Authors: Colin Thubron
This changed person awoke Rayner”s protectiveness. It was as if this capacity in him—a kind of impassioned tenderness—had been there long ago, waiting for her. At night the slender dancer”s arms with their elongated fingers twined about him in blind urgency, so that he wanted to calm her into himself. Yet whenever he started to think that this orphan was her only manifestation, its mirror image would erupt—vital, playful, defiant—and she would revert to her daytime self: the owner of the proud back and strong-shaped legs. Then she would tease and laugh at him and at herself, like somebody watching a carnival.
He sensed that she carried with her a past as disjoined as his own. At first, because she didn”t refer to it, he thought her secretive. Then he realized that she just wanted to forget: she despised self-pity. For years after leaving the capital she had lived hand-to-mouth, performing in theater and cabaret. She had started to drink too much; and yes, there had been many men.
She spoke without regret. She wanted him to know. After leaving dance academy, she said, she might have entered the state ballet company. But she”d fallen in love with jazz and flamenco, and joined a mime theater instead. “Everybody said I was mad, because we were openly political. Our director behaved as if the country was as free as it pretended to be, and we did shows about every state farce and corruption.” She laughed ruefully. “But we were just children, of course, trying to make the world all right.”
Rayner wondered in astonishment how this little theater had survived in the twenties, when censorship in the capital had been as harsh as during the war. But within a year, she said, they were all being persecuted. She had been living with one of the actors and become pregnant,
when they were denounced to the authorities. She was warned that unmarried motherhood was an abuse to the state. Her parents refused to see her again unless she agreed to an abortion.
“But I could feel the baby already alive in me.” Her voice emptied of any tone, as if against weeping. At eight months she had given birth to a stillborn boy, and for an instant had held him in her hands, and seen his expression.
She detached Rayner”s arms from her, as if they could not comfort. After a while, with sudden, bitter humor, she said: “In the puritan crackdown I got reassigned to other work. Dancers like me were listed Grade Seven, along with prostitutes and gypsies. I was told to start clerical training.”
“No. I said I”d rather lose my residence permit than stop dancing. So I was reassigned here.” She added grimly, brutalizing herself. “Basically, I was chucked out.”
Her honesty, especially when turned on herself, sounded almost callous. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her. He did not understand this obscure battle to dance.
But four years ago, she said, for no reason she knew, her suffering—this shadow-boxing with herself and with authority—had eased. She had stopped drinking. She had started living alone, and had adopted the discipline of yoga. Once she tried to explain this to him, but only ended in confusion. “We”re getting into deep water!”
But every afternoon by the lake she would disappear for an hour. The shoreline was littered with flat, seal-grey rocks belted with the marks of seasonal evaporation, and on one of these she would settle, facing the sun. Then her prayer-like stretchings and bendings would begin, the private suppleness which would bring her feet close against her breast or arch them behind her back. She doubled and twisted, did headstands and shoulder-stands or balanced
with one leg behind her neck, all in a rhythmic, concentrated calm.
Meanwhile he swam or lay reading, and watched the wind chafe or polish the lake surface, while often the far shore stood invisible in haze, as if this were indeed the ocean of their childhood memory. But in fact its water rested tideless against the rocks, and its mood and beauty were beginning to depend on her. Her sudden fervors and withdrawals were starting to obsess him. In conversation she poured questions over him—straightforward but demanding ones about anything she didn”t know—with that disturbing innocence of hers. She would listen to him with an almost anguished attention, which would then fade for no reason he could guess, and suddenly return.
Even in bed she often clasped him with an impassioned, hurt need, as if she had nothing else in the world, and when she stared at him he felt her pulling out love through his eyes, scouring his skull clean. So he made love to her in a euphoria of longing, tinged with sorrow. Yet at other times, as if from years of wounding, she would show only a detached affection; then she seemed to be holding back some vital part of her, and proving to herself, with a raw sadness, that she was, after all, separate. Once, sensing this, he asked, “Do you want me to go to sleep?”—and she nodded, filling him with a pang of intense, hopeless separation.
Now in the morning, when he lay idle on the lake”s verge, the offshore islands seemed to rage or go melancholy, depending on the night before. In some way, he realized, he had fallen in love with her.
But just as she incarnated two different women, so she demanded two men of him. The man who intrigued her with conversation during the day—”my pet brain”—was not allowed to possess her at night. For this she turned him into someone else. For a while her gaze would drain him and her body would cling, as if they might complete one another. Then she would say, “Don”t talk. Just love
me,” and close her eyes. She wanted him both as lover and friend, but the two could not, in the end, overlap. The man who entered her had to be a stranger.
Once, watching her writhe in his arms as if in some private trance, he said bemusedly, “I might as well be a stud.”
Her eyes opened in distress. “No … no. It”s not important.”
“Sex.” She looked shy, as if she had just focused him. “I”ve never really wanted sex.”
He drew back from her, astonished. He”d believed her more erotic than him. She”d had affairs since she was sixteen.
She said, “I”ve only wanted male companionship, in the end. That”s why I went wild as a girl. I just wanted to be held.”
She shot him a depleted smile. Suddenly, staring down at her, he imagined all the men in whose carnal energies she had looked for love—including, perhaps, his own—and felt sick with pity.
But she saw his expression and started to laugh. “Don”t look like that. Christ! I was using them too. I wasn”t so badly treated, except by Ivar.”
“I wanted to ask about that.”
So they sat up against the pillows in one another”s arms, and talked about Ivar. She tilted her head a little away, as if freeing herself to judge or remember, but her words came in bursts of self-contempt.
“I should have known it”d be no good. He and his army friends had been picking girls up at the club for nearly a year, and I thought I had his measure.” She still sounded angry. “Then, out of nowhere, I fell in love with him. It”s the only time it”s happened to me like that. He”d been trying to get me for months, and one morning I just woke up knowing, “I love him.” “ She gave a disdainful laugh. “But it wasn”t for long. Three months, I think.”
Rayner thought he could guess Ivar”s allure for women: the malleable face, quite sensual in its softness, which could deploy expressions by remote control and was, in its way, perfectly sincere.
Zoë said, “But he”s cold at heart, Ivar. Dead. He doesn”t want a woman, he wants a servant. There”s something in him … something … not there at all. So he humiliates you. You go mad for him and he stays utterly sane.”
“Why were you so hurt?”
She said, “Just that he didn”t care.” Her look of depletion returned. Her fingers kneaded his. “He treated love as a kind of … eccentricity. Women don”t really exist for him, you know. Not as people. He thinks he likes intelligent women, but he doesn”t. He doesn”t like stupid ones either. Poor Felicie.”
Rayner felt a stab of jealousy. He turned and lifted Zoë against him. Her body had turned cool with the night.
“I don”t want to feel that ever again,” she said, as if guessing his sadness. “You”re better than he is.”
She closed her mouth over his to stop it talking, and for long minutes Rayner gave up thinking as he moved with the rhythm of the soft, schizophrenic body under his. Only later, as she clung to him with what might have been gratitude, and sighed a little, did he remember the man he couldn”t be for her, and his jealousy returned. In exchange for her deep, helpless commitment, he knew, he would have given up all that he elicited in respect and affection. Like Ivar, he thought uneasily, he wanted to own her.
The weather held until their last day. Then the haze which had lain all week over the lake bloomed malignantly to suffocate the sky, and the sun disappeared. It felt like the stifling prelude to a storm—which never came. Without the sun, time vanished. Rayner swam with
closed eyes where the shore steepened under canopies of trees. His slow breaststrokes parted a flotsam of rotted coconut husks and palm leaves. He thought about Ivar: how most people must seem mad to him. Zoë had simmered under his calm for a while, then surfaced to baffle him, baffle herself. He could not imagine them together.
He shuddered as something brushed under his feet: something soft. But gazing down through the peat-colored water, he saw only a decayed silkwood trunk. His nerves were frayed, he thought. One week”s holiday was too little. He swam to one of the island rocks which looked smooth but was rough and cutting, and heaved himself up.
Around a bend in the shore, bobbing under a magenta bathing-cap, came Felicie. Soon she was swimming around his rock, chatting. The sun had turned her shoulders pink.
“Practicing her yoga.”
“Oh how could she?” She steadied herself beside the rock. “All that twisting about. It looks so
It”s not natural.”
“Reading.” She squirmed onto the ledge below him. “That”s all he ever does, apart from … God it”s so boring here. What do you do all day?”
She glanced down at her feet in the water. She craved excitement, change. But instead there was just Ivar, who would not change, and herself. It was all very well for Zoë, she said, Zoë was never bored. In fact Zoë couldn”t keep still for more than a cigarette. She must be tiring to live with. “Isn”t she?” There was open coquetry in the question.
Rayner said, “You know her.” It was probably futile to hunt for clues to Zoë in the muddled memory of Felicie, but he heard himself add, “Has she always been like that?”
“Oh yes, even three years ago with Ivar. Christ, she
led him a dance. Served him right. She was the only woman to
on him.” Felicie levered herself up the rock beside Rayner. “Zoë goes
sometimes. She takes everything too hard.” Her slim legs were burnt prawn pink. “I”m the steady one.”
But nobody looked less steady than Felicie, Rayner thought. Her mouth, turned slackly to his, was pleading to be kissed. It was not a planned betrayal, just the moment”s need. Now that Ivar was drifting from her, she would cling to whatever floated.
Rayner said, “Zoë and Ivar would never have got on.”
Felicie look away. “I suppose Ivar”s never changed either, has he?” Her words pattered with despair.
Abruptly she got up and said, “I”d better go back,” then added as if recanting something, “Give my love to Zoë!”
Ridiculous and touching in the magenta bathing cap, she eased into the water and started to return the way she had come.
After a while Rayner too swam to the shore. His damaged foot had started to ache, throbbing as if the bone marrow were filled with nerves. He lay down and heaped the soft earth into a cushion beneath it. When Zoë found him, he was fast asleep.
“Are you all right?”
She stood gazing down at him. She looked as he most loved her to look. From time to time, as now, something ignited in her this glow of tenderness. Even at meals, she might reach out with a sensitivity strange after her withdrawal, and cup his face in her hands to steady it, before settling to gaze at him. So now her eyes had gone gentle and alert, and she sat down and tentatively touched his foot. So that was it: his foot.
She said, “You never talk about it, so I don”t know when it”s hurting.”
“I don”t think about it much.”
She ran her fingertips over the permanently swollen ankle. “But it must remind you.”
“Yes, of course it does.” Some roughness reentered his voice. “I don”t mean it reminds me of the accident. I had amnesia. But it reminds me of my mother”s death. It”s like carrying it about with you.” And the end of your youth too, he thought angrily, and your exile to this bloody place. “You imagine that if it wasn”t there, you”d forget.” But of course you wouldn”t, he knew. He sat up and stared down his body with distaste. “Zoë, you and I should have a pact to ban pity.”
She said, “Why should we be frightened of it, d”you suppose?” She lifted his wrenched foot to her lips. Its bones stuck out like harp strings. She kissed them one by one.
He said, “I”m not frightened.”
She answered astonishingly, “I am.” Her fingers trickled over his foot. “If I thought you were sorry for me, I”d start to feel pitiful. Then I”d lose myself.”
In the sunless day the only sign of dusk was an overall dimming, as if a great lamp had been turned down behind the sky.
She said, “We should go soon.”
They wandered back to dress for supper. Zoë remade her face. When it was done, she went on glaring longer than usual into the mirror, hunting for any fissures in her immaculacy. Rayner studied her, wondering; he wanted to touch her, but did not.
“It”s our last evening.”
Then she entered the dining room in the tight black dress which reminded him of her leotard—the high breasts and slender body attracting the attention she craved like a defiant child. And back in their villa the whole charade was washed away. But she answered his lovemaking with a self-obliterating need, her eyes clenched shut, and fell asleep with her fingernails still sharp in his back. For a long time afterwards he lay awake,
and at midnight went out onto the verandah to look at the lake. But it was invisible in haze.