Despite the stench of rotten Sten (a sudden hot blast erupted when his feet slipped out of his sleeping-bag) the funeral had some dignity. We all circled the grave that Jean had dug the day before, close enough to the waterfall to make a pleasant spot, far enough to stop our drinking water from being spoiled. Then Sal said a few words, talking of Sten's unfailing commitment to the camp and the extent to which we'd all miss him. Unhygienix, as head cook, said a few more. He talked about how Sten always caught big fish, which weren't necessarily tastier than the smaller ones from the lagoon, but went further in terms of keeping people's stomachs full. He also pointed out that although Sten hadn't played the most active social role in the camp, he was always ready to join in if a Sunday football game was organized and had never been known to foul. This last point drew a couple of murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
No one was visibly upset until we started filling in the grave. Then several of the girls started crying. Ella particularly - like all the cooks, she'd had more contact with him than the rest of us. Anyway, I could understand the tears because there was something poignant about watching the sleeping-bag shroud become slowly covered in earth. It brought home how absolute Sten's absence from the world had become.
Finally, Bugs planted a wooden headstone. To his credit, he'd made a real effort with the carving, putting little flourishes around Sten's name. If I had to niggle, I'd mention that the headstone was missing Sten's second name and date of birth. The trouble was, Christo wasn't able to answer questions about Sten and Karl wasn't willing, so there was nothing that anyone could do about it. But perhaps it was more appropriate that way. Second names felt connected to the World, maybe because they were a link to family and home, so they were never used or asked. It's a funny thought that if today - for some inexplicable reason—I wanted to track down any of the people I once knew on the beach, I'd have no better clue to work from than a nationality and a fading memory of their faces.
Throughout the proceedings, I was wondering at which point Sal would address us about the tensions in the camp. I'd assumed it would be when she spoke over the graveside, and I think she'd assumed the same thing, but the smell had probably changed her mind. It was distracting. Although we'd all listened attentively to her and Unhygienix, I think there was a quiet sense of relief when the earth sealed the head-hole of Sten's sleeping-bag.
Sal eventually made her move when we thought it was over. Jed turned to head off back to camp—he was in a hurry because he didn't want to leave Christo unattended for too long—but Sal stopped him.
'Hold on, Jed,' she called over our heads, standing on tiptoe. 'I don't want anyone leaving yet. There's something important I want to say, and I want everyone here to hear it.'
Jed frowned but stayed put. Amongst the others I noticed several more puzzled frowns. I also noticed some expectant expressions in Bugs' crew, and to my dismay, something in those expressions which appeared worryingly close to smugness. More worrying was that Bugs had manoeuvred himself so that he was standing right by Sal's side. This wouldn't have been surprising in normal circumstances, but when Sal had called to Jed she'd taken a couple of steps forward. Bugs had matched these steps to remain with her, nudging Cassie aside in the process. I kicked myself for having forgotten to pass on Sal's message. 'Forewarned is forearmed,' I muttered to myself, and Keaty glanced at me.
'OK!' Sal clapped her hands. 'I'd like to start by asking everyone to sit down so you can all see me... and so I can be reassured that there are still a few things, funerals excluded, that we can all do together.'
With a good deal of exchanged looks we arranged ourselves on the grass, Bugs, predictably, remaining standing longer than everyone else.
Sal surveyed us until we were, settled, then nodded. 'In case anyone hasn't realized or heard,' she began, 'I'm going to talk about the atmosphere in the camp. I'm going to talk about it because I have no choice. I'm going to talk about it because no one else seems willing to do so, except in painfully indiscreet huddles.'
Here, to my astonishment, she stared directly at Bugs. But my astonishment was nothing on his, and a broad grin leapt to my face as I saw his cheeks flush. She'd kept her word about being even-handed, I thought approvingly, and suddenly wondered if there were unknown strains in their relationship. Delighted, I imagined the nosedive his position in the camp would take if Sal chucked him. The grin vanished, however, when she directed her next comment straight at me.
'I'll add that matters have not been helped by certain individuals who have hardly tried to patch things up. In fact, I might say they've deliberately made things worse. And yes, Richard, before you even dream of denying it, I mean you. I don't want to repeat anything that was said in the longhouse a few nights ago, but I will say that if anything like it ever happens again, the one who'll be chucking spears is me. Clear?'
She didn't wait for an answer.
'Not that Richard should be singled out. As far as I'm concerned, with very few exceptions, everybody here is guilty of having acted like a fucking idiot over this whole mess. Between the two sides of the split, I haven't seen anyone making an effort to cool things down, so I don't see Richard's behaviour as any worse than the ones who sit around in sullen gangs.'
By now the exchanged glances had stopped and we were all looking rather intently at the leaves above us or picking at loose threads on our shorts. Anywhere but at Sal.
'So the way I see things is this. We've had two severe disasters over the past week. First there was the food poisoning and then we had the unspeakable tragedy that has collected us here now. For these reasons, the atmosphere in the camp has been understandably bad. If we weren't all in a state of shock with tempers fraying, we wouldn't be human... But!' Sal punched a fist in her palm. 'It ends here! It ends with the burial of a friend, so that something positive will come of his otherwise senseless death.
'Now, dates don't mean much on the beach, but I keep a calendar. And it may interest you to know that the date is September the eleventh.'
As a matter of fact, it interested me a lot to hear that the date was September the eleventh, because it meant it was close to five months since I'd left England. But I was surprised that it interested everyone else to the extent that it did. There was a ripple of exclamations around me and someone whistled.
'For the sake of our newest arrivals, it means that the Tet festival is in three days' time. The Tet festival, named by another absent friend, Daffy, is our yearly birthday. It was the date we first spent a night on the beach, and we celebrate it accordingly.'
As she said this, the fire dropped from Sal's eyes and she looked rather sad. 'To be honest, I haven't been much looking forward to this year's Tet. Without Daffy, I don't mind telling you that it will feel very strange. But after the trouble we've been through, particularly losing Sten, I now feel that the festival is exactly what we need. It will remind us what we are and why we're here. As it marks our birthday, it will mark a fresh start.'
Sal paused for a moment, clearly lost in thought. Then her face hardened and she snapped back into business mode. 'Obviously, this means a trip to Ko Pha-Ngan to get party supplies. Normally I'd ask for volunteers, but this time I won't. Bugs and Keaty, as you two were the catalyst for the split, I want you to make the trip together.'
I instantly checked to see how Keaty had taken this bit of news, and he looked completely appalled. Bugs I couldn't see any more because he'd slumped over slightly, but I was pretty sure he would have known about Sal's decision already. I doubted he'd have been happy with it, but he wouldn't have been as shocked as Keaty.
'You can see it as a symbolic gesture if you like. I see it as practical... And Étienne,' she said as an afterthought. 'I've been thinking about your suggestion to take Karl to Ko Pha-Ngan, but for the reasons we discussed I simply don't think it's possible.'
Suddenly I felt a finger jab into my ribs. I turned around and saw Jed leaning towards me. 'Hey,' he whispered. 'I didn't know Étienne wanted to take Karl to Ko Pha-Ngan.'
I nodded. 'Yeah. He went to see Sal about it yesterday. Why?'
Jed's eyes flicked to the side. 'Later,' he mouthed.
I shrugged and looked back at Sal, but while I'd been turned away she'd obviously made a gesture to show that her sermon was over. People were stirring and starting to rise.
'OK,' she said. 'So that's it. I hope you all listened hard. For today, details as normal. Tomorrow Keaty and Bugs leave for Ko Pha-Ngan.'
I tried to catch Jed as we all filed out of the waterfall clearing, but he'd run on ahead to get back to Christo. Instead I walked with Keaty and Gregorio.
The conversation, as we made our way through the jungle, was amusingly surreal. It was blindingly obvious that we were all dying to swap opinions about Sal's speech, but we had to limit ourselves to small talk for fear of our insights being overheard. So ahead of me I had Jean conferring with Ella about whether the tomatoes were ready for the pot, and behind me I had Cassie saying that her machete needed sharpening.
But this facade of geniality aside, it was also apparent that Sal's speech had had its desired effect. The mood was curiously upbeat, our walking pace fast. Already the funeral seemed as if it had been consigned to the past. If it hadn't been for Jed hurrying off to look after Christo, I could almost have forgotten that the Swedes had been the main reason for the meeting by the waterfall.
Neither did the mood change when we reached camp. I was half expecting us to fall back into our factional huddles and begin the analysis of the morning's events. But within a few minutes the different details had separated out and the clearing was empty. Apart from me, that is, and Sal.
'Was I fair?' she said, walking over.
'Fair...' I scratched my head and dropped the cigarette I was smoking, stubbing it out with my toe. 'Yeah, you were fair. I think it all worked out pretty well. I was even surprised you let me off so light... seeing as Bugs is your boyfriend and all.'
'Favouritism isn't my scene, Richard. I'd have hoped you knew that by now. Anyway, I think you redeemed yourself when you rescued Christo. That was a brave thing you did... not to mention dumb.'
I smiled. 'Thanks.'
'Well.' She smiled back. 'So shouldn't you be going? Our neighbours might be up to something, and I'm looking forward to my evening report.'
I started to walk towards the path to the beach, then, on instinct, I stopped and glanced around. Sal was still looking at me.
'You like me, don't you, Sal?' I said.
She was just close enough for me to see her eyebrows raise. 'Excuse me, Richard?'
'You like me. I mean... you tick me off when I do something wrong, but you never stay angry for long.'
'...I don't hold mistakes against anyone.'
'And you trusted me with the Rice Run and the Jed detail. You could have easily refused his request, especially with me being one of the newest arrivals. And you chose me to pass on the message about your meeting, even though you knew I couldn't be relied on.'
'Good Lord, Richard. You do say the strangest things.'
'But I'm right, aren't I?'
Sal sighed. 'I suppose you are. But that isn't to say...'
'I know. Favouritism isn't your scene.' I paused. 'Shall I tell you why you like me?'
'...Go on then.'
'It's because I remind you of Daffy, isn't it?'
'...Yes. But how could you...' She shook her head. 'Yes, you do remind me of Daffy. Very much.'
'I thought that was it,' I said. Then I continued on my way.