D F Lewis
Between the skirt’s designer split. I glimpsed the toddling sun-brown nine-pins of her lower legs. I had simply wanted to fall in love with her, tried my very best, but all I could manage was adoration . . . which, in many ways, was a cut above love but, at the same time, less enjoyable because of the pain involved. Recalling that her name was even prettier than her face made it all quite unbearable. Simonetta.
The last straw was the realisation that my age, compared to hers, brought us tantamount to unrecorded histories apart. But never one to be discouraged by impossibilities, I decided to begin my attempts to charm Simonetta away from common sense. Whether an old loafer so down in the mouth like myself could even hope to crack the “chat-up” line sufficient to spark off a meaningful (or, even, meaningless) relationship between us … well, I did not know, but I was determined to pull out the only trump card in a lifeful of jokers.
I had watched her from the comparative safety of my dark glasses – my angular ostrich-like body hopefully invisible to her wild bright eyes. She would probably find it hard to differentiate between me and the shopping trolley, unless I drew attention to the human half by speaking. She seemed shy, picking her way as she did through the blood-red tomatoes; nevertheless, I feared the sharpness of her tongue, should I make overtures.
Indeed, I did not pluck up courage. I failed the final litmus test.
As I left the 24-hour supermarket, the star-strewn sky slowly shifted smaller before the onset of a blacker blankety backcloth of storm. This ruler-edged weather front was sufficient to take my mind from misplaced love. Yet all hope was not lost. Lugging her shopping bag, Simonetta followed me. She came so close she was almost under my colourful golf umbrella. If I had any sense, I would have offered to carry her bag, more as a hostage than a token of gentlemanliness. But she soon disappeared, come the Underground entrance, and, without a backward glance, became just one of the crowd.
I never liked her legs much, anyway.
So, I decided to take an unplanned holiday – where there’d be oodles of night life to encourage someone as unworldly as me. It was a rather posh part of the south coast. The neatly gardened bed-and-breakfast hotel, in a road full of similar hotels, each with gleaming, saluting signs telling of their names, was mid-way between where one road’s end became a bridge over a wooded chine and where the other end led down to the seafront. It boasted a gardener who had spelled ou the hotel’s name in flowers and built a small rockery waterfall, which gushed for me more loudly than bloodstreams – or more than Niagra which is what Mrs Oderwheat, the landlady, said.
I had visited the place at the height of the season once a year, so much so I was soon deemed a regular – honoured with a double bed and a view of the sea. This was the first time, however, at thc end of the season. More sensible, in a way, with the nights closing in.
Since Mrs Oderwheat was not so busy, she spoke to me of times when the hotel was first built – it being the first one to open its doors in the whole road. When her father had set himself up in the holiday business, she was only four years old. I nodded and smiled. Her speciality was breakfast. Rashers of steaming bacon woven like wicker baskets (containing free range eggs coddled in pork jelly) were trundled in on a trolley also laden with wild honey-soaked truffles, butterfly-wing mushrooms stuffed with black pudding and, then, her tour de force, button kidneys in garlic. She frowned on coffee, tea, milk and cereals, for those were fodder for customers at the other hotels, she said. I only ate the black pudding, thinking it peculiar that blood when baked was always black. Not burnt, but simply black by virtue of the rearrangement of its molecules.
Breakfast, she claimed, set you up for the day. So, I was careful when eschewing its unwanted parts. I stored it, like a camel, in my stomach and shat it out when I had a chance. But, being on holiday from dust, travail and a failed romance, the tangential energy it gave me remained bottled up and unused. I often tossed and turned in the otherwise comfortable big bed, my mind alert, wondering why the nights never became entirely dark at seasides. I laid awake listening to the gurgling makeshift waterfall … and, despite the walls’ thickness, to the undercurrents of snoring from the other guests.
I really should have done some swimming in the sea, to work off my excess life. It was only in recent years, upon the coming of middle age, had I weathered my existence sufficiently to go out at daytime. But the water was so dirty, I could see the foreign bodies choking its sluggish tides. The road of manicured hotels leading down to the beach seemed to be a diversion from the marine litter that I could spy just below the surface, especially when the deceptive mauve twilights pulled the covers of night across the sea-bed. The garden waterfall was crystal clear by day, pure black by night, but the sea was always giving off a luminous grey gloom.
Of course, I was not the sort who could sit on the beach for hours on end; the heat of the sun, even when I concentrated hard to ignore it, was something my body could not bear for long – and the endless trail of toddlers with bucket and spades zigzagging between the deckchairs as if enacting rituals they would soon forget in later life … well, it was all little better than the inured city life I was meant to be escaping.
When I saw Simonetta again, I was less surprised by the coincidence than by her legs not looking like nine-pins when revealed to the waist. It was unseasonably warm. She was struggling with a crippled deckchair which had a life of its own in her hands. I watched as she finally planted it in the sand and collapsed upon its striped canvas. Later, she tried to remove her swimgear, with the help (or hindrance) of a large wriggling towel. I caught glimpses of odd areas of flesh I could not quite place – but, eventually, when the befrocked butterfly emerged, I caught my breath at the neat way she had tucked everything in. I noticed she had dropped her wrist-watch beneath the deckchair, so I went over, heart in mouth, to hand it to her.
Evidently, she did not recognise me from the supermarket back home. Why should she? Her voice was hard, like a seashell, but equally it was uncertain and cowed. I felt it natural to talk, for once – as if I were opening grave-gates that had been stuck shut for far too long. I cannot now remember how my deckchair nudged hers, but it must have also wanted to communicate, stick-insect to stick-insect. However, soon, we were together, facing the sea and small-talking. Apparently, she was staying at a hotel quite near mine. Alone, like me.
I pointed to the sea encroaching closer.
“That is a scandal, the things they put in there.”
She nodded. I could see she agreed.
We folded up our deckchairs and kindly laid them together upon the promenade, whence the local council was later supposed to collect them. I promised to ask Mrs Oderwheat if I could have Simonetta as my guest at dinner. The hotel was open to non-residents, after all. She smiled and said she had already ordered dinner for two at her own hotel, whole game pie and carrots in a sea salt sauce. She often ordered for two, she explained, so she could send one of the meals back to the kitchen. It seemed she had an obsession about complaining when on holiday, for it would not be half as pleasurable without minor niggles with which she could bring attention to herself … and later, in fact, recount to her cronies back home. The rest of the year, she was a mere cog in a giant wheel; despite her experience, still an office junior. The hotel pandered to her whims – in actual fact charged her for two meals per night – and took the complaints in good heart. Tonight, she said, I could partake of that second meal.
But, Mrs Oderwheat would be jealous, I thought. I smiled, for I could go through the usual motions of receiving my evening meal (in any event, never as memorable as her breakfasts) and, instead of camellising it, send it back to the kitchen with a flea in Mrs Oderwheat’s ear, taking a leaf out of my new friend’s book. I had really got into the complaining mood.
Yet I could not bear the sight of tears in Mrs Oderwheat’s eyes nor of her tongue as it laced up her cheek to taste the salt – so I scuttled down the road, nearer to the chine, where my new friend’s hotel stood like a bridge-house. The sound of the garden waterfall was now expunged by the more distant sound of the sea.
Simonetta already sat at the dining-table, where the white cloth bore the red stains of previous meals. Two steaming platters sat before her on a double place-setting, bearing piles of indistinguishable food-stuffs, brown as dinners nearly always were. We counted vegetables on our fists to see who would partake of which platter:
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four – five potato, six potato, seven potato, more.”
Eventually she nudged one across to me and I took a spoonful under my tongue, where it melted away. She smiled. I smiled back. She smiled again, and I rushed away to be sick.
Later, we strolled hand in hand, gazing out along the sea’s moonpath. I had told her about my double bed at Mrs Oderwheat’s, the left hand side of which I had never tried. There was a barely noticeable drizzle coming off the sea, so I erected my golf umbrella above us, for old time’s sake. I explained how I’d always known her name, ever since a very early breakfast ten centuries ago. Always a good chat-up line. It might even have been true, given the inbuilt self-destructiveness of too much memory. Still, I also said she looked very beautiful in her ankle-length evening-dress – which made up for it. In any event, we gradually headed back towards Mrs Oderwheat’s hotel, the drag of the sea and the creaking of the deckchairs soon being replaced by the garden waterfall’s black gurgle. The flowers forming the name of the hotel could be picked out, each colour blending to a lighter shade of shadow. It was a pity that Mrs Oderwheat’s gardener couldn’t spell, as Simonetta pointed out so righteously. A perfect evening’s only flaw. Yet another of life’s jokers. Better than being life’s victims. Shy vampires were ever such.