Click below for earlier sections of the novel –
Flic hadn’t been able to sleep once they’d returned to the hotel late that night. She knew that this was what Daniel had warned her about. Her body clock was completely off-kilter, but sleep had just been too tempting that afternoon.
After a few sleepless hours, she padded quietly out into the hotel corridor, not wanting to wake her roommates. She turned her mobile phone over and over in her hand, unsure who exactly she was planning on ringing. She needed to talk to someone. To tell somebody about the tour, and her new team-mates. But then reality hit. There was no one. Ally had stopped taking her calls weeks ago, and she couldn’t even ring Amelia’s answer-phone, just for the brief sound of her mother’s voice, because the phone company had cut the phone-line off before she’d left England.
She sighed, and walked back into the quiet bedroom without even switching the phone back on. She slipped it back into her rucksack. Her first reflections of the tour were going to have to wait.
* * *
Flic looked down at the orange t-shirt in her hands and smiled tiredly. ‘Flicker?’ she read, raising an eyebrow.
‘I thought it had a nice ring to it!’ Damo replied with an enthusiasm that defied their early wake-up. The group was standing on Cairns pier, about to embark on their first challenge of the tour, five nights on a live-aboard boat, scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
The tour guide stared around at the quiet travellers. ‘You know, you guys are rather green! Haven’t you Discover Australia’s official colour is orange? It’s a good thing you’ve got those shirts, heh?’ He motioned towards the boat, ‘Now, if you could just find your sea legs …’ he frowned at the unresponsive teenagers, ‘or maybe just your legs, and jump aboard, it’s time to set sail for the good ship Discovery! And yes, she is actually called that!’
No one moved. Flic couldn’t help thinking that the others looked more scared than hung-over. The idea of being scared of the sea really surprised Flic. She’d never had a problem with water. Still, she wasn’t prepared to draw attention to herself and be the first to jump on board.
Instead, Mark was the one to eventually make the first move. As he walked determinedly down the jetty and threw his day-sack onto the boat, Flic couldn’t help grinning. It was obvious who would become the ‘daddy’ of the group. Mark was a natural leader, but with the compassion and approachability of a parent. As a silent show of support, Flic followed Jules, who had trudged after her boyfriend, onto the boat.
As Flic waited for the rest of the group to leave the jetty, she felt a warm hand at the base of her spine. She spun around to find Toby standing awkwardly behind him. Despite the overly friendly hand holding, she barely remembered speaking to him the night before. ‘Hi … um, I just wanted to say … uh … Morning!’
She eyed him curiously. ‘Morning…?’ She replied.
Toby shrugged at his own awkwardness, and then laughed self-consciously.
‘You know, I was wondering what Flic was short for!’ He commented eventually, gesturing down at the t-shirt in her hands. ‘Flicker’ he grinned playfully, a smile, which lit his entire face.
‘Um, it’s not …’ she stumbled, realising too late that he was joking. He casually batted the awkwardness from the air with the back of his hand.
‘So, you’ve got your Open Water too, eh?’
Damo had explained that while most of the group would be learning to scuba dive, Flic, Toby and Daniel, who had all completed the basic course before, would be using the week to gain their advanced qualification.
Flic relaxed a little bit, glad for something concrete to talk about. ‘Yeah, for some reason my Mum insisted I learn when I was at school. She was definitely into alternative hobbies!’
Toby grinned. ‘Sounds pretty familiar – it was my Dad who insisted I learn. I think he had some madcap plan about diving with me and my brother in English quarries, but thankfully we never had to get that cold! The farthest we ever got was the local pool!’
Their conversation was interrupted by Isabella’s shrill voice. She and Ant were the only members of the group still on the jetty. ‘I really don’t see what the big problem is! If it scares you that much, then don’t do it!’
Ant clearly didn’t want the rest of the group involved in their argument, and muttered through clamped lips ‘You don’t understand … this is the first challenge. I can’t back out now, I’d never get it back!’
Isabella either didn’t register his tone of voice, or chose not to. ‘Anthony, not everything in life is a competition. If you’re that scared, don’t dive! I’m not exactly enthralled by the idea of breathing under water either, but we can get out any time.’
Anthony didn’t reply. He stomped onto the dive boat, leaving his cousin floundering behind him with all her luggage.
‘Maybe it’s a good thing my brother isn’t here,’ smiled Toby. ‘It seems we’re gonna have our fair share of domestics already!’
‘Do you not get on?’ asked Flic, as the engine whirred into action.
‘Not really.’ Toby shrugged. ‘I guess we’re just too similar. As long as I can remember, life has always been a competition …’
Flic nodded over at Ant, ‘Sounds familiar! But, why do you think he left the tour? I mean, if life’s a competition, then surely he’d need to prove he can do the extreme sports too?’
Toby shrugged. ‘I dunno, maybe sometimes not trying is better than the prospect of losing …’
Flic bit her lip, still uncomfortable for some reason. It just seemed such a waste of an opportunity. ‘How can you win or lose at scuba diving?’
Toby smiled wryly. ‘He’d probably find a way. The reason he’s not here is that he met this girl. We stopped over in Thailand for Full Moon Party on our way out here, and he met her on the beach. When she showed an interest in him rather than me, you should’ve seen his face. It was like he’d won some game! After that I barely saw him. Within three days he’d booked a flight to South Africa, and I was left to explain it all to Dad… Family, huh?’ he shrugged.
Flic tried not to wince at the mention of ‘F’ word. She wasn’t going to spoil this moment by thinking about Amelia … not now. She stared over at Toby shyly, and concentrated on the unfamiliar summersaults her stomach seemed to do every time he focussed his attention on her. They’d been talking about nothing of real importance, and yet she felt an overwhelming sense that she was making progress with him. Progress towards what?
‘Hey buddies!’ Daniel interrupted. “Geddit? … BUDDYs!’
Flic raised an eyebrow at his lame diving joke, not sure whether she was glad for the intrusion. She shook herself, trying to reconcile the thoughts and feelings, which had begun to race around her stagnant heart and mind all of a sudden. She was still such a mess of emotion. She knew it. One minute she felt empty, void of all feeling, as if Amelia’s death and Ally’s departure had exhausted all her possible stores. And the next she was lusting over not one, but two guys. She was clearly just desperate to feel wanted again.
Daniel launched into a conversation with Toby about cars, to which she was clearly meant to be playing the role of audience. Flic tuned out and simply observed the boys, realising, as she looked from one to the other, that no matter how messed up her emotions were, it was nice to not be comparing someone to Ally!
Toby was undoubtedly attractive. Something about his shaggy brown hair and relaxed gait felt so familiar, but perhaps she was just confusing familiarity with approachability. His good looks were rawer than Daniel’s. He was rugged rather than chiselled, his masculinity in his rough hands and carefree stubble. In total contrast to Daniel’s cool grey eyes, Toby’s eyes were so frenzied and warm they could have been dancing, deep chocolate brown infused with a lively orange-red that had an energy of its own.
Staring at Toby, Flic tried to picture what his younger brother Max might look like. She wondered if they were really as similar as Toby made out. Was Max’s resentment linked to his older brother’s good looks and easy nature?
It wasn’t the only time that first day that Flic’s thoughts strayed to Toby’s absent brother. Shortly after Daniel interrupted her conversation with Toby, Jake joined them. His approach couldn’t have contrasted any more starkly with Daniel’s confident introduction. Jake held himself awkwardly, like an animal ready to bolt at any time, and his face strained nervously as if he were forcing himself to socialise.
Standing beside Daniel and Toby, Jake looked no more than twelve, though Flic remembered the twins saying they were twenty. The most interesting part of their interaction was the way Toby put Jake so clearly at ease. She wondered how Max could have fled from such an agreeable older brother.
For some reason, it really bothered Flic that Max wasn’t there. Maybe it was that she’d never enjoyed the companionship of a sibling, and was angered that Max had abandoned his brother so easily … Or perhaps that he’d defied his father’s intentions? Flic couldn’t imagine ever going against Amelia’s wishes, no matter how out of place she felt on the trip. Whatever her reasons for feeling it, Max was missing, and no matter how happy she was to be joined by Daniel on the tour, a weird sense of incompletion hung in the air.
The launch pulled up alongside a large live-aboard ship, and Damo assigned their cabins. Mark with Jules, Isabella with Anthony, Daniel with Toby, Jake with Luke, and Flic with Camilla.
Flic grabbed her day-sack, and stared quizzically at the suitcase Camilla was attempting to carry onto the live-aboard. Or rather, the suitcase she clearly hoped someone else would carry for her! Flic sighed. She had a distinct feeling she wasn’t going to get on with Camilla. And it didn’t help that Camilla was basically a perfect version of Flic! Her brown hair was longer and straighter, her waist smaller, and her smile wider. The list of comparatives was endless.
As if those differences weren’t enough, the fact that Daniel hung off Camilla’s every word, didn’t help endear her to Flic. It wasn’t that she was jealous! She wasn’t even sure what she wanted to happen with Daniel… It was just that she at least saw him as an option, and she didn’t like prissy spoilt brats limiting those options before she’d even had a chance to think about them! God, she sounded jealous! She frowned to herself. Whatever the reasons for her annoyance, she needed to get over them, and quickly! Because, for at least the next four nights, that prissy spoilt brat was going to be her prissy spoilt roommate!
Flic watched Camilla struggle for a few moments, and then resigned herself to faking a smile and helping with the suitcase. Just as she went to help, an everyday knight in shining armour appeared. Flic watched on jealously as Daniel helped Camilla, and felt familiar insecurities surfacing. How could she have seriously believed someone like Daniel would have any interest in her? Her mind rushed back to the twenty-four hours they’d spent together travelling to Cairns. Had she misinterpreted everything? Had she just been making a fool of herself? Her cheeks burnt as she remembered curling up in his lap in Bangkok airport. She cringed, charred by the memories of her ridiculous attempts to flirt whilst wearing clothes that she wouldn’t even normally have worn to the gym. What had she been thinking?
She’d been lucky to have a guy like Ally so much as look at her, let alone waste three years of his life with her! After monopolising so much of his perfect life, how could she ever expect to find someone again? Flukes like that don’t happen everyday!
‘And here I was thinking the first challenge was scuba diving, not carrying your own luggage!’ Flic whipped around to find Jules at her shoulder, her eyes gleaming with sarcasm as she watched Camilla handing over her luggage to Daniel. Flic remembered why she’d liked this girl immediately!
‘I think my challenge is gonna be the living arrangements for the next five days’, Flic muttered under her breath.
‘Yeah I heard about that. I don’t envy you! I was suddenly very glad to be travelling with Mark!’
Jules checked over her shoulder suddenly. ‘Can I ask you something?’ she asked quietly ‘Is it true you met Daniel on the plane over?’
Flic flushed various shades of red, wondering exactly what Daniel had told the others after she’d left the pub the night before.
Jules didn’t seem to notice her embarrassment. ‘What a hottie! Why do I never get to sit next to anyone that fit on a flight?! … Apart from Mark, obviously’ she winked as an afterthought. ‘So … what’s happening?!’ she pressed.
Flic just shrugged in response, but Jules was unrelenting.
‘Ok, ok, nothing, well, almost nothing happened … nothing can happen!’ she finally resolved, ‘It’s too soon …’
Jules raised her eyebrows, a silent request for the rest of the story.
‘We need to go to our rooms!’ Flic said, nodding over to the live-aboard where Damo was waiting impatiently.
‘Ok, ok, but I expect to hear the full story soon! Very soon! And I warn you, I have a very good memory!’
Flic smiled in reply, surprised that the idea of chatting about it was actually almost appealing.
They barely had time to unpack before class began. Those who hadn’t dived before would have two full days of theory and practice before they were allowed into the open water. Meanwhile, Dan, Toby and Flic met up on the deck to discuss their adventure dive options, and kit up for a refresher dive.
Flic grinned as the boys pulled on stinger suits, a necessity during jellyfish season. They looked like the heroes of a space-age science-fiction movie! She took in every muscle that the blue lycra clung to, and grinned to herself until she realised how unflattering the suit was going to be on her less-than-perfect figure. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, she hurriedly clipped on her BCD, a large inflatable jacket, hoping it would cover some of her flaws.
‘Ready guys?’ their instructor Dillon asked. ‘Flic and Daniel, you two buddy up. Toby, I’ll go with you. Now, does everyone remember the signs?’ He ran through the various underwater dive signs, reminded them how to equalise, and ran through emergency procedures. ‘So, if you lose your buddy, what do you need to do?’ he asked.
Daniel smiled confidently, ‘Swim around for a minute, and then if you still can’t find him, do a safety stop, and find each other on the surface.’
‘Perfect!’ grinned the dive instructor. ‘Let’s go check out the reef!’
After a few tentative breaths through the regulator, Flic was confident enough to step over the edge of the boat and into the warm water. As she and Daniel submerged together, her excited breathing gradually slowed, and she took in her surroundings, awed by the clarity of the water. The reach of the bright sunshine seemed endless, though the deeper she got, the more bleached the colours became. Beneath them coral of all shapes and colours carpeted the seabed, a whole new world. Bright yellow boulders of coral were nestled between rubbery green and blue showerheads. Delicate deer antlers crept out from shaggy purple wigs swaying in the current. Creatures of all different sizes flitted around the colourful adventure playground beneath her. Cleaning fish played tag with their hosts, clown fish played hide and seek in the anemones, and nudibranchs played colourful games of musical statues. If she hadn’t been concentrating so much on her breathing then the beauty of it all would have left her breathless.
And then there was her buddy. The light had changed his olive skin, draining the tanned colour from his chiselled features so that he seemed carved from silver, or maybe stone. A living, breathing statue! What was that Greek god of the sea called? Neptune? Poseidon? Though Daniel’s movements could hardly be deemed divine! He seemed almost too heavy for the water. However, his lack of agility didn’t seem to faze him. He was almost accustomed to it, strange for someone so definite in his moves on the surface.
Flic turned her head to watch Toby, who was hovering above an anemone a few metres away from her, transfixed by a family of clown fish. He knew what he was doing, but appeared unbelievably awkward. It was almost as if the water burnt him, he moved so gingerly. And yet, surrounded by the warm water, Flic found nothing but ease. Air burbled around her ears, a hypnotic rhythm. She twisted onto her back, water rushing through her hair and whipping it like dark flames around her face. Playfully she blew through the regulator, watching bubbles of her breath rise up towards the chilled sun.
Daniel tugged at her fin, his arm across his chest, his fist clenched. ‘I’m low on air, 50 bar.’ Flic caught Dillon and Toby’s attention, and then together they swam to the shallower water, resting at five metres beneath the boat for the requisite three minutes. Safety stop complete, they surfaced, inflating their BCDs around their chests. Flic pulled the mask from her face, beaming at her companions. Their faces showed only relief, though weirdly Daniel’s skin had yet to return to its olive complexion. She had assumed the silver grey tone was a trick of the light. Toby still looked uncomfortable, obviously one refresher dive wasn’t enough to restore his confidence. There was a lot to take in, and over the next few days they’d be diving in darkness, swimming through the narrow corridors of a wreck, and diving down to thirty metres below sea level – maybe Flic was the one wearing the wrong facial expression! But, even considering the challenges she would soon be facing, all she could do was grin. For the first time in months, she truly felt truly herself, and she was buzzing!
Flic swam over to the boat, gracefully slipping off her weight belt and passing it up to the deckhand with the rest of her gear. ‘Would you mind if I hang onto this for a sec?’ she asked, motioning to her mask. She pulled herself lithely from the water, and then, no longer caring how she looked in the unflattering lycra, dived straight back into the water, right over the heads of the two waiting boys. Grinning, she pulled herself through the water, feeling more awake with every stroke. She took a deep breath and dived down again, driving herself deeper and deeper into the turquoise ocean. She didn’t know what she was aiming for until she reached it, and then suddenly it was as if everything made sense. Calm and satisfaction flooded through her as she watched the turtle flap casually around her, his slow precise movements silently stating his age and knowledge. Flic hovered timelessly at his side, calmed by his ancient grace. Eventually the air in her lungs burned, urging her upwards. She spun silently; turning on an invisible axis, and with three strong kicks was back at the surface. The boys stared down curiously at her from the deck, yet she chose not to explain what she’d been up to. Something about that moment had been too private, only meant for her.
As she climbed up the ladder and back onto the boat, she eyed the boys curiously. They no longer looked like untouchable superheroes. In fact, they actually reminded her of a circus act! The comparison was far from comical. All of a sudden, they just looked disconcertingly vulnerable.
Back in her room, Flic unzipped her make-up bag for the first time in weeks, realising the significance of what she was doing.
When Ally had first broken up with her, everything had burned. It was as if there was permanently bile in her throat, preventing her from thinking about anything beyond her pain. Like her spurned heart had spontaneously combusted within her chest the minute he had removed his love. She had barely functioned, still reeling from the loss of Amelia. Ally was meant to be her rock; and then he too had been washed away.
And yet, suddenly, two months on, it was as if something had changed. It was more than her eyes that were suddenly registering the objects of beauty around her. For the first time in weeks it was as if her heart was actually beating again. Perhaps duller than it once had, shrouded in the scar tissue of heartbreak, but definitely beating. Blood rushed to her cheeks, a healthy glow to compliment the bronzer she now swept over them. But it wasn’t just lust that was thawing her heart, it was comfort. For the first time in weeks, she felt happy. Here on the water, in this arid desert of a country, as far away from Britain as she could get, she felt at home.
She heard voices in the corridor outside her cabin. The others had finished their day of theory lessons, which meant it would soon be time for dinner with her new ‘family’. Camilla swept into the room, a haze of perfume and silk, and not wanting anything to spoil her unexpectedly buoyant mood, Flic dashed out through the cabin door before it had even closed.
The cold of the night shocked her, and she touched the back of her hand to her cheek, wondering why she was so warm. She felt almost feverish, burning with this unfamiliar sense of purpose and hope. She shivered, maybe she was just getting overemotional, or coming down with something. She was yet to sleep through an entire Australian night, waking at frequent intervals, overheated and with a sense that her dreams had jolted her awake, but unable to remember anything about them. She assumed this was jet-lag, but whatever it was, she didn’t feel quite right. She hugged her arms around herself.
‘Cold?’ came a musical voice behind her.
‘I thought Australia was meant to be hot!’ she smiled, turning to face Daniel, his dark hair still wet from a shower.
‘Here’, he shrugged off the navy sweatshirt he was wearing. ‘Wear this, I’m not really that cold anyway.’
Flic smiled in thanks, and engulfed herself in the huge jumper, breathing in the metallic fragrance of Daniel’s aftershave.
‘So, someone played down their dive experience this morning!’ Daniel exclaimed, his dark brows raised in amusement.
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s no way you’ve only done four dives before! You were like a fish! Well, a fish carrying an aluminium tank!’
‘I dunno, I just felt so comfortable! I can’t get over how warm the water was! But I don’t think I was any better than you or Toby. Maybe it’s just because I’m smaller, it probably helps with the buoyancy.’ She shrugged awkwardly.
Daniel grinned, ‘Accept the compliment Felicity-Flic! Whatever you say, I felt like I was holding you back this afternoon, and I reckon Toby’s a lot closer to my ability. Tomorrow you should buddy up with Dillon. That way when we come to do the wreck and stuff you can really enjoy it.’
Despite the light tone of his voice, Flic could sense he was unmoving on the subject. Perhaps she ought to just be flattered and accept.
The discussion was put to an end by the call to dinner. As the others arrived, Flic noticed how stressed and tired they all seemed, and Jules shot Flic a look to suggest she had some stories to tell. While the thought of adventure diving really excited Flic, she couldn’t help feeling sad that she wasn’t spending her first few days with the rest of the group. A glance at Camilla, however, suggested that she wasn’t the only one who felt she was missing out on company. The tanned Australian was staring longingly over at Daniel. Flic wondered how Camilla was dealing with the fact that Flic was not only spending the next three days with the two most eligible guys on the trip, but also blatantly wearing Daniel’s jumper!
Flic snuggled smugly into the brushed cotton. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a weird look from Toby that left her cold. He looked … in pain? Hurriedly, she pulled the hood of the jumper up around her face, and busied herself scooping strands of wayward spaghetti onto her plate.
© C-C Lester 2009