He kisses her firmly on the centre of her forehead and waves her through the departure gates, saying, ‘Just a few days. I’ll be with you by Friday. I promise.’
She doesn’t look back.
His landing, on the Friday, is so bumpy most passengers cheer. Rain sluices into his shoes as he negotiates the pavement between the arrivals hall and the taxi, and the driver, surly because of the wet, slides around corners way too fast. It irritates Eric so much he refuses to give the man a tip and slams the cab door. The driver spins his wheels as he takes off.
Eric fumbles the room key and drips on the counter while the concierge apologises that the lift is undergoing a service. ‘Would Mr Goodacre like to leave his bags here and as soon as the bellhop returns, I will ask him to bring them up?’
‘No,’ says Eric. ‘I’ll take them.’
By the fourth floor he regrets his decision. He leans a pale hand on a yellow wall sponged with brown – mock-Tuscan style – and feels he might throw up.
The suite with designer kitchenette is much brighter than he remembers from the website, and she’s brought in lilies with little tongues that make the atmosphere seem other-worldly. He feels he’s stumbled into a fifties movie set in which a svelte couple might stand at the plate glass windows of their gleaming apartment, drinking martinis and drowning their wealth.
She isn’t here. Just a note.
Hello, darling! Settle in. Shower and shave and I’ll be back to take you to dinner.
This is not how he’d planned this. He felt sure he’d arrive to find her miserable and teary on the couch. He’d kiss her (again on the forehead), saying, ‘I’m here now. I told you I would be. Now let’s go out and explore!’
He’s the experienced traveller and she’s the novice. But already she’s stolen his thunder. Where is she?
He fiddles for ages with the wrapper on the tiny hotel soap and then gives up, depositing it noisily into the bin. The complimentary shower gel, he realises too late, smells like cheap aftershave and leaves a sticky residue that won’t scrub off.
At dinner she orders oysters and he cautions her about the perils of seafood, traveller’s belly and parasites. You can never be too careful. Wasn’t that how she’d taught him to live?
‘Darling, you worry too much,’ she says. ‘You should relax.’
‘Oh, should I?’ Eric replies. ‘Should I really?’ His voice is whiny and venomous; its tone startles them both.
‘We’re on holidays, Eric. Isn’t this how it’s done?’
‘Yes. Sorry,’ he says. ‘I’m tired from the flight, that’s all.’
But he knows that isn’t it; he isn’t fatigued at all.
What’s irking him most tonight is how stunning she looks. Royal almost. Like Princess Grace zipping around Monaco or Dodi Fayed in Harrods greeting the crowds and drawing attention.
‘The ruins will cheer you up,’ she says. ‘I’ll take you tomorrow. I’ve worked out the bus.’
Eric pushes his plate away, the remains of his half steak lying hacked and bleeding. He calls for coffee.
‘Please, Mother,’ he says, eyeballing her as he lifts his coffee, sips, and replaces the cup with a resonant clink, ‘for once in my life don’t treat me like a child.’
She looks at him like he’s no blood relative of hers, then says briskly, ‘I think we’d better call it a night.’
She’s breezy the next morning and dashing in a pantsuit of navy blue and white linen. Gold rimmed buttons. Cheeky, yet sensible, shoes. He resents that she’s turning heads. For Pete’s sake, he wants to say to these men, don’t you know she’s in her seventies? What could you possibly see in her?
At the café beside the ruins he feels dusty and deflated, but she comports herself with ingénue charm. Her eyes are lively as she calls for the bill.
‘Let me get this, Mother,’ Eric says. ‘I am capable, you know.’
She turns away from him, takes a compact from her purse to check her lipstick.
He sorts the notes too slowly, like he’s dim-witted and not used to the currency.
As the waiter steps forward to ease his mother’s chair away, she stands. Eric thinks he hears her speaking, not to the waiter, but to him.
‘Oh Eric, dear. I do so wish you’d grow up.’
Eric loves how travel opens windows onto brightness – the revelation of new sights, smells, sounds and tastes to encounter. Standing in the Giardino delle Rose, looking down on the rooftops of Florence … his first taste of vongole in Pozzuoli … the initial sip of Rauchbier in Bamberg … the first word uttered by Helen Mirren off Broadway. All these experiences were curatives to the everyday minutiae that accreted to weigh you down.
Eric knows you can’t plan for luminous moments, but placement can alter probability. Put yourself somewhere different enough and fate will sometimes toss a curio onto your plate.
Bliss is also mostly chanced upon, he believes, rarely constructed. So easily missed.
It’s 1999 in Siena, the day before Il Palio, and the city is teeming with tourists. The townspeople, as is customary, are wearing the scarves and flags of the district they’ll cheer for in the Piazza del Campo when the race is run. Many of these people are also putting up trestle tables and carrying plates in readiness for the feasting that will soon begin. The streets are packed. Eric walks through the city jostled by the throng. Being part of such a crowd is like being in a river that is moving so fast it takes no effort at all to flow along. Going is easier than staying. Motion is easier than stillness. Dreaming is easier than rousing yourself from sleep.
But Eric does wake. He stirs himself from the warmth and the crush and turns from the main thoroughfare into a deserted alleyway. As he walks, he finds it leads to another and another – branching like tributaries. His heels strike the cobblestones and the noise echoes in the bristling heat.
He is drawn down to the bottom of one alley by a flag hanging from an attic window. It is decorated with the symbol of a unicorn and coloured bands of white, orange-yellow and blue. Eric takes his Lumix from his coat pocket and clicks the shutter just as a cloud passes over, darkening the walls of the houses and the stones beneath his feet. The flag above him glows in relief.
Turning to retrace his steps, he sees a small boy at the top of the alleyway. He’s bare-chested and unaware of Eric’s presence. He’s wearing blue shorts and fluttering a threadbare towel, clasping one end around his neck. He gallops a few steps with his cape flaring and waves a hand at an invisible crowd. The boy is an Il Palio rider readying himself for the race. He bows to the fans as they throw him roses and blow him kisses. Then the race begins and he rides around in tight circles, faster and faster. When he stops he punches the air. Yes! Victory is sweet.
As the boy raises his fist, Eric’s still holding the Lumix, but he can’t bring himself to shoot. The boy’s celebration will remain a private joy.
Lately Eric’s been wondering why he’s lived his life with such quiet containment. Why he’s never let himself go. Never had a partner. Never taken an illegal drug. He thinks of Picasso with his multiple mistresses overlapping each other like petals on a rose. Seeing his canvasses in Paris a decade ago, Eric felt confronted by the artist’s riotous nature. Such rapacity and lust! All those women – what excess and abundance. Was anyone, in all the history of the world, more unlike Eric than this?
Via negativa. Where has Eric heard this phrase? Light and shade, print and proof sheet, dawn and sunset, heights and depths. You live one life and it cancels out other possibilities. You might yearn for a different option, thinks Eric, but at some point you have to accept there are no more chances to become what you’re not.
Lost opportunity is one thing, but it’s the details that have been slipping these last few months. In his work as an antique dealer, Eric’s always been a stickler for knowing historical periods, the names of emperors and imperial leaders and the dates that certain painters did their best and most valuable work. Now he’s losing these certainties, along with all the precise knowledge he’d once had of candlesticks and filigree chair legs, table inlays and mosaics, watchmakers and diamond cutters and a thousand and one other rudimentary and random facts.
All the historic and aesthetic matter once anchored so firmly in his brain’s neat mansion has started flying around like space junk. Last week, the copper cook pots he sold to Mrs Schembry jiggled past in a conga line. Yesterday, a clock (ormolu, was it?) whirred into view and receded as it struck three. Over the last hour or two, multitudes of objects have been whizzing by and whirling around each other (the rings of Saturn?) and the pieces in the mix (well, those he can recall) include his mother’s hallstand, a great aunt’s hatbox, four brooches of agate and beaten silver (and what’s that resin? Is it amber?), two velvet love seats and leather footstools, a blackened fireguard and poker set and countless ladies’ fans painted with cherry blossoms, all unfurled. Right at this moment, there’s a seventies lava lamp sprouting hot-pink filaments that shift to peacock blue and then (what is that colour?) it doesn’t matter, the lamp’s disappearing already – fading into the distance, as six pairs of button-down gloves float past, each pair gripped by a napkin ring carved with the initials KC.
The visuals come and go as visitations – so some days are bad and some good. This afternoon it’s been Antiques Roadshow stirred with a soup spoon, the visual version of cacophony – a clash of finishes and periods, ugly and lovely, a whirling mandala of oak and cedar, tea sets and wash pots, art deco and rococo; a noiseless symphony of objects forgotten or thought to be gone for ever.
Eric feels dizzy. Steadies himself on the bar. Orders a double scotch and gulps it down.
In a three-star hotel in Prague in 2009, the shutters make the room so dark – perpetual night – and a cave for hibernation. There’s the faint smell of mould and old cigarette smoke. The bedside lamp is on the blink, and the bathroom door lists from one hinge. The vast wardrobe is a cave within a cave that Eric must feel his way into like a baby marsupial – eyeless – to find his neatly pressed slacks.
Nimble. He’s never been nimble. Still, he covets it. He’s been a plodder, yes. Sturdy, yes. Reliable as a Samsonite suitcase and dependable as a Burberry brolly. Yes. Yes. Good old Eric – solid as a brick. Given his age and shape, he’ll never know, now, what it’s like to be fast or sleek. And, in a world where options are constantly pushed at you, this lack of opportunity seems regrettable. Had Eric been born fleet of foot – or truly had the option to develop it – might it have loosened some of his brain’s predictable circuits? Might a more mercurial Eric have emerged that could sprint into a bacchanalian revelry ravished by wild women, seduced by their song?
Well, as if.
It’s too hot. Eric gets up and douses his head in the bathroom. He notes the puffiness beneath his eyes; two ancient suit bags dragging at his cheeks and pulling them down. Beyond the room, it will still be dark but he needs to get out. The heat! He gropes for his trousers and his shirt. His shoes. The door. The pass key. He waves it across the scanner. Walks along the quiet passageway and down the grey marble steps and waves it again. He’s out on the street. There’s no-one here. But it’s blessedly cooler! The breeze ruffles his wet hair and settles his blood. Dries his sticky skin.
He’s got to walk. Past the place they fed him pork knuckle two nights ago – a meal large enough for four so he’d had to leave a mountain of meat congealing on the plate. Past the shop where he bought the dodgy umbrella that just a few hours later loosed its nylon from one spoke. Past, too, the laneway where he’d seen a couple of petty thieves in the middle of a sly manoeuvre, signalling to each other in the bustle of a late night crowd. He’d seen it and tucked his shirt over his money belt and pulled his jacket in nice and close. He’d left the crowded laneway and found a bar where he could drink pastis and sit for a while to let his racing heart settle.
That was two nights ago. He’s seen the travel warnings so he knows there’s danger in this city, so why is he pushing it like this, walking by himself in the dark? The only answer he can muster is, Why not? He’s spent nearly five decades playing it safe. Why not see what it’s like to be out when the vandals and vagabonds get up to no good?
So far he’s seen no-one.
He’s on the Charles Bridge and he’s the only person tramping across it. How miraculous is that?
He’s not totally alone, though. Shadowy statues of the faithful peer at him from the darkness. Looming. I’m among the saints! he thinks, and chuckles quietly. How about that!
Earlier that day, he’d seen John of Nepomuk’s statue covered with scaffolding and black mesh. Thwarted tourists – Japanese, Italian, American, English and Australian – reached through the gauze to touch the plaque at the statue’s base. They pressed and pushed like desperate suppliants. Why? Because it is rumoured that if you touch John of Nepomuk you will return to Prague one day – possibly within the year.
How fortunate, thinks Eric, that modern pilgrims do not seem to need to press the saints for more than this?
At Loreta, the saint that had most intrigued him was Saint Starosta – a bearded lady crucifix. The guidebook explained that she was the saint for the needy and godforsaken. Is that Eric? Starosta’s story makes him feel incredibly lucky. Against her wishes, she is promised to the king of Sicily. After a night of wailing and praying to be spared her fate, she wakes with a beard and her father has her crucified (so no, he’s not a forgiving man).
Is Eric forgiving? Has he needed to be? Has he ever been close enough to anyone – apart from his mother – to need to pardon their thoughtlessness or spite?
And yet … as he looks down from the bridge into the murky water, he wonders if he can forgive those who’ve robbed the world of the gravitas of antiquity? Those who’ve replaced dignified civility with noise and rotting garbage, rush and tawdry merchandise, the stench of junk food, the obsession with gadgets, the neglect of the book?
Is Eric blameless? No. He knows he’s one of the destroyers. No saint.
A different man, at this point, might have thrown himself against the foot of Saint Starosta or thrown his belongings into the Vltava as a sign of regret or passion or need. Eric can neither hurl nor weep. The thought enfeebles him. He’s a weary traveller. And stumped: what can he possibly do to help fix the mess in the world he’s helped to create? Of course he’s bought carbon credits, sponsors Greenpeace, recycles packaging and tries not to be wasteful – but he knows his effort’s paltry. Eric thinks of the individuals who have made a difference, people sainted for their efforts, people willing to die to bring about change, and he’s fairly sure he will never be one of them. Maybe this failure means he doesn’t truly care after all? Can he possibly be forgiven for that?
A boat horn in the distance startles him and he realises he’s been standing in the same spot for many minutes, unaware of what’s going on around him. Too late. A hand is on his shoulder, a knee is striking his kidneys, his head is hitting the cobbles and then there are fingers fumbling at every pocket and feeling under his waistband. They latch on to his hotel pass key but soon realise it’s blank and unidentifiable. A gobbet of spit lands on Eric’s face and the card is thrown back on his chest.
‘Fuckin’ poofter,’ the two men hiss, as they dig their boots into his ribs.
English thugs then, Eric thinks.
He limps back to his hotel with a thudding head and a clutch of words circling. Punishment. Inevitable. Stupid. Narrow escape.
As he inspects his bruises in the bathroom mirror, he thinks, Life gets you like this. You shut down your radar for a second and an attack begins.
Really? Well, actually, no. Not every time – but sometimes.
Once was probably enough.
Now, in Italy in July 2011, his mother looks pale in her nightdress. The sparkle she’s had over the last twenty-four hours has evanesced; the champagne bubbles gone flat. She’s pouring tap water and her hand shakes as she brings a pill and a glass to her trembling mouth.
His mother’s big bones suddenly seem like those of an old moose he saw once while he was driving across Canada. The poor fellow could barely lift his head as Eric inched his hire car past. All fight and fire gone.
‘Milk, Mother?’ Eric asks. ‘I’ll warm it with a little brandy.’
She doesn’t answer. Stands by the kitchen counter with her eyes fixed on a distant point somewhere beyond the sliding doors.
‘I wonder what Cookie’s up to?’ she says. ‘What she’s doing right now.’
Cookie’s been his mother’s live-in helper for three days a week since the osteoarthritis claimed her neck and hip joints. She cooks and cleans and does the heavier garden duties. A Filipina, Cookie has a smile for everyone and everything. There’s no chore too mucky and no person so disagreeable that Cookie can’t warm them up or win them over with her coffee-black eyes and deep dimples.
Eric feels guilty he’s been so snippy with his mother today. He can see, now, that this must partly be what has worn her out.
‘Go in to bed, Mother. I’ll bring you your milk.’
He hears her switching on the bedside lamp, pulling the covers back and arranging the pillows, releasing a sigh as she spreads out her limbs and hoists herself back against the headboard so she’s seated upright.
Eric sits on the edge of her bed and guides the mug gently into her hands.
She takes a sip and says, ‘Did you know that Cookie’s boy, Eduardo, does Slurpee deals with taxi drivers in exchange for rides home from the 7-Eleven?’
‘No. No, actually, I didn’t,’ Eric says, wondering whether his mother has ever seen a Slurpee or knows what it is. ‘I thought he worked at a chicken factory.’
‘He does – he has two jobs. He gets a few hours sleep at night and a very short break between the jobs during the day. Cookie’s worried.’
‘He’s young, Mother. He’ll figure it out.’
‘Yes. All of us do, one way or another, I suppose. You’re probably right.’
Eric rinses the milk pan and then stands for a while in the wind on the balcony, his eyes straining to see what his mother had been looking at before. There’s a twinkle of lights but not much else. Thinking of Cookie then. She must have been.
At breakfast his mother’s rebuilt herself. As he approaches to kiss her cheek, she appears invulnerable – utterly different from the uncertain woman he was so anxious about the previous night as he switched off her light.
‘Darling,’ she says, as Eric sits down opposite her and the waiter places juice and a hot roll on the table in front of him. ‘Art today. I insist. No more ruins. We need something lively. To give us a kick!’
Who is she? And what’s she doing insisting? The pearls at her neck grimace – a row of wilful, bovine teeth.
‘I would think, Mother,’ Eric says stiffly, ‘that you’d first like to hear my thoughts on our itinerary before you snatch up the reins like this.’
‘Reins, Eric? What reins? We’re adults, dear.’
Adults! So why does he feel he’s been thrust into a harness and his mother’s firmly yanking a strap?
Don’t snap at her, thinks Eric. Take a breath. He had promised himself, on waking, that he would not be as churlish as he had been for so much of the day before. He will be the breezy one today. He will show her how comfortable he is as a tourist and how amenable he can be as a travel companion.
He flashes his most genial smile.
‘Markets, Mother. There’s one taking place in a hill town today that I’m sure you can’t have been to before I got here. This is where we’ll find some life.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ his mother says, clapping her hands.
‘Galleries later,’ she confirms, as Eric skols his orange juice and squashes the last wad of bread roll into his mouth. ‘Let’s hit the hills.’
And yes, the hills are a hit. The town enchants her. Eric sees it in her face and in her step. Her eyes crinkle at the tomatoes warming in the sun and her fingers twitch as she reaches out to stroke their taut curves. She looks lovingly at the pretty fabrics flapping on ropes in the shade, licks her lips at the smell of nuts roasting and sighs at the sight of figs, ready to burst, laid out on trays. The beautiful young girls selling the figs turn them over to show his mother the ruby droplets that stick to their velvet bases.
‘Fresh,’ they say, ‘very fresh.’
As his mother pivots to leave their stall, they wave and call to her in unison. ‘Have a lovely day.’
The grilled sardines in a vine-covered courtyard are the perfect luncheon choice, and there is a small gallery nearby that Eric and his mother stroll to after they’ve eaten. The gallery sells glazed pots – oversized tulips with snug lids, which remind Eric of the women in those old Bible stories who store ointment in jars, perfumed salve.
His mother claims that the paintings in the gallery ‘crackle with joy’. Eric narrows his eyes sceptically at the expression but then thinks of this morning’s pact to be more easygoing. He concedes that the lemons and limes splashed so liberally on the canvases have had a giddying effect. Or perhaps it was the wine?
She laughs at this and takes his arm as they stroll back to the bus stop. As they wait, the sun slips down the edges of the valley and sheds golden light on the treetops and grapevines.
They collapse, happily, into the last double seat on the bus.
‘Lovely,’ his mother says, as she rests her head against the bus window. Like a fatigued child after a day at the fair, she promptly falls asleep.
Back at the hotel, his mother heads straight to the suite, and Eric watches protectively as her buttercup flares and cream jacket disappear into the lift well.
In the hotel’s front bar, a polite waiter places an iced tea on a low table for him to sip as he skims the guidebook and underlines useful phrases. He memorises the name of the restaurant he wants to go to that evening and closes the book. Two minutes later, he opens it again and writes the restaurant name on a piece of paper. He slips it into his shirt pocket. On previous trips, he would have needed no such prompt. Now it’s the only way he can be sure. Still, he’s had no chimerical visitations today and he’s managed to be pleasant to his mother, so he’s feeling quite chipper. Things are definitely going more smoothly and he’s glad of that.
Eric leaves as the barman turns the lights down for the evening drinkers. Upstairs, the suite is quiet and his mother’s door is closed.
He sees she’s written a postcard.
Eric’s bossy but very sweet. I’m up and down.
The market today was vivid and bustling and I’m pleasantly pink from the sun.
Thus far I’ve been spared the antiques. Ruins, yes, but no museums.
The food’s tasty – but I miss yours.
Up and down? What could she possibly mean? He’s never heard her talk of herself in such terms. Does she mean moody or depressed? Or worse, perhaps, that she’s on a roller coaster of illness she hasn’t told him about?
Up and down? Is she having counselling? Who else is part of this ongoing conversation to which he’s not been privy? It smarts that his mother sees Cookie as a better confidante than he is – or could become, given half a chance. But then she must have purposely left the postcard there, face up on the coffee table, so he would read it, yes? Clearly, she wants him to know she’s been up and down and wants him to talk to her about it. Obviously, the card is meant to lead to a chance for her to unburden herself. To fill him in.
The thought simultaneously pleases and terrifies him.
How to take it from here?
Two days later in Toulouse, their hotel room is poky. The twin beds are pushed together due to a misunderstanding in their booking that Eric and his mother are a married couple.
‘Cosy,’ says his mother, raising an eyebrow.
‘Too close for comfort,’ says Eric, and knees his way between the beds to push them apart.
That night he hears her breath whistling through the air – tentative and slightly ragged. He can just make out her chest rising and falling, up and down – oh for goodness sake, there’s that damned phrase again.
Earlier in the evening, after the port and Pont-l’Eveque, he’d broached the subject and made a hash of it.
‘What’s going on, Mother?’
‘Cookie. The postcard. You know what I mean.’
‘I’m not a traveller like you, Eric. More of a homebody – if that’s what you’re asking. Moving around like this, it stirs me up.’
‘I thought you wanted this trip?’
‘I thought so too.’
‘Aren’t you enjoying yourself?’
‘Well, I know you want me to be.’
‘Don’t you want to be?’
‘Yes. Of course.’
‘I’m not easy to be with.’
‘You could say that.’
‘I just did.’
‘Oh, Eric, don’t be obtuse.’
‘Yes, look, sorry Mother. But are you ill?’
‘Not as ill as you look of late, darling, so please stop worrying about me.’
‘You seem fragile.’
‘I’m strong as a horse.’
Listening to her straggly whistling, he wonders why he can’t talk calmly with her, tell her for once, and with some real tenderness, how it’s true he’s grown away from her physically but that he’s never let go of her emotionally, never stopped needing or wanting her to be near. Face-to-face he always seems so brusque with her. Defending himself – but from what? Surely, this far along in life, he has nothing to lose?
Eric’s pleased his mother’s dressed sensibly in MBT shoes and comfortable slacks for their visit to the prehistoric cave at Niaux. On the bus she holds a pink polar fleece tightly in her lap and, after they disembark, he helps her into it – gently guiding one arm and then the other into its sleeves and pulling the collar up so it protects her neck.
The air inside the cave is cool and dry, but the ground underfoot is wet and, where the path is steep, his mother clings to him to ensure she doesn’t slip.
The sense of being in a place out of time intensifies as they head deeper into the cave’s belly.
The tour guide traces her flashlight over two bison images and Eric realises it’s the first time he’s looked closely at this strange animal with its dowager hump neck. Imagine spearing that? It must have taken something different to be a man back then, he thinks. Or did it? Were these great hunters fearful of the women in their lives too? Was it fear of their wives and mothers, more than fear of starvation, that motivated them to risk their lives in the face of such bulk?
In the main gallery of the Salon Noir, the rock paintings are even more captivating and Eric is overcome. He feels humbled and teary but, instead of letting the tears flow, he rambles on to his mother in reductive couplets: naïve and skilful; simple and sophisticated; open to interpretation but sealed off from definitive understanding.
The guide switches off her light and Eric realises it’s a cue to him and the other tourists to shut up. She switches it back on and continues with her spiel. ‘Storytelling by drawing on rocks has ancient roots and the earliest examples in these particular caves date back to 11,850 BC.’
Eric tries to imagine what it would have been like to sit here back then and to watch these stories being created or to hear them being told … to drum to them or to chant to them in the flickering firelight. Perhaps, if he had been in the caves back then – creating art and music from the simple elements of charcoal, manganese, ochre, sticks and skin – it would have been the making of him. It might have guided him through the byways of masculinity that so often confuse him and trip him up. It might have shown him how to be a better man. A better son.
Eric buys his mother a horn comb at the tourist shop in Tarascon-sur-Ariège and she’s pleased with the gift. Back at the hotel room she looks tired again, though, so he offers to use the comb to fix her hair. When he was younger and had run a brush through her hair, it was long and red. Now it is long and the purest white.
As Eric tucks away the last stray strand, his mother peps up a bit, turning her head from side to side to check his handiwork.
‘Has my new peignes de corne helped you to create a shapely chignon?’ she asks, pleased with her little stab at French.
‘You look beautiful, Mother. Especially your hair. Très magnifique!’
Eric watches their reflections in the mirror for a moment longer. They look close.
As Eric peers upwards in Flumicino airport, all the cities in the world are flashing past – Tokyo, London, Frankfurt, Geneva, Athens, Wellington, Abu Dhabi, Mexico City, Toronto, Amsterdam … There’s a glitch in the system, he thinks. Soon (surely?) the cities will come to rest in a neat list he can sort through to find his destination: Sydney. It has to be here, somewhere, doesn’t it? And yet the board’s moving faster than a poker machine display and none of the city names are distinguishable at all now; they’re just a blur of light. Eric realises quickly it’s more than a glitch. The board is morphing into a manic meteor shower – rapidly hoovering up all destinations then spraying them out in a disturbing play of iridescence to rival Aurora Borealis on the darkest night.
He takes off his glasses and wipes them in case that’s what’s causing the trouble – smudges or dust confusing the picture – but it’s worse when he replaces them. This time there are shards dancing and searchlights crisscrossing. There’s also a pain so deep he thinks a fragment may have detached itself from the damaged display board and driven itself through his eye’s soft globe. He could be felled by this pain. Is almost felled by it. He steadies himself against his carry-on case then wheels it semi-blindly along a corridor crowded with leering people, beeping vehicles, blaring announcements and garish shops.
Are there no seats in this airport? Nowhere for a stressed traveller to sit to regain his composure? Eric can feel his steps meandering. Staggering. A few smeared children have stopped to stare. Their watercolour parents grab their hands and pull them away from the man who seems, at this strange hour of the morning, to be drunk. A chair looms in the distance and there’s a sand-coloured desert of carpet Eric must traverse before he reaches it. When he finally gets to the chair, he’s sweating and fumbles for his handkerchief, wipes at his forehead, unseats his glasses again, pats his eyes, opens them and blinks. He learns from this difficult action that the world is wobbling and swaying and that his chair is on a deck that is rising up and sliding down. Up and down. Up and down. He holds the chair arms tightly, fights the urge to vomit and tries to breathe a bit more deeply. Steady on boy, steady on.
Like all world travellers, Eric knows ninety per cent of people in airports look ill, even if they’re not. This means he’s unlikely to stand out today in any dramatic way. He won’t be identified as any sicker than the next person, so it’s also unlikely a fellow traveller will render their assistance or call for medical help.
He struggles to think of the Italian word for sickness. Is it male? Male? This male is sick. As he repeats the phrase to himself, a howitzer explodes hot streamers at the back of his right eye. Are all males sick? What would happen if he lurched across to those other seats and mumbled this word male in the face of the girl with the nose ring? She looks German, so she’d probably say she didn’t understand and grab her things. Leave quickly. Or tell him to piss off. But the sickness is rising. Harbour Bridge fireworks flare in his brain with brocades and falling leaves spattering crockpots and conch shells, hatpins and Lladro that broil and bubble together in a steaming stew. The sweat is a river running down his forehead and a stream cascading down the back of his neck. He mops and mops but it never dries up. He is swirling in a river, being sucked down into a canyon, and he thinks of his mother, razzle-dazzle as a Pearly Queen or tourbillon; then she fades almost as suddenly out of sight.
Her flight home left yesterday from Flumicino so, actually, she’s in a humidified cocoon up in the clouds, nursing her joint pains and taking horse-sized sleeping tablets to get her as blankly as possible through the long hours back to Sydney. She’ll watch no movies and read no books. On the few occasions she wakes, she’ll talk to the kindly young man seated next to her, anxious to get home to his wife. It’s their first anniversary, he explains, and he’s booked dinner at Tetsuya’s for a surprise.
But look, here she is again, Eric sees, in her nightgown, serene as an angel. She is younger too, and playing Mary in a school nativity play, and he wants Cookie to drag her off the stage so she can tend to him. Doesn’t she know he’s ill? Cookie makes hand signals in front of his face then walks away. His mother drifts over to him off the stage, feather-light on her feet. She’s talking to him, whispering to him. ‘Are you alright, sir? Can I get you anything? You look quite unwell. What should I do here?’
Eric realises it’s not his mother who is talking to him but the German girl. Her nose ring is flaring slightly. She has a hand on his arm and is squeezing it gently. She’s speaking in clipped but very beautiful English – such a clear voice and so wonderfully kind.
He wants to say something but he can’t muster a sentence, or even a word – can’t find that one little word he had in his mind just a short while ago for how he feels, that word in that other language that was something like gender only very different, something simpler but he can’t find it, can’t mouth it, can’t seem to say out loud any word, can’t tell his mother, can’t tell this girl about his mother, can’t tell her who he is, there’s nothing he can say, not even his name, but could he draw her a picture? Could he draw his eye exploding? Could he draw a symbol that means doctor please? But he can’t lift his fingers and, where the girl has been squeezing his forearm, there is only a gathering numbness and no strength. He can’t move his hand, can’t lift the cloth to wipe his face, can’t push the wet hair from his brow. He wants to tell her now not to leave him, tell her that, if this is the end, he really needs her to be near him, he wants his mother, he wants a kind voice and a dear person, a person who cares what is happening to him, but how can she be that, she’s a stranger, how can she care for him, she doesn’t know him and he can’t tell her, he can’t explain to her about how he’s lived in ways that were less than he’d hoped for, in a smaller way than he might have, how he’s been wanting to find a new way, lighter and less troubled, and easier on his brittle, breaking, broken, soft-hard heart.
He can see the girl’s eyes, though, and they’re cornflower blue and so clear he knows he can trust her. He knows she will stay with him until the river enfolds him, she will talk to him gently and in ways that will soothe him; she is wading beside him in the darkening river, telling him to relax and to take it smoothly, to keep floating on his back and to relax, relax. She is speaking to him sweetly, telling him everything will be alright, he can let go now, the others will be here soon, they will help with his sight and with his memories and restore strength to his limbs so he can dance like a gazelle, and she is rocking him through the water, soothing him like a baby as he is bathed by his mother, gently and pleasantly lulling him, leading him, luring him, and he sees her calm angel face, soft as a dandelion, drawing him forward so that, as the people on the banks wade in to join them, the water rises up and takes him down.