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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

The Day of the Gecko
A short story by Shena Mackay








The World’s Smallest Unicorn
Shena Mackay
Jonathan Cape Ltd.
London 1999
223pp
£12.99
0224051601




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Books by Shena Mackay

When the official part of the trip, at the World Book Fair in Delhi, was over, Alicia and her assistant Natasha flew to Goa. The road from the airport wound downward to the sea through banyans, trailing creepers and banana trees, passing grazing cattle and marshes of small white water lilies standing erect on their stems. The taxi hit a bump and in her mind’s eye Allie saw her suitcase flying from the boot, spilling books and business clothes, and submerging with a splash and scattering of storks. She wondered if she would care if it did happen. After the heat and hassle of the city, the angst of travelling and hotel life, she could see how a person might be seduced by the surrounding lushness and enervated by the green humidity.

Now and then they glimpsed houses with verandas and wooden balconies breasting the foliage, pot-bellied pigs, black with pink stockings, rooting in the dust, goats and chickens, buffaloes. As each house was swallowed up behind them, Allie thought, her heartbeat quickening, perhaps that’s the one. Maybe that’s where Eric Alabaster has gone to ground. And, with a pang, she wondered if that woman carrying a bundle of reeds on her head might be Eric’s wife or if any of the schoolchildren in their bright blue uniforms and flip-flops could be his.

Eric Alabaster had published four novels between 1970 and 1985 and then he had disappeared. He had always been a reclusive yet charismatic figure, a sun-bleached traveller, and when it became apparent that he had gone missing several men claimed to have been his closest friend and various women declared that he had been in love with them. Alabaster had no family, except some cousins in Australia with whom he hadn’t kept in touch. For a while it became common knowledge that Alabaster was an international arms dealer, a spy, a double agent working both for and against the government. Rumours of murder or suicide and speculation as to his whereabouts died down as the years passed, although his name still bobbed up like a cork from time to time in conversation and literary criticism. It was not until one of her authors had come forward with the idea of writing his biography that Allie had read Alabaster’s books and determined to relaunch them to coincide with the publication of the Life. Alicia Compton was the editorial director of a small publishing house which had been taken over by a large conglomerate and for the time being at least it seemed that she had a free hand to develop her list. With apparent casualness she made enquiries among Alabaster’s former associates which led her nowhere, and as far as his former publisher was concerned, the trail had gone cold in India.

It had seemed to Allie as she read the novels that Alabaster was speaking directly to her; she was his first reader, the one for whom the books had been written. They were exactly the same age. She had gazed at the pictures on his bookjackets until his lips almost moved in a smile, and then, as she planned her trip to Delhi, it was as if a bottle had been washed ashore at her feet. A bottle tossed into the Arabian Sea containing the message that Eric Alabaster was waiting for her in Goa. It was the perfect place to disappear, and who knew what masterwork might have been penned beside that turquoise sea? With his white-blond hair and light eyes he should not be hard to identify.

Allie became aware of Tasha’s conversation with the taxi driver.

‘Why are you coming here?’ he was asking. ‘You should go to north Goa where more tourists are going.’

‘That’s why we came here. We don’t want to be tourists. Actually, we’re sort of looking for somebody.’

‘I think you’re looking for me.’

‘Take it easy, Tasha,’ muttered Allie, regretting not for the first time that Tasha would be her companion in this earthly paradise; Tasha in India had proved quite a different person from the London Tasha, or perhaps, having cast off her metropolitan black, she was showing herself in her true colours. Allie’s briefcase was full of the cards of publishers and academics, unsolicited manuscripts and those of two writers she had signed up, while Tasha’s wallet bulged with the scribbled names and addresses of boys in carpet shops and hotel waiters, the cards of jewellers and the man from whom she’d bought her Pashmina shawl. It would serve Tasha right if that mahout she had got so friendly with in Delhi turned up on her doorstep in Fulham with his elephant. Tasha Calloway was generally described as gamine; to Allie, her face was like a cat’s, who rubs against your legs while knowing there is a dead bird behind the sofa.

Tasha had let her down badly in Delhi, taking off on a day’s jaunt to the Taj Mahal, leaving Allie to cope alone with a portfolio of appointments. She had tossed Allie one of her postcards of the Taj, saying, ‘You can send it to somebody and pretend you saw it yourself. After all, everybody knows what it looks like.’ Now, through the taxi window, Allie could see coconut palms soaring against the hot blue sky. ‘There will be plenty more pebbles on the beach,’ she told Tasha, ‘or fish in the sea.’

‘Will you answer me something?’ the driver asked. ‘Why it is you people like to be naked on the beach?’

Before Tasha could reply, Allie said, ‘No, you answer me something. How far is it to the Da Silva Guest House?’

‘We are there, mamma.’

The Da Silva Guest House was composed of the original structure, where the family lived, and five built-on apartments which faced the sea. A shrine to the Virgin was set into the front wall of the house, and roses, hibiscus and jacaranda wreathed the veranda and wooden shutters. Each apartment was designed to take two people but although Allie, enchanted by the guest house’s careless perfection, said that she was willing to share, she was relieved when Tasha insisted it would be better if they each had their own space. Allie was shown to Number Three, Tasha to Number Five. They saw a young couple disappearing into Number Four. ‘Honeymooners,’ Tasha mouthed, under the noise of the crows who strutted and flapped in the palm trees, cawing ceaselessly. As soon as they had dealt with the formalities, the women put on their swimming costumes under their clothes, slathered themselves in mosquito repellent and as low-protection sun cream as they dared, and headed for the beach.

‘Mad dogs and Englishwomen’, observed Tasha, as they walked the short distance.

They had seen several dogs already, pretty dogs with pricked ears, quite unlike the sad, scabby creatures that slunk about the city. Notices in their rooms had warned against wandering on deserted parts of the beach after sunset, particularly if they were scantily dressed, unless they were able to defend themselves.

‘I’ve got a gecko in my cupboard,’ said Tasha.

A gecko? It was a sign. The Gecko was Allie’s favourite among Eric’s books. Obviously they had been given the wrong rooms. Allie had found only a striped frog swimming round her lavatory bowl, and scooped it out with the red plastic jug which presumably had been supplied for the purpose.

‘I’ll swap rooms if you like,’ she offered, pulling Tasha past the man who had stepped out from his shop, a structure hung with carpets and fabrics and fronted by a rail of sun-faded garments.

‘But I really need a sarong,’ Tasha protested, adding, ‘no, it’s OK, he’s quite a sweet gecko. We’ve bonded.’


There were no pebbles on the beach, just shells and slivers and tiny glittering particles in the process of being ground into sifting sand. The fishing fleet floated along the horizon. Pineapple tops pecked by the crows and hollow coconuts were the only litter. Tasha picked up two coconut shells, doing a little dance and singing ‘At the Copa, Copacabana’. Allie was reminded of the sinister, sinuous beach boys who writhed around Ava Gardner in The Night of the Iguana; Deborah Kerr arriving in her white dress at that ramshackle clifftop hotel and Richard Burton as Shannon, the whisky priest tied to his hammock like the poor tethered iguana.

‘Look at this!’ she exclaimed, running her fingers along the heavy, hewn flank of an upturned boat as they undressed in its shadow. ‘Just think, Tasha – generations of fishermen have been putting out to sea in craft of this self-same design, if not in this very vessel, from time immemorial.’ A lump came to her throat as she said, ‘You know that poem by Flecker, "The Old Ships" …’

‘Not that I recall,’ said Tasha. ‘Personally, I think dropping the poetry list was the best thing we ever did.’

They waded into the warm sea, which flounced around their legs. Tasha flung herself on to a wave. Unfortunately, this crazy granny spouting on about poetry was the price she had to pay for February in Goa. She was in no doubt that if they should happen on Allie’s fugitive author, it would be her and not Allie that he would fall for. Anyway, old Alabaster would be a wizened wreck by now, out of his head on toddy, palm wine and drugs. Allie wasn’t bad for her age though, she had to concede; tall, naturally thin and fair, divorced a hundred years ago. She never spoke about her private life and Tasha supposed she didn’t have one, apart from her family, which didn’t count. Tasha swam out a bit further and turned to wave. Allie stood gazing at the horizon, with the modest skirt of her swimming costume undulating gently on the surface like a jellyfish.

Allie was thinking about her grandchildren, little Alf and Rosy, setting them down with their buckets and spades in what shade the palm trees gave, anointing them with total sunblock, arranging the folds of candy-coloured Foreign Legion caps to protect their tender, hollowed necks, showing them the antennae waving from a spiral shell, She waved back to the bikini-ed philistine sporting on the crest of a wave and swam out to join her. It was absurd to be blubbering over her grandchildren when she was here, in a Shangri-La far too hot for them, on a quest that might crown her career.

Allie and Tasha were sitting under the woven palm-leaf roof of one of the restaurants strung along the sands, sipping pineapple lassi, with boldly patterned sarongs draped round their shoulders and two more in their beach bags. ‘Might as well stick with the pineapple,’ Allie had said. When they had emerged from the sea, six or seven hawkers were camped beside their clothes, one of them a young girl with a basket of fresh fruit on her head. Half-naked among the swelling crowd of brightly clothed, bejewelled traders and basted by the sun, they were a pair of pink sitting ducks. Sticky with pineapple juice and clutching their purchases, they had fled ignominiously at last from the wheedling, bullying voices.

‘You must admit it has a mellow tone,’ said Tasha, stroking a note from the drum on her knees. ‘And your sandalwood beads do smell divine.’

‘I’ll probably give them to my daughter, Sal.’

Allie showed the boy who brought their drinks her copy of The Gecko with Eric’s picture on its cover, but drew a blank.

‘I had a word with Madame Da Silva. I’ve arranged for us to hire a couple of bikes tomorrow. We can make an early start into the interior,’ she told Tasha.

‘But I’ve rented a scooter from him. Mister Da Silva. I thought you could ride pillion.’

‘Absolutely not. I’ve paid the deposit. Anyway, you don’t have a license.’

‘You don’t need one here. I paid a deposit too – anyway, I thought you’d be pleased that I’d used my initiative, like you’re always telling me to.’

‘We’re not in the office now, Tasha. You’ll just have to explain and get your money back.’

Tasha’s straw siphoned up a piece of pineapple with a mutinous gurgle.

‘I suppose you do realize,’ she said, ‘that there are probably dozens of ancient, white-haired, superannuated hippies in Goa. Perhaps that’s your bloke walking along the beach, mahogany man there with the medallion and ponytail.’

We must remain friends at least for the duration, Allie thought. Then we shall see how warm that expensive Pashmina keeps our young friend when she gets back to London and finds herself out on her ear, busking in the underground with her drum.

‘Just think how all that pedalling will tone up our thighs. And walking on the sand and swimming, it’ll do us more good than weeks at the gym,’ she said.

Tasha stretched out a leg as if she could see no room for improvement in that taut calf.

They dined at another beach café on a table sunk in sand. The delicately spiced food was delicious. How pretty the blue fairylights looping the fronded canopy were, like blue chillies hung out to dry in the warm wind, how clear the stars. How desolate Allie felt. Ghostly crabs scurried from the sea’s lacy edge and disappeared in the darkness of the beach. If only it were Eric sitting here beside her, his hand over hers. Tasha was flirting with a dog.

What a waste, thought Tasha.

In a concerted effort at amusement they giggled at the dessert menu. Buddha’s Belly. A Goanese speciality. They insisted they must try it. Slivers of striated cake decked with cream and star fruit.

‘Strange but surprisingly good,’ said Allie.

Tasha agreed. If Allie imagined she was going to spend every evening chortling over Buddha’s Belly with her, she had another think coming. A couple strolled hand in hand along the beach. Allie became aware that she was humming ‘Hello Young Lovers’ from The King and I. So it had come to this.

‘It’s been a long day. Shall we go back now?’ she asked. At least Tasha wouldn’t have recognized the song; everything before 1960 was pre-history as far as she was concerned.

‘It’s ten to nine.’

Allie sat it out for the duration of another drink before saying that she really had to get to bed.

‘OK,’ said Tasha, but when they came to Fernandez Hideaway, the last bar on the beach before the track that led to Da Silva’s, she sat down at a table, saying, ‘You go ahead. I’ll see you in the morning.’

‘I can’t leave you here by yourself. It’s really dark.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m a big girl.’

‘No you’re not.’

But she left her under the awning to the beat of a 1980s hit, and worried as she lay on her bed beneath the whirring ceiling fan, writing postcards, not tired in the least. She addressed the postcard of the Taj Mahal to her mother. Tasha captured by dacoits, Tasha wandering on the deserted beach, scantily dressed, Tasha the streetwise Londoner following some local Lothario into the darkness beyond the banyan trees to find herself lassoed by a liana and surrounded by jeering youths, unable to defend herself. Allie took her chair outside to watch the stars, and was disconcerted to see a security guard, a chowkidar in a quasi-military uniform patrolling the grounds with a rifle. She could hear the sea, and through the open windows of Number Four, the unmistakable sounds of the honeymooners making love. She went in again, locking her door and putting the key on her bedside table.


She was woken by a raucous massed choir of crows. Sunshine was streaming through her shutters. She showered, put on a white cotton dress, and went out on to her veranda.

‘Morning!’

A middle-aged English couple in crisp shirts and shorts were eating Weetabix outside Number One.

‘Your daughter beat you to it, then,’ said the man.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘Off out on her scooter half an hour ago. What it is to be young, eh?’

All Allie could say was, ‘Where did you get your coffee?’

‘Kitchen, said the woman. ‘Why don’t you trot along and get yours and join us for breakfast. You’re welcome to some of our Weetabix – we always travel with a few boxes just in case, and Jonty won’t set foot in Abroad without his Marmite.’

‘Thanks,’ said Allie faintly. She recognized them as the popular thespians Jilly and Jonty Hazlecombe, stars of a dozen indistinguishable TV sitcoms. He played the irascible husband, she the long-suffering wife.

‘Blasted milk’s hot again,’ said Jonty, peering into the aluminium jug. ‘Can’t these people ever get it right? Is the concept of cold milk quite beyond their powers of reasoning?’

‘Give it to me, I’ll take it back,’ said Jilly patiently. I’ll walk along with – sorry, what did you say your name was? We’re Jonty and Jilly, by the way.’

‘Alicia. I know who you are – I mean, I recognized you of course.’

They left Jonty musing aloud, ‘Alicia. We knew an Alicia once. Darlington rep, 1972, was it, darling?’

As Allie followed Jilly to the Da Silva’s kitchen, blinking away the tears caused by Tasha’s latest betrayal, she reflected that, having recently read a magazine feature on the Hazlecombes, she knew rather more than she wished to about Jilly and Jonty’s home life. The walls of their eighteenth-century coach house with its superb view of the Thames, were crowded with the naïve Victorian portraits of pigs that they loved to pick up at antique fairs or while pottering round junk shops. Jonty was partial to a particular black pudding that could be obtained only from a specialist butcher in Barnes; Sunday mornings often found Jonty in the couple’s recently refurbished French farmhouse-style kitchen, enjoying ‘cook’s perks’ of some fine château-bottled vintage as he experimented with the latest exotic recipe cajoled from a local chef while on a well-earned holiday off the beaten track. Jilly’s tapestry chair backs, stitched during quiet moments between takes, were a byword among their host of theatrical friends. The Hazlecombe children, Ferdinand and Perdita, had followed their parents into the profession. Allie had seen them both recently, Ferdi and Perdi, now in their twenties, playing mildly mutinous teenagers in a middle-class drama she had been too lethargic to switch off.


Over coffee she found herself confiding her quest to the Hazlecombes and showing them Eric Alabaster’s picture. Jonty prodded it with his finger.

‘I’m pretty sure we spotted your chappie the other day. Along the coast at Benaulim. Hair down to his shoulders, wearing one of those thong thingies and nothing else. Haggling over a pineapple with half a dozen beach boys.’

‘He was a German paedophile, darling!’

The Hazlecombes paused, as if listening for the canned laughter which did not follow their exchange.

‘We’re booked on the dolphin trip at nine. I’m sure they could squeeze another one in if you’re up for it,’ said Jilly.

‘As the bishop said to the actress,’ said Jonty.

‘Maybe not this morning,’ Allie said. ‘I’d better wait for Tasha. We’ve rented a couple of pushbikes.’

When she saw dolphins it would not be courtesy of the Hazlecombes, jammed up against Jonty’s hairless leg with its sea anemone of broken veins.

‘Have fun, then,’ said Jonty, with a petulant quiver of his full lower lip.

Then he was on his feet, bending forward with one leg cocked behind him, left hand palm upwards on the base of his spine, right hand shielding his eyes as he scanned the horizon.

‘"Has anybody seen our ship?"’ he sang. ‘"The HMS – "’

‘Dis-gusting,’ supplied Jilly, breaking into a few steps of a sailor’s hornpipe.

Allie remembered that they had returned to their first love, the stage, a few months ago to star in a brief season of Noël Coward’s shorter works at a provincial theatre, for charity.


Eleven o’clock found Allie pedalling along with sea water spurting from her tyres, avoiding jellyfish and minute crabs that disappeared down tiny tunnels. She saw a sun-dried red chilli floating in a frill of foam. It was exhilarating, but she knew that at some point she must dismount and push the bike through the soft sand to the road and peer into people’s yards and through their windows. How much easier it would be if Tasha were there. Allie had no doubt that Tasha had sped off to some assignation made last night under the coloured light bulbs of Fernandez Hideaway. In spite of herself, she smiled at the sandpipers running from her on their twinkling legs; she rested to watch them and a dozen men who were burned to the colour of the boat they were hauling ashore. Then at the approach of a group of women with bulging bags, each holding out a sarong to catch the breeze, gaudy billowing ships in full sail, Allie mounted her saddle and accelerated away.

On the road she encountered pairs of pink Brits on bicycles, local people going about their business, a herd of buffalo, huge velvet-winged butterflies that she tried to capture on her camera. A group of schoolgirls called out to her and Allie braked in the dust. They wanted pens, she realized too late. Had she known before she embarked on this trip how often she would meet this request she would have armed herself with a hundred plastic Bics. Ashamed of her penless state, but with her heart beating faster as she took her copy of Eric’s Angostura Bitters from her bag, she searched each face for a trace of English paternity. The girls assumed the book was a gift, took it disdainfully, and walked on. At a roadside clothes stall Allie stopped again and pushed through the flap of carpet which draped its interior. Twenty minutes later she came out into the glare none the wiser about Eric but in possession of a grey embroidered skirt and blouse. Streaks of colour in the folds suggested they had once been blue. Sitting on an iron chair at a Coca-Cola stand, watching an ancient woman scratching red soil with a wooden rake, Allie was conscious of being thousands of miles from home and in someone else’s country.

She cycled on until she came to a blindingly white church like an elaborate bridal cake with many coats of royal icing starting to melt in the sun. If anybody could tell her if Eric Alabaster was in this part of the country, it would be the parish priest. The church was empty. Bunches of flowers wilting on the ends of the pews were redolent of a recent wedding. Allie lit a candle, mumbling an embarrassed anglican request to Saints Anthony and Jude to help her to find Eric, hoping that a fatherly old priest would emerge from one of the confessionals and perceive her as not just another vulgar tourist. She lingered in front of a painting of St Francis Xavier, with her new skirt draped over her head as a sign of respect but no priest came.

‘You might have waited!’ Tasha was sprawled topless in a chair outside her apartment. ‘Don’t tell me you actually paid money for that faded ethnic tourist tat after all you’ve said! They must have seen you coming.’

‘Cover yourself up! What would the Da Silvas think? Remember you’re in a Catholic country.’

‘That’s OK, I’m a Catholic.’

Tasha’s insolent breasts jeered at her, provoking her to say, ‘Look, Tasha, let’s not keep up the pretence that we’re colleagues or even friends. As far as I’m concerned you’re at perfect liberty to do anything you like. Go off with whom you like, get murdered by anyone you choose. It’s fine by me.’

A sudden jagged pain seemed to split her skull, making her think of a tree struck by lightning. Holding her head in both hands she staggered into her room to lie down on the bed. Above her the ceiling whirled like a giant mosquito. She closed her eyes, realizing that she stayed out too long in the sun.


Allie woke in darkness and was at once conscious of a raging thirst. The bottle of mineral water in her bathroom was empty. The frog was back, gazing at her from the closed lid of the lavatory. Tasha, she remembered, had bought several bottles of water from Madame Da Silva. The stars were low and bright as she walked the few steps to Tasha’s room. When she pushed open the door she thought at first she had come into the honeymooners’ apartment by mistake until she saw that it was Tasha sitting up in bed with the chowkidar she had seen last night. He was wearing his cap. His rifle lay across the sheet.

‘Why are you always barging in where you’re not wanted?’ demanded Tasha.

‘I’m sorry. I was only looking for some water.’

There was a tray on the floor, with dirty cereal bowls and a crushed plastic bottle. Beside it stood a large jar of Marmite.

‘That’s Jonty’s Marmite! How could you, Tasha? And it’s crawling with ants!’

Then she screamed. The gecko was cowering in a corner with a rope noose around its neck. It was much bigger than Allie had imagined, with its jaws open in a rictus of panic and spotted sides heaving. The gecko snarled at her, shooting out a forked tongue as she approached.

‘Don’t bite. I’m your friend. I’ve come to save you,’ Allie whispered as she managed to grasp a frayed end of rope.

‘Oi! Put that back, it’s for our barbecue later!’ Tasha shouted. ‘Stop her, Xavier! Kill her!’

A shot whizzed past Allie’s head as she dragged the gecko across the stone floor and into the night. She touched her head and felt sticky blood as she ran.


The palm tree fans were opening and shutting in the wind, rattling their spines like porcupine’s quills. Banyan trunks swayed and swerved, blocking the path as she lurched on in terror, clutching at her with fibrous tentacles. She could hear branches cracking underfoot as Tasha and Xavier pursued her, and screamed when a crow swooped into her face, battering her with black wings. A snake lashed at her from a liana; she saw that all the creepers were alive with snakes, coiled ready to spring and baring phosphorescent fangs. Now the gecko was hauling her into the undergrowth, bounding up the steps of a shuttered house and into a brightly lit room full of people. Safe. Thank God. She heard the rhythmic shuffle of maracas and her knees buckled as she saw Tasha gyrating topless to the beat of the drum that Xavier held between his knees. The claws of a crab waved from the muzzle of his rifle on the floor.

Jilly Hazlecombe seized her arm, saying, ‘I thought you were never coming.’

‘As the actress said to the bishop,’ said Jonty. They were dressed in matching white sailor suits.

‘Run along to make-up,’ Jilly shook Allie hard, her eyes hard with contempt. ‘You’re on in five minutes. Red Peppers might be just a great big joke to you, but this is a charity performance and there’s an audience out there entitled to a bit of professionalism.’

Before Allie could protest, the gecko pulled her over to the corner. Eric Alabaster lay in a low-slung hammock sipping liquor from a coconut, through a straw. A clerical collar hung crookedly round his neck.

‘Eric! I’ve found you!’ Allie felt tears running down her face. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you! But I didn’t know you were a priest! Why weren’t you in the church?’

‘I’m a whisky priest now. They locked me out of my church.’

He petted the head of the gecko, which was nuzzling up to him, planting huge front feet on his chest and licking his face. As Allie watched, it’s skin tone flushed through dingy brown to a vivid emerald green with purple spots.

‘I never thought you of all people would be so cruel as to tie up a wild iguana, Alicia,’ Eric said.

‘But I didn’t! I rescued him from Tasha and Xavier. They were going to barbecue him. I’ve come to save you too, Eric. I love you. I’ve come to take you back to London with me, where you belong. I didn’t know it until recently but I’ve been missing you all my life. We’ll always be together now, and I’ve got such plans for relaunching all your books – and you, my darling. Look, the iguana’s changing colour like a chameleon. That shows he’s happy now.’

Kneeling beside the hammock, she stroked Eric’s bleached hair.

‘Come down to the beach with me. There’s something I want to show you,’ said Eric, swinging his legs to the floor and cutting the rope from the iguana’s neck.

He had his arm around her waist and as they walked Allie could feel her leg pressing against his. At the sea’s edge he stooped and picked up a stick. ERIC ALABASTER, he wrote in large letters in the sand, and laughed as the sea obliterated his name.

‘No!’ cried Allie, grabbing at the stick.

Eric pushed her roughly to the sand, forcing the coconut shell of whisky to her mouth, scratching her face with its whiskery edges.

‘Drink, damn you. You don’t fool me, coming on like Deborah Kerr in your virginal white dress.’


When Tasha had knocked on Allie’s door and got no reply she had assumed that she was asleep or sulking. Eventually, feeling hungry, she had taken the scooter and ridden a few miles inland to Rodriguez Bar and Restaurant, where she had enjoyed a drink earlier with one of the Da Silva sons. Before she could be joined by anybody more interesting, the Hazlecombes debouched from a taxi and invaded her table to regale her with an account of the dolphin trip. Nobody had drowned or been eaten by a shark; it seemed to Tasha very dull fare. To be stuck with the English abroad was her idea of hell; at least, unlike Allie, she had made an effort to get to know the locals.

‘Have you ever thought of writing your memoirs? she asked vengefully. ‘You should have a word with Allie about it.’


When there was still no response from Allie the following morning, Tasha became alarmed and enlisted the help of Jilly and Jonty. They fetched Madame Da Silva with her key. Allie was in a sweaty heap on the bed, still in her cotton dress, all twisted in the sheet.

‘She’s burning up,’ said Jonty. ‘Get some water.’

Tasha brought a bottle from her apartment. Jilly held it to Allie’s mouth, letting the water dribble down her chin on to her chest. Allie writhed, blindly pushing the bottle away, choking.

‘Don’t try to speak, lovey. Just drink. You’ve gone and got yourself all dehydrated.’

Allie sat up. Her head was throbbing and her skin felt tight and sore. Jilly’s cool hand was stroking the wet hair back from her forehead, holding not a coconut shell but a bottle of mineral water to her lips. Tasha and Jonty were there and Madame Da Silva.

‘Well, you certainly gave us all a scare!’ said Jonty.

‘You certainly did. How could you be so stupid as to go racing around on a bike in the sun all day like that? I don’t suppose it occurred to you that you’d ruin my holiday too if you made yourself really ill,’ said Tasha.

‘There, there,’ said Jilly. ‘Tasha’s just having a reaction. It’s the relief,’ she explained to Allie. ‘You’re going to be fine. I’ve got some pills you can take.’

‘No thank you,’ said Allie. ‘Some people take a drink, others take a pill. I just take a few deep breaths. Or I would if I were Deborah Kerr in The Night of the Iguana. Which apparently I’m not.’

In a remnant of dream the green and purple spotted iguana deflated like a child’s beach toy into a wrinkled balloon lifted by a wave.

‘Stay in the shade for a day or two and you’ll be right as rain, eh Madame?’ Jonty advised. Madame Da Silva nodded.

‘I’ll bring you some tea,’ she said.

Right as rain, thought Allie. I want rain. I want to go home. She saw the corner of a damp English park and a child on a swing soaring through an arc of grey air, her own arms extended to push it higher, over loamy mud silvered by racing clouds, a snatch of hazel catkins, a blur of pale sulphur pussy willow; her hands reaching out to catch the swing and bring it safely down.

‘That’s right, a nice cup of tea. You get some rest and then you can carry on with your quest for your writer chappie when you’re feeling up to it, said Jilly.

‘No,’ said Allie. ‘Eric Alabaster doesn’t want to be found. I realize that now.’

‘Well,’ Jilly said. ‘We’re off to the flea market at Anjuna but we’ll pop back to check on you later. Jonty’s got a proposition to put to you. In your professional capacity, of course.’

‘As the bishop said to the actress,’ said Jonty.


Copyright © Shena Mackay 1999

The Day of the Gecko appears in Shena Mackay’s collection of short stories, The World’s Smallest Unicorn.

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Day of the Gecko is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency. For rights information, email <davidm@rcwlitagency.demon.co.uk> – please mention The Richmond Review when making rights enquiries.

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