Category Archives: Short Stories

Pearls

pearl-necklace-chokerPearls

 

1.

There was a long queue at the pawn shop, which was a sign of the times, she silently observed and shifted her weight from one “stilettoed” foot to the other. The air was stale and humid, her feet and back hurt, she felt sick to her stomach and was sick at heart, too, and yet she found some comfort in the length of the queue. Indeed, it actually gave her a sort of grim pleasure to think that she was certainly not the only one so desperately hard up.

And the people in the line were decidedly interesting; such a mixed bunch, with so much stress and sorrow peeking out from behind the clumsily assumed poker faces of some of them. It was a relief to find food for thought other than her own problems and she busied herself with weaving stories about her fellow “sellers” standing in front of her.

There was that wiry little fellow whose turn it was (and had been for a good ten minutes) now. There was growing resentment in the already stuffy air as he stubbornly stuck to the price he claimed would be only too fair for a choice item such as the tiny blackened ladies’ watch he was trying to sell. He was your classic piece of human furniture generally hanging about pawn shops; as seedy as they come, fidgety, arrogant and wheedling at the same time. He smelled of tobacco and garlic that mingled with the typical smell of sweat brought about by tight-fitting nylon shirts—and this one a shiny pin-striped shirt…olfactory and visual horror of horrors! His hair was oily (Unwashed? Or just slicked to death with gel?), and his neck was strangely thick and muscular like a boxer’s—quite incongruously thick compared to the rest of his body. She found herself strangely attracted to the sight of that powerful neck, a feeling that frightened her so much that she quickly shifted her gaze to the woman right in front of her.

This lady was a lady; impeccably dressed and coiffed, smelling of something very expensive—a scent just perfect, not too strong or sweet, just perfect—and obviously very much out of place. Ironically enough, the most out-of-place thing about her was exactly the kind of well-behaved and patient demeanor that nobody with less class would have been capable of.

Was this beautiful creature perhaps on the verge of ruin because of a man? Was he her son, or her lover, or “simply” her husband? Was it illness or passion or bad financial decisions that had forced her to end up in a line in a disgusting little hole, steeling herself to part with an object of beauty so obviously more precious than the price she would get for it? If it was passion, was it her passion for him or his passion for something—say cards or drugs or even other women?

But this line of thought was far too close to her own case; in fact, she found herself having veered back to the sickening sordid predicament she had landed herself in lately. She gave it up as a bad job to weave stories about the other customers and focused on her own situation, deciding to be objective and ruthless both to herself and to the men involved.

Her husband used to love her; or had, for a long time, been used to loving her. Perhaps both. He had loved her with that clinging sadistic love that eventually suffocates. To be the object of any such strong passion or interest for such a long time cannot fail to be flattering in a way. But if the aim of an emotion of this kind is, to a great extent, to provide a rich, bored individual with something to do, then it very soon becomes nothing short of unbearable.

And just as she had been getting ever closer to her decision to break free even if it meant breaking his heart and losing all her own bearings (sixteen years was a long time, especially as it happened to be the exact half of her life), she found out he had already transferred his interest onto another; someone younger, more naïve, easier to impress and manipulate. The old hat, the ridiculous cliché of being dumped for a younger woman, with the extra twist that she was so much younger than him to begin with that everybody had been expecting the reverse; that she would at last come to her senses and find a younger, physically and mentally healthier and happier individual than her husband.

Whoever had dumped whom was of no importance. Well, it was, of course, of great importance—pride issues? More humiliation? But even so, the rupture was regarded by most as a useful if painful event that would bring about happier lives for all involved.

And along came the apparently mentally and physically healthier and happier male individual. Handsome but not too handsome to make a girl suspect a calculating gigolo. He was a mixture of boy and man; with sensuous lips yet a boyish smile. With a frank open gaze, yet with something mysterious and exciting in the dark blue almond-shaped eyes. Tall and with the promise of a good masculine figure but still covered by a bit of baby fat, which was made even more bewilderingly ambiguous by its being covered with tattoos and male jewellery. She just couldn’t place him; one moment he was a simple young honest cute fellow, at another moment he was a shifty thug who was dangerous but all the more exciting.

Fast forward to the present moment: she is standing in line, eager to get some money for a very expensive set of pearls so as to be able to help him out (once again, and only for a few days).

She is suddenly suffused with a feeling of generosity and she loves her young man all the more for needing her this way, too. And he is so proud, he hates it when she offers to pay anywhere they go together—not that she has much money to throw around and this he knows very well. She tells herself he couldn’t stand it if she was better off; he is just that kind of guy who wants to take care of his woman, who would feel humiliated by a richer girlfriend. How he put up a fight when last month she lent him half her salary because he needed to pay a bill pronto! How could she have let him pawn his very phone? His phone is his life, all his business and their daily communication depends on that phone! She did the right thing. And he will pay it back as soon as he’ll have the cash.

And now it’s different because he doesn’t know she is selling the pearls. She keeps telling herself that she hates those pearls anyway; they remind her of her ex-husband; they are ridiculously fancy for her present lifestyle.

So she is doing the whole pawning on her own accord. She is happy to help (she still needs to find a way to give him the money without offending him, though! Some story she needs to cook up!) And she hates those pearls, she hates them—she keeps repeating it over and over again, arriving at the same question for the umpteenth time: Why is she so sad and stressed, then, standing there, staring at the pearls every few minutes? It’s all for the best, it is really not a big deal.

 

4.

At last it’s her turn. She didn’t even notice the elegant lady leave and she missed out on all the little crumbs of that human drama she would have loved to find out about. The greasy guy wearing a wife-beater looks just like Stanley Kowalski in that Tennessee Williams play they made her read in high school. She almost cracks a smile but then forces herself to assume her best poker face; Kowalski is not fooled and he smiles in his turn.

“So what can I do you for?” His gaze is impudent, he sizes up her breasts, practically talks down her blouse, and he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get an answer as he is currently too busy visualizing whatever goodies she might have under her skirt. Her poker face is gone in a second, it is as red as her toe-nails, and her voice is shaky.

“I have a pearl necklace I want to sell.” She places it on the counter and suddenly finds the pearls heartbreakingly beautiful; they are so round and shiny and elegant. Their milky whiteness, their soft luster—and this is the last time she sees them. She has a choking sensation in her throat; she fancies she hears “their” song and feels her husband’s fingers around her neck fastening the necklace. “They are too tight.” She recalls saying. “They are supposed to be, you little moron—their style is the ‘choker’ style after all!” He had answered in an amused but condescending tone. The sentimental feeling leaves her all of a sudden as she remembers that choking feeling; the sensation of being a dog wearing an elegant collar. Yes, it is best she sold the damn thing.

She is awakened from her reverie (which lasted only a few seconds) by a huffing sound and a thud. The lecherous pawnbroker had been fondling the pearls as if they were a pair of breasts or buttocks, but now he has thrown them back down on the counter.

“They are paste, not much I can give you for them.”

She thinks she’s heard wrong; there must have been a ringing in her ears. Or he is joking. Or testing her.

“Sir, what do you mean they are paste?!”

“Paste, lady, means fake. These pearls here are not the real deal. Costume jewellery. Accessorize. Bijoux Brigitte. You get my drift, hey?”

Her face becomes redder if that is humanly possible, but now she is angry.

“Are you joking? These pearls cost a fortune….”

“Got the certificate?” He interrupts her rudely.

“Well, no. It was a gift and I haven’t intended to part with them until now.” She’s gone from red to white, from angry to ashamed.

“Hard times, hey?” He is snickering. Having a great time, the greasy fool. But she knows he has the upper hand. Or maybe not; she can just go to another shop, try to sell it elsewhere. And that is what she is going to do, she decides.

“None of your business.” She is haughty now and she storms out of the store, but not fast enough to escape the fat laugh of the shopkeeper.

 

5.

She walks along the street, with her feet now positively swollen to twice their size in those torturous sandals. They make her feel like the Little Mermaid on her first walk, with every step a dagger thrust. No matter. Must focus. She makes up her mind to go and get her pearls appraised. Of course the man is a fool, the pearls are as real as can be, but it still would be good to get a professional’s opinion as to their exact value. How didn’t she think of this before? It was just that she took it so much for granted that the pearl necklace somehow spoke for Itself. It had been very expensive and that was that.

But now that they have been pronounced fake by someone—even if it was in that someone’s best interest to lie to her and cheat her—doubt is creeping in. Is this going to be another version of the classic pearl stories? Maupassant, Henry James, Somerset Maugham? Real when thought paste or paste when thought real? Which one will it be in her case? Oh, it would be too cruel to find out that her husband had palmed her off with a set of fake pearls. And at the same time it would serve her right; a fitting punishment for trying to raise money on a gift.

She is walking very fast now, unaware of the pain in her feet. If any bodily discomfort besides the mental anguish, it is the queasiness in her stomach that is the most bothersome. She dreads thinking about the additional and maybe not unrelated fact that her period is almost two weeks late. It is just stress, she tells herself and quickens her already quick steps. Mermaid running.

She knows a fancy jewellery store only a few blocks away. She is forced to come to a sudden halt as she reaches a pedestrian crossing with a glaring red light. The traffic is moving slowly, like a slimy sluggish snake slithering forward on its stuffed belly. Morning rush hour, with everybody prevented from actually rushing. She passes the minute of waiting with idly gazing into the cars creeping by; an exasperated mother with a toddler in a baby seat, both screaming about something or other; a businessman shouting into a speakerphone and simultaneously checking his nose hair in the mirror; a kissing couple in a sleek silver sports-car, the guy’s hand high up on the girl’s thigh. She would normally look away when witnessing something so intimate, but her gaze is suddenly stuck on that hand. On the thick silver bracelet she knows so well. The pearly laughter coming from the girl in the car acts as if she had been slapped in the face and she darts forward, heedless of everything.

Just then the snake changes its pace from slithering and it positively strikes as at some little mouse or some such contemptible victim. The braceleted hand had quickly left the thigh of the girl and shifted gear, accelerating so as to impress that pretty owner of the car who is only too content to play passenger and let her new sweetheart drive. Impressing him by letting herself be impressed.

He is not fast enough when it comes to hitting the brakes and he is surprised by something hard and shiny and white hitting the windshield, and something soft obstructing the wheels. He curses and jumps out to check what on earth… Just the thing he needs; an accident with the new girl’s car.

The snake comes to a complete halt, people shouting and gesticulating. The road in front of the sports-car is filled with large round pearls. They keep bouncing here and there, some of them falling into the nearby gutter, some rolling under the neighboring cars.

 

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A Slice of Rio

images            1.

As she stood at the curb waiting to cross the six lanes of Avenida Atlantica that separated the beachside from the row of those tall and singularly ugly living blocks—the pearls of Copacabana—she cracked her first smile that day.  It was a private joke, and not even a very good one, but at least it chased away one of the black clouds covering her mental sky; she was wondering whether T.S. Eliot hadn’t had Rio in mind when composing the “Waste Land” and whether he hadn’t made a slight mistake with the first line—surely January was the cruelest month and not April.

Some people wouldn’t have agreed with her as to that, and she had to admit that she was particularly sensitive to the heat and was, therefore, biased against the glaring sunshine and the melting pavements.  Both the cariocas[1] and the tourists seemed to be doing just fine as they were lying or standing on the beach, frying to a crisp.  Megan Hill had a hard time imagining how she could have derived any fun from deliberately turning herself into one of the half-naked sweaty bodies that littered the shore; it was excruciatingly hot in the shade already.  As to the water, it was dirty and rough; garbage in all shape and form was knocked against the bather by aggressive waves.

Mrs. Hill had been living in Rio for seven months by then and she was starting to forget how excited she had originally been about living in this supposedly marvelous city.  Of course she’d gone to the beach in the first days.  Of course she loved the view of Copacabana and Ipanema.  Of course she was as happy as a little girl when sipping her first caipirinhas[2] in those innocent days immediately after her arrival.  It had all seemed so charming, so relaxed, so full of alegria[3]—to use the local parlance.

Seven months later, after a ten-hour wait at the police station to get her visa, there hadn’t been much of the initial attraction to the place left in Megan Hill.  More and more did she feel that the six-hundred and fifty thousand hours that were allegedly allotted to a human being were being frittered away in this place.  Behind the friendly smiles there lurked inefficiency and untrustworthiness—and a benevolent ignorance of this being a bad thing.  Indeed, for cariocas a promise was made to be broken, and it would have taken them by surprise if anybody had taken any given result of this attitude as a personal insult.

And time wasn’t the only thing that was being wasted over here; Rio and the concept of value were mutually exclusive.  Inefficiency, on its own, might have been excused; it was understandable that the heat slowed everybody and everything down.  But this tropical nonchalance was coupled with exorbitant prices and mediocrity believed to be outstanding and unique.  Cariocas were proud people—almost arrogant in their smug enjoyment of whatever their city offered.

 

2.

By the time Megan Hill reached the supermarket closest to their apartment, she hated everybody and everything and would have killed for a bit of breeze.  The best part of shopping was that supermarkets were wonderfully well-equipped with air-conditioning and one left both the heat and the sun on their doorstep.  The first breath of air upon entering was so delicious that the scowl on Megan’s face vanished immediately and restored her, as if by magic, to what she originally was; a handsome if intense woman as close to thirty as to forty, endowed with a pair of sparkling, intelligent eyes, beautiful as emeralds.  As she was walking among the rows of products in her striped summer dress and her straw hat, slim and tall and feline in her movements, she looked much less than her age and did not remain unobserved by the young shop assistants who—in greater numbers than necessary—were listlessly mopping the floor and blocking the way of the shopping carts.

The green eyes could not help emitting angry sparks as soon as their owner had noticed that half of the things she had been planning to buy were not to be had.  The other half was there alright, but several things among them had become significantly more expensive overnight; the shop was part of the only chain in the neighborhood, which had no scruples when it came to exploiting such privilege.  Go where she would, she had no choice but to pay five times more for, say, cottage cheese, than she would normally have to anywhere else in Europe or North America.  And it was local produce, not even some choice export item hard to be had around there!  And now they wanted her to pay eight times more for that dinky pot of curdled cow juice!  Madness.  Well, she wouldn’t act the tragedy queen over a pot of cottage cheese or even over the whole issue of grocery shopping.  The third world was the third world, after all—what had she expected?

The third-world feeling had not disappeared with considerations of price and availability.  The fun was only to begin at the cashiers.  Or, better to say, three rows away from the two cashiers that were punching the cash machine and bagging the items with the speed of sloths, as the lineup was that long.  Megan had seen longer queues in her life—hadn’t she braved that of the Vatican several times?—but she had been long enough in Rio to know that appearances could be even more deceptive over here than elsewhere.  The lineup seemed treacherously short compared with the amount of time it would surely take to get to the cashier at last.  She knew by now that five people here were the equivalent of fifteen in her native Canada, so fifteen were forty-five.  No.  After ten hours at the police station Megan could simply not face another such ordeal.  They would have to tough it out without the groceries that night.

 

3.

“What do you mean you couldn’t get me tomatoes and OJ?  What on earth prevented you from getting this much done in one whole day?”  Mr. Hill was incapable of being sympathetic when it came to his personal comforts, especially not when the neglectful individual had no day-job and no salary to bring up in her defense.

“Ten hours at that bloody police station, my dear.  I literally threw out roots and the bureaucrats had to cut me out of my seat.”  Mrs. Hill’s voice had that special pitch that told her husband that she would not tolerate any hard words or crankiness just at present.

“Good lord.  But why am I not surprised?  What do you expect in a shit-hole like this?  These people thrive on bureaucracy; it gives them a sense of importance, a semblance of order, and, most importantly, lots of jobs for their gigantic population.”  It was easy for Mr. Hill to philosophize about the reasons of the ten-hour queue when he hadn’t had to partake in it.  Not that he hadn’t had his share of frustrations every day both at his workplace and out of it, but sympathy usually came to him when he was also a suffering party.

“Anyway, that bloody supermarket was another zoo and after the police zoo I simply didn’t have it in me to do it all over again the second time within a day.”  Mrs. Hill explained, or rather declared, signaling that the conversation was either over or it was in need of a change of topic.

“All right, all right.  We’ll survive.  Actually, you know what?  Don’t bother with cooking; we’ll order in.  Some grilled chicken and beans.  They can’t screw those up and they are among the very few things that aren’t too expensive around here.  And now sit down, let’s watch some TV.”  Mr. Hill’s daily consolation was a glass full of limes—for the vitamin C—and ice cubes swimming in vodka, consumed in front of the TV while watching American serials, which seemed intellectually challenging compared with the homegrown variety.

“Gosh, I’ve been sitting all day staring out of my head.  I don’t feel like sitting and staring some more.  I’ll go and take a shower and make the call about the frango-feijão[4] feast.  If we’re lucky they’ll send us a bird that hasn’t been spinning around the spit all day.”

“But you’ll miss The Show!”  Mr. Hill’s favorite program was on between seven and eight and he would not for the world have budged during this interval, and if work kept him later than usual and he missed his Show… that was very bad.  Back in Canada he couldn’t have imagined that he would ever become a second-rate-serial junky of the first order.  This was what Rio did to you; a speedy softening of the brain until you took to this intellectual birdbath like duck to water.

“Well, what I’ll miss is forty-five minutes of commercials studded with fifteen minutes of bits of old episodes that have been on a hundred times since we’ve been here.  I think I’ll survive that.”

“Your loss.”  And here the ongoing commercial block finally gave way to another five minutes of the show and so Mr. Hill lost all interest in his wife and whatever there existed off the screen.

 

4.

Their rental apartment—advertised as a “luxury” flat like all else meant for expat-consumption—was costing an arm and a leg, and so far, besides the price, there hadn’t been anything else about it that could justify such a denomination.  If one bent out of the bedroom window far enough to risk falling out from the fifteenth floor, one could catch a glimpse of the top of the Sugarloaf—hence the ad’s text “with a glorious view.”  As to the alleged “rooftop pool,” a veritable mafia of pigeons and seagulls had control of the azure hole that was the size of an ostrich egg and was filled with guano and floating feathers.

But “luxuries” aside, hot water in the shower was a cause for celebration, and enough of it to properly rinse off one’s long hair was an epoch-making event.  Megan had long been aware of all this and as she stepped into the vertical coffin also known as a shower cabin, she was wondering whether she would be in luck that night.  Abundant and warm, the water gushing out and sprinkling her face and washing away the inevitable daily urban grime was the first pleasant surprise and therefore the highlight of that day.

The low-point, however, was quick to follow in the shape of sudden darkness and the subsequent disappearance of hot water—the flat had an electric boiler.  Foamy all over, shivering from the sudden blast of icy water, Megan clambered out of the shower cabin, banging an ankle and a knee in the process, but fortunately not slipping and splitting her skull at least.  The smallness of the flat came in handy now that she had to feel her way out to the living room without seeing a thing.

“Randy, where are you?”

“Take an intelligent guess. I’m sitting where you left me a minute ago; in front of the TV, staring into darkness for hell only knows why.  Probably a bloody blackout again.”

“Sorry about your show, darling.”

By then she was sitting next to him, dripping shampoo on the ratty divan and all over the white-tiled floor one associated with hospitals.  They had had several blackouts before, but the timing had never been so bad.  What with the greater than usual frustrations of the day, and the show being on just then, and the shampoo not yet rinsed, and the dinner not yet ordered and beyond the possibility of being cooked in such pitch dark, it was really hard to keep one’s equanimity.

 

5.

A few minutes elapsed without any of them saying a word, both trying to believe in the possibility of the blackout lasting only for a few minutes, but not succeeding.  They were not proved wrong and the blackout was still a blackout ten minutes later.

“I’m hungry.”  Mr. Hill’s voice was like a whimper.

“Didn’t you have a late lunch with that Petronio Garcia?”  Mrs. Hill knew that her husband had been looking forward to this lunch for over a month now, hoping to get to know that seemingly likeable local businessman.

“Cancelled last minute.  Urgent business out of town for the rest of the week.  Mentioned a dinner for next week instead.”  The previous whimper turned into an offended bark.

“Why am I not surprised?  And why do I have a hunch that next week’s dinner-plan will turn into a lunch-project for the week after?”

“You are stating the obvious.”  The offended bark became offensive.

“Then why are you so upset about it?  And don’t put it out on me.”

The conversation was left off here for another ten or fifteen minutes, during which interval nothing had changed.  It was still dark and they were still hungry and upset.

Then suddenly Megan started to laugh.  She had a gurgling endearing laugh, catchy and liberating.  Soon Randy was also laughing without knowing exactly why, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Can you believe this shit?”  He asked what was more of a rhetorical question.

“Surreal, grotesque, unbloodybelievable.”  She seconded.

“You know what?  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“You mean out of Rio?  Are you mad?”  How gladly she would have been rid of that city, but how impossible it was while Randy’s contract lasted!  Another nine months at least!  And maybe an extension if they were satisfied with his work.  What an “honor” that would be!  What an unmixed “unblessing”!

“No, silly.  Let’s go out and get something to eat.  We can’t very well continue sitting hear in the dark, listening to each other’s gurgling gut.”

“Fine.”  She didn’t have it in her to cover up such anticlimax by some feigned delight at the prospect of a mere dinner.  “For a second I thought you want to go… never mind.  I’ll rub off the shampoo with a towel and throw on a dress.  It will be a sticky business, but what the hell?  If I get stuck to my seat you’ll have to pull me out as gracefully as you can, that’s all.”

“First we have to get down fifteen flights of stairs.  I hope to God our dear doormen are out there with flashlights in case anyone wants to leave this hellhole.”

“Oh, if you’re worried about going down how do you feel about coming back up?”

“I don’t even want to think about it.”

 

6.

The whole street shared in the blackout and it didn’t give one a warm fuzzy feeling to walk around that part of Copacabana in the dark.  Since Randy had got his smelly flip-flops stolen on the beach and had had to walk home barefoot they knew that nothing was unworthy of being appropriated either by stealth or force.

A few blocks further the lights were on and consequently the crowd was even bigger here than on a day without neighboring blackouts.  The outside bars and restaurants were teeming with tourists and locals, and the shortage of tables and chairs did not seem to cause any difficulty for new arrivals; there were no scruples as to sitting down on the pavement with a bottle of beer in hand.  Brazilians are loud people; whether they are happy, angry, or sad, they shout.  Whether they are in small numbers or large, they shout.  Whether they are sober or drunk, they shout.  Of course a large group of happy Brazilian drunks is the deadliest combo.  When it is a Friday or a Saturday and a blackout strips away the last semblance of order, all hell breaks loose and a veritable bacchanalia ensues.

Mr. and Mrs. Hill were in no mood for an improvised swill and gorge.  They were so tired and hungry that they wouldn’t have had any scruples as to sitting down on the pavement with a drink and a plate of something, but the noise was unbearable.  They decided to keep on walking and try to find some quieter place further on.  They walked briskly, unconsciously keen on reaching the Ipanema area that was somewhat safer and cleaner.  They new perfectly well that only the naïve and uninitiated would waste time on trying to flag a taxi on a Friday night during high season; although every second car was a yellow cab, each and every one of them had a passenger snugly ensconced on the back seat.

Local swells were convinced that in Ipanema even the grass was greener; a snobby little bubble in that gigantic city of more than six million people, Ipanema was considered the safest and trendiest area with the largest amount of good restaurants.  Mr. Hill directed his steps towards one of these posh eateries where he had already had a few business lunches that were served with relative promptness. The street where it was located hosted numerous other restaurants and the street scene, in terms of crowd and noise, was not unlike the one they had just left behind in Copacabana, except for the fact that it was a more stylish debauchery that its partakers were engaged in.

Judged from the outside, Arlindo was deceptively peaceful; there were no tables outside and it did not boast of an all-glass front, so it remained to be seen just how full the place was.  Stepping inside, the sudden wintry chill spoke louder than any five-star rating—the cooler the classier.  As to visual effects, the lights were so romantically low that our friends for a second thought there was a blackout reigning here as well.  To get the hostess’ attention was a mission akin to the impossible, but after what had seemed to be an eternity, that curvy lady with the cinnamon skin and the unnaturally slick and straight hair turned to them at last and informed them that they were looking at a good forty-five minute wait, which they were welcome to spend at the bar area.

To go on and find another place and most probably get into the same predicament was not an attractive alternative, but then the waiting wasn’t, either.  Anyhow, they crawled to the bar, ordered drinks, gobbled up the gratis peanuts and stared at the flat screen TV broadcasting football—Mr. Hill making an attempt at following the game and Mrs. Hill resting her eyes on the green grass without blinking.

7.

“Randy, where on earth are you going?  Hey, wait up!”  Far more than forty-five minutes had elapsed when Mr. Hill suddenly jumped up from the bar stool and rushed out of the restaurant, with his bewildered wife running after him.  “Randy, for Christ’s sake, what is it?  We were almost there, we were about to be seated!  Wait for me, at least!”

Mr. Hill gradually slackened his pace and his wife was able to catch up with him at last and also to catch her breath.  The pavements were still vomiting the accumulated heat of the day and the air was unbearably humid.  The sticky remains of the shampoo didn’t constitute a comfort-factor, either.

“So have you gone mad or what has got into you?”  Megan was peering into his face, trying to ascertain whether he was angry or drunk or what.

“Out of town for the rest of the week my ass.  What an insincere bastard!”

“Are you talking about that fellow Petronio?  Don’t tell me you saw him at the restaurant!”

“Then I won’t tell you.  But there he was, being seated as soon as he entered the restaurant, in the company of six other suits and some skirts.  Clearly some business hobnob.”  His voice was like a jealous lover’s.

“Did he see you?”  Megan inquired.

“I’m sure he didn’t in that dark barn.  Plus he was busy being pleasant to those others.  What a hypocrite!”

“I think you’re making too much of all this.  It’s not the first time smiley locals stood us up.  And they do it to each other as well.  You shouldn’t have taken it so personally and you definitely shouldn’t have spoiled our chances of finally getting a table and eating something.”

“My appetite is gone.”  Mr. Hill said, referring to his disgust with the carioca manners and mores, but also sustained by the gratis peanuts and the two pints of beer.

“Good for you.  Anyway, I’m ready for bed.”

The walk back home was even less attractive than the walk had been to the restaurant, but by then it was late enough to hope for an available taxi.  As they picked their way on the undulating pavement—tree-roots had no mercy on the nicely decorated sidewalks and their wave-pattern was seconded by a wavy surface—their eyes were on the ground and so they didn’t notice the five ebony figures blocking their way until they almost knocked against them.

 

8.

They were boys; young boys acting tough.  Half naked, with baggy jeans showing the top of their underwear, they looked like a bunch of rap-artist wannabes.  Although they seemed as if they were playing at being rappers, the knives in the hands of two of them had nothing playful about them.  Their oozing a mixture of booze, sweat, and unwashed clothing told its tale; they were obviously as far from being sober as from being well off.  Probably some favela[5]-dwellers, mugging and drinking away the spoils on a Friday night.

Mr. and Mrs. Hill were certainly older than the local toughs and had also had some alcoholic beverages during the evening, but fear is a great booster and a sporty background also comes in handy.  Taking to their heels, they sprinted down the road, with their attackers staring after them with filmy eyes.

A couple of minutes later they happened to reach the well-lit entrance of a hotel where they stopped running and sat down on the pavement, panting and cursing.  Mr. Hill was the first to catch his breath and he signaled to the doorman for a taxi.

“Why am I surprised?”  He asked suddenly.

“Well, maybe because this ‘mugging business’ is the first carioca cliché to be proved true.  I’m actually surprised about other things, too.  Just think about it; the fact that I didn’t die of fear on the spot is surely another surprise.  And then our running performance—I am impressed.  Did you expect to have all this in you?  I’ve always imagined I would die after having run two meters in this furnace.”

“Maybe you’re going local.”

“Or loco.”

“It amounts to the same thing.  You know what?  Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Tell this to the doorman; he’s supposed to be getting us a cab.”

“No, I mean out of Rio.  Let’s go Home.”


[1] Local inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro.

[2] Local cocktail with lime and cachaça (sugarcane liquor).

[3] Happiness and cheer.

[4] Chicken and beans, respectively.

[5] Slum, shanty town.

Pussy

          1.

Pussy was a soft, furry, indolent thing, the center of Daniel’s universe.  There had been the closest possible companionship between these two for half a dozen years, which, however, was not exactly based on balanced reciprocity; Daniel mostly gave and Pussy passively took, purring and drooling.

It is only fair to add that motherhood had been denied her, which had certainly strengthened her inherent tendency towards egotism.  Whether she suspected that Daniel had had anything to do with her barrenness is more than I can say.  At all events, she was a moody, self-absorbed creature, caring first and foremost for her own comfort.  Because Daniel had always done everything to make her life as comfy as possible, she was tolerably satisfied with the status quo.  Indeed, Daniel’s caresses added rather than took away from her feeling of well-being, which is more than many female companions could boast of.

Yet Pussy had never known how good she’d had it until Kitty appeared on the scene.  With her feline movements and her long thick locks as red as Pussy’s fur, Kitty at first sight had seemed to be a perfect addition to the domestic bliss of Pussy and Daniel.  She was a soft sweet sensual girl, very fond of children and cuddly toys and little puppy dogs—so who could blame Daniel if he had expected her to love cats as well?  What with her name and her catlike demeanor into the bargain, it had seemed impossible that she would not hit it off with Pussy.

2.

Not “hitting it off” is a gross understatement when trying to describe the first encounter between the two.  Pussy had been lying full length on the sofa in the living room lit up only by the glow of the fireplace, when Kitty, unaware of the surprise in store for her, sauntered in with an expectant Daniel in tow.  At first she had taken the large reddish blotch on the divan to be a cushion or a rolled-up blanket and before Daniel could warn her she threw herself on it with an attempt at showing how easy it was for her to make herself at home in her sweetheart’s flat.  She had even been on the verge of exclaiming “Oh, how snug your pad is, darling!” when a most bizarre sound between a squeal and a yowl hit her ears.  Kitty jumped up instantly and her own vocal reaction to the unexpected encounter was as close to “caterwauling” as that of Pussy’s had been.

“Jesus Christ, get that thing away from me!  Ughh, I can’t bear to be in the same room with that beast!”  So saying, Kitty ran out of the living room, frantically brushing the imaginary hairs from her dress—the embodiment of horror and disgust.

“Kitty, dear, what on earth is wrong?”  Daniel was shocked and did not as yet suspect the gradual rupture that was to be the consequence of that fateful meeting between his old and his knew companion.

“I can’t tolerate any cat anywhere near me.  I simply cannot.”  She wailed and shivered and made the most grotesque faces Daniel had ever beheld.

“But why?  Are you allergic to them?”

“Oh, it’s so much more complicated than that.  I have a mortal fear of them.  If a cat comes near me I want to die.  The look of them, the feel of their fur, the glint in their false eyes, the shifty sounds they make, the claws they keep hidden.  Everything.  Everything.”  As she said this, she became more and more hysteric and the way she pronounced the last two words reminded Daniel of Kurtz’s “The Horror! The Horror!” in his favorite Conrad novel.[1]  She was certainly in earnest.

3.

And what was Daniel to do?  Would he break up with the first girl he’d really ever liked because she couldn’t go near a cat?  Or would he do away with the closest companion of his last six years, treacherously transferring his love from Pussy to Kitty?

As to the latter dilemma, that was a no-brainer; it was absolutely out of the question for him to ditch his beloved cat.  It was an equally plain fact, on the other hand, that Kitty could and would satisfy certain needs that Pussy never had and never could and never would.  Indeed, what Kitty had to offer would be the human equivalent of the “purring and drooling” and so much more.  No, he simply couldn’t sacrifice Kitty to Pussy, either.  But, then again, how could he keep the girl if he was to keep the cat?

Daniel had soon convinced himself that it was not his selfishness and his voraciousness that had made him decide to keep both sources of delight despite their apparent mutual exclusivity—he was being faithful to Pussy and magnanimous to Kitty.  To have a large flat with many rooms is a great help to an individual who is trying to have parallel existences, and a spacious upstairs storage room with lots of light comes in very handy when the owner of a cat is planning to create a closed little kingdom for a pet that is unpopular with other dwellers of the same establishment.  So it came to pass that Pussy was forcibly enthroned as the queen of the upstairs kingdom and Kitty—kept in blessed ignorance as to the true function of the allegedly dirty attic full of old stuff—started her reign downstairs.

4.

They often say that the shorter the bliss the sweeter it is and there is nothing in the story of Daniel’s double life that could prove this piece of wisdom wrong.  Admittedly, a lot depends on whose bliss we consider because regarding Pussy, for instance, the whole saying is out of place; the upstairs kingdom was not in the least conducive to her comforts.  It was a glorified prison and even her jailor neglected her.

Contrary to the upper regions, the lower region of Daniel’s flat was the site of endless delights for both him and Kitty.  Having had the whole place disinfected and reupholstered, the young lady soon forgot all about the odious feline and took control of everything appertaining to her boyfriend’s life—except for the upstairs room.  The amount of her success was in inverse ratio with the frequency of Daniel’s clandestine visits to her four-legged darling, which was an achievement she would have been proud of had she known the secret concerning Pussy’s whereabouts.  She was perfectly convinced that Pussy had got the boot.

Daniel worked for a highly successful real estate agency and his hours were irregular, which usually meant working overtime rather than going home earlier.  Kitty had, on the other hand, one of those nine-to-five jobs that do not necessitate any after hours or any extra work to be done at home and so it frequently happened that she had a lot of time on her hands before her “Danny boy” came home.

Kitty was an out-and-out clean freak who not only demanded spotlessness, but also relished cleaning.  One summer evening, when the sun was still shining in through the open windows and tricked one into thinking that it was early afternoon, Kitty was standing in the middle of the living room, deep in thought.  The downstairs area was so clean that—however hard she’d tried—even she couldn’t find fault with the least little detail.  The dinner arrangements had already been taken care of as well, and she felt too restless to read or even to watch TV.

That was when, as if by divine inspiration, she thought of the dirty attic with all the old stuff Daniel had dismissively mentioned earlier on.  Why not surprise him?  Why not clean the upstairs area and even turn it into some charming spot—a little library or a studio or something?  Kitty felt tremendously proud of her brainchild and a moment later she was already intent on climbing the spiral staircase with mop and bucket in hand.

5.

The mad wife in Mr. Rochester’s attic had not had such effect on Jane Eyre as Pussy had on Kitty.  Nay, the contents of Bluebeard’s secret room had not seemed as horrible to his curious wife as that which Daniel’s upstairs room revealed to Kitty.  This second encounter between the girl and the cat was far worse than the first because it had in it an element of betrayal.  For one thing, this time Daniel did not have the excuse of not knowing of his girlfriend’s aversion to cats.  Equally awful was the knowledge of having for so long—well, for a couple of months—lived under the same roof with that tawny abomination.

As to Pussy, she had been as unsuspecting at the time of this second meeting as at the first and her reaction to Kitty—and especially that lady’s blood-curdling scream—was as violent in its way as Kitty’s to the sight of her.  Kitty ran down the stairs too fast to witness the bold jumps of the agile animal through the open door of her prison and down the same steps and out of the open living-room window.

In short, the girl was so intent upon her own departure that the cat’s dramatic exit went unnoticed.  Twenty minutes later Kitty’s bags were packed and a cab was called and the entrance door was banged shut behind her retreating form.  No message was left; Daniel was supposed to be intelligent enough to draw inference from circumstantial evidence—the open door of the upstairs room and her clothes gone should tell the tale.

6.

A few weeks have elapsed and the evenings are even longer.  Daniel has been trying to work even longer hours, but he still cannot escape his forlorn heart and his forlorn flat.  He has been unable to find out anything concerning Pussy’s whereabouts and Kitty’s verbal violence and stubborn refusal to talk things over whenever he calls is beginning to make him fall completely out of love with her.

A few more weeks pass and Daniel decides to walk home one sunny evening.  His way leads him through a park and he is charmed to see couples and groups of friends walking dogs and children.  The sight of one dog in particular holds his attention for longer than common politeness would allow; he literally stares at the poor fat beast as it wobbles its balloon of a body on four stick-like legs, with his long ears sweeping the grass.

“May I ask you what you’re staring at?”  Daniel has to deal not with a talking canine, but with a feisty owner resenting his impolite gaze.  The owner, to Daniel’s pleasant surprise and to the contrary of the common belief that pets and their owners end up looking alike in time, is a very pretty girl, as slim and tall as her dog is short and obese.

“I’m very sorry, I certainly didn’t mean to be rude.  I… I…”

“You are amazed at the fatness of Pussy.  Everybody is.  But still that’s no reason to be rude.”  The girl bends down and affectionately pats fat Pussy’s head.

“What did you call your dog?  Did you say Pussy?”  Daniel is, if possible, even more surprised.

“Yeah, well, Pussy is actually a boy and I know very well that people usually give such a name to a cat.  But, you see, I had always wanted a cat and my parents surprised me with a puppy instead and I kind of thought I’d keep the name at least.”  The girl is decidedly very pretty as she says all this.

“So you prefer cats?”  To hide his embarrassment, Daniel is inquiring about the obvious.

“Well, yes, although I could never love a creature more than I love my Pussy.  Would it be possible not to love a little butterball like that?”  She bends down once more and this time she smacks a kiss on the top of Pussy’s head.  “In fact, I know for a fact that it is possible.  Haven’t I just broken up with my boyfriend because he can’t stand dogs and especially hates Pussy?  The bastard actually tried to poison my darling.”  The girl’s pretty little fists become hard pebbles as she clenches them.

“That’s really terrible.”  Daniel commiserates.

“Isn’t it?  Have you heard of anything so cruel and so strange?  I mean how can someone not love Pussy?”

“I actually know of something quite as strange.  You know I actually had a cat and her name was—I can’t help saying ‘actually’ again—Pussy.  And there was this girl…”

And so Daniel, flanked by the pretty girl on one side and her Pussy on the other, told his story and won her heart—and resumed having a Pussy for a pet.


[1] Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

1.

“It’s my great pleasure to inform you…” was as far as Walter Low had got when his usual fit of hiccups overpowered him.  Not that it mattered; this little snippet told him all there was of real importance in the email he had at last received from the International Spleen Society.  He was in; he’d made it.  A mere two months had passed since his doctoral inauguration and here he was, an accepted lecturer at The 103rd Annual Septimus Spleen Conference that was to take place in Paris in June.  The time and place only made the victory the greater, as every Spleen scholar was naturally dying to spend a few days in that wonderful city at that time of the year.

Walter always got the hiccups when he was excited, and he did his best to get over these fits by thinking of something really mundane.  The smell of garlic that was lingering in the air due to the Italian restaurant downstairs was trivial enough to sufficiently calm him and go on reading the email.  It was good to occupy his mind with mere details of the event because at this point he did not even want to think about how he would tackle the hiccup problem when called on to speak at the conference—the very thought threatened with a renewed fit.  Then again, he could always fix his eyes on a buttonhole or a coffee cup or something.

It did not take him by surprise to see every single hotshot of the Spleen industry on the list of participants, nor was it unusual that the hottest of them all had been appointed as keynote speakers.  The great Tyler Trump was to deliver a lecture entitled “Unpalatable Subsistence and Spiritual Fruitlessness in Spleen’s ‘The Raging Maggot.’”  The inimitable Ezra Tease chose to speak of “Spleenism and Post-Modernism: Focusing on ‘Seablue Balls.’”  Mr. Langston Curry—the most knowledgeable Spleen expert of the century according to some—had prepared a lecture called “Counterfactual Narrative Poetry versus Incarnational Symbolism in Spleen’s ‘Lost Marbles.’”

Walter knew very well that a scholar was bound to come up with something new; that he should have a catchy title; that he should be diplomatic enough to stud his paper with flattering references to his brother scholars.  But Walter was as honest as he was enthusiastic, and he knew it was terribly hard for him to keep his peace when he came across some highfaluting nonsense masquerading as academic excellence, or when he was face to face with a person whose opinion he did not value.

Of course he had read tons of balderdash during all those years of scholarly research, but when it came to the live performance of the intellectual demigods of his field his hopes were high and his naivety boundless.  He readily forgave them their necessarily overcomplicated titles and took it for granted that their lectures would be like pearls and diamonds scattered with a generous hand.

2.

His hotel had been recommended by the Society because it was situated only a few blocks away from the venue, namely the venerable Universite Samedi Dimanche.  Walter, after having been shown up to the glorified shoebox that was to be his room, and having been minutely informed that it was forbidden to eat, to drink, to smoke, to make noise, to throw anything in the lavatory, to hang anything out to dry, to bring pets, or entertain any guests not staying at the hotel, hurried out to have a bite to eat before the registration for the conference commenced.

The assistant at the boulangerie was so friendly that Walter was taken aback; wasn’t it common knowledge that the French—and especially the Parisians—were rude?  By the time Walter got to the end of his long baguette, the assistant had cured him of his surprise by telling him her life story; Walter’s execrable pronunciation had given him away and she switched to English and admitted to being a Francophile kiwi studying at the Universite Samedi Dimanche.  Oh, he was about to participate in a conference there, eh?  Crikey dick!   Crash hot, for sure!  And he gotta rattle his dags?  Well, cheerio then!

The university porter was also very friendly and also turned out to be non-French as soon as he had opened his mouth; speaking with a heavy Jamaican accent, he directed Walter to the first floor where the registration was to take place.  Yes, it had already started, but there was no need to worry; the participants were partaking of refreshments at the moment.

The first thing Walter beheld was Tyler Trump talking in a frenzy and brandishing a glass of wine while his timid interlocutor, a miniscule Asian lady, was doing her best to save herself from eventual wine stains.  Walter had never met the great Trump before, but he had seen recordings of a few Trump lectures on YouTube.  The man had decidedly something leonine about him; he was large and red and loud.  Walter also spotted Ezra Tease and Joan Darcy, who stood very close to each other and talked very low—Mr. Tease, with his customary silk scarf artistically wound round his chicken-like neck, fixed his eyes on Miss Darcy’s cleavage and seemed to talk down her blouse, while that lady kept looking around and occasionally emitting a gurgling laugh.

Walter was too shy to join any group or couple that he saw standing around and so after he had done with the registration, he went and sat in the room where the first panel was to start soon.  He chose a chair well in the back and occupied himself with making a mental list of trivialities with which to fend off hiccup attacks.

3.

The first few minutes of the first keynote had sufficed to completely confuse Walter; Langston Curry’s mellifluous voice was a delight to hear, his respectable snow-white hair and whiskers were a joy to behold, but his beautiful string of words seemed to be devoid of meaning.  Walter had been concentrating so hard that sweat-beads had formed on his forehead and his mouth had become dry.  What was wrong with him?  Was he the only one who had not a single clue as to what Curry was talking about?

He looked around furtively.  Trump was sitting in the first row, with his head erect, his mane like a scarlet halo, and, as far as Walter could see from where he sat, with eyes fixed on the speaker and never blinking. A certain Seymour Bunce—a scriptwriter currently engaged in completing his magnum opus, Spleen on the Screen—was busy with his notes, scribbling away occasionally, at other times chewing the end of his pen and looking at Curry.  The fair Joan was sitting next to Mr. Tease, nodding her charming head frequently and sometimes whispering a few words in her companion’s ear.  Ezra was still mesmerized by Miss Darcy’s décolletage, which, in theory, did not obstruct his hearing even if it occupied his visual organ.

As soon as Curry had finished, a tremendous applause shook the four walls, and bravos and encores mingled with the noise of clapping hands and stamping feet.  Then came the “Q and A” bit and Walter’s surreal feeling not only did not disappear, but became stronger.  Had he listened to the same lecture as these cheering individuals?  Did these erudite questions and pithy comments really refer to what he had just heard?  All he could do was to assure himself that he was a novice and insight probably followed on the heels of experience.  For the moment he would remain quiet and try to look intelligent.  Maybe act as if he was taking down a couple of important ideas in his notebook.

4.

The second keynote speaker was Tyler Trump, who scoffed at the offer of a microphone and instantly began bellowing and booming and beating the table with his right fist.  Walter, bewildered, thought of Mrs. Moore and the uncanny booming sound of the caves.[1]  He kept his seat, however, and was still determined to unravel Trump’s mystery.  He was soon rewarded with shreds of intelligible sentences; these were, alas, times when the speaker began a jogtrot “from platitude to truism, and from truism to platitude,”[2] probably intent on offering his interlocutors’ minds a bit of rest after one and before another furious intellectual gallop.

All in all, this second keynote left Walter even more frustrated, but he was still reverent and expectant enough to chase away the creeping suspicion that it was not his intellect that was at fault.

The panels in general were tolerably interesting, but—luckily?—not so good as to intimidate him; he was becoming confident that his paper would create quite a sensation among so much mediocrity.  Yes, it was a fortunate thing not to have to worry about the possibility of being outshined by other unknown celestial bodies in the lit-crit-firmament; it kept hiccups at bay.

5.

Regiments of impaled cheese-cubes had been consumed and gallons of red wine had washed them down the distinguished gullets of Spleen experts—the conference had reached its climax with the second keynote and was soon to come to a glorious close with the third and last keynote, the lecture of Ezra Tease.

Walter had got through the Herculean task of delivering his paper without hiccups, which had been largely facilitated by the size of the audience; two people besides the two other panel speakers could not be regarded as disconcerting even by Walter.  If anything, it had allayed his fears and almost emboldened him.  In this frame of mind he was ready for the third keynote speech.  Let Ezra come and try to mystify him, he would make himself heard.

Mr. Tease’s flutelike voice required a microphone, but even the proper volume did not make it any easier to make head or tail of his lecture.  Instead of punching the table with his fist, Tease performed the most elaborate flourishes with his right hand; Walter sat mesmerized, his eyes closely following the long white fingers.

The sirens of an ambulance passing by under the window broke the strange spell and Walter tore himself away from Tease’s dancing fingers.  From the corner of his eyes, he shot stealthy glances at his neighbors and saw Trump’s unblinking stare—was the man actually asleep?  Bunce’s busy pen—could it be true?  Was he really drawing flowers and geometric designs? Joan Darcy’s rhythmically nodding head—was it at all connected with what the speaker was saying?  If so, why did she nod sometimes when Tease stopped to clear his throat or asked a person to be so kind as to shut the window?

When the eagerly awaited phrase “In conclusion, I would like to say…” was heard at last, Walter had not as yet made up his mind how to react to what he had patiently listened to without comprehending anything beyond “ands, buts, ifs, and howevers.”  He sat there, in the midst of apparently admiring colleagues, more and more certain that the Emperor was butt naked and he was the child who would say it out loud.   But weren’t they all at the same time emperors and weavers and also the beholders afraid to reveal their incompetence to see the wondrous garment?   And if so, who would thank him for the revelation?

Spleen might!  Shouldn’t he, Walter, the disciple, show his devotion by trying to help the divine poet stop revolving in his grave?   But before he could make a remark, or before a hiccup attack prevented him, something else happened that put an end to his dilemma, his resolution, and the whole conference, in fact.

6.

Langston Curry, whom Walter had observed fingering something in his bulging pocket while Tease had been speaking, suddenly jumped up with a screech.  Miss Darcy, who had been sitting on his right, did the same, but her screech conveyed an important message to the rest of the participants; “Sweet Jesus, his pants are on fire!”

There were some who thought it was a joke, others started panicking and ran towards the emergency exit.   More cool-headed and solution-oriented individuals gave orders to find the fire extinguisher and spray the flaming scholar, while others were of the opinion that he should “just take it off, for Christ’s sake!”  Curry did all the above; he panicked, he cried for an extinguisher, and he began ripping off his trousers.  The mischief-making lighter fell on the floor with a rattling sound.

As to Walter, he remained seated and continued observing the spectacle.  Although he felt both relieved and disappointed at not having had his say, he was first and foremost impressed; Spleen ex machina.  The divine poet had taken the thing in his own hands and all there was left for Walter to do was to applaud.



[1] See E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

[2] From Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage.

The Peter Pan Club

1.

Everybody took to the villa at once. Upon entering, the impetuous waves of the Atlantic greeted them immediately, as gaze and breeze and rays were unobstructed both horizontally and vertically due to an open-space concept. Swift as birds, their eyes traveled through living and dining areas, terrace, kidney-shaped infinity pool all the way to the ocean front. The walls merged into the roof, very much like church-walls that shoot upwards and become a cupola twenty-five feet high. On the left of the entrance there was a fluffy beige couch with a troop of ridiculously big pillows, which snaked along one of the bearing walls for a while, only to take an abrupt turn right and, in the absence of separating walls, delineate the boundary of this living room area with its L shape. In the embrace of the couch there was a sturdy bamboo-legged coffee-table that had hosted far more sandy sandaled feet than any hot beverage. The least decorative item was the perennial TV set which, in fact, was the only item that was destined to be more functional than decorative, but was, nevertheless, the only one not fulfilling its function—unless its inside serving as shelter and its wires serving as not so nutritious but certainly chewable things for members of tropical wildlife count as such.

On the right, behind a wall that came up a bit above the waist and served as a counter with bar-stools in front of it, the kitchen shaped itself. Among a row of nondescript cupboards sprawled a smug white giant, the cool and streamlined dream of all consumers, mother of all ice-boxes. It was the heart and soul of the villa, the quencher of thirsts, the keeper of treats, the meeting-point for all.

Not surprisingly, the dining area was the continuation of both kitchen and living room. It was occupied by a long rustic-looking table of some type of dark wood, with some twelve high-backed chairs around it. Equipped with soft paddings and armrests, they seemed to promise the longed for comfort so essential for prolonged after-dinner conversations when everyone feels sated, happy and reluctant to move.

“Anne, sweetheart, come quick! Look at this! I’ll teach you a thing or two about cross-hatching in the next few days!”  Vincent, stroking the side of the mighty barbeque that reigned the patio, was as excited as a kid and as passionate as a lover about his cooking; in his mission to create something delicious he would hunt down the choicest ingredients and concoct the tastiest marinades with unflagging zeal—and woo all the ladies into the bargain.

“Vince, dear, I humbly offer all my services to you as a devoted sous-chef. Chopping the fiercest onions muy fino, crushing garlic, turning meat in marinade every other hour—you name it.”  Having taken a mock-bow, Anna’s eyes were dancing as she looked up and flashed her teeth at him in the friendliest of friendly smiles. They were pals. They enjoyed each other’s company, be it cooking, talking, drinking, or simply remaining in silence together. It was really a happy thing to be forced to spend time with a pretty spirited young woman—however exasperatingly know-it-all at times—just as it was really a happy thing to be forced to spend time with an attractive funny guy who liked to cook and gossip; if William had had a dragon for a girlfriend or a stuffed shirt for an old university friend it would have been far more difficult to enjoy vacations together.

“I was thinking about some steaks for tonight. Tomorrow we—I mean you and the other ladies, because I shall be still sleeping—could go down to Pigeon Point for some fresh fish. You know, snapper or swordfish, or whatever it is they happen to catch. If you could lay your hands on some lobsters, that would be really divine, but I guess with the amount we need you have to hunt down the right people in advance. That reminds me, how many are we, by the way?”  Vince looked around, mildly puzzled, as if waking from a dream. Details like that never touched him. He had known about this Caribbean trip for months, had packed his bags, traveled thousands of miles, and not for a second had it entered his head to specify the number and identity of the people he was to spend his vacation with; whether there were two or twenty-two to keep him company did not matter. In his happy-go-lucky way he made the best of most situations and individuals. He was tremendously likeable and he tremendously liked people. Some of them less, others a bit more, but either way he was sure to have a good time. As to specifics, what did count to some extent was that Will and Anna were coming. And then he was vaguely aware of the possibility of Andrew joining them, of course, so that meant Sue, too. And, well, Barbara was with him. Yes, that made six. And what about that guy called Frank and his lovely wife, what’s-her-name…Meg or Marian or, yes, Magdalene. Right.

“So, Will, is this friend of yours, Frank, coming down to join us?”  By now he had settled himself on one of the deckchairs, cooling his left foot in the pool.  “Will, my boy, is he coming?”

On a deckchair next to him, William was too busy lighting his cigar to answer. A tough little man with his self-made millions, about to hit his fiftieth year, it had become second nature to him to demonstrate with every move and word of his that he was not a man to be rushed. Vince, who was clearly not a man to be easily offended anyway, had known his friend long enough not to take it amiss even if it had been a deliberate gesture to show who was worth how much. William was worth millions. He, on the other hand, had a big heart, a good sense of humor and a handsome face to recommend him at best. Oh, and maybe his cooking skills. He loved money, but he had far more talent for spending it than for making it. At the age of forty-five such attitude had already become less romantically boyish than it used to be, but he was still charming enough to be invited everywhere.

As William was bent on his Cohiba, his friend took the opportunity to stare at the sky. His plane had touched down at four-thirty p.m., and by the time they got to the villa and settled themselves a bit, the sun was already sinking fast, assuming its tropical attitude. Six-fifteen meant pitch-dark around there.

“Wow, it’s getting dark so fast.  I can never get used to this. Our tenth time in the Caribbean and it still dumbfounds me.”  He said with amusement in his voice.

“It’s our ninth time, by the way.”  Commented William, whose cigar was burning steadily by then.

“Nine is a lot all the same, don’t you think?”

“Twice in Jamaica, once in Martinique and this is our sixth time in Tobago. God, Martinique was a rot. But I must say…” and he confidentially chuckled, rolling the thick brown cigar between his fingers, “the biggest laugh of the trip was when Andrew managed to get Christopher wound up so much that the poor mug lost it completely. As he turned on you to vent his anger he almost hit you with his driver.”  Will let out a thin whistling sound between his teeth, shaking his head incredulously.  “I like the man, but damn, he is uptight about his golf.”

“Poor Christopher!”  Vince replied and dipped his other leg into the pool, shaking his wet one in the air.  “He…”  Here he was interrupted by noises coming from the entrance. Cries of welcome and the sound of exaggeratedly big kisses smacking on cheeks echoed in the house and reverberated in the pool. Someone had evidently arrived.

“So, Will, who’s coming and when?”  The question was picked up once again and this time it found an answer.

“Frank and Martha will not be able to make it (Vince made a funny grimace of recognition at that. Ah, Martha. That’s her name then.), but Andrew and Sue are coming down for a couple of days. I was about to say I have no idea when exactly they are to get here, but judging by the sounds coming from the entrance, it is them.”

Speak of the devil. An extremely tall and bulky man, Andrew took up the whole of the front door on entering, thereby forcing his girlfriend to wait on the porch with their innumerable bags while he underwent the pleasant ritual of being welcomed. He looked flushed from the heat, which had moistened his forehead and the back of his hair. Happy to have arrived at last, he was beaming with joy and had a big smile for everyone; that is for Anna and Barbara, who took the trouble to come back from the poolside. In his good moments his face was handsome and youthful and people who caught him in this state didn’t fail to remark that Andrew was quite a “looker,” even if he was rather large. A pair of big brown button-like eyes and a shock of short-cropped fair hair were remarkable enough to draw away an onlooker’s attention from his smallish nose and thin pale lips. With his fair complexion, he did not suffer from too much facial hair. In fact, his cheeks seemed naked and boyish, despite his forty-three years. While William had the great misfortune to be bald and excessively hairy at the same time, Andrew had a proper hair-helmet, yet he did not even need to bother with shaving every day. But then William’s small frame had always had an athletic look about it without the slightest effort on his part, while Andrew’s lifelong struggle with his gigantic proportions and equally sizeable appetite had been a source of great torment and irritation to him.

Having properly kissed and hugged Barbara and Anna, Andrew moved away from the door, letting Sue enter at last. Being used to her boyfriend’s size and ways, Sue was not offended. She picked up two of their large suitcases and balanced into the house with the grace of a porter. Viewed on her own, she was a woman of middle stature, not too tall, not too thin, without a feature that could be called striking. But standing by her boyfriend’s side she suddenly seemed petite. The fact that she lacked curves strengthened one’s impression of her being girlish, which was soon belied upon closer scrutiny; straight brown hair tied in a bun, surprisingly thick eyebrows and narrow blue eyes gave her a commanding look. Her rather pointy teeth were as blindingly white as Andrew’s, which testified to both her and his strict non-smoking policies. Anna couldn’t help feeling looked down on whenever she lit a well-deserved cigar after a meal with them. Indeed, Sue had no scruples when it came to giving Anna a piece of her mind about smoking, although she never dared being so direct with chain-smoking William. However, since the memorable incident when, after a violent quarrel with Andrew, Sue asked for a cigarillo from Anne out of spite and revolt towards her boyfriend, she had been less articulate about her opinion of Anne’s deplorable habit.

“Hi, Anne. How are you doing? When have you arrived? Have you been here for long?”  To this torrent of questions put in a mildly interrogating tone, Anne good-naturedly smiled and selected one which she deemed worthy of reply.

“I’m fine thanks, Sue. A bit jet-legged, but that’s nothing new, is it? What about yourself?”

“Oh, you know. Crammed flight, cramped joints after the first three hours, still seven to go… I can’t wait to take a shower and go to bed!”  Economizing with her emotions as always, her voice was only slightly tinted with warmth, and for the rest it had an irritating metallic shade.

“Come on, you can’t go to sleep right away! Have a rum-and-shandy and you’ll feel as good as new.”  Suggested Anna in a comradely voice.

“I think I’ll pass. No need to start boozing as soon as one arrives.”  Ouch. That was nasty-nasty.

“Just as you think best. But, as Andrew is busy greeting the boys, let me help you with your bags. Gosh, have you come for good? I mean, that’s quite an amount of luggage you have on you.”  Acting on her offer without waiting for an answer, Anna picked up a large red sports-bag and a somber navy-blue Samsonite.

“Leave that red one, Anne! It’s golf-balls and disinfectants and it can stay here for now. I’ll deal with it in a second, once I have chosen the bedroom.”

“As you wish.”  Not to appear annoyed, Anna put down the red monster and moved swiftly towards the left wing of the building where the two still empty bedrooms were.

2.

Anna was lying in bed with eyes already open, soothed by the purring of the AC. Lazy fuzzy thoughts of fragrant coffee and juicy pineapple budged her to get up and officially start her day. Not that it was late; in fact, it was only a little after seven, but in the tropics it was the nicest bit of the day, just before the shirt-sticking heat set in and the craving for ice cubes and dips in the pool became constant. Although the evening would always bring back a similar relief with its pleasant milky warmth, it lacked the vibrancy of colors that belonged exclusively to the daytime.

The men were already on the course, probably at the third tee by then. Not that it mattered; by the time they reached the sixteenth hole, it always became so hot that the last couple of holes were invariably more of a noble torture than fun, let alone the rest of the day it took them to recover from the whole thing. It was supposed to be a valiant deed to force themselves to get up earlier than comfortable after a wine-soaked evening in order to prove that they were not selfish and that they wouldn’t “waste” the afternoon on golf again. The eight years of experience showed otherwise, bringing along the same routine of sleep, eat, golf, eat, sleep, eat, golf.

Not that such a trip was no fun or that it was not appreciated; a Caribbean vacation was obviously an enviable thing. Yet it did no good to relationships already too cool or tense, which were supposed to be warmed and eased by the tropical sunshine. What were destined to be romantic getaways tended to increase one’s loneliness instead of dissipating it. With Will working so much back home, solitude was not a novelty to Anna, who, in fact, liked to be alone. She liked her solitude, she had her own occupations, and she was keenly aware of the fact that an absent spouse was the necessary by-product of the kind of wealth that had to be made by working. Vacations, however, were meant to be different. One was supposed to enjoy the other’s nearness, which should result in winning back the intimacy that seemed so impossible to keep up during those tedious periods of money-making.

With the men keeping to themselves for a large part of the day, Anna would still have made the best of her solitude by enjoying a book. The great problem was always with the other ladies who invariably took a book in one’s hand for a sure sign of boredom and an invitation to chatter. Sue’s dread of germs was of great assistance to Anna in this matter, as she kept herself busy with disinfecting everything she touched or was about to touch. Barbara was a new item; it remained to be seen what kind of woman Vincent had picked this time.

Wearing a large T-shirt, Anna sauntered into the kitchen, stretching her long arms above her head. The floor tiles were already warm and as her bare feet touched them, she could feel little grains of sand and dirt rubbing against her soles. It had a pleasant savage quality to it and she even anticipated the thickening of her skin on them that always took place after a few days of going around barefoot. It was her time for freedom when she did not bother with make-up and stilettos and she carelessly tied her hair in a bun. Back home she would be excessively particular about her appearance; she had a dread of being seen without some make-up even by the grocer. Despite being trapped in her self-made rules concerning city-life—that everything had to be as comme il faut and sophisticated as one’s surroundings—she retained her naturalness, to which she gave free-play in the tropics. As soon as she had left behind the carefully trimmed hedgerows and ball-shaped bushes, she stopped feeling like a cut flower in an expensive vase. It was wonderful to bloom freely, to sweat and stick. And it was doubly funny to see someone like Sue bent more than ever on sterilizing everything and turning the place into a hospital.

As Anna was preparing her coffee, a gust of wind got hold of one of the ringlets that had escaped from her loose bun and blew it in her face, which she first brushed back with a deliberately careless movement. Then, on second thought, she let her hair out, putting her band around her wrist. She had long-long red hair that reached all the way down her back in luxuriant wiry curls. The salty air had already made it even fuzzier than it originally was, lending her a curious leonine look. She was a lanky girl whose quick efficient movements when at work on something came as a surprise, as she was obviously more inclined towards lounging and thinking than hustling and bustling. Like a queen, she would lie on a couch for hours on end, book in hand, one of her long legs stretched out and the other dangling on the backrest, sending forth a mute but unmistakable message not to be asked to move. Some malevolently defined this as a sign that she was—or at least she thought she was—born to be served, yet it had more to do with a carefree nature’s laissez faire attitude towards life. She would magnanimously wave away troubling thoughts and suggestions as wholly unimportant and would often find herself in a scrape when it proved to be just the opposite.

However, if Anna judged something to be of great importance, she would set herself to it with unwavering determination and not budge until it was solved and done. Her whole fuss about her “urban appearance” was in key with this; it did not come to her naturally and she found it tedious to do her hair and perform all the endless little beautifying rituals that were usually enjoyed by other women. Nevertheless, once she had made up her mind that it was to be done, it was done. Just so, letting herself go when on vacation was performed with equal deliberation, with the difference that she greatly enjoyed the latter.

3.

Coffee in the Caribbean never tasted as nice as in Italy, no matter how good the machine and originally Italian the beans were. Was it the water, perhaps? Coffee aficionados would promptly say so, but it was still strange to believe. As Anna was philosophizing about this with mug in hand, she heard the characteristic sound of wet feet squelching-pattering on the tiles. Barbara’s day started differently from hers. There she was, fresh and firm, coming out of the pool after a good hour’s swim, the large pearl-like drops of water all over her. She was shorter and rounder than Anna, with a lascivious curviness that could easily become soft plumpness with time. Although to Anna short hair had always seemed unfeminine, big-breasted Barbara was in no danger of appearing boyish. She was also a redhead, but it was dyed and had strawberry blond highlights in it. She had almond-shaped eyes that would have made her face look almost oriental, had it not been for their striking blue color. There was something in that face of hers that reminded one of wild animals, easily frightened, indefinably alien, yet worth a try to tame.

Despite all appearances, she was twelve years Anna’s senior. At the age of thirty-eight, she was growing very uneasy about her future prospects. It had begun to dawn on her that looking much less than her age was not such an advantage anymore when it came to people’s attitude towards her, because they easily forgot that she had no time to lose on experimenting and remaining in a leisurely uncertainty that would have been understandable in the case of a twenty-six-year-old woman they took her to be. She had no real interests, no career to speak of, and she had the creeping suspicion that Vincent did not intend to settle down any time soon.

Barbara had lately caught herself wondering about how unfair it all was. Why was it that Vince and William—and, well, all the men in her acquaintance, actually—could afford to dream away in their forties and fifties? Why was it okay to speak in future tenses when the present was making itself increasingly felt, coaxing one to act out the things that were slipping out of one’s reach and that could not be put off any longer? Or, for that matter, was it okay even for them? Being capable of fathering a child at the age of forty-five did not save them from being sixty-year-old dads when the son or daughter was still only tackling puberty. It was more like starting with grandparenthood! A handful of Peter Pans all of a sudden playing at being grandfathers? Pretty prospects.

Barbara was not a woman with strong maternal instincts, but missing out on the whole experience of motherhood did seem monstrous to her. She had been a good-looking girl once, and then an attractive woman, and now, even without self-flattery, she could still call herself one. But her looks were slowly going, she knew it. It took more and more time and effort to keep away the flab that had lately been only too willing to settle on her thighs and stomach. One could not increase strenuous exercise eternally. This morning, too, she had to admit to herself that she could hardly wait getting over the whole tiresome routine of sit-ups, push-ups, laps and stretching.

As Barbara had never before possessed any strict moral code concerning marriage, she would not have minded having a child out of wedlock or catching herself a man who was willing to provide for her and their children. Lately, however, even marriage itself had been metamorphosed into something invaluable due to the realization that it might slip out of her reach forever.  Her imagination promptly started to adorn it with flashy modifiers, and, soon enough, Respectability, Responsibility, and Stability became its permanent garments. And recently, she even gave up any high expectations about ever finding the Right One for her purpose and it really did not seem to matter any more whether Vincent was an ideal partner or not. She was ready. She had to make a move soon. There was no time to lose. Looking at young nonchalant Anna in her T-shirt, she suddenly fancied she could hear her own clock ticking with insolent urgency.  There really was no time to lose.

 

4.

Sue was suddenly woken up by her own moan. Wrapped in the gauze-like net of dreams, she sat up in bed, uncertain of where she was.  The monotonous buzzing of the AC and the silkiness of unfamiliar sheets touching her naked skin gradually brought it all back to her. Nakedness, heat, Tobago, holiday—a lovely reality to wake up to, unless one’s dream had been even lovelier. Yet lovely was not really the word to describe something that was both sensuous and uncanny and had visited her in her sleep for about the twelfth time in the past few months. She had dreamt of exchanging kisses and caresses with Lewis, her very first boyfriend. Having gone out for mere three weeks, kissing each other at the most, Lou and Sue’s relationship had been a classic case of innocent childhood love. First kiss, first boy, it would seem understandable why it had left a deep imprint on her. The strange thing was that she had forgotten all about it for nearly fifteen years, never having given it a single thought.

Then, one night, about three months ago, she had dreamt about Lou. She woke up with a rumbling warm sensation at her midriff. As it is so typical of dreams, it was hazy and sensuous and without any clear storyline. They were stroking each other’s hair—he had long hair, which had captured her girlish fancy back then—giving each other small, soft, frequent kisses on cheek, brow, eyes, and mouth. Lou loved kissing young Sue on the neck, just under the ear, not even forming a kiss with his mouth, only touching her skin ever so lightly with his lips. The feeling of his closeness felt oh-so-real, and Sue was more abstracted that day than her colleagues had ever seen her. Not that she was softer or kinder to anyone; she remained matter of fact and businesslike when discussing a new project at their weekly Tuesday meeting. Dry and verging on unfriendliness as usual, she did not excite much of her colleagues’ compassion when she was caught gazing abstractedly into the air instead of answering a question put to her by the senior manager. The embarrassing incident lasted only for a few seconds; people clearing their throats, the manager finally drumming on the boardroom table with his knotty fingers. She regained her presence of mind admirably fast. She snapped out of it, she was back, alert and efficient once again.

After this unpleasant episode, however, the memory of her dream became an annoyance. It had made her ridiculous and disfunctional, even if for a tiny bit, but it was enough to make her wish Lou and his kisses to hell. As far as her waking moments were concerned, she gradually succeeded in exorcising him. But nights were different, and not even Sue could control her thoughts when asleep. Lou kept coming back to her, and at some point she had caught herself looking forward to going to sleep. When a month ago Andrew had taken her to their favorite restaurant and asked her to be his wife, her greatest wish was to wake up from what seemed to be a nightmare. How could she say yes? How could she say no? She had asked for time and promised him to come up with an answer as soon as possible. In general, she was much too decisive and practical to dilly-dally; she owed it to herself as well as to Andrew not to keep him in trepidation for long. Time was ticking. She had to make a move soon.

Putting on her somber one-piece bathing suit and a pair of shorts, she unwittingly managed to eliminate nearly every trace of attractiveness about herself. She combed her hair, applied sun-block on her exposed limbs and, as a finishing touch, put on a baseball-cap so as to protect her face from the tropical sun. Before she left her room, however, she did not have the heart to leave the bed unmade; it had been bred into her from early on never to do so, being considered—in the family parlance—the height of „shiftlessness.”  Moreover, she could never get used to being served, even if it only consisted of a maid daily sweeping the floor, making the beds, and doing the washing up.

5.

Vincent could not agree more with the ladies about the idiocy of getting up so early to golf. For him, the whole purpose of vacation was to have the leisure to make love and dream away at least half of the day, buried in a great big bed with soft cushions and a beautiful woman nestled by his side. Then, rested and cheerful, he would emerge from his lair, ready to devote the rest of the day to golf, and the evening to cooking and eating. He really would not have been unwilling to be out on the course even in the biggest heat, had it not been for the others who preferred getting up early to frying in the tropical sun. As two is a majority when against one, he had had to give in, but he warned the others that it was their responsibility to drag him out of bed. Anyone who knew him was aware of the difficulty of this task and it was never accomplished without tension and ill-suppressed cursing on both sides. But once out on the course, with emerald carpet-like fairways under their feet, they forgot all their grievances and became boyishly excited and enthusiastic.

While on the course, they rarely discussed anything apart from golfing details, and though both Vince and Andrew were inclined to gossip not unlike women, even they had no difficulties in temporarily shutting everything out for the sake of The Game. Ironically enough, they were not particularly good at golf, which prompted them to make others—and first and foremost themselves—believe that they “did not take themselves seriously” and were out there simply for the sake of fun. This, however, was everything but apparent to anybody watching them at play, especially when a shot was duffed, a ball flew into the great big jungle or into one of those “bloody water hazards” that any self-respecting course boasted of. Although Andrew was a constant subscriber to golf-magazines and William could not be induced to budge when a tournament was on TV, it was Vince who was the best player of them all, despite his comparative nonchalance.

Because they invariably took a little break after the first nine holes, they finished the whole eighteen only towards noon. Having thrown their clubs in the trunk, they hopped into the little rental jeep and made their way back to the house. They were a sight to see when they finally arrived, still wearing knee-high socks and caps that were lined with salt-crust.

“Well, I’ll be damned if it isn’t the boys, in crusty caps and smelly socks. How was your game, sweethearts?”  After a quick soak in the pool, Anna was once again lying on a rattan couch, which she had positioned so as to see the entrance of the house.

“Terrific, even if our scores are less so.”

“Speak for yourself, Will, I broke a hundred. In fact, I think this is my best score on this trip so far.”

“This being the first game…”  Never able to resist the temptation to explain a joke so as to prove that he had understood it, he laughingly patted Vince on the back and stepped to his girlfriend’s side, giving a kiss on her shoulder-blade.  “Hello, beautiful. ‘Had a nice morning? I missed you, you know.”

“Yeah, I bet, when your ball was in the rough.”  She snorted. There had been a short period when Anna would accompany them to the course and caddy for all of them at once, searching for balls, selecting and bringing them the club they asked for and raking the sandpit after a messy sand-shot.  This might not seem in key with her characteristic indolence, at least not until another characteristic of hers is explained; as soon as lazy Anna saw an opportunity to spend more time with her Will she would turn into a perpetum mobile.  Vince’s presence also greatly added to the charm and so she went.

It had not taken her long to realize, however, that she had misjudged the golfing scenario when she had expected it to be an opportunity to spend some quality time with her boyfriend and the other men.  When on the course, the boys were not inclined to converse, and least of all to joke around with her as they normally would.  Will had certainly given no signs of cherishing his girlfriend’s company while out there.  Getting to understand the rules of the game and being of help did not compensate her for the four interminable hours that they were likely to spend out there. At some point she took a book with her so as to read in between shots, lounging on the golf-cart that it was her job to drive from hole to hole, laden with clubs and water they too frequently required. The male response to the sight of somebody reading was not much better than the female one, and on top of not being allowed to read Anna had been accused of disrespecting the game and asked point-blank to pay attention or go home.  Home it was, then, she had thought and she had stayed away from the course ever since, despite occasional invitations that were considered to be something of an honor as they were never offered to any of the other women.

“Come on, Annie, don’t say it wasn’t fun to caddy for us.”  Vince said, in a mock-hurt voice.

“I didn’t say it, I just implied it. Anyway, as for implications, you guys didn’t seem to appreciate my sparkling conversation and you were even selfish enough to prevent me from entertaining myself with a book.”

“Come now, doll, don’t take it personally. You know it is not your conversation, but conversation as such that has no place out there. As for books, I think you read too much, anyway.”

“Well, Vince, I doubt if there is such a thing as reading too much, while there certainly is such a thing as not reading enough.”

“Should I take this personally?”

“Just as you think fit.”  She laughed again and turned on her back. While changing position, her bathing suit moved out of its place and exposed a milky white patch.  “Oops, I’m showing a bit too much skin. Sorry guys.”  And she readjusted herself.

“Don’t you be sorry for that. By the way, it never stops amazing me how good-looking you are for being a bookworm.”  Said Vince, flashing his teeth at her.

“Why, just because I am fond of books I should wear horn-rimmed spectacles and dress in corduroy? That’s so commonplace, dear, especially because I could also attack you for not being a pot-bellied sixty-year-old just because you are a fantastic cook.”

“Okay, you got me, you are right. I am a fantastic cook.”

“And not the least bit conceited.”

“Of course not. But do educate me for a few minutes. What is that thick book you are reading now?”

“Well, it is The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch. Very good, I might add, and the topic is perfectly fitting. You see, there’s this group of friends sharing a seaside-house for a while, with all kinds of emotional entanglements, of course. There’s this chap, for instance, actually the owner of the house who did not invite any of the people who keep cropping up there and don’t leave him in peace. And while he plans to retire from a successful but all-too-worldly career and take count in solitude, on top of the troop of his intruding friends, his old infatuation, a childhood love, materializes all of a sudden and complicates his life even further. The girl—rather old by then but still beautiful in his eyes—turns up because she happens to live in the same seaside village.  He decides to act out his lifelong fantasy, although it turns out to be completely against her will and so a total disaster.”

Sue, lying on a float in the pool, suddenly fell in the water with a splash.

“Are you okay, Sue? We thought you have fainted into the pool.”  William was standing at the side of the pool now, anxiously looking down at her. They hadn’t even been aware of her being out there with them until the great splash.

“I’m fine, don’t worry. I think I just lost my balance on that stupid float.”

“You don’t fool me. You were trying to attract our attention.”  Vince said.

“And what would I need your attention for, huh? By the way, have you said hello to Barbara yet? Or does she have to jump into the pool for you to notice her, too?”

“So you did do it on purpose!”  Vincent laughed, but was, nevertheless, made uncomfortable by being reminded that he had indeed totally forgotten about her girlfriend’s existence.  “For your information, I am just about to hunt her down and cover her with my irresistible kisses. But why isn’t she out here with you, girls?”

“Well, I don’t know. The last time I saw her was around seven o’clock in the morning, when she was just coming out of the pool. Maybe she fell back asleep after all that tiring swimming-business of hers.”

“Have no fear. I shall gently wake her, and she won’t be sorry for it.”

“Bigmouth Vincent. I already see you lying down next to her and falling asleep yourself. But do remember that we have to plan dinner at some point. So you either tell me what preparations to make now or else I am expecting you to be back in five. Your clock is ticking.”

“I’ll be back.”  And Vince ambled towards the house, taking his shirt off as he went.

6.

For as long as Anna could remember, it had been a standing joke to place bets on the likelihood of Vince showing up at their yearly vacation with the same woman twice in a row. Some were women of education, some of beauty, some even of both, with or without a personality, in all shapes and sizes. But somehow none succeeded in getting too comfortable in the imaginary role of Vincent’s Girlfriend, and the vacation to follow rarely failed to host a new candidate. Whether it was because he had an insatiable appetite and could not waste precious time on any particular female specimen, or it was because he kept on looking for something they all lacked, or he simply did not know what he actually wanted, or, worse, his own repertoire was too small to keep the same one-member audience satisfied, were all possible solutions to the mystery. Most likely, the reason lay somewhere in between and it was not clearly definable, thus not diagnosable, and so incurable. His friends would have liked to believe that they had given up on him long ago and would have liked even more to congratulate themselves on not interfering with his personal life as long as he seemed happy this way.

Fortunately, all the women Vincent had shown up with so far had some kind of positive characteristic in their favor. There had been Diane, for example, who, for the entire duration of the trip, dazzled them with homemade coconut-bread that was literally to die for. She was originally from Jamaica and so she had mastered the art of Caribbean cooking early on in her girlhood. William, at the time, had been unable to refrain from making the unflattering comment that that must have been long ago; Diane had seen more than thirty-three summers, which had made her much older than any girlfriend of any of the Peter Pan Club members at any time.

Or there had been Camille, the noisy but apparently skillful lover, during whose reign Vincent had broken his personal record in staying in bed late. Although this did not seem to be anywhere near in favor of the lady as far as letting them have Vincent to themselves, they had never before seen their friend more expansive and entertaining as on that trip, however few the occasions had been when he was to be seen outside his room.

After two more candidates who were entirely insignificant except for their skills in private matters, Sweet Sylvia was the one to follow, who was undoubtedly the prettiest of all. As she could not boast of one single thought in her head, at first she had been labeled a BBB par excellence—the embodiment of the great big cliché “Beautiful But Boring.” She had, however, brought along a vast collection of CDs, ranging from jazz to hip-hop, and so she had soon managed to impress everyone with this unusual contribution to the good atmosphere of the entire trip. Not only did they have the chance to get acquainted with musical artists they had never before heard of, but, after the first day of initial awkwardness, they even had the pleasure of hearing Sylvia sing. She had a sweet if weak voice, delightful to listen to. All in all, it compensated for her infinitely less impressive conversational contributions and at the end resulted in a collectively bad conscience for having initially thought her an utter bore.

Marge, on the other hand, was a very clever girl with sparkling conversation, full of witty remarks on an extensive array of topics. She was one of the girls who, for a little while at least, had fooled all of Vincent’s friends into believing that she was a “keeper.”  When, on the next trip, he showed up with yet another woman, everybody took his or her turn to drag him into a heart-to-heart talk in order to emphasize this or that quality of Marge, which made her such an ideal companion and “would he please reconsider” and “how on earth could he have dumped her in the first place.” That it seemed to be a shame to squander such a woman, they all agreed with, although for different reasons. Anna felt that she had at last found something of a soul-mate amongst the women she was forever “forced” to be with on account of William’s friends’ love interests. Sue admired Marge because she was hard-working, precise, and spotlessly clean. Andrew was infatuated with her looks; simple but elegant, natural yet decorative. William, although not untouched by her looks, was first and foremost impressed by the effect she had on everyone; the fact that she was liked all around and for so many different—seemingly irreconcilable—reasons testified to her having an exceptional personality.

It may have been the influence of some article he had read or some TV show he had seen at the time. Whatever it was, it had made Vincent surprisingly decisive on that particular occasion. Not without a hint of theatricality, he declared that he absolutely refused to reconsider something he had already made a decision about. With a sense of finality, he said he felt it his duty to take the consequences of his actions under any circumstance. In fact, although Anna was very sorry for having been cut off from Marge, and although his decision had been so uncharacteristic, she couldn’t help admiring him for it; he claimed that once it had been seen and said that a certain relationship could not function, there should be no dilly-dallying and second tries. If it did not work once, it would not work for the second time, either. Marge had had to go and to remain intimate with both her and Vincent would have been exceedingly awkward. Not to cause complications despite her best intentions was highly unlikely. It would not only have put her own relationship with Vincent in jeopardy, but through that the friendship between Vince and William would also have become strained. Such an occurrence, in turn, would inevitably have led to difficulties in Anna and William’s relationship as well.

No, it was not worth it.  To picture life without Will was like a shiver down the spine. Having spent ten years together, a break with him would have meant the loss of everyone Anna had associated with in the past decade. Not that she did not feel out of place in her present milieu; she was sixteen when they had first met, so she had grown up with him, never mixing with members of her own age-group, but having friends much older than herself. Unsurprisingly, she grew up to be a proper misfit; William and his friends would always remain comparatively older than her, of course. On top of it, they had grown used to treating her like an inexperienced and moneyless youngster regardless of her age and achievements. It was true that the girlfriends of William’s friends had already started resembling her in age as soon as she hit twenty-one, yet those girls had or had had a circle of friends their own age. Thus, whether they managed to remain the worthy appendages of the Peter Pan Club members or not, Anna rarely had the chance to find a girl of her kind among them.

The woman Vincent had showed up with on the following trip was Claudia.  The initial reserve and mute hostility with which she was received went without saying. Whatever Marge was, Claudia was not; she was not cultured, she was not entertaining, and definitely not simple but elegant or natural yet decorative.  She wore a great deal of make-up, a very short dress, and a pout that was meant to be sexy.  However, although she did not seem to have much to say even when she talked, she had a surprisingly pleasant way of listening to whatever was being said to her.  She would patiently hear out even the lengthiest explanation on the most abstract topic with pretty little nods of the head, violet glints of large luminous eyes, and an occasional smile that seemed to encourage the speaker to go on.  Vain as every human being essentially is, it soon proved to be an appealing enough quality of hers to make her accepted. Indeed, it never failed to make one feel good about oneself, even if it was only a void inside her that made her capable of swallowing whatever she was being fed with.

Thus, this one winning characteristic worked wonders with everybody and acceptance promptly turned, if not to admiration, at least to liking.  This emotion, in turn, was soon fuelled by a number of other pleasing discoveries about Claudia.  She was a genuinely good person and, with all her obtuseness, she kept on groping around for ways to express that she meant well.  Even if her good intentions were sometimes so intricately veiled by clumsy gestures that they were doomed to be misunderstood, she never became ingratiating or false or pretentious; in her case artificiality began and ended with physical appearance.

As soon as a meal was finished, for example, Sue would jump up and start collecting the dirty plates. Not only would Anna feel annoyed by such a pedantry that inevitably disrupted their peaceful lolling around the table, but she couldn’t help being aware of the silent command to all females present to stand up and join in. Her scheme was always to do only the essentials, such as putting leftovers in the fridge that would go off and attract bugs if left outside. But even that in its own good time. Which was much later. No rush. Anyway, stacking up empty plates when a maid was to come the following morning, (and if not, they could always do it at a leisurely pace while sipping on coffee) was a sign of neurotic behavior that Anna refused to adopt. Claudia, however, managed to be of instant help to Sue without making Anna feel guilty and thus retain that fragile harmony.

Another pleasant surprise was Claudia’s generosity. Whenever she was eating, buying, or wearing something, she would never fail to make the other feel more than welcome to share her sandwich, to accept one of whatever she was purchasing, or to borrow any of her clothing or make-up that she had and she saw that the other did not but would like to, and all this without being forced or forceful. It was not so with Anna.  Plate raiders were on top of her blacklist; to suffer somebody invading her food with a fork or biting off the tastiest part of her sandwich or spooning off the foam of her cappuccino was a torture to her and was considered unpardonably rude that, in all fairness, she would never inflict on others, either.  To Sue, on the other hand, the borrowing of her personal things seemed to be the worst punishment she could think of. As there was always something that somebody had forgotten to take on their common holidays, she often had to endure being asked for a pair of shorts, sunglasses, and, most annoyingly, even for a bathing suit, just until Vincent’s current girlfriend or Anna managed to buy one. As Sue had a mortal dread of germs, to have her personal clothing rub against strangers’ armpits and thighs or worse private parts was reason enough for her utter reluctance to lend any such thing. Of course, it was—if not equally but still quite awfully—unpleasant to see her stuff look clearly so much better on the other women; Anna’s long legs in her shorts, or Marge’s elegant profile in her sunglasses or Sylvia’s firm breasts and flat stomach peeking out of her two-piece.

On the whole, Claudia did not seem to mind anything; what appealed to the men the most was the way she would day after day take the news of their intention to go golfing. Apart from being slightly surprised even after the tenth occasion of their letting the ladies know that first thing in the morning they were about to get eighteen in, it did not occur to her to complain or protest. After a mild “Oh, you’re going golfing?”, the following morning she would affectionately kiss goodbye to sleepy Vincent when it was time for him to leave their cozy bed and in two hours’ time ask Anna or Sue when they thought the boys would arrive. As Anna sarcastically put it to herself, being easygoing and obtuse often went hand in hand. However, at the end of the trip she had found herself having grown very fond of Claudia, and had caught herself feeling sorry for there not being very much chance to see her again on the next one. Claudia was far from a soul-mate, of course, and she could still not fill the place of Marge, but, hey, she was a pleasant person. And when, with the passing of a year, Anna had found herself greeting her once again at the little Tobago-airport, she was genuinely pleased. Claudia had done it; unwittingly, perhaps, but she had nevertheless succeeded in being invited by Vincent to the Caribbean twice in a row. This achievement was interpreted by his friends as a serious change in his ways, as it suggested that he had at last established some kind of constancy with a woman.

And then the ninth trip brought Barbara. Everyone was past surprise, anger, or even the desire to comment on it. Vincent was Vincent was Vincent. He was a true Peter Pan. But, on second thought, he caused a greater surprise than ever; a closer scrutiny could not hide the truth from the experienced eyes of fellow Peter Pans: Barbara was thirty-eight years old. They caught themselves straining their ears and they fancied they recognized the disquieting sound of a clock ticking.

7.

As Vincent opened the door, a waft of unpleasantly cold air hit him. Out on the course it had seemed impossible that anything associated with coolness could be unpleasant. But as he now advanced further, he had the impression of being in a mortuary. With the curtains drawn, it was not only freezing, but dark as well.

“Barb, darling, don’t you think you have set the AC a little too high? I mean it’s awful chilly.”  No answer. Straining his eyes, he could see a dark form shape itself on the bed.  “Are you asleep? Jesus, you are naked! You’ll catch a cold in this bloody icebox. Where’s the remote for the AC? I’ll turn it down now.  So.  Much better.  But sweetie, why don’t you say something?”  By then he was sitting on the side of the bed, trying to discern where the light-switch was. It started to unnerve him to sit there in that cool dark chamber, with Barbara silent as the grave and without being able to see her face and find out why.

“Darling? Are you asleep?”  He bent closer to the dark, recumbent form and lay his hand on what he guessed to be Barbara’s hip. With a hissing sound, the body twitched as if struck by an electric current.

“Don’t you touch me.”

“Jesus, Barb. You are freaking me out. What is wrong with you?”

With a movement verging on the melodramatic, she suddenly switched on the light and turned suffering almond eyes on him.

“Look at me Vincent. Just look at me, will you?  Do you like what you see?”

The “just look at me, will you”-part was wholly unnecessary as Vincent glared at her as soon as the light had been turned on and thereby allowed him to do so at last. She had changed position and was now sitting in a rather unbecoming posture, with her back hunched and her breasts consequently sagging, her thighs spread out on the sheet and her feet helplessly dangling on the side of the bed. Vincent was shocked; he had never before felt her nakedness uncomfortable. Nude, she had always looked desirable and aesthetic, while now, together with her red puffy eyes evidently swollen from crying, it made her look exposed and vulnerable and, well, strangely old.

“Of course I do, baby. But please do put something on, or you’ll really catch a cold. It is freezing in here.”

“To hell with the cold, I couldn’t care less. And you, well, you are just happy to hang on to something trivial. If you were really concerned about me, you would not do this to me.”

“But do what?”  He cried in an exasperated tone. Ever since he had stepped into that accursed room he had been accused and ill-treated and all this without knowing why. He started to feel a tinge of self-pity.

“Vincent. I am thirty-eight years old. I want babies. My clock is ticking. I have been with you for almost a year now.  I am terribly sorry to put you in such a position, but believe you me, I am sorry for myself, too, for being put in this position. And it was you who put me in this position, even if you didn’t mean it.”

She drew a big breath and was apparently trying to gather her strength and vocabulary to go on and get to the point. She couldn’t help feeling that the startling effect of her speech had been jeopardized by the last bit, in which she elaborated their positions and even professed to be sorry.  That was not to the point. It was of no importance now who put whom where. Moreover, it was a strategic blunder to start with apologizing. Be firm. Focus. Concentrate. Concentrate on the solution.

“Well, all I’m trying to say here is that I do not have time to lose. I love you and I love the idea of having you as my husband and I love the idea of having your babies, and, well, all I’m saying is that please do make up your mind by the end of this trip. I mean, have fun and all, and don’t think I want you to be moping and hovering around me now. No. Just do your thing and meanwhile think this over. Do not even talk to me about it, and please, please do not tell this to anyone; I don’t want them to watch my reactions or to put any kind of pressure on you. So, just think and if the trip comes to an end without you asking me to marry you, I’ll disappear from your life right away. You understand that there’s no other way. And now go. I’ll join you in a little while.”

Vincent was only too happy to obey; not having the slightest clue as to how he was supposed to react, he rushed out of the room without saying a word. His righteous indignation about being persecuted for unknown reasons first turned into sheer astonishment and then fear. While Barbara had been talking, he sat there next to her, staring straight ahead.  After the initial searching glances that the light allowed him, he averted his eyes and avoided looking at her because of that discomfort her nakedness had put him into. Very soon, however, he found himself not daring to. The spiritual striptease she was performing combined with her actual nakedness was really too much for him; he felt ashamed for her as if it were he who was deliberately humiliating himself. To watch as she was sitting there hunched and worn, throwing herself at his mercy, almost begging to be wedded, made him feel as he would on opening the bathroom door on someone and feeling terribly embarrassed about having unwittingly seen that person in a compromising position.

Vincent was neither good at, nor interested in, deep feelings and emotional complications. He was, of course, vaguely aware of the darker side of life but he lacked both patience and curiosity to peer into it when he could be the “hot-stepper” of the bright part with all its fun and games. At the age of forty-five he had to admit to being a middle-aged player, but, hey, age was an attitude, right? Why not say goodbye to Barbie and babies and go on as before? How did he know Barbara was the right one, anyway? There was so much choice, by God! How to pick the right one? And why would he have to make a pick at all, anyway? Or, at least, why already? He still had a couple of years in him before he would have to settle down and make an honest woman out of some woman, and father children and all that. Or did he? Was there a clock ticking away with his time, too? Wasn’t that bloody timekeeper supposed to be more lenient towards men? He was not a man given to philosophizing, God forgive him, especially not in the tropics.

Before he went out to the poolside to join his friends he slipped into the kitchen and fixed himself a stiff drink; a generous amount of rum, and a splash of ginger-ale hosting a few ice-cubes.  His throat was instantly caressed by the silky texture of the drink, and as it went down it produced a pleasant glowing feeling in his belly. He smacked his lips good-humouredly and noticed with relief that his fear and confusion had vanished, even if only for the time being. The prospect of leisurely planning the evening meal and doing some good honest high-quality cooking cheered him up and prompted him to return to his friends’ side at last.

8.

“So what’s the plan here? What are we doing here? Fish, beef, lobster?”

“Vincent, dear, so you prove me wrong and return almost on time. I am very disappointed in you. Now, tell me, where is your lady-friend?”

“She is not feeling too well; it’s the jet-leg getting to her. But no worries, it’s not exactly a great loss if she doesn’t join us when it comes to food-shopping and cooking; she is stuck on the level of TV-dinners and microwaves, and well, I hate to admit, but she actually prefers sweet wine…”

“Sacrilege! What are you doing with such a barbarian palate? Joking apart, it seems we two are left to ourselves then, because you know how much fun Will gets out of such things; okay, he does have a relatively finer palate at least, but it’s pure torture for him to have anything to do with food before it is served to him.”

“You needn’t introduce my friend to me, smart-pants, I’ve known him for a while, thank you very much.”

“Okay, I’ll save my breath. But, you know, I don’t understand how food-shopping is no fun for some people. Bagging and dragging the stuff back is surely a nightmare, but the actual looking-picking part is great, especially abroad. It’s almost like a cultural activity, like walking in a museum or something, even better. I mean if you visit a local food shop you see what kinds of yogurt your average Signora Massaia can choose from in Italy, or how many varieties of pesto sauce are available to Frau Stolz in Austria. It takes you so much closer to people and it makes it so much easier to understand them and their customs, don’t you think? I’m thinking about the little everyday details, and not their local cuisine. But really, take my advice.  If you don’t have a lot of time in a foreign city, I always say it’s a waste of time to rot away in museums amongst broken vases, blunt weapons, and faded manuscripts. If a city does not have any really fantastic picture gallery to boast of, well, then, no Siry Bob, I ain’t visiting any museums.”

They were already in the little jeep, driving towards Pennysavers while Anna went on talking. The more animated she grew, the louder she talked, and the more help she tried to get from gesticulating. It was no different when she was on the phone; enthusiastically shouting and waving arms, no matter that nobody could have any use of the latter and that almost everybody was annoyed by the former. When it came to talking about food, she was even louder because she was in her element, especially with such an ideal interlocutor as Vincent. Like two foodies, they would analyze their sensations that the taste or texture of some food awoke in them, or their first impressions about a restaurant based on the bread and spread offered to guests. They would chatter about the proper method of carving a turkey or the importance of basting or brining. They would swap tips as to the perfect timing of dressing a salad without making it soggy, and lament together the nigh impossible task of serving several different dishes at the same time without any of them getting cold or overcooked and dried out.

Vincent’s male friends could never cease to be surprised about what they called “this feminine trait” in his character; it was undoubtedly classy and sophisticated to like and know good food, to have ample restaurant experience adorned with Michelin-stars, and even to cook well. But chattering about recipes and delighting in food-shopping was a wholly different matter. There had rarely been a greater cleavage between theory and practice; even if they were perfectly aware—and proud—of the fact that the best chefs were mostly men, seeing it materialize in their good friend Vincent was shocking to a degree that made them inclined to avert their heads.

Some consolation could be drawn from Vincent’s utter loss of interest in other household matters, which also included the cleaning up of the kitchen after cooking. The fact that he drew the line somewhere and washing up was placed outside his sphere re-established him in his friends’ regard and he was once again welcomed in the imaginary club. Interestingly enough, the women did not seem to mind; delighted with Vince taking an interest in cooking matters at all, they did not even dream of his doing any other chores. When a woman was devoid of skill and or interest in cooking-matters, it was a godsend to have Vincent assume the role of the boss in the kitchen; the uncreative cleaning-bit was safe turf with no very high expectations attached.

In fact, what the men termed Vincent’s “feminine trait” was in Anna’s opinion very far from being feminine. The best thing about his conversation was that, unlike women, he did not identify talking about food with talking about dieting and calorie contents. Women, regardless of their stature and weight, would always revert to these nasty aspects of something so pleasurable as eating. With them it was not even eating but nutrition. If a girl was skinny, she was either busy starving herself or she did not take much interest in food. If a girl was pretty, she was usually very careful about remaining pretty and so she counted and calculated. If a girl was overweight, she most probably liked eating and was embarrassed about the fact as well as about what it resulted in and so she was busy proving how hard she tried to fight it. It was exceedingly tiresome how every chubby girl Anna knew would start giving a detailed account of how long ago she had not eaten before getting down to it. Yes, the sad fact was that among women eating was out of grace, out of fashion.

Vincent, on the other hand, could not care less about any of that; he was wholly ignorant of the dismal world of calories, he praised food based on taste, and he would never dream about being ashamed of his appetite. And even so, he was far from being a glutton; not only did he not eat anything close to a huge amount, but if there ever was a man with impeccable table manners it was undoubtedly him. One would marvel at the skill and patience with which he placed a bit of meat on his fork, and then, with the help of his knife, daintily top it with, say, a piece of broccoli, and finally scoop up some of the sauce from the plate and drizzle it on this perfect bite.

Contrary to this, William, for instance, would ladle whatever was on his plate into his mouth with incredible speed. If his hasty fork happened to come across a few pieces of broccoli, in they went. If the sauce was too drippy on his plate he would not bother with it, just fish out the “forkable” items. If there was a heap of rice as garnish, he would take two-three mouthfuls of it consecutively, without indulging in the pleasure of mixing it up with other edibles on the plate.

Pennysavers had something of an oasis about it. A flat, long, nondescript building that was situated on one of the principal roads of Tobago’s Canaan area, it did not strike one as any better than the other stores on the island. In fact, Pennysavers was a chain and this particular store was just one of a lot of them, and if anybody had asked the more sophisticated locals for advice as to good shopping, even they would not have named this one as superior to the rest.  Its special place in Anna’s heart had a lot to do with the fact that it had been the very first store she had visited on their first trip to the island. Of course she would have been reluctant to admit that mere sentimentality kept making her go back to the same place when, perhaps, somewhere else better produce could be got for a better price.  (Well, yes, if the truth be told, Pennysavers rarely helped you save “any penny.”)

The electronic doors promptly flew open in front of the stray visitor, who was instantly notified by a clumsy drawing on the wall opposite the entrance that entering in bathing suit or half-naked was against the rule. Whether it was an attempt at creating a religious atmosphere in this temple of alimentation or a motherly concern for the shopper’s health was open to individual interpretation, although it did not take one long to think the second possibility more likely, as the AC was mercilessly efficient. Experienced Anna had of course taken care to have a T-shirt with her. Upon entering, oversized trolleys that looked capable of accommodating the major part of the store’s stock greeted the shopper, making a mute plea to be laden as much as possible. The first row was that of baked goods, which, in fact was not a very fortunate note to start on; fresh good bread was not part of local culture and the sight of soft sliced loaves sweating in plastic bags did not inspire much confidence. The only “bready” treat that this local cuisine also boasted of was the perennial Caribbean specialty, the coconut bread. But, once again, names can be deceptive, and this delicacy was of a dense sweet cake-like texture, unfit to be eaten as a savory sandwich base or an accompaniment to cooked food.

Leaving the none-too-impressive bread section behind, the dairy counter made itself felt with an extra gush of cold air issuing forth. For some picky people even this part of the store failed to satisfy, as the range of cheese types was not large; this is to say, they mainly had cheddar cheese, but of that at least ten different brands. Cheddar from New Zealand, aged, mild, orange, white. Cheddar from Ireland, aged, mild, orange, white. Cheddar from Canada, aged, mild, orange, white. But if one was not disheartened by the seemingly limited choice, it did not take long to realize that, say, aged orange cheddar from Ireland was very different from its aged orange cheddar cousin from New Zealand. Anna and Will were more than delighted, as cheddar was their favorite type of cheese. Vince had learnt to be satisfied because he came to associate Tobago with cheddar cheese, adjusting and narrowing his expectations as to choice while getting great satisfaction from quality.

As it is so typical of North American products, the yogurt cups of that nationality were covered with large signs calling attention to their being eighty percent fat-free, instead of acknowledging that they consequently contained twenty percent fat.  The cups were, furthermore, adorned with handy signs that gave detailed accounts concerning the relationship of each item with cholesterol, carbohydrates, proteins and whatever might be of great importance to whatever type of diet that the purchaser might happen to follow. Just to be on the safe side, even bottles of mineral water bore signs that informed the dear customer that mineral water did not contain carbohydrates or cholesterol.

All this nutritional science was lost on both Anna and Vince, neither of whom could have care any less about such matters.  They were, instead, busy finding a flavor less fancy than “key lime pie” or “pina colada” or “strawberry cheesecake” that, for anyone who had ever tried a real slice of such pie or cake or cocktail, did not have the slightest resemblance in taste to their namesakes. Going for plain vanilla or strawberry would have been their aim, had there been anything so uncomplicated amongst the rows of cheesecake yogurts.

Having finally dismissed the idea of yogurt, they grabbed two boxes of fresh milk and proceeded to the next row. As they were leaving the dairy section behind, they passed by a large low table laden with unidentifiable items wrapped in plastic. On closer scrutiny they turned out to be bags of salted pigtail and other curious parts of that same animal, all preserved in salt and all unappetizing. Although they were no pretty sight, the staple side dish of the local cuisine, rice and beans, was made with salted pigtail and it was actually quite delectable. As they had already gone through the sampling of even weirder sounding local dishes, such as stewed “bushmeat”—also known as iguana—and curry goat, and even fried flying fish, mere pigtails did really not deserve being frightened of or surprised about. All in all, after the first adventure of tasting any of the above specialties, the common verdict amongst our group of friends was not favorable enough to seek their components as ingredients for their evening meals from then on.

The next row hosted an amazing variety of local hot sauces, some green, some red, some really hot, some rather sweet in taste—all of them very good and inexpensive. Tobago was not as famous for its spicy cuisine as Jamaica with its jerk chicken, for example, but curry and hot peppers were part of the culture and so it was easy to opt for hot food if one felt like it. Anna always welcomed excessively hot food, while Vincent believed in spiciness that did not take away the actual taste and texture of the ingredients one cooked with. He often pointed it out to her that, with all her learned taste and enthusiasm for good food, she could be easily tricked into appreciating inferior food that was simply smothered in some hot sauce or an overload of spices. Moderation was the key, as much in the kitchen as anywhere else. Characteristically enough, Anna would just blush, shrug her shoulders, and laugh in reply, without even feigning to take the advice to heart, even if it came from Vincent.

Opposite the spices one was faced with the dilemma to choose from at least thirty different types of cereal, all imported from North America. There was no shortage in raisin bran, strawberry crunch, banana chocolate and frosted wheat, and one had to have a clear idea not to get lost in the maze of delicious varieties. Unlike yogurts with rather fantastic sounding flavors, cereals had a large appeal to both Anna and Vincent and they spent a good ten minutes trying to find the box they would buy. As Anna was watching Vince vacillate with two different boxes in each hand, eyeing a fifth one on the shelf, she suddenly burst out laughing.

“Jesus, Vince, the lost boy that you are! The embodiment of indecision, I swear. You are multiply tempted, as always. But you see, in this case you are allowed to taste them all.  There’s no pressure to stick to any of them.  You can just move on to the next.  In harmless cereal matters your insatiability and love of variety are not damnable characteristics.  They are more handy than otherwise.”

“Actually, they aren’t. Because, you see, even if I want to wallow in the world of cereals, picking as such, however temporary the consequences, is very difficult. You just look at this shelf. Freedom of choice had never been such burden on mankind.”

“Well, I feel for you. No, don’t make faces, I really agree. Last time I was in Canada, I went into a department store to buy myself a pair of stockings and as a whole floor was devoted solely to women’s hosiery, there was so much variety that not only did the zillions of colorful boxes make me dizzy, but I also had to realize that finding the right one amongst all that multitude was impossible.  You know what I did? I told myself that I either give up hope and walk out of there without a pair, or I simply point to one of them and walk out with that—well, after paying, of course—and at home, when I only have that one in front of me without all the others as comparison, I will be mighty happy with my stockings and it will seem just the right choice.”

“So, what did you do?”

“Guess.”

“You did buy a pair and you are happy with it.”

“Just so.”

“Well, while I’m trying to tackle the moral of your little anecdote, why don’t you grab a box of cereals for me, doll? I’ll meet you at the shandy section.”

Having patted her on the shoulder affectionately, Vince walked on with the trolley. As he made his way towards the last row where the drinks were to be found, he had to admit it to himself that shopping with an expert’s eye had never been as difficult as now, when a vivid mental picture of Barbara was blurring his vision. With the stubbornness worthy of the recurring specter itself, he decided that it would simply not do to be defeated so fast. Thus he resolved to continue his favorite pastime, meanwhile assuring himself that it was not selfish pleasure but a task to be done for the common good of his friends, and he began to tackle the purchase of “easy stuff.” First he took a box of the only type of egg available. Done. Next. Cashews. Now with cashews it was still easy as pie, because there were two varieties, grilled salted and plain unsalted, both of which were needed to satisfy everybody, as William, for instance, fancied the plain ones. They came in bottles, funnily enough. So, two bottles of cashews, a box of eggs, what else? Still quite unperturbed, he arrived at the all-too-large and all-too-colorful snack section with chips and cookies and the like. These were dangerous waters again, and he made up his mind to quickly pick a simple salted one and another with cheese flavor. No fuss. So he grabbed two packets and was out of there, having at last arrived at the shandies, in which the choice of flavor had once again been established ahead by common consent. Ginger shandies. Alrighty.

“Wow, you’ve been efficient. I see you’ve got just about everything we need, because veggies and fruit we pick up at the grocer’s and fish at Pigeon point, right?”

“Don’t forget rum and wine.”

“Oh, how could I? You’re right, but again, that is a separate section. I mean, with that flimsy little glass partition and the separate cash machine, they want it to look like another store. Just like the North Americans with their hysteria against alcohol and the inconvenience and hypocrisy of having to go to a liquor store for an innocent bottle of wine. Or two. Well, I’m sure they are trying to ape the Americans in this, too.”

While talking, Anna put their things on the rubber band that did not actually work, so the slim little cashier girl was just about to lift the large box of shandies closer to herself when Vincent came to rescue. She could not have been more than fourteen; fragile, honey colored, with large shiny buttons for eyes, and hair all in braids arranged in an intricate pattern on her head. She had strikingly beautiful features and it was easy to see that the childish disproportionateness that was still apparent in the seemingly oversized eyes and the wide fleshy mouth would be soon adjusted to perfection in a year or two. With a diffident but evidently grateful smile, she thanked him and continued with her work. When she got to the cereal, she stopped and looked up at Vincent.

“Sorry, sir, I hope you don’t mind, sir, but have you checked the expiry date on the cereal you chose? It is out of date by now and to tell you the truth, sir, I am not surprised; this flavor of this brand is so unpopular that I don’t even remember having sold any of it since I’ve been working here.”

“Good job, Annie. Picking some old stuff.”

“Well, I suppose cereal does not get any better with aging. It goes to show my mind is already on wine. Anyway, you go ahead then and choose something else. But be very quick because the people waiting in line are more than ready to lynch us. Don’t, for Christ’s sake, start checking the expiry date on all the boxes. Go by instinct, maybe yours is more infallible.”

“Oh, you go. I’m sure you can’t make a mistake twice in a row.”

“No, Vincent, you blew it. I’m not making decisions for you after having been criticized. And it’s good practice for you. Anyway, Jesus, it’s only cereal, after all. But hurry up man, they really are getting upset behind us.”

“No, no, I can’t decide. I can’t face that row again. Well, I guess we’ll go without cereals this time.”

“You don’t want this expired one at least?  How bad can it be?”

“What do you take me for? No old hag cereal for me.”

“Okay, let’s get out of here.”

Having paid and bagged everything, they were on their way out. Choosing wine was Anna’s task. With cheerful promptness, she made her choice, already curious about Andrew’s comments. Having paid and bagged their purchase again, they were leaving Pennysavers behind.

“That little cashier girl was simply gorgeous. When looking at some of these local girls I always have the feeling that Beauty itself is looking back at me. In the case of white women it is rarely so.”

“Well, there are too many beautiful women and too little time, in any case. But, sweetheart, let’s concentrate on the shopping. I can’t face the bustle of the fish market now, especially because I am sure the fishermen are not back yet and I really don’t want to be liming around there for hours.  If you don’t mind we’ll just defrost some more of that good beef I have smuggled into this place and make some serious steaks like we did yesterday.”

“Sounds good to me. And if you feel so indisposed, which, I am sure, is due to that damned golf, you can stay in the car and I buy the fruit and veg. A nice ripe pineapple, a bunch of bananas, lettuce, squash and eggplant. What do you say?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“So, it’s all good. Let’s move, then.

9.

As the little rental jeep drew up in front of the villa, the sound of the handbrake and the loud banging of doors attracted the attention of some of the inmates. Andrew and Sue came to the shoppers’ assistance and they tackled the unloading of the car together, Andrew peeping into the bags with childlike curiosity as he balanced them towards the kitchen.

“God, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse. It’s probably good I didn’t go with you guys, because shopping with an empty stomach usually makes one overdo it and buy twice the amount of what is really needed.”

“Well, if you eat the equivalent of a horse out of the modest spoils we’ve come back with, I guess we should have bought twice the amount, anyway.”

“You know, Annie, you sometimes sound real mean.”

“Sorry, sweetie, don’t take it to heart. Eat as much as you please. And please tell me what you think of my choice of wine.”

Andrew, grabbing one of the bottles by the neck, started scrutinizing its label. A second later his face relaxed into a smile, making him look handsome and irresistibly friendly.

“You’re a good girl with a good memory, after all. I take back what I’ve just said about meanness. But I’m surprised they have Brunello over here. I mean they are well stocked when it comes to Australian and Chilean, but as to Italian wines, so far I’ve only seen the perennial Chiantis on the shelves.”

“Well, it is quite special, and so quite expensive, too. One has to be ready to spend fifty dollars on a bottle of grape juice to have the pleasure.”  Anna added maliciously. She knew this would deflate his gratitude and nettle him, but she could not help it. Sure enough, a cloud passed over Andrew’s sunny countenance, erasing all comradely feelings. He recovered his good humor admirably fast, however, which probably had something to do with his having found the properly hurtful retort.

“No, Annie, you really aren’t mean in any sense of the word. You are actually very generous, especially when it comes to spending other people’s money.”

“Well, I’ll be hanged if I ever again try to please you. And, for your information, I am paying my way on this trip. And so I might be able to afford a bloody bottle of wine.”  She was quite red in the face as she said this, taking out her anger on the innocent items she was putting into cupboards, freezer, and fridge with a considerable amount of noise and vehemence. She was vexed, but was, at the same time, deliberately working herself up so as to feel the kind of “righteous indignation” that would make her forget that her first and foremost motive when buying the Brunello had really been more to tease than to please her friend. She knew he was right. And she knew he knew that she knew.

The memorable incident the Brunello stood for had taken place a few years earlier. In what at first had seemed to be a delightful foursome, William, Anna, Andrew, and Sue embarked on an Italian weekend together in order to celebrate Sue’s upcoming birthday, and, with the other, not negligible, design of sampling a bit of the dolce vita they had so much thirsted for during the monotonous months of money-making. However, the promisingly sweet beginnings were followed by the eruption of a bitter quarrel, which, in fact, took place on the evening that was to be the highlight of the whole trip; the birthday-dinner at an exceptionally good restaurant, which, apart from its outstanding kitchen, had been highly recommended for its knowledgeable sommelier. Having arrived at the restaurant all dressed up, hungry, and happy, they were profusely welcomed and seated by a short round woman—the proprietress herself.  Of course she spoke no English, but, just as characteristically of Italians, she was not much at a loss when resorting to the help of her hands and engaging in a most engaging type of body language.

Amid candlelight and grissini, they were at last studying the menu, pleasantly conscious of the culinary pampering that lay in store for them. After having decided what to eat, there still remained the most important decision to be made; namely, what wine to order. All four of them had different attitudes towards wine. Or, better to say, as Sue did not really have one to speak of, there were still three diverse ways to take into account. However, since it was Sue’s birthday that they went to Italy to celebrate, the “gala dinner” was automatically assumed to be the personal treat of the happy boyfriend. Thus, the choice of wine was also the privilege of the paying party.

William liked good wine and he did not like fussing about a few dollars more or less as long as it met his expectations. He was not—and did not pretend to be—knowledgeable beyond an easygoing familiarity with popular expensive names, and so when XYZ’s Brunello, XXZ’s Barolo, or Domaine XXX’s Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape greeted him on a wine list with their familiar reassuring names amongst dozens of others hitherto unheard of, he happily picked one such old acquaintance and felt perfectly content with his surefire choice.  He positively disliked the pretentiousness of sommeliers and rules about what wine to drink with what food. Anna’s attitude was similar, as she likewise followed her own taste and appetite as to what to drink with what and how and when, although she liked experimenting with unknown types and enjoyed scrutinizing the list and listening to a sommelier with the pleasant foreknowledge of ignoring his advice in the end, anyway.

Contrary to them, Andrew liked fussing and he was very much interested in the rules and traditions that wine-drinking nations, such as the French and the Italians, attached to the proper enjoyment of this noblest of drinks. In fact, it was not by accident that he had picked the restaurant where they were thus seated; Gianni Puntera’s name was even mentioned in the Wine Spectator—he surely knew something. Andrew’s only self-made rule concerned the relationship between price and quality, as he refused to believe that good wine could only be had for a large sum of money. This would have been alright—wise, gutsy, in fact—had it not almost always boiled down to his choosing mediocre wine because he was too tight-fisted to go for the better ones. Sometimes he was lucky and he came across something delicious without overpaying, thereby proving his theory and being reassured as to his system.

So, when Gianni Puntera presented himself at their table at last, he was received with mixed emotions. Anna had been looking forward to hear an animated conversation about “distinctive notes of blackcurrant,” “decisively leathery aftertaste” and “a lingering hint of vanilla,” and was, in a word, prepared to be very much amused. William could really not have cared less, or rather, he would have liked to wind it up and have some good vintage in his glass. Sue’s feelings were akin to William’s, as she was looking forward to drowning her sorrows in whatever, as long as it made her forget about getting yet another year closer to thirty. And Andrew, well, of course he was full of smiles and expectations.

And then, this stocky, yellow-haired, but all in all nondescript man was standing at their table. He was wearing a sour smile that was more like a grimace and made his eyes literally disappear in one of the numerous creases on his face—his was definitely a squint-eyed, untrustworthy look.  But even that would have been alright, had he not been so disappointingly “un-Italian,” so terribly “un-picturesque”; he had pasty skin, fair hair, and an insultingly unwelcoming attitude. Speaking in broken English mixed with unarticulated Italian, but without helping himself out with gesticulatory movements, Gianni Puntera seemed not to care much whether he was understood or not.

As Andrew could not be put off so easily, he assumed a friendly, curious manner and kept asking Signor Puntera all kinds of questions, which the sommelier let fly past his ears, one by one. He just squinted back at the ridiculous Americans—they spoke English so they were uniformly addressed as “gentili signori americani”—and curled his lips into a shape of a lizard, resuming what he had been saying before the question interrupted his nigh unintelligible trickle of speech. All Andrew could understand was the name of the Brunello that was recommended to him, and even that only because the crafty sommelier produced the bottle out of nowhere—having most probably arrived with it, bent on selling that one to them from the start—and pushed it in front of their noses. When Andrew asked the price, Puntera’s faced creased up even more, he miraculously forgot all his English, his speech all of a sudden gained incredible speed, and he quickly repeated “vino migliore a buon mercato” several times, bobbing his head up and down, most knowingly.

Andrew guessed that the sommelier was talking about some good deal—he vaguely remembered from his phrasebook that buon mercato didn’t only stand for “good marketplace” but also for “reasonable price”—and so he excitedly looked at the wine list, directing his attention towards the top of the page where the cheaper bottles were shown. As one of the cheapest of all was, in fact, produced by the same wine-grower as the bottle in front of his nose, Andrew hastily concluded that the two were identical, without checking any further details.  To the visible relief of his impatient fellow-diners, he had by then given up all hope of partaking in any conversation whatsoever; Signor Puntera was not only as deficient in his English as he was in his Italian, but the sommelier was evidently not of the gushing type. He was, however, admirably efficient with the corkscrew; all four of them were impressed by the celerity with which he uncorked, decanted and poured out the chosen wine. Then, after taking an almost imperceptible bow, he vanished.

“Isn’t this absolutely excellent?”

“It is, Andrew, good choice. It might be one of the best Brunellos I have tried so far.”  Anna’s voice had a tinge of sarcasm in it; like a patronizing pat on one’s shoulder.  But Andrew was too full of his triumph to notice.

“See? You don’t have to blow mindless amounts on good wine, just do a little asking and experimenting and there you are, sipping heavenly stuff.”  He said, thrusting out his broad chest with pride. The chair gave a helpless creak, but did not give in as yet.

“Well, I’m not sure what ‘asking’ had to do with this wine. The guy literally forced it on you. Not that such stuff has to be forced, it is so darn’ good. But I’m a little skeptical, still. Are you sure it’s the same wine that you saw on the list for ten dollars?”

“Anne, don’t be a smartass, of course it is. I checked.”

They dined, drank, conversed, drank some more, and all this in the highest of spirits.  A few hours elapsed. In the end, as the last table in the restaurant, they even had the pleasant feeling of having it all to themselves; the great gracious fireplace, the flowers on the tables, the little stubs of candles still twinkling here and there, and the round shapely glasses with still a little wine to swirl around at their bottom were all at their service to feast their eyes on. Around one o’clock, however, Sue forced herself to assume a responsible attitude and warn her friends that they were seriously taxing the good proprietress’ hospitality; it was late and they should go, in short. Despite being intoxicated well-to-do businessmen, this time they did not dismiss Sue’s suggestion with the usual condescending “who cares, we pay them well enough to wait for us”; she was the “birthday-girl,” after all, so she had to be humored. So they asked for the bill. It duly came, containing a figure of a rather sobering effect; the wine had indeed been the most expensive one on the list, and although it might still be comparatively “a buon mercato” when one thought of other restaurants that probably asked an even higher price for it, it still was a steep sum. Andrew was fuming. Anne could not help grinning, which was also fuelled by the amount of wine she had had; it made her lose all tact and she was openly laughing and rejoicing about having been right. Unfortunately Andrew’s resentment of her insolent “I-told-you-so” attitude was also fuelled by an equal amount of wine and so he did not get a grip on himself, either. A fight broke out, the bitter and ridiculous wrestling of tongues both heavy and uncontrolled from wine. It would not bear ink to record the things that had been said that night, so it has to suffice that they had deeply wounded each other and they went to bed with angry hearts for the first time.

The next morning not only brought the expected hangover’s characteristic spleen and headache, but also the miserable consciousness of having fallen out with a friend the night before and having to face another two days in his company because they were stuck abroad together. William was strangely silent and refused to get mixed up, washing his hands of the situation. Anna was hurt and afraid to be left alone with the mess she had made, but in her heart of hearts she understood his diplomatic attitude and his wish to remain neutral. Andrew was his business partner and his friend, and Anna was his girlfriend, so whoever’s side he took, he was sure to cause offence. And, if the truth be told, he was angry with Anna for not having restrained herself even if she had been right about her suspicions at the beginning and even if Andrew had been characteristically cheap, obtuse and belligerent.

So Anna skipped breakfast—not a great sacrifice when the after-effect of wine is hanging over one’s appetite—in order to take a walk and thus avoid meeting Andrew. It was a late Friday morning, with shops already and still open before they would close again for lunchtime, and Anna was sauntering on the only shopping street of the little village, aimlessly looking at shop-windows and humming an air. She had been standing in front of a large vetrina glistening cheerfully in the sun, reflecting her tall slim uncertain figure, when a couple of stray clouds passed, covering up the source of light. As she lost sight of herself in the window, she became aware of rows of wine bottles tastefully displayed there. Her instinctive reaction was a disgusted contraction of the stomach, but it only took her a second to become aware of a happy idea that the momentary shadow engendered: she was to buy a bottle of that wine for Andrew as a peace offering. To hell with who was right and who was wrong, the solution was to make peace.

She entered the store with regained assurance and had a pleasant conversation with the shopkeeper. Her tongue rolled around all those delightful Italian words with relish and she felt in her element once again. She asked for the Brunello she was in quest of and not only did the good merchant have it, but she even found out that it was to be had at a modest price, after all. When she asked the shopkeeper how come it was comparatively cheap, he assured her it would not last long, because the wine-grower was as yet unknown, but exactly with this outstanding vintage he was sure to become one of the more sought-after ones and consequently raise his prices soon enough. It was, however, still a relatively well-kept secret at the moment, with only the local wine-merchants in the know. In fact, several of the local restaurants had already started buying it off, and so it was destined to be out of stock soon. Anna made a quick mental note of that rascal of a Puntera being one of the buyers, already making an insolent profit, telling his unsuspecting victims that it was one of the best wines at a good modest price, but forgetting to clarify the rather crucial detail as to who it was who would get a good bargain.

Having bought a bottle and asked for a special gift-wrapping, Anna was on her way back to the hotel. As she crossed the main entrance, she noticed the familiar figure of Andrew sitting in the large downy couch in the lobby area. As he caught sight of her, he rose with awkward haste and, before she could say anything, he told her he was very sorry about the liberty he had taken when he had said all those nasty things the night before. On top of it, he openly acknowledged her having been right, which made her cheeks burn in return, both with pleasure and with the secret knowledge of two things: that it was he who had been right, after all, and that she would never enlighten him about that. She produced the handsomely wrapped bottle from behind her back where she had instinctively hidden it upon catching sight of him and watched his face for signs of recognition and consequent reaction. He was infinitely touched and said that it crowned the event of their reconciliation, and that she had been very generous in having bought him such a pricey bottle, which turned her cheeks to an even darker hue.

“Sorry to interrupt your most pleasant conversation, but where am I to put things so that everyone can find them tomorrow morning? There should be an assigned place for essentials such as bread, coffee or what have you, so that nobody has to look through all the cupboards for them.”  Sue’s practicality quickly brought Anna back to the present and the need to go on with unpacking the groceries.  It certainly didn’t help to soothe her mood.

“Go ahead, Sue dear, and pick a spot. I couldn’t care less.”

“Are you angry, Anne?”

“Oh, no, I could just strangle your boyfriend and bury him in the garden.”

“You have quite a temper today.”  Sue calmly observed, looking her friend up and down with a detached air.

“Whatever. It’s too hot to argue—and too beautiful. And, gosh, I just want to enjoy my vacation. If it ends up resembling the last eight occasions, I am content, I don’t wish for more.”

10.

Anna’s wish was granted; the ninth Caribbean getaway was almost exactly like the previous eight Caribbean getaways with the same routine of sleep, eat, golf, eat, sleep, eat, golf. Marinades were made, salads were dressed, champagne corks were popped. Beds were reluctantly left by the men in the early hours, and were left unmade later by the women, with the exception of Sue’s. Lots of golf-balls were lost in lakes, bushes and other hazards. Scores continued to be soaring. Sue kept disinfecting in daytime and dreaming about Lewis at night. Anna kept dangling her long legs and devouring literature and pineapple. Newcomer Barbara, without making herself particularly liked or disliked, made zillions of sit-ups and push-ups and just as many laps in the pool. She wasn’t very talkative, but it was hard to tell whether that was characteristic of her or the result of some recent occurrence. Andrew kept on attacking the fridge in daytime and his friends during mealtime-conversations. William smoked an infinite amount of cigars, made several business calls each day, and invariably left his wet swimming-shorts on top of the bed. Sunny Vincent was the center of each situation, be it golfing, cooking, or chatting, with everybody revolving around him, however unintentionally. As he was revolving around the oppressing question of what to do about Barbara, it was both a welcome distraction and a noble aspiration to do his best to entertain his friends.

By the time the last two nights loomed on the horizon, the enthusiasm for cooking had abated a bit. As a general thing, they rarely went out to restaurants in the Caribbean because service was terribly slow, the price of anything fancier than the staple fried-chicken-rice-and-beans was incommensurately high, and the alternative options to anything fancier than the staple fried-chicken-rice-and-beans were very few. There were, of course, a handful of restaurants pretending to serve fine fusion cuisine; French with a Caribbean twist; Caribbean with a French twist; Indian or Creole or Mexican or Chinese or Italian flavors. Pizza topped with pigtail or pineapple. Macaroni pie with fried flying-fish.

And there was Dal Diodonte. Fine Italian cuisine in the Caribbean with an award-winning wine-cellar, this restaurant had become an establishment in its own right after having weathered more than ten years. It boasted of homemade pasta, homegrown herbs, and even home-slaughtered beef, as the owner was the happy owner of the only prime-quality cattle on the island as well. Oh, and most importantly, there was even a genuine Italian sommelier to help the guests navigate on the pages of a wine-list thicker than the Bible. Gino Unto from Genoa.

Although he had never got down to it, for the last five years Andrew had wanted to check his name in his beloved wine magazines, and of course he would have been more than willing to give the place a try had he not been absolutely unwilling to pay the nauseating prices such a culinary experiment would have cost, especially for a group of six. To celebrate an engagement, maybe. Yet his last attempt at proposing to Sue in similar surroundings could not be termed a success. Of course, if she finally said yes, he would not think twice and take them all out on a splurge at Dal Diodonte. Wherever. If only she would make up her mind at last!

Vince was usually the most reluctant to go out because he knew very well that the food they were about to get sooner or later for a more or less outrageous sum was guaranteed to be of inferior quality to what he could have whipped up in no time. This time, however, the last two nights were symbolic. Well, the last night would have to be spent packing and the following day they would have different flights to catch, so it was the penultimate night that was pregnant with meaning; there was an answer to come up with. What thought-process had brought him to decide to do the right thing by Barbara was a mystery which even he could not have clarified, not even to himself. Maybe it had helped that she had been true to her word and had not in the least been pushy about it during the entire trip.

What was more, Barbara seemed to be perfectly tolerant; whatever whenever however, he was a free man to do as he liked. In this she reminded him of Claudia, who had also been endowed with this most admirable of feminine traits. Yet to Claudia “clever” as an epithet could not with the best of intentions be applied, while Barbara was actually quite brainy. No, she was not very educated, but then he wasn’t, either. When it came to that, he had to admit that he found stupid and erudite women equally unattractive. Claudia and Anna were borderline cases, two extremes, respectively. Barbara was just fine. And she looked so good in a bathing suit! And she was so disciplined that it was more than likely that a few babies would not transform her into something matronly. And it was good she wanted children, after all.  Anna didn’t—which, in fact, was probably the key to her success with arch Peter Pan William, who was not in a rush to become a father despite his forty-nine years.

His mind more or less made up, Vincent was still undecided as to the exact time and place of proposing to Barbara. Should it be a private affair? Or in front of his friends? Surely it had to take place when they were all there! Just imagine their faces! And they deserved to witness such a momentous event, anyway. Since going out to a restaurant was relatively momentous for them in the Caribbean, he decided to take everybody out for the penultimate night. He would treat them to the finest meal that was available on the island. What was the name of that Italian joint that was supposed to be so special? Dal Dante? Al Dente? Something like that. Anna or Andrew would know.

Andrew’s hands trembled with excitement as he dialed the number of Dal Diodonte. A table for six, yes. Eight o’clock. No, make it seven-thirty. Good bye. Pesto what? Ah, yes, yes, al presto.

11.

They all felt a bit festive throughout the day; that night they would not be liming around in their sweaty shorts, nor would they be chopping onions and mixing cocktails. The men had not played golf that morning and the afternoon was spent on the powdery sands of Pigeon point beach, under palm-trees laden with coconuts that ominously dangled in the breeze. Anna had finished her last but one book and so she consoled herself with the thought that it was better to go home than being stuck there without anything interesting to read. Anyway, she had been feeling rather queasy lately. One way to account for it was to blame it on some sneaky bacteria that were so often part and parcel of food kept in such tropical heat. That she mostly felt sick in the mornings she could easily explain away as the well-known and well-deserved appendix to the preceding nights that had usually been soaked in a generous amount of wine.

By the afternoon, having lolled around in the shade for the most part of the day, Anna felt as good as new. It would be a lot of fun practicing her Italian there in Tobago. Of course Andrew would butcher this most beautiful of languages with his barbarous attempts at speaking it and the Italians would make up their minds at the very beginning that this bunch of people were just the ordinary tourist-boors who would most probably ask for parmesan on their seafood-pasta and a cappuccino after their meal. They might even ask for red wine with their fish, or worse, there could be teetotalers amongst them ordering fruit-juice with their dinner. Che schifo! Not even Vincent would save them from such allegations with his visible expertise; he would overdo it and criticize everything or make faces in the very least. Impatient Will would try to pass the time with guzzling wine while waiting for the food to arrive and he would get feisty.

On top of it, they would all have to get dolled up, or take a shower and put on a clean something at least. Oh, well, it would be a step toward getting back to civilization. Ball-shaped bushes, manicured lawns, make-up and stilettos were all waiting for her. She got up from the deck-chair and started folding away her beach-towel and throwing all her belongings in a large bag. Sue seemed to have dozed off next to her. Reluctant to wake her as yet, Anna made her way towards the bar to collect the others who were most likely to be found there as they were neither in the water nor on their deck-chairs.

Sue was wide awake with her eyes closed. In spite of being very tired after a sleepless night, she was still afraid to doze off; although uninvited, Lou had been a faithful companion throughout the trip. To her at least, he had been as much present as the other five members of the group. He almost deserved to be introduced. And Andrew kept on doing his best to be charming and he was visibly making an effort not to appear expectant. The trip was drawing to a close and she was more and more at a loss. There would be this fancy dinner that night, which would inevitably remind them both of the embarrassing scene at her favorite restaurant not so long ago. It was even worse that she knew how special it would be for Andrew to try Dal Diodonte at last; he would not for the life of him admit that he had been dying to try it but of course she knew. It would be perfect timing to crown it with a “yes.”

Yet Sue was too painfully aware of the fact that she could not get married to him and smother the insistent voice in her that almost shouted the name of Lou whenever she fell into the unconsciousness of sleep. It would be better for everyone to remain silent on the issue for some time to come. She would lay low and bide her time. Still no decision made. But let that bloody clock tick. Better than making the wrong pick.

12.

Dal Diodonte was situated on a less attractive strip of beach, deliberately off the beaten track. It did not intend to offer tourist menus with a fixed price and it surely did not want to lure anyone with big shiny boards bearing photographs of staple Italian dishes to make it easy for Joe Schmoe to identify his spaghetti carbonara. No. It did not even supply dinner-guests with English menus unless they specifically asked for them. It was no surprise, therefore, that the ladies received chiquita menus. Let North American women be scandalized. If they wanted to be aware of the prices, they had to let the headwaiter know.

So it was a bit like the Soho area of Tobago where the fashionable people who were in the know were obliged to direct their uncertain steps in quest of fine food. The area was completely unlit, save the twinkle of a few fires in the neighboring gardens, which were enveloped in a strong smell of onions, goat, and sweat. Goats that were as yet out of the pot were grazing on the side of the road, reluctantly sharing the few clumps of dusty grass with a couple of bony-backed cows. It was all very exotic and very inconvenient to balance around in fancy sandals and rub crisp shirts against sticky bushes. The small but pretty sign of Dal Diodonte was thus welcomed like the gates of paradiso by the weary but suddenly jubilant wanderers.

No, they were not it Italy, so despite the fact that they were entering an Italian restaurant, no exuberantly affable proprietress rushed to meet them at the door. They still had to pick their way gingerly because there was not much by way of light, but it could at that point be attributed to the mellow candle-lit atmosphere that had always been one of the essentials of any self-respecting fine dining experience. A couple of impish lamps were playing hide and seek among the bougainvillea bushes, it was true, but they were either too successful at hiding or there was nobody who had bothered seeking them out. Having safely got to their designated table, the six friends sat down with an ill-suppressed sigh of relief. The file of bamboo chairs was a rather unwelcome reminder of the rainforest; small rigid yet rickety, one could not help wondering how they managed to support any normal-sized human being, let alone some of the local ladies of flabbergasting proportions. To the dismay of William, they were not endowed with armrests, so slouching was out of the question. Their table was in a state of disequilibrium most probably owing to a lame leg. Vince had wanted to remedy the situation by propping it up with the Bible-sized wine-list but Andrew prevented him just in time, calling it a most blasphemous gesture; one didn’t do such things to wine-lists. And anyway, they would need it.

“Don’t get your hopes up, my dear. Vincent is the paying party because he has invited us all, so it goes without saying that it is his honor and duty to choose the wine. Anyway, as it befits a man who knows what he wants, the greater the variety the better he is at taking his pick. It will be a treat to see him select the grape juice.”  Anna was in high spirits, glancing from Andrew to Vincent to see who was more nettled.

“One more comment like that and you’ll find yourself tied to your flimsy little chair with a few napkins stuffed in your mouth. We may even throw you into the water, although that would be too much hassle. It’s easier to offer you up to the owner by way of payment. Not that you are such a prize, mind; it’s more about doing the washing up and all.”

“Well, Vince, although expertise in doing the chores is not one of the constituents of my social capital, as a good friend I am willing to do my best to help you out when it comes to footing this bill tonight. Since they took me for a lady, I have got a chiquita menu, but I can pretty well guess what our little feast will all add up to. I have to congratulate you on being such a brave man to have taken us out here. Andrew would probably not have dared.”

“As to feasts, Anna, I forgot to write it on the invitation that you are only allowed to choose from the kid’s menu section. Spaghetti with tomato sauce or fried fish fingers with mash. I know how crazy you are about pomodoro, anyway.”  It was Vince’s turn to leer.

Bravo ragazzo, so now you pretend to speak Italian, too?”

“No bragging intended, but I can certainly get by in an Italian restaurant with my communicational skills.”

“Well, signor Vincenzo, next time we go to a Chinese restaurant and we’ll see how you fare there. Anyway, if you have trouble reading the Italian menu and you are too embarrassed to ask for an English one, you can always ask Andrew’s help; he is brilliant when it comes to deciphering Italian menus and wine-lists.”

“You mean thing, you.”  Andrew smiled, wagging his meaty fingers at Anna. He was simply too happy to be at Dal Diodonte to get peppered up by her witticisms. And he was too busy trying to resign himself to the sad fact that, indeed, it was Vincent who had the prerogative to choose the wine because he was the poor mug who would fork out that lump sum in the end.

“So, so, so. Who is having what? We know that Annie is going for the fish fingers with ketchup, but what about the others? I long for something other than steak, fish or lobster. We’ve had that for the last fortnight. And we are in an Italian restaurant that prides itself of homemade pasta. Gosh, just look at that, will you? They have ravioloni stuffed with spinach and shrimp, served in some sort of herb-sauce. But why ravioloni and not ravioli?”

“Vince, Vince, Vince. You are already in trouble; let me enlighten you that the former is the megalomaniac version, it simply stands for big ravioli. It’s a perfect dish for a guy of your magnitude.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

Di niente. But let me tell you that I am a tad bit disappointed; there’s not a single dish featuring blowfish on the menu. I really would have expected something like filetto di diodonte all griglia, or garlic-stuffed blowfish or a little puffer carpaccio, maybe.”

“Blowfish is not edible, you goof.”  Snorted William.

“Oh, never you mind that it was just another of my desperate attempts at being funny. Well, you have succeeded in deflating my blowfish joke alright. Anyway, if my quips don’t impress, may I still sparkle my Italian and be of help to anyone?”

“Sure, while you’re at it, tell me what involtini di prosciutto di cinghiale is supposed to be?”  Asked William, affectionately squeezing his girlfriend’s thigh.

“Little bags of ham made of wild boar. I bet you that the English translation of the menu would give you something like boor-ham-bags as an equivalent. It sounds irresistible.”

“I have an English menu.”  Said hitherto silent Sue. Everybody’s ears were cocked to find out the English definition of that delectable dish.  “Savage pig gammon parcels, anyone?”

Their roaring laughter had the welcome effect of finally attracting the attention of the nondescript little waiter who had showed them to their table and vanished without a trace for the following half an hour. It was not he, however, who came to their assistance this time; he sent his more formidable colleague, a local lady with an awe-inspiring cleavage, the shiniest ivory smile in the shiniest ebony face, and a network of braids so intricate that the Minotaur’s labyrinth was child’s play in comparison.

“Hello, good evening. Have you decided what you would like to order tonight?”  She drawled, leaning her lower curve against the wobbly table that consequently started to wobble, causing the glasses to clink as if they were toasting to the ebullient health of Wendy.

“Wendy, I can’t believe my eyes. How are you? How come you are not working at RubiLou’s anymore?”  Anna and William had a few years back gone out in a romantic twosome for dinner at RubiLou’s, an unpretentious little place serving grilled chicken and lovely cheesecake. It was impossible to forget the characteristically slow-moving but sweet motherly waitress, whose name was equally impossible to forget; she had introduced herself as Wendy Wetmore.

“Oh, madam, it is a long story. Problems with management, not enough guests, first the cook left—actually in the middle of a Saturday night with two tables waiting for their food—then the other waitress came here to work and finally I also joined her here. Yes, I left there two years ago and came to work for Mister Palla. You know how it is. Dal Diodonte is a sure workplace. And quite busy, but not too busy. We always have guests, but it is never chock full, thank God. But, Jesus, please do not mention that to Mister Palla. I mean that I am happy the place is never full. You know it is just the heat; even in the evening it is hard work carrying all those plates and all.”

They all knew by then that service would be extremely friendly and excessively slow. And not exactly what one would call genuine Italian. That reminded Andrew of Gino Unto.

“But tell me, please. Have I heard it correctly just now? I mean your having mentioned a gentleman called Palla? Isn’t there some kind of mistake? I was told that there is supposed to be a certain Gino Unto here.”  Andrew inquired politely but uneasily.

“Ooh, Gino, yes, yes. We have our dear Gino here, too. But he is not the owner, he is the summerliar.”

“You mean sommelier. That explains it.”  Added William, who was dying to wind up the chitchat and get the long-winded waitress take their orders and get some food and wine on that rickety table of theirs.

“Yes, yes, the summerliar. He is a sweet boy, a great favorite with the ladies.”  She confidentially chuckled.  “They say he is very good.”

“Good at what?”  Andrew asked with just a hint of impatience in his voice. He was beginning to be afraid that Signor Unto would also turn out to be as big a disappointment as that pasty-faced Puntera back in Italy. Well, as long as he was the genuine article and he knew his wines, Andrew could not care a fig about him being a ladies’ man into the bargain. Actually, that was a sure sign of being a real Italian, wasn’t it?

“Oh, you know, he opens the wines with those pretty movements, letting you smell the cork and all, and then he lights a candle and holds it behind the wine while he is decamping it. And he has a big silver medal hanging around his neck on a big chain; I almost burst laughing when one of me boys wanted to borrow it from him because he said that it was just like those big necklaces that his favorite rappers wear in the clips on MTV. That chap, you know, Fifty Cent his name is or something like that.”

“I am not really familiar with that kind of music but I assure you I am very happy to hear that Mister Unto is on the premises. Can we please see him?”  Andrew’s patience was dwindling fast.

“Sure, sure, my dear. Let me take your orders and I will go back to the kitchen directly and fetch him; I heard great laughter coming from there, so he is sure to be entertaining the kitchen-maids.”  Wendy actually winked at them as she said this.  She was having a great time.  Job satisfaction.

“How nice of him, really. I bet you he is one of those sleazeballs imported from Italy with D.O.C. stamped on his forehead.”  Said Anna under her breath to Sue, who was sitting next to her.

“I suppose you are right. He sounds like a pretentious little skirt-chaser. But at the end of the day such an individual is just supplying what is in demand. It’s more revealing as to the women who fall for that kind of person.”  Judged Sue, scanning the glasses and cutlery in search of potential grease-marks or other signs of dirt. The place, she had to admit, was remarkably clean and really charming, despite the bamboo furniture. Three other tables were occupied by three couples of three different nationalities; at least if one judged by the cacophony of languages that enveloped the place. The walls were lined by shelves full of wine-bottles by way of decoration—the unmistakable Italian touch at last. It was hoped that they were empty and the unopened bottles were stored in a place that provided a more favorable temperature than the stifling thirty-degree dining area. After the six friends finished ordering amidst questions, complications, laughter, and even clapping of hands, Wendy directed her stately steps towards the kitchen.

And then Signor Gino Unto made his entrance. For those as short-sighted as Anna this fact went unnoticed first; she was made aware of a tiny figure making its way across the room only because eagle-eyed Andrew had started shouting his friendly welcome as soon as he caught sight of the enologo. Clad in a black gown with the perennial silver medal coming down all the way to his pelvis on a chain too long for his stature, even before he reached their table he had started gushing honeyed smiles and compliments. Anna detected in an instant that his Italian accent was a fake, which came to her as a great surprise; she was expecting a greaseball, but a genuine one. Not yet sure whether to give him away to her friends or not, she wanted to take a good look at him first.

It was another surprise to Anna that Signor Unto, whether fake or real, was a beautiful man. There was simply no other word for it, no way out of it. She had never been attracted to men who were so obviously handsome, and even in the case of this person her feeling could not be defined as attraction; such level of beauty, especially in a male, was awe-inspiring. As he was covered in that beastly black robe, his body could not be seen, but his face, his teeth, his neck, his ears, his hair, his hands—everything that stuck out, in a word—had the perfection of a Greek statue. Alas, even if the gown covered further body-parts the beauty of which corresponded to those that were on display, it was only a maquette of perfection at the most, a little mock-up. The one fatal flaw that no robe could cover was his equally surprising shortness. Lanky Anna felt doubly sorry for the guy who most probably spent his life trying to compensate for his shortcoming. No, she would not give him away, that fake little Adonis.

It seemed, however, that it was not up to her that evening to let little Gino keep his incognito. Anna’s quick silent scrutiny was interrupted by a hoarse “God, it’s you Lou” and a rattling of fork and knife that fell out of Sue’s hands, who had eventually succumbed to her dread of germs and was polishing her cutlery with her napkin while waiting for the food to arrive. The pretty button eyes of the alleged enologo almost fell out of their sockets as he recognized a childhood love-interest sitting at that Tobago restaurant, of all places, thousands of miles away from home, away from all he had wanted so much to leave behind. And she had not even grown up to be very pretty; she was easy to recognize exactly because she was like an overgrown schoolgirl; plain, flat, erect, stiff, awkward, just like the inexperienced chit of a girl she used to be, minus the freshness.

“You know each other?!”  Gasped Andrew.

“Well, yes, we grew up in the same neighborhood. And so we went to the same school. And so we knew each other. Yes, I suppose we can say that.”  Gabbled Sue with incredible speed.

“But…wait a second…how could you have grown up in the same neighborhood with an Italian?”

“Oh, signore, I spent my childhood away from Italy, and so I met the signorina in England, you see.”  Jabbered Gino-Lou with a velocity equal to that of Sue after having shot a glance of entreaty towards her. Anna, who was watching his face very closely, had noticed it and wondered whether anybody else around the table had. But everybody’s eyes were glued to Sue’s face, and Andrew, for his part, seemed to be too flabbergasted to notice little details like that. True to her character, Sue regained her composure admirably fast. She quickly swallowed her disappointment and disgust at having to meet again her childhood idol, that obstinate object of her dreams, as a third-rate womanizing trickster who spent his time masquerading as an Italian sommelier, and she was ready to take a bit of revenge and move on.

“Yes, Luigi, whom the teachers called Lewis and we kids called Lou, was two years ahead.”  She explained, and could not help adding maliciously.  “Yes, he was a popular boy in school. Very popular. So popular, in fact, that the female teachers would happily excuse his shortcomings, which, of course, were mostly due to his imperfect command of the English language. But as to foreign tongues, he was assisted by his classmates. Female classmates. And he would be so grateful for all the help he got that he would always share his bunch of grapes with his little lady tutors. Like a juvenile Bacchus, he always had grapes on him; they were peeking out of his breast pockets, and bulging in his trouser pockets.  A sweet boy he was, he even smelled like grape juice. We often wondered whether it was muscatel that flowed in his veins.”

Gino’s tanned face had difficulties in acquiring a darker hue, so it was hard to tell whether he turned red at the insinuations of his ex or not. He shifted his weight from one foot to another and made balls of his tiny fists behind his back. Anna was impressed. Sue was a ragazza veramente in gamba. You go, girl!

“It is such a pleasure to see you here, Susannina cara, and all your friends that I am going to do my utmost when it comes to selecting the best bottles of wine we have in our cellar. Do you have any preferences? Any favorites? Any particular ideas? I have to consult the chef, of course, to acquaint myself with the food you have ordered, so we can harmonize everything together, va bene?”

“Fabulous, of course. But before we attack the wines, we could use a bottle of bubbly.” Said Vincent, who was greatly relieved at having such a helpful sommelier at his command. That knowledgeable pygmy would really come in handy when it came to choosing the wine—one of the evening’s ordeals in store for him that kept him in trepidation. He wanted to show off, to pick something classy, and then to give a speech of sorts and ask the hand of…of Barbara, yes. But he needed to gather courage first. He needed a good amount of champagne.  “Do you have any Dom Perignon, my friend?”

“Certainly, sir. Excellent choice, sir. Nothing but the best, sir, I always say. I’ll be back directly with the bottle and all the necessaries.”  And the sommelier zipped back towards the kitchen where a flight of steps was faintly visible, leading downstairs. Vince was beaming. He shot a glance first at Anna and then at Andrew eager to see their reactions. Anna ceremoniously bowed her head as if in homage, while Andrew’s facial expression was that of awe; ordering Dom Perignon in the Caribbean was nigh bankruptcy. Gutsy move, by God.

Before Vincent would have had the time to change his mind, say Jack Robinson, blink an eye, or clear his throat, Signor Unto was back with the stately emerald bottle in one hand, ice-bucket in the other, followed by the nondescript male colleague carrying six slender champagne glasses on a shiny silver tray. At the rear of their procession there was Wendy lugging along a little table that could be fitted next to the one the six guests were occupying so that her beloved summerliar colleague could have a large enough surface to operate on and execute all his pretty moves. At the sight of such ceremonious preparations, which revolved around some exclusive sounding champagne, Barbara, who had not said much during the evening—apart from inquiring whether it was possible to order a Greek salad with low-fat feta cheese—became quite cheerful. She sat up in her chair, in which she had hitherto made failed attempts at slouching, and smilingly scanned the faces of her dinner companions. She stole a look at everybody but Vince; she didn’t dare.

Signor Unto’s movements were indeed quick, efficient, and graceful; a joy to behold. There was no danger in having one’s eyes shot out by a frisky cork when hands of such expertise were in control of the situation. But, then again, there would not have been any such danger even if a pair of paws had tried to uncork that particular Dom; there was no pop, there was no foam, there were no bubbles. Not a single bubble. The champagne was as flat as a pancake.

“My poor God, this champagne is totally flat.”

“Yes, Annie dear, so it is. We’ve all noticed.”  Said Vince in a thin voice.  “Now what?”

“Well, signori, I am terribly sorry, this is a great embarrassment to our establishment and a great disappointment to you all, I am sure. Of course you are not going to be charged for it. That is natural. But the awful thing is that this was our very last bottle of Dom Perignon. You would have to choose something else.”

“Oh, Vince, don’t be discouraged. See, life is good to you, after all, and she gives you another chance. Einmal ist keinmal. One wrong choice is nothing. You’ll get it right this time.”   Anna was trying to cheer herself up while she was being a pain in Vincent’s neck; she had never had the chance to try Dom Perignon before and it seemed that this lamentable state of things would remain unchanged for a while yet.

“Okay, there goes the clapper. Cut, next act. Crystal, I say. Do you have Crystal?”  Asked Vince in a daredevil voice.

Ma certo. Impeccable choice, sir, once again. I’ll be back directly with a beautiful bottle of Crystal for you, ladies and gentleman.”

Speedy preparations, graceful movements, high expectations, as before. And no sound, as before. Flat, as before. Unbloodybelievable.

“This is amazing. I have never in my life had two flat bottles in a row before. There may be a curse.”  Howled Unto, trying to play the Italians-are-superstitious-card. If there was something genuine about him at that moment, it was his surprise.

“Well, now, want to keep hunting for bubbles? Let’s just order a bottle of mineral water with gas and move on to wine, what do you say?”  Anna was getting bitter; she had not yet had the chance to try Crystal, either, and she had to be disappointed once again. It did not help that she was starting to feel dizzy, although she had not had a drop to drink as yet. It had to be the empty stomach.

“Okay, now. Wine, I say. My friend, what do you recommend if we feel like drinking a full-bodied red? Bother the harmony with food, we all like a robust red, don’t we?”  Said Vince, making an effort at appearing nonchalant and decided. He was losing his grip, the magic was going. Zweimal ist keinmal? Hell knew, but if he remembered correctly, people always got three choices in fairy tales, too. Without waiting for the sommelier to open his pretty mouth, Vince quickly pointed at a wine towards the end of the list. It was one of the most expensive bottles; it had to be good. Unto nodded, smiled, vanished.

The scenery was quickly shifted; bird-shaped decanter with silver head, big-bellied glasses, and ornate wine-screw appeared. And the inevitable candle. The zealous enologo was almost literally bending backwards to make up for the first two incidents with the champagne. He rushed in like a high-priest, black gown flapping, candle in hand, and was ready to do his magic. Among the three hundred and seventy-eight types of full-bodied reds a rare Barolo had been selected by that handsome sap who was most probably the paying party. Fortunately, he seemed to have known what he was doing because he pointed at that Barolo as quick as lightning. So quick, in fact, that one might almost have thought it had been at random. For all Lou knew, it might be a good choice, because, if the truth be told, he himself did not have much clue as to wines. The movements had been easy to master by simply watching other sommeliers do it. The wines were a bit trickier. Of course that fellow may have been guided by the price; that was always a way out. The further down the list, the more expensive, ergo the better. A costly but decidedly golden rule.

The ancient bottle was dusted, and the label stuck under the nose of Vincent, who knowingly nodded. Fortunately for this once, there was no pop. And the cork did not break, which was promising. Maybe he got it right this time. He had seen it on TV how an expert chap had swirled the wine around in the glass and then stuck his nose in it, with one nostril further in and more dilated, keeping his eyes half-closed. Vince consequently proceeded in like fashion, which was accompanied by the ill-suppressed chuckles of Anne and Andrew. William just mumbled something like “Wind it up, now, let’s get that liquid in our glasses at last.” Vince finally swallowed a gulp of the crimson drink. Everybody waited with abated breath. He still didn’t say anything. He swirled some more. He took another sip. Still not a word.

“Spit it out man, how is it?”  Will demanded.

“Well, I…Andrew, my expert friend, would you please try it and give me your opinion?”

“Sure, mate, sure. Signor Unto, please pour me a bit, too.”  Andrew felt terribly important.

Same procedure with swirling, sniffing, sipping, lips smacking, but no spontaneous outburst of appreciation.

“Annie? Are you okay? You look pale. Never mind, it may be the light. You looked like a ghost for a second. Anyway, be so good and take a sip, too.”  Andrew offered her the remainder of the wine poured into his glass to make the procedure a bit speedier. He did not dare pronounce the wine undrinkable. If anybody, it had to be bigmouth Annie to suggest such a thing.

“Ladies and gentlemen. This wine is corked. Vince, well done. You have succeeded in picking two flat bottles of champagne and a corked red wine. I really think we should stick to good honest local produce. My dear Mr. Lewis, bring us some rum. And lots of lime, lots of ice, loads of water. Dark rum, mind. Angostura 1919, if you carry it.”

Little Lewis did not know at first whether to feel devastated or relieved. He was on safe turf now, there would be no testing his expertise as to choosing any more wines. And he was not to be blamed for the bad bottles. He hadn’t produced either the champagnes or the wine. He hadn’t chosen them. He’d got all the pretty moves right, he didn’t even burn his finger when he lit the candle as it sometimes happened. But still. But still. He was a sommelier serving local rum. And he would have to explain irascible Signor Palla—that genuine hot-headed Italian boss of his—how he had ended up opening three of the most expensive items in his cellar, which all had to be poured down the drain, or used for cooking, or served up to ignorants as the white and red wines of the house. The magic had decidedly gone.

Yes, the magic had gone and Vincent was devastated. All he wanted at that point was to drink rum, stuff himself with pasta and sleep and not wake up for some time to come. He did not dare look at Barbara, although he kept telling himself that he had not yet given himself away, nobody was expecting anything from him that night. Nothing had been lost. Nothing had been decided. He may still decide to not decide at all.

Andrew was probably the most devastated among them. The food was actually quite good, but, for Christ’s sake, he was sitting in a restaurant that bragged about its award-winning cellar drinking rum. Surely it was that loser of a Vincent who had made the wrong pick. If it had been up to him, he would not have bungled it up like that. Among five hundred types of wine and champagne, Vince succeeded in choosing three bottles of plonk. Congrats.

Anna’s nausea seemed to have come to stay throughout the evening as a most unwelcome dinner-guest. She ate a few bites of pasta, which was actually quite good, although nothing to write home about, and played with her glass without drinking from it. Maybe better that they were not being served some serious wines or champagne; then she would have had to force herself to drink without any enjoyment whatsoever. Wasting a bit of local rum was not a big loss. She did not even feel like pulling Vincent’s leg or quizzing Andrew as to his impressions.

Barbara was sorry for Vince, but much sorrier for herself; she tried to tell herself that it was not a bad sign and it was only the penultimate night. On the other hand, she was fatalistic enough to admit that yes, there was a great chance that she would not have to unpack her bags when reaching home. The food was actually quite good, not that she could tell or that she could have cared any less.

William was blessedly ignorant of the heartaches and stomachaches surrounding him. He was greatly enjoying his rum, which he preferred to wine and champagne anyway, and he was gobbling down the second heaping helping of spaghetti alla marinara. Yeah, the food was actually quite good. And Anna was less rowdy than usual, thank God.

The most cheerful of them all was Sue. She was drinking a great deal of rum and after her improvised revenge masquerading as childhood reminiscences, she studiously ignored that ridiculous little trickster. She had noticed that Andrew was doing his best to appear happy and she loved him for it very much. The poor guy was disappointed in everything about Dal Diodonte. He was kept waiting by his girlfriend. His burly body was numb from perching on those killer chairs. He was hot; his forehead was studded with sweat-beads. And most heart-rending of all, he did not for a second suspect that he was being deceived about the real identity of the alleged enologo.

“Well guys, I’m done like dinner. And, judging by your faces, you could use some sleep, too. Vince, I pronounce you hammered. Will, dear, you resemble a pasta-stuffed blowfish. Andrew, your chair is giving ominous creaking sounds. Before it breaks under you and you have to pay for the damage, I suggest we go. While you are settling the bill, Vince, I’ll go to the washroom.”

“Do you have your rubber-gloves ready, Annie? On your way back from the loo you should directly go to the kitchen and start making some noise with the pots and pans.”

“No, no, nothing of the sort, especially because you are a lucky bastard at the end of the day. We did not drink any expensive stuff so the bill will not be that frightening. I’m starting to suspect that you did it on purpose. Anyway, on my way to the washroom I’ll tell Wendy to get the check.”

Wendy was relatively fast in preparing the bill and presenting it at the table. Anna tottered back from the bathroom and plumped down on her chair with a groan.

“What’s wrong with you, dearie? You look none too well.”  Asked Wendy solicitously.

“Oh, Wendy, it’s just the poisonous blowfish beginning to take effect. Just kidding. You know, I’ve not been feeling well lately. It’s probably the drinks, or some bacteria, or, that reminds me, I may have got sunstroke on the beach today.”

“By the look of you, you may be better off not drinking for the next few months, if you get my meaning.”  Wendy winked at her knowingly.  “I have three little ones, I can sure tell.”  She patted Anna’s arm with motherly affection and directed her attention to the settling of the bill. It was late and she was impatient to get home to her kids.

“Gosh, nothing of the kind, no, no, no, no. I’m just tired. Yes, guys, let’s go now, please.” Anna jumped up and stormed out of the restaurant. William had turned as pale as his girlfriend, but said nothing. Nobody said a word on the way out, as they were leaving the place in file, with Andrew and Sue at the tail-end. But when they were out on the street, Sue touched Andrew’s arm and pulled him back and said:

“Yes.”

The Pilgrim

“… I have measured out my life with coffee spoons …”

(T. S. Eliot: “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

1.

As it often happens to lonesome persons, Gordon Graham’s life consisted of the mere execution of carefully fixed daily habits. The meticulously constructed routine of his days served as a certain crutch to help him through life, which sometimes seemed to him too complicated, at other times too purposeless. Yes, it was a welcome expedient when it came to setting a goal of his existence; with it he could try and establish some kind of order so that his life would shape itself and make itself digestible.

A precisely performed day gave him a sense of perfection. Every day he could be seen at 8.15 a.m. in Macy’s Deli for an egg-sandwich; at 11.00 a.m. in the Museum Park, and by midday back at Macy’s for a buttered scone. Though well-preserved and impeccably attired, his presence lacked effect; even if you happened to walk by him several times, you would not remember him at a next encounter—your loss, because you could have set your watch to him as to a Swiss clockwork. Gordon Graham was the unnoticed metronome of the little city. Tick, Macy’s, tack, Museum Park, tick, Macy’s, tack … The climax of his day passed even more unobserved; at 6 o’clock p.m. he would be smoking his Irish clay-pipe in the dusk of his yet unlit living-room, smoke issuing forth from his mechanical mouth as from a chimney-stack, apparently deep in thought, yet possibly not preoccupied with anything more than the visualization of his approaching pickled-herring dinner.

2.

But one Thursday afternoon something extraordinary happened. Mr. Graham was just about to direct his steps towards the kitchen, when, by an unplanned jerk of his neck, through his leftmost bedroom-window, he happened to catch sight of a rickety old man shuffling along the street. He wore a weather-faded raincoat, light-grey as the color of the pavement on bright sunny days, and a strange felt hat, once dark brown. His hands were folded behind his awkwardly bent back, which doomed him to the constant observation of the pavement instead of anything about and around.

He shambled along slowly and it seemed without purpose, but if one kept on watching him for a little longer, every shuffling step of his turned out to be part of a Plan to Reach the Red Bench which stood in front of Mr. Graham’s house. Yes, he was familiar with the street, and on good terms with the cracks and wrinkles of the concrete he tread. He cunningly took a longer step from time to time, in order to avoid a bump or step over a half dried-out puddle. At last he reached the bench. He stopped and, pulling his trousers a little, slowly squatted down until his rear safely touched the bench. He sat there for a few seconds in utter suspense, then started moving his neck, first left, then right, left, right, left …very slowly … then start circling his head around. After four-five repetitions, he bent forward, placing his palms on his knees, collecting strength to get up again.

Then this indescribable movement! He shuffled to the back of the bench, held on tight to it and started shaking his legs and shoulders, as if he was about to collapse from complete exhaustion, not being able to stand any longer, grabbing the plank so as to support himself. But no! It was a push-up of a somewhat idiosyncratic nature; a feeble attempt to bend both elbows and straighten them out again. He shook and shivered there in his worn raincoat and faded felt hat on a balmy spring Thursday, holding on to the bench and then suddenly stop and let go of it. He placed his arms behind him, and, as carefully as he came, he shuffled off, leaving an astonished Mr. Graham behind the pane of his third-floor bedroom window.

3.

That Thursday evening Mr. Graham was thinking about the little old man, while he was puffing away in the six-o’clock dusk of his living room. It occurred to him that the old man might return. After all, he appeared to be familiar with the street. It might be a regular activity of his, and the bench his place of pilgrimage!

For the next few days, Mr. Graham adopted a new habit of standing at his leftmost bedroom window at five o’clock each afternoon, waiting for the pilgrim to return. It proved to be futile on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and by Tuesday he was ready to give up his quest, giving himself Thursday as a deadline. And lo, that was the very day when the crooked figure reappeared at last. He wore the same raincoat and the same felt hat and it seemed as if Time had stopped and it was still that Thursday afternoon of last week. He shambled and shuffled as the mirror-image of his last week’s self, and Mr. Graham, standing at his window, felt content.

4.

Summer came with its hot sunny days, and the pilgrim kept on coming every Thursday, wearing his eternal raincoat and felt hat.

Autumn came and brought the same buttered scones and pickled herrings and the sight of Thursday pilgrimages into Mr. Graham’s life; and he felt content.

Then came winter, when the days shortened and a cold unfriendly wind disheveled the coiffure of ladies and knocked off the hats of men. It often rained incessantly for a whole day, but, rain or shine, dark or bright, the old pilgrim still appeared by the bench, and Mr. Graham at his window, five o’clock every Thursday, both as punctual as clockwork. Sometimes, the bench being wet, a dark round spot could be seen on the rear of the old man’s raincoat after he had stood up and was about to shuffle off again. The ghost of a smile would appear and disappear on Mr. Graham’s countenance and he would feel content.

One moody November Thursday started out just like any other Thursday of the last couple of months; Macy’s was tolerably busy, the egg-sandwich was slightly soggy, but delightfully resembled the one he had had the day before, and none of the listless people who passed Mr. Graham on his walk seemed to be aware of the great change that this day had in store for him. The bench, wet and shiny in the rain, remained empty. If anyone had taken the trouble, they could have noticed a solitary figure, stock still, watching it from behind the pane of a small window on the third floor.

5.

The early spring of the following year was studded with unusually mild days and I got into the habit of walking home from my office instead of driving. The reception of that particular Thursday was not to begin before six-thirty, so I thought of stopping off during my walk at a bench to reread an article that was most likely to be one of the hottest topics of the guests that evening. It was fairly early, around four-five o’clock, so I expected to have a good half an hour of daylight to read by. The first bench I happened to come across was still wet from the rain of the day before, and I remember being half vexed, half amused at thinking about the consequences; at the reception people might think I had wet my pants.

Anyhow, I sat down and started reading, but soon a strange feeling took possession of me; I felt as if I was being observed. I’m sure you have had that feeling before; someone’s eyes, though there is no physical contact to speak of, grazing your skin. I looked around and about but the street was empty. I reclined back on the bench and continued to read, but the uncanny feeling would not leave me. Then suddenly turning around, with and unplanned jerk of my neck, I directed my eyes towards the house that stood behind my bench. Some windows were unlit, at others the curtains were drawn; but at one of the smaller windows on the third floor, despite the dimness of the room it belonged to, a dark figure shaped itself. It appeared as if it was positioned towards the very bench I was occupying.

I couldn’t, for the life of me, imagine what he or she was looking at, or, if at me, why. Then I thought that there was nothing interesting whatsoever that the street could offer that afternoon, or on any other afternoons for that matter; it was one of those dead-ends without much traffic going through it, so my presence may have been defined as something of an event. I quickly stood up and was bent on getting away from the uncanny bench and its peeper, yet I could not help glancing up again to see if the person was still there. It was. A figure in the same position, unmoved, and, it suddenly seemed to me, lonesome. Despite my resolve to leave, I was fixed to the spot, looking back at the drab shadow of some human being, feeling sad and solitary myself, without the strength to tear myself away.

I couldn’t tell you how long it had lasted, but it was an involuntary shudder thanks to my wet clothes that broke the spell. I stumbled along the street’s cracked pavement as fast as I could towards the hotel where the reception was about to take place and never in my life have I looked forward to its bright lights and its loud crowd as much as on that particular spring Thursday afternoon.

The Suitcase

1.

Guy Parker was the last person to care about his own appearance and the first person to notice that of others.  The fact that he looked so insignificant was actually more of a godsend than otherwise, as it helped him to remain invisible while enjoying the great Spectacle of Life.  As long as there were people around to observe, he was hardly ever bored.

One early morning, however, Heathrow Airport managed to test even his patience, and after a forty-five minute wait he became uncharacteristically fidgety.  He had been watching the same faces—listless and worn after the red-eye flight—and the same few suitcases that had been slowly revolving around the conveyor belt without anybody wanting them.  The bags that were wanted were nowhere in sight—his included.

If a guy does not give a fig about how he looks it is only natural that he doesn’t have any emotional attachment to any of his clothing.  Guy Parker really couldn’t care less about what he wore and he would gladly have abandoned his battered bag full of unwanted stuff if the unwelcome effort and expense of an inevitable shopping for some new clothes had not seemed an even worse option than standing around some more.

So he stayed and stared and yawned and tried to concentrate on black items.  Why had he been such an idiot?  Why had he bought a black suitcase, which was almost impossible to distinguish from the other million black suitcases that other unpractical idiots had bought and used?  He should have tied a ribbon around the handle or put some sticker on it to make it easier to identify.  But no, his carelessness as to his and his belongings’ appearance had backfired in this case and he was going mad as he tried to keep his tired eyes open and spot his dime a dozen black bag on the conveyor belt.

At last he got to a point where he swore that the first black bag even faintly resembling his would be the one that he’d take.  If anybody stopped him on the way out and accused him of taking a bag that wasn’t his, he would simply act surprised and say that he had been convinced that it was his own bag and assure the person that he was very sorry about the misunderstanding.

2.

It’s frightening how easy it is to take somebody else’s bag from a conveyor belt at an airport, especially after an exhausting flight that had arrived early in the morning.  People are too tired to be on the alert and there really isn’t anything besides common decency and the slight chance of somebody catching you in the act to stop you from appropriating what is not yours.

Guy Parker walked out of the airport with a black bag, got on the Heathrow Express, and half an hour later entered his obscure little flat without a hitch.  Despite his exhaustion and his previous irritation, he was now excited by the new sensation of having become a thief and by the curiosity as to what he would find in the bag.

Based on the relative dinginess of the bag, he was not a little surprised to find that it was nothing less than a treasure chest in incognito; silk blouses, crisp linen trousers, and bras of the finest lace welcomed him as he ripped the bag open.  It had obviously belonged to a lady—a lady with style and sufficient financial backup.

Well, unless he was prepared to turn into a cross-dresser, he had no choice but to go and do the shopping for new clothes that he had so much wanted to avoid by toughing it out by the conveyor belt.  Then again, he was so enchanted by his exquisite find that he minded the now compulsory hassle and expense less than he had expected.  It has already been said that his own belongings had always left him indifferent, but, in key with his interest in Others, the appurtenances of an Other had a keen fascination for him.  And this stack of personal items had proved to be a source of unusually great excitement.

3.

Guy Parker spent hours fingering the unknown lady’s garments, trying to imagine what she was like.  Judging by the size of the clothes, he pictured her as tall and perhaps a bit on the heavy side; not a greasy monster, but a strong busty Amazon with supple flesh and developed muscles, who, nevertheless, succeeded in remaining feminine.  Despite her love of high heels and lace garters, she certainly dressed with elegant simplicity. Guy thought that this kind of woman, when at home, probably put aside jewels and her buttoned-up blouses and business jackets, and wore—with nothing underneath!—the pair of bottle-green silk pajamas that he was rubbing against his cheek.

Looking at—and smelling—the shampoo he’d found in the bag, Guy guessed her hair was a thick curly brown brushing the tips of her strong shoulders and it smelled of chocolate and honey.  He hoped her eyes were as green as her pajamas and, having found a pair of spectacles, he was sure she wore glasses for reading.  Maybe she read a lot.  She certainly wrote a lot, especially letters, based on a batch of scented envelopes and another batch that looked like letters she’d received and cherished.   To gain access to a love correspondence of the old stamp—who wrote letters with a fountain pen nowadays?  People preferred dashing off emails filled with typos!—was an added bonus, and Guy was thanking his stars for his luck.

The writer’s style was polished and his handwriting surprisingly beautiful for a man.  The letters were delicious—sensual, almost erotic—and completely devoid of humdrum matters.  Apart from the joy she had repeatedly given the addressor, nothing particular concerning the addressee could be gathered from them—not even her name, as the letters were addressed “Dearest.”  This vagueness had, in time, had a double effect on Guy.  On the one hand, it fanned his desire and he became increasingly obsessed with the mysterious lady, but as his obsession grew, so did his hunger for more details; palpable facts.

4.

In order to satisfy this need, Guy once again turned to the garments.  At first, he planned each day what his beloved would be wearing and gently laid the selected pieces of clothing on his bed.  He would repeatedly gaze at them for half an hour at a time, envisioning their wearer and heaving great sighs.

Then the time came when this little ritual ceased to suffice and one evening he grabbed that day’s getup from the bed and put them on.  But as soon as he’d caught sight of himself in the mirror he felt terribly ashamed; becoming a cross-dresser was not the answer to his problem and it was even offensive to the lady he so much wanted to feel near him.

Nevertheless, the experiment with his unknown charmer’s clothes did have a positive outcome; he started paying attention to his own appearance.  He began dressing with great care and when not contemplating the garments currently lying on his bed, he roamed the streets and dreamed of meeting Her.

But even this prowling around London fell short of fulfilling him after a while.  He desperately wanted to find Her and his initial scruples as to the possibly disappointing reality were washed away by the determination that he wanted a cure—disappointing or not, reality was, at this point, better than being consumed by his feverish imaginings.   The envelopes of the letters addressed to Her had not been kept, and so he could not gather any information as to where she lived and what her name was.  Yet one of the scented envelopes that she most probably was using when replying to those letters had already been addressed, and so Guy could look up the fellow—his rival—at least.

What he would say or do when standing face to face with this man was a question Guy Parker couldn’t have answered even when he was only two blocks away from his destination.  His obsession was so great, however, that he felt above any potential embarrassment.  With determined steps he approached the dwelling of Francis Lyme, squeezing the batch of letters in his hand, and oblivious of the admiring glances that his recently adopted spruceness attracted; justice finally having been done to his naturally handsome features, Guy Parker had turned into a distinctly good-looking man.

5.

The man opening the door for him seemed to be of the same opinion; his squinty eyes glistened appreciatively as he sized up Guy from head to foot.  He even smacked his thin lips before he answered the handsome fellow’s inquiry:

“Yeeees, I am Francis Lyme.  And I am more than delighted that you are looking for me.  Tell me, dear boy, how can I be of help?”

Guy Parker was taken aback both by the manner and speech of the wizened hunchback with the disagreeable squint and thin lips.  Was it possible that his Adored One had anything to do with such a distasteful individual?  Worse than that, was it possible that the impassioned correspondence that had so much inflamed Guy himself had involved this little monster—that such a one had written those fiery letters to the woman of Guy’s dreams?

Guy gulped and determined to get to the bottom of this matter; he even fancied it would be all the more romantic to rescue his beloved from such an evil-looking troll.  So he answered as politely as he could:

“I am wondering whether you could direct me to the person to whom you’d written these letters.”  And so saying, he held out the batch of letters that he had been hiding behind his back since the beginning of their conversation.  The troll was taken aback at first, and then he smiled lasciviously:

“Well, well, well.  First you’ll have to tell me how you came upon these letters.  I have no doubt you’ve read them and, I am sure you’ll agree, they are rather spicy, to say the least, and so you shouldn’t be surprised if I am surprised at seeing them in a stranger’s hands, however beautiful this stranger is.”  This time he actually licked his fish-lips and Guy needed all his self-control not to slap him on the face.  But before he had time to react to the obscene old goat’s words, he heard the noise of feet rushing down a flight of stairs, and then he saw the silhouette of some tall person approaching the entrance where they had been standing.

6.

“Andy, dearest, why don’t you wait inside?  No need to come out into the cold in those thin pajamas.”  But before the old man got to the end of his sentence, the tall individual running down the stairs had reached them and, heedless of the other’s admonitions, stepped to the door.  His silk pajamas weren’t green, but his eyes were, and they immediately alighted on the batch of letters in Guy Parker’s hand.

“Where did you get those?!  Sweet Jesus, did you take my bag?  How dare you?”  His unruly brown curls were bouncing around his head as so many coil springs suddenly come loose, and Guy thought he could smell chocolate and honey.  It made him sick.  It made him stagger and stutter:

“A mistake.  A very big mistake.  I didn’t know…” and without finishing or giving time for the strange couple to detain him, Guy Parker turned on his heels and rushed out into the London fog.  He was soon running, as if for his life—as if Nemesis herself was pursuing him.

The Surprise

1.

When (and because) she felt lonely, Angela would take to kicking her husband’s slippers and shout at the furniture in his absence. In his presence she was supposed to function as a professional sunbeam that was to gleam and allay his gloom after his tiring workdays. But as certain celestial bodies absorb light without reflecting any of it, so Mr. Larson kept unconsciously robbing his wife’s life-force without reciprocating. What used to resemble Nora’s doll-house at first, slowly turned into an over-clean surface, sterilized both of dust and affection. While contracts were written and business agreements signed, the tops of drawers were polished and the tassels of carpets smoothed away with her bony hands for the thousandth time.

She could be seen in the little city’s little shopping mall doing groceries on Monday mornings, with the artificial blondness of her wig-like hairdo, her tall skinny figure amongst the rows of tins and spirits and boxes of cereals, moving without haste, but with the efficiency of the routinist. Once a long-distance runner, her dry frame was still surprisingly strong, and she was known in the shop for being able to carry three-four bags in each of her long veiny arms at a time.

2.

On that particular Monday an additional item, at variance with her custom, was also traveling home in one of her numerous shopping-bags. The breasts of an unfortunate goose, young and promisingly plump, lay within the plastic wrapper, destined to become the highlight of Mr. and Mrs. Larson’s dinner; it was their seventeenth wedding anniversary, a fact kept in mind only by the latter, the bright side of which was, still according to the latter, that it gave one the opportunity to turn it into a candlelit surprise. Mr. Larson just had to give his word well in advance not to be late for dinner just this once.

3.

It was always the clopping sound of her high heels on the marble of the ante-room that announced her arrival. A Maltese lapdog, a bundle of bleached-white hair, recalling Angela’s hairdo on four tiny feet, ran bobbing up and down on the slippery marble towards the overloaded frame of its owner. With a faint gesture of welcome and a shadow of a smile, she responded to the somewhat over-joyous reception given her by the little wig-like creature.

The abundance of marble, impersonal and everlasting, and the high ceilings resulted in a home always cold. Though there were only a few pieces of furniture so as to keep the rooms elegantly airy, the shadows of tables and chairs—reflections on the mirror-like marble—peopled the place and made it seem almost crowded. The mirror-image of Angela’s fuzzy soul-mate looked large and shapeless, as the dog kept sniffing around the shopping bags that she had placed on the shiny kitchen floor on her way to change into something cozier. Only the rattling-rustling sound of the plastic-bags and the monotonous clicking of the huge grandfather clock were audible after she had taken off her high heels and walked back noiselessly to the kitchen with only her stockings on. While the dog was accustomed to the sight of Mrs. Larson wearing nothing more than a single black pantyhose suspended with an alluring lace garter-belt, it was not the case with Mr. Larson, who left too early and arrived home too late to see his wife in anything but a baggy tracksuit fit for housework and sleep.

4.

Slippered, tracksuited, and aproned, a half an hour later she reappeared in the kitchen ready for work. She took the goose-breast from the bag and wiped the counter, which didn’t need wiping. Then, she placed the body on this operating-table of hers where the required tools and spices had already been prearranged. She methodically seasoned the meat and carefully crimped the thick white skin with steady hands. Her movements were so precise, so utterly devoid of uncertainty, that an onlooker would have thought it was a surgeon scarifying human skin. But however hard she tried to pass the time, she got ready too soon; it was only three o’clock.

She lit a cigarette and started pacing up and down the living-room, the dog’s eyes following her steps. She caught sight of the big Chinese vase, a potbellied overkill, standing in the corner. It was the wedding-gift from her former lover, who, according to her wish, had introduced himself to the bridegroom as a distant relation; an uncle of a second cousin or something. It was a slapdash cover-up to which nobody ever bothered to give a shake then or since, so it ended in standing the test of time and settling into a stately enough mischief to deserve the status of a secret. Angela’s only secret about her only lover.

Mr. Marsh was a millionaire by now; he had made his fortune in the shipping business not long after the happy union of the Larsons. Having already retired, he spent his days on a very big yacht with a very young wife.

The marble, on which Angela was lying by then, proved to be too unfriendly a surface to let her fall into a muse for longer than half her cigarette lasted; and, throwing the remainder in an ashtray, she stood up and stretched her long limbs.

5.

Mr. Larson was a man of a tolerably big heart and very little imagination. He was proud of his country, of his work, and of his wife as well. It took him time and liquor to unwind, but if he did, it was believed to be to his advantage; he would become mellow and quite affectionate, never aggressive or quarrelsome. With the earnest desire to be entertaining, he would tell a couple of well-acquired anecdotes, good-naturedly irrespective of the possibility of having told the same story to the same audience several times before. It was with the same kind of earnest intention that he aspired to be a true citizen, an exemplary boss, and a good husband. Unfortunately, it was coupled with the same obtuseness towards other people’s feelings and opinion that lay under the polite mannerisms of daily business and private intercourse. Whether he took flowers of speech and commonplaces literally, or he pretended to in order to forego complications and a necessity for afterthought, was a puzzling question to everyone who knew him.

The five o’clock Monday afternoon found Andrew (How do you do? I’m Andrew, Andrew Larson. It’s jolly good to meet you.) at his desk, looking over some of his documents with heavy eyes. He had just come back from an unnaturally late lunch—a thick stew and two stale buns—and his bowel movements reminded him of his wife and his (rashly) given promise to attend the dinner (A sure thing my darling, don’t worry yourself about it!). It seemed nauseatingly close to the heavy sauce and the multitude of beef-chunks swimming in it that he had gulped down with the greed and haste of a very hungry person just fifteen minutes before. With a lot of paperwork to finish anyway, he began to toy with the thought of calling Angela to put off a warm dinner and to ask her not to wait for him with anything cooked. Then he thought of her sulky face, the preparatory bangings of cupboards and drawers, followed by a mute dinner with the ticking of the grandfather-clock as the only audible noise accompanying the cold cuts and radish. Such a prospect was even more nauseating than the heavy stew, so he decided to show up on time, but to bring a guest to enliven the evening, to shield himself from possible eruptions of wifely wrath, and to delay the act of eating itself with aperitifs and cigars.

6.

The candles are lit, the table is set. It’s five to eight. The oval-shaped dining table is decked with all earthly goods. Carving-knife, napkin-rings and wine-glasses are arranged meticulously. The buns are covered with a crisp white cloth, and the thick dark wine is breathing in the decanter. The goose is patiently waiting in the oven; the delicious fragrance of juicy roast meat permeates the place. The atmosphere is decidedly friendly and its proud creator is cheerful and expectant. She is sitting by the table in a plum-colored evening-dress, pearls around her long white neck. Despite the relaxed attitude with which she seems to be sitting around, she still has to keep track of the time to baste the goose every once in a while to prevent it from drying out. Waiting can be a wonderful state to be in for a while; the anticipation of something good that will soon take place; nothing decided yet, options open, opportunities there, nothing spoiled yet. Angela is smiling.

7.

Half past eight. The goose has been basted three times. It is still tolerably juicy, but as to its size, it has shrunk visibly. Angela is still sitting at the table, fidgeting with her napkin. The fragrance of meat mingles with cigarette smoke. The little Maltese is sitting by the chair of its soul-mate, its muzzle resting on its tiny paws. The grandfather-clock is ticking monotonously. She stands up again and places the salad-bowl back in the fridge to keep the lettuce fresh and cool.

Now the light is turned on in the staircase, the sound of approaching steps is heard, but it soon recedes; the old lady next door has probably come back from her evening stroll with Walter, her boxer.

8.

Mr. Larson is still sitting at his desk. An important phone-call that he received at seven thirty is still keeping him, although the topic has by now mellowed; they are discussing the objectionable attitude of one of their employees with his business partner. Mrs. Sheen has repeatedly been seen leaving the office around four o’clock in the last couple of weeks. Intolerable. Mr. Larson is comfortably seated in his chair, puffing on a cigar.

The first signs of unease are detectable on his face when his assistant leaves without his having the chance to invite him over for a drink as he intended. The creeping suspicion of his being late for dinner enters his mind, and he starts squirming on his seat, occasionally emitting sounds of approval (Aha,… yes, indeed,… certainly,… I see your point, hmmhmmm) to his partner. Mr. Larson thinks of the “force of circumstance,” and of his being a busy man after all. How much more comfortable it is to sit on the couch in their elegant apartment than working late hours in a neon-lit office. She’ll have to understand.

9.

Nine fifteen. The molten wax is dripping on the table. First, like a hot, transparent teardrop, then it quickly cools and becomes dumb and opaque on the shiny table. The air is stale with cigarette-smoke, and apart from the eternal ticking of the venerable grandfather-clock, an unpleasant clicking sound joins in. It is Mrs. Larson’s wedding ring, loose on her bony finger, knocking against the wooden table as she sits by, drumming on it with her hard pointy nails. Then she gets up and walks to the oven, opens the oven-door and bastes the goose, which has shrunk to the third of its original size. It is a sad sight to behold. But instead of any show of emotion, say a healthy outburst to give vent to her frustration, her face is strangely rigid; unfeeling. Her movements are that of an automaton as she mechanically closes the oven-door, wipes her hands, and places the baster on a plate nearby.

Then, as she sits back to the table, hotness finally mounts to her cheeks and the red flush and the stale air become so intolerable at once that she violently pushes her chair back and rushes to the bay-window of their living-room. She rips it open and sticks her head out first, then half her torso is hanging out. She is glaring at the pavement six stories below, breathing in and out, in and out, fast and intense. The little dog is uneasily scratching her legs, reaching only knee-high.

10.

Mr. Larson’s steps are hastier than usual as he leaves the office-building and hails the cab that has been waiting for him. As the car is getting nearer their home, he is already equipped with soothing plans for the weekend to smooth away the wrinkles on her wife’s brow that have most likely gathered there by now. As tokens of expiation, he can always promise her to go on a golf-trip in the country or buy her a new evening-dress.

When he enters the apartment and the door shuts behind him with a loud bang, the silence of the place strikes him more friendly than hostile. There is the set table and the (still) burning candles. Though no dog is there to greet him, the sight of his home and a gradually gathering appetite encourage him. He kicks off his shoes in the dining-room and walks into the kitchen. Angela is probably there.

She is not. But the light of the oven attracts his attention and he carelessly opens the oven-door to peep in. Hot air issues forth and he quickly withdraws his face from it with a burning sensation in his cheeks, and a blur on his glasses.

He walks into the living-room and sits into an easy-chair, expecting his wife to come out of the bathroom or something. After a few “Angelaaa!…AAAngelaaaa!Hulloooaahh!”s in vain, he thinks she may have run down for a bottle of wine, or has taken the dog for a short walk. Then he becomes aware of the cool draft and notices the open window and in the back of his mind congratulates his wife for thinking about airing the place so as to get rid of the intense smell of cooking.

11.

Brooding and waiting for ten minutes is pleasant enough but after that it starts to bore him so he walks to the window to catch a glimpse at passers-by. It is very dark outside, only black shadows of trees and bushes can be seen, and a drunk leaning against a lamp-post. In the vague aura of the neon his soiled coat is visible, and so is his hat that has fallen to the ground next to him. Then, as Mr. Larson strains his eyes a little more, he discerns a strange bright spot, half sunk into the middle of the tall hedgerows that surround the parking area of the house. He is very much surprised. The spot is not really a spot, more of a big bundle of something; clothes or bags or “What the dickens can it be??.” Short-sighted, he cannot tell for sure. It resembles a bundle of hair, an old bleached wig. With half his body he is leaning out of the window, his glasses sliding down his nose, straining his eyes, when a sudden sharp bang coming from behind surprises him. He loses his balance and lets go of the window-sill.

12.

Angela, more or less refreshed after a cold bath, walks out of the bathroom, automatically directing his steps towards the oven. As she reaches the dining-room, she stumbles in her husband’s shoes that lie scattered around on the floor, taking her by surprise. She doesn’t fall, but regains her balance. After basting the ridiculously shrunken, shriveled remains of the goose, she closes the oven-door and walks back to the living-room.

The Swill and Gorge

1.

He didn’t know much about rivers, but this one surely wasn’t a brown god.  Nope. Not even good old T.S. would have argued with him about that.  Yet his poet king had been right about its sweating oil and tar.[1]  Brown and shiny like a plump snake sprawling across that none-too-impressive Hungarian countryside’s least impressive part—Alföld, Alföld, flat and boring, boring and flat, studded with cornfields, glazed with muddy creeks, soaked with besotting pálinka.[2]  What was there to write home about?  “The horror!  The horror!”[3]

Irreverent and fidgety, Tamás sat in that glorified dixie scanning the listless faces of the other twenty-three fellow-passengers.  All guests of Mr. and Mrs. Dödöle, or more precisely, all guests of the charming wife who had organized a semi-surprise birthday-party for her beloved husband.  The birthday boy had been spared precise details and he had only been notified about the time and place of the venue.  That was inevitable, as it was his parents’ country mansion which was destined to host the event, and his money which was supposed to foot the bill of all the necessary shopping allegedly done for the sake of that celebratory village whoopee.  Part of the two-day program was the pleasure cruise in that “drifting boat with a slow leakage” down the mighty Tisza.  After the swelling, the river was browner and more unattractive than ever, let alone more dangerous, especially in a boat so chock-full of people that it had been a heroic (or villainous) feat on the part of the boat-captain to leave the riverbank behind; the belly of the boat had been comfortably lodged in the mud and only very reluctantly did it venture out on open water.

So there they sat, already run out of conversation after a whole day’s chitchat, with still half an hour to go before they could disembark.  Having drunk a beer or two, Tamás was currently sharing the fate of the two pregnant women in the company whose faces also showed signs of desperation concerning individual leakage.  Bodily discomfort was a small matter, however.  It was way worse that the only alternative to flap his gums was to politely stare ahead; what would they have said if he had flapped a book open on his lap?

Unthinkable, unforgivable, uncivilized, antisocial.  Although he had got used to such epithets a long time ago, in this particular situation even his cheeks would have burned with shame, had he succumbed to the temptation.  No, one was not supposed to bury oneself in a book instead of enjoying the scenery and the company of nice people.  Because they were nice people, he had to admit that.  And they were fellow-sufferers; someone having the time of his life would have been more of a misfit in there.  Except for poor Mr. Dödöle, who was desperately trying to enjoy every bit of his birthday-treat.  The Missus was already busy haggling with the boat-captain about the price and the length of the trip.  She had been promised a whole hour and she would not be fooled into a forty-five minute affair while her guests were having so much fun.

2.

Having safely disembarked, they made their way towards the cars waiting for them at an improvised parking lot shaded by weeping willows.  It was a short drive back to the house, not more than three villages and four cornfields had to be traversed.  Even the most intolerant person could have humored Mrs. Dödöle’s rapturous outbursts concerning the beauty of that adorable countryside for such short stretch of a time.  Wasn’t it simply majestic?  Wasn’t her favorite poet Petőfi right?  Wasn’t it so much more beautiful than mountains or seaside, snow-covered peaks or wave-licked beaches?[4]  She had always thought that her little country had so much more to offer than boring Switzerland or commonplace Italy.  Just look at that poppy-studded immensity.   A sea of wheat. An ocean of corn.  Edible gold.

Before she would have had time to warm to paying an even greater tribute to her homeland while speeding through the villages and almost running over chicken, children, geese and old ladies, they found themselves back at the house, miraculously safe and sound.  As they were getting out of the car, the busybody bells of the village church started their clamorous announcement of the time; it was eight o’clock.  Hurry up please it’s time, hurry up please it’s time.  Finally they would be asked in for dinner to get the beauty of the whole trip, wouldn’t they?[5]  Well, the peal of bells could have saved their breath since everybody’s stomach was hinting at the same thing, anyway.  During the day they had been nibbling on stale pretzels and some seasonal fruit, the latter of which was destined to make one even hungrier with its acidity.  Even the after-effects of the pálinka had vanished by then; the warm glow in the stomach and the dull glaze in the eyes had given way to the cheerful expectation of good solid food.

The two months since the first telephone call concerning details had passed by so fast that one did not even have the time to dust off the well-worn cliché and remark once again how time flew.  Yes, exactly two months in advance the honored guests had started receiving all kinds of confusing but very enthusiastic messages as to the program of the upcoming party.  There would be movie watching al fresco on the first night.  There would be a visit to the local distillery.  There would be a cruise on the Tisza.  And of course there would be a birthday barbeque on the second night followed by dancing until dawn, or even until breakfast before the final departure.  As to accommodation, it was possible to find lodgings in the only guest-house of the area, but only for six or seven couples.  The rest could occupy the beds and the floor of their house.  It had all sounded charming.  It had all sounded rustic.  Lots of local color, a taste of country-living, sun and fun, swill and gorge.

Yet the closer they got to the venue the more confusing the messages became.  Three days prior, it was still not sure who would arrive when, who would sleep where, who would bring what.  As the self-appointed embodiment of elegant nonchalance, Mrs. Dödöle had graciously waved away questions concerning precise ingredients that would be needed for the barbeque.  Just bring something to nibble or to sip, she would invariably say.

3.

As Tamás had had to spend his Friday at work, he could only join the group for the second day.  He didn’t mind because he knew that the climactic events had all been scheduled for Saturday; the cruise in the afternoon and the birthday barbeque in the evening.  Good old Dödöle would not take it amiss if he arrived a day late; good old Dödöle was a fellow journalist, so it was no news to him that news were extremely perishable goods and that deadlines were dead serious.  In fact, Tamás could never understand how the poor chap could synchronize his life of a journalist with that of a henpecked husband.  How was it possible to be at the beck and call of two opposing authorities; one demanding that you are on call even in the oddest hours of the day, while the other strongly advising you not to dare be late for dinner or work at weekends?  Dödöle was a mild little man with an excellent education and an unfortunate tendency to have a sneezing fit when he became agitated.  His choice when it came to his current other half had been something of an enigma to all; there was simply no way on earth that someone would not get at least a bit agitated after a short period of time spent in the company of dame Anett.   In fact, his taste in women was all the more surprising because his first wife was supposed to have been just as overbearing as Anett Dödöle.

Appearances had never been more deceptive than in the case of this lady.  Judging from the outside, she was as nondescript as they come.  A thin brown pony-tail and a pair of eyes as grey and hard as concrete.  A small body with curves in the wrong places.  Boyish hands with nails gnawed to the minimum.  A tolerable sense of fashion resulting in decent outfits without excesses either way.  But.  But.  But.  Although she was not educated, she had very strong views on just about everything under the sun.  Be it politics, cooking, literature, or even cars, she invariably gave a piece of her mind to those present.  As she was a great socialite, the occasions to display her views and wit were numerous.  Thanks to her husband’s profession, receptions, debates, and openings rarely took place without her voice inundating the venue.  In fact, if one managed to shut out the (non)sense of her talk, the beautiful timbre of her voice never failed to impress.  It was slightly husky, surprisingly deep for a woman, and even more surprisingly strong for a woman of her size.  A mini stentor.

Apart from the voice, it would have been hard to find a salient characteristic that could be termed positive.  Yet it would have been equally hard to come up with anything clearly negative.  As far as Tamás could judge based on his previous experiences concerning Mrs. Dödöle, she could not be charged with any greater crime than being overbearing, silly, and rather unsightly.  In all fairness, she might even be considered generous for having invited all those people.  Okay, she would not pay for the accommodation or provide sheets and blankets, but she had alluded to a birthday barbeque, which required shopping and cooking.  Based on her opinions propounded on numerous previous social occasions, she was a tough customer when it came to restaurants or catering companies.  Surely she knew what she was doing down there with the twenty-three hungry guests!

4.

The dutiful church-bells did not fail to notify the guests that it was a quarter to nine.  The darkness that had already set in was alleviated by numerous candles along the side of the flat oblong building, which began with a big kitchen and ended in a smaller kitchen directly opening onto a paved yard destined to host the barbeque.  Indeed, there were two kitchens and a relatively large area for grilling, yet not even nine o’clock witnessed any signs of preparation on the part of the hosts.  It is true that Mrs. Dödöle’s voice could be heard from the direction of the larger cooking unit, but there were no palpable results as to her sojourn in that most useful part of the house.  The guests were scattered in the garden, nursing plastic cups filled with various types of alcoholic beverages, making more or less polite conversation.  Mr. Dödöle was with Tamás, talking shop, so to say, until the latter could not help asking his host whether he had also heard a strange rumbling noise just then.

“Rumbling noise?  What?  What?”

“My dear fellow, I’m just covertly hinting at the fact that I am beastly hungry and I don’t think I’m the only one around here who is just a few steps away from roasting the hosts on a spit soon.  In fact, the only obstacle to such a delectable solution is that I can’t even see a barbeque, not even a bag of coal or a few logs of wood.”  Tamás said with ill-suppressed laughter and irritation in his voice.

“Oh, dear oh dear, you’re right.  I am most terribly sorry, I, I…”  The first sneeze had arrived.  It shook the whole frame of the little man and its sound reverberated in the dark garden around them.  He was subsequently blessed by his friend, for which he thanked him, and then tried to proceed with what he was about to say.  “I really don’t know what is supposed to happen because Anett has been in charge of all the organizing, she didn’t even let me choose whom I would have liked to invite.  Well, not that I am not happy to see this particular set of dear people, you included, of course, but all I’m saying is that she had made sure that I would be in complete ignorance as to the whole thing.  I was told to relax and enjoy myself (another sneeze) but now it is a bit hard if you say, and I’m sure you are right, that our guests are not being looked after properly.

“Well, my friend, it’s no use lamenting and feeling sorry or otherwise.  Let’s just get practical here.  Where’s the barbeque?  It’s your parents’ house, surely you know!”

“Not really.  You see I have never barbequed in my life and my parents adore the good old Hungarian dishes which are mostly prepared in big pots on the stove.  Goulash, stews, and all that.  I, for my part, don’t in the least know how to cook.  At home I eat what is put in front of me and in a restaurant Anett orders for me.”

“But she included ‘birthday barbeque’ in the text of the invitation.  There has to be some kind of equipment.  Or if not that, at least a pot of stew is hiding somewhere!”

“Huh, let’s look around the back yard a bit.  If there are any tools, we are sure to find them there.”

The two journalists duly embarked on a search for barbeque equipment.  They had grabbed some of the candles to have some light on their way, until they reached the back of the house and turned on some switch protruding from the wall.  A naked bulb dangling on a wire was illumined at the touch of the switch.  Magic.

“Real rustic.”  Tamás snorted.

“My parents are very simple people.  They don’t trust any modern invention, electricity included.  They grew up in a country cottage similar to this, which had none of the modern conveniences; no heating, no electricity, and definitely no telephone or TV.”

“Charming.  It is like having traveled back in time.  Well, for grilling we do not need much by way of modern inventions; even the most primitive grilling grid will do, the likes of which, I might add, I have recently come across on one of my field-trips even in the most undeveloped parts of Romania.  And then only some coal or wood, a bottle of oil, and that’s it.  And some meat and veg to throw on.”

“Look!”  Dödöle, who had been rummaging about in the little kitchen at the yard while his friend enumerated the necessaries, triumphantly shouted.  “I’ve found a grid, or something that resembles one.”

The alleged grid was a sad sight to behold.  Red with rust, weaved through with cobwebs, it was difficult to envision such a decrepit piece of metalwork being of any immediate use.  It would have needed hours to scrub it in the least.  And even then…

“This is totally pitiful.  Jesus.  And I guess you do not have pots and pans large enough to cook for the whole horde.  Anyway, it would take hours.  Well, let’s concentrate.  I am a hungry man of action.  I am bent on finding a very fast solution.  What about edibles?”

“Let’s go to the bigger kitchen in the front and check the fridge.”  The sneezing host suggested.

There they went, and found three packages of party wienerwursts, twelve ears of corn (edible gold), two bags of pre-washed iceberg lettuce with shredded carrots, and the girl with a luxuriant mane of curly brown hair who had sat opposite Tamás during the boat cruise.  Mrs. Dödöle was not on the premises anymore, the girl told them upon asking, as she had gone with a few people to the neighboring distillery, the owner of which had told her during the day that it would be impossible to visit the place unless they did it late in the evening.  At that point dame Anett had angrily turned down the offer, but it seemed that some of her guests had found it simply too irresistibly original to visit a distillery in the countryside under cover of a starry summer-night sky.

“They said they would not be more than half an hour or so.  It was such a spontaneous decision that nobody had said a word about the guests and the appetite that were being left behind.”  She added, looking quizzically at Tamás all the while she was speaking.  Looking at poor Dödöle might have been way too pregnant with criticism.

“Oh, well, I hope they’ll enjoy themselves.”  The host stammered.  “By the way, do you guys know each other?  Margó is the new personal assistant of the obituary chap.  You know, he is quite new, too.  Only started three-four months ago so as to replace Colin, rest his soul.”

“Margó Kréta.  I’m very pleased to meet you.”  She said and smiled, which made her face appear even younger.  She was a strikingly pretty girl of twenty-four, whom Mrs. Dödöle had pronounced to be a woman of no importance.  She was too young to have experience or connections to recommend her, especially because she had only recently come up to Budapest from one of the universities in the countryside.  In the capital she was virtually unknown, and Mrs. Dödöle was sure that the only way to have snatched even such a humble little post at that most illustrious paper was to have used her looks.

It was whispered that the hostess had only invited her to this particular venue to serve as a decorative element.  It might appear strangely out of key with dame Anett’s personality to go out of her way and invite a pretty woman who could outshine her.  Surprisingly, however, the opposite was the case.  Because if there was another positive character trait of which Mrs. Dödöle was a happy possessor, it was her lack of envy concerning other women’s accomplishments, be they looks or intelligence or education or wealth.  The more a woman had to commend her, the more useful she was to Anett Dödöle.  In fact, when it came to the original reason for inviting Margó, it had at the outset had more to do with numbers.  So as to have a proper balance between male and female guests, our prudent hostess had needed another woman.  There had been three single men and two single women on the list, whom it was essential to invite, as they were either already influential or potentially so.  Well, maybe Tamás was not exactly what one would have called influential, but he was, after all, occupying a more senior position at the paper than her husband.  And he happened to be one of his oldest friends.  So Mrs. Dödöle had racked her brains to find a third girl, until she came up with the idea to get pretty Margó.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, too.  It’s funny to have the chance to be introduced to a colleague in an ill-lit country kitchen.  No offence, my friend.”  He hastily added and patted sneezing Dödöle on the back.  “I will skip any circumspect chitchat one is supposed to start with upon first meetings.  Margó, are you hungry?”

“I’m starving.”

“Good.  Are you willing to remedy the situation?”

“Absolutely.”

“Do you know anything whatsoever about cooking?”

“I think I can be of some help, especially because the ingredients at our disposal do not require much skill.  I’ve been snooping around the kitchen, you see, and the only edible items I’ve come upon are these things I placed on the counter.  I could not, for the life of me, find any oil, so it will be quite difficult to put them on the barbeque without having them stick.”

“I’m not sure whether it’s good or bad news but no oil is needed, I guarantee you.”

“How’s that?”  She stared in amazement.  “Or maybe you want to wrap things in foil?  But that would take way more time to cook like that.”

“Oh, fancy, fancy girl!”  He mocked.  “Foil!?  In your dreams!  No, no, no.  Way worse.  The reason why we don’t need oil is because we don’t even have a functioning grilling surface.”

“You must be kidding me.  You mean there’s no grid?”

“I mean there’s no grid you would put anything edible on.  You may even be averse to put your muddy shoes on it.  But that’s not to the point.”

“No, it’s not really to the point.  Hmm.  Well.”  She said, momentarily at a loss.  She stood there, leaning against the counter with her hip, scratching her pretty head.

“I don’t suppose there is a restaurant around here.”  Tamás was thinking aloud.

“No.  No such thing.  And even if there was one, it would not be serving food at this time of night, especially not for this many people.”  Said Dödöle in a weak voice.  By then he had become physically exhausted from his sneezing fit.

“Well, gentlemen, I have an alternative in mind.  All we need is to find some wood.  Some to light a nice fire with, and some to sharpen.”  Margó announced triumphantly.

“Are you planning to go hunting?  To attack a herd of oxen?”

“No, not exactly.  First of all, we have our yummy wienerwursts for meat.  Secondly, the sticks are to be used as cooking tools.  You know, putting the wiener on top, just like we used to do it with hunks of lard.”

“Hunks of lard?  Are you joking?!  I have never in my life fried lard stuck on a stick, thank you very much.”  Tamás disgustedly declared.

“Come on, you’re pulling my leg.  You never had that kind of thing with your family?  Big slices of white bread strewn with onions waiting to absorb the fragrant fat dripping from the melted lard?  Gosh, it is the story of my childhood.  Whenever I smell wood-smoke or fried onions, I associate with those lovely summer evenings, sitting around the fire with my folks, with sticks in hand, nibbling on the crunchy rind of bacon…”

“This sounds totally disgusting.  If you go on like that, I may completely lose my appetite.  No.  My answer to your question is no.  No such events took place while I was growing up.  I was born and bred in Budapest, no country-living was involved. I am a pure urban product, and thank God for that.  I don’t need lard, like some twisted Hungarian madeleine, to remind me of my childhood.”  As he said that, he actually thrust out his chest as if in pride.  Margó was laughing.  She kept fixing him with that quizzical look in her eyes, half amused, half pitying, but not at all patronizing or offended.

“Anyway, under such pressing circumstances, and especially because we are dealing with wienerwursts and not chunks of lard, your idea sounds good.”  Tamás graciously added.

“As good as it gets, yes, I know it’s not a gourmet solution, but, hey, isn’t this supposed to be a rustic country gathering?  It really can’t get much more rustic than this.”

Dödöle, in the meantime, had transformed a long wooden bench into a table by covering it with a checkered cloth, placing the perennial plastic plates, cups and cutlery on it.  He had even started looking for small pieces of wood to light a fire with.  Like some third-rate Robinson Crusoe, he was impressed and delighted by his own resourcefulness.  And it had even cured him of his sneezing.  Tamás and Margó were carrying the edibles to the back yard when they came upon him fumbling around in the dark, searching for branches and fragments of old planks.  They placed the bowl filled with that unimpressive salad in the middle of the table and joined their host in his quest.

“Hullo there, I’ve found some larger twigs, they are almost branch-size, they may be used as sticks.”

Dödöle was eagerly holding out four curiously shaped sticks towards Margó, whom he justly took to be more of an expert on the issue after the conversation that had taken place in the kitchen.  She burst out laughing.

“My dear man, I’m sorry, don’t take it amiss, I’m not laughing at you.  It’s just…It’s just…these are probably the most crooked sticks I’ve ever seen.  But they’ll do fine.  Better than all the bludgeon-sized pieces of wood I’ve come across so far.  Well, those will do for lighting the fire.  Now, let’s divide the tasks here.  I’ll sharpen these crooks, you guys light the fire.”

And so they did.  Soon a cheerful fire was burning and the four sticks were sharp and ready to hold the wienerwursts.  The smell of wood-smoke and food quickly attracted the attention of the other famished guests, who tottered over from all points of the compass.  They emerged from the dark like intoxicated ghosts; with bemused faces and not much willingness to help besides consuming whatever was ready.  The poor little edibles had had to be cut up into smaller pieces so as to give the illusion that there was enough for everyone; a wurst each, accompanied by an even smaller piece of one of the ears of corn that could likewise be stuck on the stick.  It was not that lamentable that most of them were less than eager to do the frying personally, as the stick-shortage could not be remedied, and only four people had the chance to stand around the fire properly equipped.  Thus Dödöle, Tamás, Margó, and a quiet little lady who had raised four children and knew much about countryside living, were rooted to the spot, frying away and feeding the group till there was nothing left to fry.  Together with a few shreds of iceberg, a few stale pretzels and some fruit, the improvised dinner could, with a bit of goodwill, be termed sufficient.  It was enough to pacify guests already too drowsy from liquor, who only needed something to stop the rumbling of their stomachs and to let them lie down in the house or reel back to the guest-house down the street and fall into the oblivion of sleep.  The distillery visitors had not yet come back when Tamás announced that he was close to smoke poisoning and he wanted to take a walk to clear his head.  Would Margó join him?  Yes, she would, with pleasure.

5.

They directed their steps towards the riverbank.  It was a different stretch from where they had embarked on the cruise in the afternoon; one could not actually get all the way down to the water due to the thick growth of all kinds of weedy vegetation flourishing around there.  When Tamás was about to light a cigarette, Margó’s laughter bubbled forth.

“Smoke poisoning, huh?”

“There is smoke and then there is smoke, if you know what I mean.”

“There is no arguing about smokes.”  She said in a mock-pedantic voice.

“And it takes all kinds of smokes to make the world go round.  Wow, our conversation really sparkles.  It may give us some light to see by…Jesus, what a hell-hole this place is.”

“You are very hostile towards the countryside, aren’t you?  I mean, you don’t even have to open your mouth and it is clear.  I was watching you in the boat today and I almost laughed out loud; your face gave you away completely.  It’s not that I want to lecture you or that I think you are wrong, mind.  It just amazes me to meet a Hungarian so very disgusted by his country.”

“I like Budapest.”  He added defensively.  “But you’re right.  I wouldn’t give a fig for the rest of the country.  I even forget sometimes that there is else besides the capital and when I am talking about Hungary I catch myself using Budapest as a synonym.

“What about school-trips to Balaton?  Even if your family has never had a country-house and you spent your childhood in Budapest or abroad, surely you participated in some school-events?”

“Well, I went to a couple of summer-camps but they didn’t float my boat.  Of course I have had my share of eating fried fish by the lake and sunbathing on the jetty with classmates and all that bit.  But they did not leave any impression on me that could be termed more decisive than, let’s say, licking ice-cream under the Roman sun while gazing at the Colosseum.  No, I have never pretended to be very patriotic.  I’ve always wanted to live abroad, and at some point I surely will.  Just now I have too good a job to leave it behind.  And, in fact, it is thanks to my job that I can travel a lot.  You know I write the foreign affairs column.”

“No, but I would have guessed.”

“But tell me honestly, do you really find the Hungarian countryside even remotely interesting?”  He asked and looked at her askance.  He was not sure what effect his words were having on her because her voice remained friendly and even.  Not a hint of offence or approval could he detect.  It suddenly struck him that he cared for her opinion.  He had already caught himself being slightly attracted to her earlier in the evening, and the pleasant feeling was steadily increasing as the night wore on.

“I am sure you are, generally speaking, not a guy who minces his words.  But I am not sure whether you’d be so outspoken if you knew that I was born and raised in the countryside.  I’ve just moved up to Budapest when I got this job.”

“Ah, that explains the lard!”  He involuntarily shouted, but he immediately checked himself and realized he was being insulting.  “Jesus, I’m sorry.”  He stammered, and went on quickly to explain himself.  “I mean, sorry for having said that.  But, anyway, as an admittedly outspoken guy, I might as well have meant that I’m sorry for you.  And if we really think about it, growing up in the country does not automatically presuppose a love for it.  On the contrary.  In my books, you might hate it even more, having had firsthand experience of it for so long.”

“I don’t hate it in the least.  But I am not at all blindly in love with it, either.  I’m not overly patriotic or soppy about it.  The ode to the lard and the wood-smoke was a special case; I don’t usually reminisce about that kind of thing with tears in my eyes.”

“Did you have tears in your eyes?  I didn’t notice.”

“Silly.”  She laughed.  “No, I was far from getting all emotional when I was close to starving to death.  Anyhow, I grew up close to the Danube, you see, so coming down to the Tisza was not a thing we generally did.  Not that I consider it a great loss, I have to admit, because I don’t find this particular area of the country very attractive, either.  Of course I prefer the Danube, but it may be only because I am emotionally attached to it and, anyway, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right?”  He didn’t answer and so she repeated.  “Right?”  As there was still no sound by way of reaction, she stopped and tried to peer into his face.  He remained strangely silent and he looked away towards the water.  She couldn’t see he was embarrassed.  And she couldn’t know that it was something that did not very often happen to him. With what seemed to him a superhuman effort, he said in a meek voice:

“You would not find me soppy if I remarked that beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder?  That I am just now beholding it?”

It was her turn to remain silent.  She just stood there, with her face directed towards his.  Instead of repeating what he deemed way too sentimental even to have uttered once, he kissed her and then said:

“If I show you my Budapest, I mean the district I grew up in with the dinky little playground and the corner-store and all that, would you show me your part of the Danube one day?  Take me to your village?”

“With pleasure.  I’ll organize a lard on a stick event for you.  Just the two of us.  Two sticks, two hunks of bread, and an onion.”

6.

By the time they got back to the house Mrs. Dödöle and her little squad had returned from the distillery in high good humor.  They had been detained by the ebullient pálinka-maker for dinner; a steaming pot of goulash and no end of fresh white bread, washed down with a generous amount of red wine.  Mrs. Dödöle looked enormously pleased as she sat there, recounting the events of their charming little outing to the abandoned birthday boy.  She was happy to hear in turn that they had found the wienerwursts and that her husband had such a nice time preparing them with his old friend Tamás.  And Margó was of great help, too?  What a good idea of hers it had turned out to be to have invited that girl!  And she’d gone for a walk with Tamás?  Excellent.  The proud hostess was of the opinion that on top of the successful outcome of the party, she might even congratulate herself on having done a good turn to her husband’s friend with finding him a girlfriend at last.  In fact, she was already thinking about inviting them as a couple for dinner to their place.  It would be so much fun cooking together again!


[1] See T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”

[2] Hungarian hard liquor, a kind of fruit brandy

[3] From Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

[4] See Sándor Petőfi’s poem “Alföld” about the Hungarian plain where this story takes place

[5] From T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”

Waiting

1.

It was too early to go to bed; not even seven o’clock yet. And she had dozed in the afternoon for more than an hour. But what was there to do? She had just swallowed the few bites of soggy bread and butter she usually had for dinner, so eating as an option was out. The TV didn’t interest her anymore; she had long ago given up her habit of following the soap operas and the quiz shows. They bored her and tired her; even if she had cared to follow the storyline her eyes would have started to hurt after a few minutes, anyway.

It was her eyes that had made reading impossible long ago, and now even the watching of the screen gave her pain. It was for the same reason that embroidering, her favorite pastime, had for long been out of the question. As to taking a walk, she wasn’t supposed to go out alone unless there was an emergency; groceries and medication were delivered to her on a weekly basis.

Mrs. Varna sat on the brown plush divan as she was thinking of this, her tiny frame hunched, her wizened hands in her lap, her head tilted to one side, very much resembling a battered cuddly toy with her fuzzy silver hair, with eyes unnaturally large and round behind her strong glasses, and with that round little body waiting in vain to be hugged—the very image of the silver teddy bear with the checkered patch on its elbow that she had bought for Linda ever so many years ago.

She tried to think of what she would be doing if she were back in her old house down in the country instead of being a prisoner in this nondescript urban flat on the ninth floor of a living block—surrounded by identical living blocks, without a blade of grass around and only the stink of fumes and that of the hot dirty concrete instead of wood-smoke awaiting her nostrils whenever she stuck her head out of the window in search of fresh air. This was no place for old men—she would have agreed with Yeats about that.

But then why did she have to give up her beloved cottage? Why was she forced to live like some caged animal when it would soon be the death of her? Or was that what they wanted—to suffocate her, to bury her in this urban tomb and pretend it was all for her own good? Well, as far as she could see, her daughters Irene and Kathy had become so uninterested in her that they wouldn’t even have bothered killing her off. Darling Linda, on the other hand, was full of good intentions and whenever she showed up—usually at ten-day intervals—she was convinced that the present abode was the best possible solution for her grandma under the circumstances.

What circumstances? Bob had been dead for two years, and the loss of her son—however big a burden he had apparently been to his ageing mother with his nervous breakdown and his need to be fended for in his late fifties—left her more forlorn than she would have imagined. She had two more children and a grandchild so it hadn’t been a matter of course that she would remain all alone when Bob was gone. But so it happened. What had seemed to be a burden turned out to be a reason and a way to live as soon as it was gone; taking care of her son had given her something to live for and someone to be with. Although he hadn’t been fit to live alone, he could still be of help when it came to doing menial things around the house. This was how she had been able to manage her little patch of a garden, where she had grown tomatoes and carrots and had cultivated roses and had even had a cherry tree that yielded enough to make preserves.

Oh, how she missed that decrepit house, how she pined for her ridiculous little garden, how she even wished she could be barked at by the neighbor’s ferocious dog—that ugly shaggy creature with the fearful snarl and the caked saliva and mud on his dirty black fur. Not that she had any illusions about the place; it had been moldy and small and the neighbors had never been friendly—nay, they had been positively happy when she was forced to sell the house to them for half price and they got the land for themselves and got rid of her into the bargain. (It went without saying that they had all along been planning to pull the house down.) Regardless of illusions, she had adored her house; it had been her home for the last sixty years, after all, and every little nook had a story to tell. Just sitting between its four musty walls had been eventful enough, what with all the memories that each detail evoked.

2.
Not so very long ago Mrs. Varna had been the center of a fairly large and loving family. Seven years ago, for example, Bob had not yet had his nervous breakdown, and Irene’s excesses with anti-depressants hadn’t yet started, either, and Kathy had been still out and about—no sign of the phobia she had developed in the last four years, which made her incapable of leaving her flat or of accepting visitors. Her darling grandchild, Irene’s little Linda, was twelve at the time, and she loved spending her days at her grandma’s house. And she had been, of course, still active and enthusiastic—the very center of their universe, the retired cook who lived to feed her beloved ones till they swore they would burst.

There were Sunday lunches every week, and the living room of her little house was so crowded that it was hard to move. The table was, of course, too small to host everyone at the same time, so they ate in turns, four at a time. Several hungry friends of her family came as well, and they always said that her cooking even exceeded their expectations based on the stories they had been told by the family members. Her pancakes were legendary, her stuffed cabbages were the best in the whole of Eastern Europe, her chicken soup had the most beautiful golden color ever seen, and her potato gnocchi with ewe cheese would have put an Italian to shame.

At Christmas time she would unearth the foldable imitation Christmas tree that had served more than three generations. It was a full meter in height, with exactly twelve branches that could be bent any way one liked, and twenty red and yellow baubles, and a golden garland, and another garland of little lights that had four different kinds of bulbs—red, yellow, blue, and green—and twinkled ever so cheerfully. She would start the preparations weeks ahead, rushing around the local market to buy the ingredients, baking cakes and cookies by the hundreds, fumbling with the wrapping paper so as to give a lovely look to the humble presents that she could afford, and, at intervals, sitting in her little parlor, feverishly thinking over the things still to be done, excited like a little girl.

3.
In those days she had good enough health to travel up to the city as often as she liked and visit her family members. She used to spend many afternoons with Linda, helping her with her homework to the best of her abilities—her forte was to listen to the girl read aloud or recount something she would have to learn by heart—as well as making sure she had an afternoon snack and, also, lending her grandchild a hand with the chores that she had to do around the house. As to this latter activity, it was of a clandestine nature because Irene would have been very cross with both of them had she known.

Old Mrs. Varna had to admit that her eagerness to be of use had often driven her to excesses and her help had been taken as meddling by her children. It was beyond her to catch sight of an untidy room and not put things in order—her kind of order, which often resulted in hours of exasperated search on the part of the “perpetrator” of the mess to find a piece of clothing or any other object. She was incapable of sitting comfortably while others were struggling with a task she could and would love to do, and it was even more impossible for her to leave something undone as long as she could do it.

It was in this way that she had first come upon Irene’s batch of pills. The old woman, having decided to whip up a few dozen pancakes while waiting for Linda to come home from school, went to the bathroom to wash her hands. The place was a mess; perfume bottles, hairbrushes, sprays, sponges, and, most importantly, many many boxes of pills lay scattered all around the basin and even on the floor. Irene must have left for work in a greater hurry than usual and she hadn’t even bothered hiding the pills. At that time Mrs. Varna hadn’t as yet been forced to take as much medication for her various ailments as nowadays and so she hadn’t known very much about pills, but the sheer amount of them lying around the cramped messy bathroom was frightening enough. Linda mustn’t know, she decided, and quickly put all of the pills in a plastic bag and shoved it in her handbag. She had meant to put it in Irene’s bedside drawer, but she forgot and only noticed it when already back at her own place.

Irene had been beside herself with anger and her voice on the phone was terrible; for the first time she had cursed her own mother, shouting and screaming and swearing at the poor old lady who had wept bitterly that night, not yet suspecting how regular an occurrence such phone calls would become in time. Now she knew that a call from Irene would always be fuelled by a large dose of all kinds of pills taken at random and washed down by whatever hard liquor was at hand and so it would necessarily be such a painful ordeal for both mother and daughter that it would be impossible to look forward to the next time the latter decided to call again.

4.
There hadn’t been any phone calls for more than two months now. Mrs. Varna, after the first month of silence, had tried to call, but there had been no answer. Linda, she knew, was at her father’s place in Slovakia for the summer break, trying to bond with her stepsister. Irene, therefore, had been living by herself for the last two months, which surely was a great temptation to go to even greater extremes than when her daughter was around.
Irene had disappeared from her mother’s life for longer stretches than this before and she had already been forced by her employer to undergo a treatment—all in vain. Mrs. Varna had been sick with worry, but the whole situation had been going on for so long that she had almost become immune to the sharp pain that her daughter’s behavior caused her; it had turned into a dull sort of pain that was even worse than the intense agony she had felt earlier because this dull misery never left her and it seemed to make her incapable of finding relief in tears.

The rupture with Kathy was of a different kind. Mrs. Varna’s older daughter had never made a scene, had never disappeared and than appeared again; it hadn’t been like the roller-coaster ride to which Irene had subjected her. Kathy had gradually ceased to go out, that was all. In the first stage she would phone and say that she couldn’t make it to the Sunday lunch that week. Then she would phone again and again canceling whatever program had been looming on the horizon. Then she wouldn’t even call, but would still pick up the phone and explain that she simply didn’t feel up to going out or meeting anyone. Next she wouldn’t even pick up the phone.

When Mrs. Varna had first paid Kathy an unannounced visit after a whole afternoon of dialing the latter’s number in vain, she had been made to feel very unwelcome; Kathy had been a most ungracious hostess, almost too reluctant to let her own mother in. In retrospect, however, it had still been a better scenario than the stage she had reached since. Kathy Varna hadn’t opened the door for anyone for the last four years and was only disposed to communicate with her family members from time to time, mostly by phone, and only when she initiated the call. It was only the postman and the delivery boy—the former with her pension money and the latter with groceries or a hot meal from a cheap eatery—who had the privilege of seeing her door open and half her torso emerge from behind it.

Kathy was a clean freak and it was, therefore, highly likely that she kept her apartment in order at least. It was something like a shoebox as to its size, and the living block in which it was to be found was just as depressingly nondescript as the urban prison where Mrs. Varna had been kept since her removal from her beloved country house. No one knew what Kathy was up to the whole day, how she lived, what she thought, but, apart from Mrs. Varna, nobody seemed to care anyway—even Linda, so good-natured at all times, had declared that she washed her hands of her crazy aunt after the latter had told her in a most violent manner to mind her own bloody business.

The old woman had visited Kathy many times before, standing outside and talking to her through the door, but it had been to no avail and the neighbors started complaining; they didn’t like her mumbling in the staircase and didn’t see why she wouldn’t let Kathy alone. Miss Varna was a good neighbor, never making any noise, never having any scandalous visitors, never complaining, never bothering them in the least—she was as if she didn’t even exist and what better neighbor was there than that?

Then Mrs. Varna had gradually lost her strength and it became impossible for her to climb the four flights of stairs leading up to Kathy’s flat. (The house couldn’t boast of an elevator and some said it was better so because it never was out of order at least.)

5.
Whenever around, Linda was a godsend. She was a placid apple-faced girl with long chestnut hair reaching all the way down to the middle of her back. She was pretty in a homely unpretentious way; she never wore makeup, she never dyed her hair, she had a hearty appetite and a consequently rounded figure that never bothered her in the least—attributes that made her a favorite with boys who preferred the “real thing” to some sham, however decorative. Considering her problematic mother and aunt—and even the grandmother was becoming ever more difficult—it was a miracle that she had managed to retain her serenity and openness; she was neither depressed nor ashamed about any of it. Not blessed with a mother Teresa complex but having a great good heart nevertheless, Linda, when not hanging out with her girlfriends or her current boyfriend, made valiant attempts at cheering up both her mother and her grandma and keeping an eye on both households.

Mrs. Varna had never been able to accustom herself to the sight of Linda doing chores that she used to do for her little grandchild not that long ago; Linda scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the two rooms of her grandma’s place was a sight that always made Mrs. Varna’s eyes water with shame, exasperation, and gratitude. What a burden she’d become to her family! What a shame it was that she didn’t have strength enough to take care of such basic things at least! What an angel her Linda was!

Her feeling of shame always got the better of her and as soon as Linda had left, Mrs. Varna never failed to resolve to tackle some things at least so as to lighten Linda’s load the next time she came. This is how she had fallen off a chair when she tried to take clean sheets from the upper cupboard on one occasion; or how she had almost cut her finger off with a broken plate when dealing with the washing up at another time; the most innocuous thing she’d done was the watering of all the plants in the flat—artificial ones included, which had made Linda both laugh and cry when she saw the puddles of water under a pot hosting a plastic palm tree and another giving home to a fake rosebush.

Of course Linda couldn’t tell her not to do any housework at all because poor Mrs. Varna couldn’t wait around for her grandchild to come whenever something had to be done; even without the vacuuming and the sheets and the plants, there were things to do every day and all of them were potentially dangerous—the washing up, for example, couldn’t wait for weeks in the sink even if she might cut a finger off.

6.
Now that Linda was gone Mrs. Varna had all the more reason to try and fend for herself. Not that Linda had abandoned her to her fate without making some arrangements; the conscientious girl had made a deal with a girlfriend of hers to come and help her grandma once every two weeks, lending the friend a stack of her favorite dresses in return. But the girlfriend, however nice, was a stranger, and Mrs. Varna’s feeling of shame knew no bounds even at the mere thought of accepting such help. She had told Linda that it would be alright, but the very first time the strange girl appeared Mrs. Varna, to the ill-disguised relief of the former, had told her she didn’t need any help, thanks ever so much.

For two months now, the old woman had been alone, trying to survive and not lose her will to live. Every day was a blend of struggle and boredom, and every day it became more and more difficult to see the point in continuing the struggle. What would she be missing out on? And who would miss her? Even Linda would feel relieved, she was sure.

But she was too religious—and perhaps also a little too scared—to think of doing away with herself and, moreover, she felt she couldn’t leave without seeing her darlings for the last time. In a few weeks more Linda would come to her, but what about her daughters? Could they be convinced to visit her if they knew it would be for the last time? And how could she assure them it was for the last time? Even if she had a good explanation handy, they would have to pick up the phone first!

Mrs. Varna stood up from the brown divan, driven by the sudden urge to make those calls. She stood up so fast that she almost lost her balance and fell face forward. Sinking back on the divan she sat for another few minutes, collecting strength to try getting up again. As soon as that mission had been accomplished, she shambled to the lowboy containing her tattered notebook with her daughters’ phone numbers. She used to know them by heart, but her memory had been failing her lately and, after having several times ended up calling wrong numbers and infuriating strangers, she at last decided to stick to using her notebook.
She tried Irene’s number first and, by some miracle, the fifth attempt resulted in somebody answering the phone:

“Yeah?” It was more of a hostile grunt than an actual word, and it certainly sounded more like a man than a woman. Mrs. Varna hesitated. Had she once again dialed the wrong number?
“Oh, uh, I am looking for Irene, uh…I’m not sure whether this is the right number…” Without answering her directly, the belligerent individual could be heard to shout to someone in the background. “Steve, go and tell Irene that some woman’s on the phone wanting to talk to her.” Jesus. Two men at Irene’s flat! Mrs. Varna felt her heart in her throat. After a minute or two she heard another male voice shout:
“Irene’s in the bathtub and tells me to tell you to tell the woman to call back.”
“Lady…” The man who had answered the call said to Mrs. Varna “you’ll have to call back. Irene’s busy.”
“Oh, please mister, tell her it is very urgent. I really have to talk to her now.” The old woman felt that she could not afford to lose the opportunity; maybe next time nobody would answer the phone; maybe she would never again be able to call back. The room was reeling with her and she felt sweat beads running down her back.

Once again without answering her, the man shouted to his friend:
“This crazy bitch doesn’t wanna give up, she wants Irene. Get that whore out of that bloody tub or I’ll drag her out by her hair.” Mrs. Varna almost fainted as she heard all this, but she steeled herself against any such weakness that would prevent her from speaking to her daughter. Oh, what awful company she was keeping! What kind of danger might she be running in letting such criminals into her apartment! Mrs. Varna was simultaneously shivering and sweating by now.

Another minute elapsed and the man named Steve roared out of the bathroom:
“Irene says you should just hang up instead of nagging her. And she tells me to tell you not to call her whore.”

“But she is a whore. Anyway…” and here the line broke; the man had hung up.

7.
It took Mrs. Varna a full hour to recover from the shock that the call had given her. She was surprised, hurt, frightened, and disheartened. She had never heard anything about Irene’s love-life before. She certainly hadn’t expected any further complications besides the pills and the alcohol, especially not in the shape of rough men treating her like a whore. How long had this been going on? Did Linda know any of this?

The palpitations that came upon her at the thought of this weakened her so much that she closed her eyes and tried to find comfort in the fact that the young girl was, at least for the moment, safely out of it at her father’s place.

By a great effort the old woman forced her attention towards her other daughter. Oh, what if Kathy was secretly engaged in some similar monstrosity at her place? Even if the neighbors didn’t hear anything there might be all kinds of terrible things going on in there. She must call Kathy! She must call right now!

With trembling fingers she dialed the number of her older daughter’s flat and waited, listening to the ring-tone until the well-known automatic voice informed her that there was no answer and the call got disconnected. She repeated the call fifteen times at least before she became convinced that there never would be an answer.

The moment this had become clear to her she knew she would go to her daughter, no matter what. So she carefully stood up and shuffled to the entrance door, grabbing her handbag as she went. Her determination lent her more strength than she’d possessed for years and she got down to the corner of the street without any hitch—hitch, that is, concerning her progress towards Kathy’s house; whether she’d locked her door or taken enough money with her or her notebook with numbers and addresses in case her memory once again played tricks on her was another matter. As long as her legs carried her and they carried her in the right direction nothing else mattered.

It was pitch dark and the air was still very stuffy despite it being past nine o’clock in the evening. Mrs. Varna, as if in a trance, glided onward, taking the right-hand turn that was needed so as to get to the bus stop, and climbing on the bus that had been standing still while it had been waiting for the appointed time to depart. There were only four other people on the dirty old bus; a greasy-haired teenager with a headphone blasting some violent guitar music, an old man holding on to the seat in front of him and mumbling to himself, and a couple passionately kissing and fondling each other with accompanying groans. Mrs. Varna didn’t seem to see them; she sat down mechanically and stared ahead.

8.
Three times did Mrs. Varna have to change her means of transportation; the bus-ride was followed by a longish journey on a tram, which was, in turn, followed by yet another wait on yet another bus. By the time she had reached the third stage and crawled on to the second bus, all the strength that had miraculously come to her aid at the outset of her journey had left her. She sank down on a seat, not noticing it had been smeared with melted ice-cream, and rested her head against the window that was too dirty to be transparent anymore. This bus was deserted and it waited for a long time before leaving the station. Not that Mrs. Varna had noticed; she had fallen into a kind of stupor and was awakened by the driver insistently tapping on her shoulder:

“Lady, you have to get off. This is the final stop.” His voice was rough but kind. The sight of the tiny old lady sitting there with her eyes closed, forlorn and exhausted, had moved him. But he was also tired, it was the end of his shift, and he really didn’t need any complications. Still, he would be as kind to the poor creature as he could. He helped her get off the bus, escorting her uncertain steps, and then bade her goodnight.

The kindness of the bus driver had been the only gesture of goodwill Mrs. Varna had experienced for the last two months and it filled her with a strange hope that gave her a jolt of energy similar to that which she had got from her determination to go to Kathy earlier that evening. Her temporary stupor had passed away and she once again trod the street with miraculously certain steps. Fortunately it was the final bus stop that she needed anyway and so she was not in the least lost. This part of the city was less dark than the one where her apartment was to be found and she made her way with relative ease through the neon-lit street that was to lead her to Kathy’s place.

Number nineteen was the lowest building around, but it didn’t fool Mrs. Varna; she knew what climbing four flights of stairs meant and even the mere thought of it drained her of half the energy that had filled her at the bus stop. She undertook to reach the first floor at one go and then sit down on the stairs to rest. The plan was carried out and as she sat gasping for air, her success made her optimistic.

Reaching the second floor was also a mission completed, but the shortness of breath was of a different kind this time. She felt a sharp pain in her chest and she was overcome with dizziness. But while the first floor had witnessed her optimism, the second floor failed to strike her in the spirit of “a glass half full”; being half way up meant that she had the same amount of work ahead—the glass seemed half empty.

The third floor was reached on hands and knees, and the matter for rejoicing was that she didn’t meet anyone on the stairs; no one saw her shameful crawl.

During the progress towards the fourth floor all feeling of shame left her and the only thing she was conscious of was that she simply had to make it to the top. She didn’t even know and cared even less what she would do once she was up there. Could she persuade Kathy to let her in? Should she go on making a noise in the middle of the night so as to force her daughter to open her door and thereby prevent scandalizing her sleeping neighbors? And would she have the required amount of strength to make such noise?

The last three steps felt cold and smooth to the touch, like a gravestone. Her gnarled fingers clutched onto them like the person drowning clutches at a lifeline. She was on top. She had made it. With a smile on her face that resembled the grimace of one in pain, Mrs. Varna dragged herself on all fours to Kathy’s door and laid her face on the doormat that bade “welcome” to visitors in red letters. The letters were so large that even her weak eyes had no difficulty in reading them. The irony of it struck her and she even emitted a little laugh before it all began turning into a bright blur. Then the lights were getting dimmer and dimmer and finally, while darkness was falling on her fast, it crossed her mind that the light bulb in the staircase might be going out.