Inland Story

© Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

Above the bed the glass had frosted over. Stray droplets of condensation ran down the pane and cleared the odd line, but not enough to let in the world beyond. Darshana instinctively worried about running the air conditioning like this. They don’t charge for it, do they? she asked, but she felt stupid saying it. Gareth had barely answered. He had been quiet for a lot of the trip, ever since they got in the car. For days before that he’d spoken about the trip at almost every meal. They’d get home and sit beside each other at the table, and when it got quiet he would suggest something. It didn’t matter what. Sometimes it was where they’d stop for gas, or what time they should leave. One time he suggested they get an inflatable lilo, but she just laughed and waved him away. But sure enough, earlier that day they were stuffing the thing through the back window of the car, gas station attendants helping them push and the whole crowd of holiday-goers breaking into warm laugher.

She wouldn’t have run the aircon so high normally, since she felt it was inconsiderate. Even if they don’t charge for it, it must still cost an arm and a leg. And the motel wasn’t exactly fancy. But she had a couple of spots of sunburn, and the combination of the cool air and the remaining damp from the shower helped ease it a little. She didn’t normally burn, but she had been caught along a crescent ring around the back of her neck. She reached back and ran her fingers along it. It wasn’t sore to the touch. It felt nice to gently caress the spot. Like tingling.

Darshana’s costume was on the floor by the bathroom. The sounds of the running shower played out just beyond, although the whirr of the aircon pushed some of it away. She was on her belly, the aircon beside the bed and the window above it. It was already late, but it was still bright out. Darshana didn’t know how long the summer days lasted out here.

The motel room was alright, although the brown and mustard walls made it seem older than it was. But there was a great big flat screen TV and the bed was worn soft from all the years of use. And besides, they weren’t going to be here much. This was about the days by the water’s edge, and all the summer heat. Darshana smiled, her cheeks dimpling and giving her away, even as her face was almost all the way buried in the pillow.

The shower turned off and soon Gareth appeared. “These towels are really nice” he said. Darshana had raised her head up now, and her feet were in the air. She moved them in long, luxurious swaying movements and smiled at him suggestively, even though he wasn’t looking her way. He was focused on moving the towel across his body, his gaze occasionally drifting up to the blank TV mounted on the facing wall. He stayed behind the towel the entire time, not letting her fully see him, until he turned and went back into the bathroom. He came out a moment later, wearing the same shorts he had on earlier in the day.

He sat on the bed beside Darshana. She smiled up at him and he smiled back. “What?” he said, but she shrugged. He nodded around the room. “It’s not bad, right? Considering what we paid.” He stood and walked over to the window, and ran a hand through the condensation. It was smeared, but beyond you could now see the freeway turn steeply down a winding mountain pass. You couldn’t see them out the window, but on the drive in they shared a view of a range of mountains in the far distance. Darshana wasn’t sure why you couldn’t see them here. She wished you could see them from the lake. She would have liked that idea: lying on the pier, the water running up against the jetty at her back, and the mountains framing the whole thing in the far distance. She imagined the foothills blending into the haze drifting over the water.

“Do you want to eat here?” Gareth asked. I don’t know, said Darshana. It might be nice to go out. “Yeah, but we’ve been driving a lot today. We could get something and bring it back here. Lie in bed. Didn’t you say you felt tired?” There was a brief moment of silence, and then Gareth stood and wandered across to a few plastic packets they had piled in the corner. He began rummaging through them. I bet there’s something by the lake, Darshana suggested, but Gareth didn’t reply. Don’t you think so? she asked. “Sure, but I don’t know what. Maybe it’s just ice cream.” I think I saw some places that had burgers. They must have burgers, right?

Gareth grunted. He lifted a bottle of something from the packets and pulled out two red plastic cups. He said “I’ll be right back” and then stepped out the door. Darshana stared at the cups. They made her realise that there wasn’t a whole lot of colour in this room (the brown and mustard didn’t count). The red cups looked particularly bright. It may have been the light from out the window. Darshana sat up in bed and leaned on the windowsill. The hotel was only two floors up, and except for the rolling freeway all you could see down below was the parking lot. Still, it felt good to be naked in the window. Darshana felt young. She thought she looked good. The remains of the cool water made her skin feel tight and firm. She smiled down as an older couple walked away from the entrance of the hotel.

“Hey” Gareth said from the door, “someone’s going to see you.” There’s no one down there. “They’ll think you’re working.” Who? “Window shoppers.” Darshana laughed wildly, and Gareth smiled at the drinks. He had gone down to buy a few sodas from the vending machine. There was no fridge in the room, and he always wanted his drink ultra cold. He poured in some whiskey and added the soda, and brought the drinks across to the bed. They both got into their spots with their backs to the wall, and he stared up at the TV. He’s still not looking my way, Darshana thought, but it was okay. The drink was good, and it would loosen him up a bit. They hadn’t stayed in many hotels together and he probably doesn’t know how it all works.

He turned the TV on and an old show started playing. “They don’t have the full package” he said. “This is alright though.” The show was one they had both seen many times before, but they liked it, and it was strangely calming. Darshana remembered the few trips she took with her folks as a kid. Her family always tried to make the most of them and so the trips were often stressful. Her dad would wake her and her sisters very early, and they would spend the morning going from one thing to another. When they stopped for a few moments, her dad would quickly get jittery. He didn’t like to read and when the others got out their books he would wander around a while, until he couldn’t stay in the same place any longer. He had good days and bad days, but Darshana resented his restlessness. It made it hard to know how long she had. That time spent waiting for him to round the family up was always tense and somehow wrong. It wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

But by the afternoon they would all burn out. They’d get back to where they were staying and fall onto the couches. The exhaustion would mean they didn’t have to speak, and it would still be a few hours before her parents began making dinner. They would lay out some chips and nuts, and her parents would have drinks. For those few hours, it felt like a real holiday. That’s what the motel felt like.

Eventually Darshana began getting dressed, and Gareth asked “do you want to go back to the lake?” Yeah, she said. I think it would be nice. He nodded and went to find a clean t-shirt. Darshana put on a light summer dress that was a startling bright yellow. Back home she joked that the dress made her look like a traffic cone, but here it seemed right somehow. It swirled nicely around her legs, and the top half hugged her body tightly. She ran her hands down her sides, looking in the mirror. Gareth was reflected beside her, now dressed and waiting to go.

They wandered out of the hotel and into the parking lot. From here you could see the forecourt. The gas station sprawled around the motel. The busses from down on the coast all stopped here, and a mini city of fast food chains and convenience stores had popped up around them. Even that time of night, people thronged over the grey tarmac, lines of cars queueing at the pumps. It was the summer holiday crowd. “When we get back I should take the car down and fill up. It’ll be quiet then.” That’s a good idea, said Darshana. But something about the crowds had taken a little something from her voice. She sounded worried. Do you think it’ll be okay, come tomorrow? she asked. With all the traffic. “It’ll be busy. If we leave late enough they won’t be queuing at the tolls.”

Darshana nodded, but somehow she wasn’t sure. There were so many people. Gareth placed his hand on her shoulder and they turned and moved towards the car.


They had initially planned to go down to the coast. Darshana was from there originally, and they could stay with her family if they went a little out of the city. They wouldn’t stay there the whole time, because it was crowded and a bit uncomfortable. But it made things easier. And anyway there were lots of cheap places down the coast. People still went there, but not as many and not the same crowds. You could get a room in one of the beachside apartment towers and stay there as long as you liked.

The money was a problem, but it was more the timing that did them in. Darshana had some trouble earlier in the year and had used up almost all of her leave, and it was a long drive. It wasn’t worth it for only a day or two. And the coast would be packed solid this time of year. Gareth would have been stressed out if they got stuck in a traffic jam. The car wasn’t in good shape and he hated to borrow someone else’s. In all honestly Darshana wasn’t expecting a holiday at all, but someone at Gareth’s work mentioned the lake. They both knew this part of the country only as a stopover while driving down to the coast. The gas station where their hotel was was the only part of it they actually knew. She hadn’t known there was a lake at all, but Gareth made it sound really nice when he explained it to her. Thinking about it then, Darshana realised it was quite pretty.

And the lake really was beautiful. It was man-made, so it wasn’t quite as idyllic as a blue crescent among the trees. The area around the lake was a dusty white that might have been limestone. There were patches of grass and trees, and patches without. On the other side of the lake, campervans clustered into camps sites. People crowded around a few flimsy piers, as a couple of stray jet skis bounced across the waves. Over on this side it was busy, but the banks of the lake were so long and empty that people could space themselves all along it.

They had arrived around midday. There wasn’t parking near the water, but by that point they were so hot and bothered that they took a distant spot and started walking. They got a bit lost on the way, the trail falling away from their feet. Maybe that’s why they wandered out onto such a clear strip of land. Gareth walked straight on, into the water, and swam out. Darshana wasn’t such a confident swimmer, but the water was so still, so she tried to follow him. But then the crowds were there and the figures floating past weren’t Gareth. She looked around for him, her arms tiring at her side. Kids splashed the water all around her. Eventually they met up back on the shore.

They stayed until the early evening. They laid out a picnic blanket and snacked on the sandwiches Darshana had prepared for the drive. “It’s quieter than I expected” said Gareth. “And it’s already emptying out.” That night, it was virtually deserted. Across the water people could be seen passing in front of the lights of the campgrounds. A couple of the campervans had string lights along their sides, and they sparkled in the calm surface of the lake. It’s nice that it’s a bit cooler down here, said Darshana, but Gareth was looking up and down the waters’ edge. “There’s not a lot around here” he said. Yeah, replied Darshana. Maybe we came to the wrong part. Maybe on the other side… “I don’t know where else to go. I don’t like to drive these country roads at night. I’m tired of driving.”

Darshana glanced back at the car, sitting mostly alone in the parking lot. It was true, there was little about. There was the empty beachside. A few lights dotted the bend of the lake and might have been buildings. Darshana suggested that they walk towards them. “Walk where?” asked Gareth. Look over there, she replied, there’re lights down there. It looks like it might be the busier part. “That’s where the ranger station is.” Oh yeah? There must be food there. “Isn’t it far?” Darshana shrugged. It could be nice. An evening walk.

They wandered along the lake’s edge. Darshana wanted to get close, to put her feet in the water, but Gareth warned that in some places the drop-off was steep and she might fall in the dim light. Except for a few lanterns dotted near public toilets, they were trusting their eyes to adjust to the light. Streams cut across their path in places. They were easy to hop across, but the land was marshy. Their feet sank into the earth a few times and Gareth made a brief, sharp sound. Are you okay? Darshana asked. “My feet are covered in mud.” Are you hungry? she asked, wondering if maybe he was starting to get grouchy from the lack of food. “I hope it’s mud. It might be shit from the campsite.” Darshana did not reply.

They passed one set of lights they had seen in the distance, and then another. They were both small wooden buildings housing a few convenience stores. Both had windows that probably served food in the day, but were shuttered now. “Do you think we should turn back?” Gareth asked, glancing at the next light in the distance. And then, before Darshana could reply, he said “we should try one more.” The next building looked the same as the previous two. Through the window was a shop selling costumes and boogie boards and inflatable animals. It all looked closed, but a strip of fairy lights led them up the stairs. There was an open deck filled with picnic tables, and it was completely empty. Faint music played out with the telltale tinny gargle of a cell phone.

A waiter hustled out from somewhere, holding two menus. “Table for two?” he asked, and Gareth nodded. The waiter placed the menus down on the nearest table, but Darshana pointed to a seat at the end of the deck, overlooking the water, and the waiter led them over there. “It’s so quiet” Gareth said, once they were alone. Do you want to stay? He seemed unsure. “Let’s get something quickly and then go, alright?” Gareth looked around the restaurant. His eyes scanned every shred of it, but refused to fall on Darshana’s. The waiter appeared carrying an old CD case, and then was gone again. A crackley jazz played out. It was the type of music Gareth called ‘elevator music’, but it suited the calm evening. The high notes punctuated the gently lapping water.

The drinks arrived and they toasted their holiday and lapsed into silence. They looked at their menus and Gareth asked “what are you getting?” I don’t know. Maybe some chicken. What are you getting? “I guess a burger. Do you want to get a plate of chips to share?” Sure, sounds nice. They both took a sip of water and noted that this is nice and “yeah, it’s quiet now.” They sat quietly after that. The waiter came and they ordered, and that broke things a little.

The wind played off the water, and Gareth closed his eyes and let it dance across his strained face. What? asked Darshana. “Nothing. It just feels nice.” Thank you for bringing us out here, she said. “It was a good decision.” I’m sorry we couldn’t go down to the coast. “No. I’m glad we found this place.” They held hands across the table and Gareth looked up the length of Darshana’s arm. “You’re already so tanned.” Yeah, after tomorrow I’m going to be so dark. Darshana hesitated, and then asked: are you feeling a bit better? A bit less stressed?

It wasn’t that or anything, but something lifted. It might have been inevitable, with Darshana feeling the way she did. There was an undeniable pull about how happy and easy she felt. She kept thinking back to diving into the water after the long dive and couldn’t shake the fresh, warm, happy sense it gave her. It might have also been the drinks, or it might have been the fact that there was no one else around. Gareth would be happy about that. Whatever it was, he perked up a little. They spoke, not about anything in particular, but the type of little call and responses that define the closest relationships. Darshana thought he seemed more like himself.

At one point he asked “what do you think the food is going to be like?” Oh God, she replied, I don’t know. “We’re probably going to have the shits all day tomorrow.” They laughed, and Darshana declared that even if they were wrecked by the food, she would be out there in the water for sure. “Even if you’re throwing up in the lake?” Even then. It’ll keep everyone away.

But the food wasn’t like that at all. It was incredible. It wasn’t exactly gourmet, and the layers of strange coloured sauces probably weren’t good for you. But the burger was a thick homemade patty, and the chicken was flame-grilled in an incredible paprika and lemon blend. They brought out a complimentary bean and chorizo dip, and a mound of thick cut potato wedges. They sat in an enormous salad bowl in the middle of the table and were lightly drizzled with olive oil. Darshana and Gareth both agreed they were the best chips they’d ever tasted. Afterwards the waiter brought out little cups of crushed ice. They were described on the menu as ‘granita’, but they were more like thick slush-puppies, dyed in luminous purple and yellow.

At some point Darshana looked across at Gareth with a desperately serious look on her face, and everything suddenly changed. He froze in place and said “what is it?” in a low, rushed tone. And then she stuck out her bright purple tongue and they both burst out laughing.


They walked back along the way they came. It seemed a much easier walk now, knowing where they were going and how far it was, and not really caring either way. The light easy feeling from the dinner kept on, and even when Gareth’s feet were again submerged in the mud he only shouted out “it’s up to my ankle!” and they laughed through it. They got within eyeshot of the carpark, and then Gareth veered a little towards the water, saying “look at this.”

Someone had left a small collection of empty beer bottles beneath a tree. Gareth gathered them into a pile that he cradled in his arms. He wandered a little back from the tree. Darshana watched smiling from a distance. He lifted one and threw it hard and overhand towards the tree. He missed and it flew beyond it and landed with a crash. Darshana saw the whole thing happen but she was still startled. Her expression dropped away to a blank confusion. “Damn it” Gareth said, but he was already aiming another. It landed on target this time and shattered against the bough of the tree. “Hahaha!” he shouted out, turning to Darshana. “I got it!” She motioned towards him, but could not yet react.

He had more at his feet and kept throwing them. It seemed to be taking a long time. He threw one after the other, but it just seemed to be taking so long. She realised quickly that he was enjoying it and she smiled along now. She tried laughing and shouting when he did, but the sound wouldn’t come, so instead she began getting closer to him and trying to get his attention. Babe, she was saying, babe. But he told her “one second, let me get this one. Hang back so it doesn’t get you.” She bit her lip and wandered back. She wanted to get away from that awful sound.

She had thought of it when they had arrived, and now there was no other car in the lot. She jogged a little towards the lake and called again. Gareth looked up and across, meeting her gaze. Let’s go swimming! she said. “Now?” he asked, still laughing, but unsure now. Yeah! Darshana did a little shake of her hips and then began unbuttoning her top. Gareth was still holding the last bottle in his hand, and wandered closer, seemingly confused. He glanced around. Come on! she said. “I don’t think we’re allowed to”, said Gareth, but Darshana just laughed. There’s no one around. “But we’re not supposed to swim at night”, he tried. She pulled off her top and quickly pulled down her shorts.

She looked at him, wiggled again, and then unbuttoned her bra. She covered herself up and looked around instinctively, but was then laughing again. She quickly pulled off the rest of it and then jogged down to the water. She wanted to shout ‘come on!’ but was scared that someone would hear, so instead she kept on straight down and crashed into the water. She dived a little under and crested the surface perfectly, turning to see Gareth.

He was close to the water’s edge and was scooping down to collect her clothes. He held them in one hand and a bottle in the other. He looked out at her and placed everything on the ground. Very slowly he pulled off his t-shirt, folded it, and placed it atop his flip-flops. He pulled down his shorts and did the same. He wandered close to the water’s edge, still wearing his boxers, and looked out at her, his hands held awkwardly at his side. Darshana’s body was hidden in the dark water, but she looked up at him imploringly. She still didn’t want to yell, she was sure someone would hear. She was convinced. She swam out a little more, but he continued to stand there. The beer bottle fell over and rolled past his feet, down the gentle incline and into the water.

Christopher Wood is a writer and economist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. His fiction writing has appeared in the Southeast Review, and he is the author of screenplays for the independent films The Quiet and Soft hulk. His nonfiction has been published by a number of newspapers, journals and development organisations. He is employed as an official in the South African government.

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Issue 11

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