This is another of my personal favourites and comes from my most recent collection, Spring Tide. Since the two characters only meet very briefly in the middle of the story I think it qualifies as an isolation story. Being alone isn’t always bad.
Like ‘The Kite’ (story 4), it contains no science fictional elements whatever, except perhaps that in both cases I try to come at familiar places on Earth as if they were on an alien planet.
My beautiful granddaughter is called Aphrodite, as it happens, but she is only one, and this was written two or three years before she was born.
There was a sea running east to west between two big brown bodies of land. In the eastern part of the sea there were many islands, and among them one island in particular that was long and thin in shape. At one end of this island a holiday resort had grown up, with bright lights, discos, rows of restaurants and music thumping till dawn, at the other there was a village falling into decline at the foot of an extinct volcano.
Thomas, who was going through a somewhat difficult time, had gone to the resort at first but was now in the village, eating a salad of tomatoes and goat cheese by himself, outside the small café where he’d rented a room, a place that also doubled as a general store. As Thomas munched his salad, the big plane tree in the middle of the square was throwing long and somehow dreary shadows towards him over the cracked and oil-stained tarmac to remind him that the day was ending and the streets of this very quiet village would soon be empty and dark. A stooped old woman in black turned to stare at him as she hobbled past. He smiled and raised his hand in greeting, but her cold appraisal didn’t so much as flicker. This was not a welcoming place. Apart from one other, smaller café, there was nowhere else in it that he could go, and many of the houses were empty and boarded up. As the café proprietor replaced the empty bread basket with a full one on the chequered plastic tablecloth in front of him, a worm of doubt stirred in Thomas’ mind. Had it been a bad decision, coming here? Wasn’t he going to have a very dull and very lonely week?
“There was an Irish woman here earlier, a young woman about your age,” his host said. “Very pretty. She had arranged to meet some friends here for camping, but they missed their flight. It will be a couple of days before they join her, apparently. I offered her a room, but…” he paused to give a comically bewildered shrug, “but she said she was going to sleep outside.”
His name was Spiro and his rugged face kept reminding Thomas of a gone-to-seed version of Zorba the Greek,as played by Anthony Quinn. Thomas suspected that Spiro was well aware of the Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the earthy, sensual Mediterranean man, and consciously played the part: a Greek playing a Mexican actor playing a Greek. But then again Thomas knew that, when the worm stirred inside him, it always made him ungenerous and a little paranoid.
“There’s a temple here, isn’t there? A ruined temple? I thought I’d go and look at it before the light goes.”
“The temple of Aphrodite,” Spiro winked broadly, “the goddess of love. It’s about two kilometres away, along that track just there.”
* * *
The track led through a dry, open forest of pine trees and wiry scrub, the warm air heavy with resin and pulsating with the constant shrill scraping of millions of cicadas. After an outcrop of bare grey rock the track dipped down, and a side path branched off from it along a small wooded valley towards the sea. There was a clifftop down there, he knew, and below it a beach, which you could also access directly via a path from the village. But for now Thomas stayed on the main track as it climbed up again, past a metal shrine that smelled of honey, and began to skirt round the broad shoulder of that extinct volcano.
The temple stood on a kind of terrace on the right-hand side of the track, with the wooded slope beyond it leading down to cliffs above the sea. There wasn’t much left of the building itself, just a stone floor, the bases of the columns round the edge, and on the near side, a couple of broken columns that still rose about a metre from the ground. In front of it was a rusty sign with an empty beer bottle at its foot. The sun was almost at the horizon, and a pathway of yellow light stretched across the sea towards the island. All around, in every direction, the cicadas kept beating out their unrelenting rhythm, like a million children shaking dried peas in yoghurt pots.
Thomas sat on a piece of fallen column that lay a few yards on from the temple itself. The light faded much more quickly here than it would have done back at home, and in a short time, a warm, scented darkness had closed round him. But more light was on its way. The sea along the horizon was already silvery with moonlight and soon the moon had risen high enough above the mountain behind him to illuminate the temple’s broken columns, cast faint shadows over its pale floor, and transform the forest around it into a kind of stage set: empty still, but full of dimly lit places where characters would meet, and shadows where they would hide. Thomas noticed that he no longer felt that worm of doubt inside him. This was the world and he was in it. And that, for the moment, was enough.
Then he noticed he wasn’t alone. Someone else had stepped out onto the stage, coming from the direction of the village. To begin with the stranger was merely a pattern in the patchwork of shadow and dim light, distinguishable from the rest only because it moved. He couldn’t see a face, or make out the colour of the clothes, but quite soon he could tell somehow that this was a woman, and he sat and watched as she took form, knowing that he himself would be invisible as long as he stayed where he was. In fact she still hadn’t spotted him even when she stepped onto the floor of the temple, but he could see that she was about his own age, slender, athletic, and wearing the clothes of a tourist like himself, and he assumed she was the Irishwoman that Spiro had told him about. Perhaps the old Greek had pointed her this way.
“Hi there,” he called out, standing up. He’d been reluctant to separate himself from the shadows, but to hide any longer would just be creepy.
“Oh hi. Jesus, you made me jump! I thought I was on my own.”
Yes, she was certainly Irish.
“Sorry, I should have spoken sooner.” He walked towards her, stepping up onto the floor of the temple, worn shiny by two and a half millennia of feet.
They were standing beside one of the broken columns now: man and woman, dimly lit in shades of grey. There was no black or white. Everything was provisional, everything on the point of dissolution.
“I’m Siobhan. You’re must be the Englishman the café guy mentioned.”
She reached out her hand. Their palms and fingers touched, suddenly firm and solid, and she looked up into his face with friendly but appraising eyes. He wondered if she was as aware as he was of the obvious narrative which the universe, perhaps with Spiro’s assistance, had set up for them.
So where did you two first meet?
Would you believe it, we met by moonlight in the Temple of the Goddess of Love.
“Hi, I’m Thomas. I gather your friends have been held up?”
“Yes, a couple of days.”
“And you’re sleeping out in the open?”
“I am. The others have got the tent.”
“Are you short of money until your friends come? If so I could easily—”
“I’m fine. It’s no hardship sleeping out when the nights are as warm as this.”
“I guess not. I just wondered whether there was a problem because your—”
“There’s no problem at all. And I’m looking forward to a couple of days by myself if I’m honest. I like being on my own.”
He did like it, actually, if he was in the right frame of mind, but that was something he’d only recently learned about himself, as he grew older and became very gradually better at separating out the question “what do I want?” from “what, right at this moment, would be the easiest thing to do?” He’d lately discovered, for instance, that he didn’t really enjoy staying up drinking until four in the morning, or hanging out in places where you couldn’t talk but only bellow like a beast. This had been the cause of an ugly row with the friends who’d come with him to the resort at the far end of the island, and was the reason he was now here. It had all been rather unpleasant and, in retrospect, he could see he’d handled the whole thing very badly.
“There isn’t much to do at this end of the island, is the only problem,” he said. “The only things open in the village are Spiro’s café, and one other café that looks like it’s very much for locals only.”
“Yes, I know. I’ve kind of resigned myself to a very early bedtime. I’m hoping the journey will have worn me out enough to get me off to sleep.”
“Well why not have a drink with me back at the village before you settle down?” would have been the obvious thing for Thomas to say at this point. It would have been a natural thing to do, in no way difficult or awkward, and certainly not pushy or overfamiliar. Arguably it would actually be rather unfriendly not to make the offer, given that it was very early in the evening to lie down to sleep, and Siobhan couldn’t retreat to a room as he could, or read a book by electric light. And what was more, Thomas liked Siobhan immediately. Not only was she very pretty –Spiro was quite right about that– but she projected a kind of lively curiosity that he found instantly appealing. He liked the fact that she was Irish too, and different in that small way from himself.
But he didn’t suggest a drink all the same.
“Well, nice to meet you, Siobhan. I’ve actually been here a while and I was just thinking of heading back.”
He was surprised at himself. He could already see, without even the benefit of hindsight, that this was going to be one of those moments he would replay in his mind. I should never have walked away from that Irish girl, he knew he’d tell himself at lonely moments, perhaps even years from now. Stupid, of course, but it would happen. And never mind the distant future. What about this very evening, what about the prospect ahead of him, trying to fill the time by himself in that sad little village? He did like being on his own, it was quite true, but there were places where that worked, and places where it didn’t. A depressed and slowly dying village wasn’t a good setting for solitude.
But still he walked away. The argument with his friends had shaken him quite badly. He’d been shocked by his own sudden eruption of rage. It had made him think about his dealings with other people in general, and the way he swung so suddenly from one feeling to another, from friendliness to contempt, from love to indifference. And he was tired of blowing about in the wind, and doing whatever seemed easiest at the time. He knew he’d hurt people that way, especially women, and he’d had enough of the mess and shame when the wind suddenly changed.
* * *
As Siobhan watched him dissolve into the forest, she wondered why he’d been in such a hurry to get away. He’d seemed very reserved, even by English standards, but she’d quite liked the look of him, and had assumed he’d like the look of her too –well, why wouldn’t he?– enough in any case for an evening together to seem like a pleasant prospect. Perhaps he was just shy, she thought. Maybe she should have suggested it herself? But something had stopped her. Siobhan wasn’t prone to shyness, so it wasn’t that. No, it was almost as if he’d seen her thought and metaphorically held up a warning hand. Which was kind of odd.
But anyway, never mind. By the time she’d unwrapped the cheese and tomato sandwich that had travelled with her all the way from Dublin airport, she was enjoying the ruin in the moonlight and the chorus of cicadas, and thinking about other things. After about fifteen minutes, she headed back herself along the track.
When she reached the side path towards the sea, she paused. She could go straight on to the village now and, as likely as not, she’d meet Thomas again outside the café, for where else was there for him to go? She could stop for a word and, if he seemed more amenable this time, a companion for the evening would perhaps be an option once more. Or she could turn left now down the path towards her little camp on top of the cliff. Spending the night there had been quite appealing in prospect, even in the absence of the camping equipment that her friends were bringing, but it seemed rather less so now. Meeting Thomas, and then watching him go, had made her more aware of the fact that she was on her own, and she felt unnerved by the moonlit forest and its shadowy and ambiguous forms. But recognising this fact made up her mind for her. She didn’t like to give way to unfounded fears. She preferred to push on through them.
She’d just turned down the little valley when she saw a man ahead of her, standing just a few yards back from the path, completely motionless, and watching her with an odd, sardonic, sideways gaze. This was genuinely frightening and she was on the point of turning back and heading for the village after all when she realised this wasn’t a human being at all, but only the broken trunk of tree. Amused by her own irrational fear, she walked over to the tree to give it a little kick, and had just returned to the path when suddenly a real man appeared on the path ahead with a gun in his hand, striding determinedly towards her. Her heart began to race again but he walked straight past, heading towards the village without saying a word, and Siobhan was on her own again.
How different it seemed on the cliff now, in the dark. She searched for some time for her sleeping bag which she’d left in a small hollow under some rocks, cursing herself for not marking the spot more clearly, and worrying that perhaps it had been stolen. Eventually she found it, though, and this was immensely comforting, a moment in fact of really intense happiness Even returning to a patch of earth on a cliff top, it seemed, could feel, in the right circumstances, like coming home. She knew she wouldn’t sleep for some time, but she rolled out her sleeping bag and lay down quite contentedly on the outside of it. The stars were very bright, and the entire span of the Milky Way was stretched out above her across the sky. She wished she could name the constellations, but the only one she could remember was Orion, shining up there above the mountain.
Never mind. The stars didn’t know their names.
Still awake an hour later, she stood up and stretched herself and, as she did so, she looked down over the side of her rocky hollow at the small beach beneath, its narrow strip of sand dimly visible in the moonlight, and little waves glowing softly as they broke over it. Some way out to sea, the lamps of several fishing boats were moving slowly across the water, the crouched fishermen inside them half in light and half in darkness.
She was watching their slow progress when she became aware of movement below her. There was a direct path to the beach from the village and a man was coming along it. She could see it was Thomas. Shadowy and indistinct as he was in the moonlight, there was something slightly dogged about his walk that she immediately recognised. It was as if he was battling against something, she thought, forcing himself forward into the world against some sort of resistance. She saw him pull off his T-shirt and shorts and wade out naked into the sea. The water glittered around him as he dived in, and it seemed a long time before he emerged again to swim thirty or forty strokes further out in a strong, confident crawl, before stopping and treading water so he could turn and look back at the shore. Not wanting him to see her watching him, Siobhan squatted down again behind her rocks.
Soon afterwards, she decided to get inside her sleeping bag, for the air was beginning to cool. As she lay there, she imagined herself in Thomas’ place: the moonlight under the sea, the play of grey shadows on the blurry stones on the bottom, the coolness of the water against her skin. If they’d spent the evening together, she thought, the two of them might well have both have had a swim. By then he’d no longer be the shadowy being she’d met at the temple in the moonlight. They would have talked for a while, seen each other’s faces properly in electric light, knocked back a few glasses of beer or wine or ouzo or something, and learned a few anchoring facts about one another, like where each of them came from, what they did for a living, and who was in their families. There would have been just the two of them together in a little pool of electric light. It would have felt intimate and conspiratorial, and, based on past experience and her knowledge of herself, Siobhan thought it quite likely that, after their swim, or even instead of it, they would have had sex. People differ a great deal in this respect, but Siobhan’s attitude was very straightforward. Pleasure was a good thing if it didn’t hurt anyone, and she was quite open to brief encounters in situations like this where there was little risk of difficult emotional entanglements.
It could have been rather nice actually, she thought a little wistfully, but then she smiled. Sex was such a funny thing when you examined it. She’d always thought that. Such a big deal was made of it. So many contradictory prohibitions and expectations were placed upon it. It was the focal point of so much huffing and blowing and agonising and general nonsense: sonnets, songs, sermons, Viagra, lipstick, rom-coms, operas, jokes, public stonings, pop songs, vows of celibacy, Romeo and Juliet, Ten Top Tips to Wow Your Man in Bed, the pill, the confessional, tears. . . On and on. So much drama and worry and guilt and longing. And all of it, whether disapproving or celebratory, was centred on sex as a wild and subversive force. Yet what was it in the end? What was that feeling? When you really came down to it, wasn’t it just scratching a rather fancy kind of itch? An itch, what’s more, that only existed because it ensured that living creatures didn’t stint in the business of making more creatures. What was wild about that? What was subversive about a force that pulled all the time, like a kind of biological gravity, in the direction of parenthood and domesticity?
It might start out in the moonlight on a beach, Siobhan thought, but it ended up with stair gates, and car seats, and grownups saying ‘weewee’ and ‘poo’.
She had to admit, though, there her thoughts at this point were somewhat coloured by the fact that her friend Anne, back in Dublin, had had a baby a few months ago, and seemed to have lost interest in all the things the two of them had shared. In fact, if it wasn’t for that baby, Anne would have been with her now.
And actually, Siobhan thought, in all fairness, and setting jealousy aside, opening your legs and pushing out an entirely new human being who no one had ever been seen before, well, that wasn’t exactly tame. The poo and the stairgates might be, but they were just anodyne trimmings, as Valentine cards and silly pet names were anodyne trimmings for sex. The raw reality was something else.
In fact, when you came to think about, wasn’t it life itself that was the really subversive thing? Not just sex but motherhood too? All of life was a rebellion really, a doomed, Lucifer-like rebellion against the peaceful downward pull of entropy, the orderly clock-like unwinding of galaxies and planets and stars.
This last bit, however, came to her more as images than as words, for as sleep took hold, her thoughts ceased to be made of language. In fact they weren’t really images either. They were something more abstract than that: forms, diagram-like chunks of meaning that were as much tactile as visual. Some huge dark falling thing, creatures moving in a moonlit forest, water running down downhill in torrents and streams and dripping from sodden peat …
Dear God, she thought, coming awake suddenly, Thomas hadn’t even been the first opportunity that day when it came to sex! When she’d asked Spiro about the price of rooms he’d winked and said there was no charge for those who shared his bed. Christ, how sordid! No way was she going to stay there after that! No way. Of course the old goat had spotted her distaste almost at once: “Forgive me my silly joke!” But it didn’t fool her. She’d already seen him watching her, eyes slightly narrowed, like a shrewd old fisherman watching his line to see if the bait would be taken. He was about the same age as her dad.
Still, she thought, it had probably worked once, thirty years ago, when Spiro wasn’t so flabby and Greece had seemed much more exotic to northern Europeans than it did now in these days when Bali or Thailand were commonplace destinations. The pull of the other. She remembered some nature programme she’d seen. Female chimps sneaking away from their troop when the alpha male was sleeping in his tree, risking attack by leopards to journey all by themselves by moonlight over a mountain ridge and down into the next valley. They’d mate with males from another troop down there and then return again over the rocks and through the leopard-ridden night. Hedging their bets, the programme had said. New genes to mingle with their own.
A leopard in the moonlight. Dear God, imagine that. Those spots among all these speckled shades of grey. The creature would be right on top of you before you’d seen it at all.
* * *
Several hours later, she surfaced from sleep again and sat up to have a look around.
The moon had gone, and Orion was right down at the horizon. This evidence that the planet had been quietly turning while she slept was for some reason immensely comforting, and she felt a surge of that same delicious happiness that had come to her when she found her sleeping bag. It reminded her of when she was a little girl, back in the days before her brothers were even born, wrapped in a warm blanket in the back of her parents’ car as they drove through the night to her Nan’s house in Galway. Sometimes, after an aeon of silence, one of the grown-ups would say something in the front there, some murmured thought or observation, and she’d half-wake to see the street-lights of some little town flickering in the windows above her, or maybe the headlights of a passing truck, briefly illuminating the door handles and head-rests, the plastic lining of the car roof, the pocket in front of her, with her pad and crayons, on the back of her father’s seat. And then quietness and darkness would return, and she’d slip back down into sleep.
Everything in her immediate surroundings was in almost complete darkness. So was the sea below, except for the faint grey ghosts of waves breaking below her on the beach. There were no fishing boats now, and Thomas had long since gone.
Copyright 2018, Chris Beckett