From tipping the restaurant waiter to scouting out the habitats of his country’s most exotic plants, the delightful Alphonse seemed content to carry all our obligations on his scraggy shoulders. At the end of an internal flight, we didn’t even have to collect our cases from the baggage carousel. Alphonse summoned a couple of barefoot porters and pointed them towards the Naturetours labels and we didn’t have to lift anything heavier than a camera or a water bottle until reunited with our luggage at the next hotel.
“I could get used to this,” said Ivan.
Alphonse led us through the terminal building, hardly bigger than the Socks-R-Us franchise at Heathrow, to the 4×4 waiting in the shade, its engine purring. We climbed aboard: Katie and Morris together with Lou on the middle row, Ivan sandwiched between me and Ray at the back. Once he’d seen us settled, Alphonse excused himself to attend to our permits. The driver sloped off for a smoke.
Katie got out her diary. Ray opened the paperback he’d been reading on the plane. I stared out the window. There wasn’t much to see beyond the breeze-block wall of the airport building, apart from a group of girls lounging on the corner, their wild edges muted by the vehicle’s tinted glass.
“I’ll swap seats if you like,” said Ivan. “You and Ray can sit together.”
My husband must have heard, but he didn’t look up from his book. Like a sulky child, he was waiting for me to rescue him from the green-eyed monster that had plagued him since that first getting-acquainted meal. So Ivan and I shared a similar sense of humour? It hardly meant we were planning an affair. “I think he prefers the company of his book.”
In the seat directly in front of me, Morris opened his window. With the driver gone we’d lost the air-con and, even in the shade, we were beginning to sweat. I followed his lead and the grey wall showed itself a couple of tones lighter.
Katie paused in her scribbling. “What was that orchid we saw yesterday?”
“Which of the two dozen did you particularly have in mind?” said Lou.
Katie’s reply was swamped by a surge of teenage girls crowding around the 4×4, thrusting their arms through the open windows. “Look, madam, look!”
Hoops of silver jangled before my eyes. Dazzled by the reflected sunlight, I turned and looked askance at my husband.
“Close the bloody window!” said Ray.
That was no solution. Hadn’t we travelled all this way to see the country? But we hadn’t come to be harassed. “No thank you. No thank you.” Polite, but firm.
The group drifted to the window in front, thrusting the trinkets upon poor Morris. “Look, sir! Look my beautiful bangles!” Beautiful? In another life, they’d be handcuffs.
When Morris hesitated, the girls pushed their wares into his hands. “I give you good price.”
“How much?” he muttered, examining the bracelets with evident embarrassment.
Ray groaned into his book. “Now we’ll never get rid of them.”
The girls pointed out the motifs stamped into the silver. “Look, this snake!” “Look, this flower!”
“They might be okay for presents,” said Lou.
Beside me, Ivan fumbled in his bag for his camera.
“I’ll take this one,” said Morris.
Ivan focused his lens. In my own mind, I framed the picture: seven pairs of sparkling eyes; seven enormous smiles; fourteen cheekbones to die for. Their vibrant outfits a glorious melange of international teenwear and traditional prints. I would ask Ivan to e-mail me a copy later.
Morris handed a few notes to a girl in a red knitted beret and a tie-dye top. She brought them to her lips in triumph.
Disappointment washed over the other six faces. With a collective sigh they moved back. But their retreat was only to regroup and relaunch their campaign with renewed vigour. “Come, my friend. You buy from her, now me.”
Ivan put down his camera. Lou tapped at the calculator on her phone. “They’re quite good value when you think about it.”
Morris slid the bracelet onto Katie’s arm. Closing her diary, she kissed him. The girls hooted.
The girl nearest me wore a figure-clinging black miniskirt with an African-print cloth wrapped around her head. She winked at me.
I winked back.
They regrouped at my window, calling across to Ivan. “Hey, mister! You buy nice bangle. Make happy your wife.”
Lou half-turned to face her husband, but the girls had linked Ivan with me. The red-beret girl wagged her finger. “You very bad husband. Why you no buy?”
“You very bad husband,” I told Ivan.
The girls laughed. “You make him buy, madam. He buy you silver bangle like good man here.”
Ray stared at his book. Morris laughed. Katie kissed him again. The girls whooped.
Ivan opened out his pockets. “Look, I no money. I very poor man.”
I nodded solemnly. “He very poor husband.”
“You buy one very nice bangle. Else wife run away with better man.” The girls drew back, as if amazed at their own temerity. They stared at me and then collapsed into fits of laughter, clutching each other and hopping about as if the tarmac scorched the soles of their feet.
“You speak very true,” I said.
Reaching across me, the girls dangled the bracelets before Ivan. “Buy! Buy! Buy!”
Ivan shook his head. “But I no money.”
“I give you good price.”
They quoted the figure Morris had paid.
Ivan quoted back one-tenth of the price. “I very poor man.”
The girls howled with laughter. They offered half of their original figure. “See, mister, very fine silver.”
Ivan doubled his offer. It was still less than a dollar for what they claimed was solid silver.
Ray raised his head from his book. “Don’t tease them, unless you actually want their tat.”
“It’s a game,” I said. “They’re enjoying it. You’re supposed to bargain.”
To prove my point, the girls doubled up with laughter. It would have made a great photo. But if I reached for my camera the moment would be lost.
“Okay, my final offer.” Now they offered three bangles for what Morris had paid for one.
“But I don’t need three,” said Ivan.
A girl with a Nike T-shirt pulled tight across her small breasts grabbed my arm. She pointed to my wrist, to my elbow, my upper arm. “One. One. One.”
A short girl with hair in cornrows nudged her. “No.” She pointed to me, then Katie, then Lou. “One. One. One.”
Another roar of laughter. “You three wives. You very rich man.”
Ivan raised his eyebrows.
The headwrap girl cleared her throat. She pointed to herself, the Nike girl and the cornrow girl. “One. One. One.”
I gasped dramatically. “You want he take three more wives?”
Rather than laughing, the girls glanced over their shoulders. I looked beyond them as Alphonse and our driver approached.
The red-beret girl pointed to herself and to each of her friends in turn. “One. One. One. One. One. One. One. My final offer.”
“Have I missed something?” said Ivan. “It started at one, went up to three, and now she wants me to take six.”
“Seven,” I said.
The red-beret girl scowled. “One me. One her. One everybody. My final offer.”
Her friends stepped back as Alphonse and the driver climbed into the front seats, but the red-beret girl kept her hands on the door frame.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” said Alphonse. “It took longer than I expected.”
“There isn’t a problem with our permits, I hope?” said Ray.
“Don’t worry, everything’s in order,” said Alphonse. “I see you’ve been shopping. Are you finished or shall we hang on a little longer?”
“To be honest,” said Ivan, “I don’t know.”
“No joking now,” the red-beret girl snarled. “Buy one everybody, we go home, we eat dinner.”
“He’d bargained them down to a really good price,” Lou explained, “and then it went pear-shaped.”
“I don’t want seven bangles,” said Ivan.
“How many do you want?” said Alphonse.
“It was just a bit of fun,” I said. “Passing the time.”
“For photo,” said the red-beret girl. “You buy us.”
“Shall I speak to her?” said Alphonse.
“Maybe we should get going,” said Lou. “We’ve lost enough time already.”
The driver fired the engine.
“You and Morris had better close your windows,” said Ray. “Or the air-conditioning won’t work.”
The red-beret girl stepped away, but she kept her hands on the door frame. “You buy us. For eat. For clothes.” She stroked her belly. “For baby.”
“She’s persistent if nothing else,” said Ivan.
“I suppose you’d have to be in a place like this,” said Ray.
“Ready?” said Alphonse.
As I wound up the window, the red-beret girl’s hands remained hooked over the tinted glass. She glared at me with none of the happy-go-lucky air that had charmed me earlier. For baby, she’d said. She didn’t look old enough.
“Ready,” said Ray.
As we moved off, I imagined the girl being dragged along, her fingers trapped between the window and the door frame. When she let go, stepped back, and joined her friends on the corner, it seemed a reprieve. More for me than for her.
“Let’s hope the next lot’s more generous,” said Ray.
Did he have to rub it in? But Alphonse would be more forgiving. I called his name. But when he turned around, I felt too ashamed to ask when the next flight was due into the tiny airport. Instead I asked how far it was to the reserve.
“A couple of hours. Are you tired?”
When, about midway, we stopped to botanize a rare kalanchoe, I stayed with the jeep, taking the opportunity to move Ray’s book to the middle seat. For the rest of the holiday I’d make sure someone sat between Ivan and me. Our comedy double-act had lost its appeal.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Amarillo Bay.
Anne Goodwin’s debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, was published in May 2017. Her short story collection, Becoming Someone, on the theme of identity, was published in November 2018. A former clinical psychologist, Anne is also a book blogger with a special interest in fictional therapists. Her website: https://annegoodwin.weebly.com. Her Twitter: @Annecdotist.