Do they even ask that anymore?
Standing outside this door, in this dark hallway, fifteen miles from the airport, he can’t remember if they ever have, of him. Perhaps they simply see him coming, always in his fine grey suit and pale blue shirt, his briefcase swinging in one hand, his smartphone in the other; the latter switched expertly out for his passport, battered and creased with regular use.
Though he’s marked as a salesman, a stuffed shirt, he nevertheless waits in the concourse, every time that he comes to this city, and stares up at the Departures. An exotic buffet. Ways of escape. Not a visit goes by that he doesn’t feel lucky — blessed, even — to have been born in a country where the passports you get are like master-keys — there are very few other nations he’d have trouble entering, if he chose to.
Every time that he comes to this city, to sell industrial merchandise, he looks up at those departure boards and wonders which one. Which destination. He could email his resignation from mid-air, on some of the flights, the transatlantic crossing. When he was settled somewhere for a time, he could notify his wife, Joanna, of the hotel he was staying in, or the PO box he was using, and offer her a narrow window through which to serve him the papers. Or through which he could do it, if, as was more likely, she wouldn’t budge.
She’s stubborn like that. Rooted.
He’d always meant to travel in that way when he was younger. That’s the thing. Had a dog-eared gazetteer that he’d carried about with him everywhere; names he found interesting or absurdly amusing were highlighted in pink or green or yellow, whichever he’d been using for his study notes at the time.
Zanzibar. Limpopo. Krakatoa. Worms.
But that gazetteer had gone missing, when he moved out of his parents’ house.
And now he can’t seem to get further away than this city. This hallway. This door. No matter how long he stares at those departure boards each time, weighing up his options. Because it isn’t so much a matter of choice, anymore, as it is of compulsion; a stirring of the iron filings that torpedo round within his blood.
He bears the shame of it, coming here, in the five o’clock shadow, the sweat-patch that’s welling at the base of his spine; in the rancid musk that overwhelms his aftershave. In the bags beneath his eyes, and in the noose about his neck. It doesn’t sit well, this half-measure, with the image of himself he used to have; that of the freewheeling Robert McAvennie, Rab, long before he was a Mr.
But what else can he do?
He unfastens his tie, the top two buttons of his shirt.
He knocks on that door, his familiar beat.
She flashes him the most arcane, beguiling smile; a nod that says: Willkommen! Please, make yourself at home.
Mi casa es su casa.
He’s never been quite sure where it is that she’s from, but she operates now out of this studio apartment, which, despite its limited size, is in good condition, and tidy, with tastefully bohemian, upcycled furnishings, and which smells of a somehow harmonious blending of organic coffee, organic cleaning products, and even more organic weed.
He slips off his shoes and sets them on the pale pine rack provided. He rolls off his socks, balling them up with practised efficiency, stuffing them inside the upmarket loafers.
There’s a slightly rustic chest of drawers that every time he comes here he can’t help but thinking: My wife would like that. Or: It would go well in our bedroom. These confusions of purpose, flirtations with guilt. He used to go to auctions with her, perhaps one weekend a month, to scout for such bargains, but the kids of course monopolise their travels now. And they prefer sports; junior soccer leagues, swimming meets. You become a full-time manager, a die-hard fan.
On top of those drawers rests a black plastic tray. He works through his pockets, depositing his phone, his wallet; he unfastens the leather strap of his wristwatch, and his belt, and lays them both methodically inside.
She stares at him.
He places his passport and his wedding ring inside the tray, too. An honest mistake.
He hangs his blazer on the hook provided, next to not only her coat but another as well; a white pleather biker jacket, with padded black shoulders and elbows, and various logos and badges adorning. ‘If you can read this,’ says one of them, ‘you killed me.’ There’s a luminescent sad face underneath it, with crosses for eyes.
So, she has another new boyfriend?
Mr. McAvennie sees him immediately upon reaching the end of the hallway, the entry to the open-plan living space. His must be the smell of grass — he’s sitting topless on a stool by the breakfast bar, still smoking, reading, from the look of the cover, a technology magazine.
There’s a steampunky sleeve tattoo all along his right arm, augmented with studs shaped like rivets and screws. When he holds the spliff resting between his second and third fingers, it looks like a vent, a reactor exhaust.
Such imagery might once have been more commonplace in Robert’s life — there were a few months at seventeen when he fancied himself a petrolhead, an engineer, and revved a moped around the shittier backstreets of Glasgow — but it’s now perhaps a little daunting.
Still, the guy seems placid enough. Scarcely seems to register that Mr. McAvennie’s here.
It’s business as usual, he supposes.
Pleasure as usual.
When she nods towards the glass table in the middle of the room, the thought of doing anything else doesn’t enter his head. There’s no need for the status-anxiety, the beta dog syndrome that plagues his working life, the feeling that anyone could do what he does, and do it just as well.
Here, away from all that, he has nothing to prove.
The snugly-fitted hardwood flooring is cool on his soles as he passes towards it, and then the white shagpile rug, like the earthly bequest of a polar bear, is soft and as close as anyone can come to sinking without actually passing through the floor. Scrunching his toes in it, he unfastens his shirt, takes it off. With one last glance towards the boyfriend he unzips his trousers and takes them off, too. Folds both items neatly and lays them nearby.
He drops to his hands and knees, pads around on the rug, doglike, childlike, on a whim, before turning onto his back and shimmying himself into position, looking up through the table as though it’s a skylight.
The ceiling is crisp cream artex, like clouds, a calm storm.
He hears her approaching.
She leans over the glass. Her ash blonde hair is fixed up in a bun, and she’s rolled the sleeves of her top up, pulled the lower hem up and around between her breasts, for the same reason, so that it doesn’t get in the way.
Lifting the bucket, a pink one, one of those that can be used to make a castle keep, she carefully empties the white sand across the table, making sure the coverage is even.
She doesn’t look at him once.
Mr. McAvennie feels the way he always does, staring up at this. He feels like he is buried in it, trapped, within the belly of the beach. Feels it like the pressure of centuries, millennia, ages, eons. Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous. Neogene.
There is nothing he can do. Nothing he’s expected to do. Nothing but watch. Pay attention. Just go with it.
Through the flatness comes the first determined scratching — as of a turtle working a hole in which to lay her eggs, or of a predator working, counter-wise, to uncover the same; claws cracking shell, maw wetted with albumen. Or the edge of a shovel, a pirate searching for treasure, an archaeologist searching for bones, a prospector searching for what those bones will become.
A dot appears. A pixel. A single cell. She doesn’t scrape all the sand away but rather thins it out just enough for the light to pass through. Four others dots follow.
Underneath, a short distance away, a larger mark, the heel of her fist becoming the heel of a foot. Then another beside it. They walk the surface of the table, leaving fading tracks behind them. A tide seems to wash across the tray, and when it ebbs again they’re gone.
The first shoots are always a pleasant surprise, a little miracle. You think of so much sand sometimes and you think of deserts, places of nothing, zones of exile, but the secret to an atoll’s survival is in the curious fertility of post-volcanic soil. Is in the fact that seabirds sometimes need a place to pause for breath, to shit out seeds.
The date palms start as simple starbursts, the leaves expanding and shaking with the burgeoning bulk of the fruit as they grow; embossed on the underside of the table, extruding towards him.
The coconut trees likewise. They bow with the wind. The sea-breeze clears the way, forces the harvest; she draws a single brown husk on the sand and it cracks, comes apart, and Rab puts his tongue out, hoping for milk — he has to turn his head to spit out sand, but feels somehow refreshed, regardless.
Survival in a place like this is not about support networks but self-sufficiency. Adaptability. Hardiness. Possession of the proper skillset.
Can you swim?
He had used to.
His daughter — on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, he drives her to practice. The chlorine whiff. The adrenaline. Chemical dependency. If he gets home late from work, he doesn’t even stop for a coffee first, just a quick trip to the bathroom and then back out the door —
He takes the first few tentative steps into the surf, the tropical heat of it wreathing his ankles. There’s the first tingle of sunburn at his shoulders, the back of his neck. The first hint of a tan on his forearms. The water is both a shelter and a magnifying glass. He dives in. It shatters.
The fine pale sand on the seabed billows up with his passing, the kicking of his feet, the bubbles of his breath. Becomes coral castles, medieval battlements, and clown fish dart and weave between the crenellations like the restless ghosts of courtly fools.
Olive flounders float on by, bizarrely — Picasso’s secret inspiration, both eyes protruding on one side of their face. Bastard halibuts, they call them. Flatfish, a wide target. He strikes out with his spear.
She builds him a bonfire, a barbecue pit. His meal chars on it as grains shift and splinter off as sparks. Smoke moves upwards, becomes a signpost, not an SOS, a welcome, but rather a straightforward warning: Beware of the God.
He paints his face with ashes, after eating. It is so much easier to cultivate a mystique out here, without the constant spousal scrutiny, the morning queue for the bathroom — Hurry up, dad, I’m bursting. It is so much easier to simply exist.
There’s no respite from the elements, is the only thing. The palm leaves will only hold up to so much monsoon rain before giving in, the drip of it on his head as he tries to get some rest like water-torture. A sudden flood like waterboarding.
The scene dissolves, he finds himself looking out from the tideline towards where his ship ran aground on the reef. The mainmast is almost bent double, into an upturned V, a forward arrow, beckoning him on.
He treads the narrow spit of land towards it, tightrope walking; recalling the time a Russian circus came to town and he begged his then-girlfriend to run off with him and join it. Had a bag packed and everything. But that was the night the police stopped them, swerving along on his scooter, and he didn’t have a license, and they gave her a chance to run along home, and she did and she never looked back.
The artist’s hands are so deft, her control of the medium masterful — he pries away boards from the side of the hull that have real grain, detailed with her fingernails, that have real heft and depth, the authentic scent of brine about them. Barnacles like watching eyes. He carries them back to the mainland, the heartland, and feels the pulling at the sides of his neck and his shoulders — trapezius muscles. Lower down, too, latissimus dorsi. He knows those terms, suddenly, like the words to a prayer.
He is involved, he watches as between them they build it into foundations, into stilts, a tried-and-true supporting structure. The first floor takes shape, cobbled together from the remains of the top deck. He works a door smooth with a plane that he salvages from the carpenter’s cabin. Inside, the Captain’s wheel becomes a coffee table, a real conversation-starter.
He begins to understand how her own apartment has acquired its form. Why there is always a new boyfriend, never long-standing. The liberty to decorate and re-decorate however she wants. The chance to control. The chance to belong.
The second floor, the last, for now, is for sleeping; the four-poster dragged from the Captain’s quarters, across the beach, its legs leaving grooves like the trail of an old romantic carriage ride; like an elongated equals sign between the old life and the new — the algebra of relocation.
Solve for x.
X marks the spot.
This is the treasure he’s been seeking. He sits on the balcony nursing a cocktail in half a coconut, an admixture of the leftover rum from the hold and some guava from the new orchard on the other side of the lagoon. She’s drawn a little parasol inside it; a sprinkle of salt on the edge of the improvised cup. He looks beyond this small horizon towards the further, wider one. Between them, the arc of dolphins, the spray of whales.
It calls for a celebration. Housewarming. Squeak as he marks an invitation on the underside of the glass.
She brings champagne. She brings a floral garland and places it around his neck. He fetches the salvaged Victrola back down from the treehouse, rigs it up on a nearby rock.
Some old-time big band jazz spills out and fills the early-evening air. Birdsong and cicadas join it. Crabs clack claws like castanets. The two of them link arms and spin and dance and dance, and there is nowhere he would rather be.
The woman, Luda, is over by the coffee machine. Like most everything else here, it’s far from brand-new, a true fixer-upper, similar in form and date, perhaps, to an early Cold War-era factory. But it works. She tamps the grounds into the handle and then twists it into place.
Robert sits on a stool at the breakfast bar, watching her hands, listening to the clanks, the changing tone of the hiss, at first as the water boils, and then as it steams and froths the milk.
Her boyfriend has already left for the balcony, taking his magazine and his rolling papers with him. Like the others, he respects the need for privacy, for peace and quiet, after the trip.
Rab looks at his own hands, raw, already a little callused with the effort of construction. There is a splinter, sharp and sore, in the webbing between the forefinger and thumb of his left hand, which he has to suck out. It’s almost the size of a toothpick, when he covertly spits it back into his palm.
He thought it was covertly, but Luda was watching. She sets a latte down, in a tall glass, in front of him. She holds her hand out for the splinter and goes to put it in the bin. He stirs his drink with the antique absinthe spoon provided — or at least a replica of an antique; the bowl of it a stylised skull.
She brings her own black coffee to the table. Drops two whole sugar cubes inside, splish-splosh, but doesn’t stir. They will settle and granulate at the bottom this way, and he thinks that perhaps this helps her to ease out of the mindset required for her work.
She catches him staring, and smiles, although behind the veil of coffee-steam she looks a little like a genie from an early Technicolor film. There’s something omniscient and ethereal about her, even now. Or possibly he is just projecting.
After all, one of the lessons of this place is that a person can be more than the sum of their wage packets, their professional responsibilities.
Has he got that right? He could ask her, but they don’t really talk. He isn’t certain how much English she knows, and his German is largely limited to technical jargon, or otherwise to ordering currywurst and beer.
Sand shakes from the fine white hairs on her wrists, as she moves her hands down to frame her porcelain cup. He can’t help but search for patterns in the way that it lands — a trickled line of it, like runway lights — the way she holds that cup, both her index fingers darting away from the side of it, rhythmically, puppetting semaphore.
Another language that he doesn’t know, but at least this one he can guess at.
“Have you enjoyed you stay, sir?”
Do they still ask that? Will they, when he gets to the boarding gate, shows them his passport?
Outside in the hallway he stands still for a moment, composing himself, checking again that he picked up that passport, and his wallet, and his wedding ring, from that black plastic tray.
He fastens his tie.
He fastens his watch strap.
The hands on that watch are aglow in the dark. Ditto the date in the little circle beside them — it will be Thursday tomorrow, and even if he does catch the afternoon flight that he’s booked on, he still won’t make it back in time to take his daughter swimming.
When he’d told Joanna this, that the days for his trip were slightly different than usual, he’d thought perhaps, this time, she might make a fuss. That they might argue. There are moments when he fancies that the kids are waiting for it also, like fight fans at a weigh-in, then left somehow disappointed when news of the cancellation breaks.
It’s not that she’s timid, that she never speaks her mind — she is a Glaswegian girl, after all; it’s more that she seems to have made peace with the cost, the constantly shifting demands of the role.
There are times, increasing in number, when he thinks this is a challenge. Her contentment. As if she means to bait him into revealing once and for all whether he’s still the man he was, a man who boasted dreamer’s blood. The man who, when they met at University, had carried a gazetteer with him at all times; not like a safety blanket, really, but rather a statement of intent.
Or whether he’s simply a husband now, a father. The man who’ll come home to their suburban semi, as he always does, in his fine grey suit and his pale blue shirt. Who’ll knock on the door, his familiar beat, and wait patiently for her to let him come in from the cold. Producing a bottle of duty-free wine from behind his back as he enters; a little everyday magic, a lover’s legerdemain. Just a little bit of something, to let her know that he’s still there.