lay her on a foam mattress on two tables pushed together; even so as they bundle her up you worry a bone will simply push through the skin. Just this morning before I left town - I can’t bear Mother’s gruelling prayer efforts any longer - I paused on her face and her eyes like a pair of spoons divulged a painful glow.
Eugene washed down the gauzy bread with a searing cup of instant coffee. Breakfast in the hinterlands of West Africa. His eyes strayed around the bar. Four plywood walls and a bamboo-clad ceiling, posters for competing national beers. The waitress sashayed out through plastic streamers nailed over a door frame. Five years down the road and she might look like Becky at home – a frail assembly of limbs, her organs kernels without an orbit.
He paid then headed back onto the sandy street. A way off was the beach. Last night he had heard a king tide booming against the small headland holding the fort. The massive sock of two heavyweights ramming shoulders. Wave versus sediment. Seas versus earth. Maybe the Prussians had listened to the same collision as they lay perspiring in netted beds. Hadn’t they erected the minor fort before it passed to the Dutch? Two centuries before Wilberforce deplored the trade in slaves along the coast? The whips, the cassocks, the brass. And all for what? Tit for tat between Europe’s restless third-born sons, the empire-builders and crackpots. And then Bismarck’s tailspinning thrust that fractured the deserts, the quiet rivers and villages, the colossal forests with their soaring primordial virginity.
There had been chatter last night at the fort. Two women speaking English had arrived carrying large knapsacks down the narrow hall. They had settled. Not without opening his lockless door looking for the bathroom and making the standard exclamations upon discovering the tap was dry. The generator had long ceased its putter. One knocked on his door and asked if they could borrow, or well, have, a match. Wide awake, he lit his own candle, then threw over a lighter. He saw the usual type of African adventuress. Apologetic, too smiley, a printed headscarf. She said they had a bottle of whisky if he’d like to join. Eugene declined. He blew on the candle, turning back to the sea.
Sleepless, his skin was a mask of sweat, suctioned into the hollow before each wave propelled its mass against the rock. Each boom worked upon his subconscious with a ravenous deconstruction, leaving palpable rivulets in the wake of the breeze.
It must have driven them insane.
Princestown, the day after
Occasionally, Ellis, you will see a trunk of implausible hugeness leashed onto a little truck. They come down from the forests. But if you look around the coastline you will see only scarred hillocks and rusted towns. People appear sodden, unwoken. As if the pillage happened yesterday.
Mother says Becky is lagging. I am half-inclined to catch a bus home - the old puppet strings - though the moment she pronounces the words ‘The Lord’ I steer townward for a beer. Apparently your hero Klaus Kinski filmed an epic here in the eighties. Oh, they say he’s left a heathen litter somewhere in the hills.
The two Western girls were on the beach. The sun focused hard and sharp upon their translucent flesh and souvenir white-girl cornrows. A knot of kids swarmed around them. Eugene would have liked to turn back but there was nowhere, really, to go. The town’s fruitless streets he had combed in the hour after arrival, plagued by the same knot of ragamuffins. Seeking architectural delights he had found none beyond the auspicious fort, which worked no magic upon him.
That was it then, a confrontation was in order. They had already glanced in his direction, perhaps glad for respite from the youngsters. They oiled each other’s backs, each round-shouldered, cupping pale breasts. One pulled on a baseball cap whilst the other merely closed her eyes, laying back, mistress of the sun.
It was not long before an irritation seized him. They were - what? Volunteers? Drumming students? Lain out like models on location. Ellis called it the black beetle in his bonnet. That once-removed sense of historical propriety that coursed his Camden veins. For in truth he had only been born and brutalised here.
Old Florence had given birth twice at a distance of eleven years. That was where his history began. After Independence Florence Ohima Boakye served drinks at the state lawn tennis club. The lithe politicians of the new regime exercised there, perfect as Englishmen, but brown and proud to the marrow. They were tall, heavy-jawed, now free to eat banku and kenke and fufu with their hands, fingers red with palm oil, eyes bright with local beer. They had waited, they had taken back their world. In one month three of the girls fell pregnant. By the time Florence’s stomach was stretched, her breasts already leaking the cream she would feed her first baby, the President was in exile and her lover had fled to a village on the plateau. In a pink fairy floss dress altered along the seams Florence appealed to her lover’s family matriarch. Her son was passed down the name he wore like a troubled conscience, given the old man could be bought for the cheapest fire-water to be had.
But Eugene’s sister Becky was construed out of the bitterness of the harsh years afterwards. She received no education, cursory love, much admonishment. She had a village girl’s far-reaching submission, the stray dog’s art of subsistence. Dark as charcoal while Eugene was pearly brown, she pooled their mother’s wretchedness. Eugene, the family emissary, was propelled back to the first world where he wore his pelt like a suit from the back of the wardrobe. For years he was launched back and forth, from the world of tin to the world of glass. And here he was now, a man with an elaborate, undeserved education, whilst his half-sister’s brain was nibbled by disease.
He trudged towards them. The first girl spoke with a strong Australian accent.
‘You were at the fort last night, weren’t you? Sorry if we disturbed you.’
Well, he thought, I hardly expected to catch a bus along the coast without stumbling across your type.
‘You a Brit?’ she asked.
‘Looks like you’ve blown my cover.’
‘A family visit,’ he said.
‘Well, we’re drug runners posing as volunteers.’
Eugene saw a coconut boy pushing a barrow up over the last drift of sand before the motionless town. He put his fingers to his lips and let out a whistle. The boy turned back, grabbing his cutlass and one of the green spheres. He began to run towards them as if his life depended upon it.
‘Cut the massa and just open the coconut.’
Eugene saw the pale velvet of the boy’s open palm, criss-crossed with wounds, one moist and beaded, before the blade raced through matter.
The evening comes fast and close here, Ellis. The damp is pervasive, despite the sea breeze. The trousers I left on the chair still have not dried completely. The caretaker is a crafty man built like a bullock, who turns into an injured boy the moment the foreigners come for the slave tour. Greek tragedy from the descendent of qualmless Fante merchants, the stink of dirty history.
He drank with the two girls on the rooftop of the sea fort. The moon was in the wrong place, shedding no light upon the ocean. Wind sent the palm leaves slicing together. A child replenished their drinks with lukewarm bottles of STAR beer, rather than the CLUB Eugene preferred. The girls wore shapeless dresses, one with a tattoo like a bicycle chain around her loose bicep.
It turned out that they were volunteers working for a British non-governmental organisation, and were based at a hilltop town near Kumasi, a town the mining trucks and loggers hurtled through. There was little work beyond these two areas, and myriads of children. The girls taught the blind ones amongst these in an isolated school.
The Australian, quite a talker, soon took the centre stage. Whenever he frequented Westerners on his visits he had to listen to their stories of living in Africa, inevitably laced with condescension veiled as enchantment, and episodes of hapless gore. Eugene opened another beer as they spoke and his thoughts began to rove.
Despite old Florence’s efforts to pitch brother and sister apart their shared blood had pulsed together. It was an uncommon animal, crossing over at will, plunging into the current of the other. If he had touched Becky in his room - the night folded over them - he had touched the unopened flower grown from his very skin. He hadn’t wanted, not that. Becky had crept down his trunk on all fours, ass in the air, until her mouth had soothed him. If he had extended his hand, gliding over her, it had been to borrow back the heat they were melded with.
‘You’re not mad, are you?’ It was the Australian reeling him in. ‘That we’re pulling this place to bits?’
‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I don’t exactly live here.’
He might have wandered off to his room but there the dampness and the tossing of the waves were repellent. It was better here in the dark, with beer, with wind. The window started banging in his mind. Why did Becky, who barely knew how to put pen to paper, ever write to him? He knew it was her heart crying, for he too had cried when he had read the words, when the final blood tests confirmed, when her pitch down the earth’s unremitting slope began a year ago. The window slammed. He saw Ellis perusing the letter, growing rigid at the exact terminology, the forbidden tenderness between brother and sister. Her convulsive stare at him. He wouldn’t shut the window now, he knew he would drink on to deaden the slamming.
A whisky bottle appeared on the table with three cloudy glasses. He was handed a drink.
‘Hey, lighten up,’ said the Australian. She was frowning, considering him. ‘Nobody said you did it.’
She began to talk again and now he listened. ‘I had this kid in my class last year. Real little runt, the last of the litter. He wasn’t blind at all, we only realised it right at the end. He could see, you see. Apparently he had malaria for the thousandth time and was in a coma for a while. When he woke up they thought he was blind. Malaria and too much chloroquine can do that. The parents sent him to us. I guess he thought he’d be on a good thing at the blind school.’
‘Go on,’ said Eugene.
‘Well, it lasted months. He did really, really well. I mean, nobody doubted this kid was blind. He was slight and agile, but he’d worked out he had to move with caution and occasionally bump into things. Which he did. I swear he caught the same corner on my desk every time he passed. Things like that. And I have seen blind kids - blind from birth. He must have studied them like mad.’
She took a swig of whisky. Eugene watched her throat, her armpits with damp, frizzled hair.
‘I guess he cracked, he couldn’t contain himself. They found him kicking a ball against a wall out the back. It was one of the gardeners. He tried acting blind again but it just wouldn’t work.’
The other girl laughed a little but Eugene caved in. For the entire course of his education he too had been a brilliant actor. Once he found his place he had called upon every possible skill to offset the display of his colour. He too had walked full-on into objects he could see. At times he’d feared his soul would burst through his skin.
‘What happened to the boy?’
‘The parents came. They were so afraid we would think they had put him up to it. The father took him home and beat him.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I went there. The kid was really beaten up. They weren’t even going to send him back to regular school. And I knew if I gave them the money for the fees it would go to drink or debt-repaying or cloth for the wife. So I found a job for him at our school. Just arranging the desks and benches so the kids didn’t trip all over the place. He only came once. With the longest face you’ve ever seen on a child.’
She rose from the chair. He watched her shoulder bones move under the skin.
‘Look at Marion, will you? Snoring away again.’
Her friend arose in a splutter as her glass cracked on cement. Her eyes were those of a woken cat.
‘Was I snoring? Was I?’
‘Go to bed Marion, you’re out of it.’
Marion obediently dragged herself away. Her friend brought out a joint which they smoked on the wind. It was strong hash, similar to the type Ellis kept in a set of Thai boxes on her desk. Eugene felt the window banging but it was now coming from a remote room that would require an immense effort to reach. The story of the blind boy had opened a path to the other girl, a path of worn earth and familiar bushes.
‘So what are you really doing here? You can’t just be wandering about.’ She turned to him, her face unguarded.
But he wasn’t ready to speak of that. ‘You should help out the boy,’ he said.
‘For Christ’s sake, he is ten and last I heard they had sent him into the bush with the loggers. I never even got through to him.’
‘True. But then again, why should you? For him you are everything that he is not.’
‘Yes, I know.’ These were bare, cool words. ‘I don’t really like this place,’ she went on. ‘The deference, the kow-towing. Never knowing what people are saying or thinking.’
‘You are free to go.’
‘Thanks, that’s a useful comment.’
‘Personally,’ he said this as he dragged deep on the next tightly-folded joint. ‘I think all of you people should be kicked out. No foreigners, no foreign input, no IT, no courses, no funding, no food aid and no fucking experts.’
‘What – so you want it to be like before? At Independence? When they managed to dismantle a functioning economy in five years? Where before they produced everything from aspirins to cars in this country?’
A photo of his father on a pre-Independence tennis court, racquet gliding. He heaved. But she was only partly right. Yes, old Florence had been taken in and implanted. And here was he, living seed of the colossal failure of the new nation. But there was more to it. Their leader. The ideals. The love. They had existed. And the implosion that came afterwards: the colonials had wanted it that way. Surely they had stepped back and nudged elbows at each collapse.
‘And then what?’ she continued. ‘Leave it to the chiefs who’ve sold off most of the land to the mining companies? Or your politicians and their trips abroad? Sorry, those old idealistic arguments don’t hold anymore. You’ve been away too long.’
The air turned in salty arabesques around them. The joint eddied along his nerves but it was shaping into a down trip, full of cranks at his back and crawlies along his spine. He stretched his legs, feeling the brush of feathers on his head. Tomorrow morning he would be on the first bus to Sekondi.
‘You know, your Western enhancement is just a raft out here,’ he said, enjoying the words. ‘Makes little boys pretend to be blind.’
He pissed over the parapet while she was silent. Later, he led her along the narrow wooden hallway built for smaller men. She closed the door, leaned with a heaviness against it, watching him undress and part the netting. She pulled off her clothing in ragged movements but that was all he saw. For he had lain out, turning inward. She climbed onto his broad back and he turned he rose he lubricated her swiftly pushing her to the bed. Then emptied into her, demons on his breath.
She cannot be moved at all now. Mother said a group of them – her personal stray cats – prayed all night through Tuesday until dawn. Apparently she sat up on the bench early that morning and asked for MILO. She drank a cup, then the crackle ceased and she fell back into a coma. I have called a doctor friend at the hospital, even for pethidine I would inject myself, but he dissuaded me. Let sleeping dogs lie, he said.
My mother believes she can be cured.
Florence lived in an airy litter of rooms. Drawing room, parlour and salon were peopled with extended family members, their extended family members, the ailing, the poor, the good-for-nothing. The gallant colonial house wore broken curtainless windows with rusted grills attached on the lower level, presumably against theft. Stucco ornament, where not fallen away, was traced with the soot of decades and the house name resisted in cast concrete capitals above the front door, along with the construction date. Two worn lions either side with their burnished, dimpled stone mostly wore drying briefs, shreds of cloth and martyred T-shirts.
Far back in the house, Florence’s private apostles prepared for her morning ablutions. Christian prayer came first, then exercise (she walked for ten minutes on an antiquated jogging machine, for yes, she had been in the West), then bread and tea. Florence dressed with aplomb. An array of cloth-sellers knew of her predilection for orange, magenta and aquatic green. Her seamstresses were constantly on call.
In the afternoons Florence banished the girls, sat on the bed nibbling groundnut and roast plantain, cast back on pillows watching an American soap opera with its furry yellow profiles, her dusty religious icons around her. After several days of absence she expected Eugene home today. At her core she knew her son was bound to her, that she had culled him from the universe and given birth. No matter that the father had been a scoundrel, that amongst his two dozen children he barely remembered Eugene’s face and knew nothing of his countenance.
At the end of the day Eugene brought a pot of tea and sat with her. She began to admonish the small boy in him.
‘Where have you been for so many days? The girl is surely going.’
He circled the room. A tall man in unwashed jeans and an old black T-shirt. His beard had grown. His hair needed combing.
‘And what of your face and hair? You must comb.’
He sat down on her bed, his most open and reliable mark of affection, loosening his shoulders.
‘You are not eating well.’
‘Mother,’ he said, and straightened. ‘Becky is in the courtyard. There are flies sitting on her, noise, children flying past. Why don’t you put her in the clinic? Doctor Rabel will take her.’
‘They cannot help her. The medicine will not turn this thing backwards.’
‘Mother. It’s for the pain. If it’s the money – ’
‘You think I have no money? Who looks after this house? Who has bonds in the bank? Who has put you where you are so that you could make a mess of yourself?’
‘At least inside then. In here with you, or in my room.’
‘She will bring death into this house.’
He versed her a scalding cup of black brew and stirred sugar into his own.
‘Mother, it is even unhealthy to have her out there, amongst people who may not know.’
‘They know she has been cursed, that is enough.’ Then darkly, face sagging to the side, she said: ‘Do you think there have not been others, skin and bone like starved dogs?’
Eugene rose, walked to the low window ledge and sat down. Outside the neighbourhood fell to coves of tin under the dusk. Kerosene lamps smouldered the marchers home and the smack of kelewele frying in palm oil hit his nostrils. The old lighthouse began sweeping the sky.
‘You will eat kelewele?’ she asked. One of the skerricky girls was summoned, coins counted on the dresser. She returned with two wads of newspaper, the oil mottled through.
‘There was young Beatrice across the road, you won’t remember her.’
But Eugene did. A fair girl with beautiful, linear breasts.
‘They say it is a question of time and Mary Quaye was forced to follow the same behaviour. I am not stupid. I know the cloth and bedding must be burnt.’
Eugene hurtled out of the room. She shouted to him – twice, three times – her hard voice starting to crack. She cursed the young girl who appeared in fright, whom Eugene whipped past. He tore outside through the layabouts on the steps. They were cousins of his decked like Bronx hoods. He rounded the flank of the house to where the two tables were pushed together, to where his sister lay arranged under the most consumed cloth.
It was so quiet. She was so quiet. He stood there, his breath thundering still. So many times he had watched her sleep. Entered her little side room when he came in piss-blind with pito after a night with old mates. He would check on her, touch her cheek or back. If he were conscious enough he would wait there until her scent entered his lungs a little. Maybe talk to her or make the silly promises you did to a kid. Here, the sickness was never a surprise. A street woman would throw herself on the ground for you, part her legs and gulp you down deep inside of her. Becky had fossicked in the streets, mated in sheds, lounged on the dirty beach until boys took her behind the palms.
He would have been the same had he stayed here.
Hours later he pushed open the tattered iron gate of his mother’s compound. He stood where he had stood as a boy, years ago, watching workers pour concrete across the whole yard. Trees encircled with grey icing. Channels leading both from the rear of the kitchen and the toilet block towards the back wall. Commandeering operations was his mother, grown wider and crankier with the birth of the soundless baby cocooned on her back. She snapped at the workers. They obeyed her in gusts, all thin-chested men who beat their wives at night.
He had been to Doctor Rabel’s house directly. He had caught a taxi to the small bungalow near the university, bought the vial and needle in a matter of moments.
Now they were in his pocket, twitching.
They had covered Becky in wet towels. He stood watching for a while, maybe ten obstinate minutes as he tried to fabricate her pain. Her skin fiercely traced the contours of her skull. Her lips were parted, her eyes two lifeless planets on a sepulchral pull into blackness.
Ellis! She is gone! She was there last night but this morning the tables were tipped on their sides. A small girl used a scrubbing brush to soap them down.
But Mother insists she is not dead, that they have taken her in a taxi to see a healing priest in Sohum. Sohum! More humps on that landscape than on the moon, in a taxi with axles grating on the ground, Becky fevered and too pained to be touched! For what? To lie on the ground and be babbled over?
Last night I had the morphine, bought from Rabel, the needle, the fucking diamond in the night, and I did not send her downward, Ellis. I could not.
Eugene learnt of Becky’s death the next afternoon. He was sitting in a chop bar down the road looking at a smoked tilapia filet in okra soup.
‘Master Eugene. They say Becky is dead. You go come to the house.’
He sat back, pushing the food away. So she had ceased to breathe. Her limbs no wider than his forearms would chill without the passage of blood, her cells die off in drifts. Then the shut-down of every organ and the new masters racing in – chill, worms – replacing life’s flurry.
Eugene paid and staggered into the street. There was a putrid paste in his mouth. He saw the tin walls and crudely printed advertisements with shocking lucidity. Was he relieved? Deep in his gut the roar wilted. He badly wanted to shit. He stood there, fists clenched, watched by people trailing past, his temples and armpits dry as he distilled his grief.
He paced downtown. The sun was high and damning, snagging on skin, snagging on metal. A boy with rippled scars on his cheeks drummed a dirge on a wooden shoebox. Eugene paused by one entrance of the covered town market. Massive sacks of onions passed as a herd on three old men’s backs. Eugene followed the last of them inside and was swallowed whole.
His eyes adjusted. In here there was a patchwork of tin roofs. Light shafts fissured the shadow, levelling certain stands with a hyper-real kinetic. In places, the reds and yellows flamed on labels of hair products, tomato paste and tuna stacked in tiers, and the bright blood seeping from pigs’ trotters in tubs appeared to combust. Further inward, the shadows themselves reeked. Of smoked fish, of gutted flesh, of earthen pots bruised by the sun. Voices shot out. There was the constant Ago! Ago! of the kaya girls pushing down alley-ways, matched by the bunkum wailed by ladies on the stands. Eugene turned this way, turned that. He saw parts of the market he had never wished to see. Chickens gurgled in cages, feathers thick in the air, while fly-strewn chicken parts sat in clumps on benches. Goats were tethered, wailingnah!-nah!-nah! Next to these the very dried and tanned leather now enwrapping their organs.
Eugene’s throat convulsed. The healthy body when opened emanated a smell of wetness, of richness. He had once held a warm pig’s heart dribbling in his hand. The blood running down his arm like treacle. It made his mind jump to Ellis, blood on her thighs, still wanting him. The blood on his cock he pulled from her, how it coloured the sink. He hardened. A boy came up to him, a half-dozen woollen hats safety-pinned to a jacket hanging from his shoulders, a mirror around his neck on a string. A tight-fisted Ga face with the gouge in the middle of the left cheek.
Eugene halted. Now he saw what had happened to Becky. He saw the dawn in the misty forest, the taxi dwarfed by massive trees. Two figures shouting now that the sick girl had begun to stiffen inside the car. Then the descent to Sohum: the trolley wheeled into the empty parking lot of the small hospital, the broad aching nurse.
His mother’s only other offspring in the world, would he have to stay here? He had brushed away that thought before. Though she had implored him enough in the past. Found him work in a clinic where the girls could pull out of an eight-month pregnancy and return home emptied, where he once found a perfect discharged foetus in a toilet block. She had offered him property, her very best, reluctantly conceding that his fiancée could make a decent man of him. But that was before Becky fell sick. Before Becky spent a year becoming an arthritic, feeble nineteen-year-old in the skin of an ancient woman. Eugene had flown out here twice after her stirring, babyish letter. The first time there were fevers, the cough, a painful limp as an imperfection in her hip began to flower. Then, three weeks ago, they had told him she was close to the end, that her voice clung to the sound of his name. Eugene had dragged himself over the globe, still angry that the girl had crossed his skin, that their love had become the vile animal Ellis had seen. That she should die now gave him a poisoned freedom to reconfigure his life. To crawl out of the pit. To run so far.
He stopped walking. Someone would have been sent to search the town for him. They all knew where he wandered. He saw his mother, rallying her apostles for a final dirge, the large television flaring soundlessly. All and sundry at the house would anticipate the lavish funeral party: the fried chicken, soft drinks and live band; the new cloth to be bought now that the thin girl had died. He pulled away from the market and went to the port. There was a place he rarely frequented, a run-down customs building adapted to house the town’s most notorious bar, owned by a conniving local and a conniving British national. The port with its loutish Eastern European crews had established the demand for fair blondes to alternate with what the environment provided, so the place heaved with Ukrainian hookers and perky half-breeds.
Eugene walked into the bar. He went down the freshly painted alley-way to pee. But not even recent renovation had altered the foamy piss-pot he stood looking into, hearing a woman’s long letting go next door. When he walked out he saw that the two white girls from Princestown had taken his place at the bar. Holy hell. Too late to back out. The girl he had used to ease himself. Of course their eyes fell upon him. Eugene felt a bolt slide across his chest. His father’s son. The two-bit drunkard, all cock and no balls.
‘Hey, you pushermen find your way back to town?’ he said, trying to laugh. He realised he had no memory of her body.
He turned around. Fuck, he didn’t need this judgement. A crowd poured in from the street like a badly dressed bunch of extras. Sailors in skewiff caps, mixed girls with hair extensions and sharp eyes. And in front of him, these two.
‘Look, my family thing. It just hit the fan,’ he said. ‘And I believe I’m on my way to becoming drunk.’
‘They left you off the will back at the ranch?’ said the Australian, a tricky little tattoo dissolved into her shoulder.
‘My sister passed away this afternoon.’
‘Oh, sorry. Sorry for joking. I really am.’
The grit left their faces and the Australian signalled for another round of drinks. He almost felt let off for the rocky sex.
He paused. Out there in the big world no one knew. Only Ellis.
‘She had AIDS.’
The words left him, falling in the flat light. He felt the implied contagion, felt the sweat in a second skin along his flanks.
‘Would you like to talk?’
The music exploded loud and fuzzy as the DJ with a huge mop of dreads spun Alpha Blondy. The two white girls negotiated their way to the dance floor, ending up with two local louts. Eugene couldn’t watch. He transferred his interest to a bunch of sailors being primed by the girls. He knew they were killing time as their cargo hulks filled with reeking cocoa pods at the port. When stowaways crept on board, these were the men who hunted them down like vermin, sliding their bullet-pierced bodies into the ocean as their ships moved across the tropics.
Eugene careered outside. In his back pocket he had a phone card. He walked into a small plywood communication centre with two impossibly smaller booths nailed up inside. He heaved, then wrote down Ellis’ number for the guy. He began to pulse.
Ellis’ number rang long. He envisioned the phone on her work desk, the dim light left on in the hall. She was out. He tried to imagine where she might be, strolling where, smelling what; wearing which summer dress revealing her nutty legs and a coaxing pair of sandals.
For a while he circled the neighbourhood of fishermen and layabouts and their slumbering offspring. But an hour later he was drawn back to the bar. In his absence it had filled rapidly with a sea of shorn, bobbing skulls fused at breast, chest, buttock, and an undercurrent of ganja and glue. Eugene pushed inside, stilled by his disconnection. He harboured Ellis within him. He had just wanted to tell her, to have it over with.
Back at the bar the Australian girl was ordering a beer. Eugene sat down, gulping the dark local brew until it hit the juncture of his brain and spine. He felt the needling.
‘Where’d you get to?’ she asked.
With no warm-up she hooked her arm around him. He hardened, smiled, sent a message to his tendons to loosen up. It must have looked awkward from the outside.
He was too awash with sentiment to react. Not sentiment towards her, just a cloud of emotion bellowing through him: Becky’s ungovernable pain and ravaged body, Ellis like a dart in his back and the way his mother could pitch the very earth he walked upon. She climbed down from her stool and expanded her embrace. He remained pinned there, knowing that the West swoons to give, to behold, to conquer. But he didn’t want this. Her palms travelled the length of his back to the cusp of his buttocks, leaving warm trails on his skin. He felt the contours of her front. Unwillingly, he inhaled her smell of sweetness, saw the fair hair plaited in rows.
He pulled away without seeing her face.
He swung around and elbowed towards the street, feeling the relief burst a hundredfold through him. But it was more than dodging the girl. For now he knew that it was over, the whole circle, that he could leave this place in peace. His life was over here and he would return to his anchor. He felt a current of fresh sea water pass through him, washing deftly back. Darling Ellis of the coaxing sandals. For a year ago she had left him. The very day she discovered Becky’s soul-scorching letter of complicity and doom.
God help him, he burst, how he wanted her back!
We have buried her, Ellis. The rains came, rendering jolty and protracted the drive up to the plateau where Mother had chosen her resting place. Church cronies. White steeple, sandstone manned upward from the coast, the stained glass carefully shipped out.
But Becky’s service was held on the just-laundered dust. Tarpaulins tethered out over the wailing rent-a-crowd in flourishing black frocks.
My Mother sat in ground-swelling silence.
It is over now. Those of us who were closest threw the traditional clots of earth onto her shiny casket. The crowd wrung its hands over the wretchedness of mortality, then turned as a tired beast back down the bushy path at a distance from the town, on a mountainside where there is a great, pleasant gulf of air.
This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be republished in any format without the approval of the author.
I hope to read much more of Catherine McNamara's work.