Friday, May 14, 2010
THE WILD ORCHID
by BM Buttrose
"The Andamans have always been a dangerous place, a port of uneasy repose on the journey to somewhere else."
Dear Thomas & Katie,
This is a difficult letter to write, because I don’t know if you are alive or dead. I have to tell you that I have been rewriting it on and off in my head for three years now. The Wild Orchid Hotel; obscure, exotic, remote, homely. I loved it. I took so many notes about the story of your romance, the complexities of Canada meets Bangalore. The pioneer spirit of your tourism venture on Havelock Island. The poem I wrote in your Visitors Book, your enjoyment in reading it and your comment that I had captured you both so well. The promise I made remains with me; to write the story of the Wild Orchid Hotel and send it to you.
Even if you are both dead, I still have to write your story and send it - a promise is a promise. If you don’t reply, perhaps I’ll be able to accept that you are both gone. Or will I still wonder, thinking the Indian postal service has lost my letter, or you two have simply moved on? What if I do get a reply from someone else, telling me neither of you was ever seen again; or perhaps even worse in some ways, a letter from one of you telling me you watched helplessly as the other got swept away? This is the kind of tragic news that has stopped me writing this story until now. It breaks my heart to think of the two of you other than how I remember you both the day I left you, beaming with love, vibrant with the promise of your life to come.
Somehow this story has kept you both alive, captured at a time when you were sad to see me depart. You asked if some day I might return to the island, and at that time the only answer I could give was ‘Yes, I will - in the guise of your story’. We all laughed then at my non-committal response. Who knows what life has in store for us - it is mostly unpredictable. As we all know so well.
PS: As you may have guessed John is no longer in the picture.
PPS: By the way, I finally found some info about the Andaman Orchid, and that it is extremely rare. A site online reported one orchid as growing on a tree bough on the easterly shore, taking the full weathering of the coast.
Anna Swift had arrived in the Andamans at the end of a journey through southern India with a man she had grown to despise. She felt stupid now for trusting him. He had sold her the idea of going on a second honeymoon, and like the first time she was paying for it. It would be some time yet before she discovered the true extent of his fraud: all she knew at this point was her wrenching feeling of emptiness and failure and the Himalayan-sized Visa debt she would find waiting for her at home.
He had tricked her yet again by coming away with empty pockets but plenty of excuses, ensuring that she would pay for just about everything. At first an increasingly annoying and tedious pattern in their lives, now his lying, scheming and duplicity had become unbearable. She wanted out, but how, and to where, and with what? She couldn't even bear to think of the reality she would return to.
She sat on the beach trying to enjoy what was supposed to be the highlight of her trip, and which now had turned out to be anything but that. During their two months in India, dealing with John’s constant dramas, the only thing that had kept her going had been the promise of the holiday in the Andamans. She had organised every detail before she left, and studied all the major guide books and online sites.
She had known little about the islands, only that the Andaman and Nicobar groups comprised a remote archipelago out where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea. Books of photographs of the islands had seduced her eye. She saw white limestone ranges covered in stands of teak, and an abundance of wildlife, some still unclassified by zoologists. Her eyes tracked roads that ran away into nowhere, carved into the jungled contours of mountains. Pastel-toned colour plates printed in far-off Chennai depicted monsoonal rains washing the powdery limestone into the sea, covering the coral reefs in a milky green bath. Majestic petrified trees, silvered and sandpapered smooth by the decades, lay angled across the beaches.
She read of the tribal peoples of the Nicobars, of whom it was said had never seen Europeans and didn’t possess the knowledge for making fire. Inquisitive travellers were warned that the tribespeople were known to use poison darts and would kill on sight. It all only made her want to go there more - as did the intriguing stories about secret Indian military bases scattered through the islands. It felt like the Andamans possessed everything: beauty, mystery, allure. And they were one of the world’s pristine dive locations. Perfect.
Upon arrival there she had been so enthused about her forthcoming dives that she could hardly contain herself, and talked excitedly throughout the dinner she and John shared with Thomas and Katie, the proprieters of the hotel where they were staying. She was stopped in her tracks by the look Thomas and Katie shared just before they gave her the news. At the time of booking they had confirmed she could dive, but that was before the change of heart by the Indian authorities. All the diving operators had just had their licences revoked following trouble with a couple of tour groups. All diving was cancelled.
Anna barely held back her tears, sliding into the pit, as Thomas tried to reassure her that she would not leave the islands without at least one dive. He had connections in high places, he said, a necessity for any business in India, and would set about seeking special permission. Somehow Anna trusted Thomas: it was a matter of pride for him after all, and Katie’s calm gave her the sense that this was business as usual.
After dinner Anna sat on the beach alone staring at the sea. There was nothing out there, no moon, no shard of light from a fishing boat, just the matt black of the ocean and the sea wind coming off it. She watched it, blank, her thoughts going back to the conversation with Thomas and Katie, and the dive she would surely do; and how Thomas had said the Andamans were like no other place, that everything seemed to be in larger proportions - the fish, the corals, the trees, the coastline, the waves of the weather coast.
Her thoughts drifted futher. She found herself of all things feeling envious of the love between between Thomas and Katie. It was tantalising to witness. They possessed what she yearned for: love and all its identities rolled into one, a rock of love. And she had John - controlling, neurotic, unbalanced. She was certain now that she didn’t want him any more but didn’t know how she would ever escape him.
Katie had first seen Thomas as he roared up on his Honda Hero motorbike, his lustrous raisin hair streaming behind him. She didn’t mind breathing in some of the salty dust kicked up by the bike. Her mouth felt dry and teeth gritty, but she was after all in India. Such things were to be expected.
She had just got off a long-distance bus at the Bangalore interchange and been met by her friend Nadi who took her across the road to Thomas’s restaurant. She tried to look disinterested as he got off his bike, deciding not to fall into the trap so many Western women do: the instant sexual allure of the exotic.
Thomas wasn’t a crazy Hindu fundamentalist or a medieval Muslim, but a capitalist Christian, exuding charisma. He looked like a masala movie matinee idol, and his eyes teased with humour. His restaurant was the meeting place for the hip and artistic IT crowd of Bangalore. The models and moguls of the chosen castes gathered there to finger their thalis and suck on frothy chai and imported cola.
As Katie walked into the restaurant, she witnessed a scene. Two of Thomas’s recent ex-girlfriends had turned up separately, intending to berate him about having jilted them. But Thomas’s charm was irresistible.
‘Ladies, perhaps this is not the right time or the right place, eh? Perhaps we could speak later, please?’
Both girls melted, apologising for their behaviour. He promised to see them later that night, for which they seemed grateful, and left.
Katie said afterwards she was impressed as only a Western woman could be by seeing an Indian man wielding such power. The next thing Thomas was eyeing her across the restaurant. She was wary, not wanting to be cast as some restaurant owner’s porn-star, which is what she thought all the Indian men and women seemed to think Western women were. It wasn’t long however before Thomas was chatting to Nadi, and he and Katie were being introduced. She felt strange when he held out his hand to shake hers, an unusual gesture for an Indian man. She accepted it, and they touched. They stared at each other, an eyelid flicker too long. Nadi punctured the mood with an order for drinks from Thomas.
After he went, Katie thought oh no, it’s all too messy already. Nadi said the same thing out loud: ‘No Katie, he’s a playboy, you’ll get hurt, it’s too complicated.’
‘You’re absolutely right, Nadi. No way.’
Katie was a tall girl, an inch taller than Thomas. Fine brown hair, angular shoulders and blue eyes. An adventurous Canadian from Montreal. Her parents accepted her marriage to Thomas, although not without muted, hopeless protest. The next thing Katie’s family knew, she and Thomas were partners in a restaurant, then starting up a resort together from scratch, in the Andaman Islands, of all places. Katie’s parents had to look it up on a map to find it, and even then couldn’t locate remote Havelock Island. It was just too far away and too small, a speck on the rim of the ocean.
They had started with a single thatched lean-to and mosquito netting, and built it up from there. By the time of Anna’s visit their dream of building the resort was almost realised. By then they had ten well-booked cabins and a healthy flow of return guests. It seemed their hard work had paid off, their future secure.
Anna had always been fascinated by the sea, and had idolised the French underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. She remembered the documentaries about his discoveries in the underwater world, and one in particular about the unique aquatic life around the Andamans. She recalled the excitement of the Cousteau team as they talked about marine life never before seen in the Fire Opal Trench, still a secret kept between divers. Now, thanks to Thomas’s connections and tenacity, Anna found herself on her long-hoped for dive trip, in the company of an Israeli couple.
Israelis were considered troublesome by the local authorities, many of them coming to India to cut loose after completing their compulsory military service. This couple, Anna thought, must have had especially good connections to be on the trip at all. They looked like they had travelled and partied very hard, and sat staring out to sea with vague indifference, sharing a cigarette. They had greedy festering sores from insect bites covered with gauze, but didn’t seem to notice the state of their bodies, nor the flies drinking their bloody sap. Anna couldn’t help but wonder whether they would attract sharks.
They didn’t. It was a perfect day. It was at the extreme end of recreational diving, down one hundred and fifty feet. It was called the Fire Opal because as far as the eye could see the trench was covered in massive, sail-like stands of vermilion coral, fanning in the undersea current. It was like diving into a chasm of cool volcanic lava. She floated through it, overwhelmed, stopped breathing, lay on her back looking up towards the light, dead, alive, complete.
‘You’re looking very pious tonight,’ Thomas quipped, as she sat at the bar on the last night there. ‘Quite the devotee.’
Anna was wearing a loose-fitting tangerine silk outfit, and a purple shawl. ‘Yes... perhaps,’ she smiled back, ‘I didn’t realise... It just seemed perfect for my last night here, I suppose, that’s all.’
‘Where’s John? On his way?’
She couldn’t help the perfunctory tone, nor the audible relief that her last evening at the Wild Orchid would be so much more enjoyable without his presence.
Thomas left and returned with a drink for her. She didn’t ask what it was, and he didn’t say. She just drank it, slowly. Strange, she thought, how alcohol can salve you: it’s just a drink, after all.
She could see Katie setting up the dining room and seeing to other guests’ drinks. Katie was smooth all over: her voice, the way she moved, her expression. Perhaps the Andamans had taught her patience, and her composure was a result. She looked up, saw them and smiled. In a few moments, Anna knew, she would have Katie’s company as well as Thomas’s. She loved seeing them together: their union created a palpable third entity; their eyes were alive with it. She had heard bits and pieces of their story, but wanted to hear more. She knew tonight it would be told.
Thomas scooped up her empty glass. ‘It’s a special Andaman lime crushed with palm sugar and white rum,’ he said. ‘It’s called the wild orchid, like the ones that grow on the boughs of the trees at the edge of the beach. Have you seen them?’
‘I saw one at Elephant Beach. Such a harsh environment for something as delicate as an orchid.’
‘That’s the Andamans - full of contradictions and oppositions. Would you like to join us for dinner?’
‘I would, yes, thank you.’
‘I’ll get Dasgi to prepare a fish curry. Not his usual fire-breathing stuff though,’ he laughed. ‘What do you do in Australia?’
‘I’m a journalist,’ Anna said. She might have added: "Recently retrenched".
‘It’s strange I hadn’t asked you that before. But now that you tell me I can see that you are a writer.’
‘I’d love to hear your story. The story of you and Katie. I’d like to write it, and send it to you.’
‘Then we will tell you over dinner.’
Katie approached, and placed a visitor’s book in front of her along with an engraved silver pen; a wedding present, Anna saw. There was only one other entry in the book: Katie had said before that it was new.
‘I have a poem for you,’ Anna said. ‘I think it’s ready for ink now.’
‘Then we’ll leave you to write,’ Katie said, ‘and come back when dinner is ready, okay?’
Within a second of them leaving, the poem started to write itself. It had never happened quite like this before. She had thought such writing a romantic fable, but now felt the poem coming seemingly from her flesh itself, a current running down her arm to her fingers, rippling the page. She knew the poem would be special: it was ecstatic, yet also almost strangely ominous in feeling.
When she finished writing it, she drew a map of Australia, the states, landmarks and animals, and marked the place of her birth, Sydney. She didn’t live in Sydney but whenever she was overseas she always recorded it as her place of belonging in the world. She was proud of Sydney.
The dining room entrance was a simple construction of local bamboo, thatching, and on the floor aromatic pinkadoo, the softest hardest wood known. With a scent of musk, and peppermint hues, it framed the whole pavilion. The giant taro trees, with leaves like elephant ears, sat in the sand surrounds, buttressed by their white roots.
The dinner conversation teased through the entrees, but by the time they were on Dasgi’s fish curry it had progressed to Thomas and Katie’s first meeting, and their protracted courtship fraught with geographical tribulations. They had tried living in Canada, Bangalore and finally settled for their pioneering resort on Havelock Island.
They had been together nine years, but you couldn’t tell, Anna thought, because they had retained that fascination with each other. Their relationship was typical of the new India, Anna assumed: they had wanted to build their business before starting a family.
One glance at their faces told her that her resolve about John was correct. He had consumed her like a quarry does a mountain, ounce by ounce, cell by cell, until she couldn’t even remember who she had been before. It had started simply and easily and would end quagmired in complexity. She knew he would not let go, as it seemed she had everything he wanted and he had nothing she wanted. Her money was all gone now. That much at least would help.
‘And here we are today,’ Katie said, by way of completing their story.
‘Yes,’ Anna said. ‘Here you are, and you are so lucky.’
‘We know,’ Thomas said. ‘We’re lucky.’
On the morning after Christmas, she had a dream. The house was silent. The torn wrapping paper of the day before had been cleared away. The children had their presents and slept in their beds. She still slept beside John. Two years, and she hadn’t escaped him. After New Year, she had told herself. After New Year. If only there weren’t the children. They were his children, and they were almost grown up, but she loved them as her own. One day soon, she knew, she had to go; had to kiss them, get in her car and go.
The dream was of the sea: the seawater heavier than freshwater, welling, swelling, sustaining its momentum, overwhelming the intertidal zone with ease. The whim of the ocean, toying with you like a killer whale with a seal.
The water seemed violent to her, but it didn’t hurt. The foyer of the Wild Orchid was nearly submerged as she witnessed the silent force of the cold sea water rushing in. Her attention was on the visitor’s book: she found it just out of her reach. Thomas and Katie’s poem was in that book: it was part of her, she grabbed for it. The water cleverly opened the book at the right place, a mocking glimpse, she could just see it. The memories of her holiday returned. At the time of writing, the poem held an unknown meaning, waiting for them all. She realised in the dream that it was water in the wrong place, very powerful, tubulent, but quiet. Seeing everything but hearing nothing, she knew water had a voice. The periphery contained Thomas’s black hair and Katie’s pale hands. In a second the book was torn away, eluding her grasping fingers. It submitted instead to the sea. The poem was being recited, just as it had been performed at the goodbyes. Hearing laughter but seeing no faces, she could feel them close, inside her, silently calling to her. Without warning the frames of the scene accelerated and she watched as the book felt the full force of the water, squeezing the ink from the page and the meaning from the poem. It was all out of control, nothing to be done. She let go. That wild orchid, arid on a bough, white, hidden on Elephant Beach. All swept away.
When morning came she remained unsure of what she had seen, the inside of her head still floating. It hadn’t been a dream, she felt. She had been there with them, but could do nothing. The wave was on her face, flowing down her cheeks, filling her hair. She lay in bed beside the man she detested, too frightened to breathe, sobbing.
He was still asleep when she got up. The children hadn’t stirred either. She went downstairs, made herself a cup of tea, and switched on the television. She didn’t know what might be on. On Boxing Day, cricket, the Sydney to Hobart? She stared at it, blank as the sea. Then it began, the tsunami. She gasped. By the time John and the children came down it filled the living room, and she was nowhere to be seen.
“The Wild Orchid” © 2010 BM Buttrose