It was a Friday like any other in Adelenou. Shop keepers wedged open their doors to invite the first trickles of weekend visitors, bartenders re-chalked their menu boards in advance of the anticipated seamen docking into port for a few days of merriment, café waiters shooed gulls, with monstrous wings spanning the size of a baby dwarf whale, hovering like albatrosses above abandoned plates of tart.
A group of local golden biscuit-brown boys sat on the curb of the main cobbled street to better appreciate the effect of the breeze as passing women held down their skirts against it. A girl with thin ankles weaved past on her bicycle, late for work. Her fine brown hair blew in the air behind her, landing neatly back in position below her shoulders when she dismounted and opened the door to the gift shop. She deftly flipped the ‘Sorry we are Closed, Please call again’ sign in the door window around to ‘We are Open, Please come in’. She hopped up onto the counter stool, smoothing out her navy cotton dress with clusters of minuscule lilac flowers. There she took out a book from under the counter, opening it at the dog-eared page she had finished the day before, and submerged her thoughts in the other world revealed through the words before her.
The narrow shop was overcrowded with pretty, useless knick-knacks, cheery picture postcards and small home furnishings. A wall of hanging mirrors near the door optimistically reflected a sign from the Adelenou Ice Cream & Soda stand outside: ‘If you can’t fall in love here, you can’t fall in love anywhere’. The mirrors were hung above a shelf of miniature silver carousels each suspended over a candle: prancing horses skewered on tiny poles, snowflakes twinkling at different heights, fat flying angels aiming an arrow at the cherub in front. The carousels began to rotate slowly as the candle flames beneath flickered, the dangling silver pendants tinkled against each other softly. The music brought the girl’s meanderings back into the shop as she looked up to see a man with silver-streaked hair, wearing a velvet jacket too warm for the weather, standing by the carousels, guilt-affirming match still in hand. She frowned, ‘I’m sorry sir. The candles are not to be lit. If you would like me to show you one of those I can light the display pieces here.’
The man turned and smiled to reveal a flash of white, his steady gaze fully on the girl, ‘My apologies. I didn’t realise,’ he blew out the candles in one breath, leaving a cloud of smoke suspended in the air. ‘Yes, please do show me the display pieces, I would like to take something home from this place.’
The girl nodded and took out a selection of carousels with previously burnt candles from the shelves behind her. As the man approached her, she caught a subtle whiff of his expensive spiced cologne. He watched her nimble child’s hands light the candles and stand back expectantly. The delicate dancing flames were magnified in their reflection on a dark blue-green domed glass vase sitting on one side of the counter top, creating a soporific effect the girl had orchestrated and observed countless times before. The accompanying light reflection in her blue-grey eyes, however, was one she was not aware of, though its allure was not lost on her customers. The man leaned into the counter, ‘They are charming. I like them a great deal. But perhaps you could show me something else.’
‘Of course,’ the girl said as she instantly busied herself walking around the cramped shop, pointing out various trinkets and their appeal. The man followed with a temperate gait, listening to the girl chirrup out her sales patter, admiring her light steps around the shelves she knew so well. They finally came full circle to the counter, the man had shown no obvious buying signals for any of the objects she had shown him. She went back behind the counter wondering whether he was just another passing timewaster. She silently berated herself for falling for it, she was usually such a good judge of character, though the man’s affluent airs and his compelling otherness had clouded her reasoning. She was about to sit down when the man leaned into the counter again, ‘How about that little thing?’
‘I’m sorry?’ the girl asked confused.
The man raised his eyes above the girl’s head and followed with a point of a well-manicured index finger to a square portion of wall space in between the shelves behind her. She turned to look at a white porcelain bird perched inside a brass hoop of floral vines. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she shook her head, ‘That’s not for sale. It’s just part of the shop decoration. I think it’s been here for years.’
The man flashed his pearly teeth as he smiled again, ‘I would very much like to see it please.’
The girl sighed almost inaudibly as she tiptoed to release the bird from its hook. As she did so the bird twittered as it moved back and forth on its hoop. The girl laughed, having not expected the sound, her unpainted mouth flew open just as a crinkle ruched her small nose. Her face was soft and bright as she looked up at the man.
He nodded in accordance, ‘I love it. I’ll take it.’
She explained again it was not for sale but the man insisted. Finally she said she would ask the shop owners in the evening and if they accepted, he could pick it up from them the following morning as she would not be working over the weekend. The man agreed, thanked her for her time and smiled warmly as he left the shop. As she saw his straight back get smaller as it navigated the cobble stones down the street, the girl took a moment to consider him, this man with his pomp and foreign cologne who smiled so handsomely at her. It was not the smile of the earnest young boys she had grown up with in Adelenou, there was an expansive self-assurance delivered with his smile that she had not been exposed to before. He seemed to be from some other place, some place much more enthralling than her little home by the sea. She took the time to reflect over his fine features and found herself feeling something akin to pride that he had shown her so much attention. She toyed with various gratifying fancies before checking herself, picking up her book and delving back into the world within its pages.
Every weekend during high season the beach at Adelenou heaved with bodies, resident and holidaymaking, all paying worship to the glorious sun and glittering waves creeping up the aurulent sand. The local girls of Adelenou were out on display, relishing the power they held over their captive audience encompassing the whole beach. They stroked their lissome limbs as they inspected insignificant grains of sand on their skin and readjusted their bathing suits to oust imaginary seaside debris. They flicked their long hair and took pleasure in languidly stretching their taut torsos as they settled themselves on the sinking hot sand. Older women, less limber, more corpulent, looked on with annoyance and not a little jealousy as they could feel their husbands’ ineffective attempts to conceal any physical response to the visual stimulus lying so dangerously close by. The men fought hard to not gobble up these girls with their eyes and the most wise amongst them feigned indifference and disinterest when prodded by their wives, uncomfortably turning to snooze on their paunches and muttering words to the effect of, ‘What girls my dear? Hmm? Oh yes, there. No I hadn’t noticed them before now.’
All the girls preened and posed except one. Our young girl of the gift shop didn’t feel she had the plushness of pout and litheness of limb to fully execute the show offered by her peers. Her fine hair, now waved by sea salt, didn’t bounce when she flicked it like the other girls and she didn’t possess the buxom curves to create much response from the audience of beach goers. Her lack of exhibition and unreserved ease in being part of the rhythmic sea and sand were a rare delectation for a certain sort of man. He admired her – her zigzagged body ensconced against a sun-lounger: heart-shaped face, sloped hipbones, long-ish feet – and took pleasure in the surprising inelegant beauty of her knees. He saw her laugh with full unpainted-mouthed, crinkle-nosed splendor, and decided he had to have her. And having won the bird in the brass hoop from the gift shop earlier that morning, our pearly-smiled hero decided he would win the girl too.
It was the beginning of a grand love affair and an easy victory all round. The man had intended to stay at Adelenou only for the weekend, though he extended his visit some weeks for the sake of propriety. The girl was flattered, caught up in the overwhelming whirl he spun around her and relinquished her former life with haste. There was a sadness the day she left her home and friends, but the temptation of all that lay before her was too compelling for her to fret for long. The man made the transition to her new life as smooth as possible in his city so far from the sea; the porcelain bird of Adelenou was hung in the conservatory of their new house in pride of place, swinging from the rafters for all to see and admire. The man plunged the girl into the most resplendent parts of his life and enjoyed her wonderment. She marveled at the flamboyance of the horses drawing fiakers across the wide streets, the mammoth gothic buildings, the newly discovered opera that moved her to tears. He took her to dinners in chandelier-lit, oak-paneled rooms where she wore glistening furs and silk. She tried to hide her repugnance as she was served a whole rabbit, marinated in red wine and cooked right through, though still bundled up, unmistakably leporid-like, sitting on an argentine dish garnished with buttered greens. As a token of his love, he gave her a necklace with a sapphire pendant the exact size and hue of her eyes. She had never known anything as precious and vowed to never take it off.
To begin with he found her naiveté endearing, it was the very reason he had plucked her from the sea and cobbled streets of Adelenou. Until his sojourn there, he felt he had been endlessly searching for something so exquisite it simply did not exist. He had grown weary of sampling sophisticated, bored and boring, worldly women and longed for the freshness this young girl offered. Walking beside her, seeing through her eyes, he fell in love with his city and life once more. He loved learning what she learned and took delight in. It was a second coming-of-age. He began to see the importance of the trivial and things he usually took for granted. He smiled at their synched steps when walking down the street and her joy in crunching dried leaves under her shoe. And of course there was the sweetness of just her, her being: their bodies lying so close together; the pulse he saw when she was lying very still that beat in her neck and her stomach; her heartbeat that was so hard to hear unless he lay his head on her chest, focused and was silent. Thunk thunk thunk. There it was. The heartbeat of his precious love, his dove. So simple and so real. He discovered the softest part of her skin was on the inside of her wrists and a small patch behind her lovely ears. He marveled that the dip of her nose was replicated in the upward curve of her dark eyelashes, and that when he stared very closely he could still see faint freckles in her crinkled-nose laugh. And when he looked too long into those adoring eyes of blue, they morphed and became one. One large pool of blue silk to drown in. He would blink and then the full face of his ethereal girl would reemerge, looking at him fondly. She stroked his silver-streaked hair and he became a young boy in love again. And she saw that young boy in his face and felt she knew him. She closed her eyes and savoured the honeyed taste of that moment. She had never been so inspected, studied and cherished before. She found herself becoming more beautiful in his arms, a cool otherness rose up from the heat of her skin and looked down upon herself with a contentment that this was where she was meant to be. Her fate had led her here. Everything up to this moment was just a rehearsal, a preparation. This was love, what it was to give into love and be an object of love for another. She marveled that this man so many years her senior – spiced cologne, furred chest, delicious broad shoulders and all – was hers and hers alone. Had they not both won a prize in Adelenou? He surrendered himself to sleep and to her, so vulnerable now. The softness of his slumbering body against hers created a lump in her throat, she felt tears escape the corners of her eyes and run down into her ears before trickling onwards into her hairline. She smiled gently, the happiest she had ever been.
As the years wore on, true to the execrable certainty of life, they changed. He was a man not used to entrapment and had hereto escaped it his whole life. He had imagined that with such a young partner he would not feel so fettered, but the bonds that exist between a man and woman are ever-present. And there was the fact of his age which he had been able to ignore before now. He began to look at other couples, polished and perfected, gliding around arm in arm, and he began to feel uncomfortable. When he passed a reflection of himself with the girl, he cringed a little, his hair was whitening more and she was still so artless, and worse, now she was beginning to blossom before the eyes of all. He saw how she beamed at other men, coyly dipping her narrow shoulder or exaggeratedly expressing her enthusiasm for something they said. He assumed aloofness but he noted it all. Every lingering leer these men gave her and how she relished it. And how those men looked upon him as her uncle, chaperone, older cousin, never her lover. It infuriated him. And so he began to poke at her, to pinch her where it hurt and would leave a lasting smart. He noticed her new overly painted mouth would often smudge a little outside of her lips, she staggered slightly when walking in high heels, her dresses were cut too low for a cleavage that wasn’t there. He snapped at her with the slightest provocation, rolled his eyes at naive remarks she made, and started to find her previously enchanting childlike gestures progressively annoying and… childish. He questioned whether he had made the right choice and wouldn’t have been better off choosing a more mature and better-matched mate, if any at all.
She felt his pokes and pinches and was wounded at first. But soon the mist from her eyes began to evaporate too, healing the little holes and cracks he created. She started to notice his occasional vulgarity, his increasing callousness, the evermore obvious fact of his age. She accepted life was full of choices and now questioned whether she had made the right one. She remembered years ago, splashing in the waves at Adelenou with a young boy she had known her whole life. He was silly and serious and loved her madly, saying he would die for her. She broke it off, yearning for something else, something more. She now remembered that biscuit-skinned boy and wondered if this man she had chosen to give her youth to could ever love her so. Now that Adelenou boy was probably married to someone else, living a happy life, madly loving his wife and children…
Months went by with both the man and the girl noticing the accumulating dents and fading colours of their grand love affair. They attempted to continue their life as before however, neither wanting to be the one to admit there was anything amiss. When they went to dinner they found they had little to say to each other and during the days they found themselves making excuses to be out of the house away from the other. They both sensed their impending loss and with some sadness wondered if they could ever get back to that place of love or if it had vanished absolutely. For some reason one of them suggested a trip back to Adelenou for a week or so, and despite the fact it was the end of the season, it seemed the perfect place to go.
It was a quiet journey with each lost in their own thoughts, so different to the trip they had made years before. The only excitement came when their train neared Adelenou. It screeched to a jolting halt, there was a swelling commotion, women shrieked, everyone was told to stay on the train, the authorities arrived. Flung into such unsettled conditions, people broke the time-honoured etiquette of not speaking to their fellow passengers to grasp that there was a body on the tracks. It was being moved, though would mean a delay for the expected time of arrival. As the train eventually crawled forwards, the passengers were shaken by the spectacle outside the window of the enshrouded corpse they could not help to notice. They all raced to get to their final destinations as soon as the train alighted in Adelenou. The couple arrived at their rented villa on the seashore after dark, exhausted and ready for bed. Aside from the roar of the waves crashing violently against the rocks, the villa was silent, the night so black, not even a single star visible tonight. Lying awake that night they both wondered how it could be possible to lie so close to someone and yet be so far away.
The holiday week trudged painfully on, both feeling estranged, pushing down secrets and harsh words that would forever now remain unspoken. They used the sleepiness brought on by the half-hearted sun as an excuse to interact as little as possible. The girl made attempts to see old family and friends, though learned most had moved away. The season had come and gone, taking the mass of beach worshipers with it. A few locals still walked along the seafront, but it had already turned from a glittering invite into something more hostile. The man ventured alone towards the shoreline under an overcast sky. Far off he could see a small ripple of a wave approaching, within seconds the wave gathered speed, rising higher like a wide army frontline of phantom white horses galloping faster and faster towards him. As the thundering horses rose their powerful forelegs and plundered straight for him, the wave broke against his chest, pushing him backwards into the sinking sand. Stunned, cold and drenched, he gasped for air as his nose and eyes stung from the water and the salt scratched the back of his throat. The waves receded – quiet and calm again for a few moments, readying for their next attack. A juvenile fear overcame him as he spat out some saltwater, stumbled as he picked himself up and retreated from the beach. He waited in the villa till evening to dine in silence with the girl.
On the last day of their holiday, lilac clouds and heavy rain kept them indoors together all day, wandering morosely about the beach restaurant and bar, reading books, drinking endless cups of coffee. The man took time to truly look at the young woman before him – her eyes more grey today overshadowing the blue – and suddenly he felt sorry. He remembered that part of his wolverine heart that had been enraptured with a girl in a simple seaside town, and he started to thaw. He thought of all they had shared and in that moment realised, there was and would never again be anything finer. He resolved when they went home they should begin anew. They had changed over the years, it was inevitable, there was no point in wishing things would stay the same as if in a postcard. But there was still something left worth salvaging. In the morning he woke with a new vigour, the sun shone keenly through the thin curtains and warmed his soul. He turned with the old pearly smile to his side and saw the bed was empty.
At first he thought she must be somewhere in the villa, or perhaps she had gone for a walk. So he searched all the places he thought she might be to no avail. He asked the people staying near the beach and no one had seen her. As night neared, he began to panic. He searched the villa for some sign, a note, a plan – and saw everything there just as she had left it, her book lying facedown and dog-eared on the page she had read the day before, her hairbrush on the dresser with loose strands of her hair, all of her clothes still hanging in the wardrobe mockingly. He alerted the authorities who began an official search. Her scant remaining family, older and unrecognizable, came to visit him to share their concern and grief. He realised he had never taken any real interest in her old friends and had no idea how to reach them; her family tried a few names they remembered but had little luck. He stayed in Adelenou for weeks until he was told to accept what may have happened and to go back to his city. It was hideous and all too impossible in his mind to bear.
The morning he was due to leave Adelenou for the second and last time, he went out early to sit on the seafront to watch the vicious waves. The horses pranced high that morning, the formidable phantom cavalry rising up to come smashing into the sand. Had he lost her to these waves? Was she somewhere under there, floating in the water, trying to get out? Had she suffered? Had she called for help in vain, praying for him or anyone to come to her aid? Or had she willingly surrendered her slight lovely body? Perhaps she had not been here at all. Perhaps she had decided to leave, leave him, leave with someone else… Was it all just a sickening joke? A final slap delivered so fantastically… He got up and edged closer towards the water, a high-kicking wave broke against his thighs, stinging him with its coldness and he felt a sudden terror, recoiling and stepping back immediately before turning to run away from the shore lest another army of waves gallop after him, threatening to swallow him whole.
When he arrived back to his empty lifeless house in the city, he walked through all of the rooms, touching everything that was hers, as though in some way he would be touching her too. When he went into the conservatory he was greeted by an acrid, smoky stench and rushed to open all the windows. As he crossed the floor he cried out having stepped on something sharp. He looked and discovered the porcelain bird had fallen from its now tawdry brass hoop and shattered into hundreds of jagged fragments, leaving a thick gritty powder all over the floor. He picked up the broken pieces and saw the once white bird had become drab and grey, a piece of tissue paper was lodged into its throat cavity to silence its twittering. He didn’t remember when either of them had done this, though clearly one of them had. He began to gather up all the pieces as though somehow he would be able to fix the bird, seemingly oblivious to the parts that had disintegrated. Under the thick soot on the floor he saw a shimmer of pale blue. He lunged for it and pulled out the sapphire necklace he had given the girl when they arrived there, a jewel as blue as the sea and her eyes, of the sweet love that he had lost. He rubbed the powder from the magnificent gem, sat amongst the broken porcelain pieces, knee-deep in filthy ash, and sobbed.
Copyright 2018 Joon Haque. All rights reserved