Hugh put his hand softly around the snow white bandage. He had changed so many bandages, but this was the first that had not filled up with blood. He had washed her foot over and over again. She lay comfortably now, the pain having released her enough for her to skip along the periphery of sleep. And so in a sense, it was a pleasant pain.
He sat on a stool beside the bed, having unslung her foot, and allowed it to rest on his shoulder which was a more appropriate height for her. She was wearing a beige khaki shirt of his, and under it, her bright bikini bottom, with her right knee slightly over her left so that even in her sleep she had a beautiful understated modesty about her.
Except that in the next instant she kicked a small kick, opening her legs a little.
He read her body now like the pages of a book. Carefully, imaginatively, sensitively picking up the details and nuances. He blinked when he saw that her eyes were open, and she was also studying him; his face.
“Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” she answered huskily.
“The pain is almost gone, thanks to you.”
“That’s good. Did you get some sleep?”
“I think I did. Did you?”
“Well,” she shifted a little, a small frown of tenderness creeping over her features, “come and lie beside me.”
He stood up, patted her knee, and put a hand on the cotton shirt that fell over her small flat stomach. He lay on his side, spooning into her side…his eyes blinking slowly with fatigue.
“Sleep,” she said.
He was dizzy with fatigue, the word swam through his mind. What a lovely sound when she spoke. He felt her hand on his hand, her stomach rising as she breathed. He felt a pang through his sleepiness, a pang of pure joy. In his delirium he didn’t mind that the whole world was now beyond tipping point, he was where he wanted to be. But somewhere in his dreamy state he knew it was this sick psychology that had got his species to poison the planet and its systems beyond the point of salvage.
He awoke with her ear beside his cheek, her dark eyelashes blinking. She turned a little to see that he was awake. She had a wild look in her eyes. Her eyes implored him, her fleshy lips parted.
He felt his heart racing in his chest, and the breath leave his body.
She pulled at his hand, then pushed at it.
With her free hand she pulled at the t-shirt, to reveal her breasts.
He pressed his mouth against her cheek.
She could hear his breathing, feel his beard, but it was his smell that she craved.
She pressed her nose against his neck, as his mouth h\kissed at the sculpture of her jaw, down the softness of her neck.
She opened her eyes and saw his, before his mouth opened against hers. They kissed fiercely, and tenderly. She reached out to his shorts, felt he was hard, and released the drawstring. He gasped.
“No. NO! God you’re sixteen. Not even.”
“So what. I want you. Don’t you want me?”
He stood up, looking around, searching under the bags…finally he grabbed one of her navy blue shirts.
“Do I want you? Stella it’s illegal. It’s rape. It’s fucking illegal. You’re driving me nuts, I have to get out of here.”
He closed the door with a moderate bang, and stood there, heaving, sweat pouring down his face. He didn’t know whether to banish the sensations and images that still roller coasted through his body, or celebrate them. So he walked. He walked, noticing that El Nido was busy. The locals were all out and about. He walked down one street, and another, glancing down at his loins, making sure he looked presentable at least.
The road was hot and hurt his bare feet. He heard coughing through an open window and glanced at a man on a bed that seemed very sick. He saw the same scene repeated two or three times in that single street. Each time a similar watery cough.
“Fuck I hope that’s not H5N1,” he muttered.
He wandered by a line of Jeepney’s, children were sitting behind the steering wheels, pretending to be racing each other. As he walked by they honked. Even their batteries were so worn down now the horns made weak bleating noises.
He walked by the store they had looted, and found people – locals and a few Europeans – sitting on the steps. It was the sort of talk one would expect.
“There’s nothing you or I or anyone can do, it’s the signs of the times…”
“He’s punishing us for our sins. All of them are going to hell…”
“It’s only going to get worse…”
He didn’t stick around to listen.
He helped a child that had tripped and spilled over a bucket of water. He wandered over to a tap and joined the queue. After perhaps half an hour he had a drink. Stella still had a bucket that was a third full; he’d come and fill it up later in the day.
He saw a bar he hadn’t noticed before, and followed a local inside.
He expected it to be busier, but the local and one other person were inside.
“Ahoy,” the man said. His moustache lifted as he smiled.
“Fancy a game of pool.”
Hugh put his hands at his hips. Nodded. “Why not?”
“Why the hell not?”
“Fancy a beer? It’s all free. I mean, it’s a free for all,” he chuckled. He held out his hand, “Name’s Ralph.”
Hugh glanced at the drink in Ralph’s hand, and took his chances ignoring the question. But he was in the right place. He wanted a timeout with people who didn’t know any more than he did, and couldn’t care less.
Ralph took another sip.
Hugh guessed it was midmorning, and at the same time realized how irrelevant time had become. No lunch time, no dinner time, no flights to catch or soaps to watch.
“This your place?” Hugh asked, covering the tip of his cue with blue chalk.
“Suppose it could be,” Ralph he said, with a cheerfulness that was starting to annoy.
“No, some German bloke. And he got out of here didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but based in Singapore.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a pilot. I fly for a shipping company. So what am I doing here? Good fucking question. Playing babysitter this time round to the world’s most spoilt brat. Bitch!” He shot the cue forward and the triangle of balls spat apart so violently, two balls jumped off the table and rolled over the floor. Hugh picked up the black number 8.
“Shipping company?” Hugh placed the ball in the centre of the table, knowing that technically the game was over, but saying nothing.
“Siew International Shipping.”
“You heard of it?”
Hugh shook his head, took a shot, and sliced a green ball nicely into the mid pocket.
“Siew. Is that Chinese?”
“Bar fly eh?”
“Not really,” Hugh replied with a contemplative sigh. He dropped an orange ball next, but missed the red, and pretty badly too.
“Consistency, that’s the key.”
At that point two couples entered the bar, all faces gray with worry.
“Welcome!” Ralph shouted, raising his whiskey glass, and throwing some of the drink onto the red pool carpet. “Would you like a round? It’s on the house…er…I mean it’s all for free, and free for all.”
Hugh shook his head, a small smile of amusement on his face.
“Would you people like a drink?” They glanced quizzically at each other. Hugh walked in his barefeet behind the bare counter. He bent down saying, “Because I think I REALLY need a drink.” His head reappeared, a strong arm hoisting a half empty bottle of Jack Daniels.
“Let’s get drunk!” one of the women shouted.
“No, let’s get happy,” Hugh cautioned, wagging his finger drammtically.
“Fuck that,” Ralph cut in, taking the bottle out of Hugh’s hand. “We’re getting shit faced.”
Some time later when they were well and truly shit faced, Hugh stumbled onto the road. He was not a drinker, but today he had certainly had more than he had possibly ever had before. Even so, it was not much. He was dizzy and unpleasantly lightheaded and he knew if he didn’t keep moving he was going to fall and retch. He greeted every man, woman and child. He told them, “We’re going to be okay. We’ll make it.”
We wandered through a parade. Music was coming from somewhere and shouts. A small stage was being decorated with overhanging string, balloons. Children were cutting out shapes, and the outlines to a poster were being filled in: EL NIDO BEAUTY PAGEANT.
“There’s no point in that,” he said, “I can bring you the most beautiful girl here. She’s got a hurt foot, that’s all.” The locals smiled at him, some out of politeness, others found him entertaining.
He wandered into people’s homes, though he was careful, even in his intoxication, to avoid those where the dreadful coughing continued day and night. He felt compelled to go back to Stella, but he couldn’t face her. What was he to do!
He knew he couldn’t drink any more, and he certainly couldn’t go to her like this, smelling like a drunk. He’d wander around and let it wear off completely.
He stumbled over a pile of dead chickens, did a short run, felt his stomach bubble and retched against a wall.
“Argh,” he said softly, disgusted with himself.
He looked at the half digested fruit ooze, and bent down slightly, his hands on his knees.
A small boy with white teeth in a cholocate face put his hand on his back.
“You okay mister.”
Hugh nodded, a genuine smile covering his face. He made a small wave. “Thanks, go on, I’m fine. Much better now.”
And he did feel better.
He went to the tap and washed his face, drank some water and spat it out, apologizing to those behind him.
Now, walking back, he rubbed at a fruity splodge under his chin on her t-shirt. He was on the road to the cabin now.
He heard music, and since it had been a day filled with impulse, he followed the sound. He went upstairs and found a chessboard floor with a battery operated ghetto blaster on the floor. The late afternoon sun was shining brightly through the windows, throwing raindbows off the silver ball hanging from the ceiling. Only three people were on the dance floor. He turned to go, and then two of them approached him, took his hand and brought him into their group. One of the Filipino’s was an older woman, perhaps forty, attractive with a knockout body. She said, “Hi, I’m Elena.”
She took them to her restaurant later where they were making bread. She asked him if he wanted a drink, and then kept them coming.
“This is your restaurant?” Hugh asked.
“Me and someone else.”
“A foreign guy, but he’s gone now.”
Hugh nodded, understanding. He raised his glass, although he had lost his appetitie for alcohol.
“I have to be getting back,” he said, leaving his chair and stepping onto the wall that dropped down to what had been the beach. Now seawater swilled directly against it, sometimes sloshing foam onto the lawn and over the restaurant deck.
She offered him some bread. It warm, the butter melting on it. He realized how hungry he was. She placed another drink in his hand.
“Come,” she said.
She led him through the restaurant, and upstairs. They walked through a dark room filled with two or three sleeping Fillipino’s. Then they found her room. It was bare except for a 1 metre crucifix carved out of wood. She lit a candle and he made out the painted expression on Christ’s face, though it was faded and peeling.
Above the vertical wooden beam was the sign: INRI.
Still taking in the large statue in an otherwise bare room, she stood behind him, her hands moving over his chest. Perspiration dripped off his face, he felt his loins rise, the blood in him beginning to simmer and stew.
She licked at a bead of sweat, then pulled down his shorts.
On the dusty wooden floor was a foam mattress, perhaps 5 centimetres thick. He could feel the floor through it, pressing against his hips and naked cheeks. She undid her own jeans, removed a white bra to reveal small breasts, but large chocolate nipples, shaped like flattened hourglasses. He she sat on his stomach; he sat up to nibble them. Each one hardened in his mouth. He was warm and fuzzy with alcohol, arched his neck to look directly up at the saviour of the world. She leaned over him to a small shelf, stocked with tiny jars of snuff, vicks, a pair of earrings, a box of matches…she handed him a gleaming piece of paper.
She lifted herself off him while he applied the condom. Bizarrely he felt a rising sense of justification. That even if he intended to sleep with Stella, they had no protection.
Elena now lay on her back, her lithe brown body as slim as a snake. He felt her hip bones under his hand. She licked her fingers, inserted them between her legs, and did it again. It made him excited, this primitive approach to sex. He was intoxicated by the sensual combination of birdlike fragility in her hands and arms, and yet the snakelike sexiness of her stomach, legs and chest.
When he entered her she held her breath. He moved deeper into her and she gasped.
“Elena are you alright. Am I hurting you?”
“Just move a little for a start.”
His mind suddenly swung to Stella, those sexy poses on the beach, the irresistible urge to grab hold of a bikini covered breast…and yet he had resisted…and so here he was…
She seemed to relax; grateful that he was drunk and patient. She smiled at him, bringing him out of his reverie: “I’m okay. You can go for it.”
Her choice of words made him grin. She lifted her feet, putting her soles against the back of his legs, and then wrapping her legs around his back. It was so warm with her here. The wooden boards under them knocked and creaked. He thought of the people lying next door. One of them her daughter, who had served him bread. He didn’t mind if life became like this; living in threadbare shacks, eating warm bread, getting to know the locals…living off the land.
He moved against her, delighted, hypnotized, in awe, the Christ looking directly down at him, and both of them shining with sweat, prostrated under the statue. INRI. He saw the word behind the vertical legs and horizontal arms, above the face and the thorns.
“What did it mean?”
He lifted himself a little, which lifted her as her legs were still wrapped around his back, and looked through the gap between their stomachs. He grabbed her breast, a handful was all a man needed, kissed each one, and then committed himself. He came with a gasp, a small moan, and she moaned, crooned in sympathy. “Okay, was that good?”
He nodded, whispering: “Yes. Yes. God, I needed that. Thanks, I really needed that.”
She left him to go downstairs to cook bread.
He lay for a while, then dressed and went to say goodbye. She handed him a piece of paper, and some more bread.
He hurried now, down the streets, guilt building up inside of him. The more he tried to avoid it, the more he assuaged himself to be culpable.
“If you wanted to sleep with her so badly, why did you sleep with someone else?” He conscience charged.
“Because it would have been wrong!”
“That’s not the reason. You’d were worried you’d be found out. And then you’d be just like her sicko grandfather. Then you’d be no different would you?”
A pack of hounds suddenly surrounded him, barking savagely, jumping at the bread. He growled at them, swung his arm. They charged off after someone on a bicycle.
A group of local men carrying a cooler box turned a corner. He stood and watched them get into a boat, and sail off into the dark.
“They’re going fishing,” Ralph said, who was suddenly beside him. “Lord knows we have run out of food for all these people. The forests around here are virtually stripped. And nothing is being flown in from Manila.”
They walked together down the street. I was festive. Music, lanterns, dancing in the road. Hugh saw contestants in the beauty pageant watching someone parade in a shiny green dress, shining with sequins. Big bonfires burned on the beach.
“You say you’re from Singapore?” Hugh said, walking between the dancing locals, giving the kids high fives.
“I’m a pilot. Listen, Hugh, you’ve got to convince Stella to go back. It’s only a matter of time-.”
“You know Stella?”
“I’m in her grandfather’s employ. Or rather, I was. I flew them here, and we’ve got to get back.”
“You have an airplane here?”
“Yeah, there’s an airstrip behind the village, next to the beach,” he said, waving his arm.
“You’ve got enough fuel?”
“God knows. Everyone has been stealing from everyone else. But I brought two heavies with me…see er…I first flew back without her, and then the company sent me back.”
“She’s that important?”
“Look, the world is changing, but the power remains with the rich, at least while they have resources under their control.”
“Well she needs to see a doctor. She could easily get gangrene…she stepped onto a sea urchin yesterday.”
Ralph clapped his hands in obvious triumph. “You’re right, we have to go. Where is she?”
Hugh stopped, blinked. Ralph looked at him, his momentum checked, his head bobbing.
“All right, this way.”
“I’m not going without Hugh,” Stella said firmly toRalph. She snatched the bread Hugh offered to her, maintaining eye contact with him while she stuffed the still warm dough into her mouth.
Hugh could see that she was very hungry.
Seizing the break in her resistance, Ralph pounced. “We have to get of here. Now! These people have run out of food and there is no telling when they’re going to take matters into their own hands. Where are your things? C’mon, we have to hurry.”
Ralph was gratified to see Stella lift her backpack off the floor.
“Come on, we’ll walk along the beach. It’s not far.”
“Wait!” Stella pointed to her camera, and the drawing she had made. Ralph snatched both of these and stuffed them roughly into a bag, scrunching up the drawing as he did so.
Hugh picked up the other bag, adding their shirts, and the odd shell Stella had picked up.
Stella took the bag from Ralph, lifted it onto her shoulder.
Ralph glanced at Hugh: “That’s okay, I’ll take that,” Ralph said. From the look on her face, Hugh guessed that this sort of charity from Ralph was unusual. She still maintained eye contact with Hugh, as if to say: “I thought you abandoned me. Where were you? I needed you; I was scared. What happened to you?” Hugh lifted Stella, and carried her out of the cabin first, with Ralph close behind.
They walked alongside the sea, the shouting of villagers and barking of dogs, the singing and cheering growing less and less distinct with each step. Hugh noticed inflorescent flashes coming off the sea. It was a long walk, perhaps three kilometres, culminating in a barbed wire fence. Once through they walked along the moonlit airstrip, by now Stella was very heavy in his arms. He felt feverish and dizzy, and worst of all, his ear felt swollen and inflamed.
And sure enough, on one side of the moon gray airstrip was a snowy Cessna, with two uniformed men standing close by, their automatic weapons shining in the polished night.
Hugh spotted a small group sitting nearby on the landing strip. He saw a European and several Asian tourists, huddled with all their possessions.
Within minutes the Cessna was buzzing along the strip, then pulled sharply into the sky.
Hugh looked through the small windows, seeing the dark fingers of land, the small fires, the inflorescence sparking minutely off the ocean. He wondered what would become of this little place. El Nido. Would these people manage to survive?
Ralph let out a sigh of relief. “Back to civilization for us then, eh?”
“Tower, this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“No response?” Hugh asked.
“Must be some sort of atmospheric interference. The radios haven’t worked for days. It’s the strangest thing.”
Hugh squeezed her hand. She squeezed his, but neither smiled. The two heavies were already asleep.
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
After twenty more minutes: “Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Still no response?” Hugh asked.
Ralph did not turn around, simply shook his head.
“Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over.”
“Jeepers,” Stella whispered, “I wonder if Singapore is still there.”
“I’m sure it’s still there,” Hugh said, hugging her a little. But as time went on, there was no answer to the little Cessna’s transmissions. Hugh could not forget the faces they had left behind at El Nido. He wondered what was waiting for them at the end of the dark strait they were flying over. He remembered what Eric had said to him, about co-operation and sticking things through together.
Hugh looked down into a bigger abd blacker ocean than it had been for a hundred years. Hugh sat in the plane, blinking. The basic unit for survival was the nuclear family, he decided, anything more or less wouldn’t work, and perhaps one could build communities again from there. He shrugged inwardly; it was just a thought.
Sure enough, the lights of Singapore were all on. The small airplane flew over long convoys of fishing boats, tankers, junks etc.
Ralph whistled softly.
“What?” Hugh leaned forward, moving more tightly against Stella, who was on his lap.
“I’ve never…I’ve never seen so many boats in this strait. It’s chockablock with them.”
“I haven’t either,” Stella murmured.
‘They all seem to be converging on Singapore for some reason,” Hugh observed.
“Well there’s Changi airport, dead ahead. Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over. Changi this is Sierra Sierra Zulu, over. I can’t under-.”
The pilot suddenly touched his earpiece with his fingertips.
“Roger tower. Negative, Sierra Sierra Zulu Niner Alpha Echo, over.”
Just the buzzing of the plane for several moments.
“Negative tower. Negative negative.”
Ralph put his hand over the headset, and spoke to the heavy sitting beside him, who was now wide awake: “They say they expected us to log a flight plan. Get this: via email. Are they fucking bananas?”
“Look, the roads are all empty,” Stella observed.
“There’s a bus,” Hugh pointed out, as the airplane slowly turned.
“It’s strange that the radios work now,” Hugh said,
“Not so strange. We’re almost directly above them, and it’s still very scratchy.” Once again the pilot touched his mouth piece: “Negative. We are low on fuel, repeat low on fuel. Negative negative.”
“What is it?” Hugh asked, placing a hand on the pilot’s shoulder.
“They want us to land somewhere else. They say it’s chaos down there; that everyone is trying to fly to Australia and South Africa.”
Stella tapped the window beside them with two fingers: “Look, another bus…but not a single car.”
“Roger tower. We’ve been given permission to land.”
The Cessna taxied into a private hangar. An official met them there, and Ralph offered them a sheet of paper. The Chinese man looked at Stella and nodded, but then his eyes locked on Hugh.
“Where are his papers?”
Ralph walked towards the man and the girl. “Do you have your passport with you?” “No.”
“Oops,” Ralph said, a small smile on his face. He headed into a glass cubicle where he appeared to be filling in forms.
The Chinese official approached Hugh, his hand unclipping handcuffs from his belt. Just then they heard a word barked in Mandarin. It came from the shadows of the otherwise brightly lit hangar. The handcuffs jingle jangled in the official’s hand. Now a torrent of Mandarin, and then a short stocky Chinese man stepped into the light, still shouting.
“Hello Stella,” the man dressed in tuxedo trousers and a white shirt, gave her a small smile.
He ignored Hugh, but launched into another volley of Mandarin.
The official foolishly interjected, suffered more abuse, helplessly proffered the handcuffs, he seemed to be weighing them, then thought better of it, turned and scuttled off at a near sprint through the door.
“I’m sorry about that. We do so much for this city, and they keep forgetting.”
Hugh stepped forward, offering his hand.
“Thank you. Hugh van Lewen.”
Stella said: “Hugh this is Hai Ping, he runs SIS.”
Hai shook his hand, but with a weakness that surprised Hugh. The man had also not commented on Stella’s obvious injury.
“Siew Shipping International,” he said. “Yes, I am looking after the company until this young lady is old enough to do so.” Hai Ping spoke in a flawless British accent.
Ralph approached them, shaking Hai’s hand. Hai held Ralph’s hand with his left hand, a gesture Hugh could not help noticing.
“Stella I am sorry to hear about your grandfather. Mr Serkis, you say he died on holiday, while on the island.”
Ralph looked at Stella uncomfortably. “I um…” He made a quick darting wave with his hand. “I saw for myself.”
“I see. I see. Well Stella it is most unfortunate. Naturally you will inherit controlling interest of SIS as per your grandfather’s instructions.”
“Isn’t she a little young to be a CEO?” Ralph interjected. Hai leaned over, whispered severely into his ear, after which Ralph Serkis turned on his heel and left. Hai nodded to one of the heavies, and the man trotted out after Serkis.
Hugh and Stella watched him go.
Hai took a step forward, touching Stella’s shoulder: “I’m glad you are safe and well. Are you hungry? Would you like to join me for dinner?”
“Thanks Hai. We’re really tired. Can you have someone take us home instead?”
“I’ll drive you myself.” He nodded at the other heavy.
“There really isn’t a single car on the road besides this one,” Stella observed.
“How have you managed it?” Hugh asked.
“Managed what? To keep things going?”
“Yes. To have a few airplanes in the air, a car on the road, all the lights are on.”
“Well, we’ve had to be innovative. Fortunately SIS is in a unique position. We’ve been able to offer some of our resources to the government, especially since the fuel that is in our custody no longer has, shall we say, a port to call on.”
Hai let that sink in. He glanced at Hugh in the rearview mirror.
“I assume you know that at least 20 cities have been destroyed by nuclear weapons of mass destruction.”
“Including New York, and London?”
“Oh, they’re still there. Look, it’s still business as usual. The world isn’t ending, but it has taken a severe blow, a very severe blow, and it’s still happening. I went onto the internet half an hour ago; Karachi has just been destroyed. But when this is over, we will go on. We have to.”
“It feels like a systemic collapse. Of everything, climate…disease…everything.”
“Yes, the financial markets of course are also a mess. The structure of our society is being tested. But currencies aren’t crucial to commerce, resources are. Singapore is faring well compared to the rest of the world. Our airline is the only one in the world still flying, although we’re down to just one or two flights a day, which is why the airport is bursting at the seams. Everyone seems to be trying to get to Australia, and South Africa. But in time, we’ll have the supply lines running again.”
“Why South Africa?” Hugh asked.
“There are big clouds of poisonous radiation over China. Unfortunately, communications are down everywhere so we’re not sure what to expect. They’re moving but we’re not sure where. There is some internet capability, but not much. Bloggers are providing more information than anyone, it’s very valuable in some cases, but it’s very hard for most people to locate in the first place. Blogcasts are reporting massive casualties right now in Indonesia, from the bird flu, so we’re still in an emergency situation in many respects.”
“Do you believe it’s temporary?” Hugh asked.
“For some yes, like us. Here we are.”
They turned off Orchard Road and parked alongside a tall building, its glass doors shining, a honey colored light emanating from within.
“Thank you, Hai.”
“You will be accompanying the lady?”
“I insist that he does, Hai,” Stella said. “Hugh’s the only one I trust.”
“I understand,” Hai said, with a small nod, and a furtive glance at the heavy sitting beside him.
“Well, good night, and I will see you first thing in the morning.”
They watched the ruby glow as the car traveled slowly over the deserted wet street, turned, and disappeared down Orchard Road.