Laughing black men are playing pétanque beside the promenade. A grey haired tourist perches on a nearby bench seat, staring out to sea. She has brown eyes, set close together, and a long face, which gives her a horsey look.
An elderly fat man with a white beard wearing shabby khaki overalls leaves the game and shuffles towards her.
“Vous êtes triste, Madame?”
The woman knows no French and the man speaks no English, but his face is gentle and his voice is soft. They sit close beside each other, almost touching. The woman tells him she recently left her husband, that he killed himself a week later and her father is dying of cancer.
The man gazes intently, reading her eyes, and nods as if he understands. The woman falls silent. The sun lowers and the sky begins to dim. The man’s friends call to him.
He touches the woman’s hand. “Au revoir, Madame. Que Dieu soit avec vous.” His ebony face has a luminous glow and his eyes are moist with tears.
Fifty years ago, when she came here with Mum and Dad, there were no high rise hotels, no fancy tourist shops and cafés, just a couple of motels and a stall on the beach selling whopper ice creams. The aeroplane they flew on had propellers. Dad explained it was a Douglas, like the aircraft the RNZAF used in the Pacific during the war, but with four engines instead of two, quieter and more comfortable. Dad caught the bus into Noumea one day and came back with sunglasses for her because she’d said she found the white sand too shiny. Boys looked her up and down, which felt good, but Mum wasn’t happy.
The woman wanders back to her hotel and takes the lift to her room on the 14th floor, but can’t get in.
“My door won’t open,” she complains to the girl at reception. “It was working okay when I arrived this morning.”
“One must merely touch the card on the sensor, Madame.”
“Oh Lord, I’d forgotten. I was looking for a slot to shove it in. I don’t know where my head is these days.”
The girl laughs. “I see it is on your shoulders still, Madame. “
“I think I’m losing it.”
In her sleep, the woman opens her garage door at home with the remote control. Her husband’s body dangles from the rafters. Screaming, she leaps from the bed.
Her face in the mirror is ashen, her temples look hollow and her eyes are somebody else’s, stark and staring.
She pours herself a wine and takes it to the balcony, where she stands, gripping the rail, gazing over the Coral Sea, sprinkled with moonlight.
Seven nights in New Caledonia sounds lovely, a friend had said, you need to get right away. But if you keep thinking about things while you’re there, you might as well stay home.
The woman goes back inside and opens a folder of tourist pamphlets lying on the coffee table, but her brain has no on-off switch.
When she broke the news to her parents at the rest home, Mum asked what she’d done to make her husband do that. Dad uttered a noise that sounded like ‘God guard you’ and fell into her arms.
Dad, who’d spent twelve months with the 3rd Division guarding the island from a Japanese invasion that never happened, before being sent to the Solomons and shot in the throat.
He hadn’t attempted speech for years, but he listened beautifully, with his eyes as well as with his ears, and understood every word she said and some she didn’t.
Just like the fat black man.
The woman pours another wine and goes back onto the balcony. The darkness feels friendlier now, and seems to embrace her.
She watches as the stars begin to dim, the first beam of sun flashes through the night and the sky turns silver.
The dawning light of a new day, gentle as a loving father.
Soft as the touch of a guardian angel.
The woman returns to bed and slips into a dreamless sleep, waking at midday.
The fat man is sitting in the same place, shading his eyes, searching up and down the beach. The woman spots him and quickens her pace. They hug, then stroll along the beach together, neither speaking.
Language is a cloak that people use to hide their feelings. Only silence reveals to each other how we feel. She wonders where she has heard those words and thinks of her father.
The sun gleams. Honeymooners walk by, hand in hand. Cackling widows in yellow and red sunhats stroll together, barefooted. Children play in the sand, splash about in outrigger canoes or breeze by in crimson sailboats, calling to each other.
At the end of the beach, a sign points up the hill to Ouen Toro lookout.
The woman puffs, but her companion glides effortlessly up the walkway, despite his age and bulk.
Two enormous guns, preserved from the war, watch over the sea. Small boys sit astride the barrel of one of the guns, giggling.
“I’d give anything for a good laugh right now,” the woman whispers aloud.
The fat man leaps onto the barrel of the other gun and jogs up and down, as if he’s riding a horse, jerking the reins. The woman laughs until tears roll down her face.
But guardian angels, especially fat black ones, exist only in the eyes of the needy and the believing.
The bystanders move away, whispering among themselves