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Ian MacNeill

The afternoon had begun to crush them as they drove along the ridiculously good road. Up ahead in the isolation was a street post with a lamp.

A chicken dashed across their path.

"Cunt!" Phillip stamped on the brake.

They were there.

Talamanui Beach Fales. As promised by someone in a village.

Leon wondered if the chicken was dead.

Four bedraggled fales were lined up on a beach.

Leon heaved himself out of the car. His heart could sink no further.

They had to put up here.

A dog dashed out of the bushes that lined the hinterland. A woman followed. She glared.

Leon managed a smile and a determined tone. "Talofa."

The woman's glare intensified.

"We want to stay here. Accommodation?" Water, showers, beds of softest down, darkened rooms, the clinking of ice . . . analgesics, masseurs with magical healing powers.

"Forty tala."

"Does that include dinner and breakfast?" Phillip's voice issued from the car.

The woman turned her glare on him. "It's up to you," she said.

"Can we look at them," Leon asked, "fale?"

"You choose fale. It's up to you."

Leon went to choose. Which got Phillip out of the car. He decided the beach was nice. He chose the fale.

They were identical, like open chicken coops raised off the ground on sea worn logs.

They began to unload litres of water and a few things.

The woman reappeared with a laden girl. They thrashed the chosen fale and flung in rubber mattresses, smoothed sheets over them, nestled pillows at the far end.

The woman turned.

"What time dinner?" Phillip asked.

They had been unable to find anywhere for lunch. Both of them had had diarrhoea.

The woman consulted with the girl. "Five," she uttered.

A sentiment like relief activated itself in Leon's brain. He was starving. He crawled into the fale and onto a mattress. "I've got a new respect for Margaret Mead," he ventured.

"I'm going for a walk, to the end of the beach," Philip declared.

The beach was a huge shallow arc punctuated by lava spills of black rocks over which glaringly green leaves had flung themselves. The end was barely in sight.

Leon slept tormented by anxious dreams of friends returning from lives abroad and incomprehensible whimsies appreciated and applauded. He was conscious of the heat growing heavier and the sun striking his feet. All he could do was draw them up.

He began to surface towards consciousness and registered an imperative to wake.

He rolled over and scrambled out. The sun was utter.

Leon plunged back into the enclosed heat of the fale and made himself drink as much of the warm water as he could. He found his watch. Five. They would have arrived at . . . three-thirty? Four? Phillip was probably lying in a rock pool.

Leon changed into a swimming costume and went into the sea. It was refreshing but a strong bottom current tripped him over coral shards and then dragged him over exposed volcanic rocks. His costume was gritty with coarse sand.

He retreated to the shade of a coconut palm and scanned the beach. The end had vanished into a blur. Leon thought he could make out a figure running but in a moment it flickered into a broken palm trunk before blurring again.

Phillip was probably up at the main fale, supervising dinner, Leon thought. He wondered where it was.

He got dressed. Shadows were lengthening. He felt he should walk down the road.

It petered out into a white crushed coral track bordered by black rock. He thought he'd better turn back.

At the fale he made himself drink the water again. It was six. Phillip would probably arrive with the woman.

Leon scanned the beach, debated a last cooling swim, decided against it. He walked a little way looking for Phillip.

Then he went back to the fale.

About an hour later, as Venus rose above the horizon, the woman and girl appeared. The woman had some plates, the girl a kettle and mugs.

The woman pointed at the tree Leon was sitting under. Yellow coconuts swarmed beneath its fronds. "Fall," she said.

Leon moved.

The woman looked pleased.

Leon began to eat, telling himself he'd get a migraine if he didn't.

The woman and girl watched.

Leon wondered what it was.

"Phillip?" the woman asked.

Leon put his spoon down. "I don't know. Did he come and visit you at your fale?"

"No," said the woman.

"Oh he must . . ." Leon felt a stab of worry but picked up his spoon again. "What's this?"

"Breadfruit," said the woman.

"What do you call it? In your language -- breadfruit?"

"Upo. You want more?"

The girl poured something from the kettle into an enamel mug and pushed it toward Leon.

He tried it. It was thick, warm, disgustingly sweet. He resolved to drink a little, then, no matter how rude, to refuse another drop.

"I wonder where Phillip is?" he said, but more to himself.

The woman and girl stared at him.

Leon could think of nothing to say. Then he leapt to his feet. "Stay here." He went to the car and got out a cheap shirt and a piece of costume jewelry. He had brought them to offer the locals instead of tips.

He gave the woman the shirt; he pushed it at her, thinking she might think he was trying to sell it. Then he gave the girl the brooch. He'd bought a few; he wondered which one it was -- the diamond star sprinkled with tiny rubies at its heart, the enameled mauve tumbling dolphin mounting an orient pearl . . . ? The shirt was red with blue dragons, yellow flames issuing from their nostrils and flickering past them. Leon worried that it was appropriate, wearable in this heat. The fabric had felt like rayon but maybe it wouldn't breathe. At least it was very thin. Well, she could wear it at night, to choir meetings, or . . .

"What is this?" the girl said.

"Open it," Leon commanded.

The girl fought the tightly furled tissue for a while. Leon noted how impossibly large and clumsy her fingers were. She tore it open.

It was a tiny butterfly -- moth really, formed of two deep purple pieces of glass on a rough silver body.

Leon was pleased. It seemed suitably discreet.

The woman sighed and got to her feet, gathering Leon's plate to her.

"You can wear it to church," he said, indicating the shirt.

They left.

Leon watched Venus. It was so bright it threw a golden light across the water.

He paddled. The moon rose full behind the palms. It was breathtaking.

The sea pounded on the shore and turned over white, white, silver on the reef which seemed to have receded.

Leon felt very, very tired.

He crawled into the fale.

He woke in the morning, gathered their things and stowed them in the car.

He scanned the beach in worry.

The woman appeared with a plate and the kettle.

On the plate were dumplings.

"Doughnuts?" he asked.


"Lemon," she said of the tea.

Leon found it very refreshing.

He ate and drank, and hesitating, paid her forty tala.

After all, Phillip hadn't eaten anything.

"Where is your fale?" he demanded suddenly.

"Over there," the woman replied, pointing in a definite direction.

"How do you say ‘good-bye’?" Leon asked.


"Tofa," Leon said.

"Tofa," the woman corrected.

Driving out, he wondered what he should do.

What would he say?

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