No Place Like Home
Ch 25, in which Lucas makes the final leg of his journey back home to Sydney. I truly hope you've enjoyed reading this novel and would dearly love your reviews at the end.
I am waiting by the hotel lobby pond for the taxi which will take Carol and me to Kuala Lumpur airport. I did not sleep well, as is customary when I am travelling and my subconscious is connected to my natural body-clock, telling me via my dreams that I need to wake early; that, and the excitement to be home with my wife.
I picture her smile, her perfect white teeth, the laughter lines fanning away from the corners of her eyes. She smiles with every inch of her being. There is a quality about Ann that is so alive, so vibrant and yet so vulnerable, that I often feel she must have been born in a daisy-filled meadow, fairies with flower crowns upon their heads dancing in a circle and singing of her arrival, and the woodland creatures waiting to welcome her. I have never seen Ann so much as kill a spider despite her fear of their hairy legs, nor fail to smile at a sunrise or sunset. Had she been born centuries earlier, she might have been called an earth mother due to her connection with the planet and all defenceless creatures.
I gaze across the lobby pond, surrounded by palm trees and majestic columns all reflecting across the calm surface of the water. The morning is overcast, but still serene and I think that I will miss the tranquillity of this retreat, the lush island with its legends and its ancient landscapes. Arriving in Sydney will feel like stepping out of a jungle painting and directly into a skyline of buildings.
I snap a photograph of the large pond for Ann and order some flowers for her online to be collected on my way home from the airport. Drawn to the vegetation of my surroundings, I order a bouquet that reminds me of the turquoise sea and the boat trip around the mangroves: delicate white and pink chamelaucium, big-bowled and vibrant protea, cool blue and mauve sea holly with its spidery petals, and green eucalyptus stems.
I am completing the order when Leann appears from an early-morning stroll along the private beach. Despite having risen early, her complexion is fresh and clear, her grey eyes reflecting the stillness of the pond.
“Hello there,” she says, smiling, “I thought you might have been on your way to the airport by now.”
I check my phone again and inform her that Carol is running late, an occurrence that I no longer find surprising. Unlike me, Carol prefers to live her life close to the wire, setting an alarm or booking a taxi for the latest possible time to ensure her arrival at any given appointment or destination. I have seen her arrive for several meetings looking as though she barely found the time to fasten her clothes or even check that they were not inside out, and yet she appears to thrive on being flustered and winging her way through any potential delays or traffic jams.
Leann laughs. “Some people do thrive on panic and deadlines and buzz around aimlessly without them, flying wherever the wind will take them. It certainly hasn’t done her any harm. I’m not so sure it’s a lifestyle I could easily adapt to.”
I ask Leann if she found any shells worthy of her personal collection during her stroll. “Not this morning. Today was a day for looking out rather than looking down. I was watching the sea for glimpses of dolphins … or mermaids.”
I ask if she had any success.
“I am certain I spotted a school of dolphins in the distance, but the mermaid slipped off her rock before I had a chance to view her in detail.”
Carol appears then, preceded by the rattling wheels of her suitcase across the flagstones. Before she has reached us, our taxi pulls up in front of the lobby. I check my watch and Carol says, “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I slept through my alarm.” She glances at the taxi and shrugs. “I still made it though.”
“You did indeed,” says Leann. “Ignore him, I’ll bet he has been awake for hours watching the time tick by on his phone rather than enjoying a restful sleep.”
We hand over our luggage to the driver who stows it neatly in the boot of the car.
“Safe journey,” says Leann, hugging us in turn. “It’s been a pleasure getting to know you both. Until next time.”
We climb into the taxi and wave goodbye to Leann through the window as Carol rummages through her handbag to make sure she picked up her passport as she left the room.
We are seated in the Premium Economy section of the aircraft which appears quite full. I take the window seat while Carol stows her bag in the overhead compartment and then changes her mind, taking the middle seat with the bag on her lap. A tall guy with wavy blonde hair and a healthy tan checks out the overhead seat numbers and takes the aisle seat next to Carol. He is wearing neon orange shorts and a pristine white T-shirt, and I admire his courage wearing white on an eight-hour flight. He greets us with a nod.
Carol rummages again through her bag and produces a large packet of Sweet & Sour Gummies which she opens, peering inside until she locates a purple one. “My favourite,” she says, popping it into her mouth and offering the bag to me. I take the first one that I touch which happens to be orange. Carol turns to our companion who declines politely.
“It’s only for take-off and landing,” says Carol. “I’m okay the rest of the time.” She tucks the sweets into the pocket of the seat in front of her, and flicks through the flight brochure, catching my eye at the same time and widening hers with a nod in our companion’s direction.
Oh my God, she mouths. I glance past her, at his profile: he is an attractive guy, judging by the attire, a backpacker maybe, although the white shirt might suggest otherwise, or a surfer. It’s his aura, Leann would say.
I sit back and close my eyes. Leann’s suggestion that I had been awake and clock-watching for hours before my alarm sounded was accurate and I am already feeling the strain of the journey ahead even though people are still boarding, bustling around one another, stowing hand luggage, and trying to get comfortable. I try to clear my mind, focus on my breathing, and the weight of the seatbelt fastened around me, the tart citric flavour of the gum on my tongue.
It isn’t long before I hear Carol speaking to our companion. “Where were you staying? Have you been surfing?” She must have sensed the aura too although it would be amusing if he responded saying that he was on a business trip to expand the distribution of canned beans.
“How did you guess?” he says. “The shorts, right?”
Carol laughs. “I didn’t realise people travelled to Malaysia to surf,” and quickly adds, “not that I’m an expert or anything.”
“Monsoon season,” says the man. “You’ll be surprised the surf it produces. I’ve been to a place called Wild Boar Beach, in Desaru. It’s my favourite spot in Malaysia. Very secluded. Not many people know about it.”
“Sounds dangerous,” says Carol. “Have you seen the film Shallows with Blake Lively? That was a secluded beach and look what happened to her.”
The man laughs as the ‘Fasten Seatbelt’ sign pings on. “I had a local with me, so it was all pretty safe. It’s so off-the-beaten-track, it’s impossible to find without a guide and you have to take your own provisions as it’s miles from any form of civilization, well miles from anything really.”
“Apart from wild boars,” she says.
“Apart from wild boars.”
The engines grow louder, and the flight attendant announces that the ritual of safety procedures is about to be demonstrated. My eyelids feel heavy, and I succumb to sleep for a while.
When I wake, Carol has a half-full cup of coffee on her fold-down table and an empty packet of biscuits. She is reading We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a book often recognised as the original dystopian and which certainly was the inspiration for books such as George Orwell’s 1984.
“You’re awake,” she says. “Don’t worry, you haven’t missed breakfast.”
I thank her as I’ve woken feeling quite peckish and suggest the book must be heavy reading for an eight-hour flight.
“If I don’t start it now while I’m trapped in this seat, I never will,” she says, examining the cover as if it might reveal the story negating the need to read what’s contained within the covers. I confess that I have never read We, but have never quite forgotten the lingering fear provoked by reading 1984 as a youth.
“We think we are lucky,” she says. “We think that we are free to travel the world, like you and I are doing right now, but I wonder if humans have ever been free. We write from experience, don’t we? So, what prompted Zamyatin’s vision for a world where people live in glass apartments and individuality is forbidden?”
I suggest that Zamyatin, as an author, was an observer way ahead of his time. We talk about the TV show Big Brother and the way humans are naturally curious about watching other people’s lives. “Spying, you mean,” says Carol.
I say that maybe the popularity of reality TV and the advancement of technology has made it easier for Big Brother to seep into our lives, one small example of this being the way Alexa is permanently alert and listening for a name to be spoken aloud. We are all aware to a certain extent that we are being observed and that everything we see and read in the media is manipulated to steer us in certain directions, but how often do we, as individuals, resist, and when we do, which methods of resistance do we use?
“Social media,” says Carol, rolling her eyes. The glass apartments described in We are an exaggerated prediction of our lives, but are we so far removed from Yevgeny’s One State where rebellion is quashed at the thought process stage?
“It is a horrific thought,” says Carol. “Where does it lead? Will there come a time when humans rebel as a united whole against the Guardians? Or have they eradicated that potential also by turning us against one another? You see, we think we’re the intelligent species, but we are nowhere near as intelligent as animals. Animals are controlled by nothing but nature. They fear humans because we kill them, but we will never control them. Planet of the Apes is the way forward.”
I suggest that the world would be a happier place if it were ruled by dogs, as a dog seeks nothing but love, regardless of breed, age, colour, or size.
Carol snaps the book shut. “Even in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the humans were controlled by the Morlocks. You’d think we might have learnt something over time, wouldn’t you?”
I ask if she isn’t going to read any further. “It was a toss-up between this or the latest Liane Moriarty,” she says. “I chose on an empty stomach which is never a good idea.”
We walk through to Arrivals, my feet occasionally meeting the floor heavily as though I am still walking on the aircraft. I always feel lightheaded following a long flight, while my brain readjusts to the lack of engine noise and air-conditioning.
“Poor you,” says Carol. “Whoever suggested that you head straight to a meeting from the airport? I shall think of you when I am on my balcony sipping a cold beer in an hour or so.”
I tell her that it was in fact my own idea as Lisa, my publisher, was nearby and it would free up the next couple of days for me to spend with my wife.
“Thank heavens it’s only Lisa,” she says. “Anyone else and I would tell you to plead motion sickness or death by travel-companion boredom.” She grins at me. “Come to think of it, you are looking a bit peaky. Did I bore you that much?”
I shake my head and tell her it’s merely the reflection on my skin from her green hair.
Lisa is waiting for us as we walk through the sliding glass doors; she raises a hand to wave. Heads turn as she hugs us. In her forties, Lisa could easily pass for thirty, with a mane of heavy red curls cascading down her back, and wide grey eyes, she is casual in a mint-green cotton dress and heels with butterflies attached to the back.
“Good flight?” she asks.
I say that it was most enjoyable, which is down to my travelling companion who would probably rather have been chatting to the traveller the other side of her, but who stoically kept me entertained, nonetheless.
Carol laughs. “You should have seen him, Lisa. Typical surfer dude, but not a patch on this man.”
I tell her that she is too polite and ask again if we can give her a lift home.
“My train ticket is already booked,” she says, “and I have a ride waiting for me at the other end. It’s honestly no bother.”
We say goodbye and head out to the carpark where Lisa has left her car. She drives to a small café in Darlinghurst where we order flat whites and homemade caramel cheesecake with a Biscoff topping. When the coffees arrive, I empty two sachets of demerara sugar into mine, while Lisa retrieves a tiny bottle of chocolate flavoured protein liquid and adds two drops to her drink.
“No calories,” she says, “but sweeter than sugar. So, it sounds like you’ve had quite a trip. I could almost feel the excitement emanating from your last email.”
I tell her that sometimes life works in mysterious and unexpected ways and steers you a little off course until you realise that maybe this was the course you were meant to follow all along. I describe my initial meeting with Leann and Ivana in Paris, and the private jet flight to Singapore where I was introduced to Bernard Arnault.
“I’m so excited to meet Leann in person,” says Lisa. “And I loved how you kept her waiting before inviting her to join the Syndicate. I wanted to email her myself and give her the good news.”
Leann took it all in good spirits, I tell her, and was overjoyed to be commissioned to write the Cathie Wood biography. I go on to tell her about our discussions at the writer’s retreat, about Dianne and Craig’s project revolving around Abe Saffron’s alleged involvement in Juanita Nielsen’s disappearance, and that I have asked Carol to join me in writing Ivana’s biography. I feel that Carol will bring a sense of fun and quirkiness to the story which I might otherwise not fully capture. Finally, I elaborate a little on my meeting with Lim Kok Thay and all the intrigues surrounding his family which is the reason why I have invited Josiah to work on the billionaire’s biography with me.
“Come on, put me out of my misery,” says Lisa. “What’s the hush-hush project you hinted at? It almost felt like you didn’t want the email gods to make headline news of it before you had a chance to tell me.”
I describe how in Gentings, while on a night out with Lim Kok Thay’s two sons, I was introduced to Jeff Probst.
“Jeff Probst? Survivor’s Jeff Probst?” Lisa, wide-eyed, swallows a mouthful of cheesecake.
I glance around exaggeratedly to check whether anyone is listening to our conversation, but we are seated in plump-cushioned armchairs near the window and the closest customers are a group of teenage girls who are out of earshot. Jeff Probst’s trip to Malaysia was top-secret, I explain. He was there with a group of past Survivor winners, scoping out locations for the next series and doing some obstacle-course team building.
“Past Survivor winners?” says Lisa. “Is that who will be taking part in the next series?”
I tell her that was the impression I was given by the man himself. “Sounds a little bit Hunger Games Quarter Quell, doesn’t it? Put in all the past winners and watch them all fight to the death.” She shudders and we both laugh at the comparison. I have to admit that I hadn’t previously made the connection, but that now I wouldn’t be able to unsee it. “You’re welcome,” she says.
I tell her that Jeff invited me to join him and some other cast members on a camping trip, and that, as Bernard Arnault had flown back to Paris without his PA, Olivia, she also joined us. The purpose of the camping trip was to source some locations for the next series, but Jeff utilised the time to persuade me to write his biography also.
“Why is it so top-secret?” Lisa asks. “I understand that they like to keep the location quiet until they are ready to make an announcement, but the biography … or is this because he will be taking part in the show himself?”
I have to laugh at this. She is closer to the mark than she realises, I say, because Olivia and I were lost in the jungle with some other cast members, while performing team-building exercises. Jeff found us. We were travelling back to shore by boat late that evening when an unexpected storm blew in and we were shipwrecked on a remote rocky island with no phone signal, no provisions, and no mode of transport.
“Wow!” Lisa’s cup is raised to her lips, but she appears to have forgotten all about it. “What happened? You obviously survived because you’re sitting here right now, but I bet it was scary.”
I tell her that we saw another side to Jeff Probst. Take away the glamour and the cameras and the microphones, and the man is a true survivor himself. Without him, we would likely have been discovered at some point, but until you have been stranded on a deserted island with no shelter and no escape route, it is difficult to comprehend that overwhelming fear that without your internal survival instinct kicking in, there is a high probability that you might die. It is this side of Jeff that I would like to explore in some depth in the biography.
“He must have paid attention when they were filming the series,” she says. “I guess you would pick up some skills along the way, but of course, skills alone don’t make a survivor.”
Which is exactly what I discovered during our impromptu adventure. I explain that we seemed to draw on our inner strengths and that we all had different coping mechanisms, which of course is what the show itself explores, but we were not on a reality TV program and there wasn’t a warm hotel waiting for us to arrive in the back of an air conditioned taxi.
“Was this Jeff’s reason for wanting the biography written? To show a different side to the tanned and groomed TV presenter?”
That and because he wants to set straight all the controversies that have arisen from the show, I say. He mentioned that there have been instances where the show has been accused of racism, where one participant was accused of inappropriate behaviour, where people have lied to win votes. I think that he wants to, not so much condone their behavior, but rather show them from another perspective. People behave in strange ways when they are starving and out of their comfort zone.
Lisa gives me the side-eye. “Did you behave in strange ways while you were waiting to be rescued?”
I laugh and tell her, no comment, but I received no complaints. My observation from the situation though, is that entertainment is key to survival. Several people maintained a sense of humour and it was this that bound us together more than the discovery of a plant root that contained water, or another person’s skill at catching fish with a makeshift spear.
She nods. “Maybe that could be an underlying theme of the book: Jeff’s ability to find humour through controversy and survival. The Lion Behind the Smile.”
I agree that it is certainly the angle I will be aiming for and I’ll bear her title suggestion in mind.
“What’s this I hear about a Netflix biopic being optioned for the Bernard Arnault biography?”
I shake my head and ask if Big Brother has been secretly following me around and filming me for a TV show that Lisa forgot to mention.
“What writers really get up to,” Lisa laughs. “It might dispel a few myths that writers are chained to their laptops twenty-four-seven, especially if the viewers saw some of the resorts you’ve stayed at the past week or so.”
But then everyone would want Lisa as a publisher, I say, and where would that leave me?
“But seriously, Netflix?” she says. “Where did the idea come from? Do you think it would work?”
I tell Lisa a little about Olivia and how I was almost tempted to bring her to Sydney and find a role for her in the office. I explain that the Netflix biopic was Olivia’s idea and that she appears to view everything with such wide-open eyes, that it was refreshing spending time with her.
I check the time on my phone. The florist closes at 6pm and I still need to collect the flowers I ordered for Ann. I call a taxi which I’m told will arrive in five minutes.
“Will you revisit any of these resorts with Ann?” Lisa asks.
I tell her that Ann would love the unspoilt scenery of Langkawi, and that I would also love for her to touch the clouds at Gentings because the photos simply do not do it justice.
“How many disposable cameras did you get through?” A few, I tell her. “Maybe we should write a book around your photographs. Now that would be an eye-opener.”
We part outside the café and I make a quick pitstop at the florist where the eye-catching bouquet is waiting for me. For the remainder of the short journey, I sit on the back seat breathing in the scent of the flowers, and picture my reunion with my wife, a simple meal, a glass of something, and an evening spent in the garden watching the sunset and planning our next adventure together.
I have never heard of We by Zamyatin. As a teacher who has taught 1984, I had to look it up. It sounds so interesting! The section about We and 1984 really made me think a bit. Specifically, the idea that nature is the only thing controlling animals. Even though humans can reason and therefore are sometimes thought to be the inferior species, they can also get caught up in other things and other people’s lives which in the end brings about their downfall. I’m a sucker for a good dystopian novel.
I love the symbolism in Leann’s words, “Today was a day for looking out rather than looking down.” Sometimes it is nice to look down at the things closest to us while other times we can learn a lot by looking out at the big picture.
Will there still be a sequel to this? I have enjoyed reading about the characters' journeys.