‘Hey Gabe! Coming for a sauna?’ says Raz as I wander past on my way from cabin to deck. Wen is with her and I haven’t seen either of them for a few days. I’ve missed them.
‘Where is it?’
‘Ah, it’s a secret. Not many of the others seem to even know it’s there’ says Wen conspiratorially. ‘Go on. Get your towel. We’ll wait here.’ And so they do. It occurs to me that this is exactly what I need. I haven’t had a sauna for years – not since we used to go to the festivals where the sauna consisted of a wood burner in a tent surrounded with wooden benches. We sat around naked in the gloom and it was fantastic. I couldn’t stand the one at the leisure centre after that.
‘It’s ok’ says Raz on my return, ‘you needn’t feel embarrassed. We can all keep our towels on.’
‘I don’t mind’ I say. ‘I’m used to sweat lodges and they don’t much bother with modesty there.’ I see Raz raise an approving and surprised eyebrow to Wen. Wen just says ‘Well let’s get going then’ and leads on.
The sauna is in a part of the boat I had thought was off limits – on the lowest deck under the cabins up in the stern beyond the bathrooms. It’s dark and the steel and wood skeleton of the ship is exposed and unadorned. We enter through a small wooden door and find ourselves in a dimly lit wooden chamber but not in the neatly carpentered Nordic style. These timbers are huge and dark and damply lustrous. There are three doors; one marked ‘men’, the other ‘women’. Raz peeps through the third door and says ‘It’s ok, no strangers’ and begins to disrobe. I’m a little surprised she doesn’t bother with the changing room but I’m determined not to appear bothered – I’ve only got shorts and tee-shirt on anyway and I’m undressed before they are. I stand and wait for them to catch up. Wen is fiddling with her enormous bra and Raz waits until Wen has sorted herself out to take her gown off. I offer to help and Wen turns her back to me and says thanks. I note Raz trying not to look me up and down too obviously. It’s nice to see her being more demure than me for a change. Once Wen is ready Raz drops her gown at the last moment and we follow her into the steam room itself. As we enter, the hot thick aromatic fug that I remember so well envelops me and makes me gasp. It’s very hot and I can feel my skin begin to gush even before I’ve sat down. The aromatic oil clears my head and lungs instantly and I feel my whole body soften and blur. It’s very dark inside and it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust. There’s the burner glowing orange in the centre and thick, heavy wooden benches all around and another door to the right. As I watch the others take their places I notice a fourth person in the corner and it takes me a moment to realise it’s Lisa, sprawled against the wall like a discarded doll, her long hair all but obscuring her face. Hoping she can’t see me I take in her plump white breasts and long white legs. ‘Hi guys’ she says, sitting up, pulling the lank heavy tresses off her face. She notices me there but makes no obvious reaction. I look at my penis – thankfully on its best behaviour.
I have a glance at the other bodies (as one does). Raz is rather skinny – too skinny for my liking. Apparently she had implants in life but ‘you can’t get them through customs here’ she says. ‘I miss my boobs.’ Wen mentions that all her fillings are gone too and shows us her perfect teeth. Actually, even for a woman in her prime, Raz’s breasts are rather insubstantial. Wen on the other hand seems almost as wide as she is tall – head upon breasts upon belly upon thighs, like one of those stone-age Venus figures. She makes me want to take up ceramics again.
I get past my initial curiosity and sit back and breathe in the fumes – sandalwood I think, and maybe tea tree. I’ve never been very good at identifying essential oils. I can feel the heat gradually invading my core and my internal organs slump into repose. My bum is beginning to slide on the wet seat and I get up and arrange a towel underneath myself. Ah bliss!
‘So, you were saying about working in Oaxaca’ says Raz.
‘At the botanical garden’ says Wen ‘Yes. I was there for four years.’
‘Was it very beautiful there?’ says Raz, with a yearning voice.
‘Exquisite. You’d love it. The people are fabulous.’
‘I went to that place on the Caribbean coast, what’s it called?’
‘Cancun?’ says Lisa.
‘No. Silly girl’ she says jovially, as if she obviously wouldn’t be caught dead in such a common tourist destination. ‘Begins with a C though. Oh I can’t remember. Beautiful place with cenote you can swim in. Fabulous spot. You ever been to Mexico Gabe?’
‘Once’ I say. ‘I visited Oaxaca too.’
‘Gorgeous isn’t it.’
‘I do envy you, actually living there.’
‘Ah, it was mind-blowing’ she says and we go on to talk dreamily about places we’ve been – all except Lisa who remains conspicuously reticent.
After a quarter of an hour or so of that I ask if there’s a cool shower. Raz points languidly toward the other door and says ‘I’ll join you in a mo.’ Wen asks if I’ll pour some oil water on the stove as I go. ‘You’re coming back though aren’t you?’ she says. I nod emphatically. I might never go anywhere else. This is marvellous.
Once through the doors I find it’s quite cold and I have to get used to even gloomier conditions than in the steam room, but as I do I realise there’s a large semi-circular pool in front of me. I dip my toe in and find it cold but not freezing. I can feel as well as hear the whole hull throbbing and groaning to itself, sub-sonic. I stroll along the thick heavy wooden boards. I can see the water below, slopping about gently under the planks, luminous sea green, as if faintly lit from beneath. The whole chamber smells of the sea and I guess it must be salt water in here. I can’t believe no one else has found this place. At the far end I find showers and places to hang towels. The walls curve in, hull shaped. It’s all a little spooky. I look into the water and see that the pool sides curve with the hull too. The deepest part appears to be under my feet. I find some steps and lower myself in and the cold water makes me gasp. I gingerly let go and take a few slow breaststrokes across the pool and stop in the middle, treading water. I look down and watch my feet beat against the absinthe depths. I put my head under the water. Nothing but green. Then the doors open and Raz appears with her towel on. ‘What do you think?’ she says. ‘Spooky’ I reply. ‘How deep is it do you think?’
‘No idea luvvie’ she says, drops the towel, holds her nose and drops in off the side. I decide I might as well go down and meet her. I find her trying to look about and I swim below her, forgetting I don’t have to hold my breath. I let my air out and let myself sink. The water gets gloomier and the sides narrow in until my feet slide down the side and I touch the bottom. I look around. Another advantage here is that your eyes accustom themselves to focussing underwater somewhat better than in life. There seem to be odd items down here – cutlery and stones and a shoe. I look toward the deepest part, under the boards above and notice a movement in the shadows. I move a little closer and am certainly no longer relaxed. There’s definitely something there.
‘There’s people living down there’ I say once I’m at the surface again. ‘Honestly, I saw them.’
Wen and Lisa are at the poolside now, crouched in front of me. Wen modestly uses her towel to cover herself but Lisa squats naked in front of me, balancing on her toes, her knees only inches from my face. I can see everything. Either she hasn’t got a clue or she’s doing it on purpose. I look away. Raz is treading water, turning circles with her face under, looking for signs of life. ‘If you don’t believe me just look for yourself’ I say. I see Lisa step back then do a perfect dive over my head and disappear.
‘She’s full of surprises isn’t she’ says Wen appreciatively.
‘I don’t think they’re dangerous’ I say. ‘I just got the impression they want to be left alone.’
‘Well you won’t catch me in there now’ she says, shuddering, and heads for the shower. Raz doesn’t appear too bothered but keeps periodically ducking her head to check nothing’s coming up to surprise her. Lisa then appears over the other side of the pool, pulling her hair away from her face.
‘They’re all huddled together down there. Maybe six or seven of them’ she reports. ‘Maybe we should go and tell the guides. What do you think?’
‘Maybe. Maybe they just want to be left alone’ I say.
‘They seem sad’ says Lisa, ducking under again then looking up at me. Then she turns on her back and floats away from me, her breasts bobbing in front of her face, her pubic tuft surfacing periodically. I decide to get out and back into the heat. Wen is finished in the shower and comes along with me.
‘She’s quite a girl, our Lisa don’t you think’ she says as we settle down in the heat again. I pour a cup of water on and watch the wet steam rise and fill the ceiling. At that moment a guide appears in his normal day outfit with some wood and kneels down to feed the fire. Wen asks him about the people at the bottom of the pool. He nods as he feeds the logs in through the narrow hatch. ‘Yes, we know they’re there’ he says, as if it’s all under control. ‘They get in through the filters.’
When he leaves I sit back, close my eyes and enjoy the smell of the burning wood. ‘You were saying?’ I say.
‘About Lisa. She’s quite a girl.’
‘She is. I don’t get her at all. Has she spoken to you much?’
‘A little. She likes you. I know that.’
‘She’s got a funny way of showing it’ I say and immediately have an image of her, soft and wet before me. My penis stirs and I try to think about the people in the bottom of the pool.
‘She doesn’t know how to show it. That’s my theory’ continues Wen. ‘I think she was quite ill for much of her life and now she’s not and she doesn’t know quite what to do with it.’
‘Did she tell you that, about being ill I mean?’
‘Little hints – about never having the energy for this and that and really envying the things other people had done as if it wasn’t really an option for her. Children – I know she wanted children and never did.’
We sit silently for a while, then Raz and Lisa come back in, dripping from the pool. Lisa’s body shines in the firelight as she squeezes past my knees. She could just as easily have gone around the other way with Raz. I catch her glance at me through her hair and look away. I try to think about what I want for dinner today.