The next post will be on or before Thursday 1st June
SOULMATES (a short story)
Author’s note. After a 25 year sabbatical from the short story I have published no less than 2 within a week. If anyone understands why that might be (I certainly don’t) please write to me at email@example.com
That first night I made Lidia some qar machh bi lubiya which is a Tunisian dish of baked courgettes stuffed with kidney beans and tomatoes flavoured with harissa and caraway. It is hot, flavoursome and aromatic and she praised it and obviously liked it, but she consumed it remarkably slowly and with a sedulously rotating mouth, her eyes tight shut the whole time, as if following some instruction from a New Age meditation guru. I don’t normally consort with people who solemnly masticate with their eyes closed, and who obviously treat eating as a significant spiritual experience. As for myself I knock back my food with matter of fact gusto and relish, and I suppose both of those nouns are rarely to be found in the mouths of Alternative Practitioners and their adherents. A few days later Lidia would articulate her considerable hostility to my manner of eating, and would evidence a second New Age fascination which would lead, to my surprise, to an explosive confrontation. But for the moment we got on very well, and there was manifest tender affection between us, and as she intended staying for a full 3 weeks it was a very good job there was.
Lidia was Portuguese and was from beautiful Viana do Castelo, a town I have visited on three occasions, the last time being some 15 years ago. It is above Porto, the capital of the north, and Lidia owned a large and sumptuous villa right next to the beach on the windy Costa Verde coast. She was 58 years old, divorced and retired on a handsome pension for she had been a top executive with a Porto IT firm. That had been her day job so to speak, for her real interests were literary and philosophical (her two idols being Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard) and she also had a Master’s Degree in anthropology from Lisbon University. As soon as she saw my detailed profile she immediately ordered all my books and this was before she had made any contact at all, meaning that memorable first email that started with the comical and endearing:
Hey! Look at me!
I did look at her photo and she was very attractive, and as she explained that she’d ordered all 8 of my novels, including one long out of print and collectable, and which would set her back £100, I was obviously very flattered. She had read all of them within a fortnight, and wrote to proclaim me an indubitable genius and indeed another James Joyce. I wrote back and thanked her but said I was no matchless prose master alas. As far as I was concerned, I knew better than anyone else in the world precisely how talented I was and exactly how bad I was. At my best I was pretty good and at my worst very slovenly and occasionally unspeakable. She passionately demurred and insisted she understood me better than myself and to a certain extent she clearly saw herself as my interpreter and wisest guiding spirit. I was the hapless if lovable idiot savant and she was a kind of sapient midwife or patron who understood what was beyond my Great Artist’s all too typical myopia.
Lidia arrived off the boat wearing an alluring and expensive ski jacket and was surprisingly small to behold. She was short and dark haired and had a decidedly poetic face and also a look of subtle deprivation. She was divorced from Tomas Quintanilha, another retired Porto executive, and he, she told me, had made a bad remarriage, so that both he and petulant overweight Isabel were chronically dissatisfied with their lives together. Thus it was they regularly came to Lidia for counselling and consolation, and even just the comfort of wine and her excellent food as well as something else that Lidia always called Santa Maria, and which I will come to later. She also had two daughters in their late twenties, Alda who was a TV researcher and happily married, and Albertina who was single and a busy vet in Ponte de Lima, but was sadly prone to disabling and mysterious depressions and who worried Lidia considerably as a result.
The first days together were a surprise and a delight and Lidia proved herself to be funny and anarchic and downright provocative at times. We took a taxi to north of Loutra and walked to the Kastro Tis Orias, a perfectly preserved 14th century Venetian fort stuck up a precipitous crag and with not a soul around apart from a few silent goats. We picnicked on tiropittas, red wine and pears and dark chocolate outside the little chapel with its huge bell that Lidia very much wanted to ring at full volume in the castle courtyard. We then surpassed ourselves on the way back and made a detour to tiny and lonely Ag Sostis chapel way out on the rough and barren headland behind the deserted beach. Then we legged it the considerable way back to Loutra and in a cafe lingered over fresh orange juice. At one point I needed the bathroom and Lidia made me laugh out loud by brazenly downing what was left of my juice while I was away. It was at least two thirds full and I caught her draining the last inch, and it was like the flagrant deviance of a lovable if naughty child. Lidia roared exultantly at me laughing at her and I looked at her and saw how possible it was to fall in love with a single and whimsical thing …her artless joy at her impudent theft, in this case.
Lidia was naturally generous and brought beguiling gifts with her. There was a hammock of all things, dark turquoise and a weaver’s masterpiece, and I had to get Bojan the Serbian handyman to knock up metal supports with massive bolts so she and I didn’t go flying onto the stone balcony. Needless to add, my cats would invariably claw our drooping and therefore tempting backsides should we dawdle there supine and meditative. Lidia also brought much excellent Portuguese booze in the form of vintage aguardente, medlar brandy (medroinho), and the delicious Licor Beirrao, a heavy and exotic liqueur with a faint taste of orange essence and something else unplaceable and thoroughly addictive. She was a moderate drinker herself but conspicuously a chainsmoker, and as that is so common among Greek and Portuguese women I scarcely noticed , and not having smoked at all for forty years, I decided to take it in my stride.
One day we took a taxi to one of the remotest beaches on the island and we had to disembark at the tiny chapel and walk the potholed dirt road down to the sparkling bay. There was not a soul around in low season, the half dozen holiday homes were all locked and bolted, not a car nor motorbike, nor even a cat were to be glimpsed. We beheld half a mile of perfect pebble-free sand, a radiant cobalt blue sea and I said to her in a mesmerised tone that it was like having died and woken up in paradise. Lidia smirkingly concurred as she took the initiative, walked over to a shady tree, stripped naked and invited me to do the same. I watched as she unearthed a bottle of massage oil from her handbag, sprawled upon her back and ordered me to apply it to every single inch. It was with the same peremptory provocation as when she’d pinched my orange juice and I smiled as I rubbed it into her breasts and tummy and she made some tender little groans. Then she turned onto her stomach and commanded the following massage sequence: first her ramrod neck and shoulders; then her slim and tapering back, and finally her sweetly puckered bottom which she declared to be an extremely sensitive one. Her shoulders right enough were rigid with tension and she whimpered faintly as I massaged away. I spent ages on her back until she grew impatient and moved my hand to her twitching and obviously expectant behind. I made the oil application there very lavish and she told me that that was like some ineffable magic. In her growing rapture, she started to hum a note or two of samba, then suddenly surprised me by taking my wrist and forcing me to slap her rather hard on her glistening backside.
“Aha,” I said, and then waited for her to explain.
She said enigmatically, “Oh yes, I deserve it.”
After some thought I agreed:“It is in fact condign punishment for stealing my juice in Loutra.”
She snorted and after three more self-inflicted spanks, she turned and grabbed me and kissed my tongue like a dozen mouths and a dozen women, so that in a few seconds we were to pass into a hot and sultry and very Aegean oblivion.
And yes, it was blissful so far, but things were about to turn. A few nights later I was making us a Middle Eastern feast, the centrepiece of which was an Iranian kookoo, a majestic 6 egg omelette, an egg cake in fact, that was filled with fried leeks, pistachios, fresh herbs, sultanas, allspice and which I decorated with pomegranate seeds so that it looked like a bejewelled and hallowed work of art. Lidia was visible on the sofa in the sitting room and as I glanced at her from time to time, I saw she was not only chainsmoking but biting her nails and looking restless and disconsolate. I could guess well enough why this was, and it was all down to Santa Maria. A few weeks ago, she’d asked me if I could get her some for the time she was on the island, and not having a clue what she meant, had to google it to discover it was one of a hundred jocular nicknames for hashish. I was unhappy with her bizarre request and answered that I didn’t want to do that errand at all, principally because smoking dope was looked on by most of the Greeks here as something comically pathetic. At the moment, I was liked and respected on the island, but if it got about I was asking round for hashish (there was no such thing as a secret here) I would be regarded as yet another oddball and an oddball foreigner to boot. Besides I hadn’t smoked any myself since 1972 and if one of us was stoned and the other wasn’t it would be a dissonant and discordant state of affairs would it not? And anyway, what was wrong with wine or gin or ouzo if it was simply about helping her to relax?
She had written back hurriedly and contritely, saying she was sorry and please to forget it, but tonight it was obvious she was twitching for a joint and could think of nothing else. Dope is not physiologically addictive of course, but it can be behaviourally so and I know folk in their sixties and seventies who simply cannot do without their adorable bedtime spliff. I was about to offer her a glass of Samos wine to settle her nerves, when she rose determinedly and came to where I was cooking.
“I’ve had an idea,” she announced with a faintly shifty look about her.
The rest came out in extraordinary haste and as if she had been conscientiously rehearsing it for the last two hours.
“We are going to Syros for a few days, aren’t we? Ermopouli is a big town, you say, of about 30,000 people? Here is my plan. When we get there, how about I look around and see if I can spot anyone who looks as if they definitely smoke dope…?”
I felt myself bristling and for once it was not with desire.
“Then I simply go up and ask them to sell me some! Or to direct me to someone who can sell me some. Tell me. D’you think that’s a good idea?”
I stared at her, feeling quite dizzy. At first I was stupefied, then a little sorry for her, then finally very indignant, and even passing contemptuous. I scowled and pointed out the glaringly obvious. First of all, she knew no Greek at all and outside of high season, as it was now, almost no one on Syros talked English. Thus she would have to do some advanced and surreptitious mime when trying to score her Santa Maria, and that might just attract a little untoward attention. More to the point the person approached might just be an off-duty policeman or policewoman.
I concluded, “Then we’d both be up shit creek, Lidia. Wouldn’t we? Arrested and handcuffed in poor little Ermopouli.”
She pouted. “Oh come on. I really think you exaggerate!”
I snapped back, “I don’t think you think at all! At the moment, you really want your dope, you’re biting your nails, and that’s all that matters to you. And look, you’d better promise here and now not to try any scoring on Syros, or I’m simply not taking you there. End of story.”
At which point the meal was ready and still sulking she sat down and dolefully resumed her solemn rite of mastication. I watched her with her eyes closed in pseudo-samadhi, the diametric inverse of the chainsmoking and nail biting that is. I was very hungry and I tucked into the leek kookoo, the cauliflower tahina with cumin, the roast potatoes with oregano, the bulgur salad and the labna yoghurt with walnuts. But suddenly Lidia’s eyes flew open as if on springs, and she spat at me.
“You! You disrespect me!”
I paused my eating and blinked and even felt oddly carefree now that I was nine tenths convinced she was just one more cosmopolitan middle class nutcase, with far too much money and far too little sense.
“Oh? Disrespect? How would that be?”
She wagged her handsome Portuguese finger for emphasis.
“Because you eat like an animal! It’s quite revolting! You’ve seen how I eat my food very slowly every time, so you should therefore respect me and slow down to eat at my pace. Surely if we were in true sympathy with each other, we should finish the meal harmoniously together, at exactly the same time. But we don’t, and so you’re disrespecting me as far as I’m concerned.”
I blinked again, then suddenly laughed in her face.
“You don’t say? I think that that is rampant egocentricity of the highest order. You Lidia eat every meal with your eyes shut tight and at snail pace, like all those rich Europeans staying for an arm and a leg month in Rishikesh or at a mountain monastery in Nepal. That’s your choice and I don’t criticise it, but I’m damned if I’m going to do the same! What if I were to demand that you eat as fast as me and with your eyes wide open? How would you like that, d’you think?”
She blazed and snapped, “I’m telling you that you eat like an animal!”
I snarled back. “You are a caricature of a pampered Euro-Hindu, Lidia, meaning you are spectacularly short on self-knowledge. Aren’t you the same woman who smokes in bed late at night, puffs cigarettes in the small hours, and then more fags first thing when I make us coffee, about a dozen a night in all. I can just about stomach that, though most non-smokers wouldn’t. But guess what else? You stub your cigarettes out not in the ashtray I provide, but chuck them willy-nilly into your night-time glass of water! There are a whole flotilla of those horrible stubs floating around like nasty little depth charges every morning as I do the clearing up.”
She was pure exasperation as she hissed: “And so?”
I jeered, “And you have the bloody gall to talk to me about behaving like an animal!”
An endless, heavy silence ensued, and once we’d finished eating she returned to her perch to resume her smoking and nail-biting. After the washing up, I decided we might as well try to break the tension by watching a movie, and I fished out a vintage Bunuel and asked her had she seen it lately. She shook her head listlessly and we sat on the sofa in silence and in the darkness, until Lidia slowly seemed to relax and even took and squeezed my hand. As the film ended I moved to kiss her but she stopped me with a comical pout and said in an oddly naive, rather dulcet tone:
“Look. We need to check out something important.”
“Do we? Are you sure? And does it involve Santa Maria perhaps?”
“Tell me honestly. Tell me here and now! Do you believe in the I Ching?”
I flinched a little at such an inane anti-climax, and a considerable discomfort supervened. Gradually and vividly I recalled circa 1970 at Oxford, an unhappy woman student whose rich but vindictive parents wouldn’t pay her grant, so that she survived on minimum rations by making pomanders to sell to a shop in Little Clarendon Street. She was forever chucking the I Ching straws as a means of divination and to calculate what was to happen to her next. As far as I knew it was to be making pomanders 7 days a week for the foreseeable future, but presumably for her it was her single means of hope.
“Believe it or not,” I said, “I’m a byword for tolerance. I really don’t mind you eating with your eyes closed and I don’t mind folk using the Taoist I Ching or astrology or Reiki or aura therapy or whatever the hell they like. We are all adults after all, and are free to do as we want.”
Lidia was perspiring with her wagon load of irritation. “That is all just words and compromise! Listen to me. I want us now, right at this minute, you and I, to throw the straws to see how our future together will be. Will you do that for me? Do you have the courage? Will you?”
I smiled but didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“No I bloody won’t! Listen to me carefully, Lidia as what I am saying is rather subtle for your average Euro-Hindu. I don’t believe nor disbelieve in divination, but I just don’t do it, it is not my cup of tea. Likewise, I don’t play poker or smoke opium or avidly watch Wimbledon on telly every summer, as if for me lawn tennis and Cliff Richard jollying the spectators along when it pisses down were to be regarded as a cumulative approximation to the Divine.”
She looked at me painfully shocked, in fact wounded to the core. Then she delivered the choicest of summaries, as ironically it echoed the precise logistical means by which we had met each other in the first place.
“I hope you realise now that we can never ever be true Soulmates!”
I’m sure you can all hallucinate the missing noun before that last word. In the old days it was always preceded by ‘Manchester’, and just then and for the only time ever I wished I was sat in a noisy city centre pub in the boisterous northern metropolis, rather than in peaceful little Kythnos with a Portuguese woman called Lidia.