Even though Kevin had long since decided to immerse himself in the Other World - its cultures, and languages, and the wonders of its magical technologies - he was not quite prepared for the enthusiasm that Tanji displayed for the enterprise.
After his announcement in the restaurant, she had immediately immersed herself in finding interesting things for him (and herself) to do. Kevin only had to accept a fraction of the suggestions and recommendations that she came up with, and he was able to fill all of his free time and more. These trips, together with his continued series of briefings at NISSA, meant that he was now learning more than he had ever imagined about the world of Lyndesfarne.
In his previous life, Kevin had travelled quite widely, both on foreign holidays (of which his ex-wife had been particularly fond) and as part of his work. He had certainly visited tropical beaches before, in Kenya and around the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.
So his first thought, as he and Tanji stepped through the last portal and were struck by the heat and humidity of the resort destination, was of the similarities with exotic holiday locations in his own world. The palm trees and lush foliage fringing white sandy beaches dotted with sunshades and parasols, and nearly-naked sunbathing bodies, all looked entirely familiar. But, as they stood at the beachfront, clutching the light packs they had brought with them and looking out over the blue sea and white sands, Kevin rapidly became startlingly aware of the differences, too.
Out across the sea, he could see a fit-looking young person of indeterminate gender who was standing on what looked at first glance like a surfboard. The sea near the shore was nearly calm - just a suggestion of a chop following the light breeze. Beyond the reef, the waves were larger and he could see the white surf breaking over the exposed rocks and corals.
The board-rider was standing up on the board and moving quickly - much too quickly to be propelled by the moderate swell - and he wondered what the motive power was. He soon discovered that the narrow surfboard was some kind of a cross between wind-surfing and jet-skis - self-stabilising and powered by, well, the only term was water-sprites.
The entire holiday passed in a blur, remaining in Kevin's memory as scenes somehow not quite joined up. He could not even be sure that he could remember the correct sequence of events.
He had several memories of delightful meals in Tanji's company in different bars and restaurants, all of which were open to the sea breezes and sunshine, and inevitably presented a wonderful view - even, he was surprised to discover, when they were several stories down. After some enquiries, he established that the sunshine and the view were provided by the magical windows he was already familiar with, while the air movement was entirely artificial and magical in nature.
The costumes worn on the beach demonstrated even more variety than Kevin was used to. Some holidaymakers preferred flowing robes which covered the entire body - in some cases, the material was so gauzy and diaphanous that it was entirely clear that nothing was being worn underneath. Otherwise, conventional bathing costumes, shorts and trunks, and bikinis were employed. Topless garments for both sexes were apparently considered acceptable and were widely adopted, particularly among the young and lithe.
Tanji, whose normal appearance was blonde and very fair, used her shapeshifting abilities to darken her skin.
"It helps to protect me against the rays of the sun," she explained when Kevin first tentatively remarked on it.
Tanji preferred gauzy loose fitting trousers tied or gathered at the ankle - Kevin had heard these described as 'Harem pants' - and a wide hat, both of which, she informed him, projected magic to prevent sunburn. In between, she alternated between the skimpiest of bikini tops - little more than a narrow strip of brightly-coloured cloth around her breasts, magically forming itself to her body - and, to Kevin's increasing delight and appreciation, nothing at all.
"Shapeshifting again?" he asked while they were preparing to leave their room on the first day.
Kevin had noticed that Tanji's breasts were smaller, firmer, and the nipples and areola seemed darker. He ran his hands over her breasts, delighted to see that they still reacted immediately to his touch.
"Oh yes," she grinned widely, clearly enjoying his reaction to her changes, "It's nice to go without a top sometimes, but it gets a bit uncomfortable unless I, well, shrink a bit."
On that occasion, they were delayed in their departure, Kevin continuing his in-depth examination of Tanji's fascinatingly reshaped body.
Later, the two lovers found their way down to the beach. With Tanji's guidance, they selected a palm-thatch parasol in a quiet spot, although devoid of chairs or loungers.
"There's nowhere to sit," Kevin objected.
Tanji smiled, and pulled something from the colourful beach bag she was carrying. It looked like a large piece of brightly-coloured and patterned cloth. She shook it out and made a sequence of gestures with one hand. The cloth immediately formed itself into a sun-lounger. She set it down on the sand, and made a couple of further gestures, one of which Kevin thought he recognised as the sign for 'lock'.
"I wouldn't want it to blow away," she said by way of an explanation, "Or fall down because of a badly-formed gesture."
"Couldn't you make it collapse while someone was sitting in it?" Kevin asked mischievously.
"No, silly," she replied amusedly, "There has to be no weight on it before those gestures will work. And look," she added, "Here's a beach ball!"
Kevin grinned widely as Tanji gestured at a disc of similarly brightly-coloured material and tossed the result in his direction.
One beach sport which Kevin spent several hours watching was referred to as Surf Bubbles, at least according to Tanji's translation. This involved a magic sphere big enough to hold a standing man or woman - there were smaller ones for children. This was an ephemeral magic, the bubble being permeable to air and slightly to water.
The bubble rider would swim out to sea and, when a large wave was approaching, make a gesture so that the sphere popped into existence. If it was done right, the ball would roll along the waves, the occupant running or sliding to remain upright. This involved a great display of expertise - that was the point, Kevin surmised - if done right, one could roll right up the beach. Of course, if the rider got it wrong, they would stumble and fall, at which point the bubble would disappear again, dumping the participant unceremoniously in the sea.
The Surf Bubbles seemed somehow to be projected from an amulet - in this case, a wide bangle worn on the upper arm, close to the shoulder. Kevin was beginning to understand the Lyndesfarne preference for magical items which affect or enclose the entire person to be embedded in closely-fitted jewellery - a bangle, pendant amulet or choker necklace.
Kevin declined the opportunity to try out Surf Bubbles himself, although he was persuaded to have a go at the Lyndesfarne equivalent of snorkelling. The equipment provided by the resort was fascinating. There was a vibrantly-coloured face mask which covered eyes and nose, but more flexible than those he was familiar with. It was apparently made from a partially-transparent version of the self-forming magical material that Tanji had used as a bikini top.
Then there was a separate mouthpiece but it was closed, with no breathing tube. Instead, a collection of green fronds dangled underneath like the beard of a Merman, which collected breathable oxygen from the water. Kevin found himself muttering phrases like "By Neptune's Beard!" under his breath in mock-irony.
The last item was a pair of flippers. On land, these looked like ordinary, if tightly-fitting, slippers of soft leather (again, brightly-coloured). In the water, translucent extrusions of magic appeared, allowing rapid movement with minimum effort.
Tanji provided a lesson for Kevin with a practice session in the swimming pool, which passed quickly with much splashing and laughing, before trying out the gear in the sea off the beach. The resort had helpfully provided a platform close to the edge of the reef for this very purpose.
With Tanji's encouragement, it did not take long before Kevin was swimming confidently, occasionally diving down to take a closer look at some aquatic feature that had caught his eye. There were a huge variety of brightly-coloured fishes, so that it was almost like swimming in an aquarium although, to Kevin's untutored eye, they appeared much the same as he would have found at home. The Neptune's Beard worked well close to the surface, although one had to hold one's breath when diving more than a few feet down.
Another of Kevin's mental snapshots was a day trip on an egregiously anachronistic sailing ship. This was manned - the word was inappropriate, as Kevin soon discovered - by a small but efficient crew under the command of a older woman who looked as if she could give Captain Ahab himself a run for his money in the 'stern determination' stakes.
Kevin was struck all over again by the appearance of people in this world. At a first glance, any of the crew members could have been one of the enthusiastic young people with dark skins and dazzlingly white smiles that he had encountered on his trips to the Indian Ocean.
But when he looked more closely, they all had the slightly elfin look that marked out natives of this world - the eyes a little narrower, perhaps, and the high cheekbones and a suggestion of pointed ears. There was no single feature would have stood out in his own world, but the overall effect was subtly alien. There were more women, too; at home, the crew would have been entirely male.
The boat itself was equipped with sails used in the conventional way, as far as Kevin (who was not a sailor) could tell. It also had some kind of auxiliary magical propulsion which, after some questioning, he discovered was the same kind of water sprites that powered the magic surfboards.
Kevin had adopted a Lyndesfarne approach to avoiding sunburn - a wide-brimmed hat magically capable of deflecting rays over the entire body and thereby avoiding heat and sunburn. Sitting together aboard the boat, Tanji explained that the purpose of this trip was to see certain sea creatures. Despite persistent questioning, she would not say exactly what kind of animals they would be visiting, but the grin on her face gave Kevin certain suspicions.
Under the direction of Captain Ahab, the crew efficiently set sail. They cruised for perhaps half an hour over deep water, heading in the direction of a series of small islands, islets and rocky outcrops which in some cases barely cleared the high water mark. As they neared the first of the desert islands, the captain shouted to look out, and crew and visitors alike scrambled to the gunwales.
At first, all that Kevin could see was a humped grey shape in the swell near the hull, water glistening on its skin like the seals and dolphins that he had seen in his own world. The creature suddenly stuck up its head, extending a long neck high out of the water and looking directly at Kevin with bright intelligence in its eyes. The animal squeaked and chittered happily, sounding surprisingly cheerful to Kevin's ears.
"What is it?" Kevin breathed to Tanji.
"Can't you tell?" she replied, completely failing to hide her laughter, "It's a plesiosaur - a Loch Ness Monster!"
She quickly explained that there were no whales and dolphins in the world of Lyndesfarne - something Kevin belatedly recalled he already knew - although there were a wide variety of sharks. Instead, the seas and oceans were populated by plesiosaurs, in a whole range of shapes and sizes.
This particular kind, she explained, grew to no more than fifteen feet from nose to tail, with long necks and tail, and they used all four of their flippers and their tail for propulsion. They were capable of considerable speed and were very agile in the water. They could stick their necks out of the water to take a good look around - they are air breathers - and were equipped with a considerable array of sharp teeth for catching and eating fish.
"Do you want to swim with him?" Tanji asked.
"What?" Kevin said, shocked, "Aren't they dangerous?"
"No, no," she replied, sounding amused again, "They're notoriously friendly creatures."
Not so much Walking with Beasts, Kevin mused as he donned his magical snorkelling gear and prepared to jump in, as swimming with Loch Ness Monsters.
Much later, on the trip back to the resort, Tanji explained more about these strange creatures, frequently translating from a booklet she had evidently brought along for this very purpose. As Kevin semi-dozed in the shade, pleasantly exhausted by his swimming, she quietly portrayed more of the lives of these great animals.
Plesiosaurs lay eggs, which they incubate and rear their young in nest, like birds. They have to lay their eggs on land, and many species build nests set on isolated coastlines and islets. They prefer sandy hollows between rocks, just above high water line. They were invariably slow-moving and inelegant on land and very much preferred spots where they could slip in and out of the water easily. The Nessies he had seen like warm, shallow seas, where there are plenty of fish; they used their small heads, sharp teeth and long narrow neck to investigate crannies for food which would otherwise be inaccessible to an animal of its size.
Tanji also explained that there were much larger plesiosaurs elsewhere in the world of Lyndesfarne. Some species had shorter and less flexible necks, and caught larger prey in the open oceans; others ate seals or other smaller plesiosaurs - one species was even a shark-eater. Others ate plant matter at the shoreline; yet others were plankton eaters, like some whales in Kevin own world.
The boat cruise had taken them around several nesting colonies on the islands, their progress being watched by snake-like necks and intelligent eyes following the little boat and its occupants. Numerous babies were also visible
Like the young of many species, these plesiosaurs were weak and vulnerable just out of the egg. After hatching, younglings were fed fish - partially digested and regurgitated - by their parents for a month or so, before they were capable of accompanying the adults on foraging expeditions. The growing youngsters would swim with its parents for many months or even years as they grew, and the nesting sites were usually shared by members of the same extended family group.
Dozing in the shade, Kevin mused for a few moments on the correct collective noun for a group of plesiosaurs. Was it a school or shoal, or perhaps a pod, like whales? Somehow 'flock' or 'herd' did not seem right? Finally, it came to him - it was a skirl of Loch Ness Monsters.
Dinner at the resort was fascinating, Kevin found. At home, he would have expected separate tables for each group of guests, allowing for a degree of privacy. By contrast, the hostel dining room was set with a few long tables, much like the refectory at Kevin's university college, although here there were individual and unexpectedly comfortable chairs, rather than the hard wooden benches that Kevin might have expected.
The dining room was set in a high-roofed building mostly open at the sides and thatched with the ubiquitous woven palm tiles. Even so, he thought he caught a glimpse of those orange sparkles that suggested that the roofing had been magically reinforced or perhaps waterproofed.
Mealtimes were announced by a rendition on a large drum, clearly audible in the bar where people tended to gather ahead of time for an aperitif. As the guests seated themselves, large platters of food were brought out of the kitchens by the waiting staff. It seemed that everyone was expected to help themselves, or each other, to the comestibles and there was much excited chattering.
Dinner was a time for social interaction for everyone, Kevin decided, whether solitary visitors or large family groups. He was quite taken aback by the noise and activity, especially since his understanding of the Lyndesfarne language, although improved - thanks to Tanji - was still rather broken and limited. She helped, of course, fielding some questions and remarks, and rapidly translating others for his benefit.
On the second evening at the refectory dinner, the man sitting opposite Kevin evidently overheard what Tanji was translating for him. He spoke directly to Kevin in an accented but understandable English.
"You are from the Other World, yes?"
Kevin was familiar with this expression referring to his own world, which was apparently a direct transliteration and always seemed to be spoken with implicit Capital Letters.
Getting into the spirit of Lyndesfarne dining, Kevin fell to chatting to the other man. His name was Demaz, and he was apparently a buyer of bulk materials in Kevin's world: cut rock - slate, marble and granite - as well as cement (in bags) to make the magical construction stone used extensively in this world. More interestingly, Demaz also imported large polished natural stones, taken from beaches, as well as glass spheres, which were machine made in Kevin's own world, of all sizes from marbles to paperweights.
What was traded the other way was not made clear. Kevin found it was rather nice to be able to converse without language difficulties. Demaz was unfailingly polite and even charming, and Kevin found himself waxing expansively about his role in the design of the New Bridge. This brought an appreciative reaction from the other man who was clearly familiar with the crossing from his business dealings.
Demaz was accompanied by a woman who, at first glance, seemed much younger than him. Uncharacteristically unflatteringly, Kevin's first take was that she was a blonde bimbo, although she was probably older than she looked. Even so, it was clear to him that she habitually put considerable effort into retaining a youthful appearance and a lot of thought went into selecting her jewellery and clothing. She did not appear to speak any English, and merely nodded politely to Kevin and Tanji before returning to chattering with her daughters across the table.
Demaz was a big man, quite a lot older than Kevin, although still very blocky and powerfully built about the shoulders. His hair was clipped very short, greying and thinning slightly at the front. He had a permanent look of caution about the eyes. He also tended to sit very still, while giving the unnerving impression that he could spring into action at any moment.
Demaz's demeanour put Kevin in mind of an American ex-serviceman he had once encountered on vacation. The military man was now running a weapons store in Las Vegas. Seeking entertainment away from the slot machines and roulette tables, Kevin had hired an automatic weapon and bought fifty rounds of ammunition before trying out the gun in the firing range attached to the store.
He had found it astonishingly difficult to hit the target, but went away with a new-found respect to the old soldier, who had stood right behind him at the firing range and gave every impression that, if Kevin had made any attempt to turn around with a loaded gun in his hand, he would have ended up on the floor clutching various sensitive and suddenly painful parts of his anatomy.
It slowly occurred to Kevin that, for all Demaz's bon viveur and suave sophistication, he was probably a very dangerous man to know.
|© 2007-2008 Trevor Hopkins. All rights reserved.||Webmaster||Last updated 28 October 2008|