By Peri Hoskins
he next day I leave Sykes deep in the pit of his septic tank with Maka, his Tongan labourer, and walk off to the International Hotel for a swim. Big signs along the waterfront tell me Tonga will be first to see in the new millennium. Tongans are slowly at work with hammers and saws making wooden stages. I take the stone steps up and into the International Hotel. A placid Tongan man stands easily behind the bar, large black moustache, cream jacket and black bow tie. Peacefully disengaged, he slowly rubs a cocktail glass with a paper napkin.
I walk through to the changing room and put on my swim shorts. I submerge in the hotel pool for as long as my lungs will let me – wanting all of its coolness all over me. The water smells and tastes of chlorine. And I miss the salt tang of the sea. I dry off and lie back in the sun on one of the full-length recliner benches. There is a black web of shallow black cracks in my white plastic bench. I cover it with my towel.
Young men dive in and out of the pool while bikini-clad women around me lie on plastic benches and quietly read paperback books through sunglasses. A woman slowly gets to her feet, puts her novel face-down on her bench, adjusts her sunglasses, and saunters off towards the bar. She returns a few minutes later carrying a yellow fruity drink – large pineapple wedge on the glass.
She walks something like Angelina. Same gentle swing of the hips. I was okay for a few days after we split. Then I woke up one morning and things were not the same. It was me who left her, and me who checked me in for counselling. And the question wasn’t why I left but why I tried to be with her.
“You have who you don’t want first,” the counsellor said.
I need a drink. I get up and go inside to the bar.
“Mind if I join you?” I ask the two slim craggy-featured young men sitting at the plastic table near the pool.
“No problem,” says the blond young man, red swim shorts stark against his almost see-through white skin.
The red-headed man looks with interest at the straw sticking out of the neatly chopped top.
I carefully put the coconut down on the table and take a seat.
Lars and Bjorn are from Sweden. They both work in computers. Red-headed Bjorn has cold-country white skin dusted with tan freckles. There is something distant and guarded about him. His brown eyes, flecked with green, gather much and give away little. Blond Lars has honest grey-blue eyes that join with his smile to ask me how I see the world. His eyes, shades of blue and grey, look at me steadily. “We planned this holiday two years ago.”
I sense honesty and precise thinking. “Really?” I suck at the straw. Chilled coconut milk glides over my tongue and soothes the dryness at the back of my throat.
“Yes, booked and paid for it.”
“You staying in the hotel?” I ask.
“No, we rented a house on the other side of the island,” says Bjorn. “We’re here for three weeks – cheaper to rent a house.” His face relaxes with sharing this. And I see his reserved intelligence.
“How do you like Tonga?” I ask them.
“It’s okay. I thought there would be more chicks,” says Lars.
“So did I,” I say.
“There’s supposed to be a French film crew out here for the millennium,” says Bjorn. “We have a friend, Kahu, he’s Tongan, but he works in Sweden. He said they’re bringing in models for the filming.”
“French models – not bad.”
I wander slowly back through town towards the hostel. A café appears up ahead, walled off from the street with glass. The sign is neatly painted, the glass clear and clean. Ceiling fans struggle to move the thick air among many seated customers.
I study the neatly written chalk menu on the green board above the counter. “Snapper nuggets and salad.”
The waitress is fluid brown eyes, long black hair, and curves – tightly-wrapped. She writes on a pad with a ballpoint pen while the quiet Tongan man in the green clean apron standing behind her, touches of grey in his short black hair, nods with knowing approval.
I take a seat at the last table. I sit back, happy to let time slide by, and watch the Tongans and tourists walk by on the street outside. When the food comes, it is fresh and plentiful. Within the snapper nuggets I sense a bountiful sea. No longer hungry, I sip my coffee and go back to watching the moving streetscape.
Two men stop outside. They both look to be in their mid-thirties, hot and in need of rest. One is pale and slim, the other olive-skinned under deep pink sunburn. The pale slim man comes inside. The curvaceous waitress stands tall behind the counter, pattern of small white flowers sprinkled all over her pretty blue dress. She looks at him evenly. “There are no tables just now.”
The slim man quietly surveys the café. I catch his eye and motion with my hand towards the empty seats at my table. He walks outside and speaks to his companion, gesturing in my direction. The sun-burned man smiles at me through the glass. They both move through the crowded café and sit at my table. We shake hands.
“We’re producers. We work for a French television station. We’re doing a special filming for the new millennium,” explains pale slim Henri. “We have 150 people involved in the filming. It will be broadcast live back to France. We have brought everything in from Paris on a jet. We need many more things. There is not enough accommodation on the island.”
“How far away is your island?”
“About twenty minutes on a boat,” says Claude.
Claude puts a cigarette to his mouth and lights it. His forearms are swarthy under boiled- crab pink.
Firm female flesh hard-pressed against blue and white flowery cloth arrives.
We order coffee.
“Are you bringing in models for the filming?”
“Models?” asks Henri.
“Les femmes.” I draw the outline of a woman in the air with my fingers.
“No,” they both say.
“We have Neil Armstrong, a Russian cosmonaut, the first Frenchman in space and Richard Leakey, the man who discovered the oldest man in Africa. They will be flown in for the filming. We have a private launch ready for them,” says Henri.
“But no models,” says Claude, “not Claudia Schiffer.”
Claude lifts his cup to his mouth. “Ah, that’s good. I have been waiting for a proper coffee. We don’t have proper coffee on our island.”
“It’s good to be out of the sun,” says Henri, leaning back in his chair.
I put my cup back on the saucer. “You have to watch out. You can get skin cancer from the sun down here.”
“That’s right,” agrees Henri. “I put the sunscreen on all the time.”
“I don’t put it on,” says Claude. “We’re all going to die. You can die from the cancer here,” he holds up his cigarette, “you can die from the cancer there,” he gestures towards the sun. “It’s better to have a lot of experiences joined together. That makes your life more long.”
Claude sips from his cup.
“Better to live one hour as a tiger … .”
Claude reflectively moves his jaw forward and brings his brown eyes level with mine. “That’s right.”
“When the sun comes up on the new millennium, we will be there,” says Henri. “In the first place in the world to see the sun rise.”
“We can tell that to our children,” adds Claude.
“I’d rather be with Claudia Schiffer,” I say.
Claude’s wide smile reveals nicotine-stained teeth.
Back at the hostel I find Sykes out in the yard deep in conversation with a slender young man. A black bicycle of the kind the postman rode when I was a boy rests against the verandah rail beside them. And I warm to this simple sturdy survivor from the 1970’s. The young man looks to be about twenty, with straight black hair and very fair skin. I walk quietly up to them.
Sykes blinks and his voice skips a beat as he becomes aware of me at the periphery. “This is Roger Buckingham. He’s from England.”
“Southampton,” says Roger.
“Does that make you a Scouse?”
“Not quite a Scouse. Southampton’s a bit too far south to be a Scouse,” he explains in earnest English tones.
I look back at Roger. “You on holiday?”
“I’m working as a teacher’s aide. I’m on an exchange program for a year.”
“I’m getting to see most of the islands. There are some great places up north. And it doesn’t cost much in the youth hostel up there. There’s a bus that takes you right around the island.”
“I better get back to work,” says Sykes as he wanders off towards the pit he has been digging for the septic tank.
Roger is both tentative and earnest, coming forward and pulling back.
I warm to his ingenuous need to be taken seriously.
He takes hold of the well-preserved bicycle, made before he was born, and mounts it easily. “Cheerio,” he says as he rides off.
I watch him ride away and feel the years between his age and mine. I no longer have his need for others to think well of me. If I had those years between twenty and thirty-six again, would I avoid all my mistakes? Only if I knew then what I now know.