Today we’re out in the air, Ned, Lou, Olly and I. The sun is shining, the sea is a cool glassy green like broken bottles. Tropical birds and something that looks like a bat with a beak are swooping and skimming and diving, bringing up fish and squid in such quantities it’s hard to believe there can be so much down there. Lou tells me there’s probably a predator below too, driving them to the surface but there’s no sign of what it might be.
Once the spectacle has passed we go back to the table where Olly and Ned have the chess board out. We all have margaritas and wear Bermuda shorts and shades. I have to say we all look quite cool.
‘Fun over?’ says Olly, turning to us as we cast a shadow over the board. He looks past me at Lou. There’s something going on between them still – a funny atmosphere, although they’re civil to each other.
‘Quite extraordinary.’ says Lou and sits down opposite. I notice him look at Olly over his glasses trying to catch his eye but Olly either doesn’t notice or ignores him. He’s busy moving his rook anyway.
‘Ooh, are you sure you meant to do that?’ says Ned. Olly shrugs. We sit and watch, and wait. Eventually Ned muses that he (Olly) should have known what was coming. I assume at first he’s talking about the game but Olly says ‘She gave me no choice. I was backed into a corner.’
Lou looks curious but evidently doesn’t feel he can ask, so I do it for him. I want to know too anyway.
‘Who’s this we’re talking about?’ I say.
Ned looks up as if he’d forgotten we were there. ‘One of Olly’s parishioners.’
Olly shakes his head and looks at the board sadly.
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to pry’ says Lou. Olly smiles at him a little and straightens up. He’s got a particularly striking Hawaiian shirt on with blue and red macaws. ‘It’s ok’ he says. ‘One of many naïve blunders into the dreary world of the underprivileged I’m afraid – a tale of sex and drugs and woe.’
‘Is this seat taken?’ says a girl’s voice. We all look up and there’s the girl from the library wearing a particularly flattering white swimsuit. Four pairs of eyes pop out and roll around among the chess pieces.
‘Certainly not, my little meadow saffron’ says Ned, the perfect gentleman ‘It’s all yours’. He stands up and makes room for her. She appears to have been in the water.
‘How come you’re wet?’ I say, unable to handle anything subtler.
‘Oh, didn’t you know? There’s a net thing they’ve put out at the back you can lie in and be dragged along. It’s brilliant. Bloody cold though.’ She pulls her towel up around her shoulders and goes brrr.
‘Can I get you something from the bar miss?’ says Ned, suddenly suave and charming.
‘If you’re going’ she says, eager and breathless. ‘Can I have a hot chocolate? And some chips and mayo?’
‘Absolutely, anything you like my dear. Anyone else? No, excellent, fine.’ And he’s off. The girl glances up at me, her smile unreadable. Lou and Olly try to look relaxed.
‘Aren’t you going to introduce me?’ she says.
‘You never told me your name.’
‘Oops, sorry. My bad. I’m Nicola... Nicky’ and she holds her hand out to shake and we all say ‘Hello Nicky’ or words to that effect. Ned appears laden with food and drinks soon after. ‘So you’ve met’ he says, significantly.
‘In the library the other day’ she says, letting the towel fall to her hips ‘He was very sweet. I wasn’t having a very good day.’ She looks at me intently. I guess she doesn’t want me to elaborate.
‘Actually, could you...’ and she mouths to me that she needs a word, somewhere else, more private and then stands up clumsily, knocking one of the drinks all over the board and the food. ‘Oh God I’m sorry’ she says, flustered and panicky, flapping her hands. All the men go to help and calm her down and she apologises profusely. ‘Sorry sorry sorry. Oh I’m so sorry. I’m so clumsy’, playing the silly bint. I’m watching her, wondering what she’s up to.
Eventually she extricates herself, comes over and grabs my arm and guides me conspiratorially toward the rails.
‘You haven’t told anyone have you?’ she says.
‘Told anyone what?’ I say, joking, because of course it’s obvious. How could I forget? She doesn’t think it’s funny. ‘You know’ she says under her breath and punches me, quite hard, in the ribs. ‘The porn thing. You haven’t said anything, to anyone, have you?’
‘Really? Oh. Ok, I believe you. Now you mustn’t. Promise?’
‘Ok’ I say but she doesn’t look convinced. Her wet swimsuit top is almost completely transparent at this range. I can see her nipples quite clearly. It’s impossible to concentrate.
‘Ok. We can talk about it later.’ She heads back to the table. I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask to talk about it at all but I’m intrigued none the less. Olly looks over her shoulder at me with raised eyebrows and a comical smile. Ned is concentrating on his chessmen, wiping them with a cloth. Lou is looking strangely at Olly. I watch her slip through to her seat again, her plump bottom wobbling nicely. I grin at Olly.
‘Where were we?’ says Ned eventually when we’re all settled again.
‘Sex, drugs and woe’ says Lou sideways in his best theatrical voice and goes back to looking at the sea. Olly looks embarrassedly at Nicky but she looks even perkier than before if that’s possible. ‘What have I missed?’ she says breathlessly.
‘Oh, there was a misunderstanding about some heroine. You don’t want to know’ says Olly, wearily.
‘You can tell me’ she says, as if confiding in her will be good for him. He looks around at us a little despairingly. Ned nods. I wait. Now I want to know too.
‘A member of my flock, for want of a better word...’
‘Baah!’ bleats Ned quietly. Nicky punches him playfully in the leg. She seems to like punching people.
‘...decided to go on the game to help finance her son’s drug habit.’
‘Oh I’ve seen that’ says Nicky, eagerly. ‘A friend of mine did that. Except it was for her boyfriend... Anyway, carry on. Sorry.’ Olly glares at her. Lou evidently thinks it’s funny. Ned has his head down.
Olly continues. ‘She got a tip-off that he was going to get busted and she asked me to hang on to some stuff for him – didn’t want it lying around the house and I stupidly said yes.’
Nicky looks at him disbelievingly. ‘Weren’t you a vicar or something?’ she says.
‘Or something’ he says.
‘She was trying to wean him off. I truly believe she was working hard to get him off the stuff. Otherwise I wouldn’t have.’
‘What happened?’ asks Ned.
‘Well, of course they found some in the boy’s bedroom anyway...’
‘Probably planted’ says Ned.
‘Possibly. I wouldn’t know...’ Olly looks very fed up of the whole sad story. Lou has turned around now and looks as if he wants to help but doesn’t know what to do.
‘I had a friend got done for two kilos of crack’ says Nicky. ‘Mind you he was a shit-head’ she adds. Olly looks at her sympathetically, not, I suspect because of what she’s been through but because she seems so dim. She assumes he feels her pain though and grabs his hand.
‘Anyway’ says Olly, leaning back, getting his hand back as politely as he can. ‘He dobbed me in as they say.’
‘No!’ says Nicky, outraged. ‘Bastards. You were only trying to help.’
‘I know, but I suppose he wasn’t thinking straight. I don’t blame him. The police weren’t so forgiving of course, although they knew the situation.’
‘Was that how you came to be er... between jobs?’ asks Ned.
‘It didn’t help. The boy ended up in care. He was only thirteen poor kid.’
‘What about methadone? Surely that’s the normal...’ says Ned. Nicky, I notice, shakes her head.
‘That was the thing. He’d have been straight into care if the authorities had known about it. It was the last straw. She was a lovely girl too, his mother, only twenty-eight. She looked like she might have been his sister. She didn’t have anybody else, and they put an exclusion order on me so I couldn’t go round and check on her.’
Olly looks round at him. ‘I don’t know Lou’ he says unhappily. ‘I got transferred. I never saw her or the lad again. I kept an eye on the papers and there was nothing in there, but...’
‘You poor thing’ says Nicky with feeling.
‘Oh don’t worry about me. I survived, well... unless you count...’ and he smiles and indicates our situation. We all take the opportunity to laugh a little. Nicky doesn’t look so jolly. ‘I’m going in to get dressed’ she says suddenly. ‘See you later?’ she adds, ostensibly to all of us, but more to me (and possibly Ned) in particular. Everyone notices and after she’s gone I can tell they’re all wondering how to broach the subject tactfully. I put the moment off by going to get the drinks in and see what’s on the menu this evening. In the bar I notice she’s been distracted by the surf dudes and is sitting, still in her costume, smoking, as they brazenly invade her personal space. She doesn’t notice me.
‘So... you and Nicky’ says Ned later on, after the others have turned in. ‘She’s quite a peach.’
‘Or fruit of your choice’ I say. He smiles and nods and takes a drag on his cigarillo. It’s very dark now. Ned and I are rather sleepily watching the sea move in the night. Tiny birds like little grey robins skitter across the surface.
‘You don’t think she’s worth a shot then?’ he says ‘She’s very erm...’ He mimes breasts with his hands.
‘Not the word I was looking for exactly, but pertinent, certainly.’
‘It’s not just me. She flirts with everyone. She flirted with you for God’s sake.’
‘Oh I know. I was very flattered but I think she sees me more as a father figure.’
‘I don’t know that that would bother her. Anyway, I’m nearly old enough to be her father. Did you know people here aren’t necessarily the age they look?’
‘You mean you didn’t? Ha! That’s funny. I suppose you died young so you don’t look very different, is that it?’
‘Not very, although it was obvious when I looked properly. I just thought I’d looked well since I arrived here.’
Ned nods and smiles. ‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours’ he says.
‘But you have to guess first.’
‘Ah, a catch.’
I look at him. He looks to be in his mid to late forties, but well preserved. His manner though has always seemed somehow old-fashioned now I come to think of it. ‘Forty-five’ I say.
‘You flatter me. Higher.’
‘Bloody hell’ I say again. ‘What did you die of?’
‘Ah, that shall remain a very dim and dark secret. Anyway, you were, let me see... You had just finished your degree, no, tell a lie, a Phd?’ I shake my head ‘No?’
‘It was a post grad project though, you’re on the right track.’
‘So that wouldn’t make you more than about twenty-seven. But ah... you said you were old enough to be her father...’
‘Nearly, I said.’
‘And she looks about seventeen or so? Am I right? So you must be at least in your mid thirties so you must have been a mature student. That changes everything, and of course I don’t know how old she was when she died, although she does seem very young. Could you give me a clue?’
‘She doesn’t appear much younger than she is.’
‘Ah. That helps a little. And you said you don’t appear much younger than you did either. Oh I’m confused. Did you mean you are old enough to be her father as she looks now or as she was when she died, or indeed as you look now or as you were when you died, if you follow?’
‘I’m not actually sure now you mention it. Both, I suppose, either way.’
‘Hmm. I think she is not more than twenty. You are not more than thirty something, but you don’t seem to be in your late thirties. You actually seem very much the way you look.’
‘It’s being a student kept me young.’
‘I give in. Tell me.’
‘I was thirty five.’
‘And she claims to have been twenty. The thing is, I still feel thirty-five, and she looks and acts sixteen. It’s all a bit creepy.’
‘I know what you mean. I have to say she unnerves me too. What do you know about her?’
‘Sworn to secrecy. But I can tell you it’s pretty dark.’
He sits back and contemplates the sky and I do likewise. It really is very peaceful with just the sound of the waves around us, and the occasional bird noise. Sometimes there are other strange, almost sub-sonic moans and booms. They come through the hull at night, and sound like something huge is happening out there, or maybe down there, beyond our view. I’ve learned not to let it disturb me but it makes me wonder sometimes. Maybe you can actually hear God working here, or maybe not God. Maybe some other powerful being is on the move out there – some other God or giant devil. I might ask Lou about it in the morning – see if he has any theories.
‘It’s tempting though, you have to admit’ says Ned after a long time. I was almost nodding off.
‘Nicky. She’s a good-looking girl. But you’re right. It would be all wrong.’
‘Also she’s mad.’
‘She’s young, insecure, demanding, and from what you tell me, damaged. I like her.’
‘Hmm’ is all I can say. I don’t know if I like her exactly, but she’s beginning to affect me. I feel jealous when I see her with the other men, and then I feel like I’m being unfaithful to Sophie. Was six weeks enough to really tell if I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her or was it just infatuation? I felt like I’d known her for ever. Maybe we were together before, in a previous life. Who knows? Anyway she’s not here.
I like Nicky more than I did anyway. I can admit that much. I like Shamim more though.
Sophie, Nicky and Shamim. Bloody hell. What is wrong with me?
‘Hello boys!’ comes the uninhibited and now familiar voice of Nicky behind us. I look at Ned who appears to have dropped off in his lounger. I look around at her. She has on a long clingy strapless red dress, with a black lacy shawl over her shoulders. I try not to focus too blatantly on her décolletage but it’s just mesmerising. Lou told me I shouldn’t feel bad about it – it’s called sexual selection apparently. Breasts don’t need to be that size just to feed infants he said. (‘Look at the miserable droopy things other apes get by with.’) No, he said, they’re like that to attract a mate – as subtle as a peacock’s tail or a baboon’s bottom. The only real mystery is why human females, alone among animals as far as he can tell, are as preoccupied with their appearance as the males, or more so.
The evidence stands provocatively before me. She’s got a hibiscus from somewhere and has put it in her hair. She stands there, hand on hip, pouting.
‘Shh’ I say gently and point at Ned.
‘Oops. Sorry’ she says. Her glamour evaporates and there’s that worried, flustered look on her face again, like she’s going to get into terrible trouble. I smile at her and tell her she looks fantastic, to make her relax again.
‘I came to see you anyway’ she whispers and comes and stands there, as if waiting for me to do something.
‘Shall we go for a walk?’ I suggest, but she doesn’t look keen. She looks down at her feet and I see she is on at least four-inch heels. ‘Maybe not’ I say.
‘Come over here’ she says, and leads me, tottering over to a couch for two in the shadows at the prow of the ship. I sit down as she stands and looks at the dark sea ahead, lighting her cigarette. Then she comes and squeezes in beside me. She smells of smoke and booze and sex. It’s not unpleasant. I can’t think of a single thing to say. I think of Sophie. We always had something to talk about. I want to apologise to her in advance, just in case. It’s going to be a very long time before I see her again – an unimaginably long time. Thirty-five years or more. Sorry babe.
‘So, do you like my dress?’ she says eventually, turning to me. I take the opportunity to look at it very closely. It seems to be made of something shiny and metallic like the stuff tinsel is made of but soft and silky. It accentuates every curve of her.
‘It’s wonderful’ I say, truthfully. ‘Where did you get it?’
‘Oh they were here when I arrived. I have a whole wardrobe full of them. Did you like the swimming costume?’
‘Er, yes. It’s very, er...eye-catching.’
She smiles broadly at me. ‘You mean see-through. I know, but I think, what the heck. If you’ve got it... You should come for a swim tomorrow. I’ll introduce you to Don and the others.’
‘Ok’ I say. Actually I’d wanted to do that today – when she mentioned it but it seemed too late then. The chance of actually getting off the boat and into the water sounds too good to miss.
‘Then you can see me in my bikini’ she says. ‘It’s magenta.’
‘Ah’ I say.
She prattles on for a bit longer about clothes and make-up and the men she’s met here. I nod and pretend to be interested. My arousal is rapidly deflating. I decide I’m going to ask about the other day. I’m going to pass out from boredom if I don’t.
‘What was all that about, the other day in the library?’
She springs up and goes to the rail. I wait for a possibly dramatic reaction.
‘Which part?’ she says, quietly, to the sea.
‘Any of it. Why did you say you were last happy when you were sixteen for instance?’
She turns and stares at me. Well this is at least more interesting than her wardrobe.
‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she says at last.
I watch her. I wonder what the best thing to say is. I decide to try a strategy, like Keith said, and see what happens.
‘There is an obvious reason, yes, but it seems a bit of a cliché. I’m not sure I accept it.’
I watch her look at me. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about but she doesn’t want to look stupid. That’s my theory anyway.
‘I don’t care what you think’ she says petulantly.
‘So why did you tell me?’ Good answer.
‘I don’t know’ she shrugs. Another blocking move.
‘Great’ I say, a little dismissively, and turn as if I might leave.
‘I thought you might be able to help’ she says in a small voice, as if close to tears. I turn and raise my eyebrows sardonically but realise there are actual tears there. Great. I’ve never been any good at playing the hard man. I get her to come and sit down and I find her a tissue that seems reasonably fresh. I still don’t want to leave myself open however. All those years with Mar evidently taught me something.
‘Tell me’ I say as forcibly as I feel safe to. She looks about as if not knowing where to start.
‘What do you want to know?’ she says.
‘About whatever you wanted to tell me.’
‘I didn’t do anything really bad.’
‘What was it like?’
She leans forward, elbows on thighs and begins to pull the tissue apart.
‘You think it’s horrible don’t you, even though you use it – the porno.’
‘But... ok, you’re nice to me here, to my face but you think I’m a slut, don’t you.’
I look at her. I think about what I thought when she first told me. ‘Actually I thought it was kind of interesting, but then, you seemed really upset about it, so you worried me a bit too I have to admit.’
We sit together for a while. It’s getting really late. The place is deserted, except, up above there’s a dim smoky light in the windows of the bridge. There’s music from somewhere too – Irish music, coming from one of the cabins below us.
‘It was ok’ she says eventually. ‘We made films too, and I didn’t mind it. Sometimes it was even fun. Can you imagine that?’
‘It’s always the men put me off. They mostly look like jerks to me to be honest. It’s weird to imagine you being... But then, I never wanted to have anything to do with anybody else’s penis.’
‘Maybe you should try it.’
‘Maybe’ I say, unenthusiastically.
‘You don’t know ‘til you’ve tried it, as they say.’
‘I think I’d know by now.’
‘No but I could do you if you like’ she says, like she’s offering me a manicure. ‘I’m sure they could find us a strap-on. They seem to be able to get hold of most things here.’
‘No thanks’ I say, a little breathless. ‘Not today.’
She sits and smokes for a while. Finally she says ‘You know I was kidding about the strap-on don’t you.’
‘I never know with you’ I say.
‘I never really got into anal’ she adds, matter-of-factly, as if we’re discussing board games.
We sit and look at the sea for a bit longer.
‘What was the most adventurous thing you did then, sexually I mean?’ she asks and I tell her about my forays into exhibitionism. I expect her to laugh but she nods approvingly and says ‘Cool.’
I want to know more about the porn industry though. I can’t resist it.
‘So, isn’t it all kind of sexless, really? Kind of repetitive – loads of lubricants and fluffers? I’m sure I’ve heard of fluffers somewhere.’
She laughs a little at that. ‘No, it’s not as sexy as I thought to be honest. I was quite naïve to begin with. Actually you’re right. It’s not really sexy at all.’ She turns and observes me, cigarette waving lazily between her fingers. She climbs up and perches on the rail. I’m afraid she’ll topple backwards into the water but her shoes are kicked off and her bare toes curl around the steel cables. Her toenails are painted cerise. I am afraid for her and I guess it shows in my face. ‘Don’t worry. I’m not going. Not just yet anyway’ and again I see that very sad too-much-too-young expression.
‘You know, I really thought it would be, sexy I mean. I thought I’d just get paid for doing what I like doing anyway. Then I’d just stop when it wasn’t fun any more. I was a total exhibitionist. I loved taking my clothes off, shocking people, so I thought “What the heck.” I could be getting paid for this.
Back then, early on, it was just amateur stuff and it was really quite exciting – honestly, me and some friends doing stuff, messing about, dressing up, taking our clothes off in the woods and playing with ropes and masks and stuff.’
‘Wasn’t that really risky?’
I can’t believe I have to explain this to her ‘Supposing someone found you. Anybody could have been out there.’
She looks down at her feet, watches them for a while. She has the defiant guilty smile of a child who knows she is in trouble but is going to do it anyway. Not looking at me she says ‘My friend Mandy said it’s like hang gliding or bungee jumping or something. You don’t think about what might happen, or not in detail anyway. You just enjoy the rush.’
‘Did you ever get caught?’
She nods ‘They never did anything, just gawped at my tits, made stupid comments... I was never out on my own anyway. I always had friends with me.’
I have nothing to say to that. I’m both hugely turned on and concerned for her safety at the same time.
‘But then, later on...’ she continues, looking up at the sea. ‘Then it was just a job, and the money came in handy, and believe it or not the people were actually ok, most of them. They looked after me. I didn’t have a drug habit or anything, and my mum was tolerable so I could go home and I could choose when I worked. It was ok, as jobs go – not that I ever had any other sort of job. But then... I don’t know... I guess I lost something along the way.’
‘Well I’d guess sex must have lost a lot of its appeal for you, I mean relationships.’
‘True, I went off sex a bit, you know, when I was working a lot, but afterwards I went back to normal. And I was never any good at all that relationship stuff anyway.’
‘Did you have boyfriends at all?’
‘Loads, if you can call them that. You know what? You should be a guide next time. My guide is useless. She just giggles when I talk about this stuff.’
‘I did wonder why you chose to tell me all this.’
‘Does it make you feel special?’
‘No, it makes me feel suspicious. But I don’t mind.’
I look at her appraising me. This cool guy act of mine is beginning to wear thin. Does she notice? I’d prefer being honest but I sense she wouldn’t know how to deal with that.
‘I just had a sense you’d be alright to talk to. I don’t know why.’
‘I see you talk to a lot of the other men here though don’t you?’
‘Have you been watching me?’
She smiles mischievously. ‘Are you jealous?’
I don’t know what to say. I’ve left myself a bit too open. But I can’t lie. Bugger. ‘Yes, ok, I am, a bit. So what?’
She grins broadly. ‘You said you didn’t see me that way.’
‘I know. I guess you’ve grown on me.’
‘Was it the swimwear?’
‘No, actually, it was something about when you were talking with Olly about his drugs bust today, like you cared about what happened to him.’
She looks totally taken aback, turns and sucks on her cigarette. Hah! That did it. Honesty is underrated. The right piece at the right time is unanswerable. I get up and stand beside her, looking out to sea.
‘I mean, you’ve got a gorgeous body and everything, as I’m sure you’ve been told many times, and I’m sure the whole girlish charm thing is very appealing to a lot of men, but up until that point I couldn’t really relate to you, as a human being. I still can’t most of the time, but still...’
She looks down at her cigarette, watching the breeze burn it down.
‘Thank you’ she says. ‘That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.’
We’re like that for a while longer, her sitting, sideways on the rail, her toes gripping on, and me, leaning, chin resting on folded arms beside her, watching the waves.
‘Do you mind me smoking?’ she says.
‘I always thought it made women taste funny, you know, down below.’
Without a word I watch her tread out the cigarette and scuff it into the sea. I don’t think I ever saw her light up another all the time I knew her.
‘I need to sleep’ she says at last and I offer my hand to help her down
‘What did you do with your shoes?’
We pick them up from behind the couch and carry them down below to our cabins. I kiss her on the cheek at her door and carry on along to mine.
All in all I thought I handled it all rather well.