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Lost Love

The room was designed for sensory deprivation. Acres of low white ceiling pressing down on featureless beige partitions ending in beige carpet dotted with little groups of figures making polite conversation with people they had met for the first time. On the sign by the door, the words Chilean Ecotourism Reception replaced the more conventional Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.

Emma was cornered, too far from the trestle table that formed the bar. He was a little man, thin and dark, with an intense rat-like face. His dark suit and sombre tie sat on him like a strait-jacket. His badge said Emilio. He was into his fifth whisky in twenty minutes.

"I am disappointed in your country," he was saying. "It is not right for tourists."

"Why not?" Emma asked.

"Your wildernesses, they are useless. Too big. Too far apart. It is all travel. Fly here. Fly there. Drive. Walk, even. For hours. Days. To see, what? Trees. More trees. Again trees. Who wants to go for hours and just see trees. Your animals, too, are wrong. All nocturnal."

He drew breath. "You should make little wildernesses. Right outside the back door of the hotel. Next to the golf course. With kangaroos and koalas. So visitors can see it in comfort."

"We don’t see wildernesses in that way. They are vast, unspoiled tracts of nature ..."

He shook his head. "Not commercial. They cost you money that way. If you want to keep one, you should build a big city, right in the middle, with airports, fast trains, freeways, so people can see it properly."

Emma looked around the room, trying to catch an eye, to summon a rescue squad. But all eyes were down, studiously looking the other way.

Emilio had taken another whisky from a passing tray. He was still talking, but the subject seemed to have changed. "I wish for your help," he was saying. "I am looking for a woman." He looked deep into Emma’s eyes. Emma looked away, pointedly. Emilio’s voice took on an air of studied pathos. "It is a woman that I knew long ago," he said. "The most beautiful woman in the world. Soft blonde hair, her eyes, brown sometimes, perhaps green, her face like a heart, and her figure ..." His whisky sloshed as he made the traditional out and then in gesture with both hands.

He leaned towards Emma. "We were happy. We were in love. We were to be married. But on our wedding day, she was gone." He clicked his fingers. "Disappeared! Poouf! Stolen away. Nobody knew where."

He straightened his shoulders. "And so I looked. And asked. And searched. I waited for the ransom note. I thought of the customs of my country, and dreamed for a moment of mass graves. But I know, that they were keeping her from me. That somewhere, she is alive, still waiting."

He pulled out his wallet and opened it to show a photograph. A girl, maybe sixteen or seventeen, her arm around a stone cupid in a fountain, her wet dress clinging to her as she flashed a teasing grin at the camera. A young version of the man, standing stiffly a metre or so away, trying not to get wet.

"I look for her everywhere," the man said. "I must find her. Or I will be unhappy forever." He paused. "Have you, perhaps, seen her?"

Emma glanced around the room again and this time she caught an eye — another of the Chilean delegation — and signalled "help". Then she looked down at the photograph and shook her head.

Her rescuer was large and loud, with a spectacular bandido moustache and a name-tag which said Carlos. "I must discuss with you the lesser nine-toed numbat," he said, and whisked her off towards the bar.

"I am sorry," he said, when her glass was full again. "Emilio is, what you might call, a successful businessman. A little one-track, perhaps."

Emma smiled grimly. "His ideas on what is eco- and mine don’t quite match," she said.

"We are here to see how you do things," Carlos said. "But Emilio, he does not understand that. He sees only business opportunities." He grinned. "Did he tell you his plan for the Great Barrier Reef?"

Emma shook his head.

"To Emilio all those boats, taking tourists out and back, are a big waste of money. He wants to build a hotel. On the reef. A big one. Hundreds of kilometres long. With glass-bottomed rooms, to watch the fish."

Emma said "Ugh!"

"Be careful," Carlos said. "Emilio is a powerful man. His brother is a general, and his other brother is a cardinal. He has lots of money. And you have lots of stupid politicians. If he sets his mind to something, he will succeed."

"Except for finding his long-lost love," Emma said.

Carlos shrugged. "Even that. It is a long time ago, but he has not given up."

"Then we must hope that he never finds her."

Carlos laughed. "She is middle-aged now. He would not recognise her."

* * *

Emma was stretched at full length on Petra’s sofa: a beached whale holding aloft a half full wine glass. Petra was curled up in an armchair opposite, looking slim and youthful, her blonde hair framing her heart-shaped face, her hazel eyes sparkling, her hands cradling a gin and tonic.

"I knew someone called Emilio once," Petra said. "One school holidays, when I went to Europe. Little dark guy. Thin, peaky face. Awfully earnest. I sort of liked him at first. So deep, so intense. And so mature." She laughed. "I guess he must have been all of twenty. He was at uni, studying something or other so he could go into the family firm.

"I suppose I went out with him a couple of times, but then he started hanging around like a bad smell, and barging in every time I talked to a guy. And after the first time, he just said the same things, over and over again. Like how his father was some big wheel in South America, and how he was going to be even bigger and rounder. And anything you said, if it was more than ‘pass the salt’, he’d just smile as if you’d done something clever and go on talking.

"He asked me to marry him, and when I said ‘No’ he wouldn’t believe me, and went off and bought a ring and tried to organise a priest ..."

"So what did you do?" Emma asked.

Petra grinned. "I was due to meet my parents in Lapland. So I went. On schedule. He should have known I was going. But he probably wasn’t listening. And I didn’t go out of my way to say goodbye."

"Surely he could have traced you?"

Petra shook her head. "He didn’t know where I was staying. They were friends of my parents. And I didn’t want him bothering them."

"He showed me a picture of you. In a fountain."

Petra nodded reminiscently. "Wasn’t that cupid spunky?" she said.


Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1994

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