Alas for the Egg by Hilary Mantel

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image © doros partasides

First published in The London Magazine, Dec/Jan 1986/87

 

On Sunday, they went to Nicosia. On their right as they drove, but far in the distance, was the faint blue line of the sea. Nearer at hand, pylons were slung across the landscape between the outcrops of white chalk; knolls and tumuli arose from flat green fields. The road began to climb. Sage-coloured trees of perfect form stood against the skyline.

The sun — it was now midday — gilded June’s hare arm, and glinted on her nail polish; a shade called Frosted Peach, which she had applied freshly at the hotel that morning. An army lorry, its canvas top flapping, ate up the road before them. Beside the asphalt, anemones burned in shocking scarlet. When they stopped to admire the view, Gregory looked in the guidebook. The flowers, it said, were the tears of Venus, shed for the murdered Adonis and transformed as they fell to blood. It was a piece of information he decided to keep to himself.

They sat for five minutes or so, while Gregory read, and June, her face empty of expression, gazed – inland. Gesturing vaguely, Gregory said, ‘There’s a neolithic site up there. Burial mounds.’ June gave an affected shudder. ‘It wouldn’t take long,’ he said.

June consulted her watch. ‘We’ll miss the first race.’

`That doesn’t matter.’

`Oh, why bother then?’ she snapped. ‘Why go at all?’

A moment later she was climbing out so that he could photograph her, posed by their hired car. Her bad temper, even on holiday, never lasted long. She was a quick passionate woman, but inclined to over­look his failings. She knew he could not help them. He focused care­fully; the motorway was just on his right, and he wanted to keep it out of the picture. June stood with her feet planted sturdily, calf-high in yellow flowers. Ever since they arrived, he had been photographing her. She wanted something she could show her neighbours; something she could show her grandchildren, when Kerry and Dennis got round to it. He felt, as he looked through the camera’s eye, that he had never really seen her before.

Every morning so far they had taken breakfast on the hotel terrace, overlooking the sea. It was warm, even at 7 o’clock, and the hotel staff were affable and wide-eyed, bustling between the tables with their cheese omelettes to order and their straw baskets of the coarse under-salted local bread. He made do with cornflakes; he’d had indigestion for days. June said, ‘You’d think they liked being waiters.’ She sounded rather sour, but what she was doing, Gregory knew, was weighing them up as potential employees. You needed, in hairdress­ing, any amount of public pleasantness; but at the same time, you had to be able to stand up to the customers. Ever since they left home she had been worrying about Maison Sonya, and whether Kerry was coping.

`If we were in Abersoch,’ she said, ‘I could be at home in two hours, if necessary.’ Abersoch, a caravan site there, was their usual holiday choice; but this was their dream holiday. Gregory had retired, and they felt they should do something to mark it; the pension fund had paid out.

If there was one thing that had pleased June about Cyprus, it was the flourishing state of the hairdressing trade. Every taverna, every burger bar, seemed buttressed by unisex salons; Seville Hair Fashions, Youlia Crimpers, Maros Style International. It seemed that a whole people, if not engaged in chopping salad or building holiday flats, were employed in doing each other’s hair. On their third day they made for Paphos, over to the west, and June counted the salons through the Limassol outskirts. She was silent for most of the journey. Gregory didn’t make conversation. His eyes were for the seascapes afforded by each bend in the road. ‘Careful,’ June said, once or twice. At Paphos they saw the mosaics. He was moved, far more than he had expected, by the faces of the gods; by the ageless tiger, feral breath cast in stone; by the single pomegranate, two millenia in ripeness of flesh. June nudged him, to look at a young woman going around with a touring party. ‘That’s a good feather-cut,’ she said. ‘Look at her fringe, that’s what you call hairdressing.’ At the Baths of Aphrodite she saw a blow-wave that really pleased her.

He looked, when she pointed, obediently at the young men, but with a certain furtive interest, which he tried  to suppress, at the young girls. Sleek, shapely, they were shedding their winter layers; it was almost April, after all. But why not look, he asked himself. I am old now, it is my prerogative. I am retired, and must have hobbies. Buntings decked the roadsides, and wreathes of spring flowers. It was carnival week. Carne vale: farewell to flesh.

June had set out the pattern of their days, with attention to what she called Value for Money. Breakfast; an excursion, then an hour by the hotel pool; a bath, some titivation; then the descent to the cocktail bar. A drink or two; then dinner. ‘We have to try and cram it all in,’ she said. Some mornings, on a whim, they had their sunbathing before their outing. It amused him to see the patrons in the same places at the pool, day after day. Their habits overrode their need for sun or shade. `They’re territorial,’ he said to June. ‘The territorial imperative.’ June said nothing; went on reading her magazine. When Kerry was a little girl, she used to pay threepence at the sweet shop on the corner for something called a Lucky Bag. You didn’t know what you might get; you might pull out a lollipop, then an aniseed ball, or some sort of humbug. His mind, June said, was something like that.

He was not used to the sun. It made him sleepy. He would lie back, the guide book propped open on his chest, ostensibly planning tomorrow’s excursion, but really just day-dreaming. June asked him `What are you thinking about?’ and he said, ‘The future.’

`Oh yes,’ June said. She thought in terms of the summer ahead. In July it would be Abersoch again, but this time they would be buying their caravan, not renting. After all, this holiday was a one-off. They would not be able to afford it every year. They had tried other places —Anglesey, for example — but they had always come back to Abersoch.

When he thought of the future, it was the next twenty years he had in mind. June had the business. She was a lot younger than he was; they both, thank God, had their health. The shop had been nothing when June bought it; grubby nets at the window, fading photographs of rigidly-permed starlets flapping on the walls. Who were those starlets now? Grandmothers. When June took over she had the shop refitted in the latest glass and chrome and canework. She stood on her feet for eight hours a day. She ate her lunch standing up; or didn’t bother. There was a girl, at hairdressing college two days a week, ripping up the beauty magazines with a big pair of scissors, seeking out the latest trends. On Fridays and Saturdays they had late open­ings. `Mum’s a phenomenon,’ Kerry said. She couldn’t keep up with her, although she was half her age. June would never retire. She once said she’d run the salon from a wheelchair if she had to. But why should she have to? Something in her transcended ordinary health.

Gregory’s own job had never absorbed him in quite the same way. It had not used him up; left him free to cultivate his mind. He had not been sorry to retire, and yet there was something, a kind of weight on his chest, that he had not bargained for. It is a life-crisis, he told him­self, it is a rite of passage. After this indolent summer I will find things to do. Trifles; pastimes. June would not reproach him with inactivity. Her energy level had always been higher than his; it was a fact of life. Her earning power would keep them cosy. He had much to be grateful for. That, he supposed, was the weight he bore.

Tired of bearing it, he turned his head, for diversion; stretched his body along the sunlounger. He turned back, read his guidebook a little; but deliberately, sideways from half-closed eyes, he watched Nell. Nell across the pool; Nell somnolent, in her blue bikini. What age would she be? He remembered her pleasant low voice, greeting him on the breakfast terrace; greeting June too, but when June turned to interrogate the waiter she had given him a smile. The first time he had seen Nell sunbathing, he had thought she was topless. Sucking his lip, he had read furiously of the ruins at Salamis, until the moment came when he allowed himself to glance up again, his pulse quicken­ing. But she was not topless, it was an illusion; the half-cups of her bikini clung to the undershadow of heavy full breasts. She looked up, across the pool, and saw him watching her.

On their first morning, the two couples had only exchanged a greeting, but on the second day it had progressed. Ted, Nell’s husband, had asked him if he knew the cricket score. ‘Care for a look at The Times?’ he’d said, and passed it across the table. ‘It’s yester­day’s.’ They introduced themselves. They seemed a close couple. Childless, I’ll bet, June said later. Nell had this sleepy, warm smile.

June had warned him, when they were up in their room. ‘Leave them alone, Gregory, they’re not our sort. You don’t want to be palling up with them and getting towed off somewhere expensive for the evening.’ June despised people from the south of England, as much as she feared them. Nevertheless, he heard her telling Nell in the bar that night about the latest perming techniques, and confiding her fear that Kerry would not cope.

`Never mind,’ Nell said soothingly, ‘you’re on holiday. You must try to relax.’

`Relaxing never built up a hairdressing business,’ June said. She was afraid that Kerry would be conned by some customer, that some woman would come in and say her hair was falling out, and. Kerry, without the wit to say she wasn’t liable, would put her hand in the till and pay the old bag off. ‘ I could make your blood run cold,’ June told Nell, ‘with tales of what the public get up to.’

Nell seemed amused, but she held back her smile. He wished she would not hold it back; already by the second day he loved to see it, and as she turned up the corners of her mouth an adolescent heat touched his body, a feeling he thought he had forgotten. It was as if he had met some former self in the dank back alleys of the Old Town: halt, who goes there? Tentatively Nell patted her own soft brown hair. June said she pitied her; it had no body.

On the third evening of their holiday, they met by chance in the bar. June would choose cocktails from the bar list, and challenge the barman to mix them for her; he would do it with a flourish, humming while he plied his shaker, making a business of it. June stood at the bar counter watching him with a broad smile. It was the second thing she had enjoyed about Cyprus, and although Gregory found the show­manship embarrassing he couldn’t bear to spoil her pleasure. Stavros would deck out the frothy little glasses with sticky cherries, sprigs of mint, coloured sunshades of pleated paper. ‘You’re only young once,’ June said; and laughed, and winked extravagantly, to show that she knew she had made a joke.

It seemed — he was relieved — that Nell quite liked June’s company. There was a lively, admiring glint in Nell’s hazel eyes. Perhaps she was too calm, too kind, to pick holes in people. Pettiness would not be in her. ‘You must come and see us,’ she said, ‘if you’re ever in Horsham.’

Ted did not have much to say. ‘Enjoying yourself?’ Gregory asked. `We always do. Hotel seems a good sort of place.’

`You’ve been here before then?’

`Never away. Nell enjoys it. Friendly people. Stayed at the Churchill last year. Churchill’s a good sort of place.’ He paused. ‘Like a change though.’

`Oh yes,’ Gregory said warmly. ‘We all like a change.’

Nell did not have cocktails. She had a small, pale glass of Cyprus sherry, on which her neat pale fingers closed; in holiday mood, and yet discreet. When she was inside her clothes, indoors, Nell seemed a different person; trim, rather grey. You would never guess she had such a front; her silk blouse did not show it. He must, Gregory knew, put some name to his feelings about her. I have my feelings, like other men, he thought: gallantries, cravings, sudden despairs. Advance, friend, and be recognized.

The days passed too quickly now. The hotel held a Cyprus night; there was dancing and buzuki music. Stavros, the barman, showed unsuspected talents. He ran between the tables, bouncing and beaming, with ten glass tumblers balanced on his head. It seemed impossible; people threw money at him. At first June seemed to be enjoying it, but when she saw Nell clapping and laughing, she with­drew into herself, putting it down as Horsham entertainment. Often now, when he was drowsing by the pool, or just driving somewhere, June’s proprietorial voice would carve into his thoughts. Now he had retired, he thought, he would be at her mercy. At her beck and call. He went out on the balcony in the evenings, before they went down to the bar, and watched the girls passing in the street. His appetite was a smooth easy flow; not all in Nell’s direction. Who would have thought that sun and idleness would work on him in this way? He could not have predicted it. He had taken a whole reel of pictures of June now, and when he looked at her, it was as if he always looked through his camera, and she was there, indelible, the firm jawline, the dis­contented mouth, the outline of sturdy thighs under her dress. He had heard of holidays having this purpose; that couples got to know each other better.

After the Cyprus night, with its charcoal grills and sticky puddings, his indigestion seemed worse than ever. June was not sympathetic. He should have less of the local cuisine, she told him, less garlic; have what I have, a nice plain piece of fish. It’s an island, isn’t it, so you know it’s going to be fresh.

Ted and Nell spent most of the first week by the pool. They would hire a car at the weekend, they said, and go somewhere, but mean­while they were glad to be lazy. ‘You’re always on the go,’ Nell said, expostulating. ‘Dashing hither and thither.’

But June said they were bent on getting their money’s worth; other­wise they might as well have stayed at home, where she would have had less anxiety. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘Gregory is fond of culture. He likes these icons, etcetera, don’t you? He finds the rock formations very interesting, too.’

Ted and Nell nodded gravely. There was no irony in June’s tone. She was proud of him; they understood this. ‘I’m just off upstairs to see if I can pick up the World Service.’ Ted said. He leapt up from his lounger and flapped off in his sandals. Gregory’s eyes snatched at Nell’s. I saw you half-naked, his gaze said, I thought I did; I know more of you than other people know. Her glance was gentle; but without complicity.

On Friday they drove into the mountains. They climbed; five thousand feet, six thousand feet. Drifts of snow, rather yellow now, still lay in the hollows, but the ground was carpeted with flowers. ‘I wish I’d brought my flower book,’ Gregory said. Then `Do you know, June, what we’re standing on? We’re standing on the ocean floor.’

`What?’ she said. `Up here? What do you mean?’

`You see,’ he said, and made his hands the landmasses of the world: `Africa, you see, is crashing into Europe, like this; the continents are sliding together. The Mediterranean used to be an immense ocean. And this mountain range is really a bit of the sea-bed, cast up.’

June stared at him. ‘What happened to the water?’ she said.

He was at a loss. ‘I expect it drained away.’

`Well, how can they make that out? How can they make that out, that it was the sea-bed?’

`By the fossil evidence. By the microscopic fossils. And by the composition of the rocks.’

`So Africa’s crashing into Europe, is it?’ She sounded not so much alarmed, as affronted. ‘Does it mean there’ll be an earthquake? Is it happening now?’

`Yes, it’s happening now,’ he said. ‘But it’s happening very slowly.’ He closed his eyes. Suddenly he felt very tired. ‘I’m talking about millions of years, June, tens of millions of years. No disaster is imminent, I can assure you. I’m sorry the drift of the continents can’t be held up, because we are on holiday. But we’ll be on that plane on Tuesday, don’t you fret.’

On Mount Olympus the air was damp, but sharp and resinous. A single bird called, on a high insistent note, and beyond that there was silence, except for the click of June’s heels on the tarred road. Hearing them, she said, ‘These have been a good pair of shoes.’

By the time we leave for home, he thought, the snow here will have melted. The sun blazed fiercely over the radar station. ‘Don’t think I’m not enjoying myself,’ June said, ‘but I half-wish we were going back on Sunday, then I could get into the salon for Monday afternoon. It’s the pensioners’ half-price on a Monday, you know, and some of them are devils. I don’t know that Kerry can cope. They don’t respect her. They treat her like a bit of a kid.’

`I’m sure she can stand up to them.’

`No, she can’t stand up to anybody,’ June said. Her voice was matter-of-fact. ‘She’s susceptible to people. She gets it from you.’

`Just stop a minute,’ he said. He put his hand on her arm. That niggle of pain again; like the tip of a knitting needle, worked between the ribs.

‘All right, are you?’

`Yes, I’m fine.’ He stared down at the ground. The golden pine-cones and shards of stripped bark were alive with tiny ladybirds. A cloud passed over the sun. He looked down, down into the abyss, to the villages, the monasteries, the vineyards. He felt, for a moment, the presence of the gods; then June’s hand on his sleeve. The gods don’t interfere in our lives nowadays, he thought; more’s the pity.

When they went down to the bar that evening they found Ted and Nell there already. June perused the bar list, held Stavros in conversation, then ordered a White Lady. She seemed oblivious to Nell, waiting to launch out on a story.

`Our first day out, and we were hijacked,’ Nell said.

`Oh, yes?’ Gregory cocked an eyebrow at her. ‘Hijacked, how?’

`We took a turning, off the Nicosia road, and there was an old chap thumbing a lift —’

`Ancient,’ Ted put in. ‘Decrepit.’

`So we stopped, and he begged us, positively begged us, to take him to the top of the hill.’ Nell moved forward a little in her seat, holding them in suspense. ‘And when we got there, it was one of these tiny villages —’

`Poor sort of place,’ Ted said.

and he asked us, well, insisted really, that we should go to his home and meet his family and take coffee. We were quite over­whelmed, but then —’

`He wanted to sell you something,’ June said. She nodded. It was her experience of human life.

`Yes, table linen.’ Nell raised her glass of sherry to her lips. ‘They embroider it. It’s terribly expensive.’

`Couldn’t get away,’ Ted said. ‘Brought in coffee, preserved fruit,

you name it – whole family crowding round – talk about the hard sell.’ I hope you sent them packing,’ June said. ‘That’s unscrupulous.

Putting you under an obligation. Or trying to.’

Ted and Nell looked at each other, smiling slightly.

`They’re very poor people,’ Nell said.

`You mean you bought?’ June was shocked. ‘You let them prevail on you?’

`I’m afraid we did, and the great joke is —’ they exchanged another glance, enjoying it ‘they foisted off on us eight napkins and this enormous round table-cloth —’

`And we haven’t got a round table,’ Ted said. ‘Never have had. Never shall.’ He popped a potato crisp into his mouth and crunched it happily. ‘Most useless purchase we ever made.’

Gregory and June did not look at each other. If this had happened to them, the mutual embarrassment, the recriminations, would have soured their whole holiday.

`I was foolish,’ Nell said, more soberly. Her eyes flickered over June’s face. ‘Ted tried to tow me off, but after I’d eaten all these little pots of jam — and by the way they were quite delicious —’

`You were too soft,’ June said crushingly. She swept a glance over her husband, as if to say, where would you be with a creature like this, thank your lucky stars you have me.

`Mm.’ Nell looked into the depth of her glass. ‘You’re probably right, June. It certainly set us back a few pounds.’ She raised her face. `But it was fun.’

Ted leaned forward. ‘It may be useless to us,’ he said, ‘but it seems a very good kind of table-cloth.’ Fleetingly, he touched Nell’s white hand as it lay on the table; Nell smiled. Gregory turned his face away. Two tears, unprecedented, sharp as flint, stood in his eyes. He rose from the table. ‘Call of nature,’ he said. ‘Excuse.’ He blundered out of the bar, and stood blinking in the marble lobby, by the door of the Coffee Shop. June was crushing him, he thought, crushing him utterly. The process was imperceptible, merciless; it was the worst kind of destruction, the one to which not even its victim bears witness. Until this week. The air in the lobby seemed close, stifling. Stavros the barman, lean and curly-headed, came out bearing a tray. He paused.

`You feeling okay, Sir?’

`Yes, thanks, I’m okay.’ The moment had passed. June would have explained it to him; to be crushed was in his nature. There was a Cypriot proverb, translated in his guide book, which seemed to fit his situation. Alas for the egg when the stone falls on it; alas for the egg when it falls on the stone.

Sunday came. ‘What do you do on a Sunday?’ June asked. He’d said he wouldn’t mind driving into Limassol and going to an Orthodox service, just out of curiosity.

`Church?’ June said. ‘But you’ve never been a church-goer.’ `No . . . all right then. Why don’t we got to the races?’

`Races? Where?’

`Nicosia. It’s a proper track. I’ve been reading about it. It would make a change.’

It was true that it would make a change. They had never been race-goers either, but June did not find the idea so revolutionary as that of divine service. She even warmed to it; did her nails. ‘You usually just want to do cultural things,’ she said happily, ‘I could have a flutter. Just for once.’

They took the old road to Nicosia, but even with a pause for photo­graphs they were there in an hour. He pulled up near the city walls and spread out the rather inadequate map provided by the car-hire company. It was no use asking June to read it; she could not tell left from right, and navigation provoked the worst excesses of her temper. When she made errors she claimed that signposts had been turned around, as if in a country at war.

He set off cautiously, through the shuttered Sunday streets. Here was the Museum of Antiquities; here the Municipal Gardens. He wound down his window, letting in the sun and the light breeze; `Lovely day,’ he said to June. He propped one elbow on the window ledge, careless, his other hand loose on the wheel. Homer Avenue, Gladstone Street.

June said, ‘We’re lost, aren’t we?’

`We do seem to be running out of town. There should have been a roundabout —’

`Here, give me the map.’ June unflapped it confidently.

`You ought to head back for the city. Go at it again.’ She looked at her watch. ‘The first race starts at one-thirty,’ she said.

He did as she told him, reversing, heading back. All the routes from the middle of town seemed to look alike. It was one-thirty already when he found the roundabout. ‘Right, here we go,’ he said. June gave him advice. She also said, why do we always get lost, Gregory? He thought, but did not say, because we are too proud and stubborn to ask he way.

It was five minutes before his doubts set in; ten, before they hardened. ‘This can’t be it, can it? I’ll have to go back on myself. Back to the roundabout, then find another road off.’

Now June was growing exasperated. ‘We’ll miss it, we’ll miss it,’ she cried.

`Heavens, woman,’ he said, ‘they go on till half-past five.

June said, ‘Don’t you woman me.’

It seemed a low point. The whole week had been coming to this: the frank quarrel. Soon, if he did not find the right road, she would accuse him of getting lost deliberately, to spoil her pleasure. He felt he could hardly stand it; a week of her hairdresser’s conversation, the nagging ache in his side, his sudden insight in the lobby. He stopped, reversed sharply into a driveway, and swung the car around.

 The narrow roads running out of town were lined with small bungalows, recently built, their walls washed with orange and blue. Chickens ran in the road; the householders, with their families and dogs, were taking lunch on the verandahs. Beyond a small row of shops — fruit and veg, video rental — the road ran out on them, a wire fence strung across their path. ‘I thought this was the way,’ Gregory said. He turned left; the car crawled along. In a moment he had to stop again. A barrier confronted him, and a wooden sentry hut; a young man in camouflage gear, with a sub-machine gun.

`What’s going on?’ June demanded.

Gregory said, ‘It’s the border.’

`But we want to go up there,’ June said, outraged.

`That’s a Turk,’ he said patiently. ‘That’s a Turk, June. We can’t.’

The border guard watched him. He did a three-point turn. The young man’s expression was curious, even amiable. How would it be, Gregory wondered, if I pushed her out into the road? Would he shoot her? Would he shoot her dead? His own rage shocked him. His hands tightened on the wheel. There had been a time when he had thought his wife’s stupidity a misfortune; now he knew that it was a vice. Yet what to do? He had heard of worms turning, but eggs have not that capacity.

As it happened, the programme was running late and they had only missed two races. They had trouble parking, but they squeezed in, and they hurried through the Tote Hall, through the weekend crowds. The breeze got up. ‘Button your jacket, Gregory,’ June ordered him. Yes, anything. He hurried to obey. What can an egg do, but most treacherously crack, before you can consume it? The twenty-foot-high figure of a Marlboro cowboy dominated the sky beyond the winning post; behind him, the mountains of Kyrenia.

It was all new to him, all fresh; the horses dancing in their stalls, the roaring glee of the crowd as they pressed against the rails, the flurry and speed with which the action was over. Between the races, he had plenty of time to look about. The spectators were mostly young Cypriot men, with a sprinkling of the black grannies, in their head­scarves and wrinkled stockings, who were already familiar to him from pictures of Greece. And there were the girls in the crowd, always in pairs it seemed, arms entwined, turning their avid faces on each other, not the horses; chattering, dressed alike, mouths splashed with vivid lipstick; then looking about them, faces raised to the sun and wind, long hair blowing, tiny waists, hands like temple dancers; their smiles scattered towards him down the track, bowled towards him in the dust kicked up by the horses’ hooves. He thought of Nell. The crowd surged down from the stand as the seven runners in the 3 o’clock rounded the final bend: Super Nova, Wild Boy, Touch Me Not.

When the race was over and the winner was led off, the crowd drifted away in search of refreshments. ‘Sporting afternoon, eh?’ a voice said.

`It’s Ted.’ June jogged his elbow. ‘He’s on his own.’

Gregory was glad to see him. It seemed an age since they had met at breakfast; a geological age. Ted appeared and disappeared, bobbing in the crowd, as if he were at sea. ‘I say,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a radio in my hire car, I can get the Test score.’

`Where’s Nell?’

`She’s gone on a picnic. Some of the staff asked her. The hotel staff.

Splendid day for it. Her little whim. Get to know the locals.’

`Oh yes?’ June said, half to herself; breathing hard, in Gregory’s shadow. He turned away from Ted, as the crowd bore him off again, looked into June’s face. He saw contempt. June gave a low, merciless chuckle. ‘Some picnic,’ she said.

`What do you mean?’ he demanded.

June said, ‘I can read her like a book.’

A group of British servicemen jostled by them, young faces, pinkly porcine, each one under shorn fair hair. The general good­ humour seemed to have entered into them as they crammed together on the stand, for they were laughing, and swigging from beer bottles, and showing each other their tattoos. The sight of them pleased June; It made her feel patriotic. She gripped his upper arm, ‘Gregory, go and put me some money on that one.’ She pointed to a lively bay with a jockey of minuscule proportions. ‘He’s only a little lad,’ she said fondly.

`He’s probably a grandfather.’

Put me a pound on.’

He looked over at the bay. It seemed what Ted would call a good kind of horse. `To win or for a place, June? A Cyprus pound, or an English pound? Anything, June.’

`What?’ She looked up at him, and then her toothy grin invaded her face. ‘What, anything?’ she said lewdly. She has no idea, he thought, how much in these last few hours I have decided to hate her.

`Speak now,’ he said, ‘or forever hold your peace.’

`You must have been drinking,’ she said.

By four o’clock the novelty had worn off, for June at least. The wind was keener; her horse had lost, she was cold, she wanted to go. She said she was looking forward to her bath, and to putting her blue frock on, and to getting down to the hotel bar. ‘We’ll be on our own tonight,’ she said. ‘They won’t be in.’

`Perhaps Stavros won’t be there either,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it’s his day off.’

`No doubt it is,’ she said, with a kind of saved-up bitterness. ‘No doubt it is. But I suppose somebody else can mix my drinks.’

They pushed their way out through the turnstiles. The wind had struck russet into June’s cheeks; her skin seemed roughened, fran­gible, like the skin of a pear. ‘Oh, bloody hell,’ she said. ‘We’re blocked in.

He walked around the car; around the van that was parked slant­wise across the space where he had hoped to reverse out. He looked at his watch. It was only 4.30, and it would be more than an hour before the last race began; more than an hour and a half, perhaps, before the van’s owner, having collected his winnings and perhaps enjoyed a drink, decided to turn up and free him. It was one of those things that happen. June’s small blue eyes blazed at once with frustration. Home, she’d said, bath, bar; she didn’t expect me to be thwarted.

`Don’t blame me,’ he said meekly.

`I’m not blaming you.’ She aimed a great kick at the van’s tyre. I’m not holding you responsible.’

He shivered. What else can an egg do, but get left on your face? ‘I think I could back out,’ he said. ‘Just about. But you’ll have to guide me.

`Okay.’ She glowered. Rubbed her hands together. He edged for­ward, edged back. Wrenched the wheel over, once, twice, three times forward and back, creeping out by inches, tensed for the clank and scrape. In the end ‘You’ve got it this time,’ she shouted.

Yes, he was out; an inch to spare. She strode around to the pas­senger door. He leaned across, as if to open it for her; then, instead, snapped the lock down. He saw her cardigan, flapping in the breeze; her fingers, wrapped around the door handle, wrenching at it. Her face was up in the sky somewhere, in the scudding clouds. She banged on the roof; once, like a thunderbolt.

And then he was off; bouncing over the loose white stones, swerv­ing at a reckless speed out of the car-park and into the narrow white lanes of the suburb of Ayios Dhometios. The verandahs were deserted now. Lunch guests were leaving for home. He had to slow up, by the video rentals shop, he had to wait at a cross-roads by a Coca-Cola sign, and he half-expected her to appear, sprinting along the road in her Clark’s sandals, banging on the roof again, swearing at him, smashing him up. His heart raced. He had acted on impulse, like an animal, he thought, like some dim vegetable creature; an egg has no forethought, it has no sense of responsiblity. He drove on; he did not turn back. He remembered the moment when the car had shot forward; his sudden and last glimpse, in the rear-view mirror, of June’s face. She had no need to chase him. She could wait.

Through Nicosia he took the old road again, heading back towards Limassol. Although the late afternoon had grown so chilly, a fine mist of perspiration covered his neck and face. He fumbled his handkerchief out and wiped it away. Was it so terrible, what he had done? Ted would find her, and bring her back to the hotel. He would be home before them; he would sit on his twin bed, waiting, and hear the clatter of the lift doors, and June’s hand rattling the doorknob, and June in the corridor, clearing her throat. It would be a new era in their rela­tionship; a new era, and a worse.

And then later, after he had locked himself in the bathroom to re­cover himself, and a temporary repair had been effected to June’s face, they would have to take up their lives again. They would have to go down to the bar, and face Ted and Nell. What would Ted have told her? He imagined June, crammed into the passenger seat of Ted’s hired car, restrained by a seat-belt at Ted’s insistence; June smouldering in her furious embarrassment, while Ted fiddled around with his radio, trying to get Sports Round-Up on the World Service. Ted would not say much. But he had stumbled by accident on Gregory’s private life; and being British, he would recoil when next they met, as if from a poisonous snake.

Gregory stopped the car. His indigestion was making itself felt again. Ever since he had left the suburbs, the pressure behind his ribs had seemed to build up. Below, to his left, the ground fell away, small hollows screened by trees. He released his seatbelt, opened his door. Breath of air, he thought. He sat half out of the car, legs dangling. Are you sorry? he asked himself. It was evening now, and long purple shadows slid like fingers into the valleys. He saw, first, the litter left behind by a picnic; the fierce glow of dropped orange peel, luminous in the half-light. Then the white table-cloth, like a perfect circle cut out of the dimness, sailing before the wind. It twisted and knotted as it blew up the hillside; like a fleeing human form, or a ghost, skimmed across the road. Nell followed it; climbing, breathless, laughing, her face flushed, and a blanket clutched about her. Her bare legs were blue with cold. Stavros waited below in the hollow; naked, a minor deity, among the rocks. Nell saw Gregory. She stopped dead by the roadside. She seemed to peer at him, her head jutting forward on her neck. For a second her face showed fear. But then she smiled, and advanced on him; a warm, slow, forgive-me smile. She held the blanket up, over her breasts. ‘Get in, Nell,’ he said. Her feet, he thought, must be bleeding. He opened the passenger door.

She hesitated, then eased herself in beside him. For a moment neither of them spoke, but each appraised the other. Then, ‘What have you done with June?’ she asked.

He didn’t answer. ‘I’d better drive you back to the hotel. Don’t you think so?’

`But my clothes .

`I could always retrieve the table-cloth.’

It had come to rest in a hollow at the other side of the road; a swag of it billowed in the half-light, and then subsided.

`Look,’ she said, ‘Ted understands.’

`But I don’t. I don’t understand.’

As he spoke, panic gripped him; he choked. His mouth opened, gasping for air. Pain moved deeper into his chest, slow, silent, implo­sive. He put a hand to his rib cage, an almost casual movement; but he thought he was dying. How can dying go on, he thought, and on and on, so that half a lifetime is dragging by? He struggled. There was a scraping intake of air, an alien sound, too far away to issue from his chest. For a second it seemed to him that he had been jerked out of his own body, and that he looked down on a stranger; but what he saw was not a dying man, but a man laughing, and nightfall, and an empty road.

Nell’s face loomed over him. Her eyes were huge. ‘Are you ill?’ she demanded. ‘Gregory?’ Her cold fingertips brushed at his face and neck. He exhaled, a noisy shudder.

Almost at once, and perceptibly, moment by moment, the pain began to ebb. His breathing slowed, and became steadier. He repossessed himself; here you are half-dead, half dying, in your hire car, and yet still alive, and the evening, seven o’clock, night coming down; nothing predictable now. The attack, he realized, could only have lasted for a second. There was a sensation of emptiness in his chest; and in his mind, a chilly incredulity, that he was surviving any of this. He cast an eye into the rear-view mirror, to see his own face; he touched the synthetic tweed of the seat beside him, and the tacky vinyl trim, and put his hand against the glass. He heard the breathing of the woman beside him, and noted the mottled, loose flesh of her upper arm, marbled by the blood beneath; and he remembered the gods at Paphos with their amber hair, and their chipped garlands, and their curving mouths. He felt a moment’s lightness, as if he were new born. He glanced up, away from the sea and towards the hills. The ‘space the pain had occupied filled up, creepingly, with relish.

He thought, if we sit here long enough, Ted and June will come along. ‘I’m all right,’ he said. ‘I had a turn.’ His voice sounded hollow, malicious, remote. I can’t drive yet. Let’s just sit a while.’ He tried, hedgingly, a deep breath. ‘June’s with Ted at the racecourse,’ he said. `Funny what holidays do to people.’

She pulled away from him, diving for the door handle, but he stopped her with a hand around her wrist. ‘I’m not fit to be left,’ he said. ‘Let’s just stay here and sit still.’

Nell collapsed back into the passenger seat. Her face looked pinched, but the features were growing indistinct; in the nacreous twilight, sea and mountain merged, earth and air. Nell, silent, stared at the dashboard. He moved his hand heavily and dropped it on her thigh. From the ditch across the road, a corner of the tablecloth lifted in the wind and flapped at him slowly, like the wave of a seaside trip­per from the water to the land. He imagined June, left gaping in the parking-lot; and, death, left gaping on the road. Soon they will be here, he thought; and then, as June would say, the fat will be in the fire. Let others fry, and I’ll roll on. He put his arm around Nell’s bare shoulders, feeling her flinch at the contact, then sigh, then close her eyes. Stavros climbs shivering up the hillside; headlights creep through the gloom. Details vanish, colours fade, the eggshell of the old life is chipping away; out hatches the surprising future.

 


IMG_20160428_0001This story first appeared in The London Magazine Dec/Jan 1986/87.  TLM published several short stories and reviews by Hilary Mantel throughout the 1980s.