Sex on the beach
The long multi-day drive from the inland game reserves of Kenya towards Dar es Salaam was hot and bothersome. The Meanie bucked and yawed over the rain-ravaged roads with snorting determination. The scenery was interesting and the overnight stops were entertaining, but after the wild expanse of the Mara, this didn’t command the same awe. Small villages flanked the road, from which groups of little children with whirring legs and flashing teeth swarmed alongside the truck, their hands held out in front of them.
Gabby flung handfuls of cheap sweets purchased in Arusha, a town consisting of overpriced telephone calls, usurious exchange rates and safari touts in which Fred had remarked, “I hope we’re a-rushin’ out of here”.
Not far from Arusha was the town of Moshi, facing towards the southern slopes of Kilimanjaro. The town was known as the gateway to Kili. The Blue Meanie shuddered into the parking lot of the Mountain View Hotel. As the cloud of dust that had trailed The Meanie from Kenya dissipated into the treetops, the noise and jarring was replaced by a welcome calm. The travellers slowly unwound themselves from their seats, clambered out and stretched in the shady parking lot. It was early evening, the soft light soothing the heat of the day and flirting with the scent of flowers in the lush garden.
The weary group sat on the front veranda and washed away the dust with a steady flow of beer and gin and tonics served in plastic glasses, largely silent as they gazed out at the view. The heavy bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro was visible emerging from the thorn trees of the savannah and pushing its way up into the clouds. Kilimanjaro looked as a mountain should – the right shape and proportions. It was a clean mountain, not just the highest peak on top of a range of other high ridges, but a mountain by itself. A standalone mountain, with snow on the top when the clouds parted to reveal it. And streams and gullies running down its bare sides into the forest at its base.
“It’s like a big carbuncle,” said Rabbit.
“It’s spectacular,” said Fred.
The wonder of looking at one of the most photographed vistas in Africa created a contemplative silence and with extreme effort they dragged themselves away to fetch their backpacks and find their rooms. The promise of the first hot shower not from a hoisted bucket for over a week serving as incentive.
It had been a while since anyone had seen a mirror as well.
James and Toby stood in their room, staring at the dishevelled, unshaven faces that stared back at them as if a chance meeting had occurred with a long lost cousin and there was an awkward silence while names and ancestries were remembered. The lines on their faces were highlighted by worn-in dirt and their hair was a shade lighter from the sun and dust.
James broke the silence by pointing his two hands at himself six-gun style, “You know what? I’m still one good-looking kid!”
“I think I’ve lost weight,” said Toby, pressing his midriff and smiling. “I’m not carrying as much corporate muscle. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t seem to have the same avoirdupois. I’ve lost my winter condition.” He shifted his hands round and round his waistline, delighted.
“Jesus, how’d you know those big words?”
“When you’re fat, you get to hear them all.”
James looked at him critically. “You most definitely have lost weight, Tobes. I suppose no one’s commented because it’s happened in front of our eyes so it hasn’t been that noticeable. Your pants are hanging off you. Well done, china. Looking swell. I mean, not swell.” James laughed at his joke and patted Toby on the shoulder.
“Right,” he said, “I’m going to shit, shower, shave and shoot down to the beer garden to get face down on the lawn. Is there anything you need in the bathroom before I commit grievous atrocities in there?”
“No, you go ahead. Bombs away.” Toby was transfixed by his slimmer appearance but reluctantly pulled himself away from the mirror and flopped on his bed in happy contemplation.
“Is this where they invented salami?” asked Geoffrey when they arrived at the coast after lunchtime the next day. The similarity with Mickey Rourke waxed and waned on a daily basis as he experimented with various goatees, Van Dykes, Stromboli moustaches and any variation of facial merkin that occurred to him in his vacuous musings.
“Dar es Salaam means ‘Haven of Peace’.” Fred knew Geoffrey’s question wasn’t serious, or at least he hoped not, but he’d been reading his guidebook on the way into town and was eagerly looking out the window to see what he should be seeing.
There were no pavements, just road and muddy gullies over which the pedestrians hopped. Cuthbert nudged and nosed The Meanie through the dense traffic. Although it was chaotic, there was no outward aggression. They drove past an excited crowd discussing a bumper bashing. A security guard from a nearby building had joined them, with an ancient AK-47 over his shoulder, and was trying to calm everyone down. His hand resting on the butt of the rifle lent him an air of benevolent authority.
It would soon be time to part ways with The Blue Meanie for a couple of weeks as their itinerary entailed catching a ferry to Zanzibar and travelling around the island in taxis, although they would probably not walk more than a hundred yards inland from the beach in all the time they spent there.
Gabby cheerfully briefed them that they had three hours to kill before they needed to rendezvous at Customs Wharf to catch the ferry and they could explore Dar if they wished. “Don’t get lost and don’t be late and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” she warned. Which, on a stinking hot afternoon in an industrial port, seemed like an easy rule to observe.
Kirsty was interested in visiting the Kariakoo Market and asked Jocko to accompany her. “Anyone else keen to come along?” Inga, Stacy and Charlie were all keen to stroll around, and were warned about pickpockets and the usual footpads. Toby didn’t want to seem desperate to spend every waking moment with Kirsty, although, in truth, he was (and sleeping moments, and all the moments in-between). So he declined. With a groan, James plopped himself down on a bench in the shade and clutched a large bottle of water to his chest. With a massive hangover, the day seemed interminable to him.
“I still feel like Toby’s lion kakked in my head,” he said. “This heat. This terrible heat. I’m not moving from this spot. I’ll watch the ships pass by. You go shopping, I’ll watch shipping. Through my eyelids,” he added, pulling his hat over his eyes and laying his head gingerly back on the wall behind him. Now Toby wished he could change his mind. He could spend some quality time with Kirsty, with James not around to keep track of his flirtations, such as they were. He had newfound confidence. Confidence that comes with the disappearance of five kilograms’ worth of love handles. But he thought it less obvious to follow Fred around instead, and watch him taking photographs of a cathedral and Arabian shoreline buildings holding out against the skyscraper invasion from the business district behind.
James hadn’t moved when they all returned from their various wanderings. He had nudged his hat back and was watching the passing traffic, both human and marine, with detached interest through bleary eyes, sipping consistently from the bottle of surprisingly cold water he had bought from a young girl. She had passed by him, a large newspaper laid open in her hands filled with samoosas. He knew that it was probably digestive suicide to eat them, but he needed grease. He wanted grease now, and he’d handle the fallout when he was close to a beach and the sea.
On her head, she balanced a large enamel basin, chipped, cracked and dented, but full of large bottles of chilled water. By the time she left, folding the shilling notes into her waistband, he had drunk a quarter of the water, and was munching blissfully on a samoosa. They tasted exceptionally good; small and crisp, and pudgy with a curried filling of unidentifiable origin. He felt almost human while he slowly finished the unexpected bounty.
Gabby got back and sat down next to him. She tried to engage him in conversation, but James was caught between his hangover and contentment with the cold water and samoosas and wasn’t his usual effusive self. She eventually gave up being chatty and read a brochure instead.
She hopped up when the rest of the group approached her, and said, “Hello. Well done, you’re all back in one piece. No disasters I trust, no mishaps? Good. Enjoy it? See anything nice, girls? They’re known for their haute couture around here.” They all laughed generously.
“Right, here are all your tickets. We’re on the fast ferry. Which only takes two hours and is more luxurious.”
“Great,” said James. “That’s what I need the way I’m feeling.”
“But,” she continued, “the fast ferry makes people sicker quicker.”
“Great,” said James. “That’s all I need the way I’m feeling.”
Fred and Toby laughed the kind of laugh that is at the expense of someone who fully deserves their fate. “I hope there’s a porthole for you, mate,” Fred measured the circumference on James’s head with his hands, “at least this wide.”
“You must remember to shout, ‘Watch under!’ when you chunder,” said Jocko. “That’s where the expression comes from.”
“Really?” Toby followed Jocko up the gangplank, all of them hefting their backpacks with them and looking for a suitable group of seats that would accommodate them all.
“Yeah,” Jocko explained, “in the days of the immigrants going out to Oz, if you had to heave yer guts out the porthole, it was only polite to make sure there wasn’t some poor bugger from below decks whose head was already out there. Even the peasants below wouldn’t have been too chuffed with a vom shower.”
They arranged themselves in two rows next to a window, with James leaning his head against the side so that the breeze coming off the twinkling Indian Ocean kept him as fresh as it was possible to be on the stuffy vessel.
“You sure that’s not apocryphal?” Fred asked.
“Yeah,” chirped Stacy, “that sounds like one of those emails that tells you how sayins start an‘ stuff.” Her intonation went up on the ‘stuff’ so that it sounded like she was asking a question.
“Are those all nonsense?” said Kirsty. “I must admit, I often believe those things.”
“Oh come on, Kirsty, anyone can make those up. In fact,” Toby continued, “give me one right now, a saying, or an aphorism, or a cliché of sorts, and I’ll give you the derivation.”
“Cold as the balls on a brass monkey,” mumbled James. “Or, more appropriately, ‘hot as the balls on a spanking monkey’.”
“Well,” Toby looked longsufferingly at James lolling his head on the bulwark, “everyone knows the first one, and everyone knows you made the second one up. Come on, give me a proper one.”
Kirsty smiled, “I’ve got one for you, Toby. ‘A faint heart never won a fair maiden’.”
“Hmm, ok. Let me think for a second.”
Toby looked out the window and nodded slowly to himself. “Alright, it all started like this. In the olden days, in English mediaeval times, all the people used to live very far from each other in isolated pockets and hamlets. So if you had a daughter, it was hard to find a good husband for her since she couldn’t very well go into town to the taverns, guzzle alcopops and dance on the tables wearing no knickers as they do these days, and often the gene pool was quite small. There was a risk that your grandkids would be born with one eye in the middle of each of their foreheads on account of all the inbreeding. To counter this, the English gentry with daughters to marry off used to host fairs, at which young men would gather from far and wide to try to win the daughters’ hands. The chosen daughter was then called the ‘Fair Maiden’. So it wasn’t because she was beautiful; a girl could have a face like a bulldog and an arse like a Clydesdale and still be called a Fair Maiden.
“Now, it used to be tradition in those days for the young suitors to arrive with a bull’s heart, a prized meat item – remember they didn’t have much meat in those days – to give to the landlord as an offering, in return for which they could be considered eligible husbands.
“If the heart was really dark with arterial blood, it meant that it was very fresh, whereas some of the poorer men from the distant outlying villages would have a heart from which all the blood had drained, and which would not be good eating. Tough as a toenail. This heart was much fainter in colour, and not looked on favourably by the laird, or whatever he called himself, who was more likely to give the suitor a steel-shod kick in the codpiece than his daughter’s hand. So you see, ‘a faint heart never won a fair maiden’. Amazing fact, don’t you think? And it’s gospel truth, I read it in an email.”
Even James managed a chuckle as the boat cleaved its way towards the islands, the white froth of the wake shooting flying fish out of their path, inches above the surface. The sunlight beamed several fathoms down into the clear water and the breeze coming through the window was laden with salt and spray.
It was a welcome change from the dust and fumes of The Blue Meanie, and all of them relaxed into the gentle swaying of the ferry, all cheerful, all amiable and all looking forward to putting down some temporary roots, being able to keep their toothbrushes in a glass on a basin and unpack their clothes for a few nights.
Fred was becoming increasingly interested in his camera. Most of the group had done their usual trick after disembarkation and repaired to the first bar they could find in Stone Town. But Fred strolled through the maze of tiny streets, with Toby on his heels as artistic advisor, looking for the picture that would capture the essence of Arabian coastal Africa. The cross-pollination of Muslim architecture and tropical beach. Stone Town, once a dark capital of slavery, was now a photographer’s colourful dream.
There were other people taking pictures too. The opportunities were endless. If Fred saw a tourist with a camera, he nonchalantly strolled into the background to amuse himself. It pleased him to know that thousands of miles away in America, in Europe and all over the globe there were families who had photos of themselves and him behind them on their mantelpieces.
He was careful not to offend the local subjects of his own photos though, and politely requested permission to take photographs of the colourful people he saw. Old men in flowing white robes and tarbooshes, crouched against a backdrop of latticed window and earthen wall. Young ladies with baskets of spice and herbs on their heads and colourful kikois around their waists.
“God, Toby, you have to be a partially sighted moron not to get good photos in this place. These pictures take themselves.” Fred crouched against an old stone wall and aimed his camera up at a worn wooden shutter hanging on one sad hinge, the fronds of a palm tree curled over the top of the building like a restraining hand, and a perfectly blue sky beyond.
“Lucky your camera doesn’t pick up the smell,” said Toby, wrinkling his nose at the ubiquitous waft of drains. His eyes followed a cockroach as it made its haphazard way along the pavement. “Look at the size of that thing, must weigh two pounds. I wouldn’t like to meet him in a dark alley.”
“You must be joking. It would be like running over a dog.”
“What are you going to do about Kirsty?” Fred lowered his camera and looked at Toby.
“What? What’s that got to do with cockroaches the size of Panzers?”
“Nothing, I just thought I’d ask now that we’re alone. Don’t look so surprised, it’s perfectly obvious you like her. A lot. I think she knows it too.”
“Does she? That’s not good. I hope not, at least not how much.”
“I think she likes you too, Toby, I really do. Why not roll the dice and see what happens. You don’t have much to lose really.”
“No, Fred, nothing at all. But there is the small matter of embarrassing rejection and five weeks of smirking ridicule from everybody. Not to mention bloody James fielding at short leg to catch the rebound. He’s a major problem. Much as I love the bloke, he’s relentless. He’s always as horny as a ruddy duck. I’d feel a lot more comfortable getting to know Kirsty in my own good time. None of this courtship in a microwave shit. At James’s pace.”
“A faint heart never won a fair maiden, mate. She said it. And not by chance either.”
“Slowly, slowly catchee monkey, mate. I said it. And that’s the route I’m going to follow.”
“Fine, I won’t argue with your strategy. All I will say, though, is that you are self-deprecating, which is a great quality to have if it’s true modesty, but not if you’re just putting yourself down without any reason. We’ve talked about this before. Don’t believe you’re coming second all the time in the race against James. Stop stepping back out of courtesy. It’s one thing offering someone else the window seat out of courtesy, it’s another thing to offer someone the window to your soul.”
“Window to my soul? What sort of shit is that? Really Fred, all this Zen and meditation stuff you’ve started is beginning to affect your thinking.”
“I know, I know, I got a bit lost there. But you know what I’m saying. Good guys finish last sometimes.”
The beaches of northern Zanzibar were designed by a higher being for holiday romance. The sun sets directly in front of the thatched beach bars. As the searing day simmers away and night falls and cools, the tide goes out to the edge of the world, leaving huge stretches of broad clean white sand on which to lead an attraction by the hand until out of the glow of the bungalows. Beyond that, the phosphorescence in the blood-warm water provides a swirling accompaniment to night swimming.
James had spotted the potential in the situation from as far away as the mainland.
Their days were spent scuba diving, reading in hammocks and watching the soporific activities of all who came and went from behind cold Safari Lager bottles.
A wagon drawn by a pair of yoked oxen plodded past once a morning, loaded with dive tanks and fresh fish. The pages of their books fluttered in the salty breeze and the books slid to the ground as the quiet afternoon heat led to head-dropping sleep.
On the day they had arrived in Zanzibar, James and Fred disembarked from the matatu that drove them north from the airport and wandered straight down to the beach, eager to get their feet in the sea for the first time since they had left the autumnal London winds. On their way to the shore, they passed a blond girl emerging from the sea in a wet and clinging cotton shirt and sarong, and both thanked the first deity they could think of that they were wearing sunglasses. Neither of their heads moved a fraction from a rigid parade ground eyes-front, but underneath the reflective lenses, their eyeballs revolved in their sockets like chameleons. She was a goddess. Sent by Neptune to greet them. She didn’t look like any kind of backpacker they’d ever encountered and, by comparison, even Kirsty looked a little rough around the edges.
“She’s come from Neptune,” Fred whispered when she was out of earshot.
“Ja. Out of this world.”
“No, not the planet, the sea god.”
“A mermaid, you mean?” said James. “Nice piece of tail for me to chase.”
“A red herring. Your chasing her will give Kirsty a well-earned break. And give Toby a chance to chat to Kirsty without you popping up at every turn.”
James looked at him. “Ah shit, Fred. Don’t tell me you’re taking sides. You know all’s fair in love and war. And she’s fair game. He must take his chances, same as me.”
“I know, but it’s just not as easy for him to get himself across as it is for you.”
“You may think so now, but he’s coming up to speed quickly. Especially now that he’s losing weight. I never underestimate anyone, friend or foe. Toby’s got what it takes, I tell you that much. He’s loyal, kind, considerate, and that all comes through when you get to know him. He’s a dark horse. But you’re right about the well-earned break. Kirsty is second-best on this island right now. I just hope Toby doesn’t make too much progress while I’m fishing for red-hot herrings.”
“I must admit, it is a romantic place. I wish Eleanor was here. I miss her. Maybe we’ll come back for our honeymoon.”
“Well, that’s a good thing on two counts.”
“You’ve made a decision about your relationship. Which I’m pleased to hear. She’s a keeper, I’ve always thought that.”
“Thanks, mate. And secondly?”
“You’re out of the hunt for Kirsty. And the mermaid who doesn’t realise the terrible danger she’s in, wandering around on dry land.”
James almost skipped back up to their bungalows he was so excited. He unpacked his backpack with a conjuror’s flourish, rattled off fifty press-ups to get his chest and biceps pumped up, slipped on a surf-vest and headed out to the bar overlooking the beach. He noticed that even Toby now had a vest on, so pleased was he with his new slimmer lines. Well, no matter, he was going to have to focus for a few days, so while pleased for Toby and his weight loss, he was going to have to accept that the playing field might be a bit more level for the rest of the trip.
As the sun set on their second week in Zanzibar, they settled into the wicker chairs scattered under thatched gazebos around the central bar. An enormously muscled local man smelling strongly like he had performed some hard physical labour earlier in the day delicately placed curly green ylang-ylang blossoms in the woven candle lanterns hanging from the palm-thatched gazebos. The flowers’ lush scent intensified as the sun simmered down and the blossoms opened. Some traveller had given the barman a CD of ambient trance tunes from a Balearic island club, which seemed appropriate to the setting.
As had become their evening ritual, the ox-wagon delivered their sushi. The second day he had seen the wagon come past, Jocko had spotted a yellow-fin tuna lying across the dive bottles and had asked the man where he was taking it. A brief negotiation on price, quantity and some high-level instruction on how to slice it up resulted in a huge platter of fresh sashimi being delivered every evening, with freshly sliced ginger from the island.
“This is my favourite part of the day,” Jocko said, dropping a thick slice into his mouth. “It jush mmimf ahhuh muh mfph mfph.”
“What?” asked Stacy, laughing at him and picking a more delicate piece.
“Sorry,” chuckled Jocko. “It just melts against my palate. Truly the best sushi I’ve ever had.”
“Pity there’s no soy sauce or wasabi,” said Stacy, as she picked a piece of ginger and pulled it into smaller fragments, which she nibbled on between the sushi mouthfuls.
“I know,” said Jocko. “But often when you’re eating dry prepackaged sushi, you need that because the wasabi and soy is all you’re really tasting. With tuna this fresh, you don’t want to hide the flavour too much. It really is awesome.”
“I hope they get some good fish tonight,” he said, pointing out to sea.
From the village around the headland, a fleet of white-sailed dhows emerged and, like a migration of windblown butterflies, fluttered slowly across the horizon on the strengthening breeze. The armada of fishermen, having said farewell to their wives and children, were once more headed out to the deep water channel to handline for tuna overnight, catching the rising offshore wind into the current. In the early morning, the breeze would change tack and bring them all back in again.
The sea in front of the bar was as thickly smooth as cream and turning ruby as the sun lowered itself to greet it. A turtle a hundred yards from the shore poked its head out and sighed, the exhalation carrying across the still water’s surface.
All it took was one bronze and braided girl in a bikini to start dancing as the CD’s energy increased and everyone was on their feet shuffling rhythmically, barefoot in the sand, and scrumming at the bar for cocktails. The pace of the party sailed on the rising offshore wind. An antiquated blender behind the bar colada-ed its last pina and gurgled a death rattle in someone’s arms. A limbo dancing rope was stretched beside the bar and an appreciative audience of varyingly shaven men gathered to watch the varyingly shaven women bend themselves beneath it.
James was hot on the scent and at his most charming. The girl from Neptune had turned out to be a fellow South African and it was all the look-in James had needed to get to know her.
Watching the limbo dancers, he sat next to her and chatted about life in London and how much he missed braais, boerewors and biltong. He didn’t miss an opportunity to top up the mermaid’s glass in order to smooth his progress. Her name was Pippa. She really was a beautiful girl, in the Barbie mould. Crystal blue eyes, an impish nose, a broad smile with toothpaste-ad teeth and long blond hair. Her face, while something to be gazed at without boredom, lacked the originality of Kirsty’s. It lacked the expression and the shine of intelligence. But if a template was made for a holiday romance, Pippa would be the girl to use.
James didn’t really like dancing, but saw it as a means to an end. If Pippa liked dancing, then he liked dancing. As it was, she did. Attentive as a bird dog, he danced his best, added Zulu kicks where appropriate, went to the bar to get Pippa another drink when appropriate, and tactically ignored her for half an hour too when the time was right for that. By the time the CD ended and a vehement argument had broken out between the frenzied travellers as to whether the clubbing music should continue or Bob Marley should replace it so that those with a little supply of relaxants could enjoy a casual smoke, James had Pippa on the edge of the deck looking up at the vast swathe of stars, now as clear as lint on dark felt.
As soon as James established that Pippa didn’t have much knowledge of the night skies and was listening avidly to his smatterings of astronomical awareness, he became Carl Sagan. He rattled off all the major groups stored in the universe of his mind, whether they were visible or not. The fact that he wouldn’t recognise Scorpio if it crashed into Earth was neither here nor there; he pointed it out in great detail. The pincers, the legs, the tail. The history behind it. Certain credit did have to be given to his imagination, but when Pippa barely stifled a snort of laughter as James pointed out the scales of Virgo, he knew she was indulging him. It was a good sign.
He took her hand, and offered to show her the phosphorescence in the sea. A sight far more impressive than the stars, if only because of its tangibility. It was still warm and humid and the cool water was enticing.
Toby sat and watched James and Pippa ambling off into the dark embrace of the moonless night, beyond the lights, so that all that could be seen of them was flashes of green as they stirred the water with their feet, gradually receding as they got deep enough to swim and were completely out of sight.
Kirsty sat next to Toby and also watched them go. She turned sharply back to Toby and said with some force, “Do you want to go for a walk on the beach, Tobes?”
Toby’s heart shot into his mouth. He had been quietly wrangling with his inner demons. Why did he lack the courage to take Kirsty by the hand and lead her into the warm blackness? Now the chance had landed in his lap but he was uncomfortably aware as to what the catalyst of her offer had been, and it didn’t sit well with him.
Toby grabbed a bottle of beer to help him on his way and they wandered off in the direction that James and Pippa had taken. As they neared the shore, they passed a small pile of clothes and could hear low laughter and giggles from far out in the ocean. They walked on, splashing the shallows with their feet to create the swirls of green, not talking much. Looking at how beautiful it was, how dark the sky, how bright the stars, they stopped and lay on their backs on the soft sand and let the Milky Way settle on them like a blanket.
Toby was acutely aware of Kirsty’s breathing, the rise and fall of her chest, her bikini top slightly offline to reveal the white skin where the sun hadn’t touched her, her beautiful hands linked on her brown stomach. He ached to roll over and kiss her, but he knew she was far away. He could feel her thoughts churning, and he thought he knew why. He sipped his beer until she was ready to head back to the light.
They wandered, chatting more amiably now about the others on the trip – who Toby thought was cuter: Stacy the southern belle or Inga the svelte Swede. Who Kirsty thought was a bigger arsehole: Rabbit the Aussie, or Geoffrey the cocky little Mickey Rourke. How their perceptions of the trip differed from the realities now that they were halfway through, and what they were looking forward to seeing ahead. As they neared the beach bar and could hear that Bob Marley had won through, they were interrupted by a stifled moan and a sharp little whimper and they both looked back down the beach to the noise.
Their eyes, by now accustomed to the blackness, could just make out, pulled up above the high-water mark, an old windsurfer board. And vaguely discernable above it, the pale gleam of James’s white buttocks moving rhythmically in the starlight.
Without a word to Toby, Kirsty turned and walked back to her bungalow. Her face hot with embarrassment, disappointment and anger.