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MRS. MICHAEL

It was only in the cool of the evenings that the orchid flowered – when Mrs. Michael could bear to get up, rub a wash-cloth over her sticky flesh, douse herself with perfume and pace the balcony, cigarette in hand, dressed in flowing chiffon, made up like an ancient French whore.

‘Darlings! Hello-o-o-o!

Her piercing shriek of welcome would appear from nowhere. New-arrivals look around, confused, see no-one. Wha…?

‘Up here, darling. Look up! Up!

Eventually they find her, a whale in a nightie, flailing greetings from on high.

Welcome! Welcome to Tanna Beach Resort!’

The boss’ bungalow was built on to the side of a steep hill. One side butted on to a winding road cut into the slope, the rest leant out precariously, held up by a forest of upright bamboo poles tied together with hemp and bits of string. Jutting into space was the balcony. The balcony was her world.

Welcome! Sit down! you must be ex-haus-ted!’

She could see it all, over the roof of her restaurant, over her bar and her kitchen, across the lawn, into the doorways of her huts, down the gully to the beach, over to the point. Nothing escaped her evil eye in the evening – she even had a rusted telescope up there for night-time snooping. Each evening Mrs. M. held a solitary salon as guests wandered about below, gaily shouting out her hello’s and good-byes to all who paid her vastly inflated prices.

‘Mary! Eunice! Bring our guests a beverage! Drinks! Drinks for our guests!’

*

Daniel looked like he’d been freeze-dried; wiry and restless, parchment skin clamping fast to his bones with resentment, his eyes glinted with fossil rage. Drag-queen nostrils arched with disapproval at the sight of his latest burden – he didn’t like tourists at the best of times and it seemed, particularly didn’t like me. The sounds of welcome faded away as he damned Dogster with a dreadful, dull stare.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ I said formally and stared straight back.

‘Pfft,’ he said silently.

We didn’t shake hands.

*

Father Lathaniel girded his loins and walked out onto the balcony, past his favorite chair, down three steps and across the clearing to his personal shower. This was a bucket with holes in it surrounded by screens, topped up by the perennially enthusiastic Jarod, his manservant, factotum, assistant, cook and slave. Jarod would stand up on a little ladder whistling, pouring the water in to the bucket when required, steadfastly looking away lest he see anything of Lathaniel’s manhood. Jarod didn’t care. He was married to Lucy and they lived over the square. In return for his church duties Jarod had a special position in the village; he was Mista God’s right hand man.

Cold water brought the preacher to his senses. He washed carefully with coconut soap, scrubbed his closely cropped red hair feeling thick lather run down the small of his back. He was a thin man getting fat round the middle, soft and out of condition, a man of the cloth, not the flesh, he reminded himself, all brain and no body – but sometimes there were fleeting morning memories of those bare breasts at the market, those pert brown nipples, the delicious curve underneath, the freshness, the bloom on these young native girls from the hills…

He felt his loins stirring. Stop, stop thinking this. What has got into you today?

He lifted his head to face the dripping water, ran a hand over his forehead and shook the water from his ears. Ah-h-h, excellent, he thought, much better. Lathaniel was himself again. He dried off briskly and put on the fresh clothes Jarod handed him – one pair voluminous boxer shorts, faintly striped in blue, one pair dark blue shorts with cuffs, ironed, one short-sleeved shirt, once white, now grey, with frayed collar, also ironed. Joshua also handed him a pair of rolled up long socks that he threw high in the air in a purposeful way as he marched back to his veranda, ready to start God’s work.

*

Daniel led the way to the jeep with a crapulous grovel then took off; a banshee shriek chasing the sunset along a rough gravel road. We left the township far below and wound steadily up through rainforest, roared into a thick blanket of twitters and sighs, sundown shrieks and gurgles. Jungle, red sky, silhouette. This must be Tanna. I’m here. We barreled up the road.

He was singing to himself, an odd little song full of clicks and guttural grunts, the kind of song a shaman would sing. I felt a shiver run up my spine.

‘It’s the volcano! Something about the volcano…’

I tried conversation. He just ignored me, changed gears with a crunch and switched his headlights on. Even the scrawny back of his neck seemed to emanate distaste at having this dilettante in his charge. He let the transport do the talking.

‘Shut up,’ said the jeep, ‘or I’ll kill you.’

*

When the customers were out of earshot, Mrs. M was an evil martinet, screeching abuse at the staff from above. As the sun began to set there would be a bellow of rage and a crash, a howl of anger or a curse as she first stumbled about on that swaying veranda – then the first summons of the day.

‘Euuuuuniiiice!’ she’d howl, ‘Eunice and Mary!’

Eunice was the taller of the two, stick thin with an exquisite blankness about her. She wandered about the kitchen like a willing robot; performing task after task in what Mrs. M called a ‘bovine’ fashion. The poor thing could only operate within the strictest of routines – lacking even the elementary rudiments of initiative she needed structure, a sense of order to mould her day and within those parameters was happy and always content. If anything changed she simply fell apart or fumed, as she was doing now, with a powerful rage that defied logic or reason.

‘Euuuuuniiice! Mary! Come out of there now. Christ almighty! Do I have to do everything here myself?’

Mary was equally stupid but very religious. She thought Mrs. M was the Anti-Christess. At each pagan mention of the Lord’s name Mary crossed herself and mumbled a little prayer. It always finished up with ‘God bless Mrs. Queen.’ She was convinced that the little baby Jesus was the son of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. It’s a long story.

‘Girls! Come out here!’

Mary pushed her idiot sister out of the kitchen to be bovine at the banshee on the balcony. She knew this drove Missy M particularly crazy.

Eunice would just stand and stare – no response to the abuse, no reaction, just mute resistance.

‘What should I say? What does she want me to do? Why is she shouting at me?’

There was no clear answer so Eunice simply stood and stared until the she-devil stopped. Mrs. Satan clumped away.

*

‘Just exactly where are we going, pal?’

Daniel glanced at me with contempt.

‘Yasur,’ he said.

I nodded blankly. Research had not featured heavily in my planning.

‘Yasur!’ he shouted, as if talking to a half-wit, looked away with a sneer and accelerated up the hill.

*

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