Saturday
Jan202018

A Livid Loneliness

Jeff Bursey


 

Courage had run out leaving her incapable of performing any task without quivering, her spirit finally too weak to withstand further difficulties and travails. While unpacking the suitcases, wondering how she had managed to get here, she concluded that sheer panic had taken over, guided her through the perils of dispensing with the past so she could start fresh. Reaching this idyllic land where she had longed to live for so many years, this bright speck of color on a map of a drab, increasingly bleak and hostile world required intense concentration such as she had never before felt in possession of, made possible solely by the strength of desperation.

Now that she was here, in a room blissfully spartan, the creeping paralysis which had tried to numb her to life in the old world, as she called her past, seemed absent, for the first time in almost a year. Oh, breathing was choked, but that was due to thirst or heat, not fear. Her nerves were on edge, an aftereffect of her trip. She hated flying, grew nauseous at the thought of it, and consequently calmed her mind and stomach with barbiturates whenever she boarded a plane. She was no aviatrix, not even in her dreams. -Fatigue, that’s what I’m feeling. Nothing more. I’m fine, a drink and I’ll relax, then sleep. I’ll be in the sun tomorrow. The pills I took are wearing off, that’s all. Just a little jittery.

Over the next few days she eased into tropical life, finding it more enjoyable than she had ever conceived, extending her time at the hotel to a month and a half, a rash maneuver, yes, but she was determined to start life here. -Yet if I spend everything . . . ? But I’ll get on, she muttered, waiting for the solicitous clerk, who had noticed her face and wedding ring, to hand back a credit card. His eyes caught hers and she smiled back. Leaving the hotel later for her first walk some burden shifted in her, made her stoop until she forcibly straightened up.

-Are you drinking alone? The white face surprised her.

-Yes. Go away. He shrugged and she sat more purposefully at the bar, as though saying -I’m with him, leave me alone. There was no one else present but the bartender, a woman picking her teeth while playing solitaire, and the retreating figure of the man who had approached her. She fingered her ring, then a pendant on a silver chain, thinking of their last conversation over a poor telephone line. We were both awful, why did I call him? Why? He hates . . . With him entertaining a client, it was a client, and for me to call out of the blue. It was important for him to know the changes initiated, the break from the old life full of frustration and despair he had been part of. -How many years did I try with you? she screamed at the end, the demand for justification echoing on the line. She knew his face was pressed close to the receiver and mouthpiece so that no one could hear this demented woman shouting at him. -What did I do, what . . . why don’t you try? You, you must change, have to change, not for me now, not for me, but for your own sake. I’m thinking of you, your future. She did not hear him hang up and so talked until she realized the connection had been broken long ago.

-More wine?

-No. She left the bar, anxiously looking behind to see if he was following her. No. Good. She had had enough of men coming up to her, she wanted no more to do with that. When the rain came she let it soak her through, returning damp to the hotel where the same clerk nodded to her, admiring her pleasant features. Oddly she felt flattered by his attention. But that sort of thing led to pain, so she would not think about it further. She simply accepted his quiet compliment. It occurred to her she had seen too many people since arriving, so tomorrow she would travel alone up to the hills that fringed this port town.

She left the next morning, a backpack with her, buying some food in an open market before heading away from the town, which in this off-season seemed confining, towards the hills in the distance. This was her retreat and she had no interest in sharing this island with any tourist, for she had invested it with so much mystery, so much exoticism, that anyone else with their impressions would spoil it completely. Like that man yesterday, he had no right to force himself on me . . . Often in her dreams when young she visited here, after staring intently at her atlas, envisioning the habits and lives of the inhabitants. It held such fascination, particularly, and not surprisingly, during this last miserable year. The beautiful town was a small part of this country; to ignore the rest would be a sin, a mortal crime, practically. -Yes, she said out loud, again and again while hiking parallel to the one stone road winding to a plateau, -Yes, it would be a shame to miss this. From childhood she had memorized charts and graphs on waterfalls and dry seasons, learned names of trees and flowers, studied the native language, assimilated every piece of knowledge available in order to build a future. She understood everything but was completely unfamiliar with the place. -To not explore it, why, that’d be treating it as a vacation spot, nothing more, when it’s Paradise, Paradise. It never meant for him what it did for me. If he had ever cared to try, which . . .

Anxious to push certain thoughts away, when she met a friendly old man with his grandson she boldly conversed with him, and they walked companionably along, the young boy shyly, eagerly, showing her things, running ahead and trying to deflect the grown-ups from their path. After a while she unconsciously chattered to the old man in English, making herself incomprehensible, so he merely nodded every so often, looking away, around, upwards.

-I came here to escape the city and—it’s a beautiful place, isn’t it? I read about it when I was young. I lived in such a horrible . . . But compare that with this? No. She went on in his language then but his interest was no longer there. They parted, the boy calling out to her as long as she was in sight. -Well, I’m glad to be alone again. Glad. Now I’ll enjoy myself. Lush terrain gave way to short grass, and in time she reached the sparse, weathered top of one of the hills, providing her with a view of the seaport where she was staying, and farther off, on the other side of the island, the outlines of another small community. If she called out his name and cursed him, no one heard it, or if they did, could make sense of the echo.

Two weeks passed with the backpack used less and less, for she found herself acclimatizing to the hotel’s pool and the surrounding attractions of a few historic monuments and buildings. There was no music or entertainment where she was staying during this off-season, leaving the lounge mercifully free of harsh noise. One night the clerk was drinking, leaning against the bar. Confused at his being there and not at the front desk, she reflexively asked him for a drink. With a surprised look he said he would be delighted and guided them to a table, motioning to the bartender and ordering two glasses of wine.

-No, you must be mistaken, I was asking you for a drink.

-And here they are. What mistake?

-I thought you were the barman. You see? The barman.

-No.

-I thought you were him. I ordered a drink—

-What?

-Wine, I ordered, I was going to order wine—

-Here it is.

-You, no, I'm not making yourself clear. She began to repeat herself in his language but he raised a hand to interrupt her, smiling.

-I was born in America. My parents moved there years ago. I prefer to speak English. If you don’t mind.

-Oh. Well, there’s been a mistake. I didn’t want to sit with you—

-Oh? His smile was intriguing, not dazzling, she wasn’t going to think that because he had a dark face his white teeth made his smile dazzling. No. She wasn’t going to be caught, surprised by something, as if lust lurked in her body despite herself. Lust? She thought she might recognize it if she saw it again.

-There’s been a, well. Well. Maybe one drink. She would allow him that, one drink, his feelings.

-What is this?

-What? She looked down alarmed, aware her pendant had swung free of her blouse and that he was looking at her. Then she felt his hands delicately touch the pendant. -This. Very nice.

-It’s not expensive jewelry, it isn’t. You wouldn’t get much for it—

-Perhaps not. But it is very nice. He let it slip back to her chest.

-It was a gift. From my husband. I never take it off.

-Your husband has nice taste.

-My . . . husband, he doesn’t . . . No. Yes, he has quite good taste, actually. He’s busy now, that’s why he’s not with me. Again that old lie, which she had repeated to friends when he wouldn’t be seen with her. -Love yields to business . . . she began, but stopped.

-What was that?

-Nothing, nothing. Something a poet wrote.

-About business? No. What poet writes about business?

-He was Roman, an old Roman.

-I see. His eyebrows were raised slightly and she felt out of politeness she should say something.

-Ovid. My husband, he gave me a collection of his writings. One thing he wrote went, Love yields to business. If you seek a way out of love, be busy; you’ll be safe then. He didn’t seem prepared for her laugh but joined in after a moment, which made her uncomfortable, as though she had pressured him to do so. -No, no, you wouldn’t have read him, no one reads his poems, except his erotica, I guess.

-Ah! That, erotica. More wine?

-No. Yes. Why not, she thought, he isn’t hurting me. He won't steal my pendant. Will he? No, not if I keep it on, never take it off, no one will steal it.

They talked about her stay here, and he told her a little about his life in America, then he left. He explained that he had stopped in the bar for a drink before heading to his parents’ home where he lived. With him gone she felt lost, and when the white face appeared again for a moment it looked like her husband’s.

-Can I get you a—hey, aren’t you the one I saw last week sometime?

-Get away from me. Then she recognized him. -And stay away from me.

-Native lover, he snarled, pushing his face into hers as he said it. -Let him talk to you. Too good for me or what?

She backed away and turned, not looking behind as she made her way swiftly to her room, bolting the door and closing the drapes with decisive tugs. She slipped naked into bed, allowing the cool sheets to coax her into feeling secure. Her pendant felt warm like a finger touching her skin.

The next day she would not go out, afraid to meet that man again. She also had a headache from the wine, and resolved to spend the day in her room, leaving only to wander through the lobby while the maid cleaned up. She did not see the man who had spoken to her last night, and the clerk, she found out after discreetly enquiring, worked the night shift. A drunk came up to her table at lunch while she relaxed reading a paper, asking how much she charged for certain services which he explicitly described, sending her scurrying to the safety of the room. There she sat shaking with anger, then, seeing sheets of hotel stationery, picked up a pen and began writing her ex-husband. When she finished an hour later one page lay complete, another half so. Looking out the windows she relaxed at the view. The slight mists of earlier that day had burned off, bringing verdant hills with dun crowns closely into view, separated from the harbour itself by the blue-green ocean that girdled this tiny nation. She stepped back from the view some time later in the afternoon, tripping on a rug, tumbling to the floor, angry at her clumsiness.

Still cursing she answered the insistent knocking at her door. -What? It was the clerk. -You looked for me.

-I . . . this morning, yes, to say thank you, for last night. That was all.

-You are welcome. His eyes flicked down then up.

-Is there something the matter?

-No, nothing. You look, ah, as if you were . . .

-What? Oh, yes, I see, no, I fell, tripped over the rug. Dumb of me, I just got up when I heard your knocking.

-Are you all right? His eyes flicked to the writing table. -I thought you were . . . that I had interrupted something. But if there’s nothing else. It was my pleasure last night.

She thanked him again, closed the door firmly, then rearranged herself. She noticed the pendant was not hanging around her neck, and with a cry looked for it on the floor. She found it, not there but on the writing table, alongside the pages of the letter, and could not remember taking it off. The stone hanging at its end glinted in the light, the silver chain stood out softly from the mahogany of the desk, and the letter lay accusingly beside it. After a while she went down to dinner, the pendant once more around her neck.

It was odd to write on stationery in a hotel, she thought. During previous trips, in old world days, she had never done such a thing. Postcards were filled out at souvenir shops or in post offices, but the stationery was left unused. Even when she took it home with her she threw it out soon enough. Why did I write him now, from here, where we—I always said we should come here. She ordered her supper carefully, budgeting now. Frugality ordained that she should never leave the hotel except for very special things, make the most of her dwindling money, and she kept this up for two weeks, lounging at the pool reading local books, ones from the downstairs shop, or bestsellers imported especially for tourists. The desk in her room, and so the letter, were kept from the maid's touch, gathering dust. The clerk proved helpful in staving off loneliness and thoughts of her husband, sharing an occasional glass of wine with her in the bar when he had come off duty, never trying anything, all the time frustration building as she lay awake thinking of him, acutely conscious that they were worlds apart.

One morning she witnessed the port blocked in by fog, not a rare occurrence in this season, but a sight new to her. The few buildings of any size, the courthouse and shipping insurance offices, the hall of records and the library, the branches of international banks and cartels housed in their own premises, were billowing smoke, it seemed, the waxing sun burning the fog off in columns, the fog rising vertically with great momentum between buildings and warehouses, off hills and houses, spiraling up from streets and alleys and the very sea itself, for all the world the island transformed while she slept into a pit of hellfire, gray, sinuous masses, unpleasantly reminiscent of what coiled from the old world’s furnaces, factories, and smokestacks, curling upwards in never ending plumes joining hell and heaven together. Her hands pressed against her head and she screamed, why she wasn’t quite sure, but it was only once.

-I can’t go out in that, that, no, like . . . some city, some horrible city. The horns of vessels passing through the mist, the rasping machinery as containers were lifted on or off docks, the thousand and one expressions of a busy town, suggested things to her, sent her messages saying stay inside for your safety, beware of the open, watch out for the cruel dark sea, don’t get caught where things can ravage you, things in the swirling gray which the sewers let out, coating streets with tendrils that would swallow you whole if given a chance. In cold depression she fought these messages with the little will she had, half convinced she should crawl into bed, half delirious to get out of the room, the hotel, while it was still possible. The maid opened the door on her, fleeing instantly at the second scream, summoning the clerk who with his key opened the door of the room because she would not answer his knocking. He went in alone, shutting the door on the curious maid, to see her seated at the desk, pen in hand, as though disturbed in the middle of composing something.

He looked at her closely. -Is there something the matter with—may I help you?

-No, nothing, she, your maid, why didn’t she knock, I was startled. That’s why, that’s why I screamed.

-Quite right, she should have. You must forgive her, she was not trained properly, she is new. I will have a word. It will not happen again. Are you in need of anything? Anything at all?

-No, no, thank you. I feel fine.

-You look, if I may say, ill. Perhaps something you ate, or a cold from the damp weather. We have a pharmacy downstairs.

-I’m fine, just a headache. Really. This weather, it bothers me.

-Ah! I have something here that may help. Aspirin. He searched his pockets and came up with a tin that he offered to her. When she did not move he shook two tablets onto the dusty paper of her letter. -There. That will help.

-I don’t really need, I prefer not to take those things. I’m building up a resistance.

-Pardon?

-My husband had a, has a habit of taking pills. He started with these, then took stronger and stronger pills because he built up a resistance. So did I, to these. So . . .

-I see. I see. I’ll leave them with you anyway. My mother used to say something, she read it in a book of sayings. Meet the disease at its first stage. Is there anything I can do for you? He had leaned over to her after giving her the pills and she could smell him distinctly, his scent not at all what she had imagined.

-No, she replied, in such a way as to show she was lying.

-Very well. He straightened and moved to the door. -The postal system is efficient here.

-What?

-For your letter.

-Oh! Yes, thank you, I’ll remember that.

-I’ll have a word with the maid, about knocking.

-Please. And thank you. The staff here is . . . I would hate to get anyone in trouble, she shouldn’t be lectured because of my . . . nerves.

-Very kind of you. He would have left if she had not called out.

-Yes?

-One thing, perhaps you know the name of a man here, a man like me.

-A man—like you?

-I don’t know if you’ve seen him around, he was in the bar a few times, once when you were there. A . . . white man. That’s what I mean. With an ugly face.

-Has he been bothering you? Is that why—, but he bit off words.

-Bothering me? No. Yes. Yes. He is. Or was. What were you going to say? What was it?

-Not really anything, I know the man you speak of, his name escapes me, but the manager will know him. I will make mention of it.

-Just that he was . . . bothering me, about—just that.

-I see. He looked at her, she at him, both wondering if the other would say something else. Then he closed the door. She looked down to the letter, reading the last paragraph without thinking on it:

My feelings are never clear. Not even to me. Can I really find some respite here? Find translating work when my money goes, there’s always a need of that. Can you forgive my calling that last time, it’s just that I was going insane thinking of life without you after these years, intense years of love for you, if not that many. Please call me here, soon, I need to hear from you. The old world, if it comes back to haunt me I couldn’t last this time. I would love to see you before that, though we have nothing to say to each other. I have to see you, somehow, hear from you, even have you tell me nothing will change before I can let go. I’ve outrun even courage. Thank God.

 

That night she requested room service, ordering less food than normal. She picked at it, not hungry, showering finally and going down to the bar, desperate to talk and not knowing what to do. The clerk was alone, drinking, when she came up to him.

-Thank you for earlier today.

-Pardon?

-The tablets, they helped. Clear my head.

-You’re welcome. Are you going to join me, a glass of wine?

-Not tonight. I want to, to talk, can we?

-There is a table, there. He was leading them to it when the white face came into view, its mouth around a glass and beer slipping noisily into it. -No, not here, that’s the man. Somewhere else.

They went out of the hotel, across the street to a bar where a small lineup waited patiently for the doors to open. She began to shiver in the warm air, though she had a wrap with her, a shawl purchased in India two years ago when they had enjoyed themselves one last time. -When will this open? she asked through chattering lips. -Only a few more minutes. When they were inside she could barely hold the glass steady and her skin was covered with a fine dew. Bending to her he noticed a sour smell from her breath.

-You have been sick. The pills did not work. I am so sorry. Perhaps you should go back to the hotel.

-No, no, I’m fine, fine, damn it. Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I'm just upset.

-That man bothers you so much? I will have a word. I found out from the manager today is his last day here.

-The fog, that kept him here.

-Yes. For one more day, then he leaves. But if he so disturbs you . . .

-No. He does, but it’s not him.

-Ah. Some flu, then?

-No.

-I see. They drank silently for a few minutes, she adjusting her shawl as heat or cold afflicted her. Gathering bile in her stomach sent acrid rivulets up her throat as she began gently burping, her mouth filling with acid. The wine could not mask the taste. She felt close to having things spill out dramatically when he grasped her arm and quickly brought her outside. The cold air revived her, gave her a chance to regain her composure, and while he returned her wine glass to the bar she fought to calm down, glad to be out in the street, though it seemed too deserted, too wide open, as if it held in its gray and black shapes evil things. She recalled the messages of that morning and screamed when he touched her arm.

-What is it? It’s only me.

-I’m sorry, sorry, that was . . . I was frightened. I didn’t hear you come back. Thank you for getting me out of there.

-You looked as though you would be ill. I can get a doctor for you if you wish.

-No, no, no doctor. It’s not something a doctor can help me with.

-It’s that letter, isn’t it?

-How . . . ?

-When I came by today I saw you writing a letter, remember? Are you all right? Please, answer me.

-That letter. Do you think—no, it wasn’t that.

-I don’t understand.

-Please, help me back to the hotel. He walked her across the street, noticing her start at every shadow that passed. When the white face came out of the gloom she gasped and broke away from his hold.

-What’s the matter, lady? Ain’t never seen a man drinking before? Oh, it’s you, the stuck up one, with your native. Ha ha. What a pair.

-Please, sir, she's not well—

-Why the hell are you with him, anyway? What’s wrong with an American, for Christ’s sake?

-Please, sir. This lady is not feeling well.

-A few minutes with me would cure her. You’re the guy behind the counter, aren’t you? What are you doing holding her like I saw you were? Damned . . . friendly, wasn’t it, and you working at the hotel. I guess you pull that on every—

-Leave him alone, leave him alone! He was with me, making me feel good. I was sick, I wasn't having anybody in, for company, like you always did, I didn’t hang up on you when you called, I wasn’t—

-Hold on!

-Please—

-Stop telling me to be quiet, I’m talking to my husband!

-Who? I’m not—

-You’ve never cared—why did you leave me? Why don’t you love me any more?

-A nut. I didn’t know she was a nut. You can have her, fella.

-Don’t say that to me! I told you, never call me that! She would have gone after the pale figure but the clerk calmed her, led her to her room, and when she could not find her key, did not even bother looking for it, he borrowed the master and half-carried her in, setting her down in a chair while he poured a small drink he put in her hand. -Sip this. Slowly, slowly. There. Catch your breath. I have to return this. I’ll be back. He returned in a few minutes and sat near her, on a chair pulled up to her own. Faint light seeping in between curtains washed her face, and she dabbed at her lips nervously with a tissue.

-I’m sorry, for that. So embarrassing. For you, especially. I’m so very sorry. That man—

-He reminds you of your husband, is that why you said he was bothering you?

-I think I have to go to the bathroom, clean up. She returned in a few minutes, looking slightly fresher, dressed in a robe cinched tightly around her. She lay her clothes on the bed then stopped at the desk. The pendant hung in the air, its chain a blur of gray above the unfinished letter, then disappeared with a light sound on the stationery.

-I’m sorry about all that, she said quietly while settling down in a chair opposite him, bare legs showing accidentally, nervously glancing at the windows.

-Is there something—you said you wanted to talk, before you became ill.

-That would have been years ago, she replied, not hearing him fully. Realizing her mind was wandering she bent forward, trying to gather herself. -Work. I need to work. My money runs out soon, and I need to stay here. Do you know of any work, in translating, a secretary, perhaps here at the hotel, something, anything, to keep me here? She wondered why she was asking about this when it wasn’t what she had wanted to talk about earlier.

-I’m not sure—

-I need to stay here, till I feel stronger. This place, your country, I always dreamed of coming here, escaping from . . . the past. Can you understand?

-That, yes. But you, no. As before he was unprepared for her laugh. -I’ve heard that, it’s hard for men to deal with someone who needs them. Really needs them. My husband . . . But he isn’t the issue here.

-Why don’t you call him?

-Call him?

-He’ll help you, you’re not well—

-Why do you think I’m sick? You keep saying that, do you think I’m a nut, like that man just said? She fought not to lose her temper, to give in to crying or any emotion whatsoever. -I’m not well, but I’m not sick. Can’t I just—I want to stay here, work here, I need to. Is there anything you can do for me?

-Can you reach him?

-Who?

-Your husband.

-Why do you want to know? He’s in—what does it matter where he is? He can’t just leave them, he won’t, I know that, don’t you think I know that? Too busy entertaining. I even wrote him. This afternoon.

-The letter.

-The letter, what else? What else but the letter, the damned letter, over on the desk. I mailed it this afternoon.

-The letter on your desk you mailed this afternoon.

-No, no, is this a test, another test? Repeat what I say, confuse me? I’m drunk, I’m not well, please, be kind. Be kind. She caught her breath, looked at his earnest, confused face. -Not like him. She paused once more. -He wouldn’t answer me. He doesn’t . . . He left me.

-I’m sure he would help you, if he knew how you were.

-No. He used to but then it was too much. He couldn’t take me any more, the weakness, you see. Her head swiveled away to the curtained windows. -Divorced me. He’s my ex-husband. When I needed him he left me. Alone. Do you know what that feels like? The clerk tried to settle her down. -Perhaps you should try to sleep now. You’re not feeling the best. I’ve seen this many times, people not used to the sun, they become . . . not themselves. Sleep will help.

-I wish I could, and then she was crying, softly, chin buckling, mouth tugging at the corners. -The worst of it is the fear, of going through it again.

-You must rest. You’re ill. Something to settle your stomach.

-That’s not from—I'm not sick, I said, her voice weary, pleading for consideration. -Stop saying that. Stop. Please. Just listen to me. I get . . . when I’m out in the open, you see, I have a condition, a fear, of open or close places, I get nauseous, my body . . . tricks me. It’s ruined me, really.

-Perhaps this isn’t the time—

-Ruined my life. Coming here, I was so sure it wouldn’t come back.

-This may not be something you really want to tell me.

-I thought I was free, for the first week or so here, but no, it’s back, tonight, today, the fog . . .

-The fog?

-Hemmed me in, this morning it looked like the whole town was on fire, didn’t you see it?

-The fog? Yes.

-And these voices like devils telling me what to do. That man in the bar, downstairs, I saw his face, that—

-The man.

-Looks like my husband, his face was so . . . diabolical. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. That I’m mad. I’m not, lots of people have this, this, thing. But I panicked, and left with you. It was a mistake, I shouldn’t have. I collapsed some time ago and can’t . . .

-I understand, you worried after your husband left you—

-What? No, no, more than that, more, since I was a child. There was nothing for me in the old world, nothing except this constant . . . terror, that’s it, terror. When I woke this morning and saw it back, travelled with me here, I screamed at those devils to stop torturing me. But they won’t. I can’t sleep, I can’t do anything, they’re in my dreams, and I’m so painfully alone.

-There, there, the clerk said as she held him, head on his shoulder, hands mindlessly scrabbling at his jacket. She stayed there for several minutes until she could not cry any more. She felt herself gently carried to the bed, where he laid her down, covering her with the sheets. Garish panic seized her and she gripped his hand. -Don’t leave me.

-I can’t sleep with you. Please don’t ask me to.

-I don’t want that, not that, though it . . . just stay with me, lie with me. Hold onto me, please? She saw his face shift in the dark but could not make out what it meant. He did not leave and held her hand through the night.

She woke alone, after a deep, restful sleep, yet within a few minutes her body became cold at the thought that yesterday’s hellish landscape might be outside her window again. Edging the curtains open the brilliant sunlight and the familiar scenery of this splendid land transfixed her, filled her with hope, banished the despair of a few minutes ago. Her husband’s face, so vivid the night before, faded from consciousness, leaving her with a measure of content, as though some great struggle had been fought in her sleep. She made a note to thank the clerk for his understanding, his patience. As she dressed she smiled for some reason over the idea that he thought she would want to make love to him. Such a thing wasn’t possible, not any more. So her husband . . . but she grinned at herself in the mirror and attended to getting ready for a wonderful, wonderful walk.

In a determined fashion over the next few days she refused to admit worries of any kind while wandering the streets of the town, or when venturing along the plains to the west, skirting the roads and paths of others. She would have been happier, yes, if she had not glimpsed her husband’s white face at least a thousand times in her walks. Shouting failed to stop him bothering her. -You won’t spoil this for me, I won’t let you! I’m happy here, she grumbled, trying not to strain her throat any more than it was, swinging her arms as she walked, head straight.

Returning from a long walk one night she saw the clerk and smiled hopefully, her smile dimming at his tentative response. Undaunted she waited for him to finish his duties that night, then invited him up for a drink before he could leave the hotel. He nodded, not saying much, but when they arrived in her room she made it a point to talk about unimportant matters, to help him get comfortable.

When the conversation swung around to the other guests she asked in a raspy voice, and despite herself, -I suppose that man is giving others trouble.

-That man? What man?

-The one I, the one who bothered me.

-He left. Days ago.

-Well, maybe this hotel, but I see him around.

-Oh?

-In my walks. He isn’t half as smart as he thinks. He was just waiting for me to . . . slip up.

-I think I had better leave now. To let you rest.

-So kind. The other night, I haven’t forgotten how gentle you were. I’ve needed someone to be kind to me, like you. My husband was, at first, but then he couldn't stand me any more. Because of a rape. It isn’t fair, that he left me, and torments me when he feels like it.

-I think I should leave.

-Please? I need to, this is what I wanted to talk about the other night. He won’t answer my calls, or write back, my letter didn’t do any good. He couldn’t accept my being raped. I was only young when my uncle . . . he had long, slender fingers, someone everyone respected. My poor brother cried when that man died, he never knew who he was crying over. Can you imagine it? Can you?

-Really, no—

-Or the fear. I told you the other night about my . . . fear. She struggled to make sense of this for him even though it failed after all these years to make final sense to her. -I was raped on my way from school, outdoors, and—I must tell you this, I have to talk tonight. I tried hard to escape. But he was big and I . . . I was eleven, small for my age even then. That’s why, she said, her complexion flushed now, her breathing short, -to go out, see his face taunting me, in the street, in the bar, everywhere, to see that . . . She had risen from her chair and at the little bar in the room fixed a drink, one hand brushing away imaginary hairs from her cheeks. -My husband, well, he wouldn’t accept what it did to me. He couldn’t touch me when I was . . . in a bad way. Soon he lost interest, in sex, in me, in fact told me—well, he divorced me because of that. Stress. His stress.

-Please, sit down, here—

-What was expected of me? I never had a kind man, did I? Not really.

-Perhaps you should sit down.

-Yes, she sighed, sinking to the bed. -So . . . solicitous, is that what you are, to the girls? You must have lots of them.

-That isn’t important.

-Do you rape them?

-Please!

-I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I think my medication—and after you being . . . as you are. But men don’t know what it is, a child . . . taken that way, never allowed to tell. I lived with it because it didn’t hurt me enough to die. But lately, since he left, now that he’s back to make me angry . . . A half-life, that’s what I know, half-measures, pleasant moments, but I’ve never been happy. Just happy, purely that, not once. I kept hoping for courage to go one more step, and that’s when he said goodbye. One Christmas I thought I’d drive off a cliff. That had to be better than this.

-I’m going to get the doctor.

-Oh, he couldn’t help me. Even my family, they tried, but I couldn’t talk about it, and what is therapy supposed to be for? Therapist. The rapist. They send me to the same kind of man who did this to me! Isn’t that funny? She held out her arms and after an eternity he came to her. -I don’t know what I want, she said, her face crumpling and her fists balling as she rested in his slightly stiff embrace. He helped her over to the bed and sat her down, but she clutched his arms, her face contorting soundlessly, hectic patches on her cheeks.

-Your husband must have felt a great deal for you, to marry you, she heard him whisper.

-What a sad reason to marry. When he didn’t love me enough to care. I told him all this while we were going out, he promised it wouldn’t matter . . . He never wanted to understand, then arranged business so he would be away. Left me alone in an ugly city full of those faces.

-You must sleep.

-Not yet, stay a moment, please, until . . . Don’t look so, so . . . you'd think it was your world that was hopeless, not mine.

-How can I help you?

-What are you, really?

-I’m a clerk. You know that.

-But what else? You must do something else. To be so considerate.

-No. I help my father with his business, I help him handle accounts, that is all. I am a clerk. Not anyone who could help you. I don’t know what to say to you. What do you want from me?

-Kindness. You say—

-But you need help. Real help.

-I’ve had real help! I need a start! A new start! Are you saying I’m sick again?

-No.

-After I’ve explained it.

-No, not that, but . . . I don’t know what to do.

-Neither do I. Seeing his perplexed eyes she asked why she was angry at him. His incomprehension made her acutely conscious of her absolute desolation. I must try to stop this, to regain control, she thought. -I’ve wanted to be happy, happy here, for so long, she said in a soft, almost level tone. -And I can’t. I even thought I wanted you, in the way a woman wants a man, sometimes.

-That’s—

-Will you listen? Just listen? A friend. A friend, then. That’s what I need, a friend. Someone new. To talk with. While I get my bearings, to find some way to live here.

-I don’t know of work here.

-I have to stay here. I’ve made choices, I’ve cut away everything to be here, all my money, what little I had, I have to keep it, and stay here, isn’t that clear, yet?

-Money—

-Yes, she said, regretting that it always came down to that, when you needed to live and not just exist. -Money. I have some. What are you saying?

-Me?

-Who else is here? Why is talking to you like some . . . damn it, to stay here, for my health. Is it money? Do I have to bribe someone, sleep with someone? I couldn’t do that. No, I couldn’t, please tell me I don’t have to, that there’s, and her eyes were obscured by tears. His arms slipped from her nerveless fingers and he moved slightly away on the bed.

-There’s nothing I can do to help you, except get you some addresses—

-Haven’t I paid enough? She felt like shrieking at him so that he would have a sense of what she was going through, but fear of driving him away completely stilled that impulse. -Isn’t there any peace for me, like you have, like he has, he entertains company, he has business, you have . . . things. What do I have, this face that keeps laughing at me, hideously white, from everywhere. Is that all I have, that leering face, that filthy man, don’t I deserve anything after what I’ve gone through? She looked at him accusingly, forgetting he was not part of the old world, oblivious to his growing alarm and the pain that crossed his face as he listened to her, caught up as she was in her lurid account. -Why is there nothing, no one, in the world for me? What did I do, didn’t I get raped enough? Don’t you think I deserve anything, can’t you try and help, or are you like them, never caring enough to try harder? She beat her head with open palms until he grabbed them, held them down, and when she could breathe again saw concern and fright on his face, mingled with what might have been sympathy. She was sure that for the first time in his life he was smelling a gangrenous animal.

-Please, stop. There’s no need, no need, you’ll hurt yourself. Things will get better for you.

-What can you do to help me?

-You could try to reach him.

-No. He wouldn’t—he won’t reply. It would be just a waste of time. And emotion. I can’t spare that, or the hope. She sank back onto the bed, and shook with fear while he held her. When she eventually calmed down he could not abandon her, nor would she have let him leave. The pendant swung between them as they made love, she crying throughout while holding him tightly, at one point ripping the stone and chain from her neck, throwing it to the floor where it would lay untouched until the next day. They met secretively from then on, she growing close to him, fear all the while hovering nearby, as she was convinced her husband would choose this moment to contact her, talk to her once more before she died. When the clerk asked her about this conviction she at first brushed the question away, but at his persistence finally answered.

-I want him to come to end this, even if I hate him I still need him to . . . release me. No matter where I turn he’ll be there, or I think he’ll be there, threatening me, waiting for me not to look around, and then he’ll pounce on me, tear my clothes like he did before, and this time he won’t stop because I’m his niece, he’ll never stop, he’ll use me till I’m dead.

-Your husband?

-Everyone. Every man.

-And me?

-Even you.

Three weeks later brought her to the edge of reserved accommodations. On the day due to be her last, unless she determined otherwise, a plain envelope arrived. She took it into her room, trembling at the address, the familiar typeset, the stamps, and sat for some time holding the thin letter. When she finished she called the front desk and asked to speak to the clerk. -In private. Yes, he was on his way up, and she was prepared for him, but still, his knock brought a small squeak from her. -What did you do? What made you write him?

-I thought . . . The crumpled letter in her hand made him stop.

-You wrote him I was in a bad way, that was nice. He can’t answer my letter but he’ll answer yours. How terrible. I suppose you think I’m glad to hear from him? She was trembling, her anger turning the world incarnadine, streaked with the yellow and blue-blacks of sickness and morbidity. -In a way I am, but I’m bitter at what you did. I trusted you, why did you interfere?

-You were—

-We’ve been together, couldn’t you tell I’ve been fine? Really. That I was getting better.

-I did not think it would last. He knows you better than anyone here. In case something should happen—

-Oh? Oh? Think I’d, I’d—what? Jump out the window? Shaking her head at the silliness of the thought she laughed, making him flinch. -Make some scene, some sort . . . just what? Ruin the hotel’s reputation?

-If you ran into trouble—

-It’s years too late for that! Years. Didn’t you listen all those nights, believe me? Or maybe, no, I know what it was, you just didn’t want to, isn’t that right? You couldn't stand to be with me, could you? How little she knew this stranger, who had violated her when she was vulnerable and now stood there as though it was his spirit that was on the verge of giving up. -What . . . conceit.

-Lower your voice, please, the whole—

-I’ll yell if I want. But then you’ll leave, and you’re going to hear this. You’re no better than him. He’d sleep with me, yes, but take care of me, help me? No. And you, no better than him. Not that first night, no, but later. Played with me, let me trust you, while you acted just like he did. It’s my heart you played with, everyone plays with that. When it came to loving me, everything about me, you weren’t interested, were you?

-You know that’s not true.

-No, I know it is, I think it is, and I’m right, aren’t I? Not wanting to hear any of the same objections she’d heard for years she changed the subject. -Why did you write him? Did you tell him I slept with you, I’ll bet you didn’t say that. I trusted you and you went and did this. What made you think he’d change? Doctors told him, they said, watch out, she’ll be dangerously depressed. He never wanted to listen, to learn how to cope, he just wanted someone healthy, and they gave him every excuse to dump me. He didn’t even have to work at the divorce, thanks to them! Left me easily, without anything to hold on to, without one prop in this damned world.

-I was trying to help you, you were in a bad way—

-Oh, yes, and I’m . . . grateful, she said, catching her breath, choking on something. -So grateful. I said I needed him around before I—and here he is, thanks to you. He says he received your express delivery letter. Do you see this envelope? You told him I was . . . what? Suicidal? Depressed? He sent this by ordinary mail, ordinary mail, that’s how much he cares! You bastard, and she was addressing the letter now, -you cold-hearted bastard, why must I be alone? Now it is over, isn’t it? She pushed the clerk out of the room with surprising force, slamming the door shut, crying while she tumbled dressers, tables, chairs and lamps to the floor, screaming as she did so. She heard him running away, probably for the doctor he kept mentioning. -I should have known, him and his tranquillizers. By the time the clerk and the doctor reached the room the door had been barred by a heavy bureau. Her yells died out, winding down, it seemed. Within a few moments people from the street three stories below were clamouring for aid, and the clerk and the doctor, at the front of a small crowd, rushed out to her sprawled body, her head crushed instantly from the fall. Later the police found a letter squashed in her luggage that read:

Here I am in Paradise and the voices, the sounds, are gone. For now. Come to me. We could be happy here. I could be well, with you and a little house in the countryside. A chance for us, to repair the damage, and yes, talk about your feelings towards it and things in general. Another chance, for me the last chance, to improve.

Could you come? The old world will intrude soon, I’m sure, but with you in this place I could fight, rescue me, us, from the hell I’ve been in. I told you about this place, my dreams, and here it is, but the magic needs you to make it complete. I look for you, imagine you walking with me, and talk to you, sometimes, yes, argue, but at least we’re talking. The panic will flutter through me, when I let my guard down, and I don’t know if I can resist the temptation to at last let go, because I don’t have the energy, or never did, you said, to fight the darkness from coming down on my eyes. I know I swore at you, but if you could see me before I lose grip, if we could see each other once more, that would mean something. I could, I think, die then, or live, if you chose to stay. Please, come to me, help me before it’s too late.

My feelings are never clear. Not even to me. Can I really find some respite here? Find translating work when my money goes, there’s always a need of that. Can you forgive my calling that last time, it’s just that I was going insane thinking of life without you after these years, intense years of love for you, if not that many. Please call me here, soon, I need to hear from you. The old world, if it comes back to haunt me I couldn’t last this time. I would love to see you before that, though we have nothing to say to each other. I have to see you, somehow, hear from you, even have you tell me nothing will change before I can let go. I’ve outrun even courage. Thank God.

Her suicide was a scandal requiring investigation. Her ex-husband when notified blamed the clerk’s intrusion into private matters for her agitation and untimely, unnecessary death. The clerk resigned before he could be fired. Acting on the wishes of a will made out before she left the old world, her ex-husband had her buried on the island. The clerk stayed away from the funeral, but when he could be sure no one would be there mourning her he visited the grave with its simple headstone, small, white, unpleasantly stark and final. Apart from her name and dates of birth and death, there was also engraved on the stone one line of writing, which he supposed came from a favourite poem of hers. He could not imagine her ex-husband choosing it for her. The line read: Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace. Death had demanded the far less usurious payment of her body in exchange for the peace she had longed for since she had been a little girl. He, unwittingly, had brought her and Death together, meeting on a hillside fringing the country of her fantasies. Perhaps you are free now of loneliness, he prayed, while a fog coming from over the hills layered the ground, swirling about him and the grave.