I can tell she is going to irritate the bejesus out of me from the minute she takes a running jump into the swimming pool. The over-exuberant type – Little Miss #LiveLaughLove. Ignoring the tsunami of chlorine she’s unleashed into my eyes, she makes a laughing ‘brrr’ sound and shakes her head like a dog.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ I mutter. It comes out the way Andrew used to call ‘passive-aggressive’. Loud enough to be heard; low enough to make the other person wonder if they’ve heard correctly.
The girl – woman – twitches her head in my direction before tipping onto her back and flailing her arms around. Too much splashing. Too much noise. Too much her, invading my space.
Edging away from her, I continue my sedate breaststroke – it’s been years since I dunked my head under water. ‘Stubborn refusal to relinquish control under any circumstances’ – that’s how Andrew described it.
The woman stops thrashing and drifts into a starfish pose. From behind my sunglasses, I look her up and down. Soft thighs in a white bikini. Apple cheeks curving in a blissfully upturned face. Give us some of your puppy fat, love. Ten kilos have dropped off me in the past year, and friends are telling me I look ‘tired’ rather than ‘great!’
The woman’s long, corkscrew curls fan out behind her, catching the sun and bouncing it back like a mirror. They have the artificial sheen of fresh highlights. As I dissect her with my eyes, I keep count of how many lengths I have swum. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Jesus, each stroke feels like pushing through concrete. When did I become so unfit? Twenty-one, twenty-two.
A smile tugs at the woman’s lips. She looks as if she is reliving a happy memory. Peaceful, I think. Then, with a flash of dislike: smug.
Twenty-three, twenty-four. With a sigh, the woman rolls over and wades towards the steps. The corners of her mouth have flipped down. A wet patch glistens on each cheek – I’ve done enough crying myself lately to recognise the signs. Compassion surfaces in me for a second before sinking like a stone. It’s nice to have the pool to myself. So what if it was a crying fit that drove her away? Life is a vale of tears, pet, suck it up. How can you afford to stay at this hotel anyway, at your age?
Resting my elbows on the edge of the pool, I watch pink tufts sail by on top of grey-bodied clouds. It’s still warm and light though it’s 6.30pm, the last day of September. A silly rhyme runs through my head: cheers to tears, cheers to tears, cheers to tears.
Back in my room, wearing only a t-shirt and my knickers, I unpack the rest of my clothes. Five tops, two pairs of shorts and a thin plastic bag containing my Marks & Spencer’s granny pants. Last but not least: my new wide-legged trousers. They are navy, heavy linen, with a drawstring waist. They are an abomination. The kind of garment elderly tourists wear on their bucket-list cruises. Buying them felt like an act of self-harm, but I did it anyway. It was the day Andrew sent me an email addressed to ‘Asmaa’, signed ‘Andrew.’ Funny how real names can feel like a stake through the heart when you’re used to pet names and endearments. The memory seems to have woven itself into the fabric of the trousers, which scratch at my legs as I put them on. Feeling as if I am wearing a hair shirt, I go downstairs for dinner.
If I’d come here to mingle, I would’ve been disappointed: only three other tables on the terrace are occupied. Mine overlooks the swimming pool, a sliver of turquoise screened by ornamental trees and bougainvillea. Dotted around the lawn are terracotta statues of spindly figures with bums jutting out like shelves. I read about them on the hotel website – they’re by an award-winning sculptor. So far, this place is living up to the adjectives that sang a siren song at my credit card and kept my fingers clicking and tapping as if in a trance: ‘exceptional,’ ‘stunning’, ‘breathtaking views over the Mediterranean’. Oh yes, I need something breathtaking. In a good way. Not the loss of breath that hits me at home, in London, when I bolt upright at 3am each day thinking How can this possibly be my life?
The waiter introduces himself as Alvaro and tells me I’ve arrived during an unusually quiet period. Smiling, he sweeps his arm out towards the green-carpeted cliffs and the sea beyond: ‘Your private garden.’
Apart from him, I’m the youngest person in sight – a rare occurrence these days. A murmur of German, French and Spanish rises from the bent grey heads. One of the Germans smiles at me before leaning forward to whisper to her companion. I can imagine what she’s saying. Do you think that woman is on her own? I hope she’s not lonely. Shall we ask her to join us? Frowning as if I’m engaged in important business, I scroll through rubbish on my phone as I nibble on warm bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This is the first food in months I’ve been able to taste properly.
My enjoyment is dulled by the arrival of another guest. Little Missy from the swimming pool, dressed almost identically to me in a thin black t-shirt and matching palazzo pants. The outfit looks great on her. Of course it does. A potato sack would look good at her age.
Another waiter, younger than Alvaro, sets a candle down on my table.
‘Muchas gracias!’ Suddenly happy, I tilt my face up at him – the amber light spilling onto the tablecloth has lifted my spirits. His mouth jerks politely while his eyes skim my face as if it is the boring section of a newspaper. ‘Just you wait,’ Carol at work, known as The Voice of Doom, warned me on my fortieth birthday seven years ago. ‘You’ll find yourself becoming invisible. People will look straight through you. Not just men – women too.’
‘’Scuse me…’ As the young waiter carries his tray of candles into the adjoining cocktail lounge, the girl – woman – intercepts him. ‘Please can I have a Malibu and Coke?’
Malibu! In a place like this. Classy. Why don’t you save him the trouble and pour yourself a glass of suntan lotion, love?
The waiter’s reply is inaudible.
‘Malibu and Coke,’ the woman repeats. She’s English, from the northeast, though I can tell she’s trying to sound as if she isn’t.
Her vowels are clearly not making much headway with the waiter. ‘Umm… Cola?’ she says after a moment’s thought.
I imagine, rather than hear, the waiter’s response. Ahh! Of course, Senorita.
I picture his liquid dark eyes meeting hers. Narrowing in amusement. Two healthy young animals sniffing each other out.
Some quality in this woman has got my nerves all a-jangle. What is it about her? Over-boisterous… hangdog… gauche… attention-seeking… blowsy. She looks like a puppy equally ready to have its tummy tickled or its nose rubbed in its own poo.
To be honest, her black outfit is winding me up too – black was always my colour. I had to ditch it for grey or blue after catching sight of a Victorian consumptive in the mirror one day and realising it was me, wearing my favourite black polo neck. No one ever warned me I would take on the sickly tinge of old parchment with age. This woman’s skin is clear, light brown, glowing in a way she won’t notice until time snuffs it out.
As she sips her drink, Miss Malibu buries her nose in a chunky paperback. How can she read in this light? Hunched over, her whole body seems immersed in the book. I can’t remember the last time I read like that. Even before my current distractions, Twitter and Instagram had killed my attention span.
Curiosity makes me get up with my glass of Muscatel and wander over to the cocktail lounge, where I stand looking at the sea. Surreptitiously, I slide my eyes in her direction. My heart gives a skip when I see the title of her book: The Magus by John Fowles.
Lost in another world, she looks up vacantly.
‘Sorry for being nosy, but I saw your book – I read it when I was fifteen. I know this sounds stupid, but it changed my life.’
‘Oh!’ she replies. ‘Me too. I reread it every year.’ Her speech is punctuated by a strange dipping motion of the head, as if she’s trying to find the right angle to pose for a selfie. I know what that’s about: her prominent nose. Roman, you might call it, though she’s probably heard it described in cruder terms.
She is the first to break the awkward pause. ‘It’s my favourite book. It’s so… I don’t know. Mysterious.’
‘Exactly!’ I feel my breath coming hard and fast – now I am the puppy. ‘I think you’re kind of primed for it when you’re young? When the world is fresh and you have so much to discover?’
Even as the words come out, I’m rolling my eyes at myself. Banalsville. Pompous city. Why am I blathering on like this?
But she’s nodding enthusiastically. ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Nothing ever moves you the way it does when you’re fifteen, sixteen.’
The way she says ‘moves you’ is oddly… moving. Something serious and sad about it, incongruous with her party-girl drink. When did that second Malibu and Coke appear? The first, empty glass is sitting on the coffee table.
‘Also,’ I say, steering the conversation back to something like small talk, ‘it’s nice to read a book set on a Mediterranean island when you’re on a Mediterranean island.’
She chuckles, but I sense her interest ebbing away.
Why were you crying in the swimming pool? I want to ask her.
‘Well,’ I say. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
‘Ah, all right then.’ After a moment’s hesitation, she says, ‘My name’s Maya, by the way. We’ll probably run into each other again?’
‘Yes, I guess so.’
She looks at me expectantly.
‘Oh, sorry – my name is… my name is…’
To my horror, my eyes brim over with tears. ‘Night,’ I say, and pound along the path back to my room, feeling her startled gaze follow me.
I fall asleep quicker than I expect. Maya is in my dream – we’re in the swimming pool again. She is twisting through the water, propelled by a mermaid’s tail made of cauliflower heads. I try to catch hold of her but she keeps slipping out of my reach.
I’m relieved not to see her at breakfast the next day. After exchanging smiles and a ‘Buenos Dias’ with the German couple, I sit in a corner table on the terrace and reply to the backlog of WhatsApps from my brother and sister. There’s no such thing as going ‘off grid’ in our family. Police helicopters will be sent.
Morning peeps, get a load of this view. Hope youse and the little shits are all okay.
My sister replies seconds later: Looks amazing! Lucky cow. Don’t forget – 1st October. Just in case you lost track while you’re away.
Today is our mother’s birthday. Thirty years since she died of cancer. I was seventeen, my brother nine, my sister seven. We have a pact to remember her together every year on this date. To ‘hold her between us’ as my brother said at the time, with a solemnity that freaked me out. He was not a poetic child, in general. I do this for a minute, closing my eyes and breathing deeply. My grief is clean and peaceful. After all these years, it has the subtle texture of a watercolour.
Like a tongue probing at a mouth ulcer, I give in to my compulsion to check Andrew’s WhatsApp status as soon as I open my eyes. Online. Hostility emanates from the black letters of his name, the ‘A’ jabbing accusingly at the white space above, the ‘W’ spreading in a sneer of contempt. Mind your own business, they seem to say. I click away with the usual desire to scrub my eyes with bleach.
After breakfast, I sprawl across a sun lounger as wide as a double bed and download The Magus on my Kindle; it’s been eight years since I last read it.
Less than ten minutes later, I’m flicking through Instagram, Twitter, email and junk mail. Asmaa! Confirm your exclusive penis enlargement trial now! My eyes are tired. The sun is beating on my head. Glimmering under the dappled trees, the pool is irresistible. With a gasp, I slip in, holding my head above the water as carefully as a mobile phone. As I turn and kick, I think of Maya. Her running jump into the swimming pool. Her ability to lose herself in a book. Her vivid colouring, her shitty taste in alcohol.
My breath labours under the weight of incipient tears. A sour ball of saliva rolls around my mouth. What is it about this woman that’s getting me so worked up?
‘Maya.’ I call her as she steps onto the terrace that evening, filling my peripheral vision with her lion’s mane of hair. I’m eating vegetable risotto – a heavier meal than I’ve been used to lately. A bottle of Merlot is easing its journey down my gullet.
Maya’s outfit is… eye-catching. Her top half looks as if it’s struggling to breathe in a tight tie-dye t-shirt, lurid yellows and greens colliding in a starburst on her chest. Her bottom half is dressed for a sexy Halloween party in a long, thigh-hugging black skirt draped over vertiginous black platform boots. Why are you wearing clodhoppers in thirty-degree heat, honey? And what’s with the bird’s nest hair? You will never win a fight against a hairbrush, back away and step out of the ring. Mentally, I rewet her hair, smother it in conditioner, detangle it with a wide-toothed comb.
‘Hiya,’ she says, coming over. ‘Y’aree— How are you?’
‘Good thanks. You?’
A flicker of puzzlement passes over her face. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m fine thanks.’
My lack of name sits between us like a roadblock. Dismantling it would take more energy than I possess. I fall back on chirpiness instead, talking to her in the tone I use with my older nieces and nephews.
‘Come and join me? Have you eaten?’
‘Yeah, I ate in town – tapas. Have you been in yet?’ Her voice rises in animation.
‘Ah, you should go. Have a look at the church in the square round the corner. It’s so pretty!’
‘To be honest, I’ve seen enough churches in my life. And temples. Roman fortresses too.’
This wasn’t what she was expecting. Her smile falters as she fiddles with the glass of wine I’ve poured her. ‘What’s the point of going somewhere if you don’t even want to have a look around?’
‘Oh Maya.’ My laugh comes out like a bark. ‘By the time you get to my age, one set of walls is much like another.’
The air prickles with this unwanted truth. We sit in silence, surrounded by darkness; the nights come late but absolute here. Suddenly, I have the impression of a black velvet curtain hanging to my right, as if a stage set has sprung up around us. This disconcerting illusion lingers until I brush my hand through the air to prove it’s empty.
‘Have you travelled a lot?’ she asks eventually.
As I reel off all the countries I have been to, she listens with an awestruck expression. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I say. ‘I used to love travelling, back in the day. But now I go away for peace and quiet, not to rush around sightseeing.’
I cast my mind back to my first ever ‘exotic’ holiday. Thailand, with Andrew, our one-year anniversary. I remember a cockroach flying at us like a guided missile when we walked into our hotel room; Andrew screaming and clinging to my shoulder. Somehow, he looked like my little sister, who was thirteen at the time. His eyelashes were long and thick, his ears wide and threaded with delicate red veins. I realised he was made of many fragile parts that could break at any moment, and I wanted to hold them tightly together. ‘Macaque,’ I said, stroking his head. ‘That’s your name from now on.’ We dissolved into laughter, the cockroach temporarily forgotten.
‘I’d love to travel,’ says Maya, wistfully. ‘Go round the world. Hopefully when we save up.’
I refrain from asking how she’s able to stay at a place like this if savings are an issue – or who ‘we’ are. Experience has taught me the violence lurking in so-called harmless questions: Where do you live? Do you have a partner? Any children? What people really mean is: Are you more or less miserable than I am?
‘We’re planning to go away soon, actually,’ she says. ‘We haven’t decided where yet – maybe somewhere in Asia. I love learning about different cultures.’
God, does she realise how naïve she sounds? No layers of irony or flippancy to protect her from mocking ears.
‘Maybe…’ She hesitates. ‘Maybe it’s because I’m partly foreign myself. Back home, I mean. Obviously I’m foreign here.’
‘Really? I thought you were from England.’
‘South Shields. But Dad’s family…’ She tells me her father is descended from sailors who came over from ‘Arabia’ generations ago. This makes him ‘foreign.’ Her ‘Mam’, who emigrated from Ireland twenty-five years ago, is Irish, which apparently doesn’t count as ‘foreign.’ Maya isn’t her actual name – that’s something even more ‘foreign’ – but a nickname that evolved within the family.
Her muddled definitions of ‘foreign’ annoy me. So does her expression as she describes her heritage – proud but sheepish, as if she is apologising for the human migratory patterns that culminated in her existence. I suppress a strong urge to tell her that if she was born in South Shields, she’s not ‘foreign’ and she should stop describing herself as such.
‘Anyway,’ she concludes. ‘We’ve started planning our trip, me and Andy.’
‘My boyfriend. We’ve been going out a while. We met in a bar, in London. That’s where I live now.’
She pronounces ‘bar’ and ‘London’ with an excited flourish.
‘My ex-husband was called Andrew too,’ I say. ‘Is called. He hasn’t changed his name.’ My voice wobbles dangerously.
‘Ah, I’m sorry. Was it recent, your divorce?’
‘Finalised a week ago. We’d been separated a while. He’s already living with someone else.’
Her eyes are wide. Sympathetic. Uncomprehending. Just by looking at her, I can tell she doesn’t come from a broken home. An invisible cocoon surrounds people whose parents love each other.
‘Do you umm… have any children?’ she asks.
‘No.’ To soften my terse reply, I say, ‘So yours is an Andrew too.’
‘Andy,’ she corrects me, a touch of nervousness in her laugh. Maybe she thinks I’ve jinxed her with this unfortunate coincidence.
‘But I never called my ex Andrew,’ I say instead. ‘I had a pet name for him.’
‘What was that?’
‘I called him…’ A fit of giggles overtakes me.
She leans forward, her posture relaxing at this shift to levity.
‘I called him…’ Full-blown laughter erupts from my throat. My stomach heaves in spasms. ‘I called him…’
Her amused expression is becoming strained.
‘Macaque!’ I’m laughing so hard I can hardly breathe.
This makes me laugh even harder. ‘M-monkey,’ is the most I can manage.
She waits all of ten seconds before looking at her watch. It’s a clunky gold thing with a brown leather strap and a face populated with suns, moons and stars. ‘Wow, is that the time?’
As I watch her clump off in her ridiculous boots, I think about the things I didn’t tell her. How after Andrew became Macaque, he became Macaque-aque – and then Macaque-aque-aque. Sometimes even Macaque-aque-aque-aque. Every extra syllable marked another notch on the tide-post of my love for him. How can you explain these things to a random stranger?
I’m not surprised when Maya avoids me the next morning – I see her poke her head around the foliage by the pool and then retreat to the terrace when she spots me.
My behaviour has been undeniably bizarre. I swore at her the first time we met. I’ve refused to disclose my name. I collapsed in hysterics while informing her I named my ex-husband after a medium-sized monkey. I can just imagine the anecdotes she’ll tell her friends later, in that wide-eyed, innocent way of hers.
But you know, it cuts both ways – she has irked me too with her inappropriate outfits. Her voice that’s trying to sound like it’s from London when it’s really from South Shields. Her shock of frizzy hair. Her clueless definitions of foreign.
I feel an irrational urge to tell her what I think of her. The feeling mounts as I swim, powering my arms and legs through the water. Forty-two, forty-three, forty-four. Who does she think she is? Forty-five. Frazzle-headed little madam. Anger surges through me like an electrical storm, building to a crescendo that drives me out of the pool and sends me running towards her, dripping and panting.
‘Maya!’ She’s slouched over her book wearing a red caftan, sipping a pina colada. Jesus Christ, does a day go by when this girl is not ingesting coconut in some unholy form? ‘Maya!’
‘Oh, hiya.’ With a guilty start, she slams her book shut.
‘Maya, your hair is an absolute mess – you have got to do something about it!’
She gapes at me.
‘You need to stop brushing it when it’s dry. You need to…’
I explain what she needs to do. To her credit, once the flush in her cheeks subsides, she takes it graciously. ‘Thanks,’ she says. ‘I can’t wait to try. Mam— Mum didn’t really know what to do with our hair.’
Calmed by her gratitude, I find myself touching my own hair before recoiling in distress. When the weight fell off me, it took two-thirds of my hair with it. Stress, hormones, lack of nutrients. What’s left has the wispy texture of cobwebs.
It’s with a touch of spite that I say, ‘You know, my hair used to be like yours.’
I’m pleased to see the discomfort on her face as she eyes my sparse, flyaway strands.
‘Don’t wait till you’re about to lose your hair before you finally learn how to look after it.’
Before she can reply, I march back to the pool.
Wrapped in towels, I lie in the sun and try to get warm. My muscles are floppy from spent adrenaline. This capacity for rage has only recently revealed itself – my sister, who is thirty-seven, has told me women of my age have ‘too much testosterone’. Does that explain this anger that tears through me like a hurricane at the slightest provocation? The last time Andrew and I slept under one roof, he made a passing remark about the quantity of garlic in the stir-fry I had made. I told him to shove it up his arse if he didn’t like it, before guilt made me apologise: Sorry, sorry, Macaque. When he replied, Stop infantilising me with that ridiculous name, I picked up the cast-iron wok from the kitchen table and smashed it into the patio door. Nothing was broken – the panels are reinforced glass, ordered specially from Germany – but Andrew looked as if I had buried an axe in someone’s skull. ‘Who are you?’ he’d said, his face pale and shaken. ‘I just don’t know who you are any more.’
Well I don’t know either, ‘Andrew’. Who is this ‘me’, and what is she capable of?
Through the trees, a blur of red rises and bobs away. Maya. Her bright, happy voice fills my head like an unwanted ear-worm. As I watch her, images of the squirrels that live in my garden come to mind. Their inquisitive black eyes. Their full, bushy tails. Their pointless bursts of activity as they fly from earth to tree and back again. Their startling ability to remain oblivious to the presence of a stalking cat until it’s almost on top of them.
As if to disarm me, Maya makes a beeline for my table that night. ‘Look!’ She points at her newly styled hair. Against my will, I examine her head with pride, as if it’s a portrait I have painted.
Undeterred by my monosyllabic responses, she launches into an account of her afternoon spent sightseeing. ‘The church… a cute little square… boats in the marina…’
‘So,’ I say abruptly when she runs out of steam. What’s he like, your Andy?’
‘Oh.’ Blinking in surprise, she leans back in her chair. Envy stabs me as I watch the candlelight bathe her smooth brown skin. Springing in all directions, her golden curls frame and lift her heavy features.
‘He’s from Cumbria. A little village on the coast. He’s my age – twenty-two. Training to be a chartered accountant.’
I ask which village. When she tells me, I say, ‘That’s where the nuclear power station is, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah! His dad works at the plant actually.’
I tuck this information away. ‘So anyway, what’s he like?’
She laughs shyly. ‘You’ve put me on the spot.’
Young Andy is apparently a composite of cliches: sweet, funny, serious, really really kind. Sometimes he reminds her of an old grandad, and sometimes he’s like a little kid. I listen with an inner smirk until she concludes, with bashful simplicity, ‘We look after each other.’ The words slice at my heart like paper cuts.
‘And what’s the long-term plan for you and Andy?’ I bracket his name with quote marks, as if he is a figment of her imagination. ‘Marriage? Two point four children? A dog and a picket fence?’
‘Umm, yeah, we want children some day. Isn’t that normal?’ She looks bewildered. How could I forget? Cynicism is a foreign language to her. And yet… and yet. Something in her voice strikes me as false. A barely perceptible slide into artifice. You’re acting, I think. And you don’t even know it yourself. Once again, I have the impression of being on a stage. The night sky could be a thick velvet curtain about to smother us both.
‘Better hope your children don’t glow in the dark,’ I say. ‘You never know, if he grew up in a nuclear village.’ My heart starts pounding the way it does when I have exercised too hard.
A nerve throbs in Maya’s cheek. I count the beats as she laughs weakly.
‘I love kids,’ she says. ‘I’m the oldest in our family. I’ve helped raise the little ones since… since Ma— my mother died.’
I see her throat muscles work away as she swallows a piece of bread. This effort is familiar to me: it’s what happens when food meets the immovable lump where grief lives.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. My voice softens. ‘It won’t always feel this bad. I promise.’
Her eyes are shining. She nods like a dog shaking raindrops off its coat. It feels as if she is shrugging my words off, refusing to be comforted. Do you think you’re the only one who’s ever lost a mother? Stop being such a drama queen.
‘Maya, why were you crying in the swimming pool that time?’
‘Oh, I didn’t know anyone was watching.’ For the first time since I met her, her guileless face seems to tighten. Something narrow and pointy creeps over it.
‘Well, what was it?’ Now I’m talking to her as I do to my younger nieces and nephews.
‘Ah, it’s weird… when I was in the pool, I suddenly had this feeling I’ve never had before… like I was old and sad.’
My breath constricts at her words.
‘Like I’d thrown my life away,’ she continues.
I sense, rather than see, that she is watching me closely. A drowning sensation comes over me. I grip the table like a life-buoy. My hand is rigid, clenched like a claw. My skin is desiccated, as if I have been vacuum-packed for easy storage. Blame the chlorine, the sun, the decades. All the things that leach the moisture out of a body and leave it parched and barren.
Maya’s eyes have travelled downwards and are fixed on my hand. Some trick of the light creates an orange nimbus around her head: the fiery halo of an avenging angel. Next to her, I am shrivelled and weak, my muscles too tired even to lift my wine glass to my lips. All my spite-filled energy has gone. Something has changed between us.
‘Anyway,’ she says, in a voice that has shed its timidity. Now she is the adult coaxing a recalcitrant child. ‘What happened with you and your ex – Andrew?’
‘Hard to say. The usual, I guess. It felt like we were constantly having an argument that never officially began.’
She rests her chin on her hand and watches me, unblinking. Am I imagining it or is she raising an eyebrow?
‘He’s a good person,’ I say, discomfited by the intensity of her gaze. ‘Better than me. What you see is what you get with him. Maybe it’s something in the name. Maybe all Andrews are designed that way. I used to be into numerology and astrology and all that crap when I was young. I used to think astral projection was a real thing and crystals could cure any illness or injury.’
I am babbling meaninglessly. She nods and listens as I talk about what I was like when I was young. What Andrew was like. All the things we’d planned to do together. How I’d wanted to be a social worker, ‘to make a difference in the world’, but ended up working at an investment bank. ‘I’m the accidental banker,’ I keep saying, rocking with mirth as if this is the funniest joke ever. ‘It only happened because I started working there as a temp.’
Eventually, I run out of things to say and we stand up at the same time and say goodnight. When I stumble as I push my chair back from the table, she catches me. I hate her for a moment. Showing off, flaunting the effortless power of her body, its weight and solidity. Oh yes, girly, I used to be strong too, before I became a shadow of myself. I used to be able to lift my Andrew off the ground, all six foot three of him. How dare Maya occupy so much space, when I am fading away?
As I walk along the path to my room, I hear her footsteps following at a discreet distance. So that’s how it is. She doesn’t trust me to get there on my own. She knows a sudden gust of wind could blow me off the cliff.
I wake up on better form. Refreshed from a long, dreamless sleep, my face is a pleasant surprise to me in the bathroom mirror: fuller, happier, less drawn and cadaverous. All that bread and risotto is doing its trick. The beginnings of a tan have blurred the bags under my eyes and softened the marionette lines around my nose. I put on a pink t-shirt and a pair of denim shorts, mentally sticking two fingers up at the linen trousers of the walking dead. Even my voice has an extra bounce in it when I say good morning to the Germans, flashing them a big smile as I pass them at breakfast. I know I look different – I can tell from the hint of surprise as they echo my greeting. Who is this woman? their tone seems to say. We didn’t realise she was someone like this… A caffeinated energy flows through me, though I have not drunk any coffee.
Maya is nowhere to be seen at breakfast. Good. Our conversations are becoming a drag. What’s the point of this constant back and forth, this doling out of bits of information about ourselves? We are strangers in a hotel. She doesn’t even know my name. We will never meet again once we leave this place. So what if she has got under my skin in a way strangers rarely do? She’s just a clueless girl-next-door. Too raw and unpolished to hold anyone’s interest for long. Come back when you’ve learnt to be a grownup, Maya. When you’ve figured out what’s going on in your own brain. And when you’ve learnt to hide it properly.
After breakfast, I lie by the pool and listen to music, reliving old favourites from my youth. Massive Attack. Portishead. Tricky. It doesn’t bother me that I have no one there to reminisce with. My own company is enough.
As I’m watching a YouTube video of ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, a WhatsApp pops up on my screen. One name, six spiky letters. My pulse starts galloping as I click on it.
Hi there, the message says (so now I’m not even ‘Asmaa’ to him – I’m just ‘there’). I didn’t want you to hear this from anyone else…
Collapsing on the sun-bed in tears, I let my earphones fall out of my ears and dangle to the floor. YouTube is still playing – tiny, tinny voices selling things – when Maya materialises beside me.
‘What’s wrong?’ she says, without preamble. Silently, I show her the message.
‘So what?’ she says.
It feels like a slap in the face. I stare at her in outrage. ‘What do you mean, “So what”?’
‘You never wanted kids with him yourself, did you?’
‘When did I tell you that?’
Her laugh shocks me with its uncharacteristic brutality. ‘What was it you said: “Glow-in-the-dark babies”?’
‘That was a joke! And we were talking about you, not me.’
‘You know we were. Your Andy, not mine. Listen Maya, don’t pull this shit with me.’
She backs away, eyes narrowed.
‘I can see straight through you, little miss goody two shoes. You with your “Oh, I love kids, I love looking after my little brother and sister, I love being Mother Teresa to the world”. Why don’t you just tell him?’
‘Tell who what?’
‘Andy! Andrew! When the time comes, tell him you don’t want kids instead of pretending you do, going through all the drama, the trying and failing, making out you’re devastated when you’re secretly relieved… Pretending you’d been to the doctors and nothing could be done, when you never even went. No, please don’t come with me, Andy, I know it sounds weird, but I need to do this on my own. Oh, and there was always some logistical hurdle to adoption, wasn’t there?’
‘You’re mental.’ She takes another step back, ungainly in her wedge-heeled sandals. Irrationally, I find myself wondering where she got them from. Barratts? River Island?
‘Give him the chance to do it sooner, Maya. Give yourself the chance to be with someone who isn’t quietly disappointed the whole time. Save yourself the guilt.’
‘What are you going on about?’ She sticks her fingers in her ears, a gesture I’ve never seen anyone make in real life. ‘You’ve lost the plot – that’s your life, not mine!’
‘Mam was a natural mother, wasn’t she? And everyone keeps saying how much like her you are, but you’re not really, are you, Maya? It’s knackering, looking after other people 24/7. Isn’t that why you moved down to London as soon as you could? Be honest with yourself. Save yourself the heartache. Save Andrew – Andy – from it too. There’s no shame in it. The only shame is in the lying, the pretending.’
Her retreat turns into attack. She doubles back, wagging her finger in my face. ‘Listen, just because your life has gone belly up, don’t take your aggro out on me. Just because your husband couldn’t wait to have a baby with someone else the minute he left you, don’t project it onto me! I’m nothing like you – you, you, bitter old shrew!’
As she takes another step towards me, I stand up and back away, electrified by the fury in her voice. Her words pierce me the way only the truth can. Yes, my husband couldn’t wait to breed with someone else the minute he left me. So what if I never wanted children with him? Am I not allowed to feel the pain of his fresh start versus my dead end? Why do men always get to put themselves back together again while women lie broken on the floor?
Maya comes closer still. I keep stepping back until the world upends in a splash of blue.
Much as I’d like to, I can’t blame her for what happens next. It’s tiredness, not Maya, that drives me deeper and deeper into the pool. Sometimes it takes so much effort not to do something. Not to step out into oncoming traffic. Not to let yourself topple gently over the edge of a train platform. Not to stop your hand cramming pills into your mouth to ease a surfeit of pain, or the absence of it – the knowledge that you have nothing left to think or feel or see or do because repetition has killed all meaning.
When the floor of the pool slopes away beneath my feet, shallow water turning to deep, it’s lethargy, not rage, that freezes my limbs. The questions that run through my head have nothing to do with me: they are about a woman who may or may not be drowning in a swimming pool. A woman laden with tiredness like a sack full of rocks, who has sunk to a muffled world under water. How long will she stay there? What will happen when her breath runs out? How long can her heart keep pounding like this before it explodes?
As other thoughts intrude – images of loved ones – lethargy steps in like the most skilful anaesthetist. Under its delicate touch, those faces become nothing more than pictures in a deck of tarot cards. Rich in symbolism, drained of personal significance. They are my sister, my brother, my nephews and my nieces. My dead mother and father. Andrew, who was once my beloved Macaque and is now just Andrew. Andrew who will leave a part of himself in this world that has nothing to do with me.
Peace abounds in this underwater kingdom. The water strokes my body, tucking me deeper and deeper into its folds. Care sloughs off like old skin… I am sinking and falling, sinking and falling…
Rough hands yank me up, jerking my head above the water. Ouch! Maya! Kicking and flailing, I resist as she drags me to the shallow end, but she is strong – even stronger than she looks. So what if my ribs are killing me? So what if I am coughing and choking? All she cares about is prodding and poking me, waking me up and jolting me back to life. With a heave, she half-throws me against the edge of the pool. Panting, I rub my stinging eyes and glare at her as she gasps.
‘Why?’ I say.
‘Why what?’ she pants.
‘Why is it any of your fucking business?’
Silence. And then she says, ‘Oh Maya.’
My world breaks apart.
‘Shhh,’ she says as I start crying. ‘Shhh.’
I know what she is going to say. Of course I do. I have known all along. I am the one pulling her strings. The magus conjuring her voice, her image, at will.
‘What were you thinking, buying those minging trousers?’
My tears mingle with laughter before they turn into gut-wrenching sobs.
‘Even before the baby news,’ I say. ‘That email. When he called me Asmaa instead of Maya. It felt like a piece of me had died. Like he’d killed it.’
‘Jesus, you’re a drama queen. Loads of people call you Asmaa. It’s the name you were born with!’
‘Yeah – my teachers used to call me Asmaa. Miss Stewart with the screwed-up lemon face. My bank. Divorce lawyers. Not him.’
‘Yeah, okay, but is it fair you were Maya and he was Macaque? A monkey for heaven’s sake. Couldn’t you have come up with something more… dignified?’
Waves of shame ripple through me as I remember the expression on Andrew’s face when I smashed the wok into the patio door. I think of how fragile he’d looked; breakable, unlike the reinforced glass from Germany. Belatedly, I unblock my ears to the sadness in his voice when he’d said, ‘Who are you?’
For the first time since we split up, I cry for Andrew the way I cry for my mother: clean, smooth, no jagged edges. He is having a baby with someone else. The lies I told no longer matter. Whimpering like an injured animal, I roll my hard-earned grief around my tongue, savouring the bitter-sweet taste.
When I’ve cried myself out, Maya says, ‘Well. You’re still here.’
‘Yes,’ I say again, with a big juddery breath.
A stillness gathers between us.
As if someone has pressed unmute on a remote control, external sound springs to life. Rustling leaves, chirping birds, the abrasive song of the crickets. A tray clinks on a table, and someone gives an ‘Ahh’ of appreciation.
Maya is ebbing away. I feel a shift in the atmosphere, particles re-forming to fill a shape no longer there. Or maybe she has returned to the place she came from. A homecoming, not a goodbye.
I am alone in the swimming pool. Asmaa, Maya, Asmaa, Maya.
Breathing heavily, I lean on the edge of the pool. Is it wrong to be mildly peeved that my brush with death has gone unnoticed? A few metres away in the restaurant, the old German couple are eating their lunch, clattering their knives and forks. Alvaro the waiter tops up their wine glasses, smiling at a comment from the man before padding back to the kitchen with their bread basket.
As usual, the poolside is deserted. No one here to pump my stomach, if it had gone that far. No one to tilt my head to one side and let the water trickle out of my mouth. No one here but me. Maya. Asmaa.
What would they have seen, if they had been watching? A woman glaring at nothing. Moving her mouth at an invisible interlocutor. Having an argument with herself.
Alone in the swimming pool, I keep breathing. Still breathing. I think of young Maya with her hopeful smile and puppy dog eyes. Her clumsiness and vitality, her innocence and her weakness. I forgive her for the things she couldn’t say.
I breathe as if it is a professional sport. As if someone is watching from the sidelines.
It’s another scorching day. The crickets are making a racket, shaving the air like a phalanx of razorblades. A big black insect scurries across the paving stones, twitching its antennae. I watch until it slips into a crack and vanishes.
Flipping onto my back, I float like a starfish, filling my eyes with the azure sky until the sun becomes too bright. I used to swim like this all the time. I can’t remember when or why I stopped.
When the sun starts to burn my face, I stand upright in the water and watch dappled mosaics cover the bottom of the pool. They shimmer and glint, hugged around the edges by a quivering, tentative strip of light.
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