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Cover image: ‘Sweetness and Light’ by Liam Pieper

Connor has been doing this a long time. He knows his charm; its limits. This thing that he has appeals to a certain kind of woman, who shops in thrift stores, who fosters troubled dogs, who mends her own clothing out of virtue, not need. There is something in Connor some people can’t help but want to fix.

After the yoga class, it all goes easily. A spontaneous swim on the way home to sluice the sweat off the skin, and yes, she likes the ocean, but no, she isn’t a strong swimmer and no, thank you for the offer, but she had no interest in going out on his boat, but yes, dinner sounds nice. She’d like that.

They eat one town over, at a restaurant where they serve curry on banana leaves, fish cooked slow in coconut and the room lit low by lamps that burn on top of the tables to discourage mosquitos. He often takes dates here, for the ambience, and because the bar staff spike the cocktails with homemade moonshine made from coconut and sugar. The Talent pounds the drinks faster than the staff can bring them, mixing beers and vodka tonics, drinking with world-obliterating abandon. By the time they are done eating, drunkenness has settled over the night. They stand for the cheque and find the world giddy around them.

He often takes dates here, for the ambience, and because the bar staff spike the cocktails with homemade moonshine.

They argue with the only auto-driver waiting outside the restaurant. The price he gives is outrageous, both parties understand, but he won’t budge. It’s late at night and he’s happy for them to pay his price or walk home. He frowns, wags his head from side to side in a kind of shrug.

They decide to walk. It isn’t far, and Connor knows a shortcut through the sand dunes that will get them home in no time. It’s dark amid the dunes and the moon is half full, half drunk, lazily throwing a sheet of light over the ocean. Waves break, a slow roar that drowns out any need to talk. The sand crunches under their footsteps, which are heavy and wild. He moves to kiss her and she darts away, punches him playfully in the chest, keeps walking. In his chest, radiating out from her punch, is the familiar feeling, the prickling ache that will grow and consume first him, then her, then for a few merciful hours everything. He bites it down. Patience is his virtue. He knows this road well.

The trail through the dunes leads them slightly inland, and soon they are walking through a ravine, the walls rising steep and damp on either side of them. As they walk, the fireflies that rest in the salty vines along the gully walls dart up in alarm, flit around them, sparking soft lights here and there. With practised hands he reaches out and plucks one from the air, moves his cupped hands under her chin, opens them to show the tiny creature there, pulsing out its secret little warning. Their eyes meet, hover for half a moment, break away. The firefly escapes, dances away, and they walk on.

It’s dark amid the dunes and the moon is half full, half drunk, lazily throwing a sheet of light over the ocean.

Then, the trail breaks. The tide is in and a little lagoon has formed, drowning the path. The Talent frowns, worries about snakes in the water, fears that her sandals will be ruined. He moves then, wraps one arm around her and places one hand just below her butt and sweeps her off her feet, then, before she can protest, is wading through the knee-high water with her safe, dry, and laughing crazily as he ferries her to the other side. He pops her down on the far bank then stops, stares up at her. With her on the shore, and his feet in the water, they are nearly the same height, nearly, she has an inch or two on him. She leans down and brushes his lips with hers.

Romance, of a sort; they are both familiar with it.

Over the next few days he takes her out on his boat, dives and retrieves treasures from the seafloor that make her squirm – a starfish, a sea snake. They go on a long motorcycle ride up the coast, they share a bed, meals, a capsule of MDMA he scores for them, and in the intense hothouse of those days he learns everything about her; what her childhood was like, the first street she grew up on, her strained relationship with her parents, her mother’s maiden name. ‘I love dogs,’ he says, stopping to pet the lazy yellow hound who sleeps on the veranda of the Shanti Bar. ‘Did you ever have a dog? What was his name?’

Romance, of a sort; they are both familiar with it.

On her final night in town she drinks too much and Connor takes her back to her hotel room, cradles her head in his lap, trailing his fingertips through her hair until she drifts off. When she is snoring, he gently levers himself out from under her and carefully, slowly, retrieves her suitcase.

He starts with her wallet. She carries no more than a couple thousand rupees, the big bills on the inside, folded around a tattered hundred-rupee note. He pockets half, replaces the rest.

Very slowly he takes her hand, pinches the soft skin between her thumb and forefinger to test if she is near consciousness, and, when she doesn’t wake, gently presses her thumb on her phone’s fingerprint reader to unlock it, and the credit card he hopes are loaded there. No luck, but no matter.

He retrieves his own phone and photographs her credit cards, driver’s licence, passport, then carefully replaces them and gets back into bed, laces an arm around her hip, traces her collarbone with his lips as she stirs.

In the morning he’ll pass her details on to Baba, and if, months from now, back home in London, she wakes up to find her bank accounts emptied and her credit cards maxed out, well, she’ll be covered by travel insurance. And if questions are ever raised, there is enough corruption and low-end graft in this part of the world that any investigation would dissipate long before they could narrow in on Shanti Beach.

By then she will be half a world away, back in her weekend yoga class, and the theft will only be – like her holiday, like this night – part of a strange adventure.

When she leaves Shanti they kiss, chastely on the lips, a sort of formality to signal an end to the holiday fling, promise they will find each other on Facebook, knowing that they will not, and then she is gone, the bus rumbling over the hill and back to civilization.

This is an edited extract from Sweetness and Light by Liam Pieper, published by Penguin Random House Australia. Sweetness and Light is available to pre-order now at Readings.