After a while, she said she wanted to do it again and in reply, I reached out towards the clock on the bedside table.
– What time is it?
– Twenty to four.
– Still early, so. Let’s do it again.
And she climbed on top of me before I could protest that I was tired and didn’t feel like it anymore. At twenty to four, I like to be asleep, especially if I’ve got things to do the next day. And tomorrow – in a few hours’ time, actually – I’ve a rather important matter to see to and I need to be completely focused.
And then I reach out towards the clock on the bedside table.
– What time is it?
– Ten to five.
– I think I’d better get going. Where can I find a towel?
– Beneath the sink.
– Have you got a toothbrush for me?
– The one you used last time is still there; the blue one, I left it there for you.
I roll onto my side, grab the pillow and hug it tight against me and my eyelids droop shut of their own accord, until I’m jolted awake by the sudden jet of water from the shower.
The airport’s crowded: an orgy of bodies milling about, tumbling over each other. It’s as if there was a party going on. I get lost among these bodies standing on tip toe, expectant. Bodies that smile, wave, hug, kiss, weep … They spot me straightaway, even amid the bodies crowding around me: first Brooke, then Ninette. Their bodies hug me.
– All right? How’re you both?
Ninette breaks into a fit of giggles. From the back seat, Brooke ruffles my hair. Ninette carries on giggling and seeing her giggle like that sets me off too. In the rearview mirror, Brooke sends me a message with her eyes. I cotton on and giggle a bit more and Ninette giggles even harder and I look in the rearview mirror again and giggle even more as Brooke smiles and looks out the window and then begins to giggle herself and when I hear her I giggle even more and Ninette bellows out a loud guffaw when she hears me.
My eyes begin to water. Sitting al fresco, in spite of the east wind that’s blowing for all it’s worth. I glance at my watch and take a sip of beer. The wind is raising swirls of sand. And then my elder brother turns up, from out of nowhere.
– Long time no see, little one.
– Same here. Listen, do we have to meet over here? What’s so special about this place?
– Nothing. Nothing special about it on a day like this. I gave you a call this morning but nobody answered.
– I wasn’t in.
We light a cigarette. We avoid each other’s eyes. It’s ten to five, as it happens. Twelve hours ago, she told me she had to get going. And she went to take a shower and by the time she came out I’d dozed off again and she only woke me up when she slammed the front door. No use telling her not to do that. I pick up my mobile phone to send her a text but then I change my mind. After all, I’m talking with my brother and we’ve got serious business to discuss, really serious. He must have been abroad recently: his cigarettes are foreign, but I’ve no idea where he might’ve gone – I can’t read the health warning on the pack and he’s peeled off the excise duty label.
– Where’ve you just come back from?
– I mean where did you go on a trip?
My question remains unanswered. I listen to the monotonous tone on the telephone and then start dozing off. I haven’t slept much. My eyes are drooping shut. I lie down. They’re still eating. I can still hear the clatter of crockery. They’ve been eating for ages. Maybe I should take a nap now. And maybe I should turn off my mobile phone in case someone decides to call and wakes me up. Which would just about wreck my state of mind.
I hug the pillow. Shut my eyes. Enjoy this feeling of calm that washes over me. Smile. This feeling of calm that washes over me once in a while, even though in the background there’s people trying to call, people trying to get hold of me, talk to me, people clattering the crockery in the dining room. This feeling of calm that washes over me. I open my eyes a crack and see her looking at me intently, with that look that means nothing. I let her climb into bed with me and cuddle up, brushing her tail across my face. She purrs and I shut my eyes again. And I know that I’ll soon throw in the towel and just up and leave, leaving everything behind. I’ve no idea what time it is. I know that I’ve another errand at nine. I don’t feel like turning over and stretching out towards the bedside table. I know that, again today, I won’t be alone. I remember that face I saw studying me at the airport and again I try to place it. This feeling of calm that washes over. This feeling of calm.
Clatter of dishes. I’m startled. My door is closed but I can hear the dishes clearly. They’re in the kitchen. I try to get up and my head feels very heavy. I must’ve drunk quite a bit yesterday. I hadn’t had a few in a while. I’ve no idea how we got back or what time it was. It’s eleven thirty. Already. And I’m still in nothing but my underwear. I get up. My clothes are in a heap on the floor. As soon as I open the door there’s a dazzle of sunlight and a pressure all over my head. Brooke is the first thing I see; she’s wearing one of my shirts and it reaches to just below her waist. She puts her arms around my neck. First kiss of the day. Ninette pours milk over a bowl of cereal. There’s a cigarette burning in the minute ashtray at her elbow.
– Morning honey.
Her voice suggests that she hasn’t been up for very long, or maybe she hasn’t opened her mouth yet except to swallow the fumes of her Marlboro Lights.
– Cornflakes, sweetie?
– No thanks.
I free myself of Brooke, move towards Ninette, bend down towards her. Second kiss of the day. It tastes of ashes. Ninette too is wearing one of my shirts.
– Listen, you taking us somewhere today?
I drive at eighty an hour.
– I called you yesteray. Your mobile was off. I was going to ring you at home but then I thought – My bro might have gotten the chance to get his fingers wet.
– I turned it off. Wanted to get some sleep.
I don’t usually meet up with my older brother twice in as many days. Actually, I don’t think it’s ever happened before. My brother’s not the most interesting person in my life, but work sometimes makes our paths cross. He tells me to take a right and after about five minutes we find ourselves in the middle of some fields.
– There’s a house behind that hill over there. That’s where we need to go. How long can you stick around for?
– Not too long. ’Til six, maybe six thirty. Going out this evening.
– You were at Pierre’s pub last night weren’t you?
– How do you know that?
– Big bro gets to know everything. Heard you had some nice company as well.
– Friends of mine over for a holiday.
– Two of them. As if one were not enough. And not even a call to your big bro who’s all alone.
– I was with my big bro in the afternoon.
– All right, here we are.
And we sit down on the chairs around the swimming pool. Brooke strips off all her clothes and plunges into the water immediately; Ninette asks me to rub her with tanning oil from top to toe. I notice that Ninette’s skin has begun to wrinkle a wee bit. Actually, a wee bit more than just a wee bit. I run the tip of my fingers along the wrinkles even more gently and she notices.
– Do you still find me a little attractive?
Brooke calls out to us to join her.
– Sure. Very.
I know she doesn’t believe me even though she smiles. Not my fault. Brooke’s much prettier, even in the blue water of the swimming pool with her hair plastered to her scalp. And I still have to cash in on that look she gave me in the rearview mirror when I picked them up at the airport. But it’s a bit difficult with Ninette around – she gets jealous. And she’s become even more jealous since Brooke moved in with her. Brooke’s almost young enough to be her daughter; she’s as beautiful as Ninette was when she was younger, when her hair was smooth and almost waist-length. And so, as soon as I get in the pool and swim towards Brooke treading water and catching the sun, Ninette gets off her chair, takes a sip of her Cinzano, and gets into the pool as well. The water’s nice, Brooke’s nice and yes, even Ninette is nice. And the sun darkens the smell of them, the taste of their flesh.
The three of us carry on without saying a word. I’ve got an envelope in my hand with a thick wad of cash, crisp, untraceable new notes. The guy who came in from outside is carrying a green bag and the one who I’m normally with is smoking another cigarette. The three of us are wearing sunglasses. The three of us look at eachother. From the glass door I can see a big garden and right at the bottom there’s a swimming pool and next to the pool there are a couple of naked women soaking up the sun and their fruit cocktails.
The guy who came in from outside puts the bag down on the table and I slide the wad of cash over to him. I open the bag, count the packages and study them one by one. The guy who came in from outside counts the notes once, and then a second time. The one I’m normally with stubs out his cigarette and immediately lights another one.
– Happy? You can give your brother a call then. Tell him I’ll deliver everything myself.
I press the little buttons on my mobile phone.
– Everything’s sorted here.
I glance at my watch. Five thirty. I glance through the glass door, to the bottom of the garden, the swimming pool, the two naked women soaking up the sun and their fruit cocktails.
– There’s a car standing by for you to take you to the hotel. Call a cab tomorrow. We won’t be taking you to the airport.
I’m a bit too far away to see the expression on the face of the one on the right. But she’s been looking this way for a while. I remember seeing that face at the airport, looking at me. Right, so this is where I know her then. Odd coincidence, that: to have met at the airport. The other one – the one on the left – is probably tipsy. And suddenly, out of the blue, the one on the right, the one who saw me at the airport, the one I saw at the airport, gives me a wave. Ninette and Brooke are dancing with a couple of Bulgarians who work at the dry docks, the music’s loud, I’m sitting next to the one on the right. She smiles and says her name is Gaby, her friend’s called Yvette, but Yvette’s off her face. Gaby and I get talking. Gaby has a small red stud in her nose. She has a butterfly tattoed on her wrist. She has full lips, probably a silicone job. She’s got something to tell me. Gaby suggests that we go outside and have a cigarette.
It’s cool outside. I have to support Brooke because she’s walking with her eyes closed.
I look at her in the dim light from the bedside table and catch the sidelong glance from her eyes, which meet mine as her knees hug me tighter and draw me in deeper. It’s true that her face is a little more wrinkled than it was the last time she was here. And it’s also true that smoking is making her voice huskier. And maybe even those other cigarettes, that she rolls with the utmost care, are leaving their mark. But just now, as I look at her from up close, I feel as crazy about her as I used to be when I used to meet her after closing time at the bank where she worked.
– You’re so beautiful.
– Liar. You’re wishing it was Brooke instead of me.
We go on. And when we’re done, we both reach for the cigarette packets we left lying about somewhere. I don’t like smoking in bed. I don’t usually do it. Ninette always does it. So I do it too, just to fill up the time. Ninette feels like talking. I feel like sleeping. It’s not that I’m tired but Ninette has started to bore me with her prattle because every time she’s here on holiday and we end up doing the thing I hate doing the most – smoking in bed – Ninette goes on about the topic I want to avoid the most. When I see the smoke creeping along the ceiling of the bedroom and see Ninette reach out for another cigarette and she asks me for a light, I get out of bed without really knowing where I’m going. The kitchen, maybe. As I walk, I hear Brooke wheezing and I stop to peep in, just like that, stark naked, hoping she’ll wake up.
– Hi. You ok? Did I wake you up?
– It doesn’t matter.
– Did I startle you?
– A bit. What time is it?
– No idea, I don’t have a watch. Around midnight, maybe.
– Illami! I’m having such a great time.
– Me too. We haven’t done this in a …
– Did you finish what you had to do?
– Everything’s done and everything’s gone smoothly. Better than I’d hoped, actually.
– And those friends who were visiting, have they left now?
– Yeah, couple hours ago.
– Are you at home?
– Yes, of course.
– Shall I come over?
– Are you on your own?
– Yes, he’ll be out for a while.
– OK, I’ll wait for you.
The original version of this short story was published in Stejjer li ma kellhomx jinkitbu (Midsea Books, 2008).