It was Dr Hope’s last day in the country. The girl selling necklaces was barely older than his twins. She wore a faded Adidas t-shirt, and when she turned away, the tag stuck out behind her neck, blotchy texta: Emily Goldsmith 2P.
She passed him the necklaces. The plastic bag was red and inconceivably thin, like a wilted bubble, more delicate even than the ones he used to freeze his girls’ sandwiches so they’d stay fresh until lunchtime. One anchor-shaped pendant was already poking through the plastic.
‘Thank, thank’, said the girl who wasn’t Emily Goldsmith.
David quashed the urge to ask her to double-bag it. He held it from underneath, the wood beads moving like bird bones in his palm.
Behind him, the girl had taken up a bowl of rice, and he wondered who had made it for her, what they were doing at this moment so there’d be more for tomorrow.
David Hope had only two daughters but so far he’d bought thirteen necklaces.
This was part of the cultural program tacked onto the research trip. The hotel had a pool and a restaurant, but they were encouraged to interact with the locals for a day before the flight out. They were actually told, interact, which made Dr Hope think of his kids’ educational iPad apps. Interactive researchers, interactive natives. Learning is FunTM.
‘You may feel uncomfortable haggling, but accepting the first asking price is often seen as disrespectful’, the guide explained. Their cultural education took place on plastic lawn chairs in a little carpeted room off the restaurant.
Dr Hope could count to ten in the local language. He rehearsed haggling in his head. It unsettled him when numbers were negotiable.
The day before, there was nothing uncertain about the numbers. While the technician made measurements, the scientists stood in the river shallows in long rubber boots. They waved to the barefoot kids who watched them from upstream. They chatted about sport and another researcher’s son, whose guinea pig had had two pure white, dead babies. She’d spent last night on the phone, paying fifty cents a minute to tell him stories about animal heaven.
‘Dr Hope, could you please check this?’
Their technician – oh God, was it Michael or Mitchell? – was a PhD student, supervised by one of Dr Hope’s international colleagues. Today he wore yellow jeans tucked into his boots. Evidently the field trip was an opportunity for fashion statements unutterable in the lab.
‘I mean, is it set up okay?’ the student asked. ‘Because maybe —’
Dr Hope checked the instrument to placate him. ‘That is the highest reading we’ve had. But this is where the waste-water outlet was.’
‘Can’t we do another sample?’ the student asked.
He was too young, David thought, to get doctor before his name. The barefoot kids waved. David looked down. The current had wrapped a shred of flimsy plastic around his boot, red, funny colour for a shopping bag. ‘Remember, it’s a cumulative thing, over the time period we’re here it won’t — Mike.’
He’d met Mitch at the perfectly choreographed cultural welcome. Traditional, the guide explained. Though probably not lunch served with drinks brought out in sealed plastic bottles.
‘Mitchell’, said the guy next to him.
‘David Hope.’ They shook hands, mingling the sanitiser on their palms.
‘But do you think’, Mitchell asked, looking round the room at the women serving, ‘they’re getting decent pay?’
A man leant between them and took their empty water bottles, one in each hand, stepped back, and replaced them with new ones, like a magic trick. Something swept over David’s arm: the man’s tie, a generically traditional print repeated in the women’s skirts.
‘Sorry’, David said.
Mitchell waited until he was gone before resuming his attack, or reassurance, or whatever it was. ‘Well, it’s no different to buying cheap anything. I mean, everyone knows…’
David felt airsick.
An hour before, from the plane, the factory site was a gap amidst the tin, rusty corrugated roofs crammed around its rectangular negative space. The site photos he’d been emailed showed cinder-blocks and stringy shrubs keeling over into pools of mud. But later, in person, they looked less like weeds than sun-starved houseplants, the kind his wife would’ve diagnosed as ‘leggy’ and in need of a trim and fertilise.
David had copies of the initial site plans in his briefcase: nine thousand square feet of damp scrub-land, slope of four degrees toward the river. Descriptions of stubborn mud-wallowing trees that could have been mangroves, what David called in school talks a river’s kidneys. No photos, just blueprints signed off by the entrepreneur. He’d have waved back at the kids and bought their necklaces. Only bottled water for him, though, as if the place was already contaminated.
The next day he got back on the plane, and left. The factory site sat empty, weeping on the river’s shoulder.
Jemma Payne studies creative writing and Spanish, and is undertaking an internship with the Wollongong Writers Festival. Her short fiction and poetry has been published in Tincture Journal and Voiceworks, including in the Voiceworks #100 Special Edition, and she was shortlisted for the 2015 Visible Ink anthology. Find Jemma on Twitter @jemmalpayne