The plank snapped and Allan fell off into the rancid mud, where his legs sank in up to his knees. He leaned forward stretching towards the solid ground and grabbed hold of a mango tree root. As he pulled himself onto the path his left foot slid out of his running shoe, which was stuck fast by the suction of the sludge. A murky effluent oozed into the vacant holes, and air bubbles gurgled up through the slime as if his trainer was whimpering for help before it was drowned in the stagnant swamp.
He sat down and laughed. Perhaps this fall was a sign, like some ominous warning of how every step from now on would be just as precarious. So what, he wasn’t superstitious. Not like Mai Ling who would chide him with; “disaster follow disaster”, but she was not here, unfortunately.
Was it really so long ago when they had held each other and kissed? Six months gone since he had smelled the fresh jasmine from her hair as it waved softly over his cheek. She had held him tight, and repeatedly said that he must write every day.
‘Bugger,’ he shouted, ‘are you twats coming or not?’ He stood up and took off his remaining Adidas trainer, and holding it by the laces swung it around a few times. He let it go and watched it fly over a clump of bull reeds, and momentarily he heard a splash. A grey crane appeared from behind the rushes and silently glided above his head. It flapped its wide wings to gain height above the mango bushes, and he watched as it travelled on towards the sea. The bird seemed to float effortless through the air with the elegance he had observed in Mai Ling during her morning ritual of Tai Chi.
In his socks, he hopped and tiptoed along the dirt path avoiding the exposed roots, sharp stones and the broken shells of land crabs. His chinos were wet and soiled with the swamp detritus that stank of the putrid odour of decaying vegetation. He had laundered them earlier that morning, now seemingly a waste of time and a reminder of all things pointless.
Only yesterday he had discovered this shortcut through the swamp leading to Ma Blake’s bar. It was an isolated stilted shack of weathered wood with a rusted tin roof covered in a splattering of guano from passing frigate birds.
After a few steps he turned and looked back along the path. ‘Come on, hurry up,’ he screamed and waved a V sign.
‘Hang on,’ bellowed Caz as he helped Nick drag an abandoned pallet from the roadside. They swung it back and forth twice to gain momentum before dropping it into the ditch.
‘This place stinks to hell,’ mumbled Caz and he wiped his hands on the back of Nick’s T-shirt, who turned and punched him on his shoulder.
One at a time, they leapt over the mire using the pallet as a stepping point and ran to catch up with Allan on the path.
‘What a shit hole,’ said Caz and he grabbed hold of Allan’s arm. ‘Are you sure she’ll be here?’
Allan shrugged him off. ‘I couldn’t care less,’ he said and grinned. ‘There’ll be rum.’ He tugged at his earlobe as his internal voice mimicked; “no, no, you not drink”, a reverberation from Mai Ling. She was as compassionate as the red lotus, and always guiding him through meditation towards a fulfilling life, and away from addictive influences. Where is she now?
A pair of mongrel bitches, their teats flapping under them, came running and stopped to guard the top of the slope. They wrinkled back their snouts and with bared teeth growled and barked.
‘Hell!’ Caz dashed back a few paces.
‘Easy, easy,’ shouted a young girl from an upstairs window. ‘Down Sissy…down…in the den.’ The dogs wagged their tails, and sniffed at Allan’s trousers a few times before they retreated out of the late afternoon glare. They slouched down under the shade of the shack, and a group of pups crawled over them seeking sustenance.
Caz gave Nick a nudge. ‘Is that her?’ he whispered looking up at the girl.
‘Come yez den.’ The girl called to them and leaned out of the window. ‘Yez want food.’ Her perk breasts pushed against her dress and her nipples were pronounced through the faded cotton.
‘Go inside’ she shouted at them and ducked back into the room.
‘It’s this way.’ Allan led them to a side door.
Caz slapped Nick’s bottom. ‘Who calls dogs Sissy?’ he said, ‘a stupid name for dogs.’
The darkness of the bar’s interior blinded them and they jostled each other inside the doorway. For a moment they remained still, letting their eyes become partially accustomed to the dimness before feeling their way along the wall and stumbling into the furniture. They pulled out the chairs and sat down. A soft shuffling came towards them, and someone thumped a plastic bowl of ice onto the table. They jerked back in their seats and stared up at the silhouette of a rotund woman.
She shouted, ‘hey Jez man, open de shutter, dem boys here as blind as ma arse.’ She gave a screeching laugh.
A shutter was opened at the end of the room, and in the flood of daylight they clearly saw Ma Blake. Her skin gleamed like polished ebony on her Caucasian features and the crow’s feet around her eyes were rumpled by her wide grin. Using her hand she wiped some moisture from her face and then dried it through her head of short curly hair.
‘Rice, beans an chicken or cow foot soup, and cola, yez wan cola?’ She continued to chuckle.
‘Rum and coke,’ said Allan. ‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Man, there’s swampy smell by yez.’ She cocked her head and stared at Allan.
‘Just Belikin for us.’ Caz pointed at Nick.
‘No Belikin,’ she said.
Caz shrugged. ‘Okay, two rum with cola.’
Music burst out loud in the room.
‘Hey, Jez man,’ she shouted and moved off towards the bar. The music was turned down just as the chorus started.
‘You’d think they’d have beer,’ said Caz, ‘we should’ve gone down the Belle Vue.’ He tapped Nick on the shoulder, and he nodded.
Ma Blake brought them the cola and wiped the dust off the bottle tops, she then pulled the cork from an encrusted bottle of rum. ‘Now you boys drink slow, listen good now.’ She glared at them waiting for a response.
‘I has emptied the washer, cause there’s some clothes need a washing.’ She poked Allan in the arm. ‘Yez should no come through de swamp, dem fever is bad.’
She poked him again and then headed back to the bar and on through to the kitchen.
Allan picked up the bottle and felt the rough barnacles bite into his hand as he poured the dark liquid into the glasses. “No, no, you must no drink” Mai Ling’s voice pleaded in his mind. He smiled, added some cola and reached towards the plastic bowl, but hesitated because once before he had discovered beetles and pieces of weeds frozen amongst the crushed ice. He changed his mind.
He took a large gulp and burst into a gasping fit. ‘Hell, this is the dog’s bollocks.’ He grinned, as the eighty-degree proof scorched his oesophagus and sent a warm flush around his stomach. An immediate rush of blood eased the tightness of his muscles, and he relaxed back into his chair. “You no get so happy”; ah, Mai Ling, who do I love?
The first mouthful was always the best; it evaporated his guilt, drowned his anxiety, fed his cravings and justified his addiction to the pirate’s curse. Who could care if it contained fifty known poisons and others that science had yet to identify. Ma Blake’s One-Barrel-Rum was an elixir that made him feel alive, amorous and invincible. “You no go mad… please,” Mai Ling’s concerned voice was beginning to fade. The taste of rum with its anaesthetic effect cushioned his thoughts, yet he so much wanted to be in her arms and stroke her face. What would she be doing now? Where did she sleep at night?
Caz emptied his rum into the plastic bowl. ‘I can’t drink this crap.’ He poured some cola into his glass and stood the bottle in amongst the ice.
The girl from the upstairs window strolled into the bar and they stared, watching her every move. She wore a short tight skirt and a glittering top. Her long black hair was tied in a ponytail and hung forward over her left shoulder. She smiled towards Jez, who turned the reggae music up, slightly. Oscillating her arms, she performed a dance across the floor swaying her hips above her bare thighs. She puckered a kiss as she reached them.
Nick looked away and grabbed for his cola.
‘Hola! Allan,’ she said and stood behind him. She began to massage his shoulders. ‘Ma says I should take you out back and get your pants washed.’ She kissed the back of his head.
He reached up and took hold of her hand. ‘You’d love that –‘
Ma shouted, ‘hey Carmen stop yez fooling and bring him out here.’ She waved some clothes in the air.
Caz sat forward and smiled to get attention. Nick thumped him on his leg under the table.
She pulled Allan by his hand and led him towards the kitchen. Mai Ling voiced, “no big ideas.”
From behind the bar, Ma threw him a pair of cotton shorts and a shirt. ‘Yez should no take the swamp path, it smells bad.’
In the washroom, Carmen loaded powder into the machine and turned to watch him undress. She came over and helped him off with his T-shirt; she rubbed his shoulders and slipped her hand down over his biceps.
‘Yez want to come upstairs?’
She stroked along his body and down towards his buttocks.
‘Carmen, I….’ he mumbled.
Their noses touched and he was engulfed in her close musky aura; a release of testosterone pulsated around his groin and his breathing became irregular and rapid.
She brushed her cheek over his. ‘I does special for yez,’ she whispered and flicked his ear with her tongue. ‘Only fifty five dollars.’
Instinctively his urge for some warm female comfort rushed up his body, but Mai Ling raged in his mind, “no getting so hot.” He eased Carmen’s hands off and stood back from her. ‘Oh Carmen.’ he said, ‘you know I can’t.’ He grabbed the clothes and pulled on the shorts and shirt.
Carmen smiled. ‘Yez need more rum … first.’ She laughed and gathering up his chinos and T-shirt into the washer. ‘Dem flip-flops over there are for yez.’ She pointed.
Back in the bar he sat at the table. Caz and Nick had gone. He poured and drunk two glasses of rum in quick succession.
Ma came across with a mosquito coil and tried to light it. ‘Dem boys no good, what dem say about Carmen.’ She shook her lighter. ‘Dem gone, cause dem wan beer.’ She tried clicking the lighter again. ‘Jez, he give dem a run to town.’
He took a large swig of rum, coughed and spluttered sending some of it across the table. Ma’s lighter sparked and ignited the alcoholic fumes. She dashed her cloth over the blue flames and wiped the table. ‘Yez should no drink rum,’ she said and lit the coil. ‘Capt Blake’s is no good for you.’ She picked up the bottle and took it back to the bar.
Anyone and everyone told him not to drink the rum. Who cares, but if you sip it slow it soothes the mind. He leaned back and let it swill around in his mouth. Even the ugly pirate in the painting on the wall knew about addiction to this fermented liquid. He smiled back at the fixating eyes of the buccaneer and silently toasted him for plundering the Royal Fortune and its cargo of One Barrel, so many years ago. Carmen’s great, great relation of sorts, she had said, and who had been hanged at Tyburn for his Caribbean swashbuckling.
The daylight dimmed and Carmen shuffled around lighting the oil lamps on the bar. He watched as she closed the shutters, and then changed the music to a hypnotic sound of steel drums. She picked up a bottle along with a plate of cut limes, and swirled her hips as she danced over and sat next to him.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘Ma says no more rum.’ She poured some tequila into a glass, drunk it up in one, and then sucked on a lime wedge. ‘Yez wanna to try some.’
Allan felt the heat of the tequila rush down to his stomach and mix with the rum. He grabbed up a lime and sucked at the acerbic juice to lessen the harsh taste of the liquor. Smoke from the coil spiralled around them and his heart pulse slowed in time with the rhythmic beats from the music. He closed his eyes and remembered the crane gliding away over the trees, disappearing far out over the sea.
Carmen rubbed her hand up and down his thigh.
He clasped her wrist and lifted it up to his face. Her skin was soft against his cheek and the perfume smelled of sweet jasmine.
She smiled and leaned in close. ‘Yez feeling warm?’ She snuggled her nose against his ear.
In the deep mango forests of Belize,
Amongst the ancient mighty Mayan ruin.
In a temptress trap full of love’s disease,
With tequila’s heat and full voodoo moon.
Carmen’s beauty masks the mosquito’s bite.