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Authors: Claire Varley

The Bit In Between

BOOK: The Bit In Between
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The Bit In Between

There are seven billion people in the world. This is the story of two of them.

After an unfortunate incident in an airport lounge involving an immovable customs officer, a full jar of sun-dried tomatoes and the capricious hand of fate, Oliver meets Alison. In spite of this less than romantic start, Oliver falls in love with her.

Immediately. Inexplicably. Irrevocably.

With no other place to be, Alison follows Oliver to the Solomon Islands where he is planning to write his much-anticipated second novel. But as Oliver's story begins to take shape, odd things start to happen and he senses there may be more hinging on his novel than the burden of expectation.

As he gets deeper into the manuscript, Alison moves further away from him and Oliver finds himself clinging to a narrative that may not end with ‘happily ever after'.

For Daisy, Zara, Maya and smolfala Claire

With memories of Papou, Socratis and Maroula – 
together somewhere, probably playing cards

THE BIT AT THE START

A WAVE OF NAUSEA

T
his is how it starts.

A young man sits alone in an airport lounge. The seat beside him is empty. Someone sits down.

This is how it starts and every time it starts like this. In every universe. In every dimension. In every possible version of this story, this is the start. It starts like this because life is nothing but a series of tides and waves, the constant movement of a vast ocean propelled by the sun, the moon and what scientists swear to us isn't magic. Most times they trickle, sometimes they surge, and every so often the earth realigns and the ocean responds in kind. There are no tsunamis in this story – no seismic vibrations or geological cataclysms – but there are waves. Tides come and go, and if you know how to read them you can predict what will happen. And here is the choice: you can either adapt in anticipation – raise yourself on stilts, sandbag your heart or make your life faraway in the hills – or else you can get on with it, living your days knowing it could strike at any moment, because sometimes even the most effective early warning systems clang their bells and sound their sirens too late. Sometimes it is not the big waves that bring the greatest devastation. It is the slow-moving ones – silent and powerful – that gradually, deceptively, inundate the ­landscape, then just as quietly retreat, taking everything with them. When they go, the structures on the shore remain but everything inside is gone. The accumulated trappings of a lifetime, all gone. This world is more water than earth – more places to swim than stand – and all things are islands in the greater scheme. This is the story of islands – of one big island and nine hundred small ones. Imagine all those waves.

Like many stories it starts with a wave of nausea. It starts like this because Oliver hates airports. Because he hates waiting. Because on this particular day, at this particular airport, in this particular waiting lounge, he is exhausted and angry and everything in him just doesn't want to be a part of this world. The young woman who sits down beside him smells like patchouli or musk or some other pungent, earthy scent and Oliver hates this very much. Her arm flops over the shared armrest, knocking his own, and he hates this too. She sighs loudly and he can tell she is about to start talking to him, which fills him with a hatred so intense he is surprised he doesn't lean over and stuff his boarding pass into her mouth. He would, he tells himself, but he is too tired, so he crinkles an empty Mars Bar wrapper in his pocket, feeling the tiny crumbs of leftover chocolate melt, leaving a grainy residue on his fingertips.

‘God, I hate waiting at airports,' she moans, giving him a look that he refuses to return. ‘It's like, come on! Do we have to check in so early? What's the rush?' She shakes her head and looks up at the ceiling. ‘Planes!'

He does not respond, quietly wishing the section of ceiling above the young woman would cave in or else the drug-sniffing beagle would get a taste for blood. The young woman reaches across and offers him an almond from a plastic packet and Oliver instantly feels bad for fantasising about her death. He takes one guiltily.

‘They're organic,' she assures him and he suppresses the hate that tries to rise up again.

He concentrates on chewing the almond, and takes another when she offers. Then, because he is, after all, not a bad guy but is just having a bad day/week/month, he feels guilty about his anger and decides to be a decent person and engage in conversation. He turns to say something to her, possibly to comment on how uncomfortable the chairs always seem to be in airports, but before he can say anything, she throws up on him.

There are lots of things that make people throw up: drinking too much, going on carnival rides, going on carnival rides after drinking too much. And, as Alison discovered, eating an entire jar of sun-dried tomatoes in five minutes. In fairness, she hadn't really wanted to, but she couldn't stand the customs officer's smug expression when he had told her she couldn't take them with her.

‘But they would have broken if I put them in my check-in baggage,' she had pleaded.

‘That's not my problem,' he'd barked.

She'd opened her mouth to argue, but he placed a hand on his security belt and glanced at his colleagues.

‘Fine,' she muttered. ‘Wait.'

And that was when she had opened the jar and eaten the contents. When there was nothing left but an empty murky oily mess, she felt sick. Her hands and face were streaked with oil and her stomach was starting to roll, but she held her head up jauntily and handed the jar to the customs officer.

‘Is that all?' she asked.

In the long snaking line of waiting travellers behind her, someone broke into lone applause. The customs officer just shook his head and waved her on.

‘Thank you,' she replied and strode all of three metres before she was stopped by the bomb detection officer.

‘Madam, you know why I'm stopping you, don't you?' the officer said.

Alison looked at her with unsteady eyes. ‘Yes, I do, and while you will not find anything about my person other than the contents of an entire jar of sun-dried tomatoes, I would have stopped me too.'

The need to throw up intensified as she made her way to the boarding gate. For some reason it had made sense to eat something else to try to soak up the excess oil in her stomach, and she had found a packet of almonds in the newsagents. It cheerfully proclaimed to be organic and had a parade of dancing almonds on it. Alison could never understand why food manufacturers always felt the need to instil life into inanimate objects. As a vegetarian, she ate things like almonds because they
didn't
have arms or legs or big scary manga eyes. Anthropomorphism . . . She hadn't used that word since her arts degree days. There you go – all that money hadn't been wasted . . . Another wave of nausea surged and she flopped down in the nearest seat. A young man sat beside her staring angrily at the ground. Hoping to ward off the intense desire to vomit, she tried talking to him. It didn't work. In the flurry of activity that followed – the young man jumping up in disgust, an elderly passer-by stopping to see if she was all right, an airport cleaner approaching with his cart before surveying the scene and hurrying in the opposite direction – Alison only really absorbed one thing. The young man was glaring at her, his hands aloft because he didn't want them to touch her vomit, his mouth open in disgusted confused rage. He has beautiful eyes, she thought to herself. Beautiful, big, brown eyes . . . And then another wave of nausea washed over her and she threw up again, this time on herself.

THE BIT IN BETWEEN

CHAPTER ONE

A WAVE GOODBYE

O
liver rammed his backpack into the overhead luggage
compartment, shoved his notebook into the seat pocket
in front of him and sat down heavily in his seat. He had the middle seat, which was the worst of the seats, because you didn't have anything to lean against and you couldn't spread out into the aisle. And no matter what you did, your head always ended up lolling onto someone else's shoulder as you slept. He crossed his arms then uncrossed them to scratch his neck. He was wearing a horrible bright yellow T-shirt with the words
I HEART MALAYSIA
splashed across the front, the only thing he could afford to buy in the overpriced airport gift shop after he'd been forced to throw away his old shirt. Oliver was annoyed about this as it was a vintage Alf T-shirt he'd had since childhood, and it had fitted him perfectly because he'd been a tall, fat child and was now an average-sized adult. He sniffed indignantly, then cringed. He could still smell the vomit.

‘Excuse me, oh . . .' Alison stared down awkwardly. ‘Going to Melbourne too?'

The young man's eyes flashed with fear as he nodded and then undid his seatbelt and stood up. Alison stepped back so he could shuffle out into the aisle and then slid past him to the window seat. She sat down quietly and the young man did the same.

‘So you had to buy that horrible T-shirt too?' She indicated her own bright yellow I HEART MALAYSIA T-shirt.

The young man didn't respond. Alison glanced at him. Self-consciously he swept his dark hair across his forehead.

‘The yellow goes with your olive skin,' she joked. ‘Mine doesn't fit that well because apparently I'm a bit fat in Asia.'

Oliver looked at her. She wasn't fat. She was what his mother would have called ‘festively plump' after a few too many scotch and cokes at Christmas. She was that nice kind of plump that girls always got self-conscious about and that made them do silly things like wear gross patterned kaftans at the beach, so that instead of looking like normal healthy people they looked like uprooted circus tents escaping in the wind. Her face, now that it wasn't contorted with nausea, was open and welcoming and dusted with what looked like a new layer of freckles.

‘The yellow brings out the vomit in your hair,' he replied.

She smiled and went to tuck her shoulder-length brown hair behind an ear before her hand struck a chunk of vomit and she withdrew it quickly.

‘I thought I got it all,' she muttered to herself.

There was an awkward silence, interrupted by an elderly man sitting down heavily in the aisle seat just as a chirpy voice informed them that the last of the passengers were boarding and they would soon be preparing for take-off. The elderly man nodded to himself and then fell asleep.

‘So . . . do you?' she asked.

‘Do I what?'

‘Heart Malaysia?'

Oliver considered this. ‘I was in transit for eight hours, an ATM ate my card, you threw up on me and I had to use the last of my money to buy this T-shirt, which I hate. Does that answer your question?'

She laughed, then her eyes widened and she clutched her stomach. He looked alarmed.

‘Please don't throw up on me again.'

‘I'll try.'

And then the flight attendant came out to do her little ‘fasten your seatbelt' dance and to glare at the passengers who didn't listen.

Oliver woke up somewhere over the Indian Ocean. She was staring at him but pretending she wasn't. He glanced over and she looked away.

‘They tried to wake you for dinner, but I told them to leave you alone.'

‘I'm pretty hungry . . .'

‘Oh . . . Almond?'

He stared at her.

‘Right. No. Of course not.' She shoved the packet into her seat pocket. ‘I'm Alison, by the way.'

‘Hello, Alison By-the-Way, I'm Oliver.'

Oliver cringed. That was a terrible joke. That was a dad joke. In fact, he was pretty sure it was
his
dad's joke.

‘So . . .' Alison cleared her throat and drummed her fingers on her thighs. ‘What were you doing in Malaysia?'

‘I was in transit.'

‘Oh, yeah, you said. From where?'

Oliver checked the aisle. He couldn't see a flight attendant anywhere.

‘Cyprus . . . Do you think they've stopped serving food?'

‘Wow! Cyprus! That must have been beautiful. Why would you ever leave? Almond?'

Oliver shook his head. ‘My yiayia – my grandmother – 
she died. I'm coming back for her funeral.'

Alison's cheeks went red. ‘Oh. I'm so sorry.'

Oliver shrugged. ‘It's okay. You didn't cause her death . . . 
Did you?'

Alison looked at him uncertainly, torn between the obligation to laugh and the sombreness of the situation.

‘It's okay,' Oliver sighed. ‘You don't need to laugh at that.'

Alison seemed relieved. ‘So what were you doing in Cyprus?'

Oliver gave a tired chuckle. ‘Visiting family. Running away. Pretending to visit family so I could run away.'

‘From what?'

Oliver studied his hands and then shrugged. Why not? It's not like he would ever see her again. ‘About a year ago my first book was published. For some reason it sold well and got a lot of good reviews from a lot of fancy people in the “literary scene”.' He made expansive air quotes.

‘So why would you run away from that?'

‘Because they made me change my ending. My publishers. They said it “didn't work” and that if I changed it, the book would be “spectacular”. They were right.'

‘And?'

‘And I hate the new ending. It's a cop-out. It cheapens the book. I'm never writing a happy ending ever again. Screw success.'

Alison noticed his hands had clenched into tight fists.

‘What's the name of your book?'

‘They changed that too. It's called . . .' – he looked as if he'd drunk poison – ‘
Happiness
.'

Alison suppressed a smile. ‘How did they change the ending?'

‘They said they only wanted a minor change. Originally everybody died.'

‘What was the minor change?'

‘Nobody died.'

‘I see.' Alison stared out the window for a moment. ‘What's wrong with happy endings?'

Oliver gave her a dry smile. ‘You sound like my publisher. Because life isn't really like that. Humans aren't really like that. We're not very good at happy endings. We always go and spoil them. And sometimes you just know how your story needs to go for your characters to learn what they need to learn. In my next book someone will die in the end. There'll be a plane crash. I won't budge on that.'

‘Right-o,' Alison said. She looked around. Everyone else on the plane seemed to be asleep. ‘So no more happy endings?'

‘Nope.'

‘Only plane crashes?'

‘Yep.'

‘Well, I guess I don't need to buy your next book then.'

Oliver laughed. ‘What about you?' he asked. ‘Why were you in Malaysia?'

‘Also in transit. From China.'

‘What were you doing in China?'

Alison snorted. ‘What was I doing in China? Following a good-looking moron, that's what I was doing.'

Oliver didn't say anything. Alison sighed and shifted in her seat.

‘Okay. So I'm hanging around in Melbourne and out of the blue I meet this guy, Ed. Ed was amazing. It was love at first sight, or so I thought. So then Ed went to the Immigration Museum and used that computer program they have that helps you trace your ancestors and he discovered that he was, apparently, one-eighth Chinese. Ed felt what I thought at the time was a romantic, passionate longing to discover his ‘roots', so he headed off to China to make a documentary about it and I tagged along. Ed had figured he was most likely Cantonese and he wanted what he kept calling a ‘real experience', so we stayed in a dirty rest house above a fruit-market-slash-brothel in Nanning. I did some English teaching to support us while Ed worked on his documentary. Soon Ed came to the realisation that he wasn't really that Chinese and I realised he wasn't really that great. So now I'm coming home with my tail between my legs to live on my parents' couch.'

Oliver smiled. ‘What was China like?'

‘Incredible. Beautiful and busy and urban and ancient and full of people and birds in cages and amazing food and mountains that just make you want to cry. At least they made Ed cry. Twice, in fact, because the first time he didn't manage to catch it on camera.'

‘Ed sounds . . . interesting.'

‘Ed was . . . interesting. And now he will forever be an interesting footnote in my life story. What about Cyprus?'

‘My angst-ridden pilgrimage to the motherland?'

‘Yeah. How was it?'

‘It was kind of like that part in
The Godfather
where Michael goes back to the old country.'

‘Was your lady-friend killed by a car bomb meant for you?'

Suddenly Oliver became very quiet and stared at his hands.

Her eyes widened. ‘Oh my god. I'm so sorry.'

Then he burst out laughing. Alison looked scandalised and punched him in the arm. Oliver pretended it hurt.

‘No. Sorry. No car bombs. But I did . . .'

‘Did what?'

Oliver stared into her eyes and took a deep breath.
‘I can't believe I'm going to tell you this, but it's been a long day. A long week. I did, kind of, almost, um, sleep with my cousin.'

Alison's face revealed nothing. ‘Why?'

‘Well, I didn't know she was my cousin. Now I realise that basically everyone in the village is my cousin, but at the time I thought she was just a nice girl. So yeah. That was a bit awkward. Nothing like almost sleeping with a close blood relative.'

Alison's eyes were sparkling. ‘How close?'

Oliver shifted uncomfortably. ‘Close enough for any future babies to have an extra hand coming out of their forehead.'

Alison digested this for a moment, then made a complacent face and shrugged. ‘Well, who hasn't been in that situation?'

‘Um, most people. Have you?'

‘Nope.' She gave him a bright smile. ‘Almond?'

The drinks trolley rattled noisily past, bumping the sleeping old man's knee. He jerked awake momentarily, threw his arms in the air and cried out ‘Thievery!' before falling back to sleep, his head lolling off the seat and into the aisle. Oliver and Alison looked at each other and then burst into uncontrollable giggles. Alison glanced out the window. ‘Where are we?'

Oliver peered over. ‘Broome.'

‘Yeah?'

‘Yeah.'

‘How can you tell?'

‘I can see my mate's house.'

Alison pressed her face to the window. ‘Really?'

Oliver waited for her to turn back to him. She saw his amused look and punched him in the arm again.

‘Your jokes are terrible. Terrible.'

Oliver gave an exaggerated pantomime shrug. She looked away for a moment to hide her grin. ‘I missed that humour overseas.'

She watched their shared country pass beneath them and when she turned back she wore an expression of concern.

‘I'm sorry about your grandmother.'

Oliver cleared his throat and looked at his hands. ‘It's okay.'

‘How did she die? If you don't mind me asking . . .'

‘No, it's all right.' Oliver picked at one of his nails for a moment and then looked at her.

‘So – and I'm only putting this together from scraps of information I've gathered from other family members – but, um, apparently she had been on the phone to family in Cyprus, who had been telling her about the, you know, cousin thing, and then she hung up, took her diabetes medication, made herself a coffee in the briki, washed up, went to the cupboard for a new packet of sugar to refill the jar and dropped dead from what modern medicine would classify as a heart attack but what the Greek–Cypriot grapevine of the greater northern Melbourne metropolitan region quickly decided was, in fact, crushing familial shame.'

Alison considered this. ‘So what you're saying is . . .'

‘I killed her, apparently.'

‘Oh.' Alison cringed. ‘How do you feel knowing that the last piece of information she received before she left this world was that you were on the verge of getting it on with a close blood relative?'

‘It's not particularly comforting.'

Alison nodded in agreement and thought for a moment. ‘I think I'm going to go against all my standard rules for air travel and buy us some of those expensive beers they have on the menu.'

Four beers and three packets of salted mixed nuts later, Oliver scrutinised his bottle and then turned to Alison.

‘So. Where's home, Ali? Can I call you Ali?'

‘Yep. Home . . .' She gave a private little laugh. ‘Home is at the end of a long V/Line train trip from Melbourne.'

‘Go on,' Oliver said and arched his fingers like a television psychiatrist.

‘Home is a small country town, the heart of Anglo–Australia, where people talk out of the corners of their mouths and almost everyone plays football.'

‘Interesting. What happens to those who don't?'

Alison gave him a bemused grin. ‘They end up following handsome arseholes to China and return older and, dare I say, wiser.'

‘It certainly sounds like an adventure,' Oliver pressed.

‘Down the freaking rabbit hole, indeed,' Alison smiled. ‘But that is a story for another time.'

‘I see, I see,' Oliver said, maintaining his psychoanalytical manner. ‘Okay then. The nose ring. Tell me about that.'

Alison's hand went to her nose instinctively. ‘I got it when I finished high school, thinking I was some kind of rebel. Ten other girls did the same thing.'

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