Ewan had reason to feel smug.
The surf was rolling out before them, not two hundred metres from their tent, and it looked like the day would be cloudless. The cove was theirs alone – a privilege he’d won for them by intrepidly steering his four wheel drive down a muddy track that would have daunted less skillful men. The tent, erected under swaying palm trees like an advertisement for glamping, was another proud demonstration of his competence – swiftly put up, comfortably (if not luxuriously) furnished, and large enough to stand up in.
And then there was Kate. Kate with her long honey-brown hair and shy smile and cut-off denim shorts. In that tent, right now, making those interminable preparations that a girl apparently requires before she emerges to greet her boyfriend – her new boyfriends – diligently boiling water on his portable gas burner so that she can have coffee before their shared breakfast.
Although he was not the kind of man to boast openly, secretly he would have liked a video made of the occasion. The tent – what a triumph – the cerulean sea, and especially Kate, a girlfriend who inspired yearning in the hearts of Ewan’s mates and disbelieving glee in his own. And now, to top it all off – and yet it was only nine o’clock! – the tent flap parted, and out came Kate in a white bikini. It was quite the sexiest sight that Ewan had ever seen – those three little triangles, inadequately fastened over Kate’s abundant curves.
“I thought we could swim,” she said, picking her way in bare feet over the fallen palm mulch and coral grit.
“Coffee first?” He held out a mug and she sat down in one of the camp chairs, spreading a sarong underneath her. Her soft little stomach plumped itself out over the top of her bikini bottoms. She was a peach.
It was a perfect day. They played in the shallows – Kate wouldn’t go in past her waist for fear of sharks, and Ewan forebore to tell her that sharks had been known to take people in knee-depth water. Instead he admired the pearls of water sliding down her rounded arms, and the golden glints in her hair as it poured down her almost naked back. For lunch, Ewan grilled salmon over a small fire, which they ate with crusty bread and chilled white wine. He wanted her to see him as classy.
As the sun began to dip, inevitably, there were mosquitoes. But Ewan had prepared for this too, with fragranced candles and an electric (battery-operated) bug electrocution device. They sat side by side drinking beer and eating potato chips as the bright blue faded to a soulful lavender. The only fly in the ointment was the humidity: every time their hands clasped, or their lips met for a long kiss, they came away slick with sweat and sticky. Ewan had no plan for that, other than the beer. Now that the sea had stilled, the air they breathed had weight and texture and a salty, musty smell that was almost suffocating.
“I feel like a shower,” said Kate, flicking at something that had landed on her shoulder, despite the insect defences.
Ewan jumped to his feet (or he would have jumped, but the weight of damp air made it feel more like pushing off). “I rigged one up from the tree,” he pointed out proudly. “See, the black bag heats up in the sun, then you just turn a tap at the bottom and there you go. It’s only been up an hour though, I thought on a day like this we’d want to cool off.”
Kate gave him a delighted, grateful grin and almost pranced to the makeshift shower. Then she bent, with a coy look, and peeled off her bikini top. Of course they’d slept together – but nonetheless, for Ewan, this was a perfect moment. Kate, reaching up to turn on the tap at the bottom of the bag, the stream of water pouring over her shoulders and naked breasts, her look of relieved ecstasy.
And then she screamed. In a second she had leaped out from under the shower, and begun scrabbling at herself, hopping up and down while she did so.
“Baby, what is it?” Ewan hurried to her rescue, although he already had a pretty good idea.
“Something fell on me. It was – euch – sort of fat and wet and slimy!”
Ewan inspected her closely, while Kate stood with her face screwed up, looking about on the ground with wary suspicion.
“There’s nothing on you.”
“Then it’s on the ground!”
He turned on the torch app on his phone and scanned the leaf litter. “No, I can’t see nothing – oh wait a minute…” He crouched. There was something. About two inches long, grey speckled with black, moving slowly over the wet ground. He flicked it with his finger, belly up. A slug.
“It’s just – ” He paused. The word ‘slug’ had different connotations, to a woman. “An insect. It’s harmless, don’t worry about it.” He flicked the creature again, into the bush. But Kate was still shaken. She stood as if she wished she could just lift off into the air a couple of feet, balanced on the balls of her feet. Poor girl, she wasn’t really used to nature, in all her creepy-crawly glory. Ewan scooped his arm under her wet thighs and picked her up.
“Let’s go into the tent,” he suggested. “No bugs in there.”
In the safety of the tent, enclosed by the tropical night, they made love, and snacked on quiche (which Kate had made herself) and more beer, and chocolate. It was fortunate that Ewan had a small fridge hooked up to the Land Rover, otherwise all these delicacies would have been inedible in the heat.
Ewan woke to pitch-black, and the sensation of something sliding across his ear. He knew at once that it was nothing to do with Kate, sleeping open-mouthed beside him. He brushed at the side of his face and felt a sludgy resistance. More puzzled than worried, he curled his fingers around the resistance, and pulled away. Something dropped on to the pillow, and he leaned up on his elbow, angling himself away from it.
He couldn’t see a thing, but he felt it. The phone was under the pillow. He slid his hand under, careful not to disturb Kate, and pulled it out.
By the faint light of the screen, he saw the tapering, silvery body curling around like a question mark, its narrow head questing for moisture.
He was no wuss, but his senses instinctively recoiled as he picked the thing up off his pillow, between finger and thumb. Its fatness dimpled under the pressure, cold and viscous. Its fore-parts arched in the clammy air, trying to find purchase.
As quietly as he could, he crawled to the tent’s entrance, unzipped part of the fly, and flung the creature out. How the hell had it got in, anyway? He zipped the flap up again, making sure there was no gap at all, and lay down again. Neither of them were covered, and the phone’s blueish light showed Kate’s nakedness, her arms and legs flung wide in an attempt to mitigate the heat. He watched her for a while, admiring, and then lay on his back….only to see that the stretched canvas that formed the ceiling of the tent was almost completely covered in small grey splotches.
Over the sweating canvas, hundreds of slugs slowly writhed, stretching their gelatinous bodies to cling against the downward drag of gravity, nosing their way past and over one another. The roof was a city of silvery slime trails, down which slugs crept and oozed.
Ewan sat quite still, looking up, thinking furiously. If he’d been on his own, he would have rushed out of the tent – wuss or no – got into his Land Rover, and driven straight back to slug-less civilisation. He probably would have sworn out loud.
But there was Kate, sleeping, oblivious. If she woke and saw this – Christ! He had an impulse to drape something over her – particularly that sweet, childishly open mouth. If one of those fuckers were to drop…!
But he had to do something. What – pick them off one by one and throw them outside, as he had the first? But clearly, there was a way in – a tear in the canvas he hadn’t noticed, something like that. He could hardly upend the place and find it – not with Kate still sleeping.
He would have liked to set fire to the tent and watch it burning – the tent and all its slimy, creeping occupants. But he couldn’t do that either.
With half an eye on the precariously dangling gastropods, Ewan opened the tent flaps. Then he crouched down to Kate, and began to slide his arms under her thighs and neck. Perhaps she wouldn’t wake, if he just…
“Baby? What’s happening?” Her sleepy eyes opened. He lifted her, bending over close to her face – partly because he didn’t want to get close to the tent roof, and partly to block her view of it.
“It’s too hot in here. I’m taking you out where it’s cool, out on the beach,” he whispered, suppressing a desire to run. He could almost hear the suction of their disgusting feet – but of course slugs didn’t have feet – slapping against the tent roof. Kate’s weight rested in his arms. Stooped, he carried her out into the dark, where the faint phosphorescence of a calm sea awaited them. His feet sank into moist, but mercifully rough-textured sand as he set out across the beach, as far away from the palm fringe as he could get without going into the water.
He laid Kate down, still naked, on the sand. It was slightly warm, retaining some of the day’s heat. Behind him, the palms shivered in some unfelt wind. He stretched himself beside her, cradling her head on his arm.
“We can’t sleep here,” she said, confused. Her face, turned towards him, had a silvery sheen. But the night was moonless. He kissed her, and felt the cold, sticky plumpness of her lips, the slipperiness of her skin under his caressing hand.
He drew back, startled. Their bodies separated with a sucking sound, and he could feel the residue of her sweat, viscid and rank. Her face searched blindly towards him, a thin sliver of drool creeping across her jawline. Her eyes were closed, but her tongue moved over lips thick and grey and swollen.
“Fuck!” He rolled away like a commando and sprang to his feet. Kate stretched lazily. Her skin had a sickly glow, not unlike the phosphorescence of the starlit ocean, but in no way appealing.
“What is it?” she mouthed, the swollen grey tongue making the words blur, and she reared up towards him, graceful and heavy as a python. Her curves were slick now with something that wasn’t sweat or water – more like a smooth jelly. Ewan backed away, and she came after – not walking, as a woman would, but flowing over the sand, collecting its white grains as she went, stuck to her glazed skin.
He looked at the night-dark wavelets, then back at Kate – at the thing that had been Kate. Slowly, wetly, she slid towards him, her features still recognisable under the formless glue that had begun to smother them. The sea was not an option – but the car – the Land Rover – was parked not far into the tree line, the keys in the ignition. He made a decision, and sprinted past Kate, back towards the tent and the car. Her head – now indistinguishable from the neck and coiling body – swivelled towards him.
He felt the sand underfoot change to leaf litter, and a sickening, gravid squelching between his toes told him that they were everywhere. He’d once kept snails in a box, as a child, and always remembered the unpleasant sensation of picking one up by the shell too forcefully, his fingers sinking through the cracked exterior to the soft, sluggish body underneath. The sensation now was similar, but much, much worse. He thought he saw the things carpeting the ground, making their slow way up the palms that were now all around him, hanging from the leaves, teetering…
The car loomed in front of him. He yanked the door open. Thank god he’d left the keys in the ignition – he couldn’t have endured to go back into that tent, with its hundreds of slimy, fetid denizens. He swung himself into the seat, shut the door, turned the key to the start position.
The engine sputtered and coughed – not so much coughed as retched. A sound like the grinding of thousands of sludgy bodies in a monstrous blender met his panicked ears. He turned the engine off, then on again. It died.
Under his hand, a soft grey shape slid gently up the steering wheel, whilst a slow tide of grey blocked out the creeping dawn.