Doug Fitzsimons had a headache. It was day one of their stay in Cairns and the tropical heat oozed into the hotel room. Both he and his wife Barbara were sweating. Fitzsimons, a balding chartered accountant, wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, had worked for Deloitte five years and three months. After working sixty hour weeks and giving his employer his heart and soul, he realised he would never again be promoted. He had hit the glass ceiling. It was this thought, as well as the tropical heat that had brought on the headache and an intellectual torpor that rendered him indifferent to his surroundings.
‘Beautiful sunshine and air-conditioning,’ the loquacious proprietor of the hotel they were staying in had said, “Walking the streets in shorts before diving into the Coral Sea. Just beautiful. Air conditioning running throughout the night to dull the edges of this historically pristine heat. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ Doug had been eager to get to the hotel ‘suite’ to forget the fact he would be back at work soon and that his life was going nowhere.
Tomorrow he and Barbara planned to head out to the reef. Or at least one part of the reef. Doug had always imagined that one could just head out and see the entire Barrier Reef in a single boat outing. He had no idea it consisted of a plethora of living organic matter, which fed on the small fish that swam by and which could only be seen by those actually inside the water.
Today they had planned to explore the shops and take a walk along the beach. He would have preferred to remain in the room to relax, but Barbara insisted. One thing Barbara absolutely loved doing whenever they went on vacation was to stroll through the shopping malls. Though this bored him, he tagged along, trying to remain indifferent while his wife found so many bargains. Whilst it was a tradition with them, today he just didn’t feel like moving.
He had brought his computer with him but the thought of doing any work for the company was loathsome. He had always worked through the holidays but it finally dawned on him how futile this habit was. He had grown stubble over the past week and it was itching like crazy. Rarely had he gone a day without shaving in his adult life. As it was not long before he had to return to work, he would soon need to shave. He grimaced when he recalled he had brought the razors but no shaving cream. Outdoors, there was a mild storm and it was still warm even though there was no hint of sunshine.
‘The fantastic air conditioner the man boasted about must be on low. It doesn’t seem to be doing anything,’ he said. Barbara just nodded without looking in his direction.
‘For such a supposedly sunny state there is such poor natural light,’ he continued as though to provoke a more conventional reply.
‘Poor design,’ he said, stroking his chin.
‘You’d be an expert on that,’ she replied turning on the TV.
His hands were covered in black ink from his shorts which were new and hadn’t been washed yet. He went to wash his hands. ‘I’ll have a shower then head to the beach!’ he yelled, not expecting a reply.
Turning forty had concerned Doug Fitzsimons. The idea of getting older would not have scared him so much were it not so inextricably linked to the fear of obsolescence, the fear that he would somehow be less capable ‒ even incompetent ‒ in his work. He was afraid of diminishing value, declining returns. He could not so readily accept the adage that a man’s best years began in his forties. Fear is a learnt emotion and he had learnt far too much of it. He wondered how long it had been since he had made a choice not driven by fear.
Although he had not been looking forward to the trip exactly, the familiar feelings of anticipation at the prospect of travel had welled up inside him. That was until they arrived at Melbourne airport. In the early morning hours of the morning, his wife bickered with him over his choice to take the cheaper parking option – meaning a longer walk. They drank tasteless coffee from paper cups; the cheap plastic chairs and the indifferent waiters at the airport café confirmed his worst fears about the holiday and had plunged him into the morose mood he was yet to emerge from.
He put on a different pair of shorts and stayed in the bedroom deliberating; he had thrown out the idea of going to the beach alone as a challenge, a threat, and now he was unsure of himself. Even the light in the room was dim. Not only was there inadequate natural lighting but the interior electric lighting was so sparse, blanketing the room in a dull shade throughout most of the day, despite the abundance of light outdoors. Discovering she had already left, he made his way to the beach.
A large sign was posted saying that due to the large concentrations of Physalia physalis, or as the locals called them, blue bottles, swimming was prohibited. The last thing he wanted was to be stung by one of those jellyfish-like siphonophores with ten metre tentacles, which were composed of thousands of tiny, sharp barbs. He lay on the still beach and gazed at the horizon. He placed his hat over his face and dreamt he was being held fast by the arms of a siphonophore, unable to breathe or swim away. He woke, startled, and headed back to the hotel.
She was still at the shops. Doug looked at himself in the mirror. His stomach had ballooned out, even though his arms and legs remained thin. He remembered the pride he had felt when hair had first appeared on his chest and abdomen. Now the scraggly mess of hair on the bulging stomach depressed him. He was almost completely bald on top and wore his hair short. The ceiling fan circled languidly. When he turned it to level 3 though it was faster than an aeroplane propeller. The bed, like most hotel beds was unaccountably neat. He was too hot and the signs of another headache were emerging.
He took the last beer from the fridge and moved to the balcony where the heat was stifling and he could already see the mosquitoes gathering. A thunderstorm began. ‘It would be a shame to stay indoors tonight,’ he thought. ‘We should get out somewhere.’ Suddenly he felt like getting drunk. There was no restaurant at the hotel they were staying at, which was slightly more upmarket than a motel. Their accommodation amounted to a small self-contained unit with a kitchenette. He was beginning to get bitten by the mosquitoes so he came indoors again.
That night they went for dinner in an Italian restaurant. Food was something Doug had always felt uncomfortable with or at most, ambivalent about. He attacked his food as though the aim was to finish as quickly as possible, rather than to savour each mouthful. It irritated him that his wife Barbara ate slowly, decadently, almost playfully, her pale skin and black hair out of place in a town where so many were tanned and blonde. Doug began to pick at his main meal, a rack of lamb in a slimy pomegranate and red wine sauce, taking sips of beer intermittently.
Barbara looked bored. He couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t looked bored in his presence. This had fostered his own indifference and it had got the point where he no longer attempted to revive the feelings he once felt for her.
He had spent the past two months working on the company’s forward financial plan ‒ and this was where he realised he would never be promoted. He would be stuck in this role the company found for him, where they were happy seeing him slave away without reward. They had both looked forward to this holiday as a chance to refresh, a last chance to get away. The talk had even turned to having children, something that they considered from time to time before retiring to their own worlds of indifference.
A man in a tight fitting black shirt and pastel trousers walked in to the restaurant. He was accompanied by his wife, a wafer thin blonde woman. They were staying in the same hotel as Doug and Barbara and, earlier that day, the two couples had struck up one of those insipid conversations one gets into on holidays, where everyone pretends to be happier and friendlier than they actually are. Alan Moorcroft was a solidly build, thick-set man with an impossible tan and a raft of wavy hair. His wife Deidre was extremely pale with a vacant expression affixed to her features.
As dinner was almost over, Barbara invited them over for a few drinks.
Barbara had come from a Catholic family. She had always maintained a straight course so on occasions like this where she could have a few drinks and ‘live a little’ she really enjoyed herself. Doug noted her eyes had barely strayed from Alan, whose open collar black shirt, intense, childlike eyes and so obvious platitudes were odious. Her laughter, something he was unaccustomed to hearing of late, became shrill and childlike as the evening wore on.
Barbara was enjoying herself no end. Perhaps because this man’s words smacked of desperation, and his manner so uncultivated, it was somehow irresistible. She had married a man whose libido was so insipid that his eyes never strayed from her. Doug Fitzsimons ordered another meal. As his wife talked more and more pleasantly with Alan Moorcroft, whose blonde, wavy hair had become a source of insatiable irritation for him, he continued to stuff morsels of food into his mouth. They finished dinner. Barbara was quite drunk and chirpy as they said their goodbyes and went back to the hotel.
As they went to bed later that evening Doug asked her. ‘Do you still want to have a child?’
‘Very much so,’ she said.
He began to kiss her hoping to erase the unpleasant mood that had settled on him. In days gone by, making love to her had always revived her interest in him. But recently he had lost this certainty.
‘Baby it’s late,’ she said. ‘Let’s sleep.’ He was not a man to demand sex or to even require it all that often. He turned onto his back and stated at the ceiling. It was a long time before he fell asleep.
They headed out to The Great Barrier Reef that morning. Barbara had invited the Moorcrofts and ever since Doug had voiced his objections, she had been fractious, finding fault with him.
Doug continued to drink his coffee. Even though it was a cooler day than yesterday, it was still stifling and he wished his body would sweat more so that he could cool down for a minute. Thoughts of the previous evening came back. They stayed late at the hotel all of them quite drunk. Barbara was laughing the whole time and talking to that sleazy Alan Moorcroft. Mrs Moorcroft the thin blonde was dull as dishwater. ‘I’m going to kill that bastard’ he thought as he drank his coffee in a poky store on the marina.
There was a dull monotonous thudding in Doug’s head, and he wondered how waterproof his phone was and the wisdom of taking his iPhone on an outing to the reef. He was smeared in sticky sunscreen, laden with bags and probably wearing too much clothing. Laden with his own prejudices, carrying too much baggage altogether. Was that something he had always done; taken too much with him on day trips, taking too much baggage through every episode of his life? Would he ever be free of it? The sun beamed down magnificently.
The boat was due to leave at ten. There were clouds there was the sound of thunder and the threat of rain but it was very damned hot and he wished he could stay in the hotel with the air-conditioning running watching reruns of I Dream of Jeannie. In fact he wished he could go back to his childhood.
They got to the marina and sure enough there was Alan and his paper-thin wife, with a vapid air, as though her husband had fed on whatever reserves of vitality she had once possessed. Alan wore his pastel shaded polo shirt, the symbol of the well-fed middle class, with the aura of one who was not trying too hard. Doug always owned the correct shirts: the Ralph Lauren polos, the Hugo Boss suits but wore his clothes as a necessity; it was an ‘image’ he had to strive to accomplish, whereas Alan in his simplicity seemed to just carry it with him.
Alan sauntered out of the toilets wiping his hands on his shorts. The lack of self-consciousness in brutes like this incensed Doug.
The boat lurched forward in a jittery fashion from the marina. As they headed out drops of rain fell.
‘Why don’t you and me do the scuba diving, Doug?’ asked Alan, ‘I think the women will be happy to sit on the boat,’ he added with an ingratiating smile.
‘Sure,’ said Doug. It was at that moment he decided he would kill Alan. The thought had actually flashed briefly through his mind in the shower that morning, causing a primal thrill of sexual arousal, at the thought of vanquishing a foe, at the pure joy of killing, but he had dismissed it as a flight of fancy. Now it was decided.
They got to the reef. Barbara and Alan had been laughing uproariously the whole way, while Alan’s wife never removed the veil of indifference that allowed no hint of colour to brighten up her monotone existence. Doug looked out to sea and thought that all happiness was gone from the world.
The tour guide gave a briefing on snorkelling and the various options available to the wayfarers. Surrounded by many people in shorts, thongs and those cheap hats Doug would be ashamed to wear, he felt a little queasy. The wind buffeted his face, the sun burned him through the sunscreen; to his left were hills and mountains covered in tropical vegetation. Cumulus clouds hovered above them in the shape of two enormous and ominous peaks, partly gilded on one side but predominantly a pale grey in colour. To the right of the boat miles of ocean. Doug started to feel dizzy from the rocking of the boat, the stifling atmosphere of the upper room where the DVD presentation was playing.
Alan and Doug purchased their scuba diving tickets. Alan paid little attention to the safety briefing, chortling at how ‘chicken-shit’ their wives were for staying on the boat.
When he plunged into the tropical waters of the Reef, Doug was overcome by the sensual pleasure of the warm waters; skimming through the alien environment, using the swimming strokes learnt under such duress as a child was invigorating and joyful. Transcendent and temporal joy lifted his heart. He was surrounded by the lunar coral which looked like cauliflower and swam so close to beautiful parrot and rainbow fish, which he could reach out to but never quite touch. To float on the surface to use the flippers to move speedily through the sea and to gaze down hundreds of meters to the sea floor. He even saw a reef shark, a baby, moving in stately majesty, the future king of the ocean.
They made their way to an isolated spot on the reef where Alan was intently observing an anemone he motioned Doug across and then pointed towards a shoal of bluefin.
It was then Doug noticed the numerous iridescent formations Physalia physalis, which he recognised from photographs and now looked shocking up close. Alan had refused to wear the prescribed latex wetsuit. Mate, I don’t need that getup! he had said. Doug looked around. Seeing that all the other divers had remained close to the flotilla, he motioned Alan to go down deeper. The blue bottles attached themselves to both men Alan looked perturbed but unruffled. Then the stinging began. Whilst Doug was unscathed, Alan was writhing in pain. Taking another look around and seeing no one, Doug removed the cable that ran from the scuba unit to Alan’s mask. He noticed the bewildered look but without hesitation held the cable in one hand and the man with another arm. He was surprised by his own strength and Alan, who was not a fit man but who was of a solid size struggled and was unable to free himself. Doug pulled him down further. When the man stopped struggling he went back to the boat as quickly as possible.
‘I’ve lost my friend,’ he told the instructor, in between sharp breaths. We were exploring the outer part of the reef and we got separated.’
‘Lost?’ asked the man incredulously, ‘Right, point out where you last saw him, we will search for him.’
They scoured the area were they had been diving and found no trace of him. Doug was shocked to discover that even when returning to where he thought he left the man there was nothing to be found. No corpse to uncover. He was shivering uncontrollably when he got back on the boat. The search party couldn’t find the man and called in the coast guard to aid in the search. The policemen on board disinterestedly questioned Doug.
‘He swam away from me and I couldn’t keep up. I couldn’t find him and got scared…and then I returned to the boat.’ Lying became easy when it was a matter of self-preservation.
Eventually they headed back to port, his hat flopping over his eyes in the breeze. The feeling of the sun on his skin was delicious, reminding him of his just fled youth. His wife was indoors with Alan’s wife; neither wanted to speak to him so he was on deck. The venerable Europeans in front of him had removed their shirts and, despite his mood of numb fear, he was impressed by the casual display of flabby flesh, the lack of abandon shown, the defiance to the prevailing fear campaign against any sort of sun exposure. Perhaps they hadn’t even heard of skin cancer. The seas were perfectly clam. The breeze on his face was more due to the forward movement of the boat than any geological factors.
No matter how much the sun burnt him, his athletic shorts remained damp, and his tortured mind, experiencing that sensation that views temporal pains as perpetual, caused him to fear he would never again feel warmth. The spirited voices of Asian tourists behind him jarred on his discordant nerves. He never realised how irritating it could be to hear the vibrant sound of enthusiastic speech in a language not one’s own.
That evening he sat in the hotel room the fan running overhead. Barbara was next door smoking while he was isolated in the bedroom. Alan Moorcroft was reported missing and another man had died at the reef that day, a forty year old man well known and loved in the community.
News reports called for stricter regulations on tour boats. A member of the state parliament pledged to draft legislation to make it tougher to get a licence to operate tours of the Reef. The community were outraged and considered the whole matter a scandal. One eccentric environmentalist, who rarely shaved and whose straggly white hair gave him the air of a man stranded on an island for years, even called for the Barrier Reef to be cordoned off and that no tourism be allowed there, but no one took him seriously. Soon enough life went back to normal, as it always does.