‘Several Brief Accounts of Being On Holiday’, by Chris Somerville

Photo by Stig Nygaard. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

A friend tells us about how she’d gone on a silent retreat for nine days. She wasn’t allowed to talk or use her phone or read. I say that I probably wouldn’t be able to do this. She says she was bored from day one. They’d give her breakfast and lunch and then dinner was a single mandarin. She says: “I’d spend time by looking for dog faces in the knots of wood in the ceiling. I would do this each morning while lying on my back in bed and then think to myself, there, that’s one hour down.”

My girlfriend and I travel, four hours by car, to a wedding, with a friend and the friend’s new boyfriend, who has just moved here from Colombia and is the kindest person we’ve ever met. We talk about it when he’s not around. He is kind, we say to each other. On the way we stop at a tourist attraction; a petting zoo and pancake restaurant made to look like a castle. We eat ice cream and look around, but it’s almost entirely disappointing.

Please do not leave me in this castle, the Colombian says when we’re getting into the car to leave.

We go to the northern most tip of the country, then go out to a reef on a speed boat. I have a hangover, from a wedding, a different one this time, the night before. While we speed across the choppy waves I try to arrange my face so it looks like I’m both calm and having a great time. Everyone else in the boat is having a good time. The reef is amazing, so are the fish. I float above them on a pool noodle, feeling sick. Some sharks pass under us, and even though they seem not to notice the nine of us all floating together on pool noodles, I still freeze up for a second when I see them.

It’s the Easter break and there’s a lot of people everywhere. This is the magic of travelling; you ignore everyone else that exists so in your memories you are alone. I talk about this, at length, to my girlfriend, while we’re lying on our backs, staring at the ceiling fan. I don’t cope well with the heat, and the air around us is thick and tropical. I am constantly damp and angry about it. My girlfriend says she has no idea what I’m talking about.

A friend had gone back to his hometown of Wellington to go on a hike. He lives in Australia now. He tells us that he wasn’t as fit as he used to be, so a week before the walk he filled a backpack with water bottles—twelve of them, all weighing a litre—and trudged around the city. He said it was a strange experience, to walk around with a giant pack in your hometown. People kept asking him where he was from and he would say, “Here. I’m actually from here.”

My girlfriend’s godmother died a day before one of the weddings; the day after her grandmother had a stroke in a car park and went to hospital. We were travelling between to two different weddings in two different states, neither of which we lived in. We had to take our clothes to a drycleaner. “All I have is bad news,” my girlfriend says, while we walk home from the reception, in the middle of the night. “I’m a huge downer at the moment.”

The problem is that I’m supposed to be writing a second book, but instead I’m not.

The problem is that I’m supposed to be writing a second book, but instead I‘m not. I travel around with my laptop with, but I only use it on the plane, and then only to watch TV shows. It’s in the background of all of this, constantly. Instead I read magazines. People sometimes ask me, How’s the second book coming along? and I say Great and then our conversation trails off and I feel bad about it. If anyone ever asks me what it;s about I just say ‘Discoveries,’ and leave it at that, which isn’t very helpful to anybody.

In our hotel room I wake up from the heat at around five in the morning. I figure that I may as well just give in and go running because I’m already sweating. I don’t know the town, which is small and dotted with palm trees, but I end up at a sports oval. I see no one else the entire time, apart from another person doing sprints in the middle of the oval, and I avoid eye contact with him. At some point I step awkwardly in the grass and make a weird noise, like a disturbed horse, and that seems to be all until the next day when my back seizes up.

Years later he went to jail for armed robbery.

I can’t drive a car so I talk to my girlfriend while she drives our rental car. I tell her about a son my parents’ close friends adopted, and how we were about the same age and our parents were always lightly competitive with each other about their kids. We’d visited them out at their farm and I’d gone swimming with this kid in a dam, which I’d hated. I hate swimming in dams because of the mud when you’re climbing out and how the water is always brown. The kid leant me a t-shirt because I’d gotten mine wet, and I went home wearing it, and I didn’t see them again so I held onto the shirt. I tell this to my girlfriend while she drives. I say, Years later he went to jail for armed robbery.

I start renting an office to try and work better, because I’m sitting around at home doing nothing. I imagine that the pressure of paying for a desk will somehow make me work better. In an odd fit of desperation, I start walking to my office because I think that I’ll be able to see interesting people, but in truth I don’t see anything noteworthy and I begin to worry that I’m only really interested in myself. When it comes time to work I write group emails to the other people in the office about who’s watering the plants, because they’re looking dead and then I delete the email before sending it.

It’s a joke but neither of us really laugh about it.

I tell my girlfriend that my book has no point, like my entire life. It’s a joke but neither of us really laugh about it. I say this while we’re on a river cruise. I learnt on the boat, while we were floating around looking for crocodiles on the banks, that salt collects in the leaves of mangrove trees until they turn yellow and fall off. This way the tree can filter the seawater that it absorbs. They’re sitting in saltwater. I nod when I’m told this because it makes complete sense. I look out for yellow leaves on the trees we’re floating past and notice that they’re everywhere. They were there the whole time.

I go to see a physio about my back. He looks younger than me and is from Wellington and I say I have a friend from there, even though it’s technically not true. I’ve mixed it up with Christchurch. I tell him I’m a teacher because I sometimes do that. I spend a long time looking through a hole in a table, at the floor, while he pushes his knuckles into my back. Later he shows me an exercise on how to fix myself, because my body is slowly deteriorating. He lies with a foam noodle under his back and lets his arms fall to the side, like he’s being crucified. I see the whites of his eyes and he makes an involuntary sound. It is alarmingly haunting and beautiful.

This piece appears in The Lifted Brow #26. Get your copy now.

Chris Somerville’s work has appeared in various places, such as Kill Your Darlings, Paper Radio and Best Australian Stories. His first book is called We Are Not The Same Anymore.