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GIDDAY TIM

Mr. Dogster sat silent, liquid in his chair, dabbing at his forehead with a stained, yellow handkerchief. A thump. A lurch. He tried not to scream.

‘Clouds!’ shouted a voice, ‘bitta turbulence!’

‘Yes,’ I squeaked and pulled a face.

‘Nothing to worry about!’

He was wrong.

Dog hates these intrepid types; all gung, no ho – witless cock-jockeys with my life in their carefree, callow hands. This one was indecently young, knew no fear and flew tiny airplanes in the South Pacific for a living.

‘We’ll be out of this in a moment!’ he yelled.

Dogster shut his eyes and tried to pray. As usual, nobody was listening. The air hung heavy with humidity, fear and the thick smell of four enormous islanders in the back . We were all going to Hell together. To prove it we fell a thousand feet and hit the bottom of an air pocket with a bang.

I whimpered. The pilot laughed.

‘That was a beauty!

Shut up and fly the plane.

Behind me one of the locals vomited into his sick bag, looked up with watery eyes at my alarmed face, took a deep breath, then bent down and did it again.

‘Islanders! Always get sick! They hate flying!’

The cabin filled with the reek of it and the pilot opened a vent that poured cool air directly on our faces. That stopped me searching for my sick bag as well.

He held out his hand.

‘Gidday,’ he said, ‘Tim…’

*

Gidday Tim wore a wedding ring and a broad smile over a creased white shirt that stuck to his chest with sweat. He was a happy blond Aussie with a happy blond wife and a happy blond life in Port Vila. They evidently spent many sweaty hours making happy blond babies judging by the large hickey on his neck.

‘This ya first time in the islands?’

‘I think so,’ I muttered and shook the pilot’s outstretched paw.

He jerked his head in the general direction of land.

‘Business?’

Dog allowed himself a wry smile. He had no idea why he was here.

‘Nope. Just being a tourist.’

‘Don’t get many of those on Tanna. Too strange…’

I had to ask.

‘What do you mean, strange?’

‘It’s the volcano! Something about the volcano makes ‘em crazy! You’ll see.’

*

Mrs. Michael lay prone on the bed, stuck to the crumpled sheet with sweat. Perspiration poured out of her, running hot into the crevasses of pink flesh, oozing continuously down into the bed below. There was a rank smell that no change of linen could disguise; a crusted, crystallized pongology of her years of tropical torpor.

She slapped at a hungry insect. Bastard, she thought. Bite me you little bastard, you’ll get more than you bargained for.

Because there was more of Mrs. M. than most people, there was more potential for insect attack. She was a mass of little scabs and bumps and itches, spent most of the time encased in a vast white mosquito net hung around the bed. The tropics held her prisoner, trapped by a mound of lard in her bungalow, high up on the hill.

The bug lay squashed flat on her hip, a little ooze of gut and blood. She wiped it away with a corner of the sheet and sighed.

Another day in Paradise.

One enormous dimpled leg stuck out unencumbered, vaguely searching for the floor, tiny fat toes poking out of what was once a foot. Her toenails were gnarled and ridged, thick terse projections distorted by fungal growth, yellowing and sharp. It was a long time since she’d been able to bend down and attend to things like toenails.

To-o-o-o hard, she thought, much too hard and lay still. Soon she was dozing again, lost in a South Pacific swoon, too stupefied by sloth to move.

*

The preacher’s room was bare but for the unmade bed, a mosquito net, a chair and a single large trunk in the corner with his Bible on the top. There was a cross on the wall and ratty curtains over the one open window – nothing else at all; no tiny memento, no indication of who or what lived in here – a completely ascetic room; clothes, a hat, an empty glass with a think line of ants crawling in single file up one side and down into the sticky, dried whisky left in the bottom, nothing more. The visible life of Father Lathaniel Cooper.

One elderly church, an empty clearing, thirty huts, thirty families – a hundred sheep to his solitary shepherd – but of all those probably only a third were really children of the Lord. The rest were a crafty, duplicitous bunch, capable of saying a prayer with him then killing a pagan chicken to appease an entirely different god.

My flock, thought Father Lathaniel, and curled his lip. My fucking flock.

‘Get the shower ready, Jarod!’

He heard the scuttle of bare feet move away from his hut, slipped on his spectacles, yesterday’s shorts, grabbed his soap from the chair and opened the door.

The laughter quite surprised him.

He’d forgotten his behavior the night before.

*

‘There she is!’ shouted Tim and banked the plane sharply to the right. I heard a gasp from the rear seats and a splash of vomit. I didn’t look round.

The island hung there in an aquamarine fog, the peak of the volcano at one end wreathed in smoke. At the far side of the shoreline the volcano seemed to rise straight out of the sea, curving up in classic style, on the other it seemed to have split wide open in a vast flow that once must have formed the rest of the island. There was a second, smaller cone at the mid-point, one side of which had broken away and collapsed into a dip in the landscape. It looked like a frozen wave of black rock. Far off, out to sea, there were flashes of lightning and a grey curtain of rain surrounded by bright, sunlit ocean. From behind me I heard sighs of wonder.

‘Yasssu-u-u-u-urrr…’

The water was clear, extravagantly beautiful, fading through the spectrum of blue and green; I felt a thrill of excitement in the pit of my stomach and shivered.

‘Yasssu-u-u-u-urrr…’

Abruptly the plane leveled out and the tops of palm trees cut across the relentless turquoise of the water.

‘Good luck,’ said Gidday Tim and laughed.

*

A bump, a grind and a blast of hot air; we skidded to a halt on a grass airstrip somewhere near the coast, the single ramshackle office overwhelmed by a welcoming committee of a hundred locals, extended families, aged grandparents, unmoved youths – all staring steadily at the pallid tourist. A pig fell out of the luggage compartment.

‘Yeee-owww!’ said the pig.

There was a long pause, punctuated only by the pig, as they looked at me and I looked at them.

Silence.

Suddenly the whole group broke out into a wild ululation of welcome and rushed at the plane. I stood, rooted to the spot, smiling witlessly. It was only when the first of them ran straight past that I worked out I was not the star attraction – it was the four nauseous islanders climbing down the stairs behind me. I remembered to breathe.

‘Mista Dogsta?’

A high-pitched voice from somewhere in the crowd; a waving hand with a ragged, hand-written sign.

Welcome to TANNA BEACH RESORT

said the sign.

It didn’t look very professional.

‘Mista Dogsta?’

I was easy to spot. I was the only white man.

‘Mista Dogsta…?’

He pushed his bony way through.

‘My name is Daniel.’

 *

MRS. MICHAEL

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