‘I’m sure we’ll keep in touch when we get back to the UK. It has been fantastic to know the three of you.’ Eddie has already downed two full bottles of beer with the meal and is now on his third. He usually doesn’t drink much as they keep a sharp eye on their budget, but this is their last night, and they have let go of the purse strings. Polly is on mojitos, and it looks as if she is also getting all sentimental.
‘We’re not far from Oxford, anyway, so when you ladies are around, we could come over for the day. Or you can come to see us in London. Please say we will stay in touch!’ pleads Polly, looking lopsidedly at Cindy and me.
‘Ay lass, I can see you’re not really interested in keeping our friendship alive, being I don’t live anywhere near London or Oxford, so I consider myself much offended and will drown my sorrows in another beer. Anyone wants anything else?’
‘You know I didn’t mean it like that. We’ll find a way to see you too, before long,’ and Polly flashes a sweet, if not a bit drunken, smile at Greg, who is trying - and failing - to get the waiter’s attention.
‘So, what time are you setting off tomorrow?’ asks Cindy. Greg is driving the departing duo to the airport, much to their relief. The journey from the south of the island to the airport is a notorious nightmare, taking many hours and travelling in cramped and often extreme conditions.
‘I’ll get the car as soon as they open in the morning and set off then. Do you lasses want to join us?’
‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ Cindy jumps in. ‘There is no way I would ever want to tackle a six-hour round trip to the airport if I can avoid it. That’s not my idea of fun! But maybe we can drive with you as far as Galle and go for a bit of retail therapy and a nice lunch. You can always get on the Expressway from there.’ Cindy knows her way around well, so there is no way Greg can counter that.
‘Sure, and we have time for the diversion anyway, our flight is in the afternoon.’ Polly is visibly happy for the extra company.
‘Well, that settles it, I suppose. Get your cash ready girl, we are getting you to spend, spend, spend!’ Cindy mimics the famous lottery winner’s doomed words. Not sure that is really my philosophy, but I do need some less square-cut, shapeless and colourless clothes, so I can only nod my agreement.
A new round of drinks lands on our table. I join Polly with the mojitos and start feeling relaxed. The setting is magnificent, as always. The warm waves gently lap our feet, the stars are shining, and the moon illuminates the sky with its powerful silver light. The vast expanse of the ocean has turned into a reflective surface, and its continuous motion is mesmerising.
There is music starting up a couple of restaurants to our right. Groups of youngsters are already flocking to it, striding purposefully toward the beat. Others are scattered along the beach. It is a bit early yet for drunken skinny dipping, but the preparations seem to be well under way.
Small groups of local young men gather in the background. Their chocolate skin and dark hair make them almost invisible in the darkness. They watch the foreign tourists with amused curiosity. I’m sure they are hedging their bets on one girl or another.
Sanka comes over and asks if we want anything else, the bar is closing soon. Time has really flown by this evening. He stands very close to me and seems to be talking directly to me rather than all of us. When we tell him we are okay, he half bows, which brings his head a bit too close to mine. And then he is off. I find it odd, but I don’t think twice about it. I see a movement in the corner, and one of the figures huddled in the dark moves in our direction. Now I see it is Kiri. He has been standing with the others. I’m glad to see him. I hope he will join us at the table, but he moves forward and looks straight into my eyes, a dark look of contempt, before swerving through the tables and heading away, without even so much of a word. Well, that’s strange! I can’t really use Cindy as a sounding board as she is too engrossed in a joke Greg seems to have just cracked.
It is Eddie’s and Polly’s last night and I don’t want to spoil it, so I ignore the wrenched feeling in my stomach and dive into the conversation. I’m sure I’m over-thinking it. Everything will be just fine.
The waiters blow out the candles on the tables and take them away. The now-empty tables and chairs are moved to the back of the restaurant, leaving the beach ready for the sunbeds in the morning. We are the last ones here, so we quickly settle our bill and start heading off toward the party. The last lights are turned off at the restaurant and Sanka runs to join our little group.
‘Are you going to the party? I’m going there too. Can I walk with you?’
‘Sure’ answers Greg, but Sanka is talking directly to me. Again. I feel uncomfortable and take Cindy under the arm and walk with her, putting a little distance between us and the others.
‘What’s up? You look a bit strange.’
She knows me well and can read my expression. But I don’t want to sound silly, not even with her. I’m sure it is all in my mind, and it will soon pass.
‘Nothing. I just love this place. Look at it,’ and I swing my free arm wide in a semi-circle. ‘This is exactly what we dream of when we’re back home. In fact, I think it’s precisely what people dream of when they are asked where they would be if they could be anywhere they like!’
‘Yes, I love it too. And it’s nice to finally be somewhere like this with you. I’m so glad you’re here, Mad.’ And she squeezes my arm against her side as we walk on.
‘Thank you for getting me to come.’ I smile up at her face. I’m honestly grateful to her. I would have spent the past two weeks at home on my own, scooped up on my big sofa, hidden under a heavy blanket and leafing through books in my newly empty, too-big home. Too cold to go anywhere and with nowhere really to go, anyway.
‘We just need to plan where to go next time,’ she winks at me, releases my arm and pulls me by the hand toward the bar, which is now level with us and where the music is blaring for the night. The others are waiting for us on the wooden deck, before starting to force their way to the counter for yet another goodbye drink.
Sanka is still hanging around us. That is odd. I am sure we are not his usual crowd. Thankfully Ishan and Lisette are coming toward us. Smiles all around and after a few air kisses, we leave them with Sanka and dive into the mass of moving bodies.
Greg is leading the way, breaching a path for us to follow. When we surface at the bar, the music is so loud that I don’t know how the guy behind the counter can understand our order. But understand he does, and all five of our drinks are precisely as ordered.
While the other four tackle the overcrowded dance floor, I stand leaning on a high table, guarding the drinks and watching the craziness of youth unfold. Those were the days!
‘So, where is your boyfriend then?!’ The sarcasm in Kiri’s voice is palpable. He looks a mixture of sad and angry.
‘What? What are you talking about?’ I turn to face him square on. He is wearing a white T-shirt with Bob Marley’s smiling face on it. On his legs a pair of light brown shorts. His hair is loose on his shoulders. He is wearing a necklace with an Ohm symbol pendant.
‘Where is your boyfriend? I saw you earlier with Sanka. You looked very cosy.’
‘What?’ I repeat and look at him in disbelief. I replay the whole restaurant scene in my mind, and I can see that, from where he was standing, Sanka bending down in a half bow might have looked as if he were kissing me. I knew he was very close, but I would never have thought he would do this on purpose. I felt there was something out of place. My gut feeling is nearly always right. But surely it can’t be! I can’t believe it was done on purpose. And why? To make Kiri angry and jealous?
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s nothing between Sanka and me. Why didn’t you come to sit with us at the restaurant? I saw you walking by.’
‘Because you were too busy with your boyfriend. I didn’t want to interrupt.’ Again he spits out the word boyfriend as if it’s poison. The expression in his eyes is hard. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking.
‘Now you’re being completely ridiculous. Stop this. I’ve missed you. It’s nice to see you.’ I try to defuse the tension. I see his expression soften, and I know the worst is over for now.
What the hell is going on? I’m not sure I like the accusations or the misplaced jealousy, but I’m not sure I dislike it either. Ben has never been jealous. Not even at the beginning of our relationship. And not even when he should have been.
I grab his hands, and he starts to relax. It is too noisy here. I can see the others are having a good time. They are jumping around to the music and seem not to mind their bare feet being continuously stepped on. Cindy looks over, smiles and raises her thumb. I smile back and move my index and middle finger in walking motion, indicating I might go for a walk. She raises her thumb again, and I see her catching Greg’s attention. They start moving over. Their drinks need to be guarded with their lives, after the struggle we went through to get them!
‘Shall we go for a walk on the beach?’ I ask.
Kiri looks at me and smiles.
He is back to his sweet smiling self. He takes my hand and leads the way through the crowd and onto the beach. We start walking toward the far end, where the island stands tall in the night, a dark shadow coming out of the waves. We stop when the noise of the music has faded to a low hum. He sits on the sand and pulls me down.
‘I’m sorry Maddy. You’re so important to me. I’m scared of losing you.’
‘It’s okay.’ Here I go again. Why do I say it’s okay if I really don’t think it is?
‘You have no reason to be scared of losing me. I like you a lot, and I don’t need to find anyone else.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course,’ and I mean this with all my heart. I need to understand why he is so afraid of losing me.
‘The other evening you told me you know what it means to lose someone. What happened?’
‘I don’t usually talk about it. Nobody here knows about this.’
‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. It’s okay.’ Here I go again! I do want to know so it wouldn’t be okay for him not to tell me.
‘I’ve never known my mum. She left when I was one year old and died soon after. I have no memory of her.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ and I really mean this. I really feel for him.
‘How about your dad?’
‘Dad died when I was ten. I still miss him a lot. He was the only person who loved me. I can’t remember my mum, so I don’t really love her, but my dad... I still love him a lot.’ He looks up to the starry sky. I can see his eyes have welled up. A single tear rolls down his cheek. I don’t know what to say. I take his hand and squeeze it tight. There are so many questions I want to ask him but now is not the right time. I still need to digest this devastating double tragedy. How does a young child cope with such a loss?
‘I was brought up by my aunt.’
His expression is so sad. I can feel his pain deep inside of me. I can just see him as a little lost and lonely child. So much pain. I take his head and bring it to my chest. We just sit there. Time passes by. I can feel him sobbing, and his tears are making my top wet. I caress his hair and can’t say anything. There is nothing to say that would make his reality less painful. Now I understand why he is so worried about me possibly being interested in anyone else. He has lost so much, he must be scared of losing someone else he cares about.
He lifts his head. Looks in the distance over the waves. Then smiles, turns to look at me and kisses me on the cheek.
‘So, you see. I know what it means to lose someone you love. Come now, let’s get a drink.’
I wish I could snap out of sadness just like that, but I do appreciate him breaking the heavy atmosphere. He is smiling and walking purposefully ahead, pulling me by the hand. His hair bouncing around his shoulders. A young man with a heavy heart but a willingness to live. I do care about him. I care about him a lot!
We reach the counter, and he orders a couple of beers.
‘My round!’ I say, and I push the money in his hand.
He starts talking to the bartender. It is clear they know each other. They all seem to know each other on this beach!
I feel a bit uncomfortable about the way Sanka is playing foul to get to Kiri. Why so much animosity between them? I thought they were friends. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it, and it was all just a big misunderstanding.
‘All good lass?’ Greg is standing next to me at the bar. He seems his usual solid self, not too much worse for wear. His closely cropped dark hair is streaked with grey strands. It makes him look more poised and dependable than older. I like Greg, and I am sure I will hear a lot about him from Cindy in the coming months. I can see she is quite taken by him.
People are dwindling now. It’s late. Eddie and Polly are sitting at a table on the beach, gazing nostalgically at the sea. Their eyes are a bit glazed over by alcohol and tiredness, and they look sad. I join them at the table, as Kiri is engrossed in a conversation with a couple of pals.
‘It’ll be strange to be back in the UK. Bloody cold apparently.’ Polly shivers as she says this.
‘It won’t be for long, love. We’ll be off again soon, don’t you worry.’ Eddie is slurring his words now.
‘Where’re you planning on going next? I didn’t think you had a clear plan yet.’
‘Oh, anywhere warm. I would love to go to Goa. I have a friend over there I haven’t seen for a couple of years. We might head there first and then see where our budget takes us.’ That thought makes Polly cheer up a little.
‘So how long are you planning on staying in the UK?’ I’m intrigued by these insatiable travellers.
‘About six months, we think. That’s about the same length of time we have spent there the last couple of times, wasn’t it, Ed?’
‘Uh. Yes, about that. It will all depend on what jobs we can get and how much we can save. But I think six months would be fine,’ and he returns to look at the group of local lads talking. He seems engrossed in their conversation as if he could understand what they are saying.
‘Maybe we should make a move. It’s late already, and we still need to finish packing the last few things.’ And Polly gets up, waits for Eddie to finish his drink and, together they stagger toward the road.
I can’t see Cindy, but I’m sure she will be safe making her way back to the hotel. She won’t be alone after all. I grin to myself.
I think it’s time for me to get back too. It has been a long day. I look around to say goodbye to Kiri, but I can’t see him. In fact, I can’t see any of the guys he was talking to either.
The beach is almost deserted. Where the hell did he go? And why didn’t he say goodbye?
I’m tired, and it’s lonely here by myself. I start off toward the road. Only a few stray dogs are scattered around, mainly lying on the tarmac trying to soak up the remaining heat from the day. There is no sound. I look up, and the coconut trees are swaying in the breeze against a backdrop of millions of stars. I can’t see the moon from where I am, but its silvery light is illuminating the vast expanse above me. The street lights are few and far between. I walk on. It’s warm and sticky, and the mosquitoes are having a feast on me.
‘Leaving without saying goodbye then?’
Kiri comes out of the shadows. He is just in front of me. How long has he been there? And what the hell is he doing on the road in the dark?
‘I couldn’t find you on the beach. What are you doing here?’
‘I was waiting for you. There is only this way from the beach to your hotel.’
Well, no. I could have gone to the main road from another restaurant and walked to the hotel from there, but I’m not going to discuss this possibility, there is absolutely no point. I’m glad to see him, anyway.
He takes my hand, and we walk on. ‘I went to help a friend. I thought I would wait here for you.’
He’s lucky I hadn’t left earlier, or he would have missed me completely. Then again, I don’t know how long he has been here. I get a strange feeling that he was expecting to catch me with someone else.
As we get to the hotel, he takes me in his arms and crushes me against his chest. I breathe in deeply. He smells of sea and sand and sun. His skin is soft. I can hear his heart beating strongly and regularly. I like being held like this.
He releases me and pushes me slightly off him. He looks into my eyes ‘I want you to stay with me, Maddy.’
A lump catches in my throat. I can see a little boy with no one to look after him, lost in the world and helplessly looking for love and protection.
‘I’ll come back, I promise.’ I really mean this.
His eyes light up, he smiles brightly and puts his hand under my chin, pulling me close to him as he kisses me. He is gentle at first but then circles my waist with one arm and pulls me toward him, the other arm is at the nape of my neck. He is testing my body. He is kissing me with a passion I have not experienced before. I’m paralysed with want and fear. I can’t do this, I’m not ready, but I can’t stop yet, it makes me feel so alive. I let him carry on. His hand travels from my neck to my front, and he is undoing the buttons of my blouse. I need to stop him now before we go too far.
‘I’m not ready,’ I push him away, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay. I want you very much, but I can wait. I told you I would.’
‘Are you sure? You’re not angry?’
‘Why should I be? I’m happy you’re not such an easy lady. I respect you a lot more for this.’
I’m a bit taken aback. Is this not normally the reaction he gets? How many more have there been? Why the hell am I thinking like this?! I get really cross with myself for feeling jealous of this young man I hardly know. Get a grip, Maddy!
‘I need to go now. I’ll see you tomorrow. You know where to find me when you want me.’
‘Sure.’ And I get on my tip toes to kiss him lightly on the lips. ‘Goodnight, Kiri.’
‘Good night,’ and he is off, striding along the path. His luscious dark hair bouncing around his shoulders. God, I really like him!
I get to the hotel room. Cindy is not there, but I didn’t expect her to be. I’m not worried, I will see her in the morning.I lie on the bed fully dressed, cross my legs at the ankles and fold my arms behind my head, staring at the ceiling in the dark. I need to work out all the array of mixed feelings I have inside. It is as if I have borrowed someone else’s identity. I don’t recognise myself. Why do I, all of a sudden, feel butterflies? I feel happy one minute and deeply sad the next. What is all this looking forward to seeing him with all my being combined with feeling wrecked at the idea of being so far apart so imminently? All these thoughts and feelings keep exploding in my head, and it takes me a long time before I allow my sleepy eyes to close and drift away toward a new day.