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‘Here she is!’

Christina heard the exclamation as her ride drew to a standstill, which meant that her cousin’s voice had escaped the walls of her house, carried across the front yard and penetrated the taxi. Additional impressiveness was due as all the windows were closed to assist the much-needed air conditioning.

This was the end of Christine’s journey and–while she was now almost literally the other side of the planet–it looked like the polar opposite of where she had been cooped-up for the entirety of the pandemic.

The 16th-storey flat in London’s Elephant her anxiety kept her safe, but miserable.

It was only via video calls with friends and family that she found a vicarious escape from her own grey surroundings. And it was some subliminal vestige of self-preservation that made her momentarily overcome her anxieties enough to accept the invitation from her cousins to visit them in Australia.

And now she was here.

The much-expounded risks of the journey were softened by the safety procedures that had been implemented to help grease the wheels of the travel industry back into motion and were explained at every step of the way. But the predictable structure of getting from A to B was over. The freedom from incarceration brought with it a sense of anxious uncertainty and, as she sat looking at her aunt and uncle’s unkempt lush green lawn and the sunshiny flowers that lined the path up to the detached bungalow, which was framed by a cloudless azure sky populated with unfamiliar ocean-dwelling birds, a large part of her wanted to head straight back to the airport so that she could buy a return ticket to Heathrow.

The taxi driver noticed Christina’s hesitation. ‘This is the address, love,’ he said, up-lilting his tone to help encourage her from the back seat.

‘Yep,’ she snapped, ensuring that he understood she would not be rushed by a taxi driver.

In response, he got out, retrieved her cases from the trunk and opened the door for her.

The warm coastal air melted the cool atmosphere of the cab, causing a swell of gooseflesh to run up Christina’s back and neck.

‘Chrissie!’ her cousins Joshua and Clancy chorussed as the front door swung open. She had to smile when she saw them. They could have easily been mistaken for twins–she had a theory that they could pass for one another if they just swapped hairstyles–but, at 21, Joshua was actually a year older than Clancy, who was born just one day after herself. It was expected that Clancy would be a boy as Aunt Jodie said the pregnancies felt identical and so she and Uncle Jack were surprised when Clancy popped out as a girl. However, they’d already fallen in love with the name and decided Clancy sounded unisex enough, so it remained.

Chrissie’s face-mask left an imprint in the ridge of her pretty nose as Joshua and Clancy trotted down the garden path to meet her, draped with clothed as though a surf shack had just sneezed on them, to reveal their bronzed skin and naturally toned abs.

‘Hey cuz!’ said Joshua as he approached with his arms wide open.

‘Hey…!’ Chrissie replied through a frozen grimace. She held forward to fingers in the form of a cross that stopped him in his tracks.

‘Oh, hey… No worries, if you still wanna keep your distance? But we’ve not had any COVID probs around here for months!’

Joshua and Clancy waited expectantly. The cab driver closed the trunk and turned to see the three cousins in what appeared to be a state of frozen animation. The pause was broken as Chrissie noticed him watching.

‘Here you are,’ she said dismissively and handed him the fare at arm’s length. He mimicked her as he took the money and saluted a good luck to Joshua and Clancy.

She caught a doubtful expression from Clancy.

‘You know you’re not gonna be able to stay away from everyone while you’re here, girl? Especially when mum and dad get back from Koreelah Creek — it’ll be hugs all round!’

‘Don’t pester her,’ said Joshua.

‘I’m just sayin’.’

Chrissie debated whether if she hugged her cousins now it would be because they were making valid points or because she was giving into peer pressure. ‘I’ll see how I feel later,’ she said.

‘Yeah, right — no rush,’ said Joshua as he picked up her suitcase. He then noticed a new look of disapproval on his sister’s face as she eyed Christine. ‘What’s up with you now, droopy-drawers?’

Clancy addressed Christine with apparent sincerity: ‘How is it we come from the same stock and you get my share of the tits?’

Christine blushed.

‘Aww, come off it!’ said Joshua, and he took the suitcase indoors.

‘I’m serious!’ said Clancy, ‘I bet if I was born the day before you, I would’ve got the lovely pair of knockers you’ve got.’

Christine frowned at the crudeness hatay seks hikayeleri of the observation but, with none of her uni friends to witness it, she allowed herself to humour Clancy. ‘Maybe, but you’d have my bum to go with them.’

‘I could handle that. Once I got the hang of keepin’ me balance on a longboard!’

Christine donned her mask and the young women went indoors. Clancy fetched bottles of water from the fridge.

‘Jeez, Chrissie! Are you moving in?’ said Joshua as he joined them in the kitchen.

‘No, why?’ asked Chrissie.

‘Your suitcase is bloody heavy!’

‘It’s just clothes.’

‘You’re here for two weeks and we’ll be spendin’ most of the time on the beach. Are your bikinis made of lead?’

Christine shrugged.

‘D’you wanna go to the beach now or do you need to sleep after your flight?’ asked Clancy.

‘No, we can go to the beach. I can relax there.’

‘Cool beans. Well, you go get changed and we’ll head down,’ said Joshua.

Clancy allowed Christine her privacy but stood outside the bedroom door nattering as she got ready: ‘…and now a lot of the local spunks who’ve been spending all lockdown indoors with their home gym equipment are comin’ out. I hardly recognised some of these guys, you know what I mean–?’ She was silenced as Christine reappeared.

‘What?’ asked Christine.

‘You do know we’re going to the beach?’


‘And it’s thirty-two degrees out?’

‘So what?’

Dressed in flip-flops and surf shorts, Joshua joined them in the corridor to find the cause of Clancy’s questioning. Clancy wore a fluorescent green bikini and flip-flops, while next to her stood Christine in a T-shirt, ankle-length skirt, socks and trainers. Joshua and Clancy looked at one another and snickered.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Christine.

‘Would you like some snow shoes and an overcoat to go with that?!’ said Joshua.

‘I haven’t been in the sun for a while. I need to cover up.’

‘Just slap on some suncream, girl,’ said Clancy, ‘and put on a pair of bloody thongs!’

‘I haven’t got any.’

‘What are you? A size six? You can borrow some of mine!’ Clancy exclaimed with a particularly countryfied drawl.

‘No,’ said Christine, emphatically. ‘I don’t want to get my feet out.’

‘Why the hell not?’

‘I’m just self-conscious.’

Clancy smirked, ‘Embarrassed about your apple-white English skin?’

‘Come on, don’t tease her,’ said Joshua.

‘Why not?!’ said Clancy. ‘We’re cousins! Plus, I remember you two ganging up on me when we were all in London that time!’

‘Jeez, you’ve got a memory like a bloody elephant!’ said Joshua. ‘That was over ten years ago!’

‘Listen, Chrissie, you’re not gonna get a tan if you stay covered up, right?’

Christine glanced at Clancy’s tanned feet. ‘I just don’t look as good at you.’

Clancy followed her line of sight to the luminous nail polish on her toes that matched her bikini. ‘Oh, I get it,’ she said. ‘Hey, Joshie, let’s take her to see Barb first.’

‘Who’s Barb?’ asked Christine.

‘Our local beautician. Don’t worry — she’s only got two customers most of the time and I’m one of ’em — you won’t have to social distance! Plus, I’ll spring for it!’

Joshua wasn’t eager to sit in Barb’s shop when there were perfectly good waves to be surfed but if getting Christine a little more beach-confident was a way to stop the debate he was happy to get it over with. Sensing more protestations from his cousin, he made the preemptive move.

‘Right!’ he said, grabbing up a large beach towel. ‘Let’s go!’

— — —

Barb’s Beach Bay Boutique was planted between a bar and a corner store just off the sand-swept main road that ran through town. As they approached, Christine considered it little wonder that the place had such limited clientele — at best, it only had space for four people inside. This was probably why there was an outdoor waiting area, although even some of those chairs had been undisturbed long enough for mini spider webs to have been constructed and long-abandoned.

Through the dusty front window was a pedicure chair that was nowhere near state-of-the-art. In it sat a woman with her face buried in a gossip magazine.

“That’s Barb,” Christine supposed.

As they stepped into the shop, she peeked over the magazine and brightened to see Joshua and Clancy accompanied by a young woman who was in definite need of a BBBB makeover.

‘G’day, you two! And who’s this?’

‘This is our cousin, Chrissie. She’s just arrive from England,’ said Clancy. Joshua waved and occupied one of the outdoor seats.

‘Oo! Escapin’ the UK for sunnier climes, eh?’ asked Barb.

‘Something like that,’ shrugged Christine.

Barb had obviously forgone any upkeep on the premises in favour of making herself the business’s shop window. From her Russian-red hair, which held gravity-defying shapes atop her head and must have required an entire can of hair spray; to her three-inch long nail false nails, she admittedly looked striking, even if not Christine’s stylistic cup of tea. The thick-rimmed red secretary glasses, tens of ear piercings, over-the-top make-up and recent collagen lip fillers made it difficult for Christine to gauge her age — she settled for estimating her to be around 25 while, from some angles, she looked closer to 40. She reminded her of an 80s cartoon character, but couldn’t say which one.

‘Come on then, love,’ said Barb, jumping up from the pedicure chair. ‘Get in here and we’ll get to work. What do ya need done?’

‘Give her a pedi like mine,’ Clancy interceded. ‘But paint her nails bright orange or something.’ As she spoke, she took Christine’s handbag and physically encouraged her into the chair.

Barb prepared her station near the foot of the chair. ‘You can take your mask off, darlin’ — I’m double-jabbed and coronavirus found this town to small to bother with.’

‘I’ll keep it on, thanks,’ said Christine.

Barb shrugged and took a seat. ‘Please yourself. Now… I take it you’ve never had a pedi before?’

‘How did you know that?’

‘Cos people in-the-know generally take their shoes and socks off.’

Clancy chuckled as she dropped into a guest chair and picked up the gossip mag.

‘Sorry,’ said Christine, her rosey glow evident even behind her mask.

‘No worries, I’ll do it!’ said Barb and she proceeded to unpick the knots of Christine’s laces with her nails. Christine idly wondered if that was the only benefit of having talons so long that they must be a handicap with the majority of other tasks.

However, something about the action made Christine feel nervous. She didn’t know why and had to rationalise: “It’s not like she’s giving me a haircut and breathing all over my head — she’s down by my feet. “Get a grip, girl,” as Clancy would say.”

Barb slipped off one trainer. ‘You had these on since London, love?’

‘No. Why?’

‘Nothin’; I can just feel the warmth of a 22-hour flight!’

Christine was glad she was wearing the mask. If she had tried to force a smile it would have been less than convincing. She knew Barb was just being friendly but her attitude felt too familiar. She wanted to pull her feet away and say, “Sorry, I don’t want to do this. I’m just going to go now,” but she didn’t. Joshua and Clancy were so excited to see her and Clancy was actually quite sweet to pay for this foot treatment in order to make her feel more relaxed that, for now, she was kept in place by guilt.

Just then a strange surge of stimulation rose up her body and made her straighten in the chair. At first she was taken by surprise — it felt like a creepy-crawly running around her ankle but it was Barb’s nails — she was taking care not to scratch as she took hold of the cuff of Christine’s left sock.

‘You alright there, love?’ asked Barb.

‘Yes, thank you,’ she replied, but as Barb slowly peeled off her sock she suddenly felt vulnerable. Her exposed foot looked as pale as skimmed milk in comparison to all the suntanned skin she had seen since she arrived.

‘Got plenty of sock fluff there…’ said Barb. Christine sensed what was about to happen but before she could retract her foot to deal with the issue herself, Barb started plucking between and under her toes. Christine jumped in the chair, as if mini electric shocks were being administered to her bottom.

‘You sure you’re alright?’ asked Barb, which attracted Clancy’s attention.

‘Yep!’ Christine squeaked. But her arms flailed and dropped, as though pulled and released by a carefree puppeteer.

Barb realised the correlation between what she was doing and Christine’s reactions. ‘Ohh! A little bit tickly are ya?’

Before she could shrug it off, Barb quickly scampered her nails over the pad of Christine’s big toe.

‘Yii!’ Christine yelped and yanked her foot away. She caught Clancy’s eye and noticed a devilish smirk on her face. She tried to play it down by putting her leg straight back into place — she had seen an online video in which a group of friends had buried one of them in the sand and tickled her feet. She didn’t want to encourage any such silliness.

‘Strewth, Chrissie! It seems you’re even more ticklish than your cousin over there, and she’s pretty bad!’ said Barb.

The smirk was wiped from Clancy’s face. ‘Hey! Don’t go givin’ away all my secrets! What happened to beautician-client confidentiality?’

Barb winked as she unlaced Christine’s other trainer and peeled off her sock. This time Christine held the arms of the chair and forced herself to remain still despite the unintentional spider-like tickles around her ankles from Barb’s nails.

‘Don’t think I can’t see you sweatin’,’ said Barb with a curious smirk as she lowered both of Christine’s dainty feet into a bowl of warm water. ‘Don’t worry — I’m not gonna tickle ya again!’

‘Thank you,’ said Christine, trying to play down precisely how grateful she was of this fact. She hadn’t been tickled by anyone since the boyfriend who dumped her two weeks into the first lockdown when he had realised that they were about to spend a lot of time apart. She couldn’t really tell if she liked, disliked or was indifferent to the sensations of being tickled–it never really lasted long enough for her to contemplate it–but she was embarrassed by the noises she made when she was forced to laugh.

‘…at least, not intentionally,’ said Barb, as she poured some soapy liquid into the water.

‘Huh?’ queried Christine as Barb lifted her dripping left foot out of the bath and rested it on a towel in her lap.

‘I’m not gonna tickle ya intentionally, but this next bit tends to tickle whether I want it to or not!’

With that, Barb waggled a large grey pumice stone in the air and took a firm grip of Christine’s ankle. It was the unnaturally firm grip of a professional who had had to take a no-nonsense approach to this process hundreds of times before.

Christine could feel the sensation before it even happened. ‘No…’ she said instinctively.

‘Ready…?’ Barb grinned, ignoring that she’d already been given the answer.

Christine tried to pull her foot away but discovered an immovable force. Then the pumice stone touched her heel and began to scrub.

An intense tingle shot up her leg that made her body lurch and she slammed her hands down on the arms of the chair. The ageing faux leather ripped under her fingers and was joined by a long, inelegant snort as her clasped lips forced laughter to escape through her nose.

‘Something wrong, love?’ said Barb.

Christine looked down. For a second she thought it may have been an innocent question, but the woman was obviously teasing — she knew what was “wrong”!

‘No? I’ll carry on then!’ she said and scrubbed higher up further up Christine’s heel.

Christine’s back arched and she spluttered under her mask.

Highly enthralled by seeing her uptight cousin on the verge of losing control, Clancy called her brother, ‘Hey, Joshie, come look at this!’

Joshua swivelled casually in his chair to see Barb with a big toothy smile on her face as she scrubbed a lather over the sole of Christina’s foot. He was highly amused to see the erratic physical effects it was having on Christina but could tell she was only moments away from kicking Barb off her stool.

‘Here!’ he said, running inside and wedging himself between the chair and the shop window. ‘Give us a hand, Clance!’

He took the beach towel from over his shoulder and threw it across Christina’s body. Clancy knew exactly what to do and darted over to grab the other side of the towel. Before Christina could work out their plan, she felt the towel flatten her upper arms and body against the chair.

‘Give her the works, Barb!’ said Joshua.

‘That’ll be an extra ten dollars!’

‘Money well-spent!’ said Clancy.

‘Stop! This is silly!’ said Christine, attempting to assert some authority. But this seemed to antagonise Barb, who reloaded the pumice stone with soapy water and applied it to the high, delicate arch of Christine’s foot.

‘PPPPWAAARRRGHHH!’ erupted Christine as laughter bulldozed its way through her frustrated attempt to resist. Unable to move her body, she was reduced to thrashing her head from side to side as all barriers seemed to crumble and she fell into delightful helpless laughter.

Barb sawed the large and provocative rapidly stone across Christina’s sole, noting that the closer to Christina’s toes she went, the more high pitched and desperate her laughter became. Soon she began an experiment by scrubbing her way higher and lower; almost playing her foot like an instrument.

‘I wonder what her other foot’s like?’ said Clancy.

Christina glared at her cousin, but laughter stole the strength to curse at her. Clancy poked out her tongue in response.

Joshua saw Barb’s limited capacity to control both of Christine’s ankles. ‘Why don’t you find out, Clance?’ he said and squeezed behind the chair. Clancy handed him her side of the towel, allowing him to trap Christina in place all by himself.

She rubbed her hands with classic evil glee and held Christine’s helpless gaze.

‘N-n-hhhhh…’ Christine tried to protest through her laughter but couldn’t.

Clancy noticed her cousin shaking her head as though trying to dispatch an irritant and hesitated.

‘You want your mask off?’ asked Clancy.

Christine nodded emphatically and Clancy gently pulled off the face mask.

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