I’m an expert at packing. I’ve written several blogs on the subject, made videos for YouTube and Instagram and even hosted a Facebook live Q&A on the subject. Yet I’m staring hopelessly at the empty suitcase. I can’t seem to remember how to begin. The screen doors are stretched wide open, but it’s muggy and hot, not even the faintest breeze disturbs the air. The brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean is visible through the mosquito net, which lends the view a fuzzy quality. I’d prefer to slide the net back, to take in the brilliance of Zanzibar’s white sand and the bright azure water, but I can’t risk getting bug bites. No one would watch my videos if it looks like I have acne.
It’s not that complicated, I remind myself. I’ve done this a thousand times, in fact just last week I packed this exact suitcase with the same contents before my flight from Bangkok to Stone Town. I take a deep breath. Start with the clothes in the wardrobe, the rational part of my brain suggests. But first, I should pick an outfit for the flight. I usually wear baggy, colourful harem pants, a black tank top (to show off my shoulder tattoo), a red scarf and big sunglasses. It’s my signature Look. My fans often stop me, greet me, ask for selfies. I’m usually happy to comply: I tag them, they tag me, everyone’s a winner. But I can’t do that today. The thought of even choosing an outfit has me in state close to panic.
I shuffle the hangers along the wardrobe rail, trying to block out the thoughts that float to the surface of my mind like shadowy fishes, trying to push them down into the deep. Mum had been asking me to come home. Casually mentioning how they’d all like to see me, asking when I could spare a week to stop by. She’s always done that though, ever since I started blogging, I remind myself. Had it been different lately? Had there been more urgency, more nagging than usual? I don’t know. I’ve been too booked up though: a resort in the Maldives, a snorkeling cruise in Sri Lanka, a Full Moon party in Koh Phagnan, this five-star hotel in Paje, Zanzibar. I don’t like to say no to work, or cancel, or reschedule. It looks bad. There are always up-and-coming new bloggers out to overtake you, with younger, prettier faces. I need to take what I can get, while I can get it. Dad hadn’t dropped any hints, but then again, he rarely talks about himself. He just wants to know what I’m doing. Where had I been? What had I seen? What adventures had I had? I had thought he was safe. Remission, that was the word. It’s supposed to mean the cancer is gone.
I finally yank a pair of jeans off a hanger and toss them onto the plush, velvet-green sofa, followed by a grey hoodie. Wearing jeans on a long-haul flight is going to be torture, but no one will recognise me, given how I harp on constantly about how wearing jeans on a plane is a big no-no. Plus I probably deserve a bit of torture. I won’t wear make-up, and I’ll wear my glasses, not my contacts. I’ve never worn my glasses in a video before. Short sightedness is not a glamorous affliction.
Outfit sorted. I squeeze my flip flops and sandals into the bottom of the suitcase, then started rolling up my clothes into little tight cylinders, mechanically arranging them in parallel bundles, Mari Kondo style. It’s coming back to me. I can do this. My toiletries next, requisitioned from the beautiful bathroom, all blue-mosaic tiles and matte gold fittings. I would have liked to try the big Jacuzzi bath, set into the floor. It would have made for a cute Instagram post. Oh well. The owners of Paradise Garden Lodge were very sweet when I told them I had to leave and why, but I could tell they were disappointed. They had just opened, and I was their first choice of Influencer for their social media campaign, they had said. I represent the exact demographic they’re after. Young, sassy and classy. Someone who doesn’t want to slum it in hostels but wants a unique, boutique stay, with flair and style and taste, nothing corporate, nothing bland. It’s all about the authenticity, the aesthetics. The words sound so hollow, so flat. Probably because they are.
I check the contents of my satchel. Passport, wallet, tablet, headphones, charger, eye mask, earplugs, travel toiletries, wet wipes. I mustn’t forget my phone. It’s on silent, screen-down on the carved mahogany bedside table. I can’t look at it. Too many messages from people who don’t usually contact me (probably because I don’t contact them): aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, a couple of my old friends from home. Nice messages of condolence, horrible reminders of what’s just happened. I know what they’re really thinking, though. She’s materialistic, stuck up, selfish, she needs to get a real job, she’s ruining the planet with all that flying, she makes us all feel bad about our boring lives. This is a wake-up call. Maybe she’ll sort her priorities out.
What time is it? I relent and check my phone quickly, trying not to read the notifications. It’s 8;15. My taxi is due any minute. And, dammit, I’ve spotted a message from Amanda. I was wondering how long it would take for her to contact me, to berate me for my absence, my negligence. Amanda the perfect, loving, dutiful daughter, the Paediatric Critical Care nurse, Amanda who saves babies’ lives four nights a week. Amanda deals in catheters and IV lines and oxygen cylinders, not cocktails and markets and river cruises. Amanda is a Real Person, not like her sister. I’ll read it later.
A final scan of the empty room. The bed is messy (I usually leave everywhere as tidy as I can because I feel sorry for the cleaning staff in these places), but there’s no time to make it up. I turn to go but out of the corner of my eye I spot the postcard, sticking out from the behind the big mirror over the dressing table where I had wedged it yesterday. I send a postcard home from all my destinations: even when it’s awkward to find anywhere that sells stamps, even when I’m in the middle of nowhere, even when I’m rushing between hotels and tours and events. Dad jokes (used to joke, I should say) that he has the largest postcard collection in Essex. I used to roll my eyes and say that that’s not much of an achievement, given most people from my home county don’t bother going anywhere interesting. But I’m glad I did it. I’m glad it made him happy.
I grab it and look at it before I open the door. Images of Stone Town: a huge carved, wooden door, a tortoise on Prison Island, a bright-blue sailboat on an even brighter sea, a sunset. I had been here before once, back before I was a blogger, back when I lugged a huge backpack around and stayed in the cheapest hostels I could find. I had probably sent the same postcard home then. This one is still unwritten. I drop it into the wastepaper basket and walk down the corridor dragging my case behind me, my jeans rubbing uncomfortably again my thighs. But I find myself stopping and turning back to retrieve it. It was for dad. I need to keep it.
The reception is blissfully cool and air conditioned. The staff watch sympathetically as I slide the key card over the marble counter.
“Thanks again for everything. Sorry I have to rush off like this.”
Sajid, the manager, bows is head “Of course, madam. We understand completely. Maybe someday you can stay with us again.”
Maybe he means it, or maybe he has another blogger lined up to fly in later today. The taxi is waiting and the white-shirted driver slings my suitcase roughly into the boot. I slide into the back seat, praying he doesn’t want to chat, to ask about my holiday. I need to read Amanda’s message. I’d have to eventually. But not yet.
The car pulls off and drives through the town to the main road, if you can call it a town. Behind the beautiful hotels that line the beach is a shanty of cinderblock houses scattered at random on the dry dirt, litter piled up between them, little smouldering mounds of rubbish. The Zanzibar that doesn’t make it onto the postcards. Two barefoot children run off the dirt track, one clutching a football. They look at me as I pass, shut up in my little metal box, their expressions unreadable.
We reach the main road and I gaze out at the flat landscape: fields, colourful houses, tall trees. I was supposed to have done a tour through the mangroves later today, and I had been looking forward to the monkeys: I like seeing animals in the wild. I wasn’t so fussed about missing the dragon boat cruise. I’d have been all on my own, surrounded by strangers, other bloggers, journalists, all trying to outdo each other with our travel tales and tans and perfect bodies. And the coral here is all dead anyway, I heard.
The dark thoughts surface once more. I’m still livid mum didn’t tell me he was sick. Does she want me to live out the rest of my life wracked with guilt for not saying goodbye? I would have dropped everything and gone home earlier, if I had known. Is this her way of punishing me for not sticking out my degree, for not getting a job in London, for not settling down, for not providing her with a grandchild or two? Dad had been proud of me, though. “My daughter earns a living by going on holiday!” he used to tell people. He had no grasp of technology, but he got a smartphone and joined Facebook, Instagram and Twitter just to see my posts. He had no profile picture, no followers, never posted himself. But he liked all my silly posts. He had only ever left England twice, once to go to France for a football match and once to attend his niece’s wedding in Spain. One my money was properly coming in, I had booked him and mum a holiday to Italy, because it’s not too far and not too scary, to a nice hotel on the Amalfi coast that I had reviewed. The manager gave me a huge discount and promised to look after them. But then Dad got sick, and after all the hustle and bustle and hospital visits and operations and chemotherapy, the holiday just never happened. I wished he had rescheduled it. Wished he had gone. He was into the Romans: he had brought us to Bath and Hadrian’s Wall when we were little, and told us about the legions and the emperors. I had wanted him to see Pompeii, Herculanuem, the Colosseum. I had wanted him to live a little.
We’re at the tiny airport. The hotel paid for the taxi (a nice gesture) but I fish some change out of my purse to tip the river, who manhandles my bag out of the boot again. I trundle my way to the airport, head down, hair scraped back in a ponytail instead of my usual beachy curls, face bare of make-up. I’m sweltering in my jeans, even with my hoodie tied around my waist, but it’ll be worth it if no one recognises me. The queue for check-in is pretty short and I’m airside quickly. I think about buying something to eat, I haven’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday, but I can’t summon up the energy to queue up at the tiny café and decide which of the unappetising, limp sandwiches on display looks the most edible. I circle the tiny gift shop aimlessly, then wander into the crowded, hot waiting area.
There are no chairs left so I find a little space on the tiled sill of one of the big windows overlooking the runway. It’s only about thirty centimetres off the floor, and I feel safe there, hidden away from the eyes of my fellow passengers. I hunker own behind my bag and try to work up the courage to read Amanda’ message. There’ a whole family perched on the windowsill next to me: mother, father, three children and an ancient woman all in black, with a headscarf wrapped around her hair. She casts me a dirty look. I should cover my hair too, out of respect for the local Islamic culture. But I’m in an international airport and it’s too hot and I’m almost in tears and I really can’t be bothered.
A girl reclines on a seat opposite me, scrolling through her phone. She looks younger than me by a couple of years, and she’s tanned and dark-haired and pretty, dressed a bit like me on my normal flight days in loose, colourful pants and a cotton t-shirt. I wonder if she’s an aspiring travel blogger, or just a regular girl on holiday. She glances up from her phone and our eyes meet. Shit. I pull my eyes downwards to stare at my locked phone screen, pretending I’m reading something. Leave me alone. Please.
I flick my eyes up again and the girl is still looking. She gets up and walks towards me, slinging her little backpack over her shoulder. A young man immediately steals her seat. She approaches, towering over me. “Hi, sorry… are you Charlotte Reid, the blogger?” She looks hopeful and a little scared, like they always do.
I clear my throat. “Yeah, I am.”
“Oh wow! I watched all your videos before my trip! I was volunteering in a hospital in Moshi for three months, then I did some travelling. Heading home now though.” She reminds me of Amanda. “Why don’t you try some volunteering abroad?” is one of her favourite questions to throw at me. “It must be so cool you can make a living from travelling! I’m studying medicine which is cool I guess, but not quite as glamourous…”
“It is cool, yeah.” She need to work on her bedside manner. Can’t she tell I’m not in the mood for having a chat?
She continued to look at me, her face changing. Uncertainty, mingled with curiosity.
“Sorry to ask, but are you… ok?” She sounded even more nervous.
“I’m… no, not really. I’m going home. My dad died.”
Those three words unleash something buried in me, a surge of panic, fear, sadness, lurching up from my stomach. Tears finally prick the corners of my eyes. There’s no way I can hold them back anymore. I bury my face in my hands, wishing she’d go away, wishing I was anywhere but here.
“Oh no! I’m so sorry. Can I do anything?” Her voice is all sincerity and concern.
“Not really,” I half-gasp, half-snort, not looking up from the dark cocoon of my palms. I feel her body squeezing in next to me, and hear rummaging noises.
“Do you want a tissue? Some water?” I extract my damp, hot face from my hands and accept a crumpled Kleenex.
“If you want to be alone, I can go. I just… it must be so hard to be here on your own right now.” She puts her arm around me, patting my shoulder. I can’t remember the last time anyone has been genuinely kind to me, without wanting a review or a tag in one of my posts in return. It’s almost too much to bear, but I take some deep breaths, drink some water and succumb to her little pats, feeling like a cross between a dog and a little kid. It helps, a bit.
“I haven’t been home in ages.” My voice is flat. “I didn’t know he was sick again. My mum phoned to tell me yesterday and she sounded so… angry.” It feels good to unburden some of my shame on a stranger. “My sister messaged me yesterday and I haven’t even read it yet, I’m just… afraid they all hate me.”
“That’s not your fault. If they didn’t tell you, how are you supposed to know?”
“I need to read the message, let them know when I’m arriving. I just don’t think I can face them.” I touch the unlock button and my phone screen lights up, the message still there.
“I’m sure it’s not that bad. Hey, I’m going to check if the boarding time is up yet. Read it and if it’s horrible you can cry on me. I don’t mind, it kind of comes with the job.” She squeezes my shoulder and struggles to her feet. “Back in a sec.”
It has to happen eventually. I inhale and exhale, then open the message.
Hi Charlie. Really hope you’re ok and getting home safe. Just want to say please don’t feel bad for not being here, I know you’re feeling awful right now. Dad’s been fine, it was really sudden. They think it was a stroke. I know mum seemed mad when she was talking to you, but she was just upset. Please don’t feel bad, there was no reason for you to have come home. I’ll meet you at the airport. Love you.
Relief washes over me, relief, gratitude, grief. I read the message over and over, until the girl returns and sits next to me.
“Did you read it? Was it ok?”
“It was ok.” I almost manage to smile at her. “Thank you.”
“I knew it.” She sounds relieved.
“Sorry… What’s your name? I don’t know if you said…”
“Oh. I didn’t. Sorry, it’s Ella.”
“It’s nothing. Really.”
She’s wrong, but I don’t correct her.