a short story by Tim Lebbon
As they rounded a bend in the road and the whole majesty of Amalfi was laid out before them, Dean knew that it was over. He grabbed Maria's hand and she squeezed back in surprise.
It was their second attempt at loving each other. Dean had the feeling that trying to make it work again would be like buying a new version of a favourite shirt -- the original would always be special, however much the second looked, smelled and felt like the first. They had been travelling for ten hours and each time he glanced sideways at Maria, he knew her less.
The minibus wound its way down the cliff road, the driver tooting at nothing, other horns blaring in response. Mopeds chased each other through the traffic like dogs in heat, their drivers cool in shades and shirtsleeves. Pedestrians took their lives in their hands and walked along the roads, bending sideways and holding in their stomachs to allow for wing mirrors.
"Busy place," Dean said. Maria glanced at him and smiled, but she did not reply. He caught a whiff of her perfume, mixed in with the stale scents of a dozen hours of travelling. Obsession. It gave him a headache.
When they had been on holiday before, the arrival at the resort and the discovery of the hotel was often something of a let-down, an anti-climax propagated by tiredness and dislocation. Today, however, it was not the same. Maria waltzed into the hotel ahead of him, her jaunty step raising a nostalgic desire rather than the real thing. When Dean reached her with their suitcases she was chatting to the woman at reception, laughing, joking, excluding him even more. The woman looked at Dean and smiled sadly, as if she could see through the charade.
"Please," she said, "leave your bags here. They will be brought up to you. We have a lovely room for you, sea view, balcony with a wonderful romantic view of the town and harbour."
Dean smiled at Maria, and she smiled back. "Okay?" he asked.
"Yep. Here at last. At last." She followed the woman.
Their room was big, sparsely furnished, floored with old marble and opening out onto a large balcony. The doors were already clipped open, outside table set for a meal as if the previous residents had only just left. Dean could smell them in the air: a hint of aftershave; the incongruous scent of pine shampoo. He tipped the receptionist and fell onto the bed, burying his face in the pillow, breathing in deeply. Old smells; soap powder; dead dreams.
"Shall we go out, have a look around?" Maria asked.
Dean was tired and jaded and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he wanted to be back home. Hopelessness rumbled in his stomach, tingled his skin.
He nodded. "Sure." He sensed her perfume again. It smelled like someone else had bought it for her, and he knew that they had already failed.
The road took them past the front of the hotel and down to the town square, where it sat facing the ocean; hundreds of people, tourists and locals alike, sat outside cafes and bars doing likewise. Waiters buzzed them like black and white bees, balancing impossibly large trays on unfeasibly splayed fingers.
Dean suggested a beer, but Maria wanted to get away from the tourist areas immediately. He followed her lead, wishing they could be walking side by side instead of in single file. As he was not holding her hand his own ached for something to do, so he lit up a cigarette.
"Thought you were going to give up on this holiday?" Maria said, glancing back at the sound of the match popping alight.
"Thought we were going to be together this holiday," Dean retorted. He tried on a smile to take the edge off his voice, but the damage was already done. Maria shrugged, turned and started towards an arched walkway between two shops.
As they strolled, the streets began to lose themselves in darkened alleyways. Washing overhung the paths like sleeping bats, dripping soapy saliva to the ground. Traffic argued at roundabouts, and the sea purred onto the beach, constantly, relentlessly. Between buildings they could see up to the cliff tops, where ruined churches or Saracen watchtowers commanded wise old views of the sea and town. The whole place oozed history, wallowing in its past; each slab in the path possessed a million untold stories. And it was hot. The sun splashed from whitewashed walls and twisted its way behind Dean's sunglasses.
They saw only locals, as if this were the real Amalfi and the chaos of the square was there only to appease marketing managers at package tour operators. Sometimes the people they passed would nod a curt greeting, other times Dean felt unseen. They walked for twenty minutes without emerging from the warren of alleys and paths. Steps led up and down again, and more than once Dean was certain that they had crossed their own path from a different direction.
It was strange how the wonder of the place touched them individually and distinctly, as if its magic sought to emphasise the bad air between them. Sometimes it was almost physical, an impenetrable barrier forcing them apart like similar magnetic poles. Amalfi had so much to offer; Dean and Maria took their fill of different things.
"I'm hungry," Dean said. "Airline meals don't do much to fill you up. Pizza?"
"If you like." Maria stopped and leant over a fountain, its outlet concealed in the groin of a five hundred year old stone boy. Damp circles had marked her blouse beneath her arms, and a haze of perspiration clung to the fine hairs on her top lip. She used to sweat like that when they were making love.
They turned around, and it seemed natural for Dean to lead the way back. At some point -- he could not really tell when -- the echoes of two sets of footsteps turned into one. When he looked over his shoulder Maria had vanished.
"Mi!" It seemed all right to use his familiar name for her now that she might not hear it. "You hiding?" He walked back up the path, glancing at closed doors. When he looked between buildings he could no longer see the cliffs; now, there was only sky. A flight of worn stairs curved down from higher up and he could hear hesitant footsteps descending, but their owner never arrived.
Street noises appeared from nowhere, and within a few strides he found himself back at the edge of the main square. He glanced back, confused, and then he saw Maria sitting on the steps of the huge cathedral. She stood when he approached and walked back towards their hotel, hardly acknowledging his presence. He was sure that if he were to stop and sit down for a drink, she would walk all the way back to their room without noticing.
"Maria," he called.
She waited for him, running her hands over strings of red chillies hanging outside a shop. When she looked up her eyes were hard and distant.
"Where did you get to?" Dean said. "I was worried."
"You vanished. One second you were there, the next I couldn't find you."
"I was behind you all the time," she sighed, turning and walking away. She had not even tried to hide the fact that she was lying.
By the end of that first afternoon, when they returned to their room to get ready for dinner, they were strangers. Maria went into the bathroom and closed the door to shower and change.
The food was fantastic. Throughout their several years together, Dean and Maria had always put good cuisine at the top of their list of priorities when choosing their holidays. If they wanted a beach, it would have to be near a good restaurant. A hotel, though it may have health suite, rooftop gardens and apartment-sized rooms, was only as good as its chef.
Dean ate without tasting. He was thinking of those few minutes earlier in the day when Maria had been lost to him, trying to analyse his emotions and convince himself that he had been scared, not quietly, selfishly pleased. They had come here to be together, but alone was much more comfortable. Even now Maria's mind was far beyond these four walls. Dean could see it every time he looked at her.
When a waiter trundled over with the sweet trolley Dean was subject to a sudden, weird moment of utter optimism, one of those rare flushes of rapture that strike all too seldom and are as difficult to keep a hold of as a lover's gasp. He smiled, tapped his fingers on the table, glad to be alive and confident that everything was going to turn out all right. He looked at Maria, grinning, and he was about to tell her how lovely she was when she spoke.
"Have you ever come face to face with yourself?" she said. "Ever really seen yourself from someone else's point of view? It's the most humbling thing I can ever imagine."
Dean felt the moment leave him, bleeding away like blood from a stuck pig. "Are we going to really try this week?" he said. "I mean, really? Look at this place, Maria. It's our perfect holiday. It's as if we were drawn here to ... give it one last go. Are we?"
Maria shrugged, stared into her glass of red wine as if trying to define a truth in there. "Maybe some things are more important," she said.
"Where did you go today? Before I found you in the square?"
"I want to go to bed," she said suddenly, and Dean was shocked by her paleness. "Take me to bed." On any other occasion -- weeks, maybe months ago -- this plea would have stirred him in other ways. Now it merely made him afraid.
They went up in the rickety lift and Maria waited for Dean to unlock the door. She leant against the wall in the hallway, fingers splayed against the cold plaster as if reading its history. She did not even undress before flopping onto the bed and stretching her way into a deep sleep.
Dean opened the doors and went out onto the balcony. The thought of going inside and lying next to Maria, perhaps naked, perhaps with love in mind, now seemed alien and foolish. However much he tried to convince himself otherwise, their relationship was still a shadow of its former self, and coming here could have been a big mistake. If there had been some serious misdemeanour it would be simpler, but in reality it was simply a matter of things growing stale. Neither of them wanted to be the one to finally pull the plug.
He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and watched the smoke haze away in the dark, picked up briefly by the lights from the harbour. It was a noisy night in Amalfi, straining scooter motors underlying the aimless car horns that seemed to spring out of nowhere, and unknown conversations were shouted through the dark. He could sense rather than see bats jerking about in the night, dipping and weaving like points of black light thrown from a negative torch. From inside he heard the toilet gurgling its displeasure at someone flushing elsewhere in the hotel. Outside again, a splash as something fell into, or jumped out of the water down below, confident of safety under cover of night.
He stood to go to the loo. The cigarette had burned down and fused itself to his two fingers, but he felt no pain. In the bathroom Maria stood before the full length mirror, naked, a breast in each hand. Her nipples were pink and risen, as if recently pinched.
"Have you ever come face to face with yourself?" she asked, turning to look at him. Seconds later her reflection followed suit. Its eyes were not her eyes. They were eyes painted by a bad artist, unable to follow him around the room, shallow and soulless. "Am I asleep?" the reflection said. "I've pinched, but I don't wake up."
A pain in his fingers pinched Dean and jerked him from sleep, and for a couple of seconds he did not even know which country he was in. He dropped the cigarette butt and stomped it to death, hissing as he felt the blister already rising on his index finger. Shaking, he went in from the balcony and shut the doors, locking out the night. Maria was naked on the bed, covers screwed around her waist. Her nipples were soft and pink.
After running cool water over his fingers Dean stripped and climbed into bed next to Maria. There was no warmth to share with her; not because she was cold, but because he could not imagine cuddling as they once had.
The next day they were booked on a boat trip to Capri; Dean had thought that exploring together may encourage sparks from the dying embers of their love. Now, the most he could hope for was a smile for old times. And he realised, in a moment of shocking clarity, that he really didn't know Maria that well at all. He was unaware of her past, other than what she had chosen to tell him. If she had problems, maybe he had not even discovered them yet. If she had always wanted to come here, and she did not want him to know ... then he never would.
Maria rose late and readied herself as if still half asleep. They had breakfast brought to their room but Dean ate it alone on the balcony. He kept glancing into the room at Maria, watching her move slowly across the marble floor as she searched both suitcases for some elusive item of clothing. She looked up, saw him staring and smiled, a vague twitching of the lips which was still better than he had had all day yesterday.
He went back to his strong coffee, unsettled by the notion that she had not been smiling at him at all, but past him.
They were already late when they left the room. Dean was a constant ten steps ahead on their walk down to the harbour. He glanced at his watch every few seconds, trying to will the minute hand back fifteen minutes to before the time when they were due to leave. Passing through the square they heard the hooting horn of a boat, and a huge catamaran turned gently away from the pier.
"Come on!" he shouted, hurrying towards the boat, knowing already that they had missed it. He slowed and stopped, aware that dozens of people watching him. "Have a good time," he muttered, then turned back to Maria.
She was standing with her back to him, facing into the square. She brushed hair back from her face, her short dress stretching around her hips as she did so. She was a beautiful woman, but now Dean felt only a nebulous anger, and a certainty that she had made them miss the boat on purpose.
"Well," he said as he approached her from behind, "looks like we're stuck here today. You could have just said you didn't want to go."
"I thought it was obvious," Maria said. "Besides, now we can explore the town in detail. We only scratched the surface yesterday."
"Didn't you want to see Capri?"
Maria shrugged. "Maybe. But we're here now. There's so much history here. Can't you feel it? Can't you breath in the old times? I can almost see them... Come on, Deano. We can still make a day of it."
It was the first time she had used her nickname for him since they had left home yesterday morning, and it went some way to quashing his disappointment. But as she walked on ahead of him, heading for a shady corner of the square, he could not help scrutinising how she had said it. The more he replayed it in his mind, the more he became sure that she had forced it to make him happy.
He felt used, manipulated, putty in the hands of an imaginative child. He wondered what shape she would twist him into next.
They came to an alley leading off from the square, so hidden beneath the old buildings of the town that it would never be touched by the sun. A sign screwed to the wall above said 'Follow the ancient steps', the script gnarled-looking where decades of heat had chipped the paint. The path curved out of sight no more than a dozen paces in. Without looking back Maria walked on.
For an instant, Dean considered not going after her. He would go back into the square, buy a beer, sit down and light a cigarette, watching the world go by as he waited for Maria to return. Then the moment passed, and Maria was little more than a shadow moving away from him. He followed.
"It's a beautiful place," he said, not really believing himself. Maria mumbled an incoherent reply. "I wonder who lives back here?" He did not want to know, and again there was only a vague response from Maria. The walls were swallowing her words.
He was looking down at the path most of the time, making sure he did not trip over a loose stone or step in the occasional splash of dog mess. He should not have been surprised when he looked up to find Maria no longer there; should not have been, but was, because there was nowhere she could have gone.
He thought about going back, but feared he may be nearer the end of the path than the beginning.
Smells and sounds pulsed in and out, as if Dean were moving to and fro in reality. He guessed that it was some strange quality of the maze-like construction of this place, that even sound and scent would become momentarily lost between buildings. It became darker still and looking up he could see eaves reaching across the alley like long-lost lovers craving a final touch.
He turned a corner and suddenly found himself back with civilisation. Soon he was among people again, standing at the edge of a one way street used by loud two way traffic, happy to hold back and watch the hustle while he gathered his thoughts. He had found no ancient steps. Indeed, there had been no steps in the alley at all.
No side-alleys, either.
No open doors.
Where had Maria gone?
He felt a rush of unreality blur his senses -- a mixture of nausea, dizziness and the urge to giggle at the absurdities around him. He sat down at a table and barked a laugh when a menu was forced into his hands. There were three women chatting away at the next table, oblivious to the noise around them, and when he strained to hear what they were saying he could not identify their language. It could have been a new one. The waiter wafted by with a casual glare; Dean ordered a pizza for appearance sake, a beer for his throat and a red wine for Maria. Then he waited for her to come back to him.
He was finishing his unwanted meal when she scraped back a chair and sat down. She did not reach for her wine, but sat there staring through her fringe at the ground.
"Maria," he said, "where have you been? I've been worried."
"I doubt that," she said, but there was no reproach there. It was merely a statement of fact. Her mouth twitched, as if haunted by the memory of a smile.
The three women had been replaced by a short, athletic-looking American, sitting with her back to them, mobile phone pressed to her ear like a field dressing. "I'm concerned about what will happen if I come home right now," Dean heard her say. "I worry about the kids. I don't want to subject you to the strangeness I'm going through right now."
He turned back to Maria and stroked her arm, but it felt as alien as kissing a bus driver on the cheek. He withdrew his hand, embarrassed, sure that everyone in the street would see through the sham.
"Shall we go back to the hotel?" he said. "Or another walk. An ice cream?"
"All right," Maria said and, not knowing which suggestion she had agreed to, Dean followed her into the thronging street.
The American woman had left, apparently without paying. The waiter seemed unconcerned. Her table was already set for the next customer.
They spent the rest of the day by the pool, not talking, lying back and letting the sun slowly burn their skin. Dean tried to read but he could not concentrate. He kept glancing sideways at the woman he had used to love, watching her chest rise and fall with peaceful breaths, certain that behind her glasses her eyes were wide open. Her skin remained pale.
Maria had always been lively, inquisitive, sometimes too much so for Dean. He was happy to sit in and watch the television, open a bottle of wine, cook a nice meal. Maria would want to know who the director was, find out where the wine came from and search out an alternate recipe for whatever they were eating. He'd often tell her to sit back and enjoy, not worry about things. Loosen up.
She had loosened up now. She was so loose she was almost flapping in the wind. She was not the Maria he had used to know, but then that Maria had been leaving him for a long time, so that did not trouble him so much. What troubled him was that she was becoming a woman he had never known.
Later, at dinner, Dean tried to catch Maria's attention and smile, attempted to edge her into conversation, but all talk was one-sided.
They went straight to their room after the meal. Maria laid on the bed and seemed to fall asleep instantly. Dean bent over her and lowered himself to within kissing distance, trying to breathe in her scent, recall when they had used to kiss. But her breath was insipid and untainted, and as light as a sigh hitting his face. Her perfume only gave out a ten-hour staleness.
He stayed that way for a while, hoping she would look up at him, but there was no movement beneath her ivory eyelids.
Eventually he moved out onto the balcony and lit up a cigarette, closing his eyes and enjoying the light-headedness of wine and nicotine. He listened to the sounds from the town, trying but failing to pick out single voices.
Three cigarettes later, when he went back into the room, he was not surprised to find it empty. Maria had not even worn her shoes when she left; they lay on the floor next to the bed, looking as if they had never been worn.
Dean curled up on the bed. Maria had gone of her own accord, of that he was sure. He was also sure that he had let her go too easily.
He slept within minutes. A loud, insistent thump echoed its way into his dreams; a door opening and shutting deep inside the hotel, or perhaps a trapdoor. Voices mumbled in distant rooms, or from somewhere else entirely. Footsteps forever promised to suddenly increase their volume and darken the strip of light beneath the door. It was a night pregnant with the promise of something happening, but in the end potential was aborted. Dean slept long and deeply, and when he woke up the sun was shining through the still-open balcony doors.
Guilt grabbed him and would not let go. Maria had not returned, her suitcase still lay open, its contents hauled out like luggage intestines. She could be anywhere, she could be in trouble.
She could be nowhere.
Have you ever come face to face with yourself?
Without changing or washing Dean hurried from the hotel, hardly sparing a glance for the surprised receptionist. He almost ran down the road, and he was glad that the bustle of the rush hour camouflaged his concern. The place felt even more impersonal than it had the previous day, but he put it down to being alone. Even though he and Maria had really had no hope at all, at least they had been in each other's company. Their time together may be doomed, but the past still held a charge. They would always have a history. There would always be a story to tell.
He found himself in the corner of the square without really thinking about where he was going. 'Follow the ancient steps' the sign said, and within thirty seconds of entering the alleyway, he had found them. They had not been there before, he was sure, but everything lately had been all a-tangle, and he could so easily have missed them the first time. They were dusty and cobwebbed with underuse, the shadows beneath their risers soupy with age. Dean started up them without hesitation, subconsciously sniffing at the air for Maria's perfume but knowing it had changed beyond his ken. Even if he did find her, it could mean nothing. She may be where she wanted to be.
He came face to face with himself. His double was as shocked as he, and they both raised their hands in fright. His opposite's eyes were sunken, full of a deep-set hopelessness, but then he realised that he was facing a mirrored door. He felt foolish, even though he was alone. Alone, but perhaps not unwatched.
The steps ended in a courtyard. The sun was almost directly overhead, but the area was still swathed in shadow. It was timeless, echoing with sighs uttered centuries ago, its walls bathed in history and stained by it. The graffiti of ages, chips and cracks and the words of eloquent vandals. Shuttered windows stared down like the closed eyes of the dead.
Maria was there ... but she was not. Her perfume hung heavy in the air, fresh and vibrant. He knew what she was thinking, though he could not see her. He knew, suddenly, of the times before they had met: the hurried drug-taking in train station toilets; the bursts of temper at her parents, unreasonable but more intense because of that; kicking her pet dog when it had stained her carpet, kicking until it bled. He knew her mind in more detail than he ever had, and this made him sad. Now, of all times, he could try to love her fully. She had what she wanted, and he was glad, but it also made him sorrowful. It meant that they had failed. Their time together really was at an end.
He turned and fled, coolness stroking his back as he staggered down the dusty steps. It felt like fingernails of ice piercing his skin, leaving him an invisible scar to remind him of where he had been, and where Maria remained. He would always be troubled by this place but he hoped, selfishly, that in his dreams he would somehow lose his way.
He saw no mirrored doors.
And as he arrived back in the square, he knew that during the loneliest of nights he would find those steps once more.
© Tim Lebbon 1999, 2000
This story first
appeared in Extremes, the CD-Rom anthology edited by Brian
Hopkins, and is reprinted in Tim's
the Sun Goes Down
(available from Borderlands
Books in the USA and Cold
Tonnage Books in the UK).
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