(Chapter 7 was the previous post. Chapter 9 appears tomorrow. Earlier chapters are to be found in the January and February archive, see below right)
Comfortable Inside Her Own Skin
Ilse Schiller made me uneasy because of something strange and disquieting on her backside, which of course is an unusual anatomical site to disconcert anyone, least of all me who has always found the female behind something kindly and reassuring and…how can I put it…tenderly enduring and a kind of conspicuous and alluring ballast to keep one steady when all other things seem to be shifting and uncertain. She was a few years older than me at sixty-seven, and with her jet-black hair was remarkably well preserved, and would in a benign light have passed for a woman in her mid or even early forties. She had never been married and had no children, and in most respects, would never have found the time for such fatiguing dependents anyway. Like the ancient Persian goddess Aradhvi Sura Anahita, she was a woman of a thousand skills, and there was very little she could not do, or at least make a fearless attempt at. Ilse wrote plays that were performed, stories that were published, painted saleable art, sculpted and profited by it, taught English back in Heidelberg, knew how to put up bookshelves and do basic plumbing, welding and electrical repairs. Aside from writing my journalism, I couldn’t do any of that, and had long been resigned to it, cosmopolitan cooking being my only practical skill, and I was outstandingly impressed by this eloquent and predictably voluble Renaissance woman. Though even with her cooking, she apparently matched me, as she claimed she had once run a restaurant in Aachen about thirty years ago, although in the busy even frantic week we spent together it occurred to me she might have been exaggerating certain aspects of her gastronomical skills. We emailed and Skyped each other a couple of times on Lovebirds, and as she was an inveterate traveller and was intending to spend a few weeks on little visited Kassos in the Dodecanese, she said she would loop back to Kalamos and visit me in the Cyclades.
Ilse had asked me to book her separate accommodation, which I took in my stride, whilst remaining optimistic. I found her a pleasant, and because it was late October, impressively cheap apartment that happened to be one of Maria’s Superior Rooms at the far end of the port. Ilse was the only tenant there, and Maria herself was in Athens for most of the week, so the place was beguilingly deserted. To my surprise, Ilse ignored the handsome and spacious sitting room cum bedroom and its tasteful furnishings and the excellent balcony with its aerial view of the harbour and the bobbing fishing boats, and carped instead about the kitchen’s cutlery and the state of the pans and casserole dishes. Her frying pan right enough was calcined with something that had been badly burnt in the last year or two, but it wouldn’t have defeated me who can cook on a tin lid or an improvised griddle if I have to. But then that was Ilse’s way. She had done extraordinary things and achieved an extraordinary amount, now that she was three years off seventy, but it became soon apparent that she specialised in repetitively complaining about matters that could not be remedied, and in some cases, didn’t even need to be. All that is, apart from the deplorable pots and pans in her kitchen, which she craftily replaced from three or four other empty apartments where the keys had been left in the door.
Ilse was also an avid hiker and that week the two of us walked the length and breadth of Kalamos, and in one case such an epic distance I was more or less crippled the day after. She laughed relatively kindly at that, though she was far from modest about her stamina and fitness for a woman of her age She also scorned the expense of taxis to make an initial start to the hike, but was not remotely shy about hitching a lift, and twice we were taken from the port to the Hora, whence we could leg it way up north to see the incomparable fourteenth century Kastro, and also the perfectly preserved prehistoric village which silenced even stanchless Ilse as we drank in the epic quietude all about us. Once that is we were stood way up in the remotest Kalamos hills, looking wonderingly at the sculpted ghosts of ancient mankind nestling against more recent kserolithia dry stone walls with their touching and totemic lozenge shaped stanchions.
Way up at the gaunt and towering Kastro, as we surveyed the sheer and rugged northern coast, she made the following quaint remark: “I wonder. Do you think that the act of lovemaking between a man and a woman is so essential? Is it so much the be all and end all?”
She didn’t wait for me to answer but declared categorically that a preliminary and passionate yet ineffably sensitive kiss, can mean a lot more than the predictable and sometimes comical banality of coition. I smiled politely enough, but was privately thinking she sounded ever so faintly like cut price Stendhal, author of Love, and as her one and only long relationship with a man had been with one called Witold who sounded two thirds mad, she could hardly play the didactic expert. But that, as anyone else might readily confirm, is the perennial problem with gnomic experts. Given that many of them have made a spectacular and perplexing mess of their own haphazard lives, it does not stop them effortlessly pontificating to the end of time.
I said, “I think lovemaking is an important part of any decent relationship. If it’s in a bad way then the relationship is usually in a bad way. The trouble is some damaged and vulnerable people obsessively seek out damaging people to be their lovers, and keep on doing so through middle age and old age and sometimes until it is way too late.”
She did not respond directly but said that the one and only love of her life was with a fair-haired half Polish German, Witold Mann, who was now dead through monumental self-neglect and downright folly. She had stupidly lent Witold a massive amount of money before he had died, and she would now never get it back of course. They’d been together on and off for fifteen years, but with his appalling childhood under a Lutheran minister Dad who would have done well in the sadistic role as the clergyman in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, he had very little confidence with women or with anyone or anything else, apart from dogs, to all of which examples, German and cosmopolitan, he was an adoring friend. As well as being impossibly handsome, he had been fanatically jealous and possessive, so that harmless and inconsequential flirting by Ilse with any man met in a café or a bar, had led him into paroxysms of violent rage. He had used his fists on her and left ugly bruises all over her body, even though he was weepingly contrite the next day, once he’d sobered up. In the end she left him because he was definitely going to kill her one day, she knew that in her bones. Meanwhile for about five years they had been making an original and profitable living by driving new Mercedes cars from Heidelberg to Morocco, then selling them at a whacking profit to rich Tangerines and sundry Chefchaouen entrepreneurs. After she left him he kept on doing the drives on his own but he was a lifelong heavy drinker and his liver was shot to pieces, his remedy for which was to drink ever more Bushmills and Paddy’s and Jamieson’s on the grounds that though Irish whiskeys tasted exactly like excellent Scottish malts, they were about a quarter to a third less expensive.
“He set off across the desert one day on his way to Algeria. He was branching out, as he knew that though Algeria was a dangerous and violent place, they would pay even more for a new Mercedes than in Morocco. Anyway, it was a state policeman from Algiers, in fact a secret service policeman was going to buy it, so it was safe enough, unless he were prepared to eventually double cross him which I suppose he might well have done if Witold had made it. But the car broke down in the middle of the scorching desert and Witold hadn’t charged his phone as he was so drunk the night before. Some Tuaregs on camels found him about a week after he’d perished, and he was not a pretty sight apparently, with one of his eyes and half his mouth missing, and that was the very least of it. Poor old unhappy Witold. My poor sad boy, poor Witold…”
I touched her granite hard shoulder as she stifled the urge to weep. I said, “How is it that the only real love of your life was dangerous, or as you say, homicidal?”
She sniffed as if the question were a facile one. “Because he was far more than that. He was a brilliant and phenomenally handsome guy who knew enormous amounts about science, technology, literature, philosophy, music, films, modern and ancient theatre, and everything else. He played classical guitar and the lute in a way to break your heart. He even played John Dowland which few Germans do, and agreed with him that semper Dowland semper dolens.”
I said, “But you’ve just told me he was potentially lethal. You left him because he would probably have murdered you.”
She glared at me or possibly at something that was not me. “But he was worth all the risk! He was worth risking my life and my soul for fifteen years, if only because he was simply like no one else.”
She told me that night, that in her late twenties she had travelled alone across central America and had spent much time in the Yucatan in Mexico. There on a ramshackle and suspension-free bus, Ilse who spoke good Spanish had met a hypnotic-looking Indian of middle years called Benito and his gentle but intense gaze, scrutinising but never intrusive, made her think that perhaps he was a former Catholic priest or someone else profoundly if modestly spiritual. He smiled at that and said he was a priest right enough, but a shaman priest, and after about half an hour of his listening to her own arcane and eloquent formulations (she never explained exactly what they were, but she admitted she had read Carlos Castaneda) Benito invited her to accept a shaman initiation in his house in a straggling hamlet a half hour’s walk from the nearest bus halt. Sure enough, Ilse had leapt at that chance of a lifetime, and the same evening she swallowed a small bowl of something like peyote and left her body shortly afterwards, and then made some kind of aerial and phantasmal voyage which transcended time and space, and where various chromatically exotic, neither angelic nor demonic beings, had appeared before her grateful and she stressed profoundly humble gaze. That included a phoenix, an eagle, a very old mute man, a very old mute woman, both from many centuries past, plus a kind of obelisk stone monument on which initiatory things were written in some kind of esoteric cuneiform, and amazingly she could read and understand the chiselled marks, even though the next day she could not recall a single thing they said.
She stayed with Benito for a few more days, then hiked up into the nearby mountains and in a remarkably forlorn hamlet where even the dogs didn’t bark, she asked a burly priest who had his head down against the wind, where she might find accommodation at a reasonable price. The priest who was about sixty and the only cheerful soul in his parish, laughed at the idea of a guest house in a hole like this, and said she could come and stay in his place for nil rent and nil duties other than maybe cooking a meal if he was inordinately busy with his clerical rounds (he hadn’t the luxury of a housekeeper, needless to add). Ilse lodged with him a whole fortnight and he obviously enjoyed her company and charitably guffawed and pushed her away light-heartedly when she made a reflex if half-hearted pass at him. He was called Pedro, the son of an extremely rich landowner, with whom he had quarrelled and never been reconciled, and he soon wormed out of her the shaman conversion and spoke scathingly of glorified wizardry and witchcraft, and baseless drug-induced nonsense. Every night as they sat down to beans and rice and nothing else, he did his best to convert her to the far superior rock of ages of Catholicism and although she joined with gusto in the debate, she remained a stalwart shaman convert as she defined herself in spiritual terms.
“The problem,” he’d said to her wryly, “is that I can’t dose you with glamorous drugs and therefore can’t promise you any instant supposedly beatific visions like old Benito. That’s the kind of thing which in order to attain, the saints had to patiently mortify themselves for decades, before being granted as an act of divine grace their instructive and authentic holy visions. I’ve read enough to know that the eminent if naive English author, Senor Huxley, also recommended hallucinatory drugs as a means of making rapid spiritual advance, and that these aids should even be automatically provided on a person’s deathbed, in order to help them through their voyage to the other world. Meaning that any old gangster, crook, felon, pervert, murderer, by hastily dropping a tablet, can receive the ineffable grace which ordinary pious folk patiently struggle all their lives to achieve. By trying that is, to do good and to be good, and by determinedly renouncing what is obvious evil.”
On our second night, Ilse insisted on making me a meal, and she waxed eloquent about the fact the supermarket tomatoes were so third rate and inexplicably imported from Athens. Why didn’t they sell locally grown ones, she asked me captiously, as if it were half my fault. I turned up with a bottle of Greek white called Kyknos, or Swan, and it being autumn or fthinoporo it was a dark and moonless night. She insisted we nibble something with an aperitif, and so we sat out on the balcony in the pitch black, though she eventually lit a couple of candles and proceeded to smoke her first cigarette of the night. It had all the makings of a romantic evening, scented flickering candles and the cloaking dark and our intimate proximity, though of course at this stage I knew nothing about the enigmatic mystery on her behind. In between cigarettes, for Ilse chainsmoked, she dashed in and out to prepare the salad and to complete the pasta sauce whose savoury odour I was sniffing hungrily on the balcony. Her salad, had one been in a generous democratic mood, was fine or certainly passable, but certainly not subtle. It comprised roughly chopped lettuce and diced tomatoes and sliced celery, with a sharp and agreeable dressing, but it was not something you would lick your lips over and rhapsodise as exquisite antipasta. I lied and said it was excellent, but she carped again dismissively about the hopeless raw materials, these inglorious Athenian vegetables that had been dumped on Kalamos. The pasta was in another league, or at any rate the sauce was a very good tomato and mushroom confection, but she served it with a ton of glutinous and cardboardish spaghetti. I recalled she’d told me that she herself was chief cook in her gourmet restaurant, and wondered what had happened to an erstwhile virtuoso in that case.
After the meal, and as it was getting cold, we walked into the sitting room which also doubled as her bedroom. I immediately went and sprawled upon her bed, as artless indicator that if she were game and hungry and pragmatic, so was I. Ilse smiled but skilfully omitted to take the hint, and at that stage I felt like Frederic in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education where Ilse was a cross between married and virtuous Madame Arnoux, and Rosanette the professional coquette. Also, I remembered that this Heidelberg writer and artist had declared a five-star kiss to be better than crass coition, and I suddenly realised I would be happier at home reading a book than sitting here waiting for what would never arrive. It was half past ten in any case, and Ilse was keen to arrange another epic walk tomorrow, so I sketched a possible tour of three handsome and remote bays, all below the old island capital, the Horio. I bade her goodnight and we gave each other a chaste little peck, and sad to say it certainly wasn’t the epic and transforming kiss that she had been exalting earlier.
The next day we hitchhiked to the Horio, and then walked downhill the few kilometres to Psili Ammos, a touchingly unspoiled place that long ago had hosted an excellent fish taverna. These days it could boast only a bunch of antique wooden beach shacks which put me in mind of nothing so much as the Outer Hebrides, and specifically of hospitable and beautiful South Uist. From Psili Ammos, there was a short and winding monopati to two other dreamlike bays: Megalo Livadi, which had a boarded up seasonal taverna, and beyond that Kolymbithres, always swarming with Athenians in August, but on this warm October afternoon attractively deserted. At the far end of Kolymbithres was a rocky, narrow path to a minute tidal islet called Kastos, and on this a heartrendingly tiny, snow white and spartan Orthodox church called Ag Iannis . Seen from Kolymbithres, Kastos with its little white chapel, looked like a child’s tender drawing, and also like one of the haunting Treshnish islets off Mull, especially Bac Mor or Dutchman’s Cap with Ag Iannis being the cap.
We returned to a completely deserted Psili Ammos, and there Ilse announced she wanted to swim. As did I, on a day like this, but she soon disconcerted me by saying she didn’t want me to see her naked, which she revealed was the only way she ever swam. After a car accident a year ago, she explained, she had needed extensive hip surgery and it had cured the hip alright, but had left ugly folded layers of skin the full length of her legs…
“I had the most beautiful legs,” she sighed with infinite regret. “All the way till I was all of sixty-six. Now they are more or less corrugated with loose skin, and it breaks my heart because I remember them so vividly in their pristine prime. People, not just men but women too, used to go faint over my beautiful limbs, but now they never do. So look, you just stay here and swim straight ahead, and I will move a hundred metres down there, so that you won’t be offended by my hideous folds and my surgical wrinkles.”
I stared with blank disbelief and said I didn’t give a damn about her skin folds, and I was sure she was dramatically exaggerating. But Ilse was adamant and she lugged her big blue rucksack down the beach, then stripped off in a trice, and went racing into the pellucid and tender Aegean. She leapt up and down exultantly in the waves, and even from a distance I could see her tautly jutting and impressively firm breasts, meaning a touchingly youthful figure for which most women aged sixty-seven would have given a royal fortune. As she romped and skipped on her ecstatic and self-centred axis, I felt painfully deserted, even cruelly abandoned, not to say unsubtly manipulated and crudely rejected by a woman whose only real love in seven decades had been with a man who had beaten her up, and come close to murdering her. I decided that it must exquisitely suit Ilse Schiller to tantalise and thereby control a peaceable and unaggressive man, who wasn’t a jealous and febrile nutcase, and wasn’t remotely homicidal. But meanwhile her vaunting and theatrical abandonment felt like a slyly inflicted wound that I simply did not deserve, and therefore I would reject her crudely in return. I decided that I actively disliked Ilse Schiller, and I went back onto the beach and closed my eyes tight and attempted to blank her out of my offended heart for the rest of the afternoon.
Before very long, she skipped up to me with wildly dancing breasts, and announced that she had changed her mind. She would after all let me see her naked, even though thanks to her surgically wasted legs she was overwhelmingly ashamed of herself. She beckoned impatiently for me to follow on to where she’d camped. Her beautifully long back and sinuous, slim backside were finely tapered, and from this distance her skin seemed wholly blemishless. Under most lights she would have passed for a handsome woman in early middle age, and yet she preferred perversely to be thoroughly mortified by her appearance. I put my rucksack next to hers and spread my towel, and glanced at her sat bolt upright in an expert half lotus, scornfully examining those slim legs of hers that drove her mad with their imperfection.
“Look,” she said, pointing at some minuscule folds at the top of her thighs, which would have offended no one but a bilious perfectionist.
I said without any guile or motive, “For sixty-seven you look remarkable. You have firm and lovely breasts and budlike nipples like a woman of twenty-five. You have no belly at all, not a trace of fat on you anywhere. You have no cellulite whatever on your lovely thin bottom…”
Like some pettish infant she rasped, “Fuck it, as well as lovely legs, I once had the most pristine and legendary bottom. Everyone said that it was perfect, and that I was Venus Kallipyge or that woman who flaunts her backside in Botticelli’s Three Graces. I once had a fucking Botticelli botty as you infantile Brits abbreviate it, but look at it now with these horrible folds of skin…”
She indicated the cleft of her behind, and again I noted some tiny surgical folds that would have been ignored by anyone but a grieving obsessive. The single blemish was a tiny and livid pink rectangle where her bottom met the towel, which I could only assume was a fleabite acquired in Kassos or the Kalamos domatia.
I said drily, “There’s no pleasing some folk. You have a nigh flawless body and every woman your age would go nuts at you moaning about your imperfections. And there’s no remedy for your affliction as far as I can see, because it is psychological not anatomical. I could talk my arse off, assuring you that you look stupendous, but all you see is those harmless little folds and you can’t see anything else.”
She turned on her belly. As well as those firm and pendulous breasts there was an attractive curve in the base of her spine from which her delicate bottom rose up gently, even modestly. She would have swiftly corrupted a nonagenarian monk, and she was busy thinking she looked a sight and an object of shame. Eventually I remarked on her queer little fleabite, and asked her was it a Dodecanese or a Cycladean flea.
“That tiny pink mark at the base of your bottom. It can only be a fleabite, it could hardly be an allergy to strawberries in late October.”
She answered without drama, seemingly bored by the conversation, “That’s no fleabite. It’s a flare up of my herpes. I’ve had it for over five years now. To be honest it can be a fucking nuisance and it can also put off some extremely agreeable men.”
It was a hot October afternoon, yet I felt myself rapidly freezing. Was that last sentence about agreeable men an example of Teutonic litotes, of miraculous Heidelberg understatement? I had immediately shuddered at the h-word, though of course Ilse with her permanent self-obsession, hadn’t even noticed.
“It was a Berlin waiter called Ruprecht gave it me. I might have known with a gormless vicar’s name like that, even if he was very good -looking and twenty years younger than me. When he smirked, and took me to his home I was very drunk and incapable of exercising common sense. Soon after I got a sore on my mouth and then off and on for five years it has flared up. Whenever it does, it is contagious of course. When it first revealed itself and I rang dozy Ruprecht and told him that I had herpes, he simply laughed a lot and said yes, yes, he had recently found a stupid little sore on his mouth.”
I gave a second shudder yet Ilse saw nothing but her reductive and redundant obsessions. I didn’t bother to confirm it, but because she had a livid pink square on her otherwise flawless behind, then that like an ugly mouth sore must constitute a flare up. She was in a contagious condition, and, as everyone knows, for it is the only thing that everyone does know about herpes, it is potentially a life sentence. Google a thousand different sites, and they will all inform you that, if in doubt, the only way to avoid infection is to abstain from vaginal, anal and oral sex, and that even condoms offer negligible protection. I hastily reversed the film sequence of our days together, and recalled how I’d been hungry to sleep with her last night, but as fortune would have it, and although it had pained me, she had not encouraged it. In the feebly flickering candle light last night, I wouldn’t have seen that livid pink square and possibly wouldn’t even have felt it, had I caressed her thin and tender buttocks.
I felt a grotesque relief as one who had flirted with a dangerously uncertain entity, including Ilse Schiller’s identity as a peyote drinking shaman. This was the same Ilse who doted on the memory of a lethal but adorable psychopath called Witold Mann. This was the same inimitable egotist who fretted about the minuscule skin folds on her handsome backside, but not about the livid herpes on the same exquisite behind.
On her profile, Ilse Schiller had boasted that not only was she invariably empathetic, but that she was extremely comfortable inside her own skin. And yet she patently feared and loathed her beautiful skin, and indeed it was all she chose to talk about for much of the time we spent together.