A wild man stared back at him. His eyes were alight, and his beard fierce on his face. He heard Stella in the toilet, a steady stream into the toilet bowl. Such was the extent of their intimacy.
The door opened and he noticed her flash by the mirror behind him. His rubbery ear still stung, the sounds still sounded unusually hollow, there was a singing aftersound to high pitched tones, while noises echoed. He wished he had cotton buds to soak up the bloody ooze in his left ear. He dug his pinkie in, dredging out a thin film of pink liquid. Sometimes he felt and heard the bloody bubbling through tiny, soppy vaginal flesh, the torn remains of what had once been a finely tuned tympanum.
“How is it?”
He found her sitting on the bed, knees pulled against her shoulders, held by her arms.
He fidgeted with his ear, looked up from the floor at her, then looking down again but saying nothing.
He knew that what he really needed was a doctor.
They slept head to foot this time, but Hugh hardly slept at all. His ear dripped all night, and he made several trips to the bathroom where he would probe his ear with a finger, and then examine his wet fingertip. Each time it was the same.
In the small hours of the morning he finally found a way to sleep. His dreams were muddled, an epic of wild goose chases and desperate swims through underwater wrecks. But throughout he was conscious of a companion, whose spirit had a warm glow of goodness, and in the epilogue she revealed herself to be the girl lying beside him. He blinked in the early morning gloom, seeing her small body rise and fall as she slept. He turned so that he had his back to her, and lay there despite the fact that the position made his ear leak and pain all the more. He stared at the pencil and single leaf of paper on the bedside table. He rubbed his forehead with a hand, trying to clear thoughts of her, brushing aside the soft whisperings of desire in his body. He tried in vain to sleep.
She left the bed soon after he began to snore, and wandered back to the store. On her way she placed the yellow bucket under a tap, turned it on, then walked quickly into the store. She found some aspirin, and a first aid kit. On her way out she hesitated, her eye catching on a stand of dark glasses and disposable cameras. She spent five minutes posing with various pairs of glasses, chose two, and a pair for Hugh. She grabbed a yellow box camera as well, and another wrapped in bluish plastic for underwater photos, and then she stepped back and quickly grabbed fins, then goggles and snorkels, and finally gave herself completely over to the shopping impulse, loading more shoes and clothes for herself. She also spent time carefully considering Hugh’s tastes before looting three shirts for him, and stuffed all of these into a bag before a terrible wave of guilt broke over her (how much time had she dallied here!) and ran outside and down the street. Someone was standing at the tap. He had turned it off.
“I was told you were here.”
“Well yes, I am here.”
The man adjusted his cap.
“Well, we’ve heard that the camp at Sabang…well…”
“I know,” she said, lifting the half full bucket.
“Well I’m glad you’re safe. Do you know that everyone around here has left on boats for Singapore and Sandakan. Manila is…well, it’s a warzone. Now even the radio’s don’t work because…well…no one is sure why. Some kind of electromagnetic interference they say.”
“Have you been here all along, even after the storms?”
Ralph’s eyebrows bunched together, ostensible demonstrating sincerity: “Yes, I’ve been waiting for you. Following orders.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?”
“Well the question is, with Michael not coming back, when are we going? The holiday is over my dear.”
She moved toward the bucket.
He stopped her, a hand on her shoulder: “It’s just that it’s not safe with all these people trying to leave, to have the aeroplane just standing there day after day. And miss, I have my family too…”
She ducked under his arm, and picked up the bucket’s handle.
“I will have to talk to my friend about this. If I go, he goes. And don’t forget, my grandfather’s people won’t let you through the airport without me.”
“Yes miss. I understand that. So, this man… Please talk to him.” An idea danced across his eyes. He quickly squatted so that his head was lower than hers. He was all smiles: Er…Stella, do you mind if I talk to him?”
“Yes I do mind Ralph. I have to go.” She wheeled on her heel, some water sloshing out of the bucket, “We’ll see you later, okay.”
He jumped up and strode quickly after her. “Miss we must leave this island. Immediately.” He seized her hand but she slipped out of his grip, dropped the bucket and ran.
When Hugh stood on the sliver of sand, a narrow white snake was all that remained of the beach, he was aware of the silence. Even the sea seemed surprised into stillness. She was also strangely quiet, her more serious than usual face breaking into a quick grin when she saw him looking at her. He already knew her well enough to know that something was bothering her. Guilt about his ear?
He turned to listen. No generators running, no choirs singing. Absolutely no one about. Some brown palm fronds had washed up on the beach, and a few dead fish.
They headed through the archipelago, staring as they went at the charcoal black cliffs rising sheer out of brilliant blue waters, into the warm sun. The whole world to themselves? They saw waves battering black towers, what seemed sometimes like fossilised skyscrapers, with their beaches now submerged under at least a metre of water. Well it didn’t seem quite as sunny today, or quite as carefree. Today the sky was puffier with bright white cumulus, but the air itself was also more humid. Islands not that far away grew hazy in this unusually heavy air. And both on the boat were busier with their own thoughts this time round. They took turns, wordlessly steering the boat, both finding themselves staring with unfocussed eyes into the waters slipping by them. They explored until Stella unwittingly happened on Secret Beach, beyond Miniloc, on the tail end of Matinloc Island.
“This is perfect,” Stella said.
“Good girl.” Her face broke into a smile, she brushed her hair from the corner of her mouth.
But it wasn’t quite perfect. Almost all of the beach was submerged, but they found a sandy corner, and beyond it a swimming pool the sea had made of a quadrangle of beach set behind a ridge of rocks.
By now Hugh couldn’t bear the dreadful guttural groan of the engine any longer. It seemed to irritate his ear, vibrating the wound. He pulled his bandana down to cover the ear, but of coarse the roaring continued. Venturing over the not so shallow corals, he cut the engine and the soft, soothing slush of water took over. The keel sieved softly into sand, and they both pulled the boat a little way up on what remained of a wide beach.
Hugh and Stella stood for a moment, taking in the black cliffs that seemed to have been burned in an incredible fire. The powder white beaches sunk under clear, bright waters, the shining green trees hanging over the dark rocks completed the stunning postcard.
Stella, in her orange and pink bikini, pulled on pink fins and goggles. Hugh rambled up the rocky island, glancing back to see her bright shape, a flower, swimming between the corals.
Hugh’s stomach was upset from all the fruit they had been eating. He walked by signs of human habitation, small mounds of shells, a plastic bottle, a few cans of coke. He pulled down his shorts and squatted, feeling irritable, even a little feverish.
When he returned (he had been gone for some time) he found her on the sand around the inland pool. She’d scrawled a message: H4S.
He felt himself blushing inwardly, a bloom of pleasure unfolding inside of him as well.
“Don’t you mean SOS?” he asked her.
“Well if you don’t like it, fine!” She kicked it over with her foot.
Now he scrawled: H = 2 Old
She chuckled, drawing a / through the =.
Somewhat embarrassed he cleared all the writing and wrote: DO NOT DISTURB, H&S’ Island. She grinned at him, clapping her hands and skipping down the beach.
“IT’S ALL OURS,” she sang.
They dug tunnels in the sand until the quadrant set above the Secret Beach had been transformed into sandcastle excavations.
Feeling a little dizzy, Hugh went to the boat for a drink of water from the bucket. Noticing an odd yellow box peeking out of her bag, he pulled out her camera. He removed the packaging, and with his other hand, grabbed the knife and a pineapple.
While she burrowed he cut off the prickly exterior, then sliced off small cubes and handed them to her.
“How is your tummy?”
“Fine,” she said.
“Good. That’s good.”
She put them absently into her mouth, and then saw that he was holding the camera, sitting cross-legged, watching her.
She stood up, flicked her hair cheekily at him, eyelids flickering overdramatically but playfully at him.
“Come on, show me what you’ve got?”
She twirled on the spot. Pulled her shoulders back, pouted and strutted.
“Very good,” he said, the camera making a weak plasticky click as he pressed.
He frowned at the camera, his thumb spinning the film to the next exposure. “Come on, give me more!”
She offered a few gymnastic poses, cartwheels and the like.
She offered somersaults, flick flacks, all of which impressed him no end, and of course his obvious interest delighted her.
She managed to hold herself in her second handstand for half a minute. He put the camera between his legs and clapped his hands loudly. “Bravo, really, bravo…”
He found her nubile body, and its strength and agility, quite ravishing. He also noticed, despite himself that her body was hardly boyish at all. For a young girl, she already had womanly breasts, which she occasionally drew his attention to with subtle and not so subtle folded arm poses, and hands on feet poses.
CLICK CLICK CLICK!
If the sand castle craze was excessive, the modelling shoot was far more so. She ran to her bag to try on her sunglasses, even exchanged her bikini top for a t-shirt tied into a knot at the bottom. For a long time after there were no photos left to take she was still going through a series of poses. She was so unabashed that he was able to honestly critique her. The disposable camera, which had until now been a prop, was now out of the picture completely. She was brazenly showing herself off, while he responded with encouragement or appreciation, and just a little criticism for good measure. He encouraged her to jump, to bound, to bounce. But it all came to a shuddering halt when she jumped onto him, arms flung around his neck, her right arm brushing his wounded ear, and rather painfully too.
“There’s no need to be so rough…” he said, looking more miserable though than he probably should have.
She went back to the sandcastles, mostly kicking those over that the tide hadn’t reached yet. He used the heel of his hand to slot the wet silver blade of the swiss knife back into place. He shoved it into his pocket, and tossed the green pineapple hat into the sea.
The sun seemed to have disappeared, except it was still early. The watery haze, the humid air seemed to have increased throughout the day.
In the boat, still coming down from her modelling session, Stella showed off her tan lines, tugging at her bikini bottom and top.
“Wow, you’re really white underneath.”
“I suppose I should get an all over tan.”
“Well, all the supermodels do,” he said, playing along. “Trouble is,” he said, squinting at the sky, “the sun isn’t shining so nicely all of a sudden.”
“Well I can still tan, can’t I?”
“I suppose so,” he said, realising, as he said this that she was pulling a strand of her bikini.
He glanced back at the engine, somewhat embarrassed, pretending to be casual and disinterested, he glanced back at the Secret Island, and the salty trail the engine was leaving behind.
When he turned around she was lying on her stomach, her red brown back facing the sun. She asked him to rub cream on her back, “Except on my tanlines,” and he did so, massaging the cream gently into her shoulders and back.
“Mmmmm, that feels so good,” she crooned.
He raised his eyebrows to himself, replaced the lid and sat back against the motor. He needed to urinate badly.
So instead of returning directly to El Nido, he headed to a rocky beachhead just before El Nido, close to Corong Corong.
In his mind he remembered his dream, and was feeling a stronger and stronger sexual message building, not only there but in his body too. Nevertheless he felt conflicted, even disgusted with himself for these fanciful ideas. He reminded himself that he was just playing a game with her and didn’t mean anything by it. And after all, he had to prove to her that men weren’t all like her appalling grandfather.
She stood up, neglecting her top, and stepped into the water, and in her second step let out a piercing scream. She screamed, then again, taking deep breaths, screaming again.
He stood beside her, looked beyond her perky breasts to a cloud of blood spreading under her feet. He strained his eyes and made out the needle-like quills of a sea urchin.
In that moment her arms went around his neck, and one arm slipped under both knees, the other around her back. As he lifted her he saw a quill had lanced clean through her foot.
She continued to scream, each time his left ear bubbled an auditory response, making him wince.
“I know it hurts baby, I know. Just hold on, hold on.”
He loaded her into the boat, climbed in and noticed more than one spine embedded in her flesh. Viscous bright red blood was spurting out if a wound already turning a brownish-purple color.
He quickly pulled out the longest spine, leading to more blood curdling screaming.
“Stella I have to stop the bleeding so we have to apply direct pressure to the wound.”
He ripped the red bandana off his head, and wrapped it around the front of her foot. He brought the ends together and insisted she place her finger on the cross-section.
“Stella. STELLA! Now listen to me, look into my eyes.”
She was crying, wailing uncontrollably.
“Stella LOOK AT ME. This is going to hurt. Okay. Put your finger there.”
Suddenly she settled down, anticipating more pain. He pulled at the opposite ends of the red bandana, then tied them.
She cried softly now, a constant gurgling sound of a child in pain.
Half an hour later he was carrying her into the cabin.
Through the night he would irrigate the wound, immerse her foot in hot water (boiled on a small fire with a pot that took an hour to locate), and after stewing the toxin for 30 minutes, he had her lie down, elevating her foot in a sling made from two t-shirts, one attached to the curtain rail.
He dressed and undressed the wound through the night, using bandages from the firstaid kit. He gave her all the aspirins, even though his own ear was throbbing. He was feeling feverish, and he left her only to visit the bathroom. His diarrhoea was worsening.
It was during the coolest hour of morning, the following day, that she finally fell asleep, her face wet and red with tears.
Feeling shocked and alone, but peaceful somehow, Hugh stood on a small ridge not far from the cabin, and looked out over the village of El Nido, and the sea.
“There’s no way to run away from the world,” he whispered urgently to himself.
He was experiencing a world without doctors, or fuel, or fresh water. Without money, or television or any other communication. The idea of escape had changed to a more practical, and realistic mandate: survival.
He walked through the puffy air, back into the cabin, and found the half naked girl still asleep. In the mirror he visited the wild man once more, and spoke in a gruff and silent croak, saying that he hoped he was capable of surviving the present extinctions. If not for his sake, then for hers.