Tag Archives: travel

All Good Things, Catherine Panich

Photo by Ferdinand Stöhr on Unsplash

You probably know the feeling.

Boarding lounge, ten minutes to go. Bottle of water drained and tossed, carry-on at your feet, pass and passport in hand, one last message then switch to flight mode. No, off.

I wonder who’s going to be sitting next to me?

This flight out of Arctic Kirkenes would land in Oslo mid-afternoon. I scanned the crowd for solo travellers, because I was one. The silver-haired man in a dark grey suit? Mining? Shipping? Bureaucrat? But he joined the priority queue for business class, so not him. The woman who hugged an over-sized handbag? Much my age, pleasant enough company for a couple of hours. An itinerant worker? Or a student dreaming of summer’s libations? Who hasn’t played airport roulette?

Then I spotted him. God, I hope it won’t be him. But I had that sharp feeling. You just know.

He was still rows away, but I could smell him. Stumbling over his carry-all and duty-free bags, he worked his way up the aisle. A heavy sourness of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol had impregnated his clothes, saturating the air he pushed through. Late thirties at a guess, scrawny, with an edgy air of neglect that was more stray cat than aloof domesticated.

Just my luck…

He checked his seat number, searched for the correct row, then with a curt nod slid down beside me, his long legs barely accommodated.

Thank God I reserved the window seat.

We buckled up.

Kirkenes quickly fell away beneath the plumes of smoke from wildfires across northern Scandinavia. The dazzling fjords spilling into the Barendt Sea were no longer visible, nor Kirkenes’ timber houses and the verdant beech forests along the Pasvik River.

I’d spent some time in the second most bombed place of World War II. Trapped by the furious ambitions of the Nazis and Red Army for the ice-free port of Murmansk, Kirkenes had been laid waste. Scorched earth.

I’d wandered among delicate bright Arctic blossoms, which had burst open with the impatience only a brief summer could inspire; heard the orange-legged seagulls honk like geese.

Now all lay behind me.

Ever so faintly, the voice of my Danish father seeped in. All good things come to an end. He had a wistful fondness for this Viking proverb. When I was a child, it accompanied ‘no more ice-cream’ or ‘pack away your toys’ or ‘time for bed’. Now I understand he was thinking of his own life, its unspoken disappointments, the many losses brought about by war and migration, and lives beyond repair. But the tipping point… How do you recognize it? Can you?

Only two days ago I’d arrived in a heatwave. In fact, we’d had to stop walking across the tarmac to make way for a departing plane. Petrol fumes in the ripping hot wind posed a danger as the plane swung onto the runway. What had I expected of mid-summer in the Arctic? Certainly not bedraggled flocks of moose lolling by the dusty road-side, nor gasping birds, not such heat where there was midnight sun.

I asked the flight attendant for coffee; the man next to me said, ‘Whisky, no ice, and a Coke.’

Finally we exchanged some niceties. He smiled curiously when I said ‘Sydney’, his pale blue eyes alert.

‘Gum?’ he offered.

‘No thanks. Well… okay.’

He was from a coastal town on the Vardanger Fjord. ‘Vadsϕ. It’s very small. Far away from everything.’ His face relaxed at the thought, and he suddenly looked younger. ‘Peaceful. Surrounded by nature. Not so much stress.’

I guessed Vadsϕ had the same frontier feeling as Kirkenes, a world belonging to tough men and brutalist edges. ‘But why do you stay there?’

‘For the past 2 years I’m a cook in a café.’ He gave a little smile. ‘Nothing much but it’s okay.’ He paused. ‘To be honest, it’s been good for me.’

I recalled my last meal in Kirkenes. ‘So what’s your secret for cooking reindeer steak?’

He laughed with disarming openness. ‘Fry quickly on a hot plate, then serve with lingon berry jam and gravy. Have you eaten cloud berries?’

‘Only as jam.’

‘They’re Arctic berries. They grow in marshes and are only picked in August. It’s hard work. That’s why they’re expensive, but also special.’

I tried to imagine remote Vadsϕ in the long months of darkness, when snow and ice were impenetrable and the cold burned bitter. It lay at the heart of Sami culture. My Danish grandmother, whom I only knew from a formal black and white photo, had sent me one of my first books. Elli-Karin, a Sami girl, tended the reindeers while her father repaired their turf house before winter returned. I loved that book, and through it, my grandmother. Both are long gone. On this trip I didn’t get to a Sami village, and the closest I’d come to reindeers was the recipe of a cook who was flicking through the in-flight magazine.

‘But don’t you get lonely?’ I persevered. ‘Or want to move to the city some time?’

‘Why?’ he shrugged. ‘The people are nice. We don’t live in one another’s pockets, but we care for each other. I can trust my friends to watch the house while I’m away. And I do the same for them.’

He folded one lean hand over the other, then drifted off to sleep. Strands of fair hair fell across his face as his jaw slackened.

I leaned against the window, the view partially obliterated by a wing. Below glided pleated mountains and the shiny confetti of sparkling lakes. And there were no borders – no Finland, Russia or Norway. Ah, how lovely the blue!

Twenty-four hours ago, I’d been in search of lunch. Outside a run-down cafe a board announced: kebab and pizza special. Despite the uninviting interior, I placed my order.

‘How many?’ asked the man at the till. His tone was abrasive, maybe due to his poor English.

‘Just the one.’

‘One? Are you alone?’ Both question and enquiry.

I took a bottle of water from the fridge, then sat at a small table by the window.

At the rear, a family shared lunch. Two women in Islamic dress presided over a gaggle of children, a lively happy group. The youngest looked about the same age as my little grandson.

The boss and his cook moved to chairs at the entrance, chain smoking and talking away empty hours in the sun.

I paused on my way out. ‘Is that your family?’ I nodded towards the gathering.

‘Yes, my family.’ Although surprised, he was pleased by my question.

Children’s carefree laughter filled the cafe. The child who reminded me of my grandson leaped from his chair and ran to his father, dark curls bobbing.

‘You have a beautiful family.’ Curiosity got the better of me. ‘Where are you from?’

He frowned, stroking the head of his son. ‘Why you want to know?’

‘Just interested.’ I told him I was from Australia.

The men glanced at each other. ‘Syria,’ said the boss. ‘We are here from Syria. Three years.’

‘In Sydney I teach English. Some of my students are Syrian.’

He relaxed. ‘Good students?’

‘Yes. And very nice.’ That made him happy. As I turned to leave I had the impulse to say, ‘I hope you have a good life here. After everything…’

Later that afternoon I joined a small tour group to where Norway ended and Russia began.

A young soldier was throwing a ball for an indefatigable shepherd. Barry had been on border duty years longer than his handler. On cue, he leaped into his box at the rear of a black SUV, to be chauffeured back to the compound and dinner.

According to our tour guide: ‘This is where thousands of Syrians crossed the border on bicycles. Have you heard about it? Three years ago, European countries were trying to stop the flood of refugees. But there was another way – the Arctic route through Russia. The asylum seekers got visas. They went to Moscow, then they managed to get right up here, to Murmansk. But it was illegal to cross the border by foot, so they bought bicycles. Thousands of bicycles. They rode across the border. Now no-one knows where most of them have gone.’

Our little tour group gazed silently at the close dark hills of Russia, the stark watch-tower, and the boom gates where a pair of armed soldiers faced each other stiffly.

‘They say fifty tonnes of bicycles were abandoned,’ marvelled our guide. ‘Filled about thirty containers.’

Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun our descent into Oslo…

My flight companion stirred. He glanced about disoriented, rubbed his hands over his face, then gulped the last of the Coke. My blocked ears had already noted the dropping altitude. The landing gear clunked into position.

‘Are you staying long in Oslo?’ I asked.

He hesitated. ‘Actually, I’m going to Tallinn.’

‘Ah…’ Years ago I’d roamed through Tallinn’s beautifully restored Old Town.

He combed his fingers through his hair. ‘I’m going to visit my family. I was born in Estonia and lived there most of my life, before moving to Norway – you know… work.’ He turned the empty Coke can in his hands. ‘And I’m going meet up with my son. I haven’t seen him for two years. I will take him to Vadsϕ for a holiday. To my house, for the first time. He’s fourteen and likes fishing. Then I will bring him back to Tallinn, for school.’ He smiled.

With the wheels’ impact on the runway, the opportunity to push that life’s door further ajar passed.

As my flight companion eased out of his seat and reached to retrieve his things from the stow, I noticed the design on his t-shirt. ‘Father Ted!’ I laughed. An Estonian from Vadsϕ, and a fan of that British sitcom! Its title was emblazoned in Gothic letters across three eccentric Irish priests, exiled to remote Craggy Island. ‘I love Father Ted! I’ve watched all the repeats.’

‘Me too! It’s my favourite. I get together with my friends and we have Father Ted evenings. We laugh ourselves sick. I’ve got the whole box set, every single episode.’

He patted their faces, greeting old mates, then broke into a crazy Irish accent: ‘Ted: “So you took Father Jack out for a walk… and you lost him. Again.” Dougal: “Well, Ted, like I said last time: It won’t happen again.”’

And I fell into Mrs Doyle, the housekeeper: ‘You’ll have some tea… Are you sure you don’t want any? Aw go on, you’ll have some. Go on go on go on go on go on go on go on go on GO ON!’

And we laughed loudly amid the impatience of passengers who jostled in a slow conga line towards the exit.

He placed his duty-free bags on the seat. ‘For my son,’ he smiled, as if guessing I’d assumed alcohol. He tucked the next boarding pass into his passport. ‘Have a safe trip home,’ he beamed.

‘You too. And have a wonderful time with your son.’

He turned and eased into the queue, then strode briskly towards the transit lounge. No looking back. Boarding for Tallinn.

I went the other way, taking the metro into Oslo, where I discovered the apartment of Henrik Ibsen. It was here he wrote The Doll’s House, which my students generally liked. Ibsen lived there on his return from self-imposed exile in Italy, despite his wife’s reluctance to again endure Norwegian winters. Just before closing time, I shared Ibsen’s view of the street, saw his writing desk and chair, the lamps and cosy timber panelling, his works of art – all evidence of success.

And oh! So remarkably, Ibsen’s dining table was set with hand-cut crystal goblets, identical to those I’d inherited from my parents, passed down from my Danish grandmother and great-grandmother. Exactly the same! Those elegant wine glasses had graced my grandmother’s table in Copenhagen, a long time ago.

In Sydney, I will clutch these moments like the bright bunch of floating balloons I’ll take to my grandson’s birthday party.

I bake a cake in the shape of an aeroplane, decorating it with chocolate icing and a thick shower of sprinkles. So colourful, so joyous.

My daughter lights five candles, and her little boy’s flushed cheeks glow in the incandescence. As we sing Happy birthday dear Charlie! he sharply sucks in air, then blows for all he’s worth, to extinguish the dancing flames in a single breath. Then he asks for the candles to be relit, so that he can do it again, and again.

But as drops of wax melt into the icing, my daughter says, ‘That’s it now, Charlie. Time to cut the cake.’

The knife does its work, and for a while we surrender to spongy stickiness, silently finding bliss in all these good things.

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Miss Phillipa, Melanie Ifield

Photo by Johannes W on Unsplash

The doctors all agree that for me to feel entirely myself again (such an admirable ambition) I am to make my way to the seaside for a week. 

I emerge from a six-hour bus ride at a foreign bus stop in a foreign town. It is late and I am hungry. I am not supposed to feel hunger and the normalcy of such a physical sensation rocks me. Perhaps it’s the local’s blasted sea air working its insidious way into my digestive tract. Well, I’ll take this holiday, and return to work not a day over one week and see what they have to say about that.

I make my way down cobblestone streets. Nightlights are starting to twinkle into life, illuminating this strange town and its inhabitants. There is a sense of freedom in all their movements, as though they have imbibed too much of others’ good intentions. Well, they will get nothing from me. 

There is the sign I have been looking for. A weather-beaten panel over a door stating you could rest your head at the ‘Sea-Side Inn’ for the value price of $49 per night. What a delight. The night clerk greets me as I walk in. During our conversation he establishes, via pointed questioning, that I have a credit card and a driver’s licence. He mentions the tourist pack they have with maps to interesting destinations, all the beaches and bookstores. Could he interest me in these? He couldn’t. I take it anyway for appeasement’s sake.

A cheery voice from behind asks me if he could be of assistance and help me with my luggage. I am faintly amused. In all conceivability it is my wasted appearance which lends itself to such solicitous feelings. Certainly no one has ever offered to carry my luggage before.

I am led up a flight of stairs. A door is opened for me and I am left in solitude.

The bathroom smells familiar, as though they, like the hospital I so recently vacated, use hospital grade detergent. I look back at the mirror. How disagreeable. Not quite in blushing youth anymore. Quite the opposite really: pale, washed out middle age. Perhaps I could find my youth strolling these sunburned streets chatting gaily to other figments of my imagination.

I open the window. Bad idea. More of that sea air comes waltzing in as though every open panel of glass is a hand written invitation. It dances with my curtains, then marches through my hair and down my pipes. I shut the window.

There is not much evening left and I plan to be unpacked and fully rested for tomorrow when I shall face the foreign town and all its peculiarities. Tonight I feel the strength has left me.

Sunlight wakens me. It has sneaked in through closed blinds. I never sleep with the blinds open, no need to leave the flight path to the heavens all that open. I observe myself in the mirror after I dress. My image stares back at me and reminds me that time has marked me more effectively than any passing love affair. Dances are a thing of the misty past and knitting booties for non-existent grandchildren is supposed to fill my days in happy contemplation.

I venture downstairs. Legs a little wobbly. I wander along cobbled streets towards the distant sea. It comes on me suddenly. One minute I am contentedly strolling along and then I turn a corner and see the endless blue. I have to sit down and catch my breath.

I’ve never seen the sea before. It crashes majestically upon the shoreline and I feel very little. Not a feeling designed to flood me with the confidence that has been eluding me. Stupid doctors. Sent me to the wrong address.

People are actually stripping off their layers of civilisation and running at the seething mass of unfathomable waters. They are facing it and yelling challenges to the sky. I sit there and eye them doubtfully.

‘I am quite comfortable here, thank you young man,’ I reassure the darkly handsome stranger who catches sight of my breathless state. I am in no need of assistance and have no desire to thrust myself into the sweeping jaws of foaming waves.

This sea they are all so enamoured with appears dangerous. Look at them plunging in and spending energy one day they will kill to have again. They have no care that it whispers a dirge in its sleepless prowling of our coast. They are secure. They are young and how the young feel their own brand of immortality. Just you wait, I think with savage glee. You’ll sit here and feel the same feelings of wasted energy. I stand and stretch. My, how tiring all this fresh air is. I make my way to a small café I saw earlier.

I finish my salad and fish. I sit and let humanity wash over me in a tide of raised voices and sweet scents. I shudder and put down my wine, leaving the café, giving no tip. Do I seek the emotions of others? Do I reek of my inner grayness? Is my age a natural insult to their youth? Am I an object of their pity? I hurry away. I am successful I want to shout. I have a house, a car and a bank balance you would be envious of: I could buy you all. I halt at that thought, a part of me ashamed. 

A group of youngsters come careering passed. One knocks my arm and stops. Pleasant face screws up with worry. ‘So sorry missus. Don’t know what I was thinking, not to see you there. Hope I haven’t damaged anything?’

I open my mouth to deliver a blistering lecture, and close it again on a teeth-clenching smile. ‘Oh no dear, I am perfectly fine,’ and I turn to walk back the way I have come. Had I once been that age? All limbs and freckles and bursting forth with a vitality that alarms middle aged ladies so much? Seems unlikely. I always had an old and slightly jaded soul, just had to grow into it. I am well on the way. Perhaps being more elderly is going to be better than I imagine. I curl my lip in derision. May as well get that knitting out.

I am in an open aired plaza. I hear snatches of conversation. People glad the weather was holding, glad the storm of last week had blown over and delighted the local council was putting on a dance in two days, right here at the Plaza, wouldn’t you know? No, I didn’t know. Bother and damnation. My room overlooks the park attached to this Plaza. How annoying.

I find myself in a bookstore. A little light reading might pick my spirits up. I make my selection – there isn’t much to choose from – and return to the blistering street. I hasten back to my room, my sanctuary, and lean heavily against the door as it closes behind me. I frown down at my light and whimsical novel. It is full of romantic nonsense. Whoever would enjoy a chauvinist telling you what to do all the time? So controlling I could choke, but I have it now, so may as well get on with it.

Evening approaches. Marta Hermann’s novel on Lady Westerling’s Romantic Sojourn put me to sleep hours ago. I turn my head to look out of my window. Daylight has receded. Dinnertime approaches once more. There is a lovely little corner in my host’s dining lounge tucked obscurely away from nearly everyone’s view I can hide in for dinner. I eat a little more salad and a lot less fish. There is no red meat on the menu.

I feel eyes upon me. I glance surreptitiously across my garlic bread. Seated just within sight is a man. Well, nothing too portentous about that. I make no acknowledgement that he is looking in my direction. While I was the looker when younger, I can’t imagine turning heads now but there you go. Fair’s fair. The man may have forgotten his glasses. I finish my meal.

He has approached my table hiding behind a waitress. No warning. Pleasing deep voice says he can’t help but see I am alone and asks if I would care for a nightcap at the bar. Disturbing. I can’t imagine what encouraged him. I frown majestically and refuse politely. He smiles at me and suggests a holiday for one is never as much fun as having someone to share the tedium with. A kindred spirit in the most unlikely of places? I say I am too weary from my day. A second suggestion is forthcoming. What if we were to walk the beach together in the morning? I agree, if only to remove this obstacle from between me and my room.

I am in my room. My heart is beating a little too fast. This man has upset my calm. I cannot help feeling I have committed a grave error of judgement. Not to worry, there are a million ways of seeing off unwanted attention. I close my blinds and allow Lady Westerling’s ridiculous palpitations to put me to sleep.

It is Tuesday. I have a date to go walking on the beach. Good grief. What had I been thinking? I sit and ponder how to escape this demanding social event. I am not a social creature. (Sometimes I am, however, Master of the Understatement.)

A knock sounds on my door. Not here already! I have never dressed so fast. I answer the door in bright yellows and brilliant whites. Enough to paralyse the best intentions. It is a maid. Would I like my orange juice here or out on the terrace with my gentleman friend? I have forgotten his name already! It is supplied with amusement.

I’m not saying Amery and I are friends upon our return to the motel, but we have talked and know a little more of each other. I agree to meet him for dinner and retire to my room. I am in turmoil. I lie on my bed. This Amery is a wonder. Most disturbing. My eye wanders over Westerling… Perhaps I can fit in a chapter or two before dinner.

As usual, I have drifted to sleep. I glance at my watch. Good heavens, I’ll be late. I study my wardrobe. Somehow, it all seems a little out of place now. I choose the only evening-looking garment among the meagre contents of the cupboard. I eye my rather sombre appearance.

Amery has booked a table in a neighbouring restaurant. He takes my arm, to direct me to the right doorway I can only presume. My stomach flutters and I quickly put it down to hunger. I am faced with a beaming waiter – may he take my coat? It is much too grand to call this scrap of material a coat, but yes, he could take it if it makes him feel any better. Amery smiles at my tone. Amusing, am I? At least meat is on the menu. Amery quietly studies what they are offering. He does many things quietly I am discovering. Fascinating. Perhaps it’s his age. He’s probably said it all before.

Dinner is a strange affair. I find myself searching for interesting pieces of myself to place into his silent and warm companionship. I wonder if my doctors would be smiling in satisfaction.

I am glad when it is over, I tell myself. In reality, I think I have enjoyed someone else’s company more than my own for the first time in years. Disturbing. I am faced with the inevitable good night scene. Do I commit myself to further dates? I am in a quandary. Amery escorts me to my door. I know where to find him if I would like some more company, I am informed. I close the door. Having fulfilled my promise to talk to another human being on my holiday, I am now under no further obligation to continue doing so. I go to sleep on the thought that while no obligation exists, a desire might. Thoroughly disturbing.

I cannot believe the quickened pace this holiday is now setting. A veritable whirlwind, I fear. Tonight is that Council-approved concert. I see a note slipped under my door. My disloyal heart leaps. Amery? A notice, actually, for all those who wish to help in providing supervision for the concert. Oh my, now wouldn’t that be fun? I shudder.

A knock. That helpful maid again? This time I answer in my dressing gown, note in hand. Bright delighted smile. Am I supervising? Certainly not. Pleading gray eyes. I shall have to think, I say, putting those pleading eyes on the shelf for later.

My in-house phone rings. Amery. Have I received a note? Yes, but I am determined not to be a part of it. I am admonished. Surely I will not turn my back on a bunch of children? I fume. Coercion. Had he spoken to a certain pair of gray eyes? Chuckles flow down the line. It is possible – didn’t they work on me? Certainly not, but he does. I am a registered supervisor before breakfast is done. Dreadful, but my resistance is weak (perhaps I should change my reading material).

Today I refuse to see Amery out of conscientious objection. I plan to idle my time away watching the waves. I need time to think, away from this insidious feeling. I am most assuredly letting myself be swept away with events. Holidays always seem to work against our nature. 

I sit at a bench, Greek Salad in hand. A group of young, lithe bodies pass me. One stops. It is gray eyes, off duty and rearing to fling herself into the onrushing embrace of water. Will I be swimming today? Highly unlikely, though I do wear my outdated navy suit under my dress for reasons best described as the same recklessness that took me on my date last night. We are joined by the rest of the gaggle, swaying in slips of material that surely have no legal right to be called anything, let alone clothes. Have they perfected sincere, puppy dog eyes, this generation? I am overwhelmed with beseeching sets of them. I fear I must swim or dream of hurt, reproachful looks for days.

The water is cool and nibbles in a friendly fashion at my toes. The gaggle of youth dances off until waist deep. It’s a little disconcerting, this close inspection by seething masses of salty water.

Sunburn has turned me from fluorescent white to fluorescent red, and discomfort interrupts me. I have studied the patterns of water for hours. I face Amery and masses of screaming partygoers in relatively few hours. I leave gray eyes fluttering them at a hapless group of young lads. Ah, for the
grace, and innocence, of the young. Though come to think of it, that glance was definitely not innocent.

I pass through the lobby. Could they suggest Aloe Vera for my skin? They could indeed. I retire to my room to shower and apply layers of oil. I observe my reflection. A faint resemblance to a sautéed underfed lobster.

I wake later to flames marching down my back and across my shoulders. Dressing for this concert proves challenging, but luckily, hours later the concert is over. Relief. I am on fire. Sleep beckons and I crave my solitude.

I spend Thursday bemoaning my lobster-like state. Gray eyes is on afternoon shift and brings me drinks whenever Amery is lax. I believe I am not good company by the looks that pass between the two. Amery insists on staying by my side, however. Incorrigible.

Sleep is an uneasy and fitful friend. Friday looms near and threateningly similar. I take painkillers. I may still look poached, but at least I can’t feel it, so I take a walk with Amery. Amery takes hold of my hand like it is something precious. Am I completely unaware of his feelings? There is no response to a direct attack. This Amery has wiggled himself into my holiday and stolen my calm self-possession. The afternoon is spent in joyful discovery of a kindred spirit. I amaze myself.

It is Saturday. My week is almost over. A last day to sit and watch the ocean. A last day to indulge in endless chatter with my Amery. It is warm and my skin requires the shade. I am happy in his company. I am aware of the each of the hour. There are rare quiet moments today. It is as though we know every word matters. Amery’s silence is gone. All the words he thought he had said and done with now tumble out in a fever. I am not silent either.

 I shall always remember my Saturday. There is nothing said I wish to repeat. Our words are for us alone. I just know it has opened a world of possibility where once I saw inevitability. Only six days? Who could credit it? Sometimes it takes the smallest amount of time to work the greatest changes imaginable. I look over at the bed in my little room and see his peaceful face sleeping there. Somewhat cynically, I smile at my contentment, such a new phenomenon. Life has given me another chance and I go forward to grasp it with both hands. Sometimes a miracle comes
along.

The sea air stirs my curtains and I cannot help but breathe in and fill my lungs to bursting point. A warm voice laughingly tells me to leave off from my solitary contemplation and come to bed. I look again at the quarter moon and reach out to close the blinds. I hesitate. Crawling into bed, I glance over at the wide-open view and wink at the stars and the moon.

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Heart of the Storm, Jacqui Chami

Rhythmic island beats from our neighbour’s dorm serenaded the rain. But the rain was relentless. Cyclone Winston was a force to be reckoned with. The wind was like a sadistic puppeteer pulling its strings – no mercy. Trees had been uprooted from the earth as though their grounded existence was a cosmic joke. An abandoned white bed sheet clung onto its last peg, flailing about on the clothes line. Empty boxes were strewn out in the pool of muddy rainwater collecting between the campus buildings, resembling a river. Towels had been piled up beneath the windows in all the rooms on the left side of the hall to absorb the leaking rain water. The rooms on the right side of the hall were untouched by the rain, both Neha’s and mine. Images flooded my mind as I lay in Neha’s bed, holding her safe and warm in my arms. It was less than a month ago when we first met at Suva airport, Fiji. We’d both been granted a scholarship from Wakeford University to study for a semester here at the Sandy Valley University. It’s hard to believe there was a time when we could have walked past each other at Wakeford as complete strangers. Now, I couldn’t begin to fathom life without her.

 

Homes had been torn apart, but our concrete walls stood high and mighty. The days and nights had morphed into one. The power was out. No cooking. No water. More importantly for some, no wi-fi. I recognised Ana’s loud hyena-like laughter echoing through the walls of Neha’s room. I smiled at the sound of it. It was only a month ago when I first met these girls. Our night had consisted of blaring loud music to drown out the sound of the pouring rain. I might have busted my speaker in the process. Ana braided my hair as we all sat at the dining table and shared stories, going through our supply of breakfast crackers and canned food. Even though the cyclone had confined us to our dorms, I had never felt more free.

 

I listened to the background voices die down as the girls slowly retreated to their rooms. Neha and I had left the others early to watch a movie on her laptop. Her laptop sat abandoned on the corner of the single bed, dimly lighting up her room. The wind danced against the shutters. I looked up. They remained tightly locked in place. I imagined the wind circulating the building, searching for a way in, tearing through whatever stood in its way. Shaking the thought from my mind, I pulled Neha in close and wrapped my arm around her waist. We lay on top of her bed sheets. Even the rain couldn’t drown out our heat. Her long, dark hair cascaded across the pillow we shared. The smell of her cherry blossom shampoo wafted through my nostrils. I nuzzled up to the curve of her spine. My fingertips wrote fleeting thoughts across her soft arms. Her hairs stood on end. My hot, heavy breath sent goosebumps crawling along the back of her neck. She tentatively held my hand close to her chest. Her heart was racing with mine. I swallowed, sliding my bare legs against hers. She responded, releasing my hand, running her fingertips down the side of my leg.

 

Wait, Neha’s straight, isn’t she? All she’d ever talked about was this Henry gamer dude on Team Speak who I couldn’t give two fucks about. Aren’t they in some weird, virtual relationship? Was I misreading this entire situation?

Her ass pressed against me.

Holy shit.

This could ruin everything. You’re friends. You cook together, you live together! Her oversized shirt slid up her body, revealing black laced panties. My fingertips teased her perfect mocha skin. Her body twitched in response as my fingertips danced down her waist. I slid my hand down the slope of her hip, enamoured by her curvy figure. My lips brushed against the back of her neck. A stifled moan escaped her lips.

Fuck it.

‘Do you want me to kiss your neck?’ I whispered in her ear. No response. Oh God. She doesn’t want this-

‘O-okay.’ Holy shit. Taking a deep breath, I lightly pressed my lips against the back of her neck. Her body tensed against mine.

‘Do you want me to stop?’ I asked through heavy breaths.

‘N-no.’

My lips caressed her skin, slowly tracing the length of her jaw. A moan escaped her mouth as she reached back, her fingers entwined through the strands of my hair. Her body turned to face me as I gripped her thigh, nails digging in, our legs entwined. Rolling my body on top of hers, I pressed myself against her warmth. She gasped, sliding her hands down my lower back, my tee hanging loosely from my chest. Running my finger over her parted, plump lips, I leaned in.

She pulled away. ‘I-I don’t think we should do that,’ she murmured, her heavy breath on my cheek.

‘O-oh, okay,’ I replied, hovering over her hesitantly. I watched her chest rise and fall, mirroring my own. She smiled at my confused expression. Lifting her head, she pulled me in to kiss her neck again. I kissed trails down to her chest. Her hips rolled against me. I did the same, causing a loud primal moan to escape her mouth. Giggling, I covered her mouth before pulling her on top of me. Bemused, I watched her confused expression as she tried to position herself. Sitting up, I undid the buttons of her plaid shirt, kissing my way to her chest. She gasped, falling down on top of me.

 

*

 

We lay for a short while in each other’s arms. It felt safe, warm.

I’d almost forgotten about what was going on outside these walls. The rain had died down, and the wind had become a whisper. Its soft breath tickled my ear, taunting the sound of my frantic heartbeat. Neha’s face rested against my chest as she caressed my exposed stomach.

‘S-sorry. My heart is beating so fast,’ I gasped through heavy breaths. ‘It won’t slow down.’

Neha laughed. ‘It’s okay.’

Bzzt. Bzzt.

I glanced over at her vibrating phone lit up on the bedside table.

Neha groaned, reaching for her phone. ‘Fuck,’she jerked upright. ‘It’s my mum.’ Buttoning up her shirt, she walked over to the chair by her desk, answering the call. Asalam wa alaikum mama?’

I curled up under her sheets as she spoke to her mum. I couldn’t stop smiling. Holy shit. That was my first experience with a girl. Finally. But what does this mean for our friendship? Is this going to be a friends-with-benefits sort of thing? Will this even happen again? Could Neha also be bi? I glanced over at her. We briefly made eye contact before she looked away, hanging up. She proceeded to scroll through her phone.

‘Everything okay?’ I questioned.

‘Yeah, my mum was just checking what we ate for dinner. She really thinks we’re living in poverty eating all this canned food.’ She laughed, scrolling through her phone again.

‘Okay, how are you not freaking out right now?’ I hammered, sitting up. ‘This changes everything.’

She put down her phone, looking at me. Her deep, brown eyes bore into mine. ‘I don’t want this to change anything. This doesn’t mean I’m bi or whatever…’ Her voice trailed off as she stared intently at the floor. ‘I don’t know why, I just felt comfortable doing that with you.’

She could be in denial. ‘Till next time then?’ I suggestively grinned.

‘No…’ She ran her hands through her hair, avoiding eye contact. ‘Mary I feel bad. I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s against my religion.’

‘And having an online relationship with a non-Muslim guy isn’t against your religion?’ She flinched. That got her attention.

‘Please don’t make me feel any more guilty,’ tears welled in her eyes. My heart battled with my brain. I chose my brain.

‘So that’s why didn’t you kiss me?’ I pressed on. ‘Because the flaws of your faith only have room for Henry, not me. Am I right?’ I snapped.

‘I didn’t kiss you because I want my first kiss to be with a boy. I’m sorry but I don’t see you…that way.’ Her voice treaded carefully as though it were tiptoeing on eggshells.

‘Mary, I’m straight. I’ve never done anything before tonight…I just got carried away in the moment.’

And suddenly, I saw tonight for what it really was.

‘Look, we’re still cool, right?’ Neha questioned.

‘Yeah. Yeah, we’re cool.’ The pitter, patter of rain filled the silence in the room. I glanced over at the space on the bed where she laid moments before. ‘Will we ever do this again?’ a small voice I didn’t recognise escaped my throat.

‘I don’t think so. If we ever did, it would just be for fun. Could you handle that?’ she asked.

I hesitated, falling back onto the pillow.

‘Sure. Sure, I could handle that.’ I could handle it. Right?

 

*

 

3 months later

I dragged my purple, dirt stained carry-on through the front door of our 11th halls residence. It was 6am, everyone was still asleep. I hesitated outside Neha’s bedroom door. It would be so easy to knock on the door, see her face, spend the day asleep in her arms. Taking a deep breath, I took a step back. I had to be strong. Fighting the urge to wake her, I rolled my luggage down the hall to my room.

 

Kicking off my stained white chucks, I collapsed on my bed. Grabbing my journal from the bedside table, I flicked it open to my last entry.

May 19th

Dear Diary,

Everything I thought was real is nothing but an illusion. When I’m with her, I forget everything and everyone else. Yesterday put everything in perspective. She fooled around with Henry the same day she’d fooled around with me. She insisted on staying in my room after she told me. She could tell I was upset. I needed my space, so I frantically left for the bathroom. I sat in the cubicle, thinking. Eventually I snuck out to Rita’s room downstairs and told her everything. That was before Neha figured out where I was and intruded my ‘safe space.’ Technically, Neha didn’t do anything wrong. I know we’re not in a relationship. But when we’re together, I don’t think straight. I love her. This has to be love. Why else would I let myself feel so much pain?

 

I turned the page, hovering my pen over the paper. I was too tired. My journal lay abandoned on the mattress as I rolled onto my stomach, letting sleep take hold of me.

 

*

 

The sound of laughter resounded from outside my window.

Groaning, I rolled onto my back, slowly opening my eyes. The room was almost completely dark, faintly lit by my phone screen. I grabbed my phone, squinting at the screen. Holy shit. How long was I asleep?

11.30am: Neha: Hey! Weren’t you supposed to be back early this morning?

4.30pm: Neha: I miss you. When will you be back?

Smiling at my phone, I bounced out of bed, fixing myself in the mirror. Tentatively, I stepped out into the hallway. Weird. It was so quiet. Everyone must be chilling in their rooms. I strolled down the hall to Neha’s room, knocking on her door.

‘One second!’ I listened to the bed squeak as she got up, making her way to the door. My foot tapped anxiously. I finally get to see her. She opened the door. Her high pitched squeal rung through my ears as she embraced me in a warm hug.

‘Oh my God, you’re here! When did you get back?’ she beamed. Her long, black hair hung softly over her grey Star Wars shirt.

‘6ish? I’ve been asleep since I got here,’ I laughed, leaning against her doorway.

‘How was it finally seeing your family?’ she exclaimed, perching herself at the head of her bed.

‘It was amazing…’ I shut the door behind me, approaching her bed. ‘I didn’t realise how much I missed my mum and bro till I saw them.’ I sat opposite her, her laptop between us. ‘Nadi was incredible. I wish I was rich and could take my mum anywhere. She’s done so much for Carl and I, raising us on her own.’

‘She did an amazing job.’ Our eyes met. Everything felt warm and fuzzy.

‘Thanks.’ All I wanted to do was close the space between us and kiss her.

Ding!

My eyes drifted to the laptop between us.

‘Oh, sorry. Were you on a call before I came in?’ I imagined Henry waving his crippled gamer fingers from behind his laptop screen.

‘Pfft, that can wait,’ she closed the laptop and set it aside. ‘I missed my masseuse,’ she grinned.

‘Eh, this masseuse has had enough of her bossy client,’ I teased. ‘Her name’s Neha. She thinks just because she’s studying to be a teacher, she can teach the master of masseusery?!’

‘Wow,’ Neha laughed. ‘And this bossy client has had enough of her masseuse thinking she can invent new words, just because she’s a writer. Masseusery? Really?’ I snorted.

‘Okay, who should go first?’ Neha routinely asked. She laughed, reading the look on my face. ‘Okay I’ll go first, as usual. You’ll just end up falling asleep if I massage you first.’

‘Hey! That was one time!’ I laughed.

I shifted to the side of the mattress, giving her space to lay on her stomach. She slowly slid off her shirt, revealing black laced panties. I’d seen them many times before, yet they still had the same effect. Taking a deep breath, I perched myself on top of her, gently squeezing coconut oil onto her back. I watched her tense as it trickled down the arch of her spine. Setting the bottle aside, I spread the oil across her soft skin. My thumbs moved in circular motions up and down the edges of her spine. She moaned in approval. My hands worked their way to her neck, moving in intricate circles. Leaning forward, I rested my body on hers, running my nails along her arms. I watched goosebumps form as my nails followed their familiar route along her arms, down the sides of her back. I felt her butt twitch against me as I reached her ticklish spot. I moaned in response, gripping her hips. She giggled, placing her arms protectively by her side.

I leaned in till my mouth was inches from her neck. She stifled a moan as my breath caressed her skin.

‘M-Mary, we talked about this. I thought we weren’t going do this anymore. It’s been 3 weeks since we’ve-’

‘I’ve been counting the days too.’ I ran my lips lightly over her skin, silencing her. ‘I need you.’ Gripping her hips, I pulled her body against my warmth.

‘M-Mary. This isn’t fair on you. We talked about this-’

‘I’m done talking,’ my fragmented thought process escaped my throat in a broken whisper. ‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Are you sure?’ Neha’s body spoke on behalf of her mind. Reaching back, she placed her hand over mine. Thoughts flooded my mind.

Soon we’ll be back in Sydney. That means no walking down the hall to Neha’s room in the middle of the night when I miss her. Which was most nights. No cuddling when I feel lonely. No massages to relieve my physical pain, briefly numbing my emotional scars. It was inevitable that this would come to an end. Things would never be the same once we leave Fiji. I was willing to hold on for as long as I could, before letting go.

‘Mary?’

I silently wiped a tear away with my shoulder, staring at the back of Neha’s head. I would regret this, I knew I would. ‘I’m sure.’

Our bodies became one as our minds watched on in be-known silence.

 

 

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