Half a World Away
Elizabeth Baikie (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)
It’s Christmas Eve, except it doesn’t feel like Christmas; it’s too hot. It’s too hot on this small bright island in the Pacific half a world away from another island, an island that’s wrapped up in a cold, grey, and dark December.
I watch as red hats are pushed back on sweaty heads, white pompoms wobbling as the hats push through the crowds. Figures balanced on stilts dressed as flowers, hibiscus, tulip-headed, pretty, dip their toeless feet into the sea of festive people. Northern hemisphere collides with south all around me: colonial fiction meets local custom. I’m aware of being foreign as I’m swallowed into the hot throng. The overheated man in a red woollen suit is putting on a brave face. Children squeal with delight, wave little hands and smile big smiles. For everyone but me this is Christmas as usual.
A thin line of moisture gathers at my hairline and my armpits feel wet. A car slides past, breathing out warm fumes. The crowd spits me out and I am on the edge now looking in. A shutter rattles behind me and a man in a loose striped shirt reaches up to grab the handle. I see the dark hair on his belly as the shop front disappears: Le Snack is closed for the holidays. I leave the crowd and turn a corner. I watch as a child with tears in her eyes drags her pink-faced mother towards the square. They walk in the middle of the road and a wiry brown dog trots by after them. At the end of the street a light glows green and thirst grips tight fingers around my throat.
I climb the hotel steps slowly, the words Le Plage hovering over my head. I feel a long way from the open fire at our local pub. Old Jack will be on the piano tonight, his red nose shining, and they’ll be singing carols around the tree. But here the Le Plage bar is underlit with green neon and the barman smiles grotesquely with alien lips. Two men prop up the bar on high stools and watch with hot slitted eyes as I walk to a table by the window. I sniff for a draft but the air is thick and tired. A mosquito lands on my arm and I slap it away; just a pinpoint of blood is left behind. The slitted eyes at the bar keep watching me. I pick up the laminated menu and a woman appears, with a nametag on her enormous bust that says Marie. She hovers by the table as I read the specials slowly, deciphering the language, translating under my breath. I can see her aproned crotch from the corner of my eye. The menu is curling up at the bottom. I speak in halting tones, my voice cracking when the unfamiliar words don’t come. She disappears and in her place a beer appears, amber and glistening, accompanied by a bowl of greasy peanuts. Beads of condensation race down the chilled glass. I want so badly to dive in, to escape the oppressive heat, to bathe in a cold dark place. I drink in gulps until I’m cooler and fuzzier. A Chinese couple walk by and choose a table behind me. Their expensive outdoor wear is fresh and neat and new, they talk quickly in low voices. German electronica blasts from the stereo. I wriggle in my seat, the backs of my legs sticking to the plastic chair. The aproned crotch of Marie plants a shallow white bowl on the table in front of me and disappears, then returns with cutlery wrapped in a greying paper napkin. She smiles and there are gaps where her eyeteeth should be. Overpriced spaghetti promised ‘crevettes’ on the menu. I dig my fork in to search for them and stab a small pale pink twist of flesh. It’s the sweetest I’ve ever tasted. The pasta slithers with oil and salt. I order another beer and start to feel better.
A tall man walks past and bumps the corner of my table. Beer sloshes onto the mat. He doesn’t apologise, talking to the green barman in loud angry French. I scowl at his back and look at my watch. It’s too early for everything. I count hours on my fingers; there are eleven between family and me. I won’t speak to them until tomorrow night when we’ll video call and my Mum will cry. It will make me feel shitty for being away from home. I feel shitty now, hot and shitty. I re-read the menu. I look at the empty street. I pretend to check something on my phone. There’s no wifi, there’s nothing to check. Happy Christmas, I think.
A voice interrupts my silence, calls a greeting in French from my right shoulder. I turn to see the tall man and realise the greeting was directed at me. I reply in flat awkward French, conscious of the English accent, stumbling over the words again. He laughs and asks in perfect English where I’m from. He thinks I’m American; it’s my turn to laugh, awkwardly again, heat rising up my neck. I’m such a dork. He’s apologising for bumping the table and I’m wishing I didn’t feel so hot. I’m conscious of my sweaty armpits and sticky shirt. I reply too loudly and I can feel the hot sets of eyes at the bar burning into me. He smiles as he talks and looks at the floor, he’s asking about a sim card he’s lost, or something. I’m looking at his lovely white teeth.
I scrape the chair back and there’s a screeching noise on the tiled floor. The Chinese couple stop talking for a moment and the green tinged barman coughs. The tall man bends down to peer under the plastic chair.
I bend too, scouring the white tiles. I feel the moisture building on my forehead again. He moves my bowl off the table and picks up the menu. My eyes run along the bottom of the wall, following a line of small black ants I hadn’t noticed before. I flick them aside and pick up the tiny white rectangle. I hold it out balanced on the end of my finger. I feel triumphant and stupid. The man’s dark eyes beam down at me. He takes the sim card very carefully and his fingers brush mine. He slips it into his pocket as he’s thanking me but his dark eyes don’t leave mine. He pats the pocket and waves to Marie. He’s ordering beer. Oh God. The heat in my neck is crawling up my cheeks. Marie appears behind her breasts and two icy beers land on the damp mat between us. I wipe my forehead and pat my cheeks with the back of my hand. One beer can’t hurt. I try to look glamorous and worldly and not hot at all. I turn away from the window and towards him. I don’t think to look at my watch; I don’t need to check my phone. One beer won’t hurt.
“Happy Christmas,” he says as he raises his glass.
“Yes. Joyeux Noël,” I say in my bad French as he laughs with his white teeth and dark eyes.
I smile back as I begin to forget why I thought it wasn’t.
I look at my watch with one eye closed and try to work out what the long hand means. The room is not Le Plage, there’s no green glow, just gloomy light and the things around me look like their edges have been taken away: a TV, a low table, heavy drapes at the window. I’m sitting on a sofa, soft, squishy, brown. It feels damp and smells faintly musky, like stale sweat. My head is leaning back against a dark red cushion. The cushion is old and frayed and discoloured in one corner. My head is splitting open. I’m sure someone is laughing but I can’t tell where and there’s music thudding against the wall in front of me. I try to sit up and feel a bit sick. I stick my head between my knees and look down at a red wine stain on the carpet. It looks like England.
There’s a phone on the low table. It’s mine: the screen cracked in one corner. I dropped it in the bathroom a long time ago. I try and turn the phone on, but nothing happens, just a dead black screen that stares back at me. The little drawer at the side of the phone is sticking out and when I pull it the drawer is empty. Why would my sim card be gone? There is a small empty space, there is no memory; there is no sim card. Oh God, what happened to me? Something moves in my brain. Some blockage shifts and I see a line of ants and an outstretched finger brushes mine.
The music stops and I can hear people talking through the wall.
“Baby,” one of the voices says and I feel stale cigarette breath on my cheek.
The wall, patterned with brown and yellow swirls, peeling at the bottom, is separating them from me. I slide off the sofa and crawl across the floor. A cigarette butt sticks to my palm and doesn’t come off. My knees burn on the coarse carpet pile. The room spins. My brains are falling out. At the closed door I pull myself up and fingers tighten around my throat. I don’t know if it’s thirst again. I press my ear to the peeling paint. There is a sticky brown stain where the wallpaper has come away from the wall in front of me. I can’t hear the voices anymore but I’m aware of my breathing, quick and shallow. Nausea rises, falls, rises. I test the handle, my hand is shaking and the loose fitting rattles. I’m in a teen horror movie. Will I die? I’m not a virgin. The virgins always die. My heart has joined my breath; everything is going too fast and in slow motion. I twist the handle and pull the door open slowly, a crack at first. A half lit hallway looks back at my peeping eye: it’s empty. I breathe out between tight lips. At the end of the hallway is a door with a thin strip of frosted glass letting daylight in. I resist the urge to cry. It’s so quiet. I’m in a nightmare. I’ll wake up and be at home and it’ll be Christmas morning and there’ll be stockings and presents and champagne for breakfast. I vomit suddenly and the edges start to come back to things. I stay very still in case someone heard. I debate whether to run.
I push the hair out of my eyes. It’s matted and stinks of beer. I open the door a crack wider. I wait for a squeak to enhance the cliché. It doesn’t, though, it swings open smoothly and I am facing the hall, framed by the doorway: a picture of someone trying to stay afloat. I use the wall to hold myself up as I swim towards the door. My feet do the opposite of what I tell them. Different music, less bass, louder, filters out from behind a closed door to my right. I try to walk on tiptoes. I cower before the doorway praying there is only good on the other side. I twist the Yale lock with stiff fingers and pull open the door. I stand and blink into sunlight on a street that’s just warming up. I’m a cartoon character now, all exaggerated movements of arms and legs, my heart visibly pumping from my chest as I pull the door closed behind me. I creep down the steps to the street. I run on jelly legs past low houses for half a block. A voice shouts my name, or maybe it’s baby again. I don’t turn around. I head for a high rise at the end of the street with tension in my lower back. I won’t turn around. Instead I look ahead, but I don’t recognise any of it, buildings, street names, nothing. The air smells like rain and a crushed coke can floats in a sludgy puddle by the gutter. Fingers grip my throat.
The high rise isn’t a hotel and the shop on the corner is closed. My breath is hard, rasping. I’m not a runner. I’m not supposed to be here. A cardboard Santa Claus with a red shiny nose laughs at me through the window. I keep going. A dirty white car crawls past and a man leans out and says something I don’t catch. Then another car, a taxi, thank God a taxi, stops at the lights.
The streets are deserted. I watch them slip by through the cab window. I hold the taxi driver’s card with both hands. His smiling face looks up at me and next to it the words chariot of the night dazzle in electric pink. I feel surreal and lost in translation. He tries to make small talk in broken English.
“Why a bébé like you so far from home at Christmas?”
My lip quivers. My throat feels tight. I stare at the pink words until they dance in my eyes. I look at the empty streets and try to remember what happened last night but I can only see England: a stain of red wine.
“Darling.” My mum’s voice is loud and jolly. She waves a glass of champagne in front of the camera and all I can see is bubbles. “Happy Christmas Darling, did you open your present?” Her face grows huge then smaller again, until all I can see is her forehead.
I sit on the narrow bed in the hostel and watch as she sings Jingle Bells. Dad shows me his new Christmas jumper with a snowman on the front. I cry and try not to let them see. I’m just a bébé. I’m so scared. I’m so much further than half a world away.
Elizabeth has a background in the visual arts. She loves art, but not as much as she loves writing. She is currently reading a lot, procrastinating a little, and studying Creative Writing at Victoria University, Wellington.