The weather had been improving steadily over the last few days and more and more of us were spending time up on deck. The surf dudes especially were taking the time to expose their manly torsos and be athletic and the shop girls (as we rather sniffily termed them) were suitably impressed. Bermuda shorts and bikinis appeared from somewhere. I got a black pair (shorts, not a bikini) and looked forward to making my entrance somewhen or other, to no doubt breathless admiration and numerous offers (I wish). I’d like to have been up there, being impressive but the only girl I fancied was here with her mum and dad, and in any case I didn’t really feel available. I tried to look at a book on ecology.
What Lou had said to Keith was bothering me, that rather sharp comment about him not knowing what he was talking about. Surely you could have an opinion without having to be an expert. After all, where would democracy be if only people who knew what they were talking about got a say? He’s offended my egalitarian conscience, my anarchist temperament, and, worst of all, he’s insulted my intelligence. On the other hand, even in the realms of art, where individual opinion and personal taste are paramount I’d been neverendingly infuriated by pompous opinionated prats making the most fatuous observations about this work of art or the other, based on totally spurious factoids they’d heard somewhere on the telly. You can like whatever you like but some opinions are certainly more worth listening to than others.
But I digress. I wasn’t keen to challenge him on the science. I guess that’s the appeal of religion – although there are those who know their scripture backwards and have fully mastered all the theological hoopla you could wish for, in religion there is still the unassailable truth of personal conviction that anyone can have and of which any man’s is as good as the next. So there. I look at the pictures.
I see a cut-away diagram of a forest floor – an exquisitely detailed line drawing exposing the roots of what they claim is a kapok tree. It has strange webbed roots standing taller than the tribesman drawn there for scale. (Evidently things are very different here – I was sure kapok came from some sort of goat, but I wouldn’t be surprised to turn the page and find something on the nesting habits of bananas.) As I look closer I see there is a wild menagerie of microscopic organisms there twisting and swelling and probing among the leaf litter. Roots mate with fungi and pale threads envelope every crumb of soil and digest every particle of debris. And over everything, bacteria swarm – swamping the trees, infesting the tapir peeping out from behind the tree, and growing all over that toucan on the branch. I close the book before they engulf me too. What a bizarre idea. Strange books they have here. I hardly dare look again when I see there’s someone else eschewing the frivolity outside. She sits curled up on one of the benches under the windows opposite me. I hadn’t noticed her because of the glare but now someone is standing on the deck obstructing the window and I can see she is looking directly at me. She seems very small, like a child. Her head is bent down and she has her knees drawn up and they are clasped together by her arms.
‘I’m sorry’ I say. ‘I didn’t see you there. Are you ok?’ I see her jerk a little, as if she’s just woken up. I sit forward and try to see her properly. ‘Are you ok?’ I say again softly and edge forward. She has the look of someone who might flee at any moment. I move gently closer, keeping low for some reason, and then move to the side so I can see her properly without the glare from the window. I say something silly about this to explain my movement. She doesn’t react. It occurs to me that I’ve not seen any children on the voyage so far, and there shouldn’t be anybody crazy here. As with physical illness, death apparently takes all that away, leaves you clean, or so I’m told. I wanted to ask Vincent about congenital disabilities, mental and physical – of people who had never known life any other way but I hadn’t got around to it. I edge closer. Her hair is in a ribbon. She wears a white sleeveless top and a short grey skirt. It looks vaguely like a school gym kit. Her feet are bare. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a child here alone. I think about going and finding one of the guides. Maybe they’ll know what to do. I tell her this is what I’m going to do and she suddenly reaches out and grabs my hand ‘Don’t’ she says. ‘I’m ok.’
She lets go of my hand and I sit down across from her on one of the little round wooden chairs that surround the little round wooden tables here in the library. ‘I’ll be ok’ she says and uncurls a little. As she does so I can see she’s not small at all, just very tightly coiled. She looks about sixteen or so; plump but unusually tall, as if she’s just been through a growth spurt (I’ve heard about these things somewhere). She sits up straight, but with her legs bent up in front of her and her arms still clasped around them. I feel like I know her from somewhere.
‘I have to say you don’t look ok’ I say as gently as possible. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘A G&T?’ she says. ‘With a slice of lime.’
‘Er... is that such a good idea?’ I say (a little condescendingly I admit.)
‘I need a drink’ she says firmly. It occurs to me that alcohol doesn’t really work here, not like it does in life so I guess it can’t do her any real harm. I turn to go.
‘Oh don’t worry about it’ she says, grinning as if she’s been testing me to see if I’d actually do it. ‘Come and sit down’ she adds unexpectedly and with a disquieting self-confidence. ‘It’s alright, I won’t bite’ she adds, but I’m not so sure.
I stay standing and look at her suspiciously.
‘Well I’m going to get myself a drink anyway’ I say. ‘Are you going to be here?’
‘Probably’ she says vaguely, looking away.
Ok, whatever, I think and head for the bar.
‘Lots of ice’ I hear her yell after me when I’m out the door.
She’s a scary kid I think on the way, and wonder what has happened to her. Probably there just aren’t that many children dying on any given day. It must be terrifying for them. I hurry back and at first I think she has gone but then I notice her looking at the shelves at the far end. Her skirt is very short indeed. Her thighs are chubby and pale.
‘Here’ I say, ‘G&T, lime slice, lots of ice.’ She turns and smiles, comes over, picks up her drink and resumes her previous position on the bench under the window – her knees drawn up under her chin, drink balanced on them. She peers at me from behind it.
‘I’m sorry if I startled you before’ she says.
‘I didn’t see you come in.’
She shakes her head distractedly, as if getting rid of an unwanted thought.
‘Of course not’ she says, irritably. Then she looks hard at me and sips her glass. She narrows her eyes at me. Actually I think I’m more frightened than she is. I expect her to pounce any moment. ‘Actually, you’ll do’ she says quietly and then I really am worried. I know we can’t hurt each other here, but still...
‘Do you like girls?’ she says suddenly ‘I’m sorry – what’s your name?’
I tell her, but don’t feel invited to ask for hers in return.
‘Ok, Gabriel, you like girls?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Sexually Gabriel. I mean sexually’ she says impatiently ‘God...’
‘Erm, yes. Yes I do, rather than boys, if that’s what you mean.’
‘And do you like pornography Gabriel?’
I don’t like this line of questioning at all but I don’t want to avoid it. I haven’t done anything wrong have I? ‘Some, yes, I suppose...’
‘Would you like to see me naked Gabriel?’ she says, leaning back, displaying an impressive cleavage and giving me a broad, rather disturbing grin, showing her teeth.
‘What? No. Of course not.’
‘Really? You don’t think I’m sexy?’ she says moving forwards, leaning on the table...
‘Well, yes, but...’
‘Don’t lie Gabriel. You want to see my body, don’t you? I saw you look, when I sat back here, you checked to see if you could see up my skirt. Now you’re having to stop yourself looking down my front. Admit it.’
I look at her. I feel it’s time to take control, at least of myself. I lean back and take a few breaths. I still don’t know what to say but I sit back and breathe and watch her. She settles back and watches me back. ‘Admit it’ she says, more quietly. There doesn’t seem to be any point in lying, even if I could. I was looking at her breasts. Who wouldn’t? They are remarkable.
‘Ok, I admit it’ I say. ‘So?’
‘So?’ she says, contemptuously, then ‘So...’ considering what to do next. I watch her think. Then she puts her head in her hands and says something muffled.
‘What?’ I say.
‘You can go’ she shouts at me.
‘You bloody well go’ I say, affronted. ‘I was here first.’ She looks at me, a weary teenage expression on her face. Then she gets up and goes back to the shelves. I try to ignore her looking at the books. I look at my own book but can’t concentrate. The snakes and wild pigs refuse to come alive on the page. I turn to her. She’s obviously pretending to look at the books. I put mine down. What the heck, I think. I was bored anyhow.
‘What’s all this about?’ I say.
‘What?’ she says as if nothing has happened.
‘All this stuff about seeing your body. What’s all that about?’
‘I just wanted to know.’
‘You could have just asked me politely.’
‘Would you have told me?’
She looks at me coolly. It occurs to me that she actually looks more mature than sixteen. Her expression is older. I wonder if this is the old soul thing again but I can’t see how that would work here. Here surely we are all quite aware of what’s happened to us previously. She sits down heavily on the chair next to mine with a book in her hands. She’s uncomfortably close to me, almost touching shoulders. She studies the spine for a long time, then spins the book between her middle fingers, then slaps it down on the table. ‘Tell me about pornography’ she says suddenly, getting up and marching across the room.
‘Why do men like pornography? Why do you like pornography?’
I sit back and think how to approach this. I’ve thought about this. We used to discuss it in the refectory. I feel defensive but I know what my answer is. ‘Well, it’s a bit embarrassing actually...’ I begin.
‘I do know about masturbation, in case you were wondering’ she says and my face does the same involuntary grimace my father’s would have done hearing that word from a child’s mouth.
‘Oh for God’s sake, I’m not a child’ she says. ‘Wank fuck cunt cock. Ok?’
‘How old are you?’ I say innocently.
‘That’s a rude question to ask a lady’ she says, haughtily.
I have to smirk. ‘Whereas saying “cunt” is not rude at all.’
‘What age do you think I am?’
‘Not more than sixteen.’ She looks at me with this very weary and very womanly expression. Then she smiles. ‘How old were you when you died?’ she says.
‘Thirty-five’ I say, bemused.
‘And you look that age now do you?’ And I realise I certainly don’t. ‘Twenty-eight, twenty nine?’ I guess. ‘So how old were you?’
‘Twenty’ she says.
‘No!’ I say, genuinely shocked ‘but... Is everyone? Er...’
‘Yep. I can’t believe you didn’t know this’ she says, clearly very chuffed with herself.
‘Well, I didn’t change much’ I say. ‘I wasn’t that different to look at I suppose. How come you look sixteen?’
‘Why shouldn’t I look sixteen?’ she says and gets up again and stands in front of the shelves, not pretending to look at the books. She’s got a cigarette from somewhere and is trying to light it. Once it’s lit she breathes the smoke out in an affected fifties screen icon sort of a way. Now I know where I’ve seen her before – in the bar with the shop girls, with a lot of make-up on, and some rather more eye-catching outfits. I’d seen her looking at me more than once but pretended not to notice.
Finally she comes over and sits down across from me, her legs crossed demurely. ‘Sixteen was when I was happy’ she says. ‘Was twenty-eight a good year for you?’
‘I suppose it was. Not bad’ I find my glass and take a long drink. ‘They have some excellent brandy here’ I say. We sit quietly for a time, smoke accumulating in the ceiling, a haze lit by the sun streaming in.
‘Tell me’ she says after a while. ‘Did you ever know a woman you truly liked? Honestly? Like a proper friend, nothing sexual, just someone you could talk to, have a laugh with, you know?’
I think about it for a while. ‘In retrospect I’m not sure I had a proper friend at all.’
It’s not the answer she was looking for. ‘That’s sad’ she says, flicking her ash. ‘But I know what you mean.’
‘I slept with a couple of women I’d have preferred to be just friends with, if that’s any help.’
She smiles serenely. ‘But would you?’ she says. ‘Would you have wanted to be “just friends” with them?’
‘I don’t see why not. Sometimes I think I prefer talking to women. I never felt very comfortable with men to be honest.’
She nods, taking this in, as if it’s evidence. Looking away, she sucks hard on her cigarette.
‘Actually’ I resume, ‘now you come to mention it there’s been a couple. Colleen was about as close to being a best friend as I had at college.’
‘And you didn’t ever think...’
‘Oh, at first, certainly – she was a very good looking woman – Irish, like a real colleen if you know what I mean – very white skin and black hair, but then it became apparent she didn’t see me the same way and after that, well we really were friends. Sex would have ruined it.’
She looks at me sceptically and smokes theatrically. She really does seem very adolescent – trying on a look, a pose, a tone of voice.
I say ‘You believe there can’t be true friendship if there are any sexual feelings present at all?’
She considers this and leans back. ‘Not in my experience, no. Sooner or later... it gets messy.’ and then she laughs a little. We sit for a while, and then she goes over and resumes her position on the bench facing me. I notice now she neglects to arrange her skirt to hide whatever’s underneath this time. It’s an obvious challenge. I make it clear I know what she’s doing by shifting sideways so I’m looking away. She laughs a little again. It’s not a happy laugh. It’s the laugh of someone who’s perhaps seen too much and allowed herself to become somewhat cynical, or at least, wants me to think that she has.
‘Don’t you want to know why I was happiest at sixteen?’ she says, taking a drag, and I can already tell it’s not going to be a nice story. ‘It was the year before I let them take photos of me playing with myself. Imagine that – oh well, you probably already have.’
I don’t know what to say. She lights a new fag from the butt of the previous, then watches me sideways for a response. I meet her gaze. She has cool, pale eyes in a wide, freckled face and long fair hair. Have I seen the pictures? On the internet maybe? Could be. She looks down, like she can’t sustain the staring. I look away and look at the dark shelves around us.
‘Do you want to know what happened?’ she says, less stridently now. I’m curious, in, I’m sad to say, a not entirely innocent way, but also she worries me. Again I’m reminded of Vincent’s lost soul. I wonder why she wants to tell me but I decide to listen first and ask questions later.
‘Ok, what happened?’ I say, and her original, more arrogant demeanour returns. She spreads out onto her side, propping her head on her hand, smoking with the other. Her skirt is worryingly short. She has very long but not slender white legs. She smiles at me, a dirty smile, but not inviting.
‘My hairdresser wanted to do some modelling shots of me. Mum was a bit worried but I said don’t worry – we’d been going to him for years. I went up to his studio and he took some photos of my hair, for posters for the shop, and then he said it would be better if I let my top down off my shoulders, which I did...’ She looks at me again, appraising this time, then challenging. ‘You’re already turned on, aren’t you. I can see it in your face. You can see what’s coming.’ I say nothing. ‘But what you don’t know is I was already quite experienced.’ She sits up and leans forward, her strap coming down off her shoulder. She’s doing it on purpose. ‘I wasn’t a virgin. I’d had a couple of the boys at school and an older man when we were on holiday.’
I go to speak and find I have to clear my throat. What a cliché.
‘I (ahem, sorry) never really understood that thing about virgins actually.’
‘No?’ she says with that amused yet humourless smile.
I feel like a dirty old man. I’d wanted to point out that I wasn’t into underage girls but it sounds weak.
‘No. Actually. I preferred a bit more experience...really...’ Why do I feel so nervous? She’s just a kid after all.
She grins and stubs her fag out.
She sees me glance at the ashtray. ‘I suppose this is one good thing about the afterlife’ she says. ‘You can’t die of lung cancer.’ She lights up another. Without the choking effect of smoke in the real world it actually smells quite pleasant. Menthol. She offers me one. I decline.
‘Thing is...’ she continues, ‘having some experience, as I thought I did, just made it worse. I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was in control. The barber did some topless shots that day – he didn’t ask, I offered, and I was quite well developed as you will have noticed’ she jiggles them at me ‘and I thought I was being very adult, very daring, getting out from mummy’s clutches, and when he offered me money for next time, well, I was just up for anything.’ She looks away, toward the window and sighs. ‘In fact, of course all I was doing was being a naughty little girl, as usual, flashing my knickers at daddy’s friends. I thought it was all very sexy, and I liked being naughty. I did the photo shoot – full frontal too, and I did feel sexy. There was a woman there with us and she seemed nice – did my make-up and props and so on. It was all very – er... who was that chap with the young girls in soft focus – big in the seventies? Hamilton somebody?’ I shake my head but I know who she means. I’m waiting for the horrible denouement. I can’t stand the suspense, but instead she goes back to asking me about pornography and what I get out of it. I tell her that firstly it’s just what men do when they haven’t got a girlfriend.
‘No way!’ she says, amused and amazed.
‘But no. I don’t believe you.’
‘When couldn’t you get a “girlfriend”? and by that I’m assuming you mean a shag...’
‘You don’t know the half of it’ I say wearily. ‘I went months, years sometimes.’
‘No way!’ she says again. ‘But what are you? Is there something wrong with you?’
I give her a little rueful laugh. ‘I think you have some funny ideas about men.’
‘I think I know a little more about it than you do buster.’
‘I think you make a lot of assumptions.’
‘And I think you should shut the fuck up.’
‘Sounds like you fell for a lot of bullshit...’
‘Shut – the – fuck – up.’
‘You shut the fuck up.’
She’s seething, pacing. I should leave but I really want to stay. She just wants to beat me – I can see that. She’s angry at me, as representative of all the men who’ve screwed her over no doubt, and she wants to take it out on me. And I’m too intrigued to leave. Plus maybe I want to beat her a little bit too.
She turns to me, apparently having calmed down a little. ‘So it’s alright to look at porn when you’re lonely, huh?’
I shrug but don’t commit myself.
‘So lets just say, in that wacko world where a guy like you can’t just go and get laid when he feels like it, you pull out the magazines and jerk yourself off. Ok?’
I nod, and wait.
‘But if you’re in a relationship? Tell me you had a girlfriend.’
‘I did. I was married.’
‘And you still looked at porn.’
‘Did she know?’
‘What did she say?’
‘She didn’t say anything. We weren’t...Well toward the end...’
‘Ok’ she says, less aggressively. ‘I get it, but otherwise, when it was good did you still look at porn?’
‘Why? What the hell for?’
And it feels like she’s got to the end of a very long preamble. This is the question she wants answered. Why would I choose to look at porn if I had a perfectly good woman, possibly stripped and ready in the next room?
‘Porn’s different’ I say quietly. ‘It’s a different sort of sex. It’s a fantasy.’
There’s a long pause then. I watch her contemplate her nails and her cigarette. Then she looks at me, apparently trying to decide something.
‘I was in the porn business for four years’ she says, also quietly. I suppose I look impressed but try to change my expression to concern.
‘Oh, don’t worry about me. It was ok. Hell, I could have spent four years on the checkouts at ASDA. Talk about exploitation.’ She smiles to herself and looks at her latest cigarette, which has somehow got bent. ‘Filthy habit’ she says to it. ‘I always wanted to give up – cost me a fortune, but I never could.’
I can see her at twenty now, but she looks very world-weary.
‘So, what sort did you go for?’ she asks. ‘Blondes, teens, amateurs... Fisting?’ She’s grinning but it’s not funny.
‘Just the ordinary stuff really’ I say. ‘I liked the lesbian stuff...’
She laughs and nods her head, still looking down. ‘They’re not real lesbians. You do know that.’
‘Well, some of them do a pretty good impression... But anyway I always tried to avoid anything that looked like they weren’t happy with what they were doing.’ I expect her to ask how I could possibly tell whether they were happy or not. ‘And anyone that looked too young. I avoided that...’
She doesn’t challenge me on any of this and instead asks me about my penchant for what she calls ‘girl-on-girl action.’
‘I don’t get it. The man is completely left out’ she says.
‘Maybe I don’t want other blokes near my women’ I joke.
‘You’re jealous? Do you think you’re the only man who looks at those pictures?’
‘Of course not. I was just joking.’
‘Anyway I thought the idea was that you were supposed to identify with the blokes – think you’d like to be them, you know?’
‘What? God no.’ What a disgusting thought. I am nothing like them.
‘So you’re different to other men?’
‘Well... I don’t know. Maybe I just like looking at women having sex but I don’t want to have to look at men.’
She takes a moment to look around and think.
‘I have to ask – did you have to wear all that porn star blonde hair and makeup and implants and stuff?’
‘I didn’t need implants darling. I had the hair and the fingernails for a while though. Mostly I went in for a more “natural” look... I was in Top-Heavy Totty. You may have seen me.’
I shrug once again and smile. It’s all too likely. We sit and look at the windows together for a while, she steadily smoking, me nursing my empty glass. ‘Top up?’ I say. ‘Please’ she says. I go to the bar again.
While I’m there I look about and breathe more freely. She’s pretty intense company but I’d always wanted to talk to someone who had actually been in those pictures – find out what it was actually like for them. There must be millions of them.
‘Cheers’ she says when I give her the glass. I sit down. The light is beginning to change, and the library is getting gloomy. Some people come in, turn the lights on, get out some books and settle at another table. ‘Let’s go somewhere else’ she whispers and we get up and go up on deck. Most people have gone down for dinner. An evening breeze has blown up but it’s still very pleasant. I can smell something new. Something like eucalyptus, something like land. The sky is turning to jade in the west. It’s a beautiful evening. She moves closer but I really don’t want that. I’m not sure why. She feels me flinch. ‘What’s wrong?’ she says.
‘It’s ok. It’s just weird’ I say. She leans around and looks into my face, biting her lower lip, looking into my eyes.
‘Is it because I’m a porn star?’ she says, jokily.
‘I’m sorry’ I say, ‘but I just don’t feel that way about you.’
‘You don’t fancy me?’ She looks bored and hurt at the same time. ‘So... Why have you been talking to me all this time? What’s this all been about?’
‘I just thought it was interesting... you were...interesting.’
She looks me up and down. Disgust or derision moves across her face but it’s not clear if it’s directed at me or herself. ‘Shit’ she says. ‘Typical. I can’t believe it. Sorry, I can’t believe it.’
‘I don’t know, forget it.’
‘No. It’s just all lies isn’t it. I should know by now.’
‘I haven’t lied to you. I don’t think it’s possible here anyway, for some reason...’
‘The truth comes out here. Vincent, my guide said. Apparently lying doesn’t work here. He didn’t say why.’
She looks about, her little pink tulip mouth a perfect ‘o’. She looks like she might cry. She bends over the rails as if she might vomit or howl but nothing comes. Then she turns to me, her mouth still open.
‘But then...’ She looks about again, as if searching for a clue in the darkening sky or the bridge. ‘...they must have been telling the truth...’
I stand silently beside her, waiting to see if she’s ok but trying not to crowd her. I have no idea what just happened. I wait for some sort of explanation but nothing comes.
‘I’m sorry. I have to go’ she says and walks unsteadily away toward the entrance.