I spent the next I-don’t-know-how-long in my bunk, breathing the smell of her body out of my pillow. All I could think was how I could have done things differently – going over and over everything that had happened. Sometimes I thought maybe I’d been too pushy. Then other times I thought I should have been more pushy, less hesitant, more manly. What had she said about a woman above all wanting a man who felt good about himself? I certainly wasn’t that. I went over all the conversations we’d had about sex and women, and I remembered how she’d looked at me sometimes (but didn’t she look at other men that way too?), and offered to come to my cabin and strip off for me (but wasn’t that all in the name of art?) and how later I’d gone to try to find out what was wrong and she’d dismissed me (but hadn’t I just been a silly little boy, again?).
And why would someone like her (a goddess, frankly) want someone like me anyhow, so weedy and awkward and pathetic and how could I have been so stupid to have, even for a moment...? The memory is just too pitiful, not least because I'm filled to a hard, purple bursting point with the image of her extraordinary naked body on my bed. My balls ache with the memory of it.
The pictures are there still. I can’t destroy them. I thought of throwing them in the sea, but I can’t. Instead I fix them (my craftsman brain, still there, in spite of everything, thinking practically) and roll them up and put them away.
I sleep as much as possible, and wake up to a second or two of peace before the memory collapses in on me anew and forces me to go over it all again. Not having to eat or drink or go to the loo means I have no distractions. I don’t seem to have been missed either. I suppose everyone knows by now too. I can’t face them.
But I can’t just stay in here forever. I wait until it’s dark and everyone has settled down for the night and I go up on deck to feel the fresh air on my face. Even then I can’t help fantasising that Lucy will be up there, unhappy, and I will go and talk to her. She’ll tell me that in fact, for all her bravado, she was shy and needed more time, that she wasn’t ready, and can I be patient?
Of course I can.
But there is no one up there.
The next morning Joe comes and knocks on the door and asks if I am ok. I say come in and he stands awkwardly in the door. ‘You heard what happened I suppose’ I say, turning away. I feel ashamed of myself now.
‘Everybody did’ he says, smiling. ‘I wouldn’t take it too seriously if I were you.’ But I do, I think. This was it, I think, my one chance. I really can’t imagine ever meeting a woman like her ever again, in any life or after life. She was it.
‘From what I gather you handled it rather well. I thought you’d be cock-a-hoop.’
I’m confused – what has she said? Maybe she’s playing a game with me? I did ok? Is there hope?
‘Harry is, if anything, even surlier than before,’ he continues, ‘and Jason says Liz is in tears most of the time... well, that’s confidential. So...’
Why’s he talking about Harry? Oh. I get it. I’d forgotten about all that. The memory makes me smile a little. It gives me a moment to come up for air. ‘Has Lucy said anything?’
‘Lucy?’ He looks blankly at me for a moment ‘Oh that tall, dark, well-endowed lass. No, why?’
I flinch at the description.
‘Never mind. Doesn’t matter.’ I turn away again.
‘You fancy her?’ he says with a sly grin. ‘Well who wouldn’t? I’m only about twenty percent straight and I can see it. Have you spoken to her?’
‘A bit’ I say, evasively.
‘Anyway, are you coming along later?’
I think about it and realise I really need to. ‘Yes’ I say. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Time is an odd thing here. There are no clocks. Hours and days just wander about casually. Back in life everybody knew – if you were having a shit time it went on interminably – a good day was over before you knew it. Here I suspect it’s a bit the other way, which is nice, but it’s hard to tell, looking back, how long you’ve been doing anything. You can count elephants to sixty, a hundred-and-twenty, three hundred, but sooner or later you get muddled and don’t know where you’ve got to. I’ve even tried keeping track on paper but I still get lost. Time is absolutely relative here. “Sooner or later” is about as close as you’ll get to describing it. And yet, somehow, I always know when it’s early afternoon or after midnight, or time to go see Joe for example.
He doesn’t know about me and Lucy. That probably means no one knows. He’d know if anyone knew surely? Maybe not. The guides keep themselves quite separate from the rest of us. I’m sure she must have told Damian and Matt. They probably think it’s hysterical. What was I thinking? I look at myself in the mirror on the back of the door. I’m just a stupid child. She’s a woman. It occurs to me that she doesn’t look very old – twenty-two maybe? I don’t know how old she is really. This revives my optimistic ‘I’m actually a virgin and need you to be gentle with me’ fantasy, although it’s not very convincing. She doesn’t seem like a virgin. That’s what I liked about her.
I feel hungry. There’s a small serving hatch near the library so I won’t have to go through the bar. I put on a dressing gown and open the door and Harry is there, just on his way past.
‘I wondered when you’d show your face again’ he says coming too close too quickly. He jams his hand across the door, blocking my way. I look beyond. Several other travellers have stopped to see what will happen. They look concerned, not entertained.
In retrospect I guess a part of me was scared – I felt faint afterwards, but mainly I just felt pissed off. I really couldn’t be bothered with this, and I guess it showed in my face. Even so, I couldn’t ignore the simple fact of his sheer physical size. I knew you couldn’t die here, but I didn’t want to get hurt. I didn’t want to shout for help either, so I just stood there. He grinned at me, too close, too heavy, too nasty. ‘And what are you going to do now, eh?’ he said in my face. I could feel his hot breath on my neck, his eyelids on my cheek. It was revolting. I was horribly aware that I had nothing on under the robe, and that it was falling open. I pushed a little with my body, turning my head away, not really expecting any result. He moved more firmly to block me and push me back but in the process began to lose his balance. He moved his arm a little to steady himself, and I stepped through, over his leg as he heaved himself toward me in an effort to pin me against the doorframe with his body. It didn’t work but as I slipped past he took a swing at me with his free hand.
It was very odd. I felt his hand connect but it was as if my jaw had become marble and his fist was a rubber ball. The force threw him across the passageway onto his back. I was standing there unscathed and he was lying there winded. We all stood around for a while wondering what had just happened. Harry was getting up, swearing under his breath, rearranging his tie. He went to hit me again.
‘You can’t do that here’ said a voice behind me. It was Angie again.
‘Who’s going to fucking stop me?’ he said, furious, spluttering his words, his face red, fit to pop.
‘Nobody’s going to stop you. It’s just not physically possible on the boat. No violence.’
‘Who fucking says?’ he cried as if this is the greatest infringement of his civil liberties imaginable.
She shrugged. ‘Just how it is’ she said blandly. ‘Are you ok Gabriel?’
‘Yes’ I said. ‘I’m fine.’ I didn’t want to gloat but we were all looking much jollier. I went back inside and put some clothes on.
Well it was a welcome diversion anyway, and I had a good half hour of chuckling to myself before my thoughts about Lucy came back to bother me. By then it was time to go and see Joe again.
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