Authors: Chris Wimpress
WEEKS IN NAVIRAS
a novel by
WEEKS IN NAVIRAS
a novel by
For when thou art angry all our days are gone.
We bring our years to an end, as it were a tale that is told.
Psalm 90, Domine, Refugium
Opening my eyes I find myself submerged in warm water. Beneath me little downs of ocean floor, slowly rising up ahead of me to meet the surface. There’s no need to swim to the shore, the current’s slowly pushing me there. One of my feet brushes against the sand and I lower my other leg to stand up, breaking through.
There’s no gasp of breath, no surprise at the empty beach in front of me, the little bar behind it. To my left the sun’s just gone down behind the low sandstone cliff at the edge of the bay, its afterglow turning that patch of cloudless sky white. I wade easily out of the ocean and cross the beach, heading for the sun deck next to the bar. I climb the short wooden staircase, something I’ve done a hundred times but this time it feels easier; I’m almost gliding up the steps without catching my feet between them.
When I reach the small table at the furthest end of the terrace I’m already dry, but I barely notice because I’m staring at Luis, who’s walking across the sun deck with a glass of white wine in his hand. He’s wearing his favourite green shorts with a cream shirt, two buttons left undone at the top.
It has to be a dream, the kind of lucid one I haven’t had since I was a girl. When did those kinds of dreams stop? ‘I was inside the bar,’ says Luis with a smile, there in his eyes, too. ‘I almost couldn’t believe it when you came out the water.’ He sets the glass down on the table.
we stand there for a second until I lean forward to give him a kiss, first on his cheek. Then I put my arm on his shoulder and kiss him again on the lips. His mouth stays closed, he’s holding back. Is it because people can see us? Perhaps James is nearby.
I take a step back before sitting down on the wicker chair, marvelling at its comfort. ‘The sea’s beautiful,’ I say, looking around the bay in front of us. There’s no need for sunglasses, no glare from anything. I expect Luis to sit down next to me, instead he just nods to himself for a moment before turning and strolling back towards the beach bar. He’s got a spring in his step, that’s good to see.
With the sun behind the cliff the flat ocean has turned indigo, as it always does late in the afternoon. I’ve sat and watched the sun go down at more impressive beaches, many more popular, some more exclusive. But none ever topped the calm of Naviras bay on a quiet afternoon. I’ve returned here to see it again and again, willingly. Years ago someone took a picture of me with my husband James, together at this very table at about the same time of day. Our backs turned away from the ocean, I was wearing blue eyeshadow, not so different from the colour of the sea. My eyes were half-closed.
These memories aren’t the sort I normally refer to, not these days. They’ve been filed away, and are coming out in a dream. Do I want to wake up? Certainly not.
Sometimes in other places when you look at the sea it’s hard to make out where the sea ends and the sky begins. Not in Naviras where it’s always been clear. Dark blue under light blue, an obvious translucent line. These thoughts flooding my head aren’t new; I’ve thought them many times, often during some of the best blips of my life spent sitting outside this beach bar. With friends and family on the sun deck, getting slowly drunk into the early evening and giggling about nonsense. Things unrelated to politics or our lives outside. This place protected me and gave me solace; in return I somehow damaged it, ended up driving myself away from it one afternoon in tears. I’ve come back in a dream to say sorry to it.
For a while I sit, quietly sipping the wine, watching the liquid slide down the inside of the glass. The air temperature’s perfect for the time of year, I think, before realising I’ve no idea what time of year it is. Nor what year.
I look across the sun deck where two women and a man are lounging around a table under its large thatched parasol, talking occasionally. I don’t recognise any of them, the only person I know is Luis, who’s stopped at their table to chat to them. I’m struck by how silent Naviras seems, no background noise. Only the sound of the sea; the tide’s on the turn and the waves just slosh, like they’re massaging the sand.
Most of the village is here, clinging to the sides of the steep bay. The white fishermen’s cottages cluster around the shore, a few more perched further up on the opposite cliff - but not the hotel; it’s missing. That’s no bad thing, the village has reverted to how it was when I first came here.
Two children are building sandcastles by the shoreline. A boy and a girl but they aren’t mine, the girl’s the eldest. Their parents a few feet nearer me, lying on towels in the shade of the cliff. I don’t recognise them, didn’t notice them when I first waded out of the water and onto the sand. I look over to Luis, who’s finished talking to the nearest occupied table and turning back into the beach bar. I wave at him and he walks back over. I ask him where everyone else is.
‘No, Ellie, they’re not here yet. I don’t know when they’re coming,’ He seems pleased to see me but not all that surprised. Finally he sits down. I notice how good he looks, like he’s been one of those old TV makeover shows that took years off someone’s appearance. ‘You do know, don’t you Ellie? You’re here because you’ve left.’ His eyes tell me before his words do. ‘You’ve passed on. This isn’t the world, it’s somewhere else.’
Eventually when I can speak I ask Luis if he’s seen James and he shakes his head. Am I disappointed? Relieved? It’s hard to say. ‘You might have to wait some time for him to arrive,’ he says, looking at me with wider eyes.
‘No, James was there, too.’ I’m remembering that since I last saw Luis, I’ve become the prime minister’s wife, and that I’ve just been nerve gassed.
We should’ve flown to a private airbase but there’d been a last-minute change, one we were told about less than an hour before we were due to land. ‘Something about security problems,’ said James as he was buckling up. ‘Don’t worry, there’s bound to be some minor alterations.’
Only a handful of us flew out from London. James had brought just Rav and Rosie, along with a couple of senior officials. The press pack had been told to keep away, the government permitting just one wire reporter and a camerawoman. As such I’d been surprised when James insisted I attend, it really wasn’t an occasion for spouses. ‘I thought you would’ve wanted to see a bit of history in the making, L,’ he said.
After landing we waited on the plane for about ten minutes before word came for us to disembark through a jetway, not the usual staircase fanfare. We were shown to a suite inside the terminal at Ben Gurion where we waited again, this time for nearly an hour. It quickly became noisy, crowded with various officials. An Israeli waiter offered us drinks, he had impeccable manners though I wondered if he was really secret service. James said no, thank-you, fiddling with his cufflinks as he studied a briefing paper in front of him.
‘Mrs Weeks?’ I said I’d have a sparkling water, please. I’d found it vaguely odd that we’d be driving the forty miles or so to Jerusalem, even odder that the President would be in the same motorcade. She’d normally have taken Marine One for a journey like that, to witness a power-sharing deal the White House had privately declared doomed but which they were suddenly taking credit for. I suppose the image of her stepping out of a military helicopter had been deemed unpalatable.
‘James, I’m getting some flack about who gets the first question at the press conference.’ As usual Rosie Costello was barely audible, her voice deliberately pitched so anyone but James would struggle to hear her. She was sitting next to him, directly opposite me.
Irritation on James’s face. ‘Well we’re not changing things now, just try to give them something they can use for tomorrow.’ He was still punishing any title which had backed his opponent in the leadership contest.
‘Okay, I’ll reach out to Miranda about that.’ Rosie used phrases like ‘reach out’ constantly, I found them infuriating and this must’ve come across because I caught Rav staring at me, quietly amused. He’d barely slept for nights, his black hair had developed a sheen and he hadn’t shaved for well over a day. Although I could never fully know the ins and outs of b
eing chief of staff, I did appreciate only Rav knew James’s foibles like me.
‘Ellie, are you quite happy?
’ I said it was perfectly clear, which it was. All I had to do was stand in the right places at the right time, normally well out of camera shot.
Everyone had been excited about the deal, seemed convinced it’d been nailed down, but they’d had come close before and something could easily cause it to fall over at the last minute. There were still ‘niggles’ as James put it, particularly over the status of Palestinian refugees, niggles which to me showed little sign of getting resolved, whatever people said. But they were being ignored for the time being because we were living through ‘the moment’ – again James’s words, not mine.
Rav was reading email, frowning. ‘Boss, I think you’ll have to dip out of the lunchtime reception tomorrow,’ he said. ‘That’s if you want to chair the NSC tomorrow night, we’ll need to be flying you back no later than one o’clock.’ James nodded without looking up from his papers. He often only spoke to question or veto something. ‘Oh, and we’ve scheduled a meeting for Thursday with the energy rebels,’ added Rav. ‘That means biffing the Italian foreign minister.’
Another nod from James. ‘How’s my interview schedule for tomorrow morning looking?’
‘News conference all confirmed for ten past ten,’ Rosie chimed in. ‘Israeli time.’
‘What about interviews?’ James scrawled his signature on the briefing paper and put it down on the glass table in front of him. It was a defence order for carrier movements. I’d learned to read upside down quite well. Rav leaned forward and picked it up.
‘Not sure at this stage,’ Rosie’s top lip was protruding even further than normal. ‘We’re trying to squeeze in several.’ I knew she was about to blame someone else.
James frowned at her. ‘I really want to do just one long interview, for them all to share. This is too big for them to ignore or cut down. No comment from London, it’s all coming from here and I don’t want Labour ruling the airwaves in the morning.’ He used to waste so much time intoning everything.
‘I’m on it,’ said Rosie calmly. There was definitely a taut feeling to them, increasingly it felt like she was out of favour. James looked like he was about to say something else but was stopped by Rav, who lightly nudged him. ‘Here she comes,’ he said, quietly.
The president and her entourage marched into the lounge. She was wearing her usual ensemble of stiff trouser suit with a silky blouse. Someone would have picked the powdery cream suit for her, it didn’t work with her tired skin tone. But she would’ve chosen the butterfly brooch herself; crystal, not gems. The wings were lilac but its body was black. Wom
en in frontline politics couldn’t be seen in public without some kind of emblem, the bigger, the better. They thought it conveyed some sense of award.
‘Morgan, very good to see you.’ James had only recently dispensed with Madam President in semi-public company.
‘James, it’s wonderful to have you here,’ she kissed him on each cheek. ‘And Ellie, so glad you could make it, thank-you so
for coming all this way.’ Kisses for me, too, although not touching.
You can meet people like Morgan a hundred times and still not really know them. Their eyes give little away, and by that time hers resembled those of a stuffed bird in a museum. She never seemed to blink. Those grey discs, permanently summarising, I think she hoped her massive mouth with its immaculate enamelled dumplings of teeth served as a distraction. Maybe she flashed her teeth at the British particularly wildly, to remind us of the stalactites erupting from our gums. Years before when I’d first met her she’d sported a more business-like hairstyle, which had always lent the impression she’d ironed it every morning. Once she’d set her sights on the White House she’d softened it to a more classic look, curling up at the ends.
I knew she viewed me as an inert component; something needing air kissing and briefly chatting to. Still a dignitary of sorts, but not someone she needed to impress. Mind you, in her ecosystem I wonder if my husband ever really ranked much higher.
The president and James immediately went to have a ‘huddle’ in the adjoining room. Rav went with them and Rosie melted away, saying something inaudible. They left me alone to stare out the window at the runways.
I wondered how the real Ben Gurion would feel about this place being his namesake, an airport most travellers loathed using. How, in fact, might any dead public figure feel about having their name stolen by an airport? Back then airports had been exciting places that would quickly whisk you off somewhere. Not frisk you to within an inch of your life and place you in holding tanks for hours. I thought about the endless lanes of security, snaking through other parts of the building. The endless scanning, prodding and rummaging. Watching the planes gliding in to land, I wondered if those rules would become any less stringent, once the deal was signed.
If anyone ever names an airport after me, I’ll not be at all pleased.
I opened my handbag, looking for my compact mirror. The faded postcard of Naviras poked out from the inside pocket, snagged slightly in the zip. I allowed myself a brief look at it, not taking it out entirely but just pulling the corner up from its hiding place. The colours were smudging; the cliffs seemed to be losing their definition from the sky.
‘Good afternoon, Ellie.’
Gavin Cross was standing to my left. I’d not seen him come in, but that wasn’t surprising given the size of Morgan’s retinue. I’d forgotten how Gavin’s smile was the exact opposite of his wife’s, measured and small. They made an oddly balanced couple, his tall quietness a counterweight to her compact bluster. I closed my handbag and stood up, greeted him and held out my hand. He held it briefly. ‘So they dragged you here, too.’ He arched his eyebrows which had greyed a bit since I’d met him last. TV doesn’t show you that, not so much.
‘Yes, although they only told me I was needed yesterday, I had to cancel some other long-standing commitments.’
‘Wasn’t it ever thus?’ We sat down, facing each other. I noticed how tired he looked, asked him if everything was alright. He shook his head.
‘Something horrible happened a couple weeks ago,’ he said. ‘An old friend of mine from college died, burned to death in a fire in LA. His funeral’s taking place today, and of course I can’t be there.’
‘That’s awful, Gavin, I’m so sorry.’
He shuddered. ‘I just hope it was quick. Morgan wasn’t too bothered about me coming, but the White House insisted. I don’t know why.’
The attendant brought the First Gentleman a glass of orange juice and we changed the subject. He asked me about my kids and charity work. And of course, I asked him about his teenage foundation. ‘I saw you on the news the other day, playing baseball,’ I said. ‘Looking very energetic, I must say.’
He laughed, believably. Then he asked me how things were looking for James’s re-election.
Gavin should’ve been the last person I let on to. ‘Well, all this Middle East stuff should give him a boost,’ I said. ‘And I think they’re hoping it’ll lower the oil price and stop the brownouts once and for all.’ I rolled my eyes and frowned. I couldn’t keep it in.
For a few seconds Gavin just looked at me. ‘You don’t wanna do this anymore, do you.’
I blew out air. ‘Not really, I feel trapped.’
‘And does James know how you’re feeling?’
‘I don’t think so. Do you understand?’
He sipped his juice. ‘You know what, Ellie, I always enjoy talking to you. I’ve tried to make it work myself, and I never know if I’m getting it right.’
‘I think you’re getting it about as right as you can,’ He was certainly finding it harder than me and didn’t have to explain the ride he’d been given by the media; they’d long since branded him a political cuckold, a man too stupid to realise he was under the cosh. I said it was unfortunate how our other halves were often too busy with their jobs to read their own press.
‘I’ve stopped checking the news about me,’ he said. ‘Every time I see my name I just scan past it, flick to something else. You should try it.’
‘I don’t know how I could do that,’ I said.
‘Just get someone else to read it, they’ll tell you if there’s something you need to worry about.’
‘I don’t know who that someone would be.’
He looked surprised. ‘You don’t have a chief of staff?’
I laughed and told him how Anushka had recently changed her business cards and was now swanning around Westminster calling herself Chief of Staff to Eleanor Weeks. ‘She’s chief to a staff of zero,’ I said. ‘Actually, I feel like her member of staff, sometimes.’ Gavin nodded. I told him how James’s people took care of my arrangements. They liaised with Anushka, but only to iron out any diary clashes. Most of my work was filtered through Rosie, resplendent in James’s private office, who revelled in her status as the gatekeeper. I had very little control over it.
‘Interesting,’ said Gavin. ‘Where is Anushka?’
‘She had to stay in London. It’s a shame, because I think she would have enjoyed this. But it would’ve taken too long for her to get security clearance.’
‘Yeah. All happening a little too fast, isn’t it?’ Gavin might have said more but then the background hubbub grew louder. James and the president had finished huddling and were walking back into the room. My husband was flanked by Rav, who looked stressed as he whispered something in James’s ear. I couldn’t see Rosie, she must’ve been off talking to some news editor on the phone. Gavin stood up and walked over towards his wife, who was having briefings waved under her nose. Their chemistry had always seemed slightly off. I’d always felt she needed him to get elected, but once in power had been unsure what to do with him.
James and Rav walked over to me. ‘We’re leaving,’ said Rav quietly. ‘It’s on.’
The motorcade waiting outside the airport was the largest I’d ever seen, with more than two dozen outriders flanking our cars. We were in the third car, with the President’s enormous contraption driving in front of us. The first car was presumably filled with the rest of her senior counsel. James and I were sitting in the back of the limo, facing forwards. Rav was sitting opposite me, his brows furrowed as he looked at his phone. He’d put on a bit of weight around his stomach, something I put down to over-work and poor diet. Perhaps if he’d been in a relationship he would’ve been healthier, gone home earlier, eaten fewer late-night takeaways in Number 10. His hair needed cutting. I’d long wished that he would rebalance his life, make it less ancillary to James’s.
Opposite James sat Rosie, palpably excited to be on the verge of witnessing such a historic moment. She was thumbing through the news, fielding messages from editors and making sure the embargo was still being observed. I could tell she was uncomfortable in her shoes, which were a bit too strappy for all that walking around, getting in and out of cars while on the phone.
Although the world knew the deal was being be signed that afternoon, what had not been disclosed was how Morgan would turn up to physically cement it. The White House had shifted so quickly from scepticism to an apparently high level of confidence. Still I felt nervous and turned to Rav, asking him why there’d been so many last-minute changes? Rav said there’d been some chatter about rockets. Too dangerous to land any nearer Gaza. He was sporting his usual full-lipped smile, but was rubbing his stubbly chin. What kind of a peace deal is this, I thought, if we’re still scared of rockets?