As usual, they bicker when they come in from her mother’s house. The season makes their criticisms more acute. There is something about Christmastime that sharpens the tongue and thins the skin. Perhaps it is a reaction to impossible exhortations of ‘goodwill to all’; perhaps it is the lunchtime wine.
It starts while they are still hanging up their coats and stamping stubborn clumps of snow from their boots. There is something indecent about an argument in outside clothes. It feels as if they could be overheard – even though the front door is shut and no-one could hear them, there is an air of washing dirty laundry in public. Nevertheless, they start.
In the near-decade of their relationship, they have learnt a lot about each other. In particular, they have learnt the places that can be struck without lasting damage, without leaving a mark. They jab and feint, until one of them – today it is Julie, but it is equally often him – retreats. In her bedroom-bound absence he busies himself with unnecessary housework, rearranging items on the mantelpiece under the pretext of assessing them for dust, unconvincing even to himself. Behind one photograph, next to a clay ornament set on a harbour-scene ceramic coaster, he finds a necklace of shells threaded with string that is beginning to fray. Between his thumb and forefinger the fine grooves feel deep and ridged.
He was surprised at how well the children took to Indonesia. He had expected them to be bored, sluggish in the heat and impatient at the pace of things and the lack of cartoons. They had been no such thing: they thrilled at the novelty of the landscape, the friendly chaos of the markets, and the closeness of the sea, its geography permissive.
They soon became used to ignoring the traders’ calls, although at first they would instinctively turn to each “Mister!” or “Lady!”. Yvonne never quite felt comfortable at these unwanted addresses, and kept a hand ostentatiously on her bag in case of theft. She had heard of organised gangs, of distraction scams, and regarded the barefoot, bare-chested boys who skittered through the dust and between the makeshift wooden stalls as potential accomplices.
Charlie tugged on his sleeve, dragging him insistently towards a particular stall hawking items made from shells. There were ashtrays, buffed paperweight conches, little figurines of shells glued together in human approximations laid out on the counter. The trader, lithe and gap-toothed, smiled as he approached. If there was to be a sale here, this was who he had to impress. Charlie pointed at something, and the trader held it up appreciatively, letting it hang from one long finger.
“It’s just a trinket,” he said to Charlie. But the word meant nothing to him, who begged him for it, as a souvenir.
“Souvenir,” repeated the trader, holding the necklace out further towards them, as if this might itself represent a deal done.
The word tipped the balance – he and Yvonne had asked the children to be on the lookout for souvenirs, and in any case he was too tired to argue with this alliance of trader and Charlie. He handed over a note. He had little idea of its value; the numbers made him dizzy; 5,000, 10,000 rupiah, they were meaningless amounts.
It was close to midday. The one aspect of Indonesia Rachel and Charlie had yet to embrace was the food, and they raced ahead to a sign promising pizzas as well as authentic best-taste Indonesian cuisine. Yvonne looked doubtful, but the sea view (in spite of the troubled sky) and her fiancé’s committed stride inside, children in tow, were enough.
Only the ground floor was open for food, but for some reason the bar was on the second floor. Some sort of local custom, he assumed, maybe a religious thing. At least they weren’t so strict as to refuse to serve alcohol at all. That’s what tourist money can do. Yvonne rolled her eyes when he said he was off upstairs. He ignored her. Rachel had the necklace now, and insisted he took it with him, pressing it into his hand.
In a film or television show, this would have been ominous: there would have been a lingering close-up of the exchange. He and Yvonne used to play a game while watching Casualty: in the opening scenes, you called out “Dead!”, and if you were right, you won a prize. At first it was sexual favours; later, After Eight mints. But that’s not how it happened. That’s not how anything happens. It was just his daughter, handing him a trinket that her brother had bought.
Upstairs, he ordered two beers, two cokes, and a lime soda for Yvonne. He drank one beer there. He knew what Yvonne would be like if he returned with two.
When the water crashed through the sea-facing windows it swallowed him completely, before settling around his heaving chest. Afterwards they told him it was a miracle the whole building hadn’t collapsed, that he hadn’t been swept away.
At some point soon Julie will come down, taking tentative, reconciliatory steps towards him. But if she sees him with it there will be a new argument, in familiar trenches, and they will both feel hollowed, excavated, useless. It isn’t easy for her either, he reminds himself. He pushes the necklace back behind the photograph. It is of the two of them at a party, he forgets where. It could have been a wedding reception. They are both smiling and her eyes are open, making it a rarity in their collection, worthy of display. Behind them a curtain stretches beyond the top of the camera’s view, dark blue and rising into infinity.
Jamie Thunder lives, reads, and writes somewhere near London, and tries to behave better than his characters. He’s been published by Storgy, Spelk Fiction, The Pygmy Giant, and The Drabble, and is one of The Short Story’s selected writers for 2017/18. He also writes on his website and tweets as @jdthndr.