by Hannah Wright
The backpack cost £250, which was the most amount of money Claire had ever spent on something so practical. She’d forked out £100 on a pair of shoes before and even £150 on a particularly nice bag, which had only enough space to fit a small purse and a solitary lipstick. This backpack could almost have been big enough to fit her entire body inside if it hadn’t been for the extra pounds she had gained eating nothing but pizza and burritos and watching episode after episode of Brooklyn 99 on Netflix. As the shop assistant had lowered it down from where it hung on the shop wall, the morbid thought had occurred to her that if she were to die on her travels, at the very least they could stuff her inside and bury her like that.
The porter awkwardly half-carried and half-dragged the backpack along the evenly-sized paving stones as she followed behind him. The hotel had offered luxury at a cut-price rate because it was the end of the rainy season and the fat droplets fell from the palm fronds above and splattered onto her head and the mac-in-a-sack she’d donned after exiting the air-con arid airport. They passed only one other obviously occupied bungalow, where two young women sat talking and smoking on the decking outside. At the door to her own bungalow, the porter dropped her bag with undisguised relief and left it slumped against the wooden structure, hastily dropping the key into her hand before retreating back down the path.
Opening the door with the single small key, she dragged the backpack the final metres inside and left it in the middle of the cool stone floor. The room was simply furnished but the space was large and the view of the palm trees and the beach in the distance through the large sliding doors made it feel opulent and exotic. The Jungle Bungalows stood as 9 beach huts facing towards the sea but spaced out enough so that each one felt as though they were inhabiting their own paradise. Something between terror and excitement rippled through Claire’s body as she sat abruptly on the soft king-sized bed. She felt lost: this was as far as she had planned. Four months in Thailand lay waiting ahead of her, ready to be filled with things she couldn’t properly imagine. It was the first time she had ever travelled alone.
“Four months in Thailand lay waiting ahead of her, ready to be filled with things she couldn’t properly imagine. It was the first time she had ever travelled alone.”
She listened to the rhythmic patter of raindrops on the bungalow roof and the distant laughter of her neighbours. One laugh was strangely sibilant, snaking its way to a high pitched climax that then tapered off down the octave to its lowest note. In comparison, her friend’s laugh was brief and barking. Together they sounded like an odd animal exhibit at the zoo.
In response to these sounds of carefree happiness, a tightness crept over her like an unwelcome embrace and she shut her eyes and drew in a slow, shallow breath. She looked down at her bag for a familiar distraction and fished her tablet from one of the many zipped compartments. She tapped her passcode into the touchscreen and the apps and icons flooded in as expectant little tiles. She thought about emailing home to tell someone she had arrived but the flashing cursor in the ‘to’ section of the new message box sat empty and she didn’t know who she should be writing to. She threw the tablet down on the bed and instead pulled a bottle of vodka from the bag, purchased the day before in Duty Free.
The immaculately clean bathroom had a tumbler sitting on a glass shelf below a mirror and she pulled off a little protective cardboard circle and poured a measure of vodka inside. And another for luck.
The splash of liquid and the sharp scent of alcohol was enough to momentarily quell the rolling currents of anxiety. It was a crutch she used sparingly, too afraid to see what would happen if she relied on it more often. Discovering its liberating properties in high school had been a revelation. On Friday afternoons they’d steal small amounts of vodka, gin, tequila or whatever else they could find in their parent’s cupboards. Sometimes they’d get lucky and a stranger would buy something from the corner shop. The kids would take their bounty down to the Meadows, sit on the grass and mix gin with coke and vodka with Ribena; it all tasted disgusting anyway and they didn’t yet think to sup on gin with tonic or cool down vodka over ice. One time she twisted her ankle and dramatically demanded to be taken to the hospital; instead they called her parents and she was bundled into a car by her dad who angrily reprimanded her for her bad behaviour. Claire sat in the back of the car and let her head loll against the window, letting the words divert and bubble around her as though she were lying in the middle of a fast flowing stream. Everything had felt so soaked in potential, saturated in sunlight and possibilities. Alcohol made everything seem so easy and, being young, she’d thought she was invincible.
Over time the fear crept in. She could never articulate what she was afraid of; the short answer was probably everything. Every day she felt a sense of quiet panic. It was barely noticeable to the casual observer but felt like a frantically flapping bird trapped inside her chest. It felt like a victory just getting out of bed in the morning. Most days, that was her greatest achievement. But now she was here and this trip was a chance.
Her neighbours erupted in another bout of cackling, making her jump. She drank down the rest of the vodka, wincing at its familiar bitterness. She grabbed her swimsuit, changing quickly and dumping her clothes on the floor around the bed. With no one to share the room with, at least she could be entirely herself.
Opening the door, she could still see the spitting rain setting off ripples in the small puddles that sat in the gaps between the cobblestones. She could feel the deep bosom of the ocean gently lapping nearby and its empty vastness called her to it like a kindred spirit. The backpack, stuffed with clothes and supplies for the months ahead, lay expectantly in the midst of the mess she’d already created.
She walked across the sand, which, despite the rain was still hot on the soles of her feet. The waves were small, bubbling with energy before they spread themselves thin across the shoreline. A small sliver of sunshine emerged from between the grey clouds and gently kissed the top of her head. She’d never learned to swim but for now that didn’t matter; she would start by going paddling.
Hannah Wright | @HanJMWright