47˚ East 18˚ South 2
I ignored the stranger sitting by the edge of the pool, and swam a few more lengths, but it still wasn’t working, in fact it was making things worse – as I got into a rhythm, so did my thoughts – over and over and over, like a song you can’t stop singing to yourself.
What have you done, what have you done, what have you done?
I stopped and looked at the person. Anything to make those words stop going round my head. She hadn’t moved since I’d first seen her. She was looking back at me, smiling. That was when I knew for sure she wasn’t French, like most of the other people there seemed to be; Frenchwomen don’t smile when they meet you, they size you up competitively while they wait to see what you’re going to do.
We were around the same age. She was wearing a big white tshirt, with the name of the hotel emblazoned across the front. It looked as if she’d taken it out of the cellophane pack and put it straight on – you could see the creases where it had been folded in the bag. It wasn’t very flattering. She looked tired, hot, and uncomfortable. I shielded my eyes from the glare of the sun and smiled back;
“You should come in – it’s much nicer”
“Oh what wouldn’t I give? Can’t though. They’ve lost all our bags. Somewhere between here and Paris. Nightmare!”
She made a rueful face, screwing up her eyes against the light
“What will you do?”
“They think it’s coming on the next flight, so tomorrow morning – they gave me this in the meantime” she pulled at the tshirt.
I climbed out of the pool and stood, dripping, on the edge. My room was only a short walk along the little shell-lined path.
“Would you like to borrow one of mine?”
She was still thanking me as I went off to find her something. It wasn’t a big deal to me. I could easily spare a bikini. She could keep it. I didn’t care.
As I went along the path I felt happier, and I couldn’t quite work out why, until it suddenly occurred to me that it was the first time someone had been unreservedly nice to me for quite a long time. Then I went off to shower, and didn’t think about her again until later on, when I was lying in the cool of the room, hiding from the hottest part of the day.
Al had gone off somewhere after eating. Nothing had been right for him at lunch. Nothing was ever right for him, and it usually involved me in one way or another. That day I had made the wrong face when he’d been rude to the waiter. His New York abrasiveness had puzzled the poor man – they weren’t used to Americans in that place, and Al never quite got that what passed as justifiably discerning in Manhattan came across as inexplicable anger in most other places in the world.
As I lay on the big bed, the semi-darkness and the veil of mosquito nets that enveloped the big, canopied bed made me feel claustrophobic and I couldn’t sleep. I looked around the room. No expense had been spared to make the little rosewood villas as luxurious as possible, but in a rustic way, so you could pretend to be living the simple life, in your beach shack, with its pretty wooden verandah, a rope hammock slung across the front.
You could shower outside, overlooked by nothing more than a jungle of green bamboo. The water came from distressed copper fittings, and the slates that made up the floor seemed to have been specially chosen for their beauty when wet – they turned the most glorious blue black. As you stepped back into the room, you could smell incense and the dried flowers that had been placed everywhere, in big wooden bowls. It was dark, to emphasise the coolness, but it didn’t really need to be – the super efficient air conditioning – almost totally silent - was responsible for that. The wooden blinds were there for effect only.
I thought about the woman, and I suddenly realised that it wasn’t just that she’d been nice, it was more than that. I was so used to measuring every word, making sure I’d been understood, that nothing I’d said had been misconstrued, I had almost forgotten that a conversation could feel so comfortable.
With Al, by then, I’d got to the point where I almost didn’t open my mouth without adding some explanation of what I’d said. I was exhausted, fed up with constantly trying and failing, to keep the peace, keep at bay the anger, the lightening quick changes of mood, all baffling to me.
As soon as she’d opened her mouth I’d felt instantly at home. With her accent, and the humour in her voice it was a little like suddenly being back at school – with other people who sounded like me, not in a world where I constantly had to explain myself. Whatever it was, it had felt as if I’d been wearing a tight belt, and could suddenly take it off and breath freely. I was still puzzling over why it was all so hard with Al, when there was a gentle knocking at the door, and a voice said
“Is it ok if I come in?”