An extract from ‘The Cone Snail’ by Barrie Sherwood, which is published in his new collection, The Angel Tiger and Other Stories (Epigram Books), in October 2019.
THE job, and all that it led to, came to Andra through an uncle of sorts, a Singaporean Sikh who lived with his aunt and owned a fleet of five taxis that did a good business between the airport and the resort on the coast.
A researcher had come to—
“A what?” Andra said.
“A scientist,” Lakhi Uncle explained, turning the big Toyota Crown onto the coastal road. “From abroad. Only two weeks here. She needs someone to collect from the reef. Asked me if I knew any young men who could swim and speak English. Didn’t say anything about being lazy but still I thought of you.”
“Collecting from the reef?”
Lakhi Uncle waved a nonchalant hand. “She has permission,” he said. “I’ll take you to her. You negotiate directly.”
“What do you think? Price!”
“Will you take a cut?”
“You pratickly my nephew! How many taxis I have? You think I need a cut of your little job? You just keep her happy.” He smacked Andra’s shoulder and took a last drag from his cigarette. “Anything she asks.”
How Lakhi Uncle had any success as a taxi driver Andra didn’t know: he trundled along at 40 km/h with an almost total disregard for other cars. But the slower he drove, the longer Andra could sit back in the comfortably cracked leather seat, in the cool wash of the air-con and listen to the radio.
Their destination was a nurse’s college with tidy grounds and tidy girls hugging books to their chests as they walked in groups of three and four and nine—a forest of bare legs.
“They call that a uniform,” Lakhi Uncle said. “Can you believe it?”
Andra was in heaven. Their skirts were above the knee and you could see the outline of their bras through their white shirts, back and front. No half-naked tourist on the beach could be nearly as enticing.
“See what you missed leaving school?”
“What did I miss?” Andra said. “This is a women’s college.”
“So clever one. Always a reply,” Lakhi Uncle said. “They’ve got permission to wear. You? No permission to touch. These girls never marry a boy like you lah. These girls going to marry doctors. Businessmen even.”
They crawled down the gravel road through the grounds and pulled up before one of the buildings. A foreign woman was standing smoking a cigarette on the steps. When she saw them emerging from the car she dropped the cigarette in a can and pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head.
Andra thought of the albino woman who had come down from the interior last year: the people in the hills were superstitious and after two stillborn children in a fortnight they had wanted to kill her. So the police had brought her to the coast. She worked at Bagus Guesthouse for a time.
“Mr Gupta,” said the woman, coming down the stairs.
“Hello, Miss Beth.” Lakhi Uncle made a little bow. “My pleasure to see you again. This is Andra.”
Hand extended, she loomed above him all white and bronze and pink in the sun. He felt a sudden annoyance with Lakhi Uncle for putting him into this awkward position. He put out a limp hand and she took it in her strong fingers.
“Mr Gupta says you’re a good swimmer,” she said. “You’ve got the physique at least. And you know the reef?”
The sun off the stairs and the façade of the building was making Andra’s eyes water.
“He fishes,” said Lakhi Uncle. “By hand. Slipper lobster, crab, octopus, sea cucumber.”
“Good,” she said, and put her hands on her hips. “Shy, isn’t he?”
Lakhi Uncle tousled Andra’s hair. “Act shy buay shy, this one. He’s just a beach boy.”
“Well, let me show you what we’ll be looking for.”
Lakhi Uncle gave Andra a rougher than necessary push—“Go ahead!”—and Andra followed the gold sandals and tight white jeans up the stairs, berating himself as he went. Agreeing to this had been a big mistake. Though everyone constantly told him that he needed money, he didn’t. They went through an echoing lobby and up a flight of stairs to a room on the second floor with windows overlooking the gardens of the college.
“My lab for the next two weeks,” she said.
The room was full of equipment. It looked something like a kitchen at one of the big resorts, but Andra didn’t recognise these ovens and computers and appliances. On one countertop there were scales and an array of jars and a large blue aquarium. It was full of water and there was a layer of sand a hand’s width deep at the bottom, but no fish.
Miss Beth smiled at Andra. “Looks empty, right?”
Her eyes were the same colour as the aquarium. Andra looked back at the sandy bottom and the plastic tube from which bubbles emerged in a trickle. Miss Beth picked up a plastic jar with a perforated lid and sprinkled brown powder onto the water.
“Watch,” she said.
Languidly it drifted down, so fine it disappeared. Nothing happened. Andra met Lakhi Uncle’s glance.
But Miss Beth pointed. “There,” she said.
A dimple had appeared in the sand. Then half a dozen more. They deepened to reveal quivering pink flesh, like so many shrews nosing their way out. The sand bulged and slid away to reveal cone snails, their filigree of brown making a spiral pattern against the white shells. Andra had seen many such shells washed up on the beach, and at the market where tourists bought them for a US dollar or more each, but he’d rarely seen one alive, surprisingly mobile, shifting about on a skirt of flesh.
“Marbled cone snails,” she said. “Conus textile. These are between three and seven years old. That’s actually the tongue you see.” She turned to them. “I suppose you know how dangerous they are.”
Since he was a child, he’d been told. Only three things can kill you in the sea: blue octopus, cone snail, your own stupid self.