It is late summer, and we are on holiday in a beach town along the Golden Coast, a place that is a mix of locals and British expats. It’s easy to tell who the expats are, their skin always looks burned from the strong Spanish sun; they try to blend in with the locals but their patina of uneasy sweat gives them away,
Dinner here is eaten very late- we walk along the beach trying to choose between seafood, or skipping dinner in favour of dessert. When are you going to have seafood this fresh?- My husband cajoles me as we clumsily translate the menus posted outside each restaurant. The boardwalk and the sea press right up to the main drag, and we stroll alternately along the narrow sidewalk and the sandy boards that abut the beach. The sea looks black at night, spilled ink, indistinguishable from the sky, no horizon line.
There aren’t many people on the beach at this time of night; the few that are here are strewn about haphazardly, camped on folding lawn chairs in twos or threes. There is a couple seated a few feet from us, the woman with her back to her partner, her face visible to me in the glow of the street lamps. She looks distant, annoyed, her paramour’s hand is resting on her shoulder, his voice floating up from behind her, soft and coaxing. To see them is to know instantly the nature of their relationship: her, much younger, him, trying to enjoy an early retirement. He probably spent 35 years in middle management; 35 years in middle management affords you a mid-tier retirement in a mid-tier city with a mid-tier girl, a girl who is pretty, but not too pretty, young, but not too young. I wonder if either of these strangers is happy with the deal they have struck- her posture is resentful, her tone lackluster, his hand rubs her back, his attitude says please turn around. He looks up at me, briefly, and I haven’t read him quite right- his mouth is lifted at the corners and I think part of him is enjoying her resentment.
Afternoons are so quiet you could hear a pin drop, everything closed, siesta still practiced and taken literally. We spend them with friends, the only people we know here, on a wrap-around balcony under an awning wide enough to keep the sun at bay. Charcuterie, sliced fruit, prawns dipped in olive oil, chilled wine. The wine is for everyone but the hostess; they are pregnant, their fourth, another boy, her DNA so weak-willed that her womb cannot produce a single girl-child.
Every woman wants a daughter. Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee calls back the lovely April of her prime.
On the weekend they take us to a market, small and grubby, a place where mostly locals go to buy their fruit and eggs and olives; cramped stalls and the sellers looking like they spend all day out in the sun. The poverty here grips the south like a plague; the people our age look 15 years older than us.
There isn’t much beauty to be found here among the locals, and the tourists are mostly older. There are pretty girls everywhere, the one maxim you should be able to count on in life, but no, not here.
There is just the one girl, walking in front of me, in front of us, but only I’ve taken notice of her. Black hair down her back, curls, tanned skin, hips swaying like a hypnotic pendulum. She evokes that feeling in you, the one that feels like a visceral gut-punch, makes you feel close to god, love or almost-love, the one you feel when you hold something soft and vulnerable in your palm: I want to save it, I want to crush it. She is stopping, off to the right, not quite in my line of sight and my husband is in my ear: Do you want the black olives or the green with almonds, should we just get both? I’m nodding, well, which is it Claire? and can’t he see that I’m busy, just pick whatever fucking olives you want, christ, and she has moved on and the moment is over and it’s just us left here to walk back to the car with containers that we hold upright so nothing will spill.
At night we leave all the windows open, hoping for a cooling breeze, but it’s only relentless humidity here. We lay in the dark holding hands and I wait until I feel his fingers loosen and his breathing slow and deepen before I turn over and look outside. I can see a thin sliver of moon and the black sky, bathed in a gentle glow from the street lamps. The things I cannot see but I know are there: a tree, just the one, that grows lemons and is randomly placed by the fence, the cracked sidewalks, the colourful stucco of our building turning pastel with age. My husband moves beside me, slightly restless, the way he becomes when he starts to dream. I feel a stab of envy at his easy departure from wakefulness. But I don’t really want to sleep. I want to get up, go out, but I can’t, I can’t, because I’m not familiar with this city, not even that familiar with this building, and he would know. No doubt I would bump into furniture coming back in or step on the one floorboard that creaks and he would wake up. He would know what he already knows and pretends not to. And then one of us might have to say something and it would break the peace that we have, the contract that is our life together, the scaffolding that keeps our marriage upright, the many small and big trade-offs that we have made to stay together. Love, but don’t ask, look, but don’t see.
My husband thinks that people are either clocks or bombs; he worries that I am a bomb, but he has no respect for clocks. He does not know himself as well as he thinks he does, and I know the one essential truth of him that breathes life into his feelings for me: He would rather be scared than bored.
I close my eyes and ignore the voice that I hear- it sounds like a heartbeat, relentless, persistent. Hungry.
You promised me, it says.
You promised to show me things, give me things, to feed me.
Does your word mean nothing?