AIRLIE BEACH, QLD, Australia
20.26° S, 148.71° E
Maggie’s is hardly the place to make a good second impression, but here we are. Me, mint-fresh breath, barefooted with a quart of ocean in my ears. She, sun-freckled, smuggling bikini strings under a tank-top, a blue-jean skirt and sunburnt sandaled feet. Her hair is shorn short, but I had been forewarned; Tasmanian lice make strange bedfellows. We’ve met before; some indiscriminate time ago, half a world away, maybe further, she and I met under different circumstances: an American football tailgate. Me then, beer-breathed and barefooted, with a slather of barbecue sauce across my cheek. She then, blushed and mascara’d, in heels, long strawberry-blonde hair, expecting the theatre and detoured to the circus. If she’d any initial notion of me at all, “warm-blooded”, or even “borderline reptilian”, would have been a kind first impression. And yet, here she stands years later, Bethany Swinglow’s eyes measuring the crowd of the beer hall until she finds me and smiles. We close the distance. Hey? Hey! So, I say anxiously, welcome to Airlie Beach. Yeah, she says. Awkward pause then, thanks, she says. Yeah. We both speak at once then laugh. I say, you go. She says, I heard about your dad. I’m sorry… What were you going to say, she asks.
On the wall, under the bar, my cell phone is still charging. It can survive without a direct power source as long as I can hold my breath, which is not long enough. After days at sea, I began charging the phone hours ago while ordering jugs of beer for my fellow travelers. Half an hour ago, I noticed the delayed email notifications from Billy Noonan. Billy, a mutual friend from Georgia, had been sending emails to Bethany Swinglow and me, letting us know our paths were about to cross in Queensland. My eyes scanned my email account for related messages, finding a response from Beth. Her email, sent earlier today, announced her arrival in Airlie Beach. Paranoid, I looked over my shoulder to find the usual flotsam and jetsam of backpacker humanity, but no Bethany. I turned back to my phone, writing to her, meet me at Magnum Hotel, and I hit send. Shit. Shit! I dashed, barefoot because Mosby stole my damn flip-flops last night, leaving Maggies in a hurry. I ran down the beach roads, past the usual surf shops and tourist traps, to my hostel, where I used mouthwash to scrub my ass, groin and teeth, though not necessarily in that order. Without finding alternative footwear, I sprinted back to Maggie’s ahead of Beth’s arrival, still barefoot, but at least my breath, bum and balls are minty fresh and tingly from the menthol.
How’s travels, I ask Beth. She self-consciously touches the close-cropped haircut. Good she says. How is it to the north, she asks. Mossies, I tell her. Lots of bugs. If you get up as far as Cape Tribulation, there is no air-con unless you’ve a generator. But it’s beautiful. They’ve dinosaurs there: cassowaries. And monster salt-water crocs; I don’t advise jet-skiing. She laughs, slightly. It’s clear she’s only here out of a courtesy to our mutual friend, Billy Noonan. I could give a shit for Noonan; I’m here for Beth, who is more charming than I remember in this heel-turn from prom-queen to off-the-beaten-path backpacker. I want to ask how are things to the chilly south, what with this being a southern-hemisphere weather conversation, when Mosby arrives. Bleddy hell, wassis, Mosby asks, keen-eyed and grinning widely at Beth. He sticks an elbow on the bar behind her, forcing Beth to turn away from me to him. Mosby is tall and has a boxer’s sinewy build. Beth is startled, perhaps from the sudden proximity, maybe more-so by his stupid boyish handsomeness. David Harold Mosborough, Esquire, Mosby says, extending a hand her way, at your service, m’bird. Beth realizes this is a friend of mine and politely asks of Mosby, and what services are those? Mosby runs a hand over his mouth as his eyes go skywards lessi, there’s carpentry, infantry, infiltration, filtration… Mosby is counting his fingers, but only the third and fourth of one hand. Intimidation, intimacy, animal husbandry, but not for cloven-footed animals, m’bird, see? And o’course we’re half the infamous Pome and Yank Rescue Dive Team. The other half, Beth inquires. Mosby points past her to me, Vicky here’s the Yank to me Pome. Yank, being like you, a Yankee, and Pome, being me, a Prisoner of Mother England.
Mosby is a Cornish Separatist, I mention, trying to wedge my way back into the conversation. Aye, Mosby winks and haphazardly lifts a cup full of beer, to Good Queen Bess, feckin’ harlot! Bethany Swinglow’s facial expression suggests she’s not sure what to make of this wiry Cornishman and his disdain for imperial rule. Mosby doesn’t mind her aloofness and presses her for details. How’s it you two met then? Mutual friend, Beth says, Billy Noonan. Mosby nearly spits-up his beer, Billy Noonan! He laughs more animated than audible, feigning knowledge of Billy, whom Mosby’s never heard of before this moment. Billy Feckin’ Noonan. And who’s Billy Noonan to you then, m’bird? Oh, Beth shakes her head at the levity of it all, we just used to date in high school. Mosby lets out another laugh, Issuh? He tells her, Vicky was only yesterday telling me he dated Billy Noonan’s mum when Vic and Bill was in secondary. Beth’s eyes are quizzical at this improbability, she didn’t recall me attending her high school. Mosby continues his lie, saying, is true, Vicky tells me hisself, only yesterday, he’s one of only a handful of a dozen gents who seen Billy Noonan’s mumsy’s bosoms more than Billy Noonan hisself! Beth’s appalled; her jaw becomes unhinged. I try to spin the joke to save my own reputation, saying, this isn’t true, of course. I explain to Beth, in complete deadpan jest, as we all know, Billy was nursed until he was eight years old. No one can compete with that much exposure to his mom. Beth takes in a breath and says, Miss Noonan was my bible school teacher. Mosby begins to speak, yeah, when she wasn’t lending out her teats, but I put a hand against his chest and speak over his blasphemy, saying hey!, Beth, what say we meet with the rest of the fellowship? I direct her towards a far picnic table where my friends are waving. Dude, I hiss at Mosby en route, enough chatter about Miss Noonan. Who needs Billy’s mum, Mosby says to me as we walk, geek this rich bird. Proper job, Vicky, he claps me on the back, best of class, mate. Wassuh name again? Beth. Crystal Meth Beth, got her, Mosby says.
Magnum’s Hotel, called Maggies by the locals, has a beer hall complete with community picnic tables and a stage for music shows, circuit comedians, amateur cabaret, wet t-shirt voyeurism and miscellaneous competitions of volunteer degeneracy. Mosby and I were introduced to Maggie’s by our vainglorious dive masters, them dudes who quizzed and tested and punished us in our journey to rescue diver certification. When we, “the Pome and Yank”, as our mentors despairingly referred to us, succeeded at an assignment, celebrations were in order at Maggie’s. Of course, celebratory beers would be paid for by the Pome and Yank. When we failed at a mission, extensive lectures and dressings-down were to occur at Maggie’s with beers paid for by the dim-witted Pome and the gap-toothed Yank. Our inevitable certifications couldn’t come soon enough. And once they did, Mosby and I kept clear of the divier-than-thou masters. The dive masters of Airlie Beach were the crown princes of the coast; even the rentable yacht-boys sailing the Whitsundays lacked the mythos of these goddamn aquanauts. Of course, the Dive Instructor outranked all the dive masters and on the rare occurrences of his presence, the dive masters kowtowed and surrendered their earthly possessions to the whim of the divine Dive Instructor while hissing at the pedestrian acolytes, the likes of us, the Pome and Yank, ordering us to fetch more jugs of beer. When the Dive Instructor was not present, the dive masters ruled these beer halls with a neoprene fist. Arch MacCool, an ascending dive master, was one such ruthless lord. Arch, who begrudgingly certified us as rescue divers, had been especially ornery towards the Pome ever since his Argentine girlfriend left him and started cohabitating in Mosby’s shag-wagon at the campground south of town. Our eventual certification as rescue divers did not, however, make us closer to equal in stature to the dive masters. In their eyes, we were less. Mosby and I were barbarians at the gate, a pair of doggie-paddlers from the nor’-hemi constantly steaming our wetsuits with hot piss; we weren’t worthy of them, the dive masters.
As Mosby, Beth and I pass across the beer hall, the dive masters catcall, Oi, look Arch, there goes Mosby and the Yank, a couple of dirty derros returned from gi’n each other wristies in the lav! Get stuffed, Mosby yells at them through clenched teeth. Arch MacCool hollers at us, get a dog up ya, the both of ya… excepting you, miss! Friends of yours, Beth asks me, worriedly. Not really, I tell her. But they taught us everything we know about rescuing people who are drowning.
M’dears, Mosby says to our fellowship once we arrive at the table, we’d like to introduce this proper Yank, Miss Crystal Meth Beth. Mosby’s latest paramour, at least this side of Sydney, is the Argentine social media maven, Iluminada Ojeda, who pauses texts to friends in Buenos Aires long enough to give Bethany Swinglow the evil-eye. Givuh proper applause, Mosby says, cos she’s American and likely has machine guns uppuh. Crystal, Mosby now introduces Beth to the table, here’s m’bird Nada, and thems the newly bewedded, and that’s Ingo the Kraut and Other Davo the Canadian. Us, the United Nations of rejects, Mosby says reaching out his arms to embrace the crowd. Ava seat, m’bird. Let’s all ava seat.
You will have to excuse Mosby, I tell Beth as I sit beside her at the picnic table. I grab a jug of XXXX and pour us a couple cups full. We’ve been at sea off and on for the last month, I tell her, and we’ve returned to dry land a little bit salty. Beth courtesy smiles at me the way she might at the boy bagging her groceries. No dramas, Beth says, in the local colloquial, her eyes glancing away from mine towards the Argentine, finding nothing hospitable there. Beth’s eyes glance along the table, past the giddy Ingo von Dusseldorf, to settle upon the Kensington newlyweds: Georgie, a financier from the City of London, and sweet Lucy, mistress of the castle. Georgie is lost in his phone, but Lucy gives Beth a warm, impossibly toothsome, grin. Lucy is English Lake Country beautiful. She’s nearly transparently pale, even after a 3-day cruise of the Whitsundays. Lucy has, as we say in the scuba business, positive buoyancy. She’s reserved, but this fits well with Georgie, a Master of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe would put it. Of course, in the wilds of Australia, Georgie is just another pasty tourist whose thin scalp is flaking away. Mosby refers to these Londoners as “the incomers”. The incomers aren’t just English, mate, he told me, they British. I’m neither, he says. I’m a Cornish cunt to them and proud’ve it. Out at sea, Georgie the banker, was out of his element. The newlyweds often lost each other on their dive trips, often with Georgie sticking to the plan and Lucy floating astray. The dive master, Arch MacCool, would then send Mosby and me, we certified rescue divers, after the lost sheep. We’d discover Lucy loose amongst the coral heads and shepherd her back to the group. Seas are rising, Mosby would say those nights at sea as he smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes. Means more water then. This world needs more rescue divers. We need gets to business, mate. Pome & Yank Rescue Dive Team. This is where our future’s at, he said under the starlight of the Southern Cross. Let’s do it, I responded. I’ve a few months left on my work visa.
Night falls on Magnum Hotel and Airlie Beach. I fetch a few more jugs of XXXX and notice the scuba mandarins, Arch and his boys, are leaving with their latest harvest of sunburnt novices from the northern hemisphere, each girl with a passport stuffed into her sports bra. As they depart, the stage becomes illuminated as a DJ plays the soundtrack to the emcee, Peggy Strewth, a loud, sardonic, comedian with a microphone and a fistful of gift certificates. Upon my return to the table, I find Mosby and Beth gone. They’re to fetch meat pies, Lucy says to me tenderly. We’ve canceled our dinner reservations and are quite famished, Lucy says before turning to Georgie for validation, aren’t we, sweets? Georgie scoffs. His mind, via his stomach, is on a filet of fresh-caught barramundi he was expecting to eat at the local four-star, but instead his bride’s fear of missing out has kept them here at Magnum Hotel waiting for the Cornwall cunt to return with street vendor meat-pies. With refreshed jugs, I start slinging cuppa suds to Other Davo, Ingo, Geo, and Lucy. Iluminada doesn’t drink because of concerns for beer-face inflation. She’s smoking a cigarette Mosby hand-rolled for her, a dingo’s breakfast, as they say, grinding her molars as she waits for her Cornishman to return, though she’s less interested in Mosby’s meat pie than la puta.
Oi! Peggy Strewth yells at the audience from the stage. Oi! We yell back. Late one avro, ‘bout a year ago, I’m down Bondi Beach, Peg says. I see this bloke I like, Bruce. Bruce and me, we find a place in the shade for a shag. Afta, as I’m scraping sand out me fanny, he says to me, Peg, you’re a proper shag. Aw, thanks Bruce. Months pass and I’m back down on Bondi Beach, looking for this bloke, Bruce. He finds me. Bruce says to me, Peg, I been looking all over for ya, what says you and me have another shag. I tell Bruce, Bruce! I been looking for you, mate. I’m up the duff from ya, Bruce, I tell him. And if you don’t marry me, I am going to throw myself off the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Pausing her story, Peggy Strewth looks seriously over the audience and a hush settles on the crowd. She continues, and Bruce says to me, she pauses for dramatic effect… Peg, not only are you one hell of a shag, but you’re a good sport too!
I’m laughing until I realize Beth has returned with the meat-pies in time to be horrified with the joke. To her, a joke about a pregnant woman throwing herself off a bridge is a little too off-color. Which is fair! But, we’re not back in Atlanta, are we? The Aussies and the Europeans and even Other Dave from Ottawa are laughing. It’s not because we are bad people. It is because we can take a joke. Which is why I tend to avoid Americans in my travels. Too much American Exceptionalism. All peoples have their passions, but no one takes themselves as seriously as the common American.
Oi, listen up, Peggy Strewth says to the throngs of tourists in the beer hall. We’re to have us a bit of sport. Looking for volunteers to compete onstage. At Peggy’s announcement, this table of travelers, my fellowship, they nominate Vic, yours truly, as their designated champion. You, dear reader, might think me just a narrator, but my fellow wanderers have a higher regard for me than you. They yell at Peggy, Vic! Choose Vic! Lucy, the future housewife of Kensington, is besides herself with ovation when Peggy Strewth points at me. I ask Beth, my American compatriot, if she’ll be okay while I attend to business. She nods as she sucks on a lip burnt from hot pie. On stage, I turn to greet a drunken crowd of hundreds. When Peggy asks me to introduce myself, I receive only boos from the crowd. Beth alone, burnt lip and all, patriotically cries out USA!, but only once. Peggy, the emcee, makes a face of disgust at me, oi, me auld mate, Vic, not only are you as handsome as a bucket of smashed crab, but the crowd don’t like ya. Yeah, I shrug. Can you get me a date with Barrack, Peggy asks me. Again, I shrug. The winners of the contest, Peggy tells the crowd, will have a sunset dinner cruise. And you heard me fair, my loves. I said winners, plural, because this is a couples challenge! The contestants and the crowd react with startle. Peggy says the four contestants, all of us backpacker transients: Vic the Yank, Roderigo from Milan, Mitch from Sussex and Karl from Berlin, need to enter back within the crowd to bring onstage someone of the opposite sex. I don’t care if you’re gay, bi, or straight, whatever gender you were born as, you need find the opposite as you for your partner, Peggy tells us, sending us to hunt and gather.
Naturally, I return to my table. Burnt-lip Beth is in a good mood and is quick to take my hand to join me in this contest. Moments later, we are on-stage. Bethany Swinglow and Victor Neverman, hand-in-hand; America! We’re smiling at each other. In any common circumstance back home, we’d be near-strangers; here, in competition, we’re bonded gladiators… with a chance at romance. Beth excitedly whispers, a sunset cruise… her eyes sparkle as they look at me. Of course, I’d gladly pay for the cruise if it’s going to sparkle these eyes, but the moment is interrupted when Peggy says to the crowd, the next challenge: each contestant onstage must return to the crowd and get an undergarment from a member of the opposite sex. None of the eight contestants onstage can provide another contestant with their own underoos. All contestants, Peggy says, must descend into the masses to find someone else’s bras, fart-slicers, dunkers or jocks, bikini tops will do. But they must be from the opposite sex. Oh, you’ve only two minutes to return in order to advance to next round.
We disperse! Again, I return to my table, with Beth alongside. Already anticipating Beth’s request, Mosby is dropping his trousers to scrape off his skivvies. I turn towards Iluminada, hey Nada… She shakes her head, telling me she is not wearing any underwear. This is when I hear the polite inquiry: Vic? I turn to find Lucy’s happy eyes searching for mine. Vic, would you like my bra? Well… my eyes shift towards Georgie, whose thousand-yard glare is towards Brisbane. I mean, if you wouldn’t miss it for a couple minutes. If you want me to, Lucy says. For fuck’s sake, I say, yes, I want your bra! My yell at Lucy is perhaps a little too exasperated as I can sense my competitors rushing back to the stage. Lucy works her magic, but struggles getting the double-sized undergarment out of the small armhole. Once I have her bra in hand, I pivot and sprint to the stage.
Beth, beside me, is holding Mosby’s underwear as if it were the welterweight champion belt and is, likely, spreading a little bit of hepatitis-a, maybe some hep-b, a smidge of c, around the beer hall as she waves the skivvies. Beth is showing a competitive fire which burns past her natural inhibitions. She has been nursing her beer, tossing it to the gravel when it gets too warm. Her intoxication is not from alcohol; her intoxication is entirely ego surrendering to id: the lust for an audience, the lust of an audience for her, has turned Bethany Swinglow into a momentary rock star. Meanwhile, I am wearing Lucy’s bra on-stage like a hat.
Only six contestants return in time. Peggy Strewth looks us over, saying, I said this was a couples competition, but these remaining contestants are not couples. There will be six teams of two, she says. These six contestants onstage… will be paired with the person who surrendered their underwear. Whoever, Peggy explains, whoever provided their underoos has to join these contestants on the stage.
My ears are humming so loud with adrenaline, I am not even comprehending what is being told. Beth explains to me, you need to get that chick. What? Who? I turn to the table. Mosby is galloping towards the stage. Kensington Lucy is standing, looking downward towards the newlywed groom Georgie. He cannot face her. Lucy clutches her loose breasts as she turns away from Georgie, hurrying towards the stage. Hurrying to me. Shit. What’ve I done?
I suppose a little background is in order. During our recent cruise of the Whitsundays and the Great Barrier Reef, I steered clear of the Kensington newlyweds, as much as I could. Did Lucy fancy me? Yeah, probably, in that I was the one securing her essential dive equipment while Georgie fucked-off elsewhere. And underwater, when her air-tank became low after hyperventilating around sharks, I let her suck-off my octopus (which is what we call our secondary air-source). Yes, Lucy might’ve cultivated an accidental interest in me. And maybe I liked the way she guffawed at my jokes with those innumerable teeth. Yeah, and maybe I fetched her coffee at breakfast. And helped her zip-up her wetsuit. And unzip it, when necessary. And rubbed out those calf-cramps. Okay, now that I think about it, I was probably too hands-on with Lucy, but it was all courtly affections in the castle of King Georgie, I swear. Was I surprised when Lucy offered me her bra? Absolutely not. Am I concerned with her being my partner on stage? Well, only for her marriage’s sake…
Lucy walks onstage, head downwards with eyes glancing up in search of my approval. You do not have to do this, I tell Lucy. Do you not want me to, Lucy asks with concern. Fuck. Of course, I want you to, but it is your choice. At my right, Mosby has hopped on stage with a single leap. Bethany Swinglow has never been happier to see him. The two of them are suddenly star-crossed lovers. I turn back to Lucy to tell her she can go back to Georgie if she wants. What do you want, Lucy asks, innocently. Uh, well, I say, you.
Peggy Strewth orders the six men to stand in a row, facing the crowd of hundreds. Mosby lines up next to me and we share an excited laugh. To think: a week ago we were scouring the bottom of the ocean together for a clothespin as a part of a training mission. Peggy calls for the six women to stand in a row facing the men with their backs to the crowd. Lucy, sweet Lucy, stands before me as if we’re to be married. Beside us, sparkly-eyed Beth gladly stands before Mosby. Peggy walks between the rows, handing each of the men a popsicle stick with a chocolate-covered frozen banana affixed atop it.
Each of these men hold a chocolate-covered banana, Peggy Strewth tells the audience. As they hold the banana out, the woman assigned to them must keep their hands behind their back and find a way to remove all of the chocolate from the frozen banana while keeping the banana intact. Laughter and anticipation engulfs the beer hall of Maggies.
My stomach drops. I cannot do this to Lucy. I tell her again, you do not have to do this. Do you want me to, she asks. I take a breath. Fuck this. I break my banana in half. Mosby sees this and screams out, disqualified! Peggy arrives to examine the broken banana before the contest even begins. You fuckwit, Peggy says to me. What’ve you done? I’m clumsy, I shrug. Disqualified, Mosby yells again. Peggy says she’ll get us another banana. No, Mosby insists, they are disqualified!
I guess we’re disqualified, I say to Lucy of Kensington. I’ve a self-satisfied grin on my face, having saved this young woman the degradations of having to publicly suck a banana. No, Lucy shakes her head. We’re not disqualified. She’s getting us another banana. If you can stop being a twat and hold the bloody banana steady, I’m going to win this for us, Lucy says with icy determination.
Well, I’ll be damned. Okay, I assume the position with a new banana. Lucy performs admirably. She’s gentle. And thorough. She comes up for air, licking her lips, and notices Beth beside us is much further along. In her desperation, Lucy becomes sloppy. A little too much teeth and the banana comes apart in my hands. We’re ruined. Karl and Roxanna, the Berliners, have completed the challenge. Only Mosby and Beth still have an intact banana, the rest of our bananas are busted, the contest is over. The Berliners have won.
After disembarking from the stage, the contestants thin out into the crowd. Ingo and Other Dave are clapping for the returned heroes, but our table is clearly absent of newlywed Georgie and IG model Iluminada. Lucy is deaf to my suggestion I help her find Georgie; Lucy exits stage left into the street. Mosby sits down at the table and pours the remainder of the XXXX jug into his cup. He isn’t bothered with Iluminada’s absence; he might even be relieved. Instead, Mosby is basking in a post-coital glow, saying, I didn’t know the old girl ‘ad it innuh. The girl he is referencing, Beth, has similarly departed. The last I saw Beth was right after the contest as I helped her off-stage, saying, hey, so that was fun. By the way, you’ve got a smidge of chocolate on your chin. Those might be the last words I ever speak to her. She quickly fled from the scene. I do not expect to hear from Bethany Swinglow again. Or Billy fucking Noonan, for that matter, or his mum.
Magnum Hotel around this hour transitions from frat party to club scene. The lights are dimmed, the music is faster, pulpy, pulsating. I grab a cold bottle of VB from the bar and return to the table where Mosby is yakking it up with Other Dave. I look over my shoulder at the front of the bar and am delighted to see the figure of the Kensington bride, haloed in the flickering lights of the club, heading my way. My mind immediately analyzes the situation: clearly Georgie has left his new bride behind and she’s decided to cast her lot in with yours truly. I ponder the possibility of getting a shag-wagon like Mosby’s, something Lucy and I could live within as we journey across the continent together. It would be roughing it, I would have to master the crossbow and learn how to clean kangaroo for the barbie, but Mosby could teach me all that shit and it would be an interesting life, Lucy and me in the Outback, sharing a sleeping bag, reading by the campfire light: me with my spy novels and her with her paparazzi pulp, running out of gas on the Northern Tableland then out of thirst she turns the crossbow on me and drinks my blood until a couple of drovers arrive and offer to take her to the nearest town, leaving me to roast in the broken down van. But those first few days, and nights, of bliss would be worth the inevitable destruction. I’m convinced, let’s do this.
Lucy, I call to her, standing from the table to greet her. She’s in a rush, you can tell by the quick swivel of her hips. She walks with her hands still supporting breasts through her blouse. Vic, she says, more businesslike than endearing. She releases one breast to point to the top of my head, can I get my bra back?