‘How would you begin?’
She puts a finger to her lips, a little wrinkled still from the water, and hesitates. She says, ‘Maybe: the sea was like badly-spread icing.’
‘Really? Christ,’ he says. ‘Come on.’
‘What’s wrong with that?’ Her face seems hurt.
‘For a start,’ he says with a seriousness she takes to be comic, though sometimes it’s hard to tell, ‘don’t begin with a simile. Absolute first rule: never begin with a simile. Similes deepen our understanding, they don’t bring things into being. You can’t deepen an understanding of what’s not there. You can’t deepen nothing.’
Her eyebrows rise. ‘I’m not sure about that. Second?’
‘Well, look,’ he says, ‘I don’t think the past tense is right. We’re not erecting some kitsch Victorian pavilion, are we?’ ‘Aren’t we?’ ‘This isn’t some bourgeois chronicle of social betterment, is it?’ ‘Isn’t it?’ ‘This is more of a –’ what’s a good word? – ‘politically immediate piece about the construction of a people’s imaginative world and the, the limits of individual sympathy, isn’t it?’ ‘Is it?’ ‘What gets left out of the picture.’ ‘If you say so.’ ‘So the present tense is surely more appropriate.’ ‘You said it.’ ‘The past tense says tradition, convention, conservatism.’ ‘Ok.’ ‘But we want to announce, with the first sentence, that we’re fucking about with form.’
She blows air through her closed mouth. ‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘but I missed the bit where we said that you get to decide what the story is. I thought we were collaborating. I thought the joy of collaboration was that, you know, tossed about on a metaphorical sea of intersubjectivity or whatever, you don’t know where you’re going to end up. You relinquish your individual agencies, remake yourselves inside each other.’ (A good moment to bring up the subject of having kids? Probably not, tbh.) ‘So let’s try a little harder to remove ourselves from a rigid, patriarchal understanding of authorship, huh?’
To which he says, ‘Sounds like someone’s trying to universalise her own systems here, sounds a little like someone’s trying to drag me into her bosoming, matriarchal communion of spirit.’ He’s pleased with bosoming.
And she says, ‘And why can’t you fuck about with form in the past tense?’
Sitting side by side on the stern of the boat, they’re trailing their bare feet in the water, rinsing off the vomit and watching the waves dissolve the traces of their toes as the boat, moving forwards, drags them backwards. This is fun; this is, as much as anything ever is, play-acting. A concerted effort to distract themselves from the reality of their seasickness. His hand firm in her thigh, his little finger stroking the chafed skin and fine black hairs serrating the bottom edge of her bikini. She thinks he thinks she looks good in it, but she’s a little shy to ask still. She thinks she looks good in it, anyway. Him, less so. But she guesses that’s part of the charm. He has a towel over his shoulders which she suspects she isn’t supposed to know is supposed to hide the bulge of his belly from her. And his swimming trunks, pink and unnetted, are clearly meant for a woman. But why would a woman buy swimming trunks? And they’re clearly not pink, actually, but a kind of a rich, regal purple. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
She crosses her waxy, wet legs, trapping his hand between her thighs and rests her head on his shoulder; he tries to fit it into his mouth.
It’s a relief to have this moment to themselves, finally. It’s a relief to be away from the pan-European chatter behind them, the carefree liveliness. How wonderful the Greek islands are! We went for our honeymoon, a million years ago. Island-hopping. Jeremy hired a boat. As a surprise. Well, I tell you. The sunsets are literally unreal. We must go back one day. Negronis and mixed nuts on the moonlit hillside. Paradise. Having some trouble at the moment, I hear, the Greeks, the islands, but nothing that won’t come right.
‘Any more?’ she asks.
‘Plenty. It’s an ugly sentence, isn’t it? What was it? “The sea was like badly-spread icing.” Yuk. It’s badly-spread itself, isn’t it? Unsculpted, unrhythmical.’
‘Maybe I wanted it to sound ugly, badly spread, choppy. Nothing’s unrhythmical, things just have different rhythms.’
He laughs. ‘Wow, who invited Marcus Aurelius on holiday with us? Did you mean it to sound ugly?’
‘Who’s Marcus Aurelius again?’
‘Did you mean it to sound ugly?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘“What we do on earth echoes in eternity.”’
‘It’s a Marcus Aurelius quote. Or, no, it’s Russell Crowe. Maybe that’s a Russell Crowe line.’
‘Sometimes I think you’re just amusing yourself in this relationship.’
‘From Gladiator. Don’t you remember? “At my signal, unleash hell.” That’s another one.’
‘Let’s get back to our story?’
‘Our story. Icing on the cake, choppy writing. Am I continuing my crit?’
‘Um. So I’m not really sure what cakes have to do with anything. If you’re going to start with an image, it’s got to be thematically relevant, no? You’re creating an affect. This is a boat tour of the National Marine Park: what have cakes got to do with anything?’
‘Too many rules, honey, too many rules. The sea does look like badly-spread icing to me. I’m being literal. It’s what I see; it’s how I see. Plus, you don’t know where the story’s going to go, so don’t tell me cakes are thematically irrelevant.’ With sudden and alarming gravity she turns her head to look at him. ‘Why can’t you try to see through my eyes?’ He tenses. She tickles his belly. He pulls his hand out from between her thighs and takes hold of her wrists, holds her body between his elbows while she squirms and squeals playfully, though she vaguely perceives herself thinking that if she were to allow herself to feel the full resonance of the moment she wouldn’t be quite so playful and wonders how she can be aware of that thought and at the same time avoidant of it, his arms growing tighter now because if there’s one thing he can’t deal with it’s being tickled and his towel falls off and she says, this time with playfulness masking seriousness, ‘Why can’t you see through my eyes?’
‘Pick my towel up.’
‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘our protagonist will turn out to be a cake maker.’
‘Can you pick my towel up?
‘Or a fatty.’
She escapes his embrace and starts poking his belly again, and if there’s one thing he can’t deal with it’s her taking the piss out of his weight, so he holds her, again, tighter, and says, ‘We were trying to make each other feel better.’
When he feels he can trust that she has stopped trying to tickle him, he loosens his grip on her and picks up the now half-soaked, petrolly towel and puts it around his shoulders again. She entangles herself within him – voluntarily, this time – and, entangled, she raises her face to his, she says, ‘I really do love you,’ and kisses his lips. His shoulders untense.
And then she says, ‘So I guess I failed. So what about you? How would you begin?’
He furrows his brow unconvincingly and raises his face to the sky, as if for inspiration, looking adorably credulous and determined. His pink skin; the clumsy heft of his belly. She curls her arm tighter around his, spreads her fingers among his, breathes him in. But the waves’ once-tight coils are dilating, loosening into fuller curls, the boat rising higher, falling deeper, the nausea getting harder to ignore, and – sensing something? noticing something? – she uncurls her arm and draws back and says, ‘I don’t think I’m going to like this.’
‘I think I’d probably begin,’ he says – fucking smugly, tbh –, ‘with one unidentified person saying to another unidentified person, “How would you begin?”’
She’s surprised by the force of her anger. ‘Oh fuck you,’ she says. ‘I’m sorry but that’s just fucking lazy. I’m sorry, but that’s just not ok.’
‘Because you can’t think of a criticism?’ Is he still smiling or is he squinting in the sun? ‘Or because you’re not in control anymore?’
Her arms fling her hands upwards. ‘If you’re not going to play the game, you’ll just have to… I’m sorry, but you can’t always play by your own rules.’
He has turned away from her. ‘I was trying to be light-hearted,’ he’s surprised by the force of her anger. ‘Wow.’
‘What? Wow what? What are you wowing about? You think I enjoyed you telling me exactly how much of a bad writer I am?’
He turns back. ‘When did I say you were a bad writer? Huh? And, really, babe, this is not ‘writing’. This, as you literally just said, is not serious.’
‘I did not literally just say that and tell me you did not just literally call me babe.’
‘You said it’s just a game.’
‘Clearly different to not serious.’
A gaseous bulb of sharp wine and grilled meat and strong coffee and bile rises through his throat. ‘You need to get over yourself,’ he says – though he tails off because he doesn’t know why he’s saying it.
‘What did you say?’ she says.
‘I couldn’t quite catch what you just said.’
‘Nothing. I didn’t say anything. I feel fucking–’ he swallows. ‘Look, I just really feel sick so maybe we shouldn’t – oh fuck it,’ he says and turns back to look out over the water, concentrating on taking deep, measured breaths.
And he thinks, shit. It does look like badly-spread icing. Badly-spread icing is exactly what the sea looks like. The perfect simile. And the sickly affect is just right, indirectly suggesting their nausea. He wants to tell her he feels bad – or, if not wants, at least he feels that he probably should. He wants to (or feels that he probably should) tell her that with his suggestion he was sort of trying to parody smugness but realises now that his lazy, metafictional escape clause was about as smug as it gets. He wants to (or feels that he probably should) apologise for how bad at communicating he is, in general, how unaccommodatingly arch his interactions are. He wants to (or feels that he probably should) tell her that she is by far the better person, the best person he knows, and – but this is too big for now. And he feels too fucking sick.
And how, anyway, has it become a competition? Why is she thinking of it as a competition? How has she let it become a competition? This was supposed to be a let’s-join-forces-to-counter-the-seasickness, not a let’s-see-who-can-be-the-best-at-not-being-seasick. But somehow it’s become a competition. They should be on the same side. He wants to (or feels that he probably should) tell her that it’s not a competition, though if it was she would have won. She’d like that. And he’d mean it. And then they could move on.
He could do that. Or could can look away, say nothing until she apologises. Apologies for whatever it is she thinks she’s done and then he could put his arm round her – non-judgemental, forgiving, compassionate – and tell her that she shouldn’t feel bad, there’s really nothing to apologise for, we all have our moments, we’re on the same side at the end of the day. And then they could move on.
But anyway, she says, ‘At least can you tell me who Marcus Aurelius is?’ and he tells her about Gladiator and kind of forgets about everything else.
To facilitate immersion, they brought with them novels set wholly or partially on the Greek islands. As they read them in the shade on the beach the local details tumble out, repeated and patterned without intention across the different texts. The scent of pine needles; the medicinal tang of retsina; the noxious wafts of diesel from boats and motorcycles; the lukewarm food; the winedark sea. It’s a lesson in how truth becomes cliché: how something can be so true, so obviously and abundantly true, that it becomes a parody of truth, an emblem of inauthenticity. Thus, craving authenticity, they start to strive for originality and particularity above all in their experiences, their observations mediated not so much by the books they read as by their careful avoidance of the traps they think those books fall into.
He’s noticed the sticky, treacly aroma of overripe figs fallen and squashed and baking on the hot stone ground: a tarry, rotten smell, seeping into the pores of their days like butter melting on a crumpet. She’s noticed that the surface of the island’s limestone is covered by this red, powdery clay, and that the dust it gives off gets everywhere: her moisturiser, the pages of her books, her pubic hair. He’s noticed that the reassuring, round solidity of the pebbles on the beach as they press up at his feet when he wades out to sea is as hard and as inarguable as death. She’s noticed that although the island’s many tourist shops smell strongly of incense none of them seem to sell any and there’s nothing they can use to mask the foul smell of the water in their apartment; she’s noticed how waiters don’t wash their hands on their way from the toilet to the kitchen; she’s noticed how they both determinedly scroll past the headlines on guardian.co.uk, avert their eyes from the English newspapers in the village’s newsagent (migration crisis, millions displaced, tens of thousands sailing to Europe, thousands dead in the Aegean Sea). He’s noticed that the sun makes her horny.
When they come to compare notes, the whole thing feels forced; they feel they’re striving too hard for originality, for depth and meaning. Something is being written out. Some experiential essence, they realise, some essential authenticity, is lost in their flinching from cliché. So they fold back on themselves, revise their parameters, begin to rewrite their experience, and this time they seek out cliché: cliché and obviousness and surface. They go to tavernas, they watch Mamma Mia. They upload photos to Facebook which their friends think ironic and their families think sincere and which are neither.
Which is why, when they open their Lonely Planet guide and see at the top of the list of ‘Things To Do on the Greek Islands’ an advert for a daylong sea voyage in the Aegean Sea, they jump at it. ‘We’d see what Odysseus saw,’ he says. She says, ‘The real Greek!’
She’s enjoying the novelty of wearing her bikini, he thinks; she’s enjoying the glossy effect of the water and the sun on her bare skin; she’s enjoying, he thinks, the studied performance of confident sexuality, straining for an aura of unselfconsciousness. But he knows her, he thinks, and he knows, he thinks, that beneath this surface of carnal assurance – the forward-pumped chest, the long-limbed reclining – she can’t quite conquer the discomfort of being seen, of being looked at. Or is it, she wonders, that he can’t quite conquer the discomfort of her being seen, of her being looked at? Is he wary of the young Mediterranean men with wiry virile black chest hair and unambiguously masculine speedos? Is she wary, he wonders, of the ageing, Teutonic men – stooped, mottle-shouldered – with sagging, sunken, cracked and sour-faced wives? (‘Really,’ she says, ‘that’s not ok. You can’t say that.’)
She wonders how much insight he actually has into her negotiations with the male gaze. He’ll say something about it later, for sure: something sweet and humble, and more sympathetic than most guys she’s been out with, and for that she guesses she’s thankful. He’ll insist on writing it into their story, making a thing of it, and for that she guesses she’s thankful. But it’s only because he’s read about it, because he’s read the right books, that he can. He might know the right phrases, might be able to put together a sentence like she can’t quite conquer the discomfort of being seen, and for that she guesses she’s thankful, but does he know what it means, actually? Does he know what it’s actually like, being never unbeheld? Is he as clear-eyed as he likes to think? How free is he of territoriality, animal vigilance, hunger? She doubts he even understands who the performance is for. He thinks show is a better word than performance. She agrees. They’re pleased with this paragraph.
(When she thinks about this stuff, there is, she knows, though she’s not entirely sure she knows what it means to know it, an anger within her – dim, like a lighthouse seen from far out to sea, but deep and real; something to do with the way he looks at the other young women on the boat. Bur for some reason she just – and she doesn’t know why – she just doesn’t have the energy to, can’t be bothered, to)
He turns to look at her and their eyes meet. He rolls his; she closes hers. A small, solemn nod and then she opens them and coyly smiles. He smiles back. He puts his arms around her bare waist, kisses her neck. ‘You’re so fucking hot.’ She shrugs him off. ‘In public,’ she says quietly. She takes his hand but he pulls it away and pretends to scratches his head.
One of the older men – stocky, dyed blond hair – mounts an attempt to befriend them. ‘We usually go to Turkey,’ he says, out of the blue, with ensnaring familiarity. They are, the three of them, alone on the top deck. Having hit a particularly rough patch, the group has been advised to stay seated downstairs, but neither of them could resist the drama of it. They can’t recall, now, if their new friend was there when they arrived, or if he followed them up. He’s leaning over the rail, the wind lashing at his hair, his words barely audible. ‘But this year we thought Greece might be a better idea. God knows they need the boost.’ No invitation to respond. And they don’t; each wants the other to take the lead.
They’re far out in the Aegean now, surrounded by shades of blue and little else: grainy cobalt sea, pantone sky, Instagram filter of pale mist. Through the haze at regular intervals dark whaleback landmasses emerge and don’t quite come into focus, like background graphics in a particular N64 game – which was it? The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time seems the obvious candidate but it could have been a… is there such a thing as a boat-racing game? Wasn’t there a nautical level on Goldeneye? ‘But shouldn’t we instead,’ she asks, ‘be trying to imply some kind of theoretical continuity between the landscape and the origins of narrative?’ He asks, ‘Huh?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘something like: You can see where the myths come from’ – ‘Oh, I see’ – ‘each island is an unknown, a new chapter, a blank page: each landmass an irruption of pure potentiality.’ ‘A new level,’ he adds. ‘The irruption of the unknown in the uniform,’ she continues, ‘invents the need for narrative.’ ‘Nice.’ He concludes: ‘Of course, in Odysseus’s day, everything was unknown.’ He pauses. ‘Something like that?’ ‘No,’ she says. ‘Too much telling. Let’s move on for now.’ Anyway.
Eventually she replies to their new friend. ‘Our taxi driver yesterday said it’s the best season he can remember. He seemed pretty happy.’
‘Yes, I’ve heard it a few times.’ The man seizes the opportunity to turn around and take in her body. ‘One does wonder what the fuss is about.’
He is a doctor, they later decide, a recently retired GP. ‘He’s used to intimacy,’ she says, ‘emotional and bodily.’ He adds: ‘He’s made a career out of foregoing smalltalk, bulldozing awkwardness, shooting straight as an arrow to the heart of the matter.’ ‘Yeah,’ she says, and smiles, ‘and he’s not threatening exactly, but you can feel that he knows bodies. Professionally. He knows where to look, how to look. He knows how to get the best angle.’ ‘His eye is surgical,’ his turn, ‘seeking out with expert speed and ease the required anatomy.’ ‘Yeah, that’s good,’ she says, ‘that’s great’. He continues: ‘He knows how to look at wet skin, glistening hair, without seeming to; he knows how to follow the contours under the clothes, to pierce you without rupture.’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘Yes!’ ‘So although his presence is not exactly threatening, there’s some, there’s some…’ ‘Some rotten seepage,’ she says. He says: ‘Some rotten seepage. Christ.’
‘Beautiful day to be on the water,’ the good doctor says to her.
She leaves it to him to respond. ‘Yeah, it is,’ he says. ‘Stunning.’
The man turns sharply to him: ‘Do you sail?’
‘Oh, no, no.’ A pause. ‘I have sailed; I don’t sail.’ She knows what he’s thinking of: eleven years old, a school trip to Devon, taught to tie knots, light a fire, heat powdered soup on a portable stove. Then a final treat: an hour on a boat; the weight and the force of the boom as it swung around in the wind and he got to help to hoist the sail.
‘Here and there.’ Quickly: ‘What about you?’
‘I mean, we have friends who’ve taken us out.’ He turns back out to sea, leans on the rail. ‘Croatia, South Africa. Yemen. It’s a beautiful day to be on the water. Nothing on earth like it.’ He looks oddly boyish, arms straight by his sides, wincing against the sharp whipping of the wind off the waves. ‘Terrible scenes out there,’ he says, his words drifting into the spray. ‘Nothing on earth like it.’
They disembark at a remote island. Their guide leads them to its highest point, where they are greeted by two Greek Orthodox monks in sand-coloured cassocks with long black beards. In broken English, they welcome them and lead them down a narrow path to a monastery. It’s a thin, sketchy construction of wood and sandstone – a small chapel within a courtyard. ‘It hardly differs from the rock it’s built on,’ she says. ‘It feels provisional but it has a rare solidity about it.’ They walk around the courtyard, woozy from the lack of shade, holding hands, photographing each other.
There are rooms full of dusty powertools, cobwebbed junk piled to the ceiling, gaudy icons on the walls. Lines of aubergine plants outside, chilli plants, tomato plants. Pungent, resiny scents; the wash of the waves around the island. Rings of olive groves descend in terraces to the shore. Dusty light; goats, chickens, turkeys. The two monks grow and rear their food together. They eat, sleep, worship together. They are the world to each other. He finds it remarkable that they don’t once see one of them address the other. ‘They don’t need to talk, I guess’ she says. Optimistically, he says nothing.
‘Such rootedness,’ their friend has appeared by their side. ‘I have rarely seen a lifestyle more firmly rooted in a landscape. Extraordinary to think that the structure is two thousand years old. So, presumably, the practices: the circadian habits; the rituals of eating, praying. I have rarely seen such rootedness. Unshook for two thousand years. Nothing on earth like it.’ And with a glance at her body he strolls off to photograph some broken pottery.
They exit through the gift shop; he buys frankincense, she buys olive oil.
Amongst all the people on the boat with us there was one man who stood out. Or, rather, didn’t. He was with 1. his wife,| 2. his sister,| who seemed friendly. To begin with, she was even buoyantly humorous. ‘I’m going to take you to the furthest island in the archipelago,’ the captain had announced before casting off. ‘But are you going to bring us back?’ she called out, thick German accent. People laughed. 1. Her husband| 2. Her brother| didn’t. He stared at the ground: head hung, baseball cap pulled down low, legs stretched out awkwardly, arms limp, plump bottom lip curled. He sat like this all day. His irresponsiveness threw her jollity into relief, revealed its sketchiness, its provisionality: a thin, papery construction around an absent centre. We were entranced. His almost perfect blankness became the still point in our turning – or, seesawing – world. Almost perfect because his darting, hooded eyes revealed some small black kernel of subjectivity around which we could wrap, Michelin-man-esque, the bandages of our collaboration.
We became aware of him, naturally, over lunch, and spent the rest of the day arguing over his story. The boat, having circled a small island, stopped by a gaping, mouthy cave where Polyphemus the Cyclops – we were told – had lived, and enormous plastic containers emerged from the hull full of potato salad, Greek salad, humus, babaganoush, tabbouleh, bread, wine, squash, an urn of coffee, paper plates, plastic cutlery, cups.
1. His wife| 2. His sister| brought him a plate of food, placed it on his lap, arranged a plastic knife and fork on it, sat down next to him and ate. ‘Das ist gut’, she said, her mouth full. ‘Schmecken die Kartoffeln,’ using her knife to gesture to the greasy potatoes on his lap. ‘Ich bin voll,’ she concluded before long and put her plate down, still half full. His food was untouched. ‘Nein?’ she asked. A pause. ‘Schade!’ she sighed and took the plate from his lap, scraped the food onto her own, put his underneath, placed them to one side, and turned to look at the sea.
It was probably because she was lulled by the cadence of the boat on the waves that, blinking the salt from her eyes, she began to cast her mind back. She thought about how 1. he used to look at her, before; remembered what it felt like to be held in his gaze.| 2. much she’d given him, given up for him. Not because she’d wanted to, of course. Not because she loved him, even. Not because there’d been any expectation that she would. But because, simply, there was no one else who could.| 1. Something remarkable from that very first time about how such a retiring, hesitant man could meet her gaze so directly, with such an unbroken and unapologetic transmission of understanding.| 2. How little he’s given her in return. Not little: nothing. No recognition, no acknowledgement; in his eyes, she may as well not exist. Doesn’t exist.| 1. It was 1976, West Berlin, the first time, after a Bowie gig at the Deutschlandhalle. A girl at school, a pretty girl she’d thought didn’t know who she was, had approached her in the corridor and invited her and she’d of course said yes, knowing only vaguely who David Bowie was.| 2. And how little he’s learnt! Look at him now, gawking flagrantly still at all the young women in their ridiculous bikinis – their glistening, glossy skins; their firm curves. Something seriously wrong with him.| 1. It turned out, when they got to the venue, that this girl, Annalise, had no tickets but insisted instead that they wait by the stage door the whole time; she complied, awkwardly, trying to hide from Annalise how cold she was; from herself, how unsure and despondent.| 2. He’s hardly spoken a word since he came out. Who knows why – if it’s guilt, remorse, self-disgust, boredom. Brain damage? Could be: he probably got into a lot of fights in prison; they usually do, she’d heard.| 1. And then he walked past and everything changed. Not Bowie: but him, just a passer-by.| 2. All she knows for sure is that when she looks into his eyes now she sees only the old, cold, shark-like hunger, the same shameless appetite – that look which used to keep her awake at night.| 1. But as he passed, accidentally their eyes met, a lightening flash, the twitch of a smile, her heartbeat quickened, screaming and confusion behind her – a tall thin man with slicked-back blond hair emerging from the building – and when she turned back she saw only the passer-by’s shadow dissolving into the unseasonable thick snow, a black space filling with white like a| 2. And yet here she is, having given everything to him, voided herself for him, having let his needs fill her up like a| bucket lowered into the sea.
She 1. finds it hard, so many years later, to piece together the sequence of events that followed – finds it faintly farcical, so much happiness sprung from such improbability.| 2. visited him dutifully at first. Every weekend. Her friends told her to cut all ties, but how could she? They drifted away, of course.| 1. They followed Bowie’s entourage, Annalise striding off in front of her with some guy, her straggling trippingly behind, and ended up in, what, someone’s apartment? Hard to remember, though easy to recall the soft prickling of the snow settling on the back of her neck as they walked by the tall, uniform, empty buildings.| 2. Hard to think about how unappreciative he was of the effort – how unaware of, uncurious about what it was like for her in there; having to sit in there, a young woman, a beautiful young woman even, and not get up and walk out. And the guards no better than the prisoners. Worse.| 1. Easy to recall, though, the rush of excitement, washing the earlier moment with that passer-by from her mind –| 2. And the worst thing: she courted it. Sort of. At least, she didn’t not court it. She dressed provocatively. Or, she didn’t not dress provocatively. And why should she have?| 1. and, had what followed not followed, she suspects she would never have thought again about that man who, forty years later,| 2. And what has she got to show for it all? A lifelong distrust of men, a string of disastrous relationships, unbroken loneliness. All for this despicable man sitting next to her, who| won’t eat his lunch.
There was 1. a line of coke, offered to her on the back of a record sleeve – her first, not her last – and she remembers little else, other than that he was there, improbably, the man from before, undissolved, resolidified, something to anchor herself to as she drifted through the rushing fuzzy mesh of this new experience, his strong eyes still at the centre of it all.| 2. one particular moment when she knew she would never go back. It was snowing, unseasonably. Waves of white on the sides of the roads, redoubling the translucent early morning light.| 1. And, though at first she flinched from his gaze and, though at first she was disorientated and absent and paralysed, shivering beneath her coat in the unheated apartment, as the evening went on she found her confidence gathering somewhere in the front of her forehead and by the end of the night she was meeting his gaze with equal intensity.| 2. She remembers leaving the house, remembers the soft prickling as the snow she hadn’t dressed for landed on the back of her neck, remembers turning round and going back in,| 1. God knows what they must have looked like, she and this man, staring into each other’s eyes all night, saying nothing, but – fuck it was hot. When she woke up the next morning in an unfamiliar bed| 2. running upstairs, throwing off what she was wearing, putting on the thickest jumper she could find over the thin under-t-shirt she already had on. Scarf, gloves, coat, and she ran out, late for the bus. Across from her at that metal table he told her she was sweating like a pig and she|
On the descent of a high wave she heard the sound of liquid smacking wood and turned round to see watery vomit dribbling down his slack mouth and covering the floor and our bare feet. ‘Out of the way,’ the captain’s rough hands pushing her from her seat. He lowered a bucket on a rope into the sea, hauled it up and threw the salt water along the deck, diluting the vomit so that it began to slop up and down the boat with the waves. He lowered the bucket back into the sea, threw another bucketload of seawater onto the deck, then another, and another, until the vomit was no longer present except for the smell. We washed our feet in the sea. She wiped his mouth, asked him if he was ok, no response, and turned back to the waves.
1. there was a man she didn’t recognise lying next to her and she saw a phone number written largely on her arm.| 2. was. ‘The heat’s so high in this place.’ Her jumper was too thick so she stood up, took it off, and revealed the clinging, skimpy t-shirt and her sweating cleavage and her flushed red, glistening, skin. (So that was it, she thought; it wasn’t that I’d dressed provocatively. It was an accident; it was because of the unseasonable weather that what happened happened.)| 1. It didn’t occur to her it might have been anyone else’s. 2. Before she could sit back down a heavy-built, shaven-headed man, walking past, pretended to trip and fall into her. He took her right breast in his hand – took it so hard that when she got home later she took her concealer to the toilet and checked for bruises – and he said, ‘Thought you might need a hand.’| 1. She said, ‘At least I have your number.’ ‘Not mine,’ he said and got up to go for a piss and when he came back, zipping up his fly, he told her to leave.| 2. Her brother’s chair flew back with violence and, standing up, he squared up to this man – her heart leapt! – and said, with unfamiliar intensity, ‘Don’t fucking try it.’ He does care, she thought. Then: ‘She’s frigid.’ Broken mouth broke into a grin and he clapped his mate on the back. She took up her gloves, scarf, jumper, coat and, without putting them on, she got up and she walked out.| She was sick into the heaped snow on the side of the road.
1. On Monday, at school, Annalise took her into a corner of the playground and asked, ‘And?’ And, ‘So?’| 2. Then somehow all those years passed and he was due to be released and there was just no-one left to pick him up.| 1. ‘And, so, what?’ she replied. ‘What happened?’ ‘When?’ ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.’ ‘Well. He kicked me out. Early.’ ‘You went home with him?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘But he looked so shy.’ ‘Uh, no,’ she mumbled, ‘different guy’. Annalise looked pleasantly scandalised. ‘You mean you let that cute guy give you his number and someone else take you home? I’m impressed.’| 2. Decades behind bars and no-one to meet you at the door when you come out – how could you let that happen to your own brother?| 1. She’d written the number in her diary before she washed it off her arm. Finally, with Annalise’s help, she summoned the courage to phone it. And, hoping, though not knowing, that it would be his, she agreed to meet the voice on the other end in a café in Neukölln the following Sunday.| 2. She’d read books about rehabilitation, she’d talked to psychologists, doctors; she wanted to give him the best chance she could.| 1. She arrived early and sat reading, or not reading, the paper.| 2. So she went to surprise him at the gates.|
And there he was. 1. He hardly spoke that first time.| 2. She knew, immediately, it was a mistake.| 1. He let her do the talking – and, of course, she’d talked;| 2. She saw it in his eyes, that he’d learnt nothing,| 1. talked about how bored she was at school, how she wanted to leave home, wanted to be a fashion designer, but her father had a job lined up for her in his accountancy firm, how living in Berlin gave her headaches, she wanted to move to London, go to fashion school,| 2. that he wouldn’t change. When he came out she saw in his eyes that he didn’t recognise her and she wanted only to turn and leave. She still could.| 1. and he said so little. But there was such reassurance in his eyes, such encouragement, anchorage, that she didn’t feel embarrassed to keep talking. These eyes, she thought, these eyes understand me.| 2. ‘It’s me,’ she said. His face fell. ‘Annalise?’ He barked out a derisory laugh. ‘Life has not treated you well, Annalise.’ ‘I’m here,’ she said. He said, ‘Where now?’| 1. And she began to imagine, as she talked, how those eyes might look looking into hers as they lifted a veil from her face and put a ring on her finger and said, ‘I do’,| 2. She drove him silently to her apartment above a bakery in Dusseldorf. She showed him his room. She’d moved into the smaller of the two bedrooms a few months ago and decorated the larger one with care, chose the friendliest colours she could find (yellow walls, cream curtains, light blue shutters, bare brown floorboards),| 1. and she began to imagine how they might look looking into hers as she knelt on the end of a four-poster bed on their wedding night and as his hands loosely held her waist, feeling the contours of her body underneath a translucent silk slip,| 2. she’d fitted new lights, put some Matisse prints on the wall, daffodils in a vase, given herself backache with the effort,| 1. and as he said, ‘But let me look at you,’ and as he began to slide the silk slowly from her, and said nothing else until the morning when she knew that she would be held together by that gaze for the rest of her| 2. and hoped that she would find a way to adjust to her new| life.
1. After the stroke, his eyes seemed dislocated from her. He never met her gaze, never looked at her out of the corner of his eye. He seemed no longer to see, or want to see her, his interest lying elsewhere – younger women, usually – and she began, as a book whose binding has disintegrated falls to pieces,| 2. Slowly, over the years, he retreated into himself, stopped speaking, washing. They hardly spoke. What little life she had began| to fall to pieces. And as his disintegration worsened she, stripped over time of her commitments and connections, became his carer. And so now here they are.
We would be the last to leave the boat. The sun, sunk so low into the water that we could bite it, would cast a film of delicate nacre over the water like a cover over a swimming pool no longer in use. The sky would darken, a sea of stars appear, and a yellow moon would rise. Glassy iridescence. We would hang back, wanting to finish the story. We would watch her help him up and support him as, with his stick, he shuffled off the boat. A taxi would be waiting for them. He would kiss her on the cheek and we would hear him say, with effort, ‘Danke’. She would smile.
- So how do we end?
- How we began.
- Which is?
- Islands in the stream.
- Islands in the stream, that is what we are.
- Ok, one: we’re not islands in the stream, we’re in the same boat. Very different metaphor. And two: why are you quoting Dolly Parton at me?
- I’m not quoting Dolly Parton at you.
- Yes you are?
- I’m not.
- Island in the stream, that is what we are: Dolly Parton.
- Dolly Parton didn’t write that song, babe.
- Don’t call me babe. It’s a Dolly Parton song.
- You can’t just say ‘no’ as if that’s going to convince me you’re right. ‘Islands in the Stream’ is, demonstrably, a Dolly Parton song.
- No, you don’t know what you’re talking about. She might have sung it, but it was written by The Bee Gees. So if you say ‘Islands in the stream, that is what we are’, you’re not quoting Dolly Parton, you’re quoting The Bee Gees. Demonstrably.
- ‘Islands in the Stream’ was written by The Bee Gees? Fuck me.
- Uh huh. Probably not all of them. Probably just a Bee Gee. A Gibb.
- The Bee Gees did not write ‘Islands in the Stream’.
- They absolutely did.
- I’m not falling for this shit.
- I promise you.
- No I’m sorry, if you say, ‘Islands in the stream, that is what we are’, you’re quoting Dolly, whoever wrote it. End of.
- End of what?
- End of story.
- Want to bet?
- When we get back on shore, first thing we’re going to do is look it up. Conclusively.
- Until then?
- Until when?
- What do we now, while we’re both still in the same inconclusive boat?
- I don’t know. Assume we’re both right?
- I’m definitely right.
- Fuck off.
- ‘We can ride it together, ah ha.’
- Hey, is that a lyric from the song ‘Islands in the Stream’ by Dolly Parton?
- Yes, you’re quite right, it is a lyric from the song ‘Islands in the Stream’ by The Bee Gees.
- Keep going. I love it when you sing.
- ‘Islands in the stream/That is what we are/No one in between/How can we be wrong/Sail away with me/To another world/And we rely on each other, ah ha/From one lover to another, ah ha’.
- So many mixed metaphors.
- Hey, we should end our story like this!
- Fuck off.