Anne Harris writes fiction, drama and poetry and lives in Belfast. She holds an MA (Distinction) in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Belfast.
Her radio play, Arm’s Length, was produced and broadcast by RTE Radio. Her short stories have been published in various publications. ‘Breath‘ was shortlisted in the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and was read in RTE Radio 1. ‘Requiem‘ was read as part of the Irish Writers’ Centre ‘The Lonely Voice’ project. ‘Pretty Girls Get All the Fun‘ was published in the Honest Ulsterman. ‘Dissolution‘ was published in the Ulster Tatler Literary Miscellany. ‘Art‘ was read on BBC Radio 4’s Afternoon Story.
I dreamt about him again last night. I dream of him so often. Holding me fast in his arms, I feel his dark hair brush soft against my cheek, his skin smooth and dry against my own, his breath against my neck. Hot and damp. I feel it all so clearly. Especially his breath.
The divers have a beauty all their own. It transcends the physical as they soar and swoop and cut into the sea.
So many afternoons I watched, hidden from them, and the sun, in my little white-painted summerhouse further up the cliff, away from the abruptness of the edge.
Esther had been full of dire warnings. Of how unsuited I was to being alone; of gigolos whose only aim in life was to prey off rich, gullible widows. That I had lived alone all my adult life and was neither rich nor a widow seemed not to matter.
She wanted to come. She talked about the Third World and saw in herself some kind of Victorian protectress, fending off loneliness and undesirables, while I dreamed of a winter freed from inhalers and steroids. I would be an intrepid traveller rather than a middle-aged singleton on a cheap package deal. I shimmered in anticipation that for my time there I, too, might be wooed as both rich and gullible.
They came every morning and afternoon and worked in silence punctuated by angry torrents of speech – tirades that never seemed to resolve anything.
The old man tended the main gardens, riding his lawnmower with all the grit of a Formula One racer. He was a stunted walnut of a man who understood English very well but resolutely refused to speak it, preferring instead to grunt round the untipped cigarette that trailed a pungent wake.
The young man worked within the walls of the courtyard, polishing the windows, seeing to the great terracotta containers of plants and keeping the fountain free of errant leaves and drowning insects. His final act, morning and evening, was to sluice water round the tiles and brush it down.
And, like some cliché of menopausal frustration, I would watch from a high window. Watch his muscles expand and contract beneath the tattered t-shirt and frayed, cut-off jeans. And feel my breath catch as I did so.
He knew, of course, though he never let on. Not then. Not until the evening he came alone and stared up towards the window where I had thought I was so well hidden. He smiled and I shivered in the heat. There was no warmth in that smile, no empathy. Just teeth, white and even and dangerous as a tiger’s. But then, I have always thought the tiger the most sensuous of beasts – the lithe silk of their bodies concealing steely power.
It was never a love affair. I cannot claim that. There was never love. Not on his side. Not affection, nor, for all I know, even liking. It was a business arrangement, pure and simple. I paid him and he, to his credit, performed his duties well. It was not what I wanted. I longed for heady flights of passion, of tearful partings when the time came, but I accepted gratefully – and, I hope, gracefully – what he offered. As he left, he would lift the money from the heavily carved cabinet that stood sentinel in the hallway and I knew, without being told, that this was how he always conducted such business.
He was a more than competent lover, always willing to satisfy but never offering more than he had to under the arrangement. Always, always, he held back. Always, always, he retained complete control.
And always, always, I tried to push him a little further. I honestly thought that he would not be happy until he let go and I honestly thought that I could be the one to help him do so.
I began to prepare more and more elaborate rituals. I would cook meals, though he rarely ate; buy wine, champagne, proffer the sweetest fruits I could find in the local markets: anything to encourage him to relax, just be with me. I doubled his fee. But even that failed. I was just another arrangement, made to boost his savings, a means to take him far away from here.
In the afternoons he joined the other divers. I could pick him out from all the other dark-haired, tawny youths as, one by one, they swooped down into the dark water beyond where it foamed white against the rocky bottom of the cliff. I would feel my own breath begin to labour and the old familiar wheeze start as he stayed longer and longer under the water. I could only allow myself to grasp a desperate lungful of air when I saw his head, sleek with water, break the surface. And he would begin a steady thrusting crawl back to land, climbing hand over easy hand up what seemed to me a sheer cliff-face. And on those long afternoons, I watched his ascent greeted by young, equally dark haired girls who fluttered around him, while I, sheltered by dark glasses and the summerhouse, yearned for him to acknowledge my existence.
On the afternoon he told me about the competition with its prize that seemed large even to me, I sensed a faint change in him. He allowed me to pour the wine that stood on the table beside the big old-fashioned bed then held me close, wrapping a strand of my hair round one finger. The window and shutters were wide open but the breeze that blew in from the ocean had already been heated and laden with dust on its short journey across the arid land. In the villa’s empty living room, Madame Butterfly mourned her fate, an eternal loop of beauty and despair.
He spoke against my neck, his breath warm and moist. ‘Will you come?’
‘To the competition?’
‘I want you to watch.’
‘I watch you every afternoon.’
‘Yes.’ So, he had known. ‘Will you sit with the others?’
I laughed nervously. ‘You don’t want an old woman like me there.’
He considered me, unsmiling. ‘Not so old.’
‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘But older than you. How old are you?’
‘Twenty five. You?’
I turned my face away. ‘Old enough to know better.’
‘But will you come?’ He was earnest now, a frown between his straight dark eyebrows. ‘For me?’
I was flattered. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ll come.’
He smiled then, a wide genuine smile, so much younger than his usual baring of teeth. ‘Good. Tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow, since you watch, I shall achieve it. I shall achieve the seven minutes.’
‘Seven minutes?’ I had not realised there was timing involved, had imagined it to be like marine ice-skating, marks for artistic merit.
‘Just wait,’ he rolled on top of me. ‘This is for you,’ he said. ‘Free. A bonus’ For once, he abandoned all control and gave himself up to the moment.
Afterwards, I brushed strands of hair from where they clung to his forehead. The act was too maternal and I sat up abruptly and leaned across to pour more wine.
‘No.’ He swung from the bed. ‘I must go.’
‘Yes. There are things I must do for my father.’
I followed him. ‘May I?’ I opened the cubicle door.
‘Of course. It is your shower.’ He brushed past me and lifted a towel. I stood naked on the tiles, feeling ridiculous and exposed. ‘I shall see you tomorrow.’
I showered. There was nothing else to do.
I sat on a thick towel slightly apart from the other spectators, scratching the backs of my legs where scrubby grass pushed through the fabric. The old man stood near the edge of the cliff, still smoking. Close by was a large scoreboard with an old-fashioned clock face sweeping out the minutes and seconds.
The usual gaggle of young girls, dressed in summer dresses, dotted the parched cliff top like exotic coloured birds. Their chatter added to the excitement and contrasted with the dour silence of the men.
He was last to dive, smoothing his dark shorts across the muscles of his buttocks, seemingly oblivious to the sharp grass beneath his bare feet. He moved to the very edge of the cliff, breathing deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth. I was vaguely reminded of the breathing exercises I’d been taught as a child.
He lifted his arms above his head in a fluid movement, stepping forward until it seemed that he might simply slip down into the water, then raised himself up onto his toes. He bounced once or twice as though on a diving board then, suddenly, he was away, lifting up and out from the edge of the cliff, like a huge graceful bird, his arms pointing above his head as he arced down towards the sea. I released my breath. He was far enough out to be clear of the hidden rocks and their treacherous undertow and was heading towards the calm turquoise of the deeper, safer waters.
Down he went, slicing through the water and out of sight, leaving barely a ripple to disturb the smooth surface. Atop the cliff, we waited.
ONE MINUTE: I can see the occasional bubble break the surface, marking where he entered the water.
TWO MINUTES: The bubbles have ceased. The sea is as flat as ever.
THREE MINUTES: I look at my watch. I cannot believe that we have sat here for only three minutes. One hundred and eighty seconds.
FOUR MINUTES: This is longer than any of the other contestants. I am certain of it.
FIVE MINUTES: I can feel my own chest begin to tighten. I have scarcely drawn any air into my lungs since this began.
SIX MINUTES: I check my watch against the stop clock for the umpteenth time. My breathing is harsh in my ears. Around me, people are beginning to move towards the cliff’s edge. I am immobile.
SEVEN MINUTES: Seven minutes. That is what he said. What he promised. The time has come. He will resurface. Now. Please.
EIGHT MINUTES: Nothing. No ripple, no black head bobbing on the surface, no sign.
It was more than an hour before they found him. Several of the other divers ran to the edge, diving skilfully but without their normal grace or elegance. It took a long time to bring him in. The coast here is rocky and they had to tow him beyond the headland to a small shingle beach.
The crowd trailed across the clifftop to watch, silent and numb. The old man followed slowly, supported on either side by a young woman.
Someone had carried a bundle of towels and I offered mine. It was thick and soft but its vivid pattern of seahorses seemed obscene as they laid him on it. I stared down at him with only faint recognition, then moved aside to let a weeping girl kneel beside him.
The old man stood beside her. He gazed at his son’s body for a few seconds, then looked at me.
‘The divers,’ he said flatly. ‘They always die young.’