Anjuna Beach, Goa, India – March 1968
The grey ship was on fire. A few hippies gathered on the beach as the flames lit up the night with a haunting flickering on the palm trees. A loud bang had woken them followed by the light. One of the group, a naked woman, walked over to a huddled dark mound on the sand. She bent down and with gradual sloth-like movements checked if the man was alive. Withdrawing her hand from his head, she found a dark red stain on her fingers. Then another of the group, a short and exhausted looking woman in a tattered dress, joined the first. Between them, they struggled to move the heavy body and failed. Finally, two men stopped watching the flames and helped carry the man back to the palmleaf-clad beach huts. The light extinguished as the ship sank.
Anjuna Beach, Goa, India – 23rd April 2008 – Midday
“Forty years I’ve been stuck in this place,” said the old man. “Have you ever thought what it’d be like to be stuck in a place you hate for so long?”
He stared at Kurt across the table in the coconut-leaf-covered beach shack. Kurt found it hard to believe the old man could hate it: blue water lapping white sand, drowned in constant sunshine; nothing to do but play backgammon and drink beer. A heady smell of incense drifted in through the empty window frames.
“Why don’t you leave?” he asked, as he took a sip from his Kingfisher beer and placed the bottle back on the table. The old man’s skin was sunburnt deep brown like leather, his body thin, and hair grey and balding. He looked tired in body but the eyes were sharp and missing nothing.
“No passports, me and her.” He nodded to the rough kitchen where the short woman with the Russian accent was making fried rice. The spices from the cooking made them cough.
“Wow, how did that happen?” he asked not really caring and feeling bored. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Bernhart. It’s a long, long story. And if I told you, I’d have to murder you.”
“Uh-huh, and maybe if you don’t, I will murder you,” said Kurt in a laughing voice, though his heart was hard. “Anyway, it’s nice here… isn’t it? Paradise?”
Bernhart was quiet for a bit as he looked over the empty, moon shaped beach at the sea. A native fishing boat was moving out of the small calm area near the outcrop of rocks; the little engine leaving behind a blue trail of smoke and its stink managing to reach them. He raised a finger and pointed: “See that bloody boat?”
“Yea, nice. Love the rakish native design, with that sort of wood float on the side.”
“The float’s an outrigger. Damn thing goes out every day at the same time. They catch fish for the restaurant down there. Every bloody day. I’ve seen it so many times if I look again I’ll cry. In fact, I never look out there anymore, not properly. I’ve been to boredom hell and I’m still here. Kind of got used to it, but I still feel bitter. Before, my life was constant action and excitement. I used to crave being somewhere else like the old days: England, Holland, or France. Even craving the cold weather: like I couldn’t live without it. Coffee: oh for a decent cup of coffee even.”
“What about the parties and sexy beach girls I’ve heard about,” said Kurt despite himself, wondering indeed where they were.
“You’ve missed the parties,” said Bernhart, “it’s the end of the season, only expats like me here now. All the so-called hippies bugger off back home.”
“And her,” said Kurt nodding to the woman as she brought his food and assaulted him with a heavy musk perfume. “Thanks.”
“Yes, her too, stuck here, with me,” said the old man with slight disdain in his voice.
“Ah, a few indiscretions…”
“Come on tell me your story, how you end up here owning a beach shack with a Russian woman.”
“Ah, you assume this shack’s mine and she’s my woman?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, and it’s a really long story.”
“I might believe more than you think and I’m not exactly in a hurry. As you say, there isn’t a party to go to, almost everything’s shut around here but this place.”
“We stay open, haven’t got any other place to go: may as well.”
“Huh, so you are the owner.”
“Maybe: had to make the most of it. You look like a trustworthy man; maybe I can tell you. And of course, I might be lying.”
Kurt’s curiosity mixed with his hidden anger got the better of him: “Come now, stop teasing me with your story. I bet it’s a boring one. Like: you came here as a young hippie and never left. Or, you ran away from something, something bad. But yeah, it’s probably all fantasy.”
“Not so simple. It’s a really long story. And I will have to murder you at the end.”
“Yeah and like I say-”
“Oh yes,” he cut in, “you’ll murder me if I don’t.”
Kurt smiled, and though the conversation was jocular, the sentiment was real; he knew more of this old man than the other realised. Hate had burnt his soul for many years, and though Bernhart failed to realise it, he was on trial.