“Ladies and gentlemen, we shall shortly be landing at Simon Bolivar International Airport. Kindly fasten your seatbelt and bring your seat upright.”
The metallic voice pierces Dawn’s dream and she jerks awake. She closes the Venezuelan guidebook on her lap. It has remained open at a picture of a deserted Caribbean beach since she dozed off somewhere over the Atlantic, en route from England.
She presses a button on the armrest and the back of her seat springs up to a vertical position. It’s her first flight and after twelve hours she feels dizzy, disoriented. From the window she watches the mountainous coast looming closer. The ochre rock appears barren, inaccessible.
She glances at her watch and smiles. It is still set at UK time—6.30 p.m. On any normal day she would be riding home on the train from the government offices in Reading where she is employed as a social worker.
She can see the scene clearly—always the same expressionless faces scanning the newspaper columns. She sighs with relief that she’s stepped out of the stupefying routine and accepted the invitation of her only child, Dave, to visit him in Caracas.
It’s been a long, hard winter and Dawn’s ready for this spring break. She’s been lonely too; she’s lived alone for five years since her husband Ted walked out on her without explanation. Then just weeks later, Dave dropped out of his university course to go off to India with a group of longhaired friends.
She’s heard nothing from him until this recent letter, which she pulls out of her guidebook to read again. She skims the pages. He’s teaching in a university, has bought a new car and married a Venezuelan girl, Aurora. An excitement bubbles inside and her sweaty thumbs curl up the corners of the pages.
The plane banks sharply. Dawn’s stomach turns. She drops the letter and clutches the armrests. Down they come in erratic steps. At last they make an unsteady landing, the plane bouncing unevenly on the dusty strip. Dawn grabs for the sickness bag but the spasm soon subsides.
“Are you alright?” asks her neighbour, an olive-skinned businessman. He unbuckles his seatbelt and leans toward her.
“Yes, thank you, I’m fine,” Dawn answers, “I’m just not used to planes.” She extricates herself from the seat, takes a deep breath, then reaches up to get her bag from the overhead compartment.
“Here, let me help you.” The Venezuelan is already groping upwards.
“No thank you, I can manage myself,” she insists. Dawn strains up, tugs at the strap and catches the vinyl bag as it drops onto her breasts. She packs away the guidebook and straightens her cream cotton jacket and skirt, which are badly creased from the long journey. Then she follows the passengers down the narrow aisle and out into the tropical glare.
The dense, humid air presses against her face like a damp rag. The brilliant light makes her squint as she descends the steps. She walks towards an unfinished concrete building which dances in the heat haze.
When she steps through the electronic doors, the effect is like a cold shower. The dull whir of air-conditioning units pervades the clinical building. Dawn shudders. She hauls her suitcase from the conveyor belt onto a trolley and wanders wearily through customs.
“Mum! Over here!” Before Dawn has a chance to survey the crowd she hears Dave’s voice, then sees his head above the swarthy faces. He pushes through the crowd, dragging a frail girl in his wake. He swings his arms around Dawn, then steps back, holding her shoulders, to look at her.
“Hey, it’s good to see you!” he says, hugging her again, then pulls the girl closer. “Mum, this is Aurora. Aurora, meet Dawn.” Aurora offers a limp hand and a shy smile.
She’s small and fragile, with the dusky beauty peculiar to Hispanic women. Her obsidian eyes glitter and a wave of glossy hair hangs down to her waist.
“Hello, Mum!” says Aurora, “Oh! Sorry, can I call you Mum?” She speaks a precise English, with only a trace of a Spanish accent.
“Of course you can, dear. Lovely to meet you. But I’m afraid I feel sick. Can we get out of the sun?”
Dave picks up her case and guides her towards the car park. “I’m sorry,” he says, “Come on, get in the car.” He opens the passenger door and Dawn gets in. Aurora climbs into the back seat.
Dave throws the case into the boot, jumps into the car and lets out a sigh. He puckers his sleeveless shirt and flaps it to cool himself down, then takes off his sunglasses and wipes his brow with his tanned forearm.
Dawn glimpses his full face for the first time. He is exactly as she remembers Ted when they married—the misty blue eyes, the faint crow’s feet, the lip turned up into a wry smile, the dimpled cheek. Even his temples are greying in the same way.
“My, how you’ve changed,” she says. “I remember you as an impetuous schoolboy—now I see you as a full-grown man.”
Aurora taps her shoulder. “By the way, Mum, do you think it’s true that men look for a wife who reminds them of their mother?”
“Well, I don’t know. Why do you ask?” Dawn turns her head half round, but still can’t see Aurora.
“Oh, don’t you know that we have the same name? ‘Aurora’ means Dawn in English. Don’t you think Dave needed another Dawn in his life?” Aurora’s tone is playful, but Dawn detects an undertone of spite.
Dave speaks sharply to Aurora in Spanish and Aurora falls silent. Dawn glances across at her son, surprised to hear him speaking a strange language. She understands nothing but the tone sounds hostile.
Suddenly, Dawn knows she will vomit. She grabs a tissue from her handbag and presses it to her mouth. Dave pulls the car into the emergency lane and Dawn swings the door open. She leans out and throws up in the same movement.
A delicate arm rests across her shoulder, stroking her back as she retches. Aurora hands her more tissues, holds her steady in the stifling heat. Dawn stands up, dabs at her watery eyes, and sits back in the car.
“I’m sorry, Dave,” she says.
Dave pulls the car back onto the highway. “Don’t worry, Mum. Feeling better now?”
“Yes, much, thanks. Oh, I wish I was a better traveller. I always get so tense.”
“Well, now’s the time to relax. You can forget all about social work for a while and soak up a little of our tropical sun. How’s work been, anyway?”
“Oh, it’s terrible, Dave. And it’s getting worse. Last month they laid off three hundred biscuit workers from the factory in Reading and we’ve been swamped with calls for help. But what can we do? Anyway, how are things here? All I know about Venezuela is that it’s an oil-rich country.”
Dave snorts. “Same as anywhere—a few rich and the rest scrape a living from what’s left over. I guess I’ve been charmed; I’ve had a few lucky breaks.”
“So how did you get to work in the university?” Dawn asks. “You didn’t even finish your degree in England.”
Dave flashes her a wink of collusion. He leans closer and speaks quickly. “I was going out with the head of the English Department at the time.” His smile broadens.
“It’s an easy number, actually. I only have a few classes a week, so I’ve been doing some private classes in companies, too. They pay really well. Hey, here we go, we’re coming into Caracas now—these are the ranchos. So what do you think of our tropical paradise?”
Dawn looks around. Shacks of tin and wood spread across the hillsides in haphazard fashion, many of them hanging precariously onto ledges. Random piles of garbage are strewn between them. Groups of dirty kids chase each other across the rotting food and tin cans. Dawn seethes with irritation.
“But…but surely they can do better than this!” she protests. “Don’t they have anywelfare here?”
“Sure,” Dave answers, “but no one wants to live in the cheap housing the government builds. Here they live rent-free. Most of them come from Colombia or Guyana, looking to make a fortune. They’re marginal people in a precarious land.”
An empty beer can trailing foam flies from the window of the car in front. Dawn watches the car beside them flatten it into the highway. She sees the roadside verge speckled with the blue and white cans. They pass a vast intersection, highways spiralling above and below on four different levels.
Then they swing into the valley, where a thick smog hangs around the tallest buildings of the vertical city. Huge, eight-cylinder cars pack the highways, interspersed with overcrowded, rundown buses belching out black smoke. Everything seems either too modern or too primitive, a veneer of wealth painted across a decaying canvas of poverty.
They pull off the main drag into a residential side street. Dave pushes a button on a remote control system and an electronic gate sweeps silently open. Dawn looks up at the twelve-storey block. Lush vegetation sprouts from every balcony. A hunch-backed gardener clips aimlessly at the border of a razor-edged lawn.
Dawn’s head spins as the elevator shoots them up to the tenth floor. She staggers into the apartment. Despite the lush exterior, it’s sparsely furnished with packing cases, cushions and plants.
“Come on, Mum, this way.” Dave shows her into a small dark room. The wall of a neighbouring building stands just a few metres away, cutting out the light. With a great effort, Dawn strips off her clammy clothes.
Too tired to wash, she eases herself down onto a thin mattress, the only furniture in the room apart from a venetian blind. Her head spins momentarily, as if she is falling, falling. Then she snores faintly in a dreamless sleep.
A hand rocks Dawn gently. A soft, modulated voice enters her cloud of sleep. Slowly she surfaces from the depths of unconsciousness. A dark room, a small figure beside her, coaxing.
“Dawn? How do you feel?” At first Dawn thinks she’s still dreaming. Then with a start she remembers where she is. Aurora squats beside her, a loose, paisley skirt flowing on the floor, a halter-neck sweater exposing her small, round shoulders.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” Aurora says, “but I’ve prepared some food and thought you might be hungry.”
Dawn sits up. “Oh, how thoughtful. Actually, I’m starving. Just let me clean up first.” A few minutes later she emerges from the shower feeling cleansed and excited. She joins Dave and Aurora at the table.
“Help yourself,” Dave says. “I hope you like our food. Aurora is macrobiotic and I’ve kind of got used to it.”
Dawn pokes around among the brown rice, lentils, salad, a few unrecognisable dishes. She eats a little but finds the food bland, heavy to digest.
“How are you feeling now?” Dave raises his eyebrows.
“Oh, much fresher, thanks,” Dawn answers across a forkful of rice.
“Good, because tomorrow we’re off to the beach,” he grins. “It’s the start of Carnaval and the whole country goes wild for a week, There’ll be conga dancing, maybe even some black magic; bet you’ve never seen anything like it in England.”
Dawn’s eyes widen. “I bet I haven’t. So where are we going?”
“To Choroni, a few hours from here. It’s a fantastic beach, and it’ll be like one big party. There’s a small hotel there, but it’s often full, so we’ll take the camping gear in case. You don’t mind camping, do you?”
“Well, no, I suppose not, though I haven’t slept in a tent since Ted and I went to Cornwall before we were married.” She sniggers at the memory.
Aurora smiles benignly, her jaw working slowly at the food. She leans across the table. “And you’ll love the journey. We pass through a rainforest on the way—it’s lovely.”
Dawn dabs at her lips with a napkin. “Well, I don’t want you to plan anything just for me. I’m glad of the chance just to be with you both.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Dave says. “We were going there anyway. Aurora here is a bit of a psychic and wants to meet her astral friends.” He glances mockingly at Aurora.
“Oh, don’t tease me,” Aurora says in a vexed tone. “Anyway, Dawn isn’t interested in that.” She stands up and begins to clear the table. Dawn frowns.
Dave speaks quietly. “Don’t worry, Mum. She likes to play hurt sometimes. It’s just a game.” Aurora returns, stares coldly at Dave and speaks to him curtly in Spanish. After a brief exchange, she continues clearing the table.
Dave turns to Dawn. “Listen, Mum, I’ve promised to take Aurora to the cinema tonight. There’s a one-night showing of ‘The Exorcist’. I know it’s a shame when you’ve just arrived, but we’ll have plenty of time to talk later. Would you like to come along?”
Dawn shakes her head. “No thanks. You two go and enjoy yourselves. I’ll be glad of the chance just to put my feet up and get ready for tomorrow if we’re going away.”
* * * In the morning they join a snarl of traffic crawling out of the city. Jeeps and cars are loaded with iceboxes, surfboards, all manner of beach equipment. Radios blare; drivers bob to the beat. An hour later the congestion eases, and they speed along the highway through fertile valleys.
Then suddenly they turn north on a narrow road to cross the coastal range. Mysterious trees reach skyward, mossy lianas form a tangled thicket, pale green ferns blanket the forest floor. They pause at the peak to look back at the inland valley, and out to the Caribbean, which shines with a metallic glare. Then they swing on down to the coast.
The village of Choroni, a collection of quaint colonial cottages, is packed with holidaymakers, mostly young people in flimsy swimwear, flaunting their bronzed bodies. As Dave suspected, the hotel is full and they drive on down the beach to camp.
They set up the tents in the sun-flecked shade of tall palms, then dive into the crystal-clear water. Dawn is exhilarated—it’s the first time she’s felt sea water that is not ice-cold to the touch.
Back in the shade they open cans of Coke. Dave half drains his before topping it up with rum. Aurora wanders off along the beach, looking for shells.
Dawn sighs. “Oh Dave, I’m so glad I came. I never imagined how much difference the weather can make to moods. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alive.”
Dave nods. “I know what you mean. You know, Mum, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave the tropics again.”
“Really?” Dawn shades her eyes from the glare. “So is everything OK with Aurora?”
“Well, sort of. We have our differences, and I guess we both have to compromise, but so far it’s working.”
Aurora comes running along the beach with a handful of shells, and a sparkle in her eye. “Dave, do you know who is here? El Brujo! He’s giving readings this afternoon—let’s go.”
Dave explains to Dawn. “He’s a kind of sorcerer—claims to be a faith healer and reader of the future rolled into one. He’s really famous here. Come on, let’s go, it’ll be a laugh.”
At the end of the beach they find a makeshift tent where they pay a small fee to an assistant and wait outside with a small group of Venezuelans. Soon another group emerges and they enter the dark space.
An old man sits on a low stool. His mahogany skin is stretched taut across his skull and dark eyes bulge from their sockets. Three benches form a semi-circle around him. Dave, Aurora and Dawn take their places with five others, Dawn sitting to El Brujo’s left.
Candles burn, adding a strange glow to the muted light which filters through the thick canvas. Dawn notes an intense quiet. At El Brujo’s feet is a pile of more candles and a heap of cigars.
The ritual begins. El Brujo lights a candle, picks up a cigar and lets the melting wax fall on the tobacco leaves. He stares intently at the elderly woman on his right, asks a question and, as he continues staring, presses the molten wax into the cigar with his thumb and forefinger. He passes the cigar and candle to her. She lights the cigar and begins smoking. He repeats the process with each person.
When he comes to Dawn and speaks in Spanish, Dave whispers to her, “Tell him your name.”
“Dawn Brightside,” she says.
El Brujo mutters the name to himself, all the while pressing the cigar. His eyes burn into hers. She has never experienced a look quite like it. He seems to be delving inside her, prising out long-forgotten feelings. His pupils are intent, almost manic.
He hands her the cigar and she lights it with the candle, then feels clumsy as she sucks at the wide butt. She notices that the others are being careful not to spill the ash. Then she sees why.
El Brujo takes the half-smoked cigar from the old lady on his right and examines the ash in the candlelight. Then he speaks in a distant voice, neither stern nor soothing. The woman covers her wrinkled face with her hands and begins to whimper.
El Brujo moves on to the next, a young man with close-cropped hair and a pot belly. He uses the same detached tone. The young man raises his eyebrows, then his hands as if releasing a heavy load. He throws himself down at the old man’s feet, kisses them, then runs out of the tent.
El Brujo turns to Aurora. At first she seems delighted by his words, but then her face drops. Dawn sees a single tear fall into the dust. Aurora stares at the ground, transfixed.
Dave shifts nervously, as if he would like to leave, but El Brujo moves on to address him. Like Aurora, his eyes light up at first, but as the old man goes on, Dave’s face becomes angry.
El Brujo turns to Dawn. He takes her cigar, studies the ash carefully, then glances up at her. Again those searing eyes, that penetrating look. The entranced old man seems little more than an agent for his message. Dave leans over and translates the monotonous voice.
“You have been a giver all your life and received nothing in return. A fear of hurt strangles your potential for fulfilment.” El Brujo pauses. Dawn feels mesmerised by his stare. “You must loosen up, express your anger. Learn to take. Face your fear of hurt directly, and it will disappear. Love awaits you at a great height, in your own special time.”
El Brujo stubs out the cigar and begins to clear up the debris. Smoke still hangs thick in the air. The group begins to file out. Dawn follows Dave and Aurora, who immediately begin to argue in Spanish.
Dave takes Aurora’s arm but she jerks it away. Dawn wanders back to the tent alone. She sips at a can of Coke, her eyes fixed on the distance. After a while Dave returns alone, scuffing his feet in the sand. He slumps down beside Dawn and makes himself a stiff drink.
“What’s the matter?” Dawn asks.
“Oh, it’s Aurora, she takes this stuff so seriously. She’s gone off to the village with some friends she knows from Caracas.”
“Well, what did he tell her? And you, for that matter?”
“He said that she has strong psychic powers and wants her to join in a healing ritual tonight. But then he told her that she’s infertile, and destined to be unlucky in love.”
“Oh my God. Do you think it’s true?”
“Hell, I don’t know.” Dave turns onto his stomach and props himself up on his elbows. He plays idly with the ice cubes in his drink. “The point is she believes it. Huh, he told me that I was born under a lucky star, that I can get anything in the world I want, but that I’ll never be satisfied. Just a load of conjectural crap as far as I’m concerned.”
Dawn leans across and strokes his fine hair. “I hope you and Aurora work things out.”
Dave shrugs. “Everything will work out in the end,” he says, “one way or another. Come on, let’s go for a swim.”
Aurora still hasn’t returned by early evening. Dave’s eyes are bloodshot and his rum bottle half-empty as he takes the salad that Dawn offers him. He eats listlessly. The light fades fast. Dawn watches the stars gradually appear and beach fires springing up.
Dave now lies horizontal, his eyelids drooping. Dawn lets him drift off to sleep. She walks down to the shore and wanders along the water’s edge, trailing her toes through the wet sand.
Unthinking, she approaches a twinkle of lights near El Brujo’s tent. As she draws near, a low moaning and wailing come to her ears. Cautiously, she continues. Emerging from a clump of bushes, she is confronted by a strange sight.
In the small clearing a middle-aged man in a swimsuit lies supine with his arms and legs stretched out. He is illuminated by hundreds of candles sunk in the sand, framing his body. A small group of onlookers, all in beachwear, squat and kneel in the glow of candles.
Dawn settles back in the bushes to watch. Another man stands over the body. A knife glitters in his hand. Dawn catches her breath. He traces the sign of the cross over the man’s body, first following a line from his forehead down to his groin, then across the shoulders.
Dramatically he flings the knife aside. It buries to the hilt in the sand. The man lies motionless. A group of three young people begin to circle him, bobbing up and down and chanting in strange voices. Each of them inhales deeply on a cigar, then bends down and exhales the smoke across the body.
Dawn puts a hand to her mouth. One of them is Aurora. She is topless, her tiny breasts bouncing in the soft light. Her eyes are closed and her body jerks as if possessed. The chanting becomes more intense. The youths sprinkle a fine powder over the man’s body, then splash liquid over him.
Dawn catches the strong scent of alcohol. The chanting and wailing rises to a pitch until in unison they leap into the air with a final cry. One of them pulls the supine man upright. He seems to have been oblivious to the strange ritual. A broad grin appears on his face and they all race down towards the sea.
Dawn slips away unseen. Back at the tent Dave lies sprawled in an alcoholic stupor. She crawls into the tiny tent that they brought along for her. Stretched out on an air mattress, she is overcome by exhaustion and falls into a fitful sleep.
* * * Dawn wakes twitching. She turns to continue sleeping but an intense prickling sensation jolts her awake. She struggles outside to examine her skin. It’s smothered in tiny red spots that itch like crazy. She runs down to the sea and jumps in, which brings some relief.
As dawn breaks over Choroni, Dawn breaks into tears, sitting on the beach with knees hunched up to her head. Huge teardrops splash on the sand and her mind is a mishmash of images: the piercing look in the sorcerer’s eyes; her alcoholic son stretched out on the sand; her daughter-in-law cavorting about topless in a trance; herself meeting her future love at a great height.
Back at the tent she shows Dave the inflamed bites on her skin. “Oh no, Mum, that’s sandflies, they’re horrible. So small you can’t see them, but you sure can feel them. We don’t have any medicine here that would help, so we’d better head for home.”
“Oh, Dave, I don’t want to spoil your holiday. Can’t I get a bus or something?”
“Sorry, no buses around here. Wait, let me talk with Aurora.” A few minutes later he returns.
“Aurora’s staying here. She’ll get a lift later with one of her friends. Come on, let’s go.”
They drive home in silence. The journey seems endless, but in Caracas things are no better. Dawn’s intolerable itching subsides, but she feels like an intruder and begins to long for the privacy of her own home. In the evening Aurora calls to say she’s staying with friends for the night. Dave sulks around the apartment, drinking and watching TV.
At last Dawn speaks. “Listen Dave, this is no good. I so much wanted to see you, and I’m glad I came. But I can’t feel comfortable with Aurora. I feel she wants you to herself.” She lets out a despondent sigh, and her eyes moisten. “I’m sorry, I just can’t take any more. I want to go home.”
Dave looks at her as if from a great distance. Then he looks at her again. “Alright, if that’s what you want. I’m sorry you feel that way but I’ll change your ticket tomorrow.”
Dawn’s departure is not as easy to arrange as she hoped. All planes are fully booked for the rest of the week and she shuffles restlessly around the apartment, avoiding Dave when possible. She feels both drawn to and mystified by the enigma of Aurora, who is at times warm and comforting, at others cold and detached.
Eventually at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning, Dave drives Dawn to the airport, leaving Aurora asleep in bed. At the check-in desk, Dawn’s tears trickle down her cheeks. She has no idea if they will ever meet again.
“Goodbye,” Dawn sniffs, clasping his hand for a second as she steps into passport control.
“’Bye,” echoes Dave in a dreamlike voice.
Dawn walks through to the boarding gate where the passengers are beginning to embark. She follows them on to the plane where she is shown to her seat by a stewardess who looks startlingly like Aurora.
Dawn stands up on tiptoe to put her bag in the overhead compartment, but it falls into the lap of a dark-featured man in the aisle seat. He catches it cleanly.
“May I help you?” he asks, standing.
“No…er, well, yes, could you, please?”
He slots her bag into the overhead compartment, which he clicks shut, then steps aside with a slight bow so that Dawn can get through to the window seat. Outside the window a violet streak separates the dark outline of the mountains from the sky.
Her neighbour sits down, holding out his hand. “Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. The name’s…” But the name is drowned out by the harsh tone of the loudspeakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Viasa flight 301, destination London. Our estimated flight time is ten hours thirty minutes, and we will be flying at approximately thirty-two thousand feet. Kindly fasten your seatbelt when the lights come on.” Above Dawn’s head, the tiny red lights flicker into life.