WATER ON THE COUNTER
by FranÁoise C. Baudelot
Dear little woman, busy around the kitchen, baking bread and strŁdels; arranging the glass spice containers in neat rows along the shelf in the cupboard. Why was that large jar of garlic powder in the front row? So untidyÖ Dear Lady Provence (I have to give you a name, and you chose that one yourself to hide your true identity), when you wipe those fake marble counters dry and clean, your dishcloth spread out flat and not bundled up like a fist, do you see my reflection while the counter is still wet? Just a sudden glimpse, the flashing of a face shaded by short blond hair. Blue eyes, not nut brown. Is it a trick of the light? Your hair is dark and your face has not yet wrinkled with impending old age, or smoke or sun. Whence this other face, this ghost of things long past? Wipe the counter dry, bone dry like the clay dust that on some rare sunny days seems to hover in the air, but it canít be clay, for that is long gone too, and yet it seems to linger and settle on the leaves of the jade plant that hangs from the ceiling near the window. A voice whispers to you, ĎDear lady, that is not a jade plant: It is nothing more elegant than a poor desert weed, it can no longer know the sun of southern climes, but has been born in the captivity of a pot, in a land of snow and wind and vast dark forests, where it has been renamed after the green jade native to this new country; given an elegant name to compensate for the loss of its homeland, poor solace for the humble algarobilla which can bear no flowers here. It is barren; sterile like this great land of emptiness, this Canada.í
Was that really a whisper in your mind, or out of your mind? Are you slowly going out of your mind?
You try to smile, your brown eyes sparkle and you begin to gently hum a tune, a song from your own land. You hum in tune, but then you hear the tune change, its melody is lost, it is cacophony, sung by a tone-deaf voice, and again you glimpse the face, for although freshly wiped, once again there is water on the counter.
The year was1989 and it was the last day of March. The little red car, a Ford Fiesta, had just crossed the border from Southern Spain to Portugal. A young man was driving me, his mother, to meet my destiny in Sintra, elegant resort of bygone days. I was visibly nervous. My son smoked as he drove: I had not smoked for seven years, but now I begged him for a cigarette.
So, what happened in Sintra? The hotel was beautiful: you had booked us into a luxurious suite. You met my son and offered us both chocolate from what seemed to be an endless supply in your suitcase. Cigarettes, too. You smoked...now I have joined you.
My son said goodbye and disappeared into the distance in his little red car. We were on our own at last. Two people who had met my chance on the airwaves. Two unhappy, middle-aged people who had a common hobby. Short wave radio. Not even ham radio, but Ďillegalí communication with faraway stations via the Citizensí Band. CQ, CQ, CQ, DX ad infinitum, until something clicks and a friendly, but faceless voice replies. And so the relationship began between us: you in South Africa, I in Southern Spain. We lost contact for a year after the first round of QSOs and exchange of QSL cards. And found each other again, at lunchtime when I was frying potatoes in the kitchen. I heard you calling into the emptiness of my life, and I abandoned my frying pan to answer your call.
It was the biggest mistake of my life!
I was still married then. Unhappily married for 15 years (donít we all make that excuse?) to a schizophrenic Spaniard, thirteen years my senior. He heard voices, made wild accusation founded on what his voices told him. He would slink off and sit in the shade of a distant carob tree, meditating, only to return hours later, refusing to speak to me for days at a time. I felt trapped in my own house and spent hours in my workshop for I was a potter and throwing pots kept me sane. Pots and the CB radio were installed on a little table beside my wheel, protected from the clay dust by a transparent plastic bag; another one for the microphone. In the main house, my husband also had a CB radio, and he to would talk, but speaking only Spanish restricted him to only contacting Spanish stations, mostly local farmers and truck-drivers, or Italian stations wanting to exchange QSL cards.
What happened? A year of written correspondence and secret long-distance telephone calls to and from Canada, your adopted country, to which you eventually returned, leaving behind your wife of a quarter of a century and your two almost grown-up children in the R.S.A.
She was to join you in damp, inhospitable northern British Columbia. You even found her a job.
But she didnít want it. She wanted to be free of you. Knowing what I know now, how could I blame her?
And you wrote to her, but never posted the letter:
This morning at minutes before seven, I felt compelled to hear you and on impulse dialled your number. I knew I hadnít much time before leaving for work, which would have disallowed a lengthy and expensive call. But, damn it, it was a national holiday again. Spencer was in the office and answered. So it cost me a couple of bucks anyway. He told me that I was the third party of the family to call. I momentarily felt envious and thought: ĎHow lucky she is, everyone calling her; no one ever calls me, no mail, nothing.í And so, there you are, at the end of April. Eve, why? And here I am, after all this time still without you and not being able to comprehend how you could have done this thing at a time when I needed someone close to help me overcome this tremendous change, this difficult adjustment to a new locale, a new job and the stresses and anxieties connected with it. The memory of these last lonely months will now never leave me and there are times I feel bitter and the degree of sadness finds no expression. And I cannot, today, tell you that I will be the same person when you see me next. I am not happy and donít know if I can be. The separation, to my mind, has solved nothing. Itís just been too long, way too long. And to know that you are coping more easily without me than vice versa does not make it easier for me, but, in a way, only proves and reinforces my long hedged suspicion that you can do without me more easily than I thought I live without you. And having to think these thoughts here, of all places, makes it doubly hard to endure. I donít know if I will or can go on so much longer by myself. You will say Ďdo something; see some people, make friends. I know! But those are poor substitutes, plastic flowers compared with the real thing. I have previously imagined being able to do well independently. I was wrong. One cannot wash away years spent sharing concerns, love, a house and a bed; bad moments with the good. One just canít. You are too much part of my life for me to make a 180-degree turn and walk away. And I am hoping that you might come to the same conclusion, but am not sure. Anyway, itís beginning to sound like organ grinderís music now.
I have not heard anything from Swaziland from anyone. I donít know how my call to Joe would be interpreted. I donít know what they think about our situation privately. And I donít even know how to react, should the offer for me to return to work there actually materialize. But, I might just return, I just might, because I see no life here for myself at all. Had you been with me here from the beginning these things would never have come up. But Prince Rupert is now also part of a bad memory and Iíd leave tomorrow as from a haunted house. Itís hard to explain. If only you were here! If only we could help each other to find the right way together. But itís no good this way. People ask me, ĎWhen is your wife coming?í and I tell them now that itís in July. They remember my telling them about May earlier. They say, Ďman, it must be lousy to live this way.í Yes, itís lousy. It wouldnít be so, of course, if we had had a better relationship earlier. Then NOTHING would bother me and Iíd cope so much easier. Now I donít know about anything of value any more. I never quite understood what people meant when they said that they couldnít enter into a relationship for fear of being hurt again. I never knew exactly how they would feel so vulnerable. I understand better now. I feel hurt. And I wouldnít want to go through this episode again. The depth of it might elude you, but it has had its effects on me, I tell you that. And all this for what? I will never understand.
And now I will go and buy myself a pack of smokes. I need one. I will go to Alís motel and have a coffee with him. I will act naturally as I do with all people. They never know how I feel inside.
I make my suppers and eat them without a real appetite. I turn on TV. Itís all violence and not what I want at all. I turn on the music. I hardly hear it. I go out and just walk. I feel like a discard on skid row. I go back to the flat. I hate to enter it. Itís just empty. No refuge. No warmth. Nothing.
And you? What is it like in someone elseís house? I just canít fathom the situation at all. It is so hard for me to accept your going into a house by yourself and staying there alone night after night. Maybe you like it, what do I know? And maybe you are not as alone as I think. Now and then I cannot help but feel with discomfort that there must be another reason for your continued stay in MÖ.. I just cannot see how anyone would want to stay by themselves in a town alone for such a long period. But I guess itís not all that bad because of the job. But is the job really all that important? I mean what is it really to you? And so, I see someone there whoís worth staying for. THAT would explain everything. You keep telling me no, no. But Iím not sure I can believe you as I once did, because you have not been entirely honest with me lately. Well, I had better have my coffee now. I donít want to talk rubbish and please forgive me if Iím doing exactly that.
I am not myself and I am mixed up and maybe Iíll feel better soon. Some days are just fine. Others are still awful. I wonder which will eventually win?
I know that I will leave Hayestown as soon as possible. And you will never see how it was here and the way I fixed up this place with you always on my mind, and you didnít even care. Oh shit, Iíve talked enough. Itís just upsetting me and my nerves are shot.
Eve arrived in July 1988. After a brief trial reunion and a few nights spent in your brand new queen-sized brass bed, she abandoned you to your fate, sneaking out of the house at dawn before you came back from working nightshift at the pulp mill, and flew straight back to South Africa to file for divorce. You could not bear the loneliness.
To me you wrote:
"Time to think about bed again. That big brass thing still stands and is waiting. The room will have to be heated up. Itís been cold in there since August. Do you truly believe that it will hold two lovers before long? Maybe I shall lie in this big bed tonight and think of you and wonder what could be done to fill all that space. Yes, I like its measurements. I like yours better. And I still donít know your response to my caresses upon your naked belly, your slender waist. I like to think about it. That, and more."
But we were together now, on an April Foolsí honeymoon in Portugal.
The first thing you noticed was my poor wardrobe: I had no elegant clothes, not even a decent coat or jacket. I thought my new faded blue corduroy jacket was becoming to me. It was soft and cool and comfortable; easy to wear, as were my new jeans.
You bought me a red parka, which I still called an Ďanorakí, and a brown and yellow skirt.
We had sex, and it was good, living up to all our expectations. Our bodies seemed a perfect fit for one another.
And then suddenly you remembered. On our third day together in Sintra, you remembered Graduation Day. It would soon be your sonís graduation from university in South Africa. The most important day of his life, you said. You had no alternative but to leave me there on my own in Portugal, and fly off for ten days or so.
What? I could not understand. I had never heard of "Graduation Day". It meant nothing to me. How could you leave me alone in Sintra for ten days when we had only just met? Later, once in North America, I learned about all these strange customs: Thanksgiving Day, Halloween, Remembrance Day and Graduation Day in all its stages from elementary school to high school, college and, of course, the most important ceremony of all, upon receiving a University Degree. How could I have been ignorant of such things?
Grudgingly, you abandoned the idea of a trip to Joíburg and we rented a car and explored Portugal, including the pulp mill you had worked for three years in the 60s, the hotels where you had stayed with your first wife and the house where you lived with her during your stay. Memories. Your memories, not mine. Did you feel guilty about her? No, for you wrote to me:
"Donít feel guilty. Never feel guilty. No one has the capacity to live with guilt for long. Something has to give. I tried to justify my wifeís reason for leaving. That produced guilt. Itís nonsense and doesnít work for long. No use feeling guilty about anything. The pasture has dried, is used up and has no more to offer. Thatís what she must have thought. Ironically, she was right. So right."
It rained. It was cold and windy. The seafood was expensive and not all first-class. It was April in Portugal.
You booked our return flight to Vancouver.
On the flight, I spilt a few drops of wine from my glass. Some fell on your pants. You were not amused. You were visibly angry and I felt clumsy and inadequate. Something was very wrong.
So began the years my life with you in Canada.
Vancouver is a beautiful city. I could never even imagined a place quite like it: the surrounding snow-capped mountains, the inlets, the bridges, Stanley Park, the trees and flowers that are everywhere. Shaded avenues, tall glass buildings, luxury stores on Robson Street, Chinatown; all was new to me and I was impressed. It was so different from any city in southern Spain. So clean and well organized, or at least so it seemed to me. I had no knowledge of the endless killings between drug-dealers, the gang warfare or the marijuana Ďgrow opsí installed in rented suites. You only showed me the best side of the city, and rightly so. What visiting tourist wants to be disconcerted by the rest?
We drove slowly back to that dismal little town in north-western B.C.
You said, ĎI think you will probably like it there. Small and less intimidating for you.'
And, yes, I was already beginning to feel intimidated.
Was it the huge scale of the landscape? The enormous tracts of dark forests of conifers? The endless chain of lakes, some dark and forbidding, surrounded by an impenetrable growth of trees; others, like Lac la Hache, sunny, open and more friendly. From time to time, we drove through a town or "community", mostly small, but all with their own mall and McDonaldsí Golden Arches were always to be seen. We stopped at restaurants and cafťs where the waitresses, no longer called that, of course, were all slim, young and beautiful. Ultra friendly and polite. Have a good day! No one raised their voice while eating, and, to me, the food was outlandish: breakfast of hash browns, eggs, bacon, sausages, decorated with a thin slice of imported orange. I suppose it made the dish look more colourful if nothing else. And the coffee! Endless mugs of a tasteless, dark brown liquid, poured from glass containers that had been standing on a warming plate for hours. Undrinkable. But no one ever complained. It is just not socially acceptable to do so. Canadians drink huge quantities of coffee and they seem to love it the way it is.
ĎTalk to me,í you said.
In Vancouver, at your brotherís house, you wanted to show me off, like a prized possession. I was meant to scintillate, to be a mistress of the art of small talk, but I couldnít and I wasnít. To me, socially acceptable small talk means exactly that; worthless, insincere and insignificant talk.
So I shut up. And caressed your most private parts instead. I ran my hand up your close-fitting, well-pressed pants, unzipped them and felt your silk-skinned penis through that fancy striped underwear.
You enjoyed that more than my conversation.
I became bored by the endless vista of leaden skies, dark water and darker conifers. I fell asleep until we had followed the great river right to the sea.
Hayestown at last!
The ground floor apartment was luxurious to my eyes, although later I discovered that everyone you knew lived in similar places. I was surprised to see that all the houses were built mainly of wood, plastic and pink fibreglass insulation. Two-by-fours and drywall became part of my vocabulary. The sloping roofs were covered with tarred shingles, or in some cases, with more expensive cedar shakes. All were rather unsuitable for such a wet climate, because in no time they became covered with moss and white, fossil-like incrustations. Inside our apartment all the floors were fully carpeted, the kitchen was spacious and the refrigerator huge. It had to be: despite living in walking distance to to the downtown shopping centre, we only bought groceries once a week. Fish and meat were stacked into the large freezer compartment; fruit and vegetables were stored in the fridge. Now I know that the fridge was not really the largest available, and that most other people had fridges and deep-freezers. Not that it made much difference whether the food was frozen or stored for days: it was always tasteless anyway. Almost everything came pre-wrapped in "styrofoam" trays and was already many days old before reaching us in far away Hayestown.
The master bedroom was large, too. It had an "ensuite" bathroom and a walk-in closet. At last I learned the difference between a closet and a wardrobe. You really could walk into that closet. It was as big as some European bedrooms. You had lots of clothes; I donít know how many shirts and jackets, not that many "pants" (what I knew as pants were described as "underwear", and no one ever mentioned trousers). Then there were your shoes. Brazilian handmade ones, white sneakers, black dress shoes, casual shoes, sandals and more. I had just two pairs of shoes to my name, and two pairs of blue jeans.
I had a brown winter dress I had picked up in a sale before leaving Spain and the skirt you bought me in Portugal. A couple of shirts, two pullovers, underwear; that was all I had to fill the closet and the chest of nine drawers that stood against the wall opposite the brass bed. I didnít even have a suitcase; just a large nylon travelling bag. I had arrived in Canada with a bare minimum of possessions and now I felt ashamed. I had no "robe" to wear after taking my first shower in the luxurious bathroom, and you provided me with one made of soft pink towelling. 'I knew youíd look good in this,' you said, as you watched me emerge from the tub. And then you produced some silky blue pyjamas for me to wear with the robe. I didnít immediately realize that these clothes belonged to Eve.
They seemed to be brand new.
Down a flight of stairs was the basement: large and semi-finished. There I could use the washer and dryer to do the laundry, mostly your many shirts and the jeans you wore to work. What else was in that basement? Crates. There were large wooden ones and two or three rather attractive cedar chests, a metal trunk, a cylindrical metal container, and several suitcases. All these had arrived from Africa and contained everything you and Eve had collected over the years. There was a wicker picnic basket, too. I opened it to find it was full of slides; your previous life recorded on cellulose for posterity. It seemed impossible that so much stuff could ever fit into any house, let alone be used. The metal cylinder was filled with tableware, ugly gold-rimmed porcelain plates, a whole dinner service, dozens of mugs, and glasses for every kind of alcoholic beverage. One of the cedar chests was packed tight with tablecloths and napkins, while another contained photographic equipment and a rifle with two barrels. There were baseball gloves and ice skates, framed pictures and innumerable vases, candleholders, ashtrays and other knick-knacks; enough to fill the shelves of one of those typically Canadian so-called "antique" stores selling "collectibles". What a lot of junk one manages to gather over the years! And for what purpose? Does it make us re-live moments of pleasure in the past? Or does it lie forever forgotten in basements and attics until we die and our descendents have to sort through it all again, probably storing much of it in their own basements and attics for yet another generation to find?
The back of the house looked out onto the bush and Mount Charles. In those days Mount Charles was still used for occasional skiing and there was a gondola that took people up and down. The hill, for it was not really a mountain, was densely covered with conifers excepting the ski run, and there was rarely enough snow to make it worthwhile. Besides which, it was always raining.
I was alone most of the time. Because you worked shifts, could not keep regular hours and eat at normal times. The "graveyard" shift was perhaps the worst, and often you would not return home until well after 9 a.m. and sleep most of the day. The "afternoon" shift was not much better, and you would come home after midnight, tired out but unable to sleep before "winding down". So we would play chess until about 2 a.m. and of course, I would almost always lose the game. Our games took place in the kitchen, on the glass-topped cane table of which you were so fond. You had even sent me a photo of it when I was still in Spain. Then we went to bed and you would start to kick me involuntarily in your sleep. I would massage your feet and then lie very still, right at the edge of the bed, so as not to disturb you. Even in those early days, you wanted no close body contact while you slept. You wanted space and often got up and moved to the other bedroom, the one with a single bed, because you did not need me beside you once we had done with the love-making which you called "screwing". I could not understand that and it saddened me. Slowly, I was slipping into a depression.
I sat at that round, glass-topped cane table by the kitchen window and wrote in my notebook:
"The day slips away in gentle monotony as the wisps of mist, unkissed by the sun, whirl and swirl, unfurling over the verdant spruce outlined against an impenetrable sky whence the rain falls unrelentingly to the grass below. There, one lone robin pecks and picks at tiny specks, oblivious to all but slugs and worms and crumbs of bread. And above, one lonely witness gazes through a pane of glass and watches her watch devour each minute of the day till dusk falls and she sees no more than the ominous mass of darkening forest merging into the black mountain, and hears only the ever-falling raindrops as yet another day passes into the past."
I wished I had a cat or a dog for company.
Once I was a potter and it was my life. Now I am nothing, not even a wife.
It was not all bad. Sometimes we laughed together and had fun, but now I realize that it was mostly sex-related fun. Although we appeared to have many things in common, there was no real verbal communication between us, despite the fact that we had been so able to communicate in the past by the written word, short wave radio or even the telephone.
We still used the radio and you would sit in your "radio shack" for hours upon end, talking to stations all over the world. From time to time, I, too, contacted old friends in France and England, and sometimes even Spain, but most of the time I just sat on the floor at your feet and listened to the endless crackling and garbled words coming from the old Yaesu.
You cooked for both of us. I was ashamed of my Mediterranean style cuisine and you really enjoyed preparing exotic dishes.
I dusted, I vacuumed, I ironed your shirts and pressed your pants, but I did none of these chores to your liking. Shirt collars had to be starched. Sheets had to be ironed, not just folded and put away. Blue jeans for work had to be pressed, despite the fact that they were worn and torn with chemical stains and burns all over them.
The fridge had to be kept immaculate with everything inside lined up neatly by size.
The oven had to be permanently clean and grease free.
I did not mind doing all this, for I was still too much in love, and willing to do anything to please you.
But you were never really satisfied.
We settled into some kind of routine. We had occasional visits from your friends. One of them, an attractive widow of Filipino origin, came round frequently and never stopped talking. She was friendly and invited me to go swimming with her at the local Community Centre pool. You suddenly produced a navy and white one-piece bathing suit for me to wear. It was a perfect fit and suited me well. I packed a towel into a duffle bag and set of with Rosario to the pool.
It was like a hospital. White-tiled walls. Everything was so hygienic and uninviting. Voices echoing. No chairs to lounge in, no bar, no flowers, no sun, no fun. Just the huge pool, divided into several lanes and at a higher level, the torture chamber. This was entirely devoted to acquiring a more beautiful, healthier body. Weight lifting machines, rowing machines and other strange contraptions I would never dream of using.
I swam twenty five lengths of the pool while Rosario lifted her weights and never went there again.
Rosario invited us over to her house for dinner. It was a beautiful modern house in a new development overlooking the harbour from quite a height. As is the Canadian custom, all the guests removed their shoes as soon as they entered the hall. Some had brought soft slippers to wear inside, but most wondered around in stockinged feet, looking somewhat odd, shoeless in their fancy clothes. Rosario showed me round the house. Everything was immaculate, "spic and span", you would say. How I grew to hate that expression! Rosario opened one of the closets and inside were rows upon row of shoes. Shoes of every kind: maybe fifty pairs or more. Like Imelda Marcos, I thought. But since one had to remove shoes before entering a house, and most of Rosarioís shoes were spiky-heeled indoor shoes, unsuitable for the permanently wet streets of Hayestown, when could she show them off, except by opening her closet to visitors?
There was a long table in the dining room, beautifully adorned with large bowls of different salads, sauces, rye bread, crisp bread, sliced kiwi fruit, canapťs, cucumber sandwiches and even red and white wine as well as orange juice.
We ate and talked until the men got up and wandered off on their own. The women remained seated and changed the subject of conversation. They talked about exercise, aerobics and hormone replacement therapy. I was the only woman present who was not on some kind of hormone treatment for menopause or pre-menopause. Most of them were far younger than I; even Rosario was ten years my junior, but all claimed that without their "Premarin", they would never get through the tribulations of menopause.
I wonder what the men were talking about.
We still enjoyed our sex life to the full. That was satisfaction enough, it seemed. I let you leave the big brass bed after we had "screwed" and would cry myself to sleep while you snored peacefully in the single bed next door. I longed for the warmth and contact after the act; arms around me or the mere touch of a warm back against my own. You said ĎOnce you are asleep, what do you care if you are alone or not? Itís more comfortable this way,í but it was hard for me to accept this reasoning.
As I read what I have written, I wonder why on earth I ever thought our relationship could work, but in a way it did. Truly, love is blind and that tired old clichť says it all. I felt guilty: after all, I had abandoned my whole family, not just my schizophrenic husband. I had sold all my possessions including the tools of my trade, my kilns and my potterís wheel and my yearís supply of clay and chemicals. It was my fault: you had suggested that I just take time out; get to know first on neutral territory before taking the final step of leaving everyone and everything I held dear behind me. And yet, we were so sure of our love for each other. How could reality be different to what we had imagined over so many months? Were not the letters and the telephone conversations true spontaneous expressions of our deepest feelings and desires? Did we spend all our energy and live out our fantasy on paper, leaving little for the real thing?
One morning after you had left for work, true depression finally hit me. I felt quite empty, unable to feel anything. If I got up and walked around the house, it was as though I walked through a mist, unable to see anything with clarity. I no longer wanted to do anything at all. I no longer wanted to exist.
At last, I cried out to you for help.
You took me to visit a lady doctor, who prescribed anti-depressants. I donít know what those tiny pills contained, but they made me feel even worse. I stopped taking them.
I had been living with you in Hayestown for just three months. You told me it would be best if I returned to Spain. After all, I had the return half of my Air Canada ticket and would have to leave eventually because of immigration requirements. I was scared of seeing my family again or visiting my almost empty house. There were no more chickens in the run, no more ducks looking for scorpions under the stones, no more gas kiln outside my workshop, no wheel spinning inside. Everything had gone except the memories. But I said I would go back, and you began to be more kind to me. The depression was lifting and although I still felt empty, I no longer wished for death and oblivion. This was not a definite separation and you would still keep in touch and help me as much as you could. You really cared about me, you said.
It was at this point that I sat down at the typewriter and wrote two novellas about Spain. One was a tragedy while the longer of the two was more of a comedy. Writing them kept my mind off other things. You enjoyed them both and said I was a talented writer.
We bought a three-piece set of suitcases at Zellers, the local department store. Cheap grey plastic, but far more suitable for travelling than my black nylon hold-all.. I even had a few more clothes with which to fill them.
Secretly, I continued writing, but this time there was no novella, no short story. I wrote to you instead, and hid the letter in the folder that contained my manuscripts. Should you ever think to pull them out and read them again, you would find it. It was June 18, 1989 and I wrote:
"I donít think I shall ever truly understand what happened to our relationship, where I really went wrong or why. I sensed right from that first day in Sintra that all was not well, but on the other hand that was because you more or less told me so. Was it really such an awful thing for your having me fling myself into your arms on that first meeting? What else could I do after all that build-up? Do you really remember what you wrote in all those letters? What you repeatedly told me over the telephone? I sometimes wonder what on earth you wrote in your yellow diary. Did you write that for me, too?
Yes, I suppose that now I really have to got myself into a state of more or less permanent depression and I have no idea when or how or if I shall ever recover from it, and I do sometimes feel suicidal, only something always holds me back. Probably Iím just a coward because there is no return from that. Neither am I like my father in that way, always calculating his suicide attempts so that he knew he would be rescued in time. That way he COULD see the effect he had on those he was "leaving behind". If I did it, I really would make sure I succeeded and I most certainly wouldnít do it here in Rupert. So, donít worry about that. I wonder whether youíll ever read this. Maybe not, because I donít really think youíll ever bother to re-read my manuscripts.
Youíre right, it would be so much easier if I could hate you, or even be absolutely indifferent to you, but I canít. I suppose this could be called an obsession, but is it? I still feel that somewhere underneath, somewhere so hard to find, we have so much in common, so many needs, but there is this terrible difficulty of communication and as for your "nastiness", which, as you say, you canít help, I bring it out in you. And this sex business. I still enjoy it and yet at the same time it is torture. It brings release, yes, but only for hours. I hate the way you refer to it as "screwing" and know that it is all it means to you now, something that to me should only be thought of us as "making love". Screwing is what I used to do with all those nameless men. I despised them. I think that is why I get so desperate and out of breath Ė I try so hard to make love and not just screw.
Why is it that when we were apart, we could tune in to each other and now that we are together, there is more distance between us than ever before?
I did not fall in love with you in order to continue in some set pattern of tortuous relationship with someone I knew could not reciprocate. I never wanted to change you and still donít. Yes, I suppose I am far too demanding, or at least seem that way, but I donít want your soul, just some warmth and affection that I now realize you were incapable of giving me.
Why do you think I sent you my manuscript of "Merry go round"? I wanted you to really know me with all my faults. Perhaps you didnít really read it. There you should have clearly been able to "read me" as you call it; see my background, the environment in which I grew up. Very different from the society in which you moved. I mean, what experience have I ever had with diplomats and aristocratic German Balts? Truly, I was far more of a bohemian than you probably imagined: tattered blue jeans, longhaired youths, idealistic left wing politics; a very different world to the materialistic north American society.
To get back to what happened between us; well, first of all you just managed to scare me and flatten my ego and after a very short time with you, I knew that I just could not ever say anything right or even attempt to take part in any conversation with your friends for fear of saying the wrong thing and there you were, always ready with your critique. How different it all was to what you had imagined previously, do you remember? You were going to "show me off" to people and watch while they listened to my scintillating conversation. I could never have lived up to that, could I? And you never really helped trying to build up my self-esteem; on the contrary, every time I tried to get up, you just beat me down.
You tell me how lonely you used to feel before I came to live here and how lonely you will feel again. And you tell me how the closeness, the togetherness have to share, stifles you. You feel trapped by my presence. Would this be the same with any woman? Why is this so? Is it so silly to think that if in the morning before leaving for work, you would just kiss me good-bye spontaneously? It would make all the difference to my life throughout the day.
There are so many things that we were going to have done together and which we never did. You donít want to do anything, I can feel that; you have sunk into apathy. I hope youíll get out of it when Iím gone. I wish I could have seen you actually create something: carve a piece of wood or assemble a chair or build a hot tub. Perhaps you too should have seen me turn or fire or decorate a pot or paint an icon. I am not so clumsy as you imagine, in fact in many ways I am quite dexterous. If not, how do you think I ever managed to load my kiln? That is one of the most difficult things to do efficiently, you know, but of course you donít know. As for cooking, well, I always managed to feed myself and quite enjoy my own cooking, but here in this house where I donít feel at home, and your being such an efficient cook, I just donít dare try anything.
Self-destruction? Yes, it would seem that way. Yet I wished for just the contrary. I wanted to build a future with you, not destroy the life I was leaving behind. Right up to the last moment, I didnít want to sell my kilns or my wheel or my decorating turntable, but things gathered momentum and pressure built up. Human vultures were almost forcing me to sell that which I wished to keep and lack of money just about finished it all, so I sold things which I should have held on to at any cost. I sold my independence, my capacity to fend for myself and keep myself from charity or starvation. When I do get back to Spain, I know that it will be hell to face the emptiness of my house. Every single thing I ever treasured has gone. Even the trees will most probably have dried up and died. You know, I had reached a point in life where for the first time I had actually managed to accumulate possessions that I had long desired; the red parrot and the radio, the kilns, the paintbrushes and bits of machinery. Why did I feel so sure that we could find happiness together? That, I shall never, never understand. So there must be something wrong with me. It must be self-destruction despite myself.
I think of you now it is nearly seven oí clock and you must have had an exceptionally hard twelve hours in the mill with that "shutting down of everything" business. I can see just how tired you can get and how much you need to unwind when you get home and not have to think of my problems and I realize just how selfish I am being and wish I were not. On the other hand, what DO you want when you get home after work? Solitude? Your typewriter, your radio, conversation with your friends? What is it that I cannot give you? Could Eve give it to you? I wonder. Well, maybe Iíll continue with these few thoughts some other day before I leave. They might help you if you do ever decide to write a book about me."
My departure date was fast approaching and all I could do was write.
"Nine-thirty a.m. A day of mist after a sticky, lonely, sleepless night in a half-empty queen-sized bed. I smoke too much. My mouth has that acrid taste of nicotine and middle age. I have kicked off the soft white blanket and the pink cotton quilt and now lied under the twisted blue sheet. I am sweating and wipe off the damp patch between by breasts on the nearest piece of sheet. I sniff it for some tell tale odour. There is none.
I get up and make myself a thermos flask of strong coffee, really strong, not like that insipid Canadian brew. There are five cigarettes left in the pack and I smoke two of them in a row. Seven years of abstinence and here I am again smoking over twenty a day and hating it. I must stop. Iíll quit next week. Iíll quit this Sunday. Iíve done it before and Iíll do it again. Itís all a question of will power.
Ten fifteen a.m. I put on my puce-coloured cotton jacket and go downstairs: just fourteen carpeted steps to the front door. I must go and buy some cigarettes at the gas station, just a few minutesí walk away. The exercise will do me good.
They sell food and books at the gas station., but I have no money for either. I have nothing left to read.
ĎTwo packs of Players Light, please.í Seven dollars. For that money I could have bought one of those fat paperbacks and read it for the next two days. Now itís all going up in smoke. "Alaska" by James Mitchener. Here I am, only seventy miles from the Alaskan border. I read his "Iberia". Thatís where I come from; thatís where Iím going on Sunday. I should read "Alaska" instead of smoking.
I walk slowly back up the hill from the gas station. It is still misty, but the sun is trying to force its way through the greyness. I can already feel its warmth. I turn into the avenue and follow the sidewalk along the edge of all those green lawns with their neat flower beds full of petunias, marigolds and African violets. Fuchsia and lobelia hang from the porches in baskets. There are rosebushes in bloom, pink, yellow and red. How English all these gardens are. I never saw this voluptuous vegetation in my desert. There is so much water here in the land of the rain forest.
I pass a black dog tied to a shrub in one of the gardens. It has floppy ears, a retrieverís face, long hair and a small white patch on its chest. It is watching me as I walk. Luna, my Luna, where are you now? Do you miss me, my beautiful retriever-cum-setter bitch? You are so far away, half a world away. Are you waiting for me or have you forgotten I ever existed?
Who am I? What am I doing in this god-forsaken town, seventy miles from Alaska? A displaced person? Physically and mentally displaced? Hardly. I came here because I willed it to be so. I willed myself across the Atlantic, chasing an impossible dream. And now I must return to Iberia. I must awake from that dream.
My desert in Iberia is so far away and yet so near. Just a plane flight away and I can be back in the old world, nearly a day ahead in time. I can fly into the future.
I had a house in Iberia; a family and a husband. We lived in the hot dusty desert, the only one in Europe. The sun shone upon us and shrivelled up my skin and my heart. I made pots in my studio. I sat for hours at the wheel and watched the clay rise and fall before me. My hands were hard and calloused. My eyes were tired from staring at the pale yellow heat of the kiln. My husband was always near me, just a room away on the other side of my studio wall. He shuffled around the house, dragging his right foot across the marble floors. I could sense his presence yards away. I could smell his odour. I hated it, but couldnít leave. I was trapped in my own house in the desert, but I had my transceiver. I escaped on the crest of the hertzian wave, transported to another world.
Africa. I was not far from Africa there in my Iberian desert, separated from Morocco by a narrow strip of sea. My first radio contacts were with Senegal. A French naval officer, a lay brother missionary in the bush and an eighteen-year-old French girl going to school in Dakar before returning to France and university. Then I moved south: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Zaire, the R.S.A., Angola, Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland. ĎCQ, CQ, CQ DX. Foxtrot Charlie calling DX and standing by. DX is "distance X " meaning distance unknown. Foxtrot Charlie, my call sign or QRZ in radio language. Operatorís personal name, Francine. Francine from Iberia, calling Africa and standing by. Francine has been standing by for thirty years. Francine has been in the desert for seventeen years. Francine is embodied in the spiky dried-up cactus plant. But under the sharp spines and grey-green wrinkled skin, the sap is rising. There is moisture hidden there. One day that plant will be ready to bloom. And what is more beautiful, or more ephemeral, than the cactus flower in the desert?
One spring morning in March, there was a voice out of Africa; a voice from my past which I willed to become my future and my impossible dream. We talked through the spring and wrote a few lines to one another. Then I wrote more and perhaps revealed myself too much. ĎI once wrote a novel,í I said, ĎThirty years ago I wrote four hundred pages.í
ĎWhat did you do with it?í asked Romeo Alpha, the voice out of Africa.
ĎI burned it when I got married here in Spain. I burned all the memories of youth.í
ĎYou should never destroy what you write. No one should.í
ĎI know. I regret it now. I regret so many things. But Iíll write another one, maybe the same one, only different. Iíll start right now and perhaps youíll read it one day.í
Southern Africa disappeared for the summer. Skip shortened and the hertzian wave carried me to France, the country where I was born. I started to write my second novel and I called it "Merry-go-round".
It was late autumn and I was in the kitchen frying potato chips in a deep, stainless steel pan of oil. My Spanish husband turned on his transceiver. He had been the first to take interest in the radio and had been a licensed ham operator before his stroke. I had caught the bug from him and now we were both eleven-metre band pirates. ĎI donít want to speak through that thing,í I said, when he first forced the mike into my hand. ĎGo on. They are all speaking French and you know I canít do that.í
That is how I got into Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali and Reunion Island.
The hot oil was smoking. I turned down the gas and watched the chips sizzle as they spat out surplus moisture.
Then I heard it again: my voice out of Africa, Romeo Alpha calling DX and standing by. I rushed out of the kitchen and snatched the mike from my husbandís left hand. I was so eager, too eager. Did he notice anything?
ĎFoxtrot Charlie calling Romeo Alpha. Romeo Alpha, please QSY to 27.610 for Foxtrot Charlie!í
QSY means "change frequency". I did more than that. I left my Iberian desert and changed countries. I went to Canada, only to find that four months later I was about to return to Spain.
We drove down to Vancouver in your blue Chevrolet Caprice. It takes a day and a half to travel the thirteen hundred or so kilometres although, as the crow flies, the distance is halved. In order to get onto the road south, one has to drive over six hundred kilometres east. It stopped raining once we were out of Hayestown and by the time we reached Williams Lake in the Cariboo, I had changed into my shorts. We booked into a lakeside motel and as we lay together in the queen-sized bed, I could feel that you were almost willing me not to go back to Spain. All seemed so different when we were together in a more hospitable climate. You took photos of me on the motel lawn, smiling and wearing my white shorts. We were up at dawn the following day and I changed into my jeans, the shorts lying forgotten on a chair.
You took me to the airport and didnít leave until my flight left for Madrid via Lisbon. The last moments were torture as you kissed me for what I thought would be the last time. By the time I boarded the plane, I was in tears.
The plane landed at Lisbon before taking off again for Madrid. As I stared out of the window at the tarmac below, I saw the baggage truck arrive to unload the suitcases that were not going all the way to Spain. I noticed one case that seemed very like mine, but on the other hand, it had been bought at Zellers, which did not deal in exclusive luggage.
My eyes were dry when I reached Madrid. Although I hated leaving you in Canada, I loved being back on Spanish soil. My plane to AlmerŪa was due to leave in an hour, so I hurried to the carousel to pick up the two larger suitcases. I had the third one which was really just a small bag, as cabin baggage along with your old Facit typewriter.
The carousel went round and round: there were no grey Zellersí suitcases to be seen. Finally it was empty. So, I thought, those were my cases that were taken off at Lisbon. I went to the claims department and filled in endless forms. It was almost departure time for my flight to AlmerŪa. I ran, weighed down by the typewriter and the travelling bag. I was getting out of breath and the old Facit seemed to weigh a ton. Then I looked at my watch and realized that I had missed the plane and would have to wait another eight hours for the next one. I phoned my son to tell him not to go to the airport until the evening and then I went and sat in the airport cafeteria, making two cups of coffee last for a couple of hours, but by that time even coffee could not keep me awake so I lay down on one of the wider seats, clutching the typewriter and using the bag as a pillow. I suppose I must have dozed for quite a while, because when I looked at my watch again, there were only three hours left before departure time. I went back to the cafeteria for more coffee.
Finally, over four hours later, the plane landed uneventfully at AlmerŪa. And there I was, alone again, minus my two suitcases, and still holding the old Facit with your name embossed on its case. Not alone for long; my son was there to meet me and take me back to the house where my mother still lived, as bad-tempered as ever, but still pleased to see me. The house looked worse than ever. The ugly old furniture from the seventies crowded the small, dark living-room and the poor quality red marble floor was pockmarked all over where large portions had disintegrated into dust. The windows were dirty; the fridge and range were covered with grease. I was offered a sofa to sleep on in the living-room annex, which opened out onto the patio. At least there was more light there, but it was as hot as hell and the sofa, which opened out into a bed of sorts, was really on its last legs.
At night, I could hardly sleep. I could hear my motherís snores from the adjoining bedroom. She, at least was used to the heat, whilst I, in the four months spent in Canada, had become accustomed to cooler nights. I found myself pacing around the house and drinking water most of the night, and by six a.m. I was ready to get up. I spent the next couple of days cleaning the kitchen, while my mother complained endlessly and told me not to disturb or move anything, especially if it belonged to the landlord. She was convinced he would be furious should he find that one of the horrible framed prints had been removed from the wall, or a broken chair were stored in the patio shed.
It took five days for my suitcases to arrive from Lisbon. They were in a terrible state, covered with oil stains and secured with metal banding, which had eaten through the cheap plastic fabric. However, at least I now had a change of clothes. I opened the larger one carefully, only to find that everything was covered with a sticky brown mess. Chocolate! I had packed a few boxes and bars of chocolate as presents for my family, and after they had melted in the heat, the banding had crushed the boxes to pieces. All my clothes were covered with the gooey brown mess.
I went to NŪjar in my little red Renault 4 and met my youngest son in the house of a friend. He was visibly nervous and embarrassed at my presence. He did not want to be seen in the street with me. He was ashamed of having me for a mother. He had good reasons, of course. I had selfishly left him behind to live with his father and spinster aunt. Although he lacked nothing and was much loved and spoiled, his mother had abandoned him. And now, he no longer wished to see me.
I drove down the dusty track to my house. It was empty. I unlocked the iron-grilled front door and went inside. The living room curtains were drawn, so I could not see very much, but there was a dry crunching sound with each step I took. I drew back the curtains and the sun streamed in. Now I could see the cause of the strange noise: woodlice, both dead and alive. There was a plague of them! I felt I was walking on a bed of rice crispies! It took me three hours or so to sweep them all up and clean the floors. It was obvious that the house could not remain empty, but I could no longer live in that place on my own. There was nothing left for me. No gas kiln stood in the makeshift shed outside my studio. Inside there was no potter's wheel; no clay, no glazes, no shelves; nothing but an unwelcoming empty room.
Outside it was just as bad. There were no more ducks waddling around looking for scorpions and other delicacies. The chicken run was empty and there was no water in the little "balsa" or reservoir, let alone fish. The leaves on the citrus trees were drying up and most of the other fruit trees were already dead from lack of irrigation. A few more months, maybe a year or so, and once again my land would become a real desert with nothing but stones and dust and a few stunted almond trees.
I stood there a while, beside the empty chicken run, and wept silently until I could no longer see the desolation through my tears. Then I locked the front door and the iron grille and drove back to AlmerŪa, not wishing to see my house ever again.