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