In the resort town of Cancún on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Melanie Rose once saved the life of her only grandson, Phoenix. It happened like this.
The family were gathered together under the thatched roof of a large palapa that was positioned between the turquoise lagoon and the swimming pool of the apartment complex where Phoenix lived with his mother and father, and his older sister, Sophie-Louise. Melanie was visiting from Australia, in time for her grandson’s second birthday party. Also visiting were the grandparents from Canada, and Phoenix’s uncle and aunt who’d flown in from Las Vegas.
It was one of those momentos peligrosos, when everyone thought somebody else was watching the children. Phoenix, wearing only his damp nappies, lowered his bottom onto the edge of the swimming pool and dangled his infant feet in the water. Melanie, who had been gazing into the crystalline depths of the lagoon looking for alligators and had her back turned, felt a sudden twinge of alarm. She swung around in time to see four-and-a-half year-old Sophie-Louise gently rock her little brother by his shoulders until she found the tipping point that would cause him to roll off the familiar blue-tiled edges of his life, and into that foreign element, the clear blue water.
Melanie yelled. At a speed no one could calculate, she shoved the adults out of her way and sent a table crowded with icy bottles of Corona, slices of lemon wedged in their long necks, crashing to the concrete floor of the palapa.
‘What the fuck…’ exclaimed the uncle from Vegas.
Melanie reached the pool and flung herself into it. Phoenix was by now slowly descending to the bottom for the third time.
She grabbed the baby’s nappy. Then she grabbed his slippery, passive body. She pulled him up to the surface where for a long moment he lay collapsed on her shoulder, gasping intermittently like a dying blowfish. Everyone ran yelling to the edge of the pool, features distorted with fear. The baby blinked, and looked at his stricken relatives. He let out a shocking yowl and spewed up a great deal of chlorinated water that cascaded down his grandmother’s back. The uncle from Vegas took the screaming baby from Melanie and gave him to his mother. Then he helped Mel out of the pool.
‘Thank God you saw what was happening!’ the Canadian grandmother cried. ‘Thank God you were watching!’
The uncle’s glamorous wife, formerly a Rockette with New York’s Radio City Music Hall and now pregnant with their first child, set about berating Phoenix’s father, and telling anyone who’d listen that no way, no frickin’ way, would she ever let any of her children anywhere near a swimming pool unless she had them by the hand at all frickin’ times. Holy crap, she finished up, and blew a cracking great bubble with her gum. Phoenix’s father gave her the finger behind her back, as he hurried his wife and their bellowing child back to their apartment. Sophie-Louise, who understandably didn’t want to accompany them, found herself scooped up under her father’s arm and carried off regardless.
It was very hot in the Caribbean at that time of the year, but Mel felt chilled to her bones. She went up to the apartment and had a long hot shower. Then she sat on the edge of her bed and cried into her hands. Sophie-Louise was taking an extended time out in a corner of the sitting room. No one was allowed to speak to her. She sat with her face to the wall, and sucked hard on the two middle fingers of her right hand. Now and then she took the fingers out of her mouth so she could give full voice to a series of wild sobs. Phoenix’s mother and father had him in the bath, playing with his ducks, apparently almost over his ordeal. In a sterling effort to keep the party going, the Canadian grandparents were barbequing the arachera on the grill near the lagoon. The uncle from Vegas, who was a principal dancer in a show at the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Boulevarde, walked round the palapa saying, ‘Fuck,’ over and over again, while running both hands through his blond-streaked hair. He looked a lot like Brad Pitt.
The party, really, was over.
Next morning, a fragile Melanie sat on the edge of the wooden dock, and watched a Mexican soldier from the barracks next door swim in the emerald lagoon, as he did every day for twenty minutes. Two alligators lurking beneath the dock ignored him. Who in possession of their senses would do such a reckless thing, she marvelled. When the soldier got out, the alligators cruised over to the mangroves. A hurricane the previous October had left the mangroves bereft of foliage, as if they had been napalmed. In the midst of great storm surges the lagoon had broken its banks, spilling the alligators out into the downtown streets. Melanie wondered if the aftermath of that trauma might account for their present lack of interest in human prey.
Cancún was a cultural shock for Mel. Every morning she swam in the Caribbean. The sea surface was like blue-green translucent glass. Patches of indigo bloomed over its deeps. She lay in the shallows on bone white sand, while tiny striped fish nibbled at her feet. In the distance she saw lavish cruise ships bound for the island of Cozumel. Some afternoons when the children were sleeping, Mel rode the buses into the downtown where people without financial resources lived in tarpaper shacks, and starved dogs loafed in the middle of unpaved streets. In the Zona Hoteleria, where she was staying with her family, the dogs wore leather leads and their coats shone. High wrought iron gates protected the apartment compound. The shopping malls were temples, offering up every imaginable treasure. There were pyramid-shaped hotels, an indifferent reference to the ancient Mayan culture of the Yucatán peninsula. These hotels had infinity pools, and white-coated Mexican attendants who probably lived in the downtown brought food and drink to where their guests lay sprawled on four-poster beds with sheer curtains.
Downtown bus rides were always interesting. For six pesos she could ride several miles down the coast through the ramshackle suburbs to the ferry terminal for Isla Mujeres and back again to Wal-Mart. She always sat next to a window (downtown buses had no air-conditioning) and lost herself in that delicious state that is reminiscent of being a child in a pram, when you are taken everywhere and have no responsibility at all for watching where you’re going. The temporary absence of this responsibility was particularly enjoyable in Cancun where you were likely to fall into holes full of all kinds of unpleasant substances whenever you walked down the street.
Not many gringos take downtown buses in Cancun, Mel discovered. It’s dangerous, they think. It’s full of Mexicans. This conflation of ordinary Mexicans with danger seemed to be American conventional wisdom around the Caribbean coast. Rather like the Australian conflation of refugees with terrorists, Mel thought.
When Mel got home after her first trip and told them where’d she’d been, her son, who was watching CNN and drinking a beer while children swung shrieking from his arms and legs, was upset.
‘Take taxis, please, Mum,’ he groaned, and ran his free hand through his short blond hair as the children latched onto his ankles. He was wearing his glasses and they made him look serious. Her heart expanded at the sight of him all over with children. To see your child at play with his own children. One could die happy after that.
‘You have to Be Careful in the downtown, Mum. Gringos get in trouble down there and you can’t count on the police. Don’t do anything stupid.’
There’s an interesting turnaround,Mel thought. He’s telling me not to do anything stupid? When did he become so conservative, this boy who used to think he’d had a good day if he and his mates managed to aggravate the bus driver till they were finally thrown off the 380 while all the grown-ups cheered?
At the lagoon, Mel was suddenly overwhelmed by a powerful yearning for her home on the temperate south east Australian seaboard. The landscape there took a different dramatic turn, she felt, and one that was not quite as emotionally demanding. She gazed at the tropical morning sky, already trembling with humidity, and breathed deeply. She let the previous day’s trauma play itself out again in her mind. She needed a bit of time to herself, she decided. Let everyone else take care of things for a while and hopefully, nobody would drown while she wasn’t there.
Her yearning for home gradually mellowed into a low-grade nostalgia that wasn’t entirely unpleasant, she reflected. She had always found the perverse satisfactions that sometimes accompany yearning, interesting. In the dusky Caribbean evenings, Mel often heard a woman in one of the upstairs apartments play Andrea Bocelli singing Spanish love songs that were filled with yearning. The woman, Alexandria, turned out to be the star of a long-running Mexican soap opera. She had an Argentine boyfriend with long black hair that he wore in a ponytail. He had an outrageously flirtatious manner. He kissed the hand of Melanie Rose when they encountered one another in the garden, and told her how beautiful she looked, even when she was bedraggled from the pool, and hung about with squirming grandchildren. Mel appreciated the attention, though she recognised it as an Argentine social convention that meant nothing.
Very early one morning, the boyfriend was forcibly removed from Alexandria’s apartment by a posse of federales. Melanie and her family watched from their windows, woken by his shouts and Alexandria’s screams, and the barked commands of the police as they marched him past the swimming pool and through the high iron gates of the compound.
For several days Alexandria was seen pacing the gardens with her friends, chain smoking, her hair awry, and wearing grubby tracksuit pants. Everyone thought it was drugs. He had been seen, it was rumoured, leaving a luxury yacht tied up to the dock in the middle of the night, in the company of gold-draped Colombian ruffians in Armani shirts, all of them carrying large, soft parcels.
After these events, Alexandria stopped playing Bocelli at dusk, and eventually disappeared to Mexico City, where her soapie was filmed.
In the beachside village of Riley’s Point, Victoria, Australia, where Melanie lived, she once saved the life of her old friend Hannah’s grandson. It happened like this.
It was Hannah’s birthday party. All her family and close friends were gathered in her front garden. This garden ran down to the road. On the other side of the road was the river. The road was generally quiet. The garden was unfenced.
It was one of those dangerous moments when everyone thought somebody else was looking out for the children. For some reason, Mel, who had been watching a pod of dolphins at play in the far reaches of the river, turned around in time to see George, Hannah’s two-year-old grandson, seize the day and take off down the garden and into the road, well on his way to his goal, the water.
Melanie yelled. At a speed no one could calculate, she shoved the adults out of her way and sent a table crowded with chilled bottles of Moet thudding to the grass. As she gained on the child she stopped yelling, understanding that he thought it was a game, and that he should run faster.
Mel’s greatest fear was that a car would come around the corner and take them both out. She flung herself on the laughing child, and they crashed to the bitumen together. She grabbed George’s corduroy pants and pulled him close, then wrapped her arms around his sturdy, wriggling body, and limped them both back to the garden. The adults ran to meet them. George was pulled from Mel’s arms by his terrified mother. He immediately began to scream, and soon spewed up large quantities of cake. Hannah took Melanie into the house and they wept in each other’s arms.
‘Thank God you saw him!’ Hannah sobbed. ‘Thank God!’
George’s granddad, Simon, for whom Mel had never had a great deal of time, sat ashen-faced in a patio chair saying ‘Fuck,’ over and over again. He had no hair through which to run his hands. Simon was a retired surgeon who had once operated on the famous and wealthy. To balance out privilege, he went voluntarily to the middle-east. Here he operated by torchlight in tents, repairing children damaged by the artillery of western forces who were engaged in an ongoing struggle to embed a liberal democracy in the hearts and minds of highly resistant desert cultures. Mel thought Simon was one of those people she just couldn’t like, no matter that he did good things. It was the self-important way in which he did them, she’d decided, that discouraged her admiration.
Simon had never looked anything like Brad Pitt.
In Cancún, it was bedtime for Sophie-Louise.
‘Tell me a story, Grandma,’ she begged.
‘Okay,’ Mel agreed, ‘but just one ‘cos Momma says you have to go to sleep.’
The child and her grandmother snuggled up close. The child put the two middle fingers of her right hand into her mouth, and sucked. Mel ran her fingers through Sophie-Louise’s dark curls, and kissed the top of her head. Mel loved it that her grandchildren had her dark hair and unusual amber eyes. It was a miracle, she reflected, to live long enough to see yourself in your child’s child. These days Mel added a bit of colour to her hair, as she wasn’t yet ready to give in to grey. Her eyes were not as clear as perhaps they once had been, but they were still attractive. She worked at staying relatively slim. She used to work in Foreign Affairs and was now retired, though she kept up.
‘Once upon a time,’ she now began, ‘ there was a little girl who wanted to be an angel. She didn’t mean that she wanted to be dead and in heaven, because that’s not where she thought angels were. She thought they might be like human beings you couldn’t see, who came and sat by you when you were feeling sad and a little lonely, and even if you couldn’t see them you knew they were there, and your heart got lighter and you felt better. The little girl couldn’t really explain all this to her grandma because she was too young to have the words. So it all stayed as pictures in her mind that she thought about every night before she fell asleep.’
‘Grandma,’ Sophie-Louise interrupted, pulling her fingers out of her mouth with a loud glop. ‘Did they have big white wings and twinkly lights around their heads?’
‘No, my love,’ Mel replied. ‘They just looked like everybody else.’
‘Grandma, I don’t want to be an angel, I want to be a princess.’
‘Well, that’s okay, you can do that.’
‘Grandma, you know my little brother?’
‘I think I do,’ Mel laughed.
‘Well, actually, I know I’m lucky to have a little brother, but I didn’t really want him.’
Sophie Louise gazed at her grandmother with her large, amber eyes, and waited.
Mel considered this information in the light of the previous day’s events. Then she moved on.
‘Do you have fun with Phoenix sometimes?’ she asked.
‘Yes, if he’ll be the handsome prince. But Grandma, he just every time takes my glass slippers and wears them and puts on all my jewels and he shouldn’t do that if he’s the prince!’
‘We are getting him a Spiderman suit,’ Melanie confided, and tucked Sophie-Louise firmly into her bed.
In Riley’s Point, Mel sat watching television with her best friend and housemate, Ruby. The two had met during Mel’s first marriage when Ruby, who had broken away from her family’s artistic traditions and established herself as a flamboyant but highly successful stockbroker, was engaged by Mel’s husband to take care of his portfolio. This she had done brilliantly, if at times unnervingly. Ruby was smart enough to get out of the profession when she recognised she was done with it and could afford a comfortable retirement. After Mel’s second marriage faltered, Ruby invited her to come and stay in the Point for a while, till she found her feet again. Mel had never left.
The rich red hair of Ruby’s younger years had turned prematurely white and she’d lately taken to dying it cherry. Currently the colour had paled to pink, and was growing out. Her head looked like a wedge of coconut ice. This caused her no concern. Ruby had light blue eyes and pale skin. She was rotund, and physically strong. Her hands were large and competent, her well-muscled legs and broad feet held her firmly to the earth.
She had absolutely no sense of dressing herself up. Mel had given up trying to change this. Ruby was happy in ragged shorts and T-shirts and Blundstone boots. When she went to her voluntary work at the Riley’s Point library she wore linen pants and ironed shirts and looked well enough turned out, if conservative, Mel told her. Most of Ruby’s clothes had belonged to a dead friend. She hadn’t had to buy anything for years. That pleased her, as she deeply loathed shopping for clothes, though if you put her in a supermarket she had a keen eye for value. She was also an inveterate reader of labels. This habit infuriated Mel. She would not shop with Ruby, unless she’d been trapped into it. Mel’s idea of grocery shopping was to bolt up and down the aisles and grab everything they might some day need as quickly as possible, no matter where it came from, hurl it in the cart, fly through the checkout, and then go look at clothes.
Ruby liked to venture into uncharted bush with their large black and white dog Bruce, rescued from the pound several years ago when he was very small. She took a machete, and hacked out corridors for the wildlife, whose usual tracks had become overgrown by lantana and garden weeds. Ruby taught Bruce to spot koalas. He stood at the bottom of the tree with his head raised, his whole body aquiver, and then he pointed with his paw, like a retriever. There was no other evidence of that breed in him, though he displayed the genes of cattle dogs, border collies, great danes, staffies and possibly greyhounds. Ruby had also trained him to leave all living things alone, and while he trembled and groaned with excitement at the sight of kangaroos, wallabies, goannas and pythons, he never barked, or chased them. Ruby carried out this training quietly, her soft, intense murmur rewarded with instant obedience from the dog, her calm congratulations rewarding him when he did well. Only when he dug up her plants did she yell at him, and so unused was he to the sound of her raised voice that when it happened, he fled to find Mel and nuzzle up for comfort.
‘Don’t you dare hug that dog!’ Ruby would yell at Mel. ‘He’s dug up my best saplings!’
Mel’s own manner of being with Bruce was very different: she was extravagant with her love, hugging him, kissing his head, and allowing him to sleep on her bed. Bruce accepted both women and showed no confusion; on the rare occasions that Mel reprimanded him he fled to Ruby. Ruby had it that Mel was too quick to defend him, but he was a poor dog, Mel protested, without language, and allowances must be made for this.
‘He’s got language, all right,’ Ruby muttered darkly as she filled in yet another excavation.
There was a trying period when Bruce dug a large hole just inside the front gate every time they went out, so whoever came home first fell in it. This practice ceased one day, as inexplicably as it had begun.
Loving a dog was a joyful experience, Mel often felt, for the dog is wholly other, and a constant source of wonder and amazement because of that. Dog is responsive: his dog feelings are at the ready and vibrantly expressed, he uses his voice as best he can to communicate. His emotions are straight-forward, you know where you are with dog. Dog won’t dissemble and throw you into confusion with words that do not seem to mean what they say. A dog can be completely what he is. She loved the dog-ness of him, she told Ruby. The dog-ness.
‘Have I ever told you how I saved the lives of two little children, at opposite sides of the world?’ Mel asked Ruby that night in a commercial break. They’d been watching The Sopranos, her favourite show. Ruby found the violence hard to take. Mel told her not to watch the violent bits but when Ruby tried this, she found she had her hand over her eyes for almost an hour. Bruce slept soundly on his bed.
Mel muted the television and recounted the stories.
‘Oh my, I didn’t know any of that, I wasn’t at either of those parties.’
Ruby took off her glasses and cleaned them with her t-shirt.
‘And you’re not even a fireman or anybody who’d expect to have to save children,’ she observed.
They sat in silence for a while. Bruce yelped in his dreams, and tried to flee an enemy while lying on his side on his blanket.
‘The thing is,’ Mel said finally, ‘I’ve always regarded myself as a bit thoughtless in some ways. Not the kind of person who’d be watching the children while nobody else was. I wasn’t actually watching the children either time, though,’ she corrected herself. ‘Something just made me turn around at the very instant they both became imperilled.’
‘Imperilled,’ Ruby repeated slowly, running her tongue around the syllables. ‘Im-per-illed. Now there’s a fine word.’
She got up to make the hot chocolate, and let the dog out for his last pee of the night.
‘You’re a guardian angel,’ she remarked as she walked past Melanie Rose. She patted her on her head, like she did the dog.
‘Guardian angel,’ she repeated.
Melanie received an invitation to her niece’s spring wedding. This niece, extravagantly named Anna-Maria Magdalena Rosita for reasons nobody understood, wanted them all in pastels, with matching hats and gloves. It was better for the photographs, she said, if there were no primary colours. Mel dearly loved her only brother’s only child, otherwise she might have become snippy about the dress code. She’d imagined herself in something low cut and vermilion, worn with long black boots and the earrings she’d found in the markets in Mexico City. These earrings were made from beer bottle tops that contained a picture of the Virgin of Guadeloupe on the front, and read Cerveza Clara Dos Equis XX Lager Especial on the back.
Pastels did not generally suit Mel.
She searched through the envelope to see if there was a gift list. There wasn’t. The young couple, it eventuated, thought such lists were tasteless and greedy, and preferred to risk a dozen toasters that they’d have to exchange at a later date.
This would be the first celebratory occasion Melanie had attended since rescuing young George. She’d had enough of rescuing babies, she decided, and had now become self-conscious about her role at gatherings. People might expect her to be watching out for the little ones, and her very presence could cause a dangerous lapse in the other adults’ attentions.
It was with a great deal of relief, then, that she discovered a small note inside the invitation. We don’t want to offend anyone, the note read, but we have decided to keep our wedding an adults-only affair, and we ask you not to bring your children.
‘Yes!’ yelled Mel, fallen guardian angel. ‘No kids!’
At the wedding, which was held in the hinterland behind Riley’s Point, everything went according to plan. The celebrant, as expected, stumbled over the bride’s first names. There were no children, all the women obediently wore pastels, and most of them had acceded to the request for hats and gloves. Women frequently reveal their generosity of spirit at the weddings of other women. It is the bride’s day, and only a drop-kick dead jealous slag would refuse to observe her wishes. At least, that was how Ruby put it.
The reception was held on the banks of a river swollen with spring rains. Mel stood sipping champagne, gazing at the changing colours of the distant hills, as daytime turned slowly into lilac dusk. Her high heels had sunk deep into the damp paddock grass. A twinge of alarm disturbed her meditations, and caused her to turn and look back at the river. There she saw the bride’s father, a little the worse for drink, teetering dangerously on the bank. As she watched, unbelieving, he listed gently, then slowly toppled sideways into a deep pool.
Melanie yelled at the top of her voice. She dropped her champagne glass and pulled off her pastel hat. She kicked off her high-heeled shoes and raced towards the river, knocking everyone out of her way. She leapt fully clothed into the deep pool and grabbed the father of the bride in the rescue hold she’d been taught as a girl in the lifesaving classes she’d attended on Saturday mornings at the local swimming pool.
The wedding guests clambered and slid down the bank, and helped pull the two of them out of the river. The pastels and high heels suffered irreparable damage. The father of the bride was laid on his side on the grass. His terrified wife hooked strands of riverweed out of his mouth with her red-tipped fingers. After a few anxious moments he coughed, then spewed up copious amounts of all kinds of things nobody wanted to think about.
When he was recovered enough, they all trooped back to the Manor where they were staying the night, before seeing the newlyweds off on their honeymoon in the Mexican Caribbean resort of Cancún after breakfast the next day.
‘There’s no doubt about you,’ Ruby observed as she ran a bath for the shivering Mel. ‘You can spot the imperilled a mile off.’
Ruby had also scored an invite to the wedding, and looked a treat in pastels.
That night, sleeping in the Manor’s five-star bed, Melanie (sanctified now as a thrice-time saviour of the imperilled) had a dream she’d had off and on for years. In this dream a child in a blue coat sits in a small coracle. Her little hands clutch the sides of the fragile vessel. The coracle rides a quiet sea. A friendly whale provides an escort, while up ahead, swordfish leap, sunlight flashing on their bellies as they twist and turn in that foreign element, the clear blue air.
The coracle carries the child across the seven seas to the people who love her most. There is food in her pockets. Like the owl and the pussycat in her favourite poem, she’ll sail away for a year and a day, until she finds her home.
In the dream, this doesn’t happen. She sails on until she wakes up, feeling sorrowful and lost. But Melanie knows the true purpose of her journey. With all her heart and soul, she believes that one night she will dream her triumphant arrival. When she reaches her destination, she will find her loved ones waiting, their arms open in welcome, on the distant foreign shore. It is only a matter of time and faith, and infinite perseverance.
‘You can’t escape your fate, you know,’ Ruby told her the next morning.
Mel had just declared that she’d never attend another celebration.
‘Don’t even try to fight it,’ Ruby continued. ‘Somebody has to do it. Like the dogs.’
‘The dogs?’ asked Mel. She had no clear idea where Ruby was going with this. From experience, she knew anything was possible.
‘You know, the seven dogs with great and shining hearts whose task it is to hold up the world. Do you think they always feel like doing it? But where would we be if they got slack and packed it in?’
Ruby zipped up her overnight bag. It was time to go home. As Melanie went to check they’d left nothing in the bathroom, she heard Ruby singing:Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood Upon the chaos dark and rude, And bid its angry tumult cease And give, for wild confusion, peace Oh hear us when we cry to thee For those in peril on the sea!
She bellowed the last line three times.
‘Shut up,’ Melanie Rose quietly advised her, in her diplomatically trained voice.
They had given the newlyweds a bright orange tajine. Later they learned from the bride that eight other guests had too. Nine orange tajines. It didn’t bear thinking about. These are indeed the bold and the beautiful days of our lives.
When they got home to the Point, they found the dog asleep in the sun, in the midst of a scattering of partly chewed bones the neighbours had thrown to him over the fence. He must be exhausted, said Ruby, trashed to the max, from his unending task of holding up the world. A responsibility, she added, picking up the bones before he buried them in her garden, that humans had thus far proved themselves entirely incapable of fulfilling.
It was from these three events that Melanie Rose acquired the reputation of being connected in some uncertain way to a benevolent power that would not let anyone, adult or child, pass away before their due time.