The inside of the boat was like a bubble bath. They were submerged hip deep and whenever the nose knifed through a broken swell, more water poured into the stiff wooden ribcage. Both Hugh and Stella were shivering. She was sitting on him, hair wet and sticking to her cheek, clinging to him like a monkey. The engine was taking strain, as it had to push a much heavier load through heaving, stormy sea. But at least the wind was whipping them from behind, hurling them forward.
They had been travelling all night, and after nearly seven hours the sky had lightened enough so that Hugh could move closer to the shore. If their boat was going to sink, he didn’t want to have to swim for miles.
“Where is El Nido?” he sputtered in her ear. “Any idea?”
“No, how should I know?”
“Haven’t you come this way before by boat?”
“Not at night!”
The frown about to burrow into his forehead was yanked at the last moment by her suddenly shouting in his ear: “Wait. I recognise that.” Blinking in the wet spray, he followed her gaze to a tall cliff plunging directly into the sea. It’s still a way, but around that and then through there,” she pointed, “the water should be calmer.”
“Through there, not around?”
Tall dark cliffs rose like ghost ships around them.
“Through, definitely through, and then you turn slightly to the right.”
He adjusted course, felt her hands loosen around his neck. She squatted in front of him and scooped water out of the boat. He kicked at it, used his free hand to scoop at the water. His fingers had turned white and wrinkly, and he shivered now not from cold, but from exposure, and sheer nerves.
They moved into the protected zone, with the cliffs closing behind them, shielding them against not just the powerful rip of winds, but allowing them to move over calmer water.
It was a mystical cauldron, the sheer rock that rose it seemed on all sides, filling with mist and a hollow sounding wind that swirled above them.
Once again they noticed yellow flames dotted all around them. They weren’t just fires in the forest, there were small merry flames sparking on rocks on shorelines near and far. It was most bizarre.
He pointed his eyes at these fires and she gave a dramatic how-should-I-know shrug, and pulled a face.
“Come here. Forget about the water.”
She sat with her wet body against his, sheltering from the slight wind blowing over his shoulder.
“That way?” he mumbled, warmly into her ear.
“Mmmmm,” she said sleepily. Then she nodded, as it seemed more and more familiar to her.
In the murk of mist and very early morning it was difficult to appreciate the spectacular surroundings. Islands rose sheer out of the sea, perched on black rock that had been carved at their bases by the weathering action of seawater.
“I suppose it’s not like travelling on land is it? No road signs. No distance markers.”
She glanced up at him without smiling.
“Can’t be much longer. Maybe half an hour.”
The engine knocked against something. He slowed down, and together they pulled it down, lifting the rotor slightly out of the water.
She leaned over the side, then went to the prow of the boat and stood there, hands on hips, balancing then pointing and turning: “Watch it! Shallow rocks. More this way.”
Twice rocks grinded against the wood under their feet and she pulled a face at him.
The hamlet in front of them sketched itself ever clearer. The cliffs behind the small village rose like a castle. But it was the fires on the beach, and black smoke billowing out of parts of the village that concerned them.
Stella hopped out of the boat and Hugh cut the engine. They walked 50 metres or so through the warm and shallow waters, and finally reached the narrow stretch of remaining beach. It was an odd sight, most of the beach underwater. Hugh imagined beaches all over the world looked like this. It was still a difficult thought to accept. One implicitly imagined a changing tide and water slipping back as it always did.
Then he noticed the bodies lying on the beach. He’d first mistaken them for boats or surfboards, even guessed they were odd tubers of driftwood. But lying on the beach were the bloated bodies of pigs, dogs and cows. Smaller, but more numerous were the dead birds lying everywhere. They made a final shove, the sand scouring the wooden hull, the anchor tossed into the wet sugary sand for good measure. He stood now with Stella, taking in the scene. Just a few derelict human forms wandering about. While they stood there a wind curled in off the ocean and started to really whip the water.
The flames from a nearby fire disconnected and took flight before disappearing.
“This is like a bad dream,” Stella said.
Hugh lifted a hand to his face, wiped his eyes. He felt so tired; he couldn’t imagine how she felt. Waves of shivering went through the both of them. It was the wet that made them shake, because both the drizzle and the wind were unusually warm.
They stepped onto a road and found a fire and saw the wings and feet of charred chickens. They noticed a few figures standing against a wall, their mouths covered in white masks.
Lightning cracked in the sky, throwing bright blue light against cashew nut trees and the gaudy deserted shops of El Nido’s main strip.
Hugh noticed on one side of the town the struts of some houses were underwater, and it sunk in when they drew nearer that what had once been the lawn, the garden, was now under a foot of seawater.
“C’mon,” he said softly to her.
The buildings were a series of units, holiday cottages, and very soon Hugh confirmed his suspicion: the rooms were unlocked, stripped, but abandoned. They found one with a mattress and closed the door. Stella slipped out and returned with two candles and some matches. Hugh did the same, managing to find two bog rolls and some curtains, which he simply tore of their rails.
And with the water swimming under their beds, and the sky breaking over their heads, they slept. They slept while the wind battered and shrieked, and the ankles of one of the houses cracked. The house slipped into the sea like a boat, floated away and then collapsed into itself. They slept as radio transmissions crackled back and forth, confirming outbreaks of H5N1 bird flu in Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the surrounding Indonesian islands. It was spreading unchecked, with no resources available to exterminate contaminated birds. Wild ducks flew through radioactive clouds towards Europe, but the man and the girl slept, wrapped in curtains, a single candle burning on a nearby table while the warm wet wind blasted the sea outside.