Authors: Patrick Gale
Massage, she was startled to gather, seemed to be playing a greater part in the festival for most writers than literature. Whenever she listened in on an offstage conversation, writers seemed to be comparing notes on which kind of pummelling, stretching or kneading had worked best for them so far, which day spa offered the best value and which the most handsome or beautiful practitioners.
Her lifeline, on the second day, was Peter John. He seemed to have been as overlooked as she was. Not only was he not in the programme but no badge had been made up for him and the shop had stocked none of his books. He seemed quite
unabashed. He fashioned his own author badge which read
Peter John: Neglected Poet
Whenever he saw her he came to sit by her to gossip for a while or simply make her feel less unattached in the crowds. Madame Yeung, he assured her, was far too grand to chat to either of them now that her column was so widely syndicated around the Pacific rim and her cable show had taken off. âConsider yourself honoured she gave you five minutes in the taxi from the airport,' he said. âShe stood up Seamus Heaney and they say she once made Peggy Atwood cry, which must take some doing.'
Undaunted at being left off the programme, he made regular use of the open mike sessions during the lunch hour, reciting his poetry by heart to the near-empty auditorium in his whispery voice until jostled off the stage by someone else who acted as though he wasn't there. Edith was not a poetry-reader by habit but she liked his. His verses were dry and witty and desperately sad and she couldn't think why he wasn't famous, especially as he was so pale and interesting.
âI don't care,' he assured her, as though reading her mind. âReally I don't. I'm here. That's what matters. And my poems are all out there. Somewhere.' He glared towards the bookshop. âFrankly I'm really more interested in the pursuit of deep relaxation. I'm running up a vast bill on massages at the hotel. Heaven knows how I'll pay for it. I suppose I'll just
have to watch my card go into meltdown. The deep tissue man is a genius. And there's a Javanese woman, unexpectedly stout, who does incredible things with jets of warm water. You should try it, Edith. Give yourself a lift before your big day.'
But she doubted him. She watched him when he didn't know she was watching, scanning the poetry shelves to look at the fat, signed piles of his rivals' work or reciting his poems while three Australian women loudly disagreed with one another about Sufism, oblivious to him. She believed he was slighted at every turn. When they caught the car back to the hotel, she had to stop the driver from leaving without giving him time to climb aboard. And, for all his talk of the wonderful massages he was getting, the hotel staff seemed to pay him as little heed as they did the geckos which chuckled so startlingly from the restaurant eaves.
She felt their interest in her slacken too, once Ayu realized she wasn't going to book a chakra realignment or a colonic irrigation. Ayu was still there to greet her each morning as she emerged for breakfast, but by the third day she did so with a singsong slackness that hinted at mockery.
Edith's events were both, in their way, disasters. Her spotlight session had a tiny, restless audience because she was programmed, in the smallest auditorium, at the same time as the latest Indian prizewinner was packing out the big one. As for her panel
discussion on romantic fiction, her attempt to take the subject seriously, although she was by no means a romantic novelist, went for naught because one of her fellow panellists had broken the agreement and written a lengthily tedious speech, not remotely on the topic, which she insisted she had to read as she had been up half the night writing it. After which there were only fifteen minutes left for their moderator â not alas the implacable Ms Yeung â to ask the rest of them one question each.
But Peter came to both sessions and so, astonishingly, did Lucinda Yeung, although she did not sit rapt as he did but took such repeated notes in her agenda that Edith suspected she was merely claiming the nearest convenient chair while she prepared for her next session with someone more newsworthy.
âI feel I've seen nothing of Bali,' Edith confided in Peter, once she had explained to the only audience member to ask that no, the bookshop had only managed to stock one of her earliest books, not the latest and that all the others were by a quite different Edith Chalmers. âAnd it's my last night. It seemed criminal doing nothing but coming to festival events and walking in the hotel grounds.'
He convinced her to stay on in Ubud as night fell and the streets began to buzz with scooters. âBut I've left all my cash at the hotel so you'll have to be Sugar Mother,' he said with an unexpected wink.
That was fine by her. When she last counted her
rupiahs on her bed she seemed to have over a million still.
He said he wasn't hungry since that morning's particularly strenuous massage seemed to have wiped out his appetite, but he encouraged her to take a table in the CafÃ© Lotus to drink a delicious cocktail of lemongrass, lime juice and pressed ginger then he led her off down some lively side streets to a little restaurant, where they seemed to be the only big-boned Westerners, and chose for her a sequence of small dishes of fish and chicken that seemed the very essence of exotic travel after her lonely plunderings of her fruit bowl.
Finally he led her to a neighbourhood temple. A full moon ceremony was building up to some kind of climax or at least was in full flow. The steps were busy with worshippers coming and going, the air bright with the jangling melodies of the percussion orchestra he explained was called a gamelan. It would have felt quite wrong to go inside as they weren't Hindus but he found a comfortably low wall outside where they sat for a happy hour smelling incense and frangipani, listening to the music and hubbub and marvelling at the elegance with which local women could ride side-saddle on their husbands' scooters while balancing little towers of fruit or rice cakes on their heads to offer at the altars within.
âI think this is why I became a writer,' she found
herself saying suddenly. âFor the excuse it gives simply to sit quietly and watch.' And, sitting and watching, she spotted several writers from the festival walking by and she felt gratifyingly less of a tourist than they were, simply by virtue of sitting still. âThank you,' she said at last. âThank you for that.' Lent courage by having a pale and interesting young poet at her side, she had no trouble in hailing them a taxi back to the hotel.
They rode in silence but there was no awkwardness because the driver's radio was serenading them with flute music. When she caught Peter's eye occasionally, as they bumped around a corner or swerved to avoid a precariously laden scooter, he smiled at her before looking back at the passing night scenes.
âCan you really not pay your bill?' she asked at last as they were walking back through the grounds.
âOh. Probably not. But it couldn't matter less. I'll plead ignorance, say I thought it was all covered by the festival. It couldn't matter less, honestly, Edith. I have been here before.'
She realized they had observed none of the usual literary festival etiquette of exchanging addresses or cards or assurances to review one another favourably but he had cast a kind of spell on the evening's end so they merely shook hands and he melted peaceably into the scented night. The scent, she had discovered by now, was nothing more exotic than citronella oil burning in the little lanterns on
every surface to discourage mosquitoes, but she was still enchanted by it and by the elegance with which the lanterns had been used instead of banal electric light to outline flights of steps around the grounds.
She packed everything but the clothes she would be travelling in and the unwieldy Norwegian novel she had yet to finish. Then she sat out on her terrace, feasting shamelessly on fruit she couldn't name and listening to the gentle plashing of water in her infinity pool and the distant flutes and drums coming from a temple that had been silent every night until now.
What, she wondered, would her friend Margaret have done differently had she been there? Struck up useful friendships, certainly. Left with invitations to festivals in Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai all but confirmed. Eaten more. Drunk more. But Edith doubted she would have befriended Peter John. At heart, like most crime writers, Margaret was a social conservative and his pale and interesting qualities, his lack of vim, would have repelled her.
Edith ate the last rambutan in the bowl, dabbed her chin with a napkin and decided that when she got home she would institute some changes. She might even do what her agent had been suggesting for years and write something wildly different under a pseudonym. Something with sex and risk. Something with a plot.
She woke very early, as she always did the night before a long journey. Once she'd dressed and
thrown back the curtains, she saw Ayu had not yet taken up her usual patient position on one of the terrace chairs. But perhaps that was because it was her last day and there could be no question of her suddenly requiring excursions or treatments.
Despite the terrific heat, she had not once swum in her pool because it had not occurred to her to bring a swimming costume to a book festival. She appreciated the pool as a thing of beauty, though, lined with slate tiles and reflecting the canopy of great trees overhead. The wind must have risen a little overnight for each morning the pool's surface had been thinly carpeted with leaves which a groundsman would patiently extract with a rake while she was at breakfast.
This morning there were petals as well as leaves, as though some crimson shrub had shed all its blossom in the night. And, inches beneath them, Peter John was floating, open eyes to the morning sky, dressed in his habitual linen trousers and baggy white shirt. He looked paler than ever, as though the moonlit water had chilled him from merely pale to a silvery kind of blue.
She knelt at once and, dropping her book and spectacle case, tried to grasp his trailing shirt tails. He was floating just beyond her reach however and she was fearful of falling in herself. Growing breathless, she stood, glancing about her, and called out, âHello?' Her voice sounded especially feeble and
bloodlessly English against the exotic birdsong and rustling of leaves. Usually the grounds were discreetly busy with staff by this hour. There always seemed to be a gardener raking up fallen leaves or one of the smarter-dressed personal assistants ferrying a guest in a buggy, but for once there was nobody in view. Edith hurried back inside, fumbling to fit her key into the lock with shaking fingers, and dialled 1.
âThere's a man in my pool, Ayu. A fellow guest. Iâ¦I think he's drowned,' she said.
The sofa was immensely deep and comfortable and she found she had no power to leave it now she had sat. Perhaps she had not slept as well as she'd thought. Feeling her sixty-nine years, sweating despite the air conditioning, she waited and ate a grape or two abstractedly. Then she heard voices by the pool: a man's and a woman's, Ayu's. Ayu sounded almost angry but then she appeared at Edith's door, utterly composed, and tapped lightly on the glass.
âMiss Chalmers? Are you all right?'
âYes. I'm fine,' Edith said, forcing herself to rise. âIt was a bit of a shock, that's all.'
âEr. There is no one in the pool, Miss Chalmers. Here. Come and see.'
One of the groundsmen, his skin far darker than Ayu's, was raking the leaves and petals off the water and heaping them in a shallow, woven basket.
Peter was no longer there. The groundsman saw her staring and said something in Bahasa. Ayu snapped back at him but he smiled at Edith and she felt stupid.
âI'm so sorry to have alarmed you all,' she said.
âThat's all right. There were a lot of flowers on the water. Perhaps it was a trick of the light?'
âYes. Of course. Yes. I'm sure that's all it was. I'm so very sorry.'
âI've had them bring your breakfast to the terrace,' Ayu added. âIn case you wereâ¦' She sought the correct word and, as always, her cautious use of an idiom highlit its strangeness. âIn case you were
not quite yourself
âYour flight for Singapore leaves at twelve forty-five so I'll bring the buggy for you at a quarter to ten.'
âThank you. And will you bring my bill then?'
âYour bill? Oh. Please, Miss Chalmers, there is nothing for you to pay.'
âNothing? But I had several breakfasts. And snacks.'
âNothing. Enjoy your breakfast.'
Ayu performed a tidy namaste and withdrew via the poolside where she dropped her courteous tone to deliver another clattering rebuke to the groundsman.
There were several altars about the place, lapped
in the black and white checked cloth Peter had explained symbolized the perfectly maintained balance of good and evil. Every morning someone left fresh offerings on them, Lilliputian arrangements of flowers and fruit on a leaf, usually with a smouldering incense stick in their midst. One saw these everywhere in Ubud, not just on altars but on the pavements and thresholds, protecting a house from unhappy spirits presumably. Edith had assumed that the hotel altars were purely decorative, like the faux-antique Buddhist or Hindu statues she had seen tourists showing off to one another at the festival. But perhaps not? Perhaps they were ancient sites of worship that long predated this artificial, impeccably staffed Eden.
As Edith obediently sipped her Juice of the Day â carrot, papaya and lime, a little card informed her â she saw an old woman, surely too roughly dressed to be a member of staff, placing a fresh offering at the altar that lay between her terrace and the point where the hotel grounds gave way to the dazzling green of the rice fields.
Edith forced herself to eat her pancakes, as they were probably the last wholesome food that would be set before her for twenty-four hours. She watched the old woman finish her interesting combination of prayers and housekeeping at the altar and make her way up towards the pool, via one of the bush-screened paths that criss-crossed the grounds' jungly
planting. Edith saw her exchange a few words with the groundsman â who seemed as respectful of her as Ayu had been haughty with him â before kneeling at the poolside just where Edith had knelt earlier, to leave a little offering there too. The old woman began to talk again but the groundsman waved her away and completed his clearing. He respected her offering however, even making a small, private gesture as he passed it. It reminded her of the rapid, barely conscious gesture she had seen Sicilians make against the evil eye.