The Strictly Writing Award Short-listed Story for January - "The Possibilities of Scalding Geysers" by Yvonne Jackson

It was worth waiting a year for the thrill. We always planned well ahead, so that we could enjoy the anticipation, but the excitement was in not knowing the detail. Each year a different place. Each year a different person. Each year a different accident.

Our house was always littered with travel brochures. We preferred unusual destinations. What can compare with the biological thrill of the Galapagos Islands, or the haunted wilderness of Easter Island? Who has lived, if they have not seen glaciers birthing mighty icebergs, or peered over the lip of a restless volcano?

Ron always said that a pool-and-beach holiday in a cheap and popular destination would not suit us, maintaining that we would only meet shallow binge-drinkers, or money-starved parents with loud, sticky children. We preferred the company we found on the more expensive, exotic holidays. A better kind of person, you understand. A more intelligent, thinking kind of fellow traveller. It was often during our deep discussions with these interesting individuals that we made our annual selection.

Besides, higher-class holidays offer more scope for memorable incidents. There was the time we watched from a tree to see a member of our party being attacked and eaten by a grizzly. Nothing we could do about it, of course. Once the bear smelt the melting chocolate in the young man’s backpack, it was all over for him really. And after all those warnings we were given about not carrying food with us! Nobody could think how he could have been so stupid. It was like walking around with a big sign written in grizzly, saying, “Eat Me”.

Yes, that was a gory one, better even than the occasion we witnessed a young Egyptian girl being eaten by a Nile crocodile. She was trying to sell the passengers of our Nile cruise some worthless trinkets, and she slipped and fell in the river just as she was reaching out to show her wares to Ron. Unfortunately the water hid much of the horror, and she died more quickly than the grizzly bear’s lunch, being smaller and tastier. Our stomachs swirled like the reddening waters, and we watched avidly until the last morsel had been consumed. The Egyptian police said my photographs were extremely useful in helping the parents to identify their unfortunate child.

We often looked back over the photographs - kept them in a special album. In the same album were the photos of the woman who was bitten by a deadly snake in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. By the time the poison had done its work, her face was all puffed up and purple and contorted in agony. But there you are: if people choose to camp under a forest canopy that’s chittering and chattering with poisonous creatures, and then put on their boots in the morning without first checking inside them, what can be done?

But the memory we returned to most frequently over the years was that of the elderly gentleman who carelessly tumbled overboard during an Alaskan cruise. Of course, I shouted, “Man overboard!” but by then he was already in the grip of the deadly chill. The water resembled one of those slushy drinks that children like to buy – bits of ice all mashed up in coloured liquid.

Naturally, I couldn’t jump in and attempt to rescue him – as I told the captain later, I am quite unable to swim – and it was a pity that the life belt I threw him fell so far short of its target. I never was good at games where you had to throw things, you see. Coincidentally, it was the same old man who had argued with Ron the previous evening.
Ron gave me a hard time over throwing the old man a life belt: it was some minutes after I had done so before we could be certain if the old codger would slip under the water before he succeeded in reaching it. A lady, who arrived on the scene a few moments after he fell, said that he was shaking his fist at me and shouting, but why would a drowning man waste his precious energy doing that? No, as Ron told the captain, he was not waving, but drowning.

Two years ago, Ron’s newly-divorced sister came travelling with us. I told Ron it would be a disaster, and it was. Glynis made our lives a misery, from the moment she stepped on the cruise liner until the moment she slipped off a cliff in Venezuela.

For one thing, she would keep going on about her children. Ron and I have never been into brats, of which our teenaged nephews and nieces seem to be the worst examples. Then again, Glynis would take her knitting everywhere, which is so middle-class. Really, I was embarrassed to be seen with her. No style, no class.

But the worst thing was that she wouldn’t leave Ron and me alone for a moment. For the first time since we had begun our hobby, it was impossible to make a proper selection, and I could see Ron becoming even more frustrated than me. In the end it was he who suggested we pick Glynis – and I was only too glad to acquiesce.

It was a terrible tragedy, and of course the rescue services in these out-of-the-way places are so unreliable that it was hours before the body was recovered. Hours and hours in which to ask ourselves questions. If Ron had not stepped forward to reach for her, would the cliff still have crumbled? If I had not startled her with my cry of, “Careful!”, would she still have stumbled forwards? And most importantly: when they brought her up, would she be dead, or merely injured?

Ah yes, as I look back over the years, I feel a shaft of delight in remembering some of the experiences we’ve enjoyed. It is as acute as the pleasure experienced by a collector of fine art when he looks over his paintings. But Ron and I never cared for art, you see. Our pleasures lay elsewhere, and we selected with care the person on whom we bestowed the honour of delivering them. Sometimes we would spend the first two weeks of a three-week trip wrapped up in this delectable task.

It made us feel like God: as we decided, so it happened. We would fix on some obscure, unimportant individual, and that person would be transformed from insignificance into a lasting adornment in our lives, one that we would revisit in our memories again and again. We, the omnipotent, bestowed immortality on the nondescript.

Last year we were torn. Ron favoured a trek through the Gobi Desert. It was the allure of scorpions, of course, but I wasn’t so keen and argued fiercely for Iceland. It wasn’t the first time we’d argued about destination. Ron was becoming increasingly domineering and tended to favour hot places, while I prefer the temperate or even the arctic. Don’t like to sweat, don’t like to be among sweaty people, you understand? But hot climates did something to Ron. Perked him up so to speak. And in the end, he got his way again.

All our fellow travellers had their eccentricities, naturally: it’s an extraordinary type of person who chooses to camel-trek across a burning wasteland for pleasure. In the end Ron selected a young Norwegian. He was fascinated by her pale eyelashes, her transparent skin, and her halting accent. Rather too fascinated in fact. He insisted I take her photo with their arms around each other, for the album. Of course, I wasn’t jealous, at least, not until I realised that it was more than his eyelashes that she liked. Privacy is difficult to achieve in the desert, and it was a bad mistake on his part to humiliate me by being so publicly perked up.

It was the next day, as I bumped through never-ending glare aboard a lumpy and morose camel that I had the idea. It was perfect. I made my selection, and this time I made it alone.

This time I had no photographic souvenirs to bring home, except the picture of Ron entwined with his Norwegian, which the newspapers ended up using. I kept all the newspaper cuttings for the album. The media made much of the fatal passion that had apparently caused the adulterous couple to wander off into the desert in search of privacy.  “Just Deserts”, proclaimed one paper, self-righteously.

Our guide was keen to corroborate this story. It was not in his interest to get a reputation for losing his customers. Only I knew the truth.

Next year I am going to Iceland.

I think scalding geysers have distinct possibilities.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

Oooh, wonderful but horrible!
Especially loved:
"Glynis made our lives a misery, from the moment she stepped on the cruise liner until the moment she slipped off a cliff in Venezuela."
Well done!

Fionnuala said...

Yes, we loved the comic darkness of this story. Well done Yvonne and thank you to everyone who entered the competition!

Roderic Vincent said...

A cheerful tale for a cold winter's day. I laughed out loud at the grizzly. Up till then I wasn't sure if it was going to be a comic story, so the absurdity of that took me by surprise. Nice!

Debs Riccio said...

Yvonne, this is a fabulously wicked read! Like Susie I loved the Glynis line, but my heart remains with the "lumpy and morose camel" - congratulations on a very winning story.

CekaTB said...

Oh yes, I like that one. Well written, well ... executed ... Yvonne

badas2010 said...

A lovely story - and each of those 'incidents' deserve a story of their own!
Must remember not to go to Iceland next year.

Caroline Rance said...

Congratulations, Yvonne! I love the comic contrast between the narrator's perky tone and the horror of what she's up to.

Karen said...

Ooh I loved this; wonderfully original with lashings of dark humour - well done :o)