The Bit in Between

A Wave of Nausea

This is how it starts.

A young man sits alone in an airport lounge. The seat beside him is empty. Someone sits down.

This is how it starts and every time it starts like this. In every universe. In every dimension. In every possible version of this story, this is the start. It starts like this because life is nothing but a series of tides and waves, the constant movement of a vast ocean propelled by the sun, the moon and what scientists swear to us isn’t magic. Most times they trickle, sometimes they surge, and every so often the earth realigns and the ocean responds in kind. There are no tsunamis in this story – no seismic vibrations or geological cataclysms – but there are waves. Tides come and go, and if you know how to read them you can predict what will happen. And here is the choice: you can either adapt in anticipation – raise yourself on stilts, sandbag your heart or make your life faraway in the hills – or else you can get on with it, living your days knowing it could strike at any moment, because sometimes even the most effective early warning systems clang their bells and sound their sirens too late. Sometimes it is not the big waves that bring the greatest devastation. It is the slow-moving ones – silent and powerful – that gradually, deceptively, inundate the landscape, then just as quietly retreat, taking everything with them. When they go, the structures on the shore remain but everything inside is gone. The accumulated trappings of a lifetime, all gone. This world is more water than earth – more places to swim than stand – and all things are islands in the greater scheme. This is the story of islands – of one big island and nine hundred small ones. Imagine all those waves.

Like many stories it starts with a wave of nausea. It starts like this because Oliver hates airports. Because he hates waiting. Because on this particular day, at this particular airport, in this particular waiting lounge, he is exhausted and angry and everything in him just doesn’t want to be a part of this world. The young woman who sits down beside him smells like patchouli or musk or some other pungent, earthy scent and Oliver hates this very much. Her arm flops over the shared armrest, knocking his own, and he hates this too. She sighs loudly and he can tell she is about to start talking to him, which fills him with a hatred so intense he is surprised he doesn’t lean over and stuff his boarding pass into her mouth. He would, he tells himself, but he is too tired, so he crinkles an empty Mars Bar wrapper in his pocket, feeling the tiny crumbs of leftover chocolate melt, leaving a grainy residue on his fingertips.

‘God, I hate waiting at airports,’ she moans, giving him a look that he refuses to return. ‘It’s like, come on! Do we have to check in so early? What’s the rush?’ She shakes her head and looks up at the ceiling. ‘Planes!’

He does not respond, quietly wishing the section of ceiling above the young woman would cave in or else the drug-sniffing beagle would get a taste for blood. The young woman reaches across and offers him an almond from a plastic packet and Oliver instantly feels bad for fantasising about her death. He takes one guiltily.

‘They’re organic,’ she assures him and he suppresses the hate that tries to rise up again.

He concentrates on chewing the almond, and takes another when she offers. Then, because he is, after all, not a bad guy but is just having a bad day/week/month, he feels guilty about his anger and decides to be a decent person and engage in conversation. He turns to say something to her, possibly to comment on how uncomfortable the chairs always seem to be in airports, but before he can say anything, she throws up on him.

There are lots of things that make people throw up: drinking too much, going on carnival rides, going on carnival rides after drinking too much. And, as Alison discovered, eating an entire jar of sun-dried tomatoes in five minutes. In fairness, she hadn’t really wanted to, but she couldn’t stand the customs officer’s smug expression when he had told her she couldn’t take them with her.

‘But they would have broken if I put them in my checkin baggage,’ she had pleaded.

‘That’s not my problem,’ he’d barked.

She’d opened her mouth to argue, but he placed a hand on his security belt and glanced at his colleagues.

‘Fine,’ she muttered. ‘Wait.’

And that was when she had opened the jar and eaten the contents. When there was nothing left but an empty murky oily mess, she felt sick. Her hands and face were

streaked with oil and her stomach was starting to roll, but she held her head up jauntily and handed the jar to the customs officer.

‘Is that all?’ she asked.

In the long snaking line of waiting travellers behind her, someone broke into lone applause. The customs officer just shook his head and waved her on.

‘Thank you,’ she replied and strode all of three metres before she was stopped by the bomb detection officer.

‘Madam, you know why I’m stopping you, don’t you?’ the officer said.

Alison looked at her with unsteady eyes. ‘Yes, I do, and while you will not find anything about my person other than the contents of an entire jar of sun-dried tomatoes, I would have stopped me too.’

The need to throw up intensified as she made her way to the boarding gate. For some reason it had made sense to eat something else to try to soak up the excess oil in her stomach, and she had found a packet of almonds in the newsagents. It cheerfully proclaimed to be organic and had a parade of dancing almonds on it. Alison could never understand why food manufacturers always felt the need to instil life into inanimate objects. As a vegetarian, she ate things like almonds because they didn’t have arms or legs or big scary manga eyes. Anthropomorphism . . . She hadn’t used that word since her arts degree days. There you go – all that money hadn’t been wasted . . . Another wave of nausea surged and she flopped down in the nearest seat. A young man sat beside her staring angrily at the ground. Hoping to ward off the intense desire to vomit, she tried talking to him. It didn’t work. In the flurry of activity that followed – the young man jumping up in disgust, an elderly passer-by stopping to see if she was all right, an airport cleaner approaching with his cart before surveying the scene and hurrying in the opposite direction – Alison only really absorbed one thing. The young man was glaring at her, his hands aloft because he didn’t want them to touch her vomit, his mouth open in disgusted confused rage. He has beautiful eyes, she thought to herself. Beautiful, big, brown eyes . . . And then another wave of nausea washed over her and she threw up again, this time on herself.


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Extracted from The Bit In Between by Claire Varley, Macmillan Australia, RRP $29.99