“Don’t miss it,” he called, rat-tatting on her bedroom door. Stella lay in bed, half-listening to the uniformed attendants puttering around outside her barred and mosquito-netted window.
She put on a dressing gown and walked through the narrow apartment to join her brother Andrew on his terrace, where he sat nursing a mug of sludgy coffee.
“Dawn comes up like a blowtorch here,” he warned her.
She sat next to him to wait for the sun. His apartment was built into the perimeter of a palm-shaded golf course, and a hiss of water was already playing across the lawns, coming from perforated hoses criss-crossing the fairway.
The apartments packed around them were shielded by rolled steel shutters, and faded En Venta signs proliferated. Stella stepped over a low wall into the neighbouring terrace, to peer through its brown-tinted windows. A wire clothes horse in the middle of the room held shrivelled towels and a bath mat.
“On the market for the last two years, at least,” said Andrew. “If you’ve got a spare hundred thousand Euro…”
“Unfortunately not,” she said.
Coming in on the descent, she’d seen the grey, undeveloped land staked out into rectangles. She’d flown low enough over the L-shape of Andrew’s estate to spot his table on the terrace and golf carts trundling across the course. He didn’t even like golf. She couldn’t understand it.
He kept a large glass vase half-filled with golf balls that had crashed into his property – a sort of calendar, measuring the time elapsed since his wife’s death. He seemed strangely gratified by the cracked sliding door and the pock-marks in his white plaster walls.
“One a week,” he marvelled. “On average. Gifts from Golf Almighty.”
Or perhaps he did like golf. Stella wouldn’t know. She hadn’t come out for Grace’s funeral: she hadn’t seen her brother for years.
His hair, although still abundant, was now completely white. Her figure had thickened around the middle. They’d both jolted with surprise at the sight of one another in the Arrivals lounge, and then laughed off their surprise as though they were two children playing at being old. Their real selves were still at home, hiding and seeking among the dark attics of their long stone house, or climbing ladder-like branches behind the rough garage wall. The two elderly strangers had embraced for a second, and then pulled apart.
“I thought we might go to the mountain today,” he said. Behind them the cone of Mount Teide, with its white cap of snow, looked close and sharp enough to touch with the pad of a finger.
Heat drove them back inside the tiled beige apartment, to the living room that was actually a corridor, where they sat facing the golf-ball jar while they finished their coffees.
“Never watch it,” said Andrew, nodding toward a large black TV screen fixed to the wall. “No need to watch it when you live near the sea.”
“You can watch the boats coming and going in the marina.”
“I do. All day, sometimes. They strip them down in those little bays and then pressure wash the hulls. And the sea’s a different colour every time you look at it.”
Stella wondered if he really liked such inconstancy in a body of water. At home he’d consulted charts and almanacs to predict the tides. Now he listed the varying shades of the sea in a slightly wounded tone – purple and pink and green and copper – as though a trick had been played upon him. He wanted to know how the sea worked; he wanted to take it apart and examine its mechanism.
“Did Grace enjoy the marina?” she asked, daring to mention her sister-in-law’s name.
“Not really,” he said. She had simply wanted to lie dormant in the heat. “She liked the plants, though,” he said unexpectedly. “And the little lizards.”
Lizards with long delicate tails, like parched newts, flickered around the borders of the terrace, emerging from cacti stems. They had a weakness for cheese biscuit crumbs.
“So, the volcano…” said Stella, glad to have got the ordeal of Grace’s name out of the way. She had been afraid that Andrew might be angry, or cry.
They drove past the egrets that skimmed the sluice, up from the flat lands of the hotel complexes, and the white abandoned pueblos. The roads ran straight between red and green rocks, until the gradient changed and they began to loop and hairpin through tiny shuttered towns. Scooters clustered outside bars and banks; telephone wires were laced across the guttering of flat-fronted pastel buildings. Between towns the wilderness recurred, and as they rose higher the edges of a forest began to appear, until they were driving through its green ravines, beneath canopies of trees.
Stella peered down to the frayed edges of the island, imagining his apartment lying empty among so much emptiness, imagining lizards darting among the crumbs he’d dropped in the border. No-one knows we’re here, she thought: we have no family but each other. She had a feeling of lightness, of being unencumbered and allowed out to play, with no-one to call them in or tell them off. We’re the grown-ups now, she wanted to crow.
“We’re getting close.”
“How much further can it be?”
Andrew patted the steering wheel as their father always used to, chuckling “Patience.”
The route through the caldera took them through steeper and narrower roads, until they found a pass through a wall of tortured rock. The car shrank in the landscape. Teide filled the sky, and ranged all around were the layered lava plains of successive eruptions. In the far distance – although it was suddenly impossible to measure or assess distance – cars gathered together.
“God’s Fingers,” said Andrew, nodding towards their left. “If it’s not too hot we’ll take a walk around them. Half an hour out; half an hour back. You’ll need your sturdy shoes.”
God’s Fingers were a string of vertical, un-eroded rocks deposited in an ancient eruption. They endured somehow as the surrounding landscape was scoured almost flat. As they sat in the car, rubbing their faces and necks with factor 50 sun block, Andrew explained to Stella the processes of infill and dyke formation. She hardly listened. The rocks were both far and near, large and small. She was utterly disorientated. She gasped as Andrew opened the car door and the furnace heat swept around her.
“Nearer my God to Thee,” chirruped Andrew, stretching his long tanned legs in the sun. He had been covered in tweed and corduroy at home; out here his skin puckered all over with incipient ulcerations. Stella felt the heat prickle along her arms. She reached automatically to fasten Andrew’s top button, covering the exhausted brown crepe of his skin at the collarbone.
“Be careful,” she muttered. They began a long walk from the car park to the rocks, enduring a heat too great for speech.
Stella realised that hundreds of people were wandering through the landscape. Cars winked and dazzled in the light. And yet, as they approached the rocks, people melted away, swallowed up in the abundance. The rocks, which had seemed like scattered pebbles set against the awesome cone of Teide, came into focus. She reached for Andrew’s hand, but didn’t take it.
The Fingers were chaotic, rising diagonally from the torn earth in striped pyramids and obelisks. Only God’s Thumb, a teetering, top-heavy tower, stood truly alone. Andrew and Stella dropped down into the single-file pathway cut through the clinker. Half an hour, he’d said; but Andrew was tall and athletic, and had done this march many times before. Stella imagined him walking off his grief up here, tramping it into the shattered ground. Mighty Teide was a mausoleum now for the silent and unassuming Grace, who might have expected chipped marble in a municipal cemetery. Andrew strode ahead, making no allowances for his sister as she stumbled along the uneven track, resuming the lecture he’d begun in the car.
“Rained this week. Extraordinary for the time of year. Look at the greenery! Never seen anything like it.”
The desert was full of brush-like plants and tiny buds; in dips and declivities water pooled, shining silver as the sun moved across it. Lizards flicked among revivified roots, and delicate birds sipped from rock pools. Stella paused to watch as something like a grey wren nipped its beak into water. Far ahead she heard Andrew calling ‘Hola!’ to a couple passing in the opposite direction, and she hurried to catch up, knowing that she might disappear among the rocks like an evaporating raindrop.
The rocks were studded with erosions, some as large as rooms, others like the alcoves in which communion wine and candles are stored. Shadows dropped from their heights in reams and bolts of moving darkness, forming cool sheltering enclosures.
Thin clouds persisted in the laser-white sky. Ahead of them, beyond the last of God’s Fingers, the landscape dropped down to a different level, which Andrew described as the French Revolution field – a treacle-dark immensity, still glistening and pristine from its eighteenth century eruption.
“Makes human history seem pretty puny,” she ventured. He looked with narrowed eyes into the hard glaze of the sky while she thought of the vase on his shelf, half-filled with golf balls, measuring time like an hour-glass.
It was still light when they returned to the apartment. The sun slanted across the fairway, apricot over emerald, and the faint nag of hotel discos rolled across the harbour to Andrew’s terrace.
“That was awe-inspiring,” said Stella. She preferred to be indoors; the gulfs and chasms of the brutal desert had frightened her. She wanted to ask if he’d scattered Grace’s ashes up there, knowing that he must have done so. Poor Grace, she thought. What a place to end up.
Stella went to her room for a siesta, thinking how Andrew had burned all his old photographs onto CDs, and then thrown out the photos, so that Grace’s image was now just a series of digitised instructions. Children laughed on the path outside, on their way to the estate’s kidney-shaped pool.
“I’ve engineered a salad,” said Andrew, when Stella re-joined him. On a platter he’d built a ring of rocket leaves, avocado, tomato and mozzarella, drizzled with balsamic vinegar and strange crunchy pellets of dried onion. He knelt down to the kitchen counter, keeping the salad in his eye-line to check its symmetry. “Let’s move onto the terrace.”
He’d laid the glass table and opened a bottle of wine. The two of them sat facing the golf course, where two men were concluding a round. Father and son, guessed Stella.
“Stars for Stella,” Andrew said presently, pointing upwards. A deep star-field had emerged above the lawns and out over the sea, each star laid against a gauzy haze of further galaxies. They both traced the constellations, recalling their birth dates, then their parents’ birth dates.
A walker near the terrace tripped a floodlight to reveal a cat hooking a lizard from the soil with one paw.
You’ve done it, thought Stella, looking across the table at her brother’s profile. You’ve reached the finishing line unscathed, with no claims on anyone, not even me. I might never see you again.
To be inert, and at peace – with no thoughts, no affiliations – at the edge and the end of everything: she envied him that. He sat on his terrace every day, letting time idle and stand still. The long stone house had passed beyond his memory, while Grace and their parents ebbed into eternity. They were volcanoes and stars now; just snow that melted, water for the birds to sip.
“What’s that?” she asked, after a silence. A circling thud was intensifying behind and beyond the terrace.
“Helicopter,” he replied, not opening his eyes.
The thud passed overhead and out across the marina, to the sea. A cone of light fell from the sky, washing the black water. It moved with effort all along the nearby coast.
“Searching for migrant boats,” he explained. He opened his eyes and frowned at the half-visible scene, then reached for his wine glass. “People come at night and scramble up the shore, if they can. Poor devils.” He took a sip and closed his eyes again, settling back to rest with his head against the white-washed wall, listening to the scuffle of the gecko that hid behind the awning.
At the edge and the end of everything, she thought. Andrew and I have come to the end.
She thought of the passport in her handbag, the modest pension she’d accrued, and the damp, subsiding bungalow she owned outright. Her mind stopped there, far short of the dinghies in the water, the hands clinging to rope and rubber, the desperation of people she would never see.
Josie Turner lives in a small town outside London and works for the UK’s National Health Service. Her work has been published in journals including Mslexia, Ellipsis Zine, Brittle Star and Noble/ Gas Qtrly, and her creative non-fiction has appeared in Gordon Square Review. In 2016 she won the Brighton Short Story Prize and received the Sue Lile Inman Award for Fiction from the Emrys Foundation.