Walking, But Slowly
She arrived with the heat-wave that sucked our village dry of any moisture in the summer of 1976. The earth was parched and cracked. I remember taking shelter from the sun in the living room of our home; the old floor had been pulled up, leaving us, for a while, with cool concrete underfoot. The double doors to the living room opened to the terrace with a wide wooden ledge in between. It was delicious torture, running between the scorching paving stones outside and the chill of that living room floor. We hopped back and forth, barefoot. Sometimes, though, we would just sit on that smooth flat ledge facing each other, drugged by the heat, breathing the heavy air, watching the path of shadows cast by the wood that criss-crossed the old glass doors, watching dead flies accumulate. They would beat their poor, dizzy heads against the panelled glass before dropping, defeated.
We found her on a slow tour of the village. We were in our flip-flops, holding an umbrella over us for shade. We followed the road down the hill past the drinking trough where each day we studied the level of the water. Beneath us the tarmac was melting into clots that we pestered with our feet. We had to be careful not to get any of it on our skin because it burnt. We had to be careful too not to get our feet stuck there in the middle of the road. We had to keep walking, but slowly.
We found her at the bottom of the village. She was in the graveyard, lying there on one of the old-fashioned graves—the ones shaped like coffins, sitting above ground. We had some fine gravestones there by the church. Most of them were at an angle, jostled by the roots of a yew, though the one she had picked was fairly stable. There was a wide crack down one side, and ivy growing wild all over, but plenty of space to lie flat on top.
She was not aware of us. She may have been asleep. Her arms were trailing over the sides of the grave, her legs stretched out, feet falling to either side.
She was wearing a bikini.
We looked around to see if anyone was watching, but there was no one. The windows of the houses looked dark and cool and everything seemed still. We stood there at the gate to the churchyard taking her in. Only the crickets made noise, a kind of throbbing that seemed somehow part of the heat.
I wondered how she could bear to do it, to just lie like that, out in the sun.
Sweat trickled down the backs of my legs and my skin pricked. Even with the umbrella it was like standing in a furnace and my hair had a hot, wet feeling underneath. I looked at my brother and saw myself in his flushed skin, the heightened, almost livid colour of his cheeks.
‘Whoo hoo,’ he said.
We used owl calls to communicate with each other when we went exploring in the fields around about. We were well-practised and the sound was quite convincing. It was a good way, he was telling me, to try to wake her without drawing too much attention to ourselves.
We got in position, hugging ourselves to the old wall that ran around the graveyard, pressing our bodies flat against the weathered stone like lizards, probing every indentation for a place to hold tight. When we had blinked at each other to confirm readiness we both turned our gaze on The Bikini.
‘Whoo hoo,’ we called, softly at first, and then louder. ‘Whoo hoo.’
She flicked her foot in irritation. It happened so quickly. If you hadn’t been watching carefully you wouldn’t have seen at all. But we were both watching and we both saw and smiled at each other to confirm it.
She sat right up and looked into the branches of the yew.
Coke Float was our favourite drink then. We had to drink it in the kitchen, because outside the ice cream would melt too quickly and we’d be denied the joy of scooping it out in chunks with cold spoons. In the cool of the kitchen we drank our Coke Floats and tried to remember every detail. We debated the colour of The Bikini’s bikini, which I knew was purple, but he said was brown, and how old she was, and how tall.
The sun had not stopped shining that summer and though at first it seemed improbable we were starting to believe now that it might always be so. Each day we woke to another clear sky, unfurled and majestic as a backdrop in a theatre—but over our village, our fields. The colour blue was taking on new meaning, and there were not enough words, we found, to describe what it was we were seeing. Eskimos, we knew, had once had this problem with snow.
We became obsessed with thinking up ways to cool down.
The best of them meant we had to confront the task of standing, urging our heat-curdled limbs into action, and setting ourselves in an unnatural motion that would take us all the way through the village to the fields, through the blow-torched pasture, through the wheat field, harvested early, bleached stubble buckling to powder underfoot, and on to the path on the far side that led us away from all that—the dust and stubble and sun—towards a miracle that had survived the drought: ferns, and trees, and cool shade, and a bubbling stream where we would stand until our feet and ankles were numb.
We had a nifty routine between the two of us that ensured the ice trays in the freezer were always stocked. You could add ice to a glass of water. You could hold a cube in your mouth and wait for it to melt. You could rub the ice against your temple, behind your ears, or on the ticklish part of your wrist.
I also carried cologne which belonged to my mother. It was kept in a small glass bottle with a handsome red and gold cap. The bottle was shaped like a pebble and fitted nicely in my hand. I knew to apply it to my skin and blow gently. It became a ritual. I stank of the stuff.
My brother wouldn’t touch the cologne but together we embarked on a project that combined two aims—keeping cool and using our initiative—by setting up a stall selling lemonade. Overall it kept us hydrated and high on sugar, but couldn’t be considered successful as a venture. My mother, who floated us in lemons and sugar, never saw much of a return.
We set the stall right on the lane to benefit from the shade of the cedar trees opposite our home. It was a no-through village and traffic was rare. On the table we had a jug filled to the brim with ice and lemonade, beside it a small stack of plastic cups. A mug for our takings was planted at the edge of the table, primed with a few coins to suggest that custom was good. Beside the mug, up front and centre, we taped an optimistic note detailing deals we were prepared to make on multiples.
It was not often that we got to meet new people. We lived like the Brontës. Our village was not on bus routes and phone numbers were all three digits. Apart from occasional ramblers there was not a lot of fresh blood.
We spotted her coming down the lane. By the time she was near, we were in full flow, gesticulating.
‘Je voudrais!’ I said to my brother.
‘Tu voudras!’ my brother said.
‘Oui. Oui. Oui!’ I flourished.
‘C’est ça! C’est ça!’ my brother said, mad-eyed.
And then we swung the full force of our joint charisma on The Bikini, who was standing, watching us, circumspect, in a sarong, one hand resting on her hip. She had dark eyes, dark hair, and above the determined slash of her mouth, the best nose I had ever seen—long and straight and fearless.
We sat there, holding our breath.
She was tall. Her skin was tanned and glistened with oil. When she smiled her teeth were perfect and white and straight.
She walked up to the table, slowly. She was wearing red sequined sandals that were alive in the sun. Colour was spilling out on to our street.
She looked down at our table, and we looked at her. And then she took us both in with a level gaze and said in an accent I didn’t recognize, ‘Do you charge extra for the bug?’
In the lemonade a fly was busy at an urgent sort of sidestroke, half mired in the sugary swill, half frantic for flight. We had forgotten the beaded mesh that was supposed to sit on top of the jug.
She poured herself a drink before either of us could think of anything to say. We watched as the fly flumed its way from jug to cup, disappearing, resurfacing, and then bobbing about. We watched too as she hooked one slender finger under the fly and flicked it up and out. We watched as it flew, wet and wingless, in a high arc.
The Bikini knocked back her lemonade.
‘Now you,’ she said. She was looking at my brother with a steady gaze. ‘You drink the bug juice.’
I looked at my brother. I waited for him to turn and look at me.
He was blushing. His nose was twitching. He reached out, poured himself a cup of lemonade, and knocked it back. All the while his eyes were on her.
When he had finished, she turned to me.
But my brother got to his feet. He picked up the jug and brought it to his lips.
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
He drank—lemonade escaping from the sides of his mouth, running in rivulets down his chin, his neck. When he was done he put the jug down and just stared at The Bikini with a lop-sided grin.
All she said was, ‘How much shall I pay you?’ I don’t know why she did because the cost of each cup was clear enough.
My brother gestured at the table, dismissive, snorting laughter through his nose. ‘Nothing!’ he said.
She smiled, nodded, and left.
‘Are you crazy?’ I said to my brother.
He looked at me. His eyes were glazed. And then he turned and walked off, following her down the lane.
I stood there, watching until they disappeared. When they were gone I looked at the table, the remnants left behind: the empty jug, the cup that my brother had drunk from and the cup that had been hers. I looked at our note, at the peeling tape, the paper curling at the edges in the heat. I looked at the words we had carefully spaced, so they were neat and so the lines didn’t slant and so they all fitted in, and which were now blotched and bleeding where they had been splashed by drops of lemonade.
I folded the two chairs and with one in each hand crossed the lane and carried them up to our porch. I took the cups that hadn’t been used and the two that had and the jug and the money mug and carried them across too. Back at the table I peeled off our note and folded it and put it in my pocket. I couldn’t manage the table. It was too heavy, and so I left it where it was.