No 120 - 1990
‘Sitges again! Why did you book us into Sitges again?’, Bill demanded.
‘It reminds me of Montego Bay’, placated Andrew.
Not the buildings nor the people nor the weather but the sky and the sea the ever returning sea dancing in, half escaping from the beach and being driven back by the new on-coming waves. The sea that cannot escape that is caught against itself the stronger it is. Why did Arnold quoted by Walcott call it the bitter dividing sea? As a child looking out from Mo Bay it united me with my uncles in Canada and New York and my aunt in Cuba. Its regular but varying sound is so soothing and confirming...
They both held their silence listening to different tunes from the sea and from their past.
‘Hey’ Bill said next morning as they resumed their accustomed stone seat on the sea front, ‘what did you make of that thin broad at the bar last night?’
Andrew was not really listening - except to the song of the sea. The moon had been full last night; the tide was high; the rhythm of the sea beat faster than usual. The tops of the incoming waves creamed to a brighter white.
The high air currents brought red dust from Africa and dumped it on the cars the sea breaks on both shores on many shores on Carthago in North Africa which the Romans thought must be destroyed on Cartagena down the Spanish coat a bit, on Cartegena de los Indios on the shores of Colombia these places were joined by the sea and the sea-going people those who went down to the sea in ships in sailing boats in canoes in balsa rafts...
‘Will you stop dreaming and answer me? What did you make of that thin woman with the green eyes at the bar last night; do Spanish women really have green eyes?’
‘Are you two gay?’ Claire of the green eyes had asked.
‘Gay indeed’, Andrew answered, ‘but not homosexual’.
The word seemed to puzzle her. She spoke English remarkably well. But Spanish was obviously her language. Andrew had pronounced the word in the English manner: hommo-sexual.
‘Oh, so you are not really gay’.
‘No; that’s why we asked you to dinner’, Bill said as if he did not mean it. ‘And you are in danger from both of us’, he added swallowing a fistful of green and black olives served with their aperitivo.
Andrew then drifted off into that dreadful self absorption which was his selfish defence against the world. He appeared to be concentrating on his grilled sardine, and then on his arroz a la Valenciana of which he was inordinately fond even if, as his gourmet son had told him, it was peasant food dressed up.
He soon lost the drift of the intellectual/sexual struggle that was going on between his two dinner companions. And he was further silenced by being called a SEXIST by this strange lady who thought she had hidden her sexuality and exhibitionism under a powerful intellectual and literary veneer.
She had come to Sitges, she told them, to work on her dissertation on the novelist Paulle Marshall. Her tutor was a well known and active lesbian academic.
Bill had not heard of Marshall. Andrew, who had read her, was unwise enough to say that he was happy that Claire was working on a real novelist who was also a woman and black.
‘Perhaps’ he recklessly suggested, ‘you would have done better to select an author who was one-eyed, black and a woman. Then it would not have mattered to your tutor whether she could write or not’.
‘You sexist’, was the apparently final riposte and defence of the bandwagon school of criticism.
So he withdrew further, but he was enjoying himself more than he let on, and it was not only the excellent food and wine that pleased him. He was overhearing some wonderful nonsense on Third World Women writers who apparently exposed with the greatest ease such frauds as Jane Austen & George Eliot & the Brontes & Willa Cather & Muriel Spark simply by being Third World; and destroyed even such greater frauds as Conrad & Ford Madox Ford & Nabokov & Faulkner, simply by being women!
As they got up to have their brandy and coffee he had been quietly having such a good time that he could not resist enquiring politely whether the lady was a Lesbian.
‘No’, she spat out, ‘but don’t let that make you any ideas’.
‘Sounds to me like a challenge’, sighed Bill.
Andrew made sure to enter the drawing room before her. He did not wish to offend further by politely giving way.
Bill, as they sat over their coffee, did not wish the conversation to become too acerbic or literary. He and Claire were clearly locked into some sort of obscure, oblique sexual wrestle in which all holds were barred. In any case Bill was a historian and had little use for novels and short stories - except as they might yield historical knowledge. And as a man who was more cautious in academic than in amorous matters, he doubted that fiction was of use even to a discerning historian. But he knew enough history and philosophy and Art criticism to appeal to many an intellectual lady who was far above being moved by charm or money or direct hedonistic approaches.
‘Anyway, Senor Sexist, or should I say Don Sexist, how come you know about Marshall’s work?’
‘She’s a friend of a friend! She had Barbadian connections, you know.’ (She did not know).
‘And once’, Andrew continued, ‘in New York she cussed me off at a lecture I was giving at CCNY. “I don’t want to hear that shit” she shouted, “Let me hear about our Black suffering”…I had quoted Walcott’s lines about England:
Albion too was once
A colony like ours…deranged by the vain expense
Of bitter faction…
“I don’t want to hear that shit” she shouted, and when I remonstrated with her she was much defended by her escort, a famous Professor who was, of course, white!’
‘So you are racist as well as sexist’ the lady noted, and requested another brandy.
Bill obliged. Andrew withdrew, disppearing to the beach to listen to the message of the ocean, which according to Byron, swallowed alike…the Armada’s pride and the spoils of Trafalgar.
Andrew left Bill and Sitges for the better part of a week. He wanted to have another look at the Picasso Museum in nearby Barcelona, at the mad Sagrada Familia Church, and at the quiet monastery in the hills at Poblet.
The Picasso museum always overwhelmed him - such unbelievable variety and energy on show. And every piece of interest, the sketches as well as the carefully plotted finished larger works. All of interest: the Blues as well as the Oranges; the tender as well as the brutal treatment of the female torso. Poblet with its tank of carp seemed to impress and quieten even huge crowds of visitors, many of whom actually assisted at Mass. And once he was so lucky as to sit on the steps outside the Cloister, and hear a master musician of a monk practise until he got a Bach prelude absolutely right.
He slipped back into Sitges early in the morning and went directly to that stone seat opposite the Hotel Antemare - listening to the sea, watching the morning star fade, and the sea fret slowly lift as rose coloured clouds streaked the sky and soon gave way to a brief burst of silver light. He had driven many miles, and sank slowly into sleep...
Among the images that floated up in front of him was that of a tall blond man - it couuld have been Bill - striking out powerfully to sea through the on-coming waves until he got beyond them out to the deep, to the quieter water. The man then turned over on his back and floated like loose logs somehow holding together.
Suddenly a woman walking topless on the beach seemed to decide that she too must get to the deep water, presumably to the man who was no longer Bill but a well known black Jamaican athlete. As she started to swim the waves seemed to become more powerful, and at the time her swimming more purposeful. Suddenly Andrew realised that the man was no longer there floating in the deep. Panic started to take over; then it awakened him. he lost his bearings for a second; but all of a sudden he knew where he was because Claire was asking him in a demanding but concerned tone:
‘All right; where is he, where is he, the bastard!’
‘Sleeping in his bed as usual,’ I suppose.
‘No he is not in his room, nor in mine…’ She broke off awkwardly. She seemed to lose that air of authority and power which had impressed and annoyed him over the few days since he had met her.
Then she walked off down to the beach without a word, undoing her green cover all, and preparing to do battle with the waves.
Andrew, instead of dozing off again in the open, went up to the room he and Bill shared. He fell immediately into a deep sleep.
He was awakened by an urgent need to relieve himself. Thinking that he had heard some one tapping at the door, he waited, then shouted ‘Come in!’ He wondered for a moment why Bill had not simply entered the room.
But it was Claire who pushed in, wet from her swim. She seemed to be in a daze, and immediately started stripping off her green one piece swimming costume. He slipped into the bathroom, and when he returned she was stretched out naked on the other twin bed. What struck was not so much her nakedness as the remarkably black equilateral triangle formed by her pubic hair. He could not help staring.
‘I suppose’ she said acidly, ‘you know what a woman looks like! Get me a towel, and order some coffee for us.’
He knew how impossible was the connection between his phone and the front desk. So he went down himself to bring back coffee and croissant.
When he got to the front desk he was handed an envelope - un mensaje - as the perfectly groomed proprietor called it. The proprietor wagged his finger at Andrew, muttering some thing under his breath about giving his hotel a bad reputation.
He placed the envelope on the breakfast tray, and set off upstairs. Claire, now sitting up in bed with that wonderful black triangle covered - but little else - attacked the food. He stretched out on his bed and opened the envelope. It contained a letter from Bill:
See you, caro mio, in Tarragona on Friday, at the Pensione del Foro. If you don’t make it by Friday I’ll wait until Monday. But don’t tell a soul where I am - certainly NOT Claire.
(Read the rest at your leisure) You underrate the lady. She knows more about literature than you think…and history and politics. But she knows little about the Caribbean background which might have influenced Marshall. And she knows less, except as generalisations, about women and men! She’s great in the sack - now you old moralist, no sermons please, we humans are sexy…And I have to tell you SHE seduced me as soon as you left. She was the triumphant hunter - in a non Patriarchal society - for about three days. Some sort of revenge…but then she softened, and some thing like tenderness was appearing…that I couldn’t handle…It was time for me to leave…the shadow of the gallows was drawing too near…
‘What are you reading?’ she thrust forward, her bare breast above the coffee cup.
He managed to keep the paper from her, saying ‘It’s something from the Bible’.
‘Ah, Madre Mia, mierda!’ She choked back the tears... ‘Mierda!’
‘No, No’, Andrew said, turning over to face the wall away from her, and stuffing the letter into his pocket. ‘It’s from the Bible: you know the quotation “male and female he made them?”...
She grabbed at the letter, not realising that he no longer had it in his hands.
Frustrated, she leaned over to the table beside the bed, pulled open a drawer, and started tearing up some type-written sheets. She ran over to the window and threw the pieces out like ticker tape.
Andrew was appalled, and tried to stop her. She was making quite a racket as she dumped great chunks of paper through the window. He supposed that it was part of her dissertation that she was destroying, and was fascinated by the fact that they had found their way into the room that he and Bill had shared.
There was a banging at the door, followed immediately by the entrance of the austere Senor Morales Miret, the proprietor, who quickly drew his own conclusions from her state of undress and the obvious struggle she was having with Andrew.
‘No, No Senor; this is too much, and what will people say. And you are throwing paper down into the swimming pool, Senorita.’
He was irate, and with a pained expression left the room, just managing not to bang the door.
At dinner which they were having together ‘for the sake of appearances’ as Andrew put it, things went better than Andrew expected, and as they had both agreed with the adamant Morales to leave next morning, Andrew had ordered a special bottle of wine - which Claire insisted she must pay for.
At one stage, in between courses, and fairly casual conversation, she went very serious. She seemed just able to hold back tears and another outburst. ‘That bastard had me chasing him at one time…but that was all right, a good tough chase and fight, and then I let it turn soft and sweet and full of goo...’
‘Steady on’ was all that Andrew could manage. And she glared at him before regaining control.
Next morning when Andrew went to settle his cuenta he was informed that Bill had left his credit card number to pay for all three of them. Senor Morales Miret was obviously puzzled by the whole affair. Bill and Andrew had been to his hotel twice before, and on the last occasion Andrew had brought his wife along, and she had been a favourite of the whole staff. (Bill, of course, had no wife to bring having gladly become unwived some time ago, and having managed, despite dangerous interludes, to, as he put it, avoid the noose.)
Andrew gave her a lift to the Sitges railroad station. As they drove off some of the older, macho waiters were rather proud of him. They did not know that he had so much cajones. And a married man too!
He pulled out of the station and headed for Barcelona. The Picasso Museum was worth at least another day’s visit. And there was the Cafe de Paris! He smiled to himself. He was tempted to turn around and head for Tarragona.
Perhaps not. You can’t sit so easily by the sea front there what with the Roman Theatre and the big ships not a good place to listen to the sea and dream with the uniting waters singing in your ears and images of people struggling against the waves to get to each other beyond the rough where it was calm but much deeper. Any way it might be better not be anywhere near the Pensione del Foro when Bill shouted ‘Come in’ to a gentle tapping and found Claire coolly invading that private space which they had both already so lightheartedly abandoned to each other…
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