Part One: The Flight
When the key broke off in the door, Rhys knew it was an omen. The key could have been old and soft like his body, or he could have been unaware of the new power he had found at the gym whilst trying to pretend his body was not old and soft.
A face greeted him, yellowed teeth protruding from within a bushy grey beard. ‘I timed that well,’ said the old man who owned the beard.
‘You did indeed, mate,’ replied Rhys, giving serious thought to the issue of timing. He was ahead of time and would arrive at the airport early. Instead of being sensible and allowing him to pick her up, Rhonda insisted on making her own way. She’d burst into the cool of the terminal like a westerly blast, looking all flustered, desperately searching for him. That was Rhonda’s style and although he criticized her for it, it was almost as endearing as it was frustrating.
The two men smoothly swapped positions in the gateway, and Rhys proceeded to his car without another word or even another thought for the old man who lived in unit one. Rhys lived in number eight, also on the ground floor but on the other side of the expansive foyer which featured an tacky side table adorned with old paperbacks, and a kooky array of plastic vines dangling from the fenced promenades above. To the left of the elevator was the staircase. To the right the laundry. Rhys had moved in three weeks ago and had only in the last few days managed to expel the toxic fume left behind by the cats who previously shared the unit with their human. The eye watering stench should have been enough to deter him from taking on the lease in the first place, but there was something about the unit which spoke to him.
Rhys was halfway inside his white i30 when his phone rang.‘Hi baby.’
‘Are you there yet? At the airport?’
‘Just leaving home now.’
‘Okay. See you there,’ said Rhonda. ‘Love you!’
‘Love you too.’
Based on instinct, Rhys had chosen to live in the former cat parlour; convincing himself everything would be okay if he could survive the detoxification period. As the days passed, thankfully carrying away vestiges of the former occupants, he convinced himself he had made the right decision. Even as he battled the headaches and nausea brought on by necessary visits to the laundry, he remained patient and positive. On the other hand, his relationship with Rhonda was wearing him out. He turned the key in the ignition, fastened his seatbelt then changed the radio station. Community radio with its extremely limited playlist and terrible news and advertising copywriters was also wearing him out. Rhonda was a lot like a community radio station. Something different, somewhat intriguing, occasionally entertaining. He had discovered over time, six months now, that she too had a limited playlist and her scriptwriter should have been fired for lack of originality, excessive use of cliché, and basic grammatical and factual errors.
The trip to Bali was her idea. He’d resisted to the point of rudeness, risking the relationship in a game of brinkmanship, before backing down. Bowing to her will, bending apologetically. Now he was on his way to Bali where every second Australian holidayed at least once, usually multiple times. The Indonesian island of beaches and clubs where the government had introduced a law against fornication in an attempt to deter troublesome antipodean visitors. Where the predominately Muslim local population tolerated the boorish behaviour of Aussie tourists because they depended on their money to feed their children. Rhys had raised the fornication laws during their holiday discussions knowing full well Rhonda would not be deterred. On the surface she had to agree with Rhys that it didn’t matter because they were not going to be having sex. Rhys had knocked Rhonda back numerous times, but not because he didn’t want to. He did. In fact, it was an almost unbearable strain to fight against his natural instinct. The reason he didn’t want to go that far with her was simply a choice he made to protect them both. Introducing sex into a relationship was like stirring up the mud at the bottom of a clear pond. He simply wasn’t sure their relationship had legs, so he didn’t want to complicate it.
Rhonda accepted his rebuffs although he knew they hurt her, but Bali doubtless represented opportunity in her mind. This was how Rhys saw it. She had to agree that the fornication laws were not a hindrance to them, but for sure and certain she was thinking Rhys would finally surrender to her. As this was the first holiday together and they would be sharing a room, there could be no other conclusion to draw. Rhys had not yet considered how to deal with the inevitable seduction, the pressure, the power of sexual desire, but he felt confident he would find a way out.
It was mystery why Rhonda stayed with him. Women being the perceptive and intuitive creatures they are know when things aren’t right. Either she was delusional or she was hopelessly hopeful. Rhys smiled. Same thing right?
Turning off Bagot Rd onto McMillians, Rhys worked on his exit strategy. It was time to end the relationship. If he could, he would encourage her to walk away, to see reason if such a thing were possible. He would need to make himself less attractive in every way. The problem with that idea was he didn’t know what she found appealing about him in the first place. They met by accident at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney. She was working there. Something happened which led to some other things happening; the first of which being a dinner date at Red Lantern on Riley, the last of which being Rhonda relocating to Darwin and scoring at job at Manta on the Esplanade. It had been fun for a while.
Rhys parked at the Long Stay plus where he’d snagged a five day park for only $75. From there it was a three minute walk to the terminal. He checked his watch. Just after eight. More than two hours until the night flight direct to Denpasar. Rhys was never late anywhere. His definition of late included on time. The disparity between his punctuality and Rhonda’s complete lack of it was just one of the little cracks which she always managed to laugh off. Rhys was keeping score. He had told her to be at the airport no later than ten thirty. Now, as she stepped through the sliding doors to the cool interior of Darwin International Airport, he imagined how fun it would be to run a book on what time Rhonda would arrive. He amused himself for a few moments, picturing himself laying odds, running around taking bets. An excited crowd gathering just inside the terminal doors holding their breath every time a single woman approached. The wrong woman would then have to deal with the cloud of disappointment at her arrival. She’d push through the crowd, trying to throw off paranoid thoughts, oblivious to the fact the punters had long ago lost interest in her.
After buying an overpriced coffee at Giancarlo, Rhys found a seat, pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from his backpack and began to read.
‘Hi baby!’ Her familiar voice was quickly followed by an exuberant kiss.
Startled, Rhys placed the open book on the table, cover up, and stood. Rhonda latched on to him before he was properly balanced and they nearly fell together. Rhonda laughed. Rhys frowned. She kissed him again.
‘Made it on time,’ she said. ‘Are you proud of me?’
Rhys looked at his watch. Eight twenty five. He cursed inwardly, then remembered to return her smile and congratulate her. Their second hug allowed him time to smell her hair. So fresh, and her body so soft against his, so relaxed inside his arms. Blood moved to a certain part of his anatomy in response, forcing him to break the embrace. ‘Brilliant!’ he said a little too loudly. ‘Well done.’
Rhonda kissed him again and he suddenly felt like dropping to the floor with her immediately. Admonishing himself for this weakness, he focused attention elsewhere. ‘Would you like a drink? We have time before we need to check in. Or we could check in now and have a drink upstairs. Up to you,’ said Rhys, unable to stop despite sounding ridiculous to himself.
‘Are you okay?’
‘What?’ Rhys looked at the floor, then at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. ‘Yep.’ More words bubbling at the back of this throat, splashing on to his tongue. ‘Just nervous about the flight. I’ve never been overseas.’
She laughed as though he had made a joke. ‘The flight to Sydney is longer than this one, silly.’ She playfully slapped his arm. ‘Don’t worry baby. I’ll take care of you.’
In the headlights of Rhonda’s piercing, mirth filled blue grey eyes, Rhys had an epiphany. She was too good for him. Too clever. Thinking he had any control over her was foolishness epitomized. He’d been trying to keep his distance, guarding his heart, avoiding not only sex, but intimacy. Not even sex. Intimacy. He was afraid of her openness, her generosity of spirit, her tolerance, her lack of ambition. He had been wrapped around her finger since the first word. That something in her eyes at the reception desk at the Intercontinental. Surely, he had mistaken her professional friendliness for something more. He lied to himself then, maintain the denial even as he asked her out to dinner, fostering the falsity all the way from the Harbour City to the Top End. He was still doing it. The revelation sparked in that instant when he wanted to make love to her right there and then. Not that he wanted sex. He wanted to be close to her. To let go. To be vulnerable. The fight against his natural impulses had been premised upon a need to clarify the strength of the relationship before making a commitment. However, the evidence supporting this war was as strong as the evidence against Saddam Hussein which led to the Second Gulf War.
‘Baby?’ Rhonda placed her hands on Rhys’s cheeks and searched his eyes. ‘Are you sure you’re okay? You’re acting pretty weird. I thought you were excited about this trip.’
Did she really think that, or was it more self-delusion? Rhys’s heart was racing. He felt like a little child separated from his mother in a massive mall. Eventually, he squeezed out some words which seemed to reassure Rhonda who turned away and walked over to the bar; answering his earlier question. Rhys sat down and concentrated on his breathing. Now what? He was planning to force a break-up. To either push her into dumping him or doing so to her. He couldn’t do that now.
The subsequent two hours passed quickly albeit drenched in awkwardness.
‘Watch it mate.’
It was a classic way to avoid paying for checked baggage; bring a suitcase on board. Bring a bag and a small suitcase. Add a handbag. Use up all the allocated space in the overhead locker and under your seat. Hit everyone in the arms and legs as you shuffle along the aisle.
‘That’s pretty big carry on you’ve got there.’
‘Pull your head in mate.’
‘Maybe I should,’ said Rhys to the man’s back. ‘That way I can avoid having it knocked off by oversized carry on luggage.’
‘Sit down Rhys.’
He hadn’t even realized he was standing. Rhonda’s admonition united with an urgent downward tug of his belt forced him to resume his seat.
‘I hope there’s no one in the window seat,’ said Rhys. ‘Then you can slip over and have it.’
‘You could slip on over with me.’ She traced the length of Rhys’s arm with her fingertips.
Rhys’s throat went dry; instantly parched as though exposed to flames. ‘I prefer the aisle seat you know.’
Rhonda laughed. Rhys turned away. Why did she always have to laugh at his factual statements? Why couldn’t she tell he was not playing her game.’
‘Mate,’ said Rhy to the passengers across the aisle. ‘Could you speak up? I can’t hear you.’
The two men frowned; simultaneously screwing their faces. The one nearest Rhys spoke. ‘What?’
‘I said you are talking too loudly. Be quiet. I’m not interested in your conversation.’
The first man looked at the second who said: ‘that’s not what he said, is it?’ The first man turned back to face Rhys. ‘That’s not what you said, is it?’
‘Flied lice’ said Rhys. ‘Keep your voice down.’ Placing his finger on his lips, he added. ‘Speak quietly please. Flied lice.’
‘What is flied lice?’ said one to the other as they exchanged puzzled looks.
Pleased the joke had gone over their heads, Rhys turned back to Rhonda. ‘The Chinese are so bloody rude. They talk as loud as they want in their own sing song ching chong language.’
Rhonda stared at him. The stare became a glare. Rhys swallowed, then averted his gaze, suddenly finding the back of the seat in front of him highly fascinating. She was a tough nut to crack and for that Rhys admired her. His behaviour was more overflowing frustration rather than deliberate belligerence. It seemed an appropriate time to try out a few things he’d often fantasized about doing. Although he was good at practicing restraint, Rhys was also good at letting go. When he let off steam he was no wimpy kitchen kettle. He recalled a former girlfriend breaking up with him with a torrent of criticism of Rhys’s sarcastic wit. She did not think he was funny, and she’d made sure Rhys knew that before giving him the finger and slapping his face. It was quite a spectacle that bust up.
As Rhys mulled over these matters silently, Rhonda returned to leafing through the inflight magazine. She’d evidently burnt out after bending Rhys’s ear right up to and including the time they took their seats on JK162. Taking advantage of Rhonda’s silence, Rhys considered his strategy. He was definitely viewing this holiday as a last hurrah. The broken key was an omen. Rhys didn’t believe in portentous signs except when it suited him to do so. This was one such time. The key snaps off in the lock, locking him out, preventing his entry without the help of a locksmith. He’d walked away as though it was of little consequence, and for the moment it was. For the next five days it was completely irrelevant. Five days in Bali. One hundred and twenty hours until the end of Rhys and Rhonda.
‘What are you smiling at baby? Finally starting to relax?’She kissed him on the cheek.
He took her hand in his, raised it to his mouth and landed a butterfly kiss on it. Rhonda snuggled against him, filling his nostrils again with her shampoo and the intoxicating scent of her skin. Again, he became aroused; a feeling which was fortunately interrupted by an announcement from the flight crew manager.
It was a familiar spiel requesting the attention of the passengers for the safety demonstration. Rhys always paid attention and noted very carefully those around him who did not. On this occasion, the two oriental gentlemen to his left were carrying on their conversation in more hushed tones as per Rhys’s directive.
‘Hey!’ he said. ‘The lady requested your attention.’ He pointed to the flight attendant who at that moment was fumbling with the demonstration safety belt. ‘Watch the safety demonstration.’
The men once more exchanged curious glances; one even allowed a smile to bend his thin lips.
‘Dammit,’ said Rhys, noticing an unfastened strap hanging from the side of the seat. ‘Fasten your seatbelt.’
‘Mind you own business,’ said Rhonda.
The flight attendant twitched ever so slightly, ironically embarrassed by the attention. A deep voice came through the back of his seat, piercing his spine with menace. ‘You should listen to her.’
Without turning, Rhys replied, ‘That’s what I told Chairman Mao and Jackie Chan there.’
‘You’re an arsehole mate.’
Rhonda had moved right away from him, pressing herself into the curve of the inner wall of the plane, attempting to create as much distance as possible between them. The flight attendant finished her performance and was busy checking the overhead compartments were secure, seats upright, window shades open and handheld devices switched off. Mao and Chan resumed their conversation until they were interrupted by the flight attendant telling them to fasten their seatbelts. ‘Told you so,’ said Rhys, adding a theatrical clucking sound.
‘Shut up dickhead!’
Although he knew it was extremely childish, Rhys felt excited by the attention; feathers had been ruffled. He was the chief ruffler. He wasn’t afraid of the man behind him. Words were like paper airplanes.
‘Why don’t you have a drink?’ suggested Rhonda. ‘Or maybe a few. Help you chill and stop making such a pest of yourself.’
‘Good idea,’ he said. Rhys pressed the call button, then immediately called out ‘excuse me miss! Excuse me.’
The flight attendant dutifully arrived and leaned closer to speak with him in a sensible tone of voice. As she spoke Rhys enjoyed her perfume. ‘Please wait until we are in the air, and the seatbelt sign has been switched off before placing any orders sir.’
'Probably not the smartest idea to give him anything unless it’s a heavy sedative.’
‘The sound of your voice will have the same effect mate.’
Rhonda sighed heavily while the flight attendant fought against smiling. The guy in the seat behind held his tongue so Rhys congratulated himself. Once the flight attendant had walked away, the seat in front reclined into Rhys’s lap.
‘Hey!’ said Rhys as he shoved his palm against the back of the seat. ‘You can’t recline now. Don’t you listen. Put your seat up. And keep it all the way forward for the duration of the journey.’
Rhonda sighed. Deep voice behind said, ‘Arsehole.’ Mao and Chan babbled on. The reclining seat offender immediately did as requested and not a peep did they utter. Rhys sat calmly, looking forward to that drink and devising ways to annoy everyone all the way to Denpasar.