eden roc chat
– WELL, I DIDN’T get my money, but I broke his cheekbone. The orbital socket, the … Hr looked at his mobile phone, as if he were being questioned. Doubted. Yeah, well, it’s not the money, it’s not the money that matters. It’s the principle. You have to settle your debts. It’s not the money, the money was nothing. Nothing. It was the principle.
Lily looked across at Tamara, who cocked one artfully plucked eyebrow – in itself something of an effort as the sun basted them, baked them and spit-roasted them. As they suffered for their tans.
– It was a game of cards, he continued, it was a game of bloody chance, and he lost. It was the principle. That’s the thing. The principle. It was a matter of honour.
Lily mimed an extravagant yawn as more chitter and chatter floated across the pool. As the man adjusted himself inside his tight, white bathing trunks. Continued with his conversation. Not caring who heard, who was listening. As if the very exclusiveness of being poolside at the Eden Roc was enough for him. As if it cotton-wooled him and protected him from the conventions of the outside world, against any possibility of eavesdropping. He snapped his phone shut with a disatisfied grunt, as if all phone calls ended that way – his eyes surveyed the bodies by the pool. Just, no doubt, as they had surveyed the bodies in Biarritz, in Deauville, Positano and Sotogrande. Where money had also honeyed the skin and firmed the flesh, where age was also kept at bay by the scalpel and the injection. He was not even appreciative, behind the dark lenses of his Persol sunglasses as he looked down at his domain. His fiefdom. That his money had provided him access to. His eyes lazily skittered across Lily and Tamara, and they both sensed the lizard-lick of his evaluation. And they shuddered. He sniffed, an animal at his watering hole, and leant his head back. And closed his eyes against the Mediterranean sun.
– Same old story, Lily said.
– Heard it before, Tamara replied, and you’ll hear it again.
They were complete strangers. They knew nothing of each other. Apart from the fact that they were both English, or at least British. To look at, they could have been sisters. Both in the perilous foothills of their early thirties, both slim, both bronzed, both wearing black, straw sunhats. Both blonde, both faces were made-up and their fingernails were polished a dark plum that had been applied the previous afternoon in the ‘Cabana’ beauty suite. The afternoon previous to that, they had met by the pool. Prevous to that, they had flown to the south of France from their very separate lives. For now, they could almost be sisters. One of them was a whore, the other was not.
– It’s changed, Tamara had said to Lily the previous afternoon, as their nails dried in the shade of the cypress trees. Meaning the hotel had changed, meaning it would have been too vulgar to ask whether Lily had been to the hotel before. But, all the same, it was a question.
– I suppose it has, Lily had answered, but then again, doesn’t everything?
A waterskier cut across the crystal swell of the sea beneath them. Lily and Tamara watched his smooth trajectory as his skis danced across the wake from the boat, as he hopped and twirled on the water as if he were the only being in the world. Lost in his moment. But they knew the act was for them, or for those like them. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and the skier didn’t have work to attend to, all he had to do was show off. Show off to the money lounging by the pool at the Eden Roc. And dream, dream of fucking that money. Of making that money scream with pleasure. Of making some of that money his.
The man in the white bathing trunks started to snore. A gentle, unhurried, baby’s snore that summed up the pulse of the hotel. Satisfied, replete, protected. No one was going to fuck his money. Or he would break their cheekbone. One punch, that’s all it took, one punch.
– Russian? And Lily nodded towards the man, his belly rising and falling, his hand still clutching his mobile phone. His lifeline, his pacifier.
– Who knows. And Tamara looked at the mahogany-dark body that could have come from the Caucaus or Iran, from Turkey or the Lebanon. Small pools of sweat gathered in the furred trap that was his sternum. They all sort of become one, don’t they? These days, well, I mean, Russian – it’s just another accent, really.
She might have said, invention or creation. For they both knew the art of those. They both knew the power of those. They were both inventions.
A busboy moved towards them, collecting empty espresso cups and water glasses as he moved alongside the pool. His uniform starched; bright and white and it carried the crest of the hotel on his breast. His eyes were blank, professionally incurious as he emptied the ashtrays and looked for anything that was out of place, for a fly in this luxurious ointment. There was nothing, nothing to upset the morning’s natural rhythmn. His eyes took in the bodies of Lily and Tamara, but no lizard-lick of evaluation from him, he knew his place, he knew his station.
– Cute, huh? Lily’s voice told Tamara that her interest would go no further than the passing comment. As the busboy padded along the side of the pool, as he dexterously side-stepped the sudden splash from the two children in the shallow end.
– Who, the kids? Tamara asked, knowing that is not what Lily had meant, but opening up another line of questioning. The issue of children. The issue of issue.
– Kids? Lilly looked at the two children, unable to tell whether they were boys or girls. They were pre-gender, pre-sex and all the bagagge that came with that. Their skin was unblemished and golden, their hair fell over their ears and down to their necks and was kissed by the sun. From between their tiny white teeth came the tiny cries of joy that was the province of childhood. That was the right of childhood. Lily had never enjoyed that right, it had been denied her. In the cul-de-sac of ambition that had been her parent’s home. Actually, to call it a home was nowhere hear the mark. It was a house, where she had spent time – again, to call it living would give the wrong impression – with her mother and father. With the man and the woman who had taken her in and adopted her, who had gone through the act of parenting because they couldn’t biologically be parents. There had been something wrong inside one or other of them, or both of them. Or they simply weren’t compatible. Or the sun and the moon and the stars had never found the right alignment for them. No matter how many ovulation tests had been taken, no matter how many times they had fruitlessly coupled in the bedroom of their house in Buckinghamshire, they were not going to produce issue. Lily had grown up knowing that she was a mistake. Not only the first time, for her birth mother, but the second time, by the man and the woman who passed themselves off as her parents, but had been unable to provide her with any love. Just like her mother.
– Kids? Lily repeated. More trouble than they’re worth, really.
– You know, and Tamara laughed up at the cloudless sky, I think you may be right.
Lily had never been a troublesome child. Mr and Mrs Newton should have been happy with their adopted daughter, although happiness was an uneasy state of mind for them, it suggested a sense of loss – that occupied the no-man’s land between expectation and desire. Mr and Mrs Newton were of a generation that had learnt to do without, to have learned to live with foreshortened horizons, with diminished appetites. And this they naturally tried to suggest to Lily Newton. Through their daily routine they had suggested it; the early rises and the dry breakfasts, and Mrs Newton driving Mr Newton to the railway station from where he would take the train to work. That had been a part of the routine. And then Mrs Newton taking Lily to school. And then? And then? How had Mrs Newton filled up the rest of that day?
– Penny for them. Tamara’s voice.
It had become a joke between them – ‘A penny for your thoughts’ in a place where even spending a penny cost more than that in tips. Cash only. No cheques. It was how Tamara had first introduced herself to Lily – in her roundabout way – the previous afternoon as they lay by the pool, their bodies greedily soaking up the ultraviolet rays. As they topped up their tans. Their minds blanked by the heat, they had been lying next to each other. Like sisters, almost. But one was married and one was not.
It was Tamara’s joke, it was her way of breaking the ice, of alleviating the boredom. The flippancy of the comment could only elicit a smile, could in no way cause offence. It was a tried and trusted method of opening up the possibility of conversation, and Tamara was more than adept at starting that ball rolling.
– They’re not worth more than a sou. Lily replied. Just thinking about, you know, parents and stuff. What they expected of you. What they had hoped for you.
– Parents, Tamara shifted on the sunlounger and adjusted the straps of her bikini top, more trouble than they’re worth, if you ask me.
They both shared the laughter. Laughing at different memories. They could have reached out and touched each other, their fingertips could have met in the space between their bodies – but that space was a canyon, full of everything that made them different, that set them apart.
Tamara’s parents had been carefully airbrushed from her story. The bullish Scotsman that had been her father. The brittle smudge of peroxide that had been her mother. Trouble? They had never really been trouble, they had been an embarassment for Tamara, a never-ending catalogue of incidents that had set her teeth on edge, that had raised her hackles. Dr Gilliatt and his wife, Penny. Tamara had never known where the ‘doctor’ had come from, or what form of doctorate he had posessed. It was just another layer of his artifice, just as his rolling Edinburgh accent was, just as the suits he had made at Gieves & Hawkes were. Another fucking lie from the boy from Kircaldy. The boy who had escaped Fife, who had escaped the east coast of Scotland and had rematerialised in the London that swung as Dr Gilliatt. Frank Gilliatt, although he never was. Frank was the one thing he was not. He woke up, and he started lying. He breakfasted, and he lied. He lied to himself as he went to work, and that was when the business of lying really started.
– What did they do, your parents? Lily asked – not for her the skirting of the issue.
– Oh, dad? He was a doctor. Tamara lied.
What kind of a doctor? An abortionist? A Dr Feelgood with a sheaf of jazzy presciptions, ready to dole them out to the Londoners that swung? Why, Tamara wondered, did no one ever ask? And she knew why Frank Gilliatt had chosen the honorific of ‘Doctor’ – it was never questioned. It confered respectability. It meant you could trust the man. While she had grown up to know that was one thing you could not do, you could never trust Frank Gilliatt. Penny, though, her mother Penny Gilliatt hid behind the lies, as a form of protection against the awful reality of the world. It was just so much simpler, to accept her husband’s lies – whether they concerned affairs, business deals, property speculation or absences. Peripatetic, it was a word that Tamara liked the sound of. It was also a word that summed up her childhood. Always on the move, staying one step ahead of the lie left dormant behind them.
– A doctor? Tamara knew that Lily was cutting to the chase, that she was about to pose the question that convention dictated remain unasked. Theology, philosophy or medicine? Surgeon or a GP? Last doctor I knew was an Italian – Il dottore, if you don’t mind – and I never found out what his doctorate was in. Medieaval theosophy, for all I knew. Or cared.
It was as if the sun had taken refuge behind a cloud, the warmth that had existed between the two of them had evapourated – was gone. But only for a moment, fleetingly it had shuddered and disappeared, then reappeared. Tamara knew it. Lily sensed it. But that moment had gone, the awkward question had passed them by. The sun beat down on them, again.
– Fancy a dip? Tamara asked.
The saltwater of the pool was rejuvenating. They both swam in the same style. The first length underwater, gliding through the pool like shiny brown pebbles, their dives having left barely a ripple of the surface. The children in the shallow end halted their horseplay and watched; their mothers watched from the poolside, aperitifs in their hands, their gossip forgotten for a moment, as Tamara and Lily cut through the water. They emerged in the shallow end, panting, laughing, refreshed. The man in the white trunks awoke, surveyed the scene, yawned and then walked back to the hotel. Punching numbers into his mobile phone. Tamara and Lily watched his muscular back from the pool. Tamara splashed Lily, playfully.
– What an arsehole, she said and started to swim another length. Lily followed, her strokes mimicking Tamara’s, neither of them let their faces drop below the water’s surface – their make-up may have been water-resistant, but it was not water-proof. They reached the deep end, they steadied themselves at the pool’s edge, the dark-plum of their nails matching, the coiled buns of blonde hair and the darting, inquistive eyes the same. Lily felt her nipples harden in the cool water, without a bikini top they radiated a dull ache, the memory of a sting that moved through her small breasts. She rubbed herself, and felt the goosebumps tauten her flesh. She felt the midday sun beating down on her forehead.
– Lunch? She asked.
– In town. Tamara suggested.
Lily’s husband was due to arrive that evening. Having conducted his business, having brokered whatever deal he was involved in. The deal that would have involved bricks and mortar and construction and hotels that he would never deign to stay in, the monolithic pre-fabrications that housed the working classes. That is to say, the classes that worked for their living. That flitted from town to city to capital, that rested their weary heads in hotels built by Lily’s husband – with CNN and MTV and BBC, with minibars and shower caps, with the security safes in the wardrobe that did little more than mock them, reminding them that they had nothing of value to hide there. They would rest their weary heads, on the foam pillows, and they would move on – to their next hive of activity. Lily knew little about her husband’s business, not that he was a secretive man, not that he believed that he dealt in matters that she would not understand, but simply because it bored her. It did not interest her in the slightest.
Just as, if Lily were honest with herself, her husband had started to bore her. To raise no interest in her. He had become, in essence, the same as Jack Newton. The same as her adoptive father. Her husband, Adam Franklin, had buried his bright and shiny dreams beneath the numb reality of spreadsheets and architectural plans of buildings where he wouldn’t even take a drink in. It was just a way of making money, so that he could make more money on the FTSE and the Nasdaq and the Hang Seng. Buying and selling hope and despair. His dreams had been suffocated by this, his moods were dictated by this – by share values and stock crashes – he had surrounded himself with men, they were always men, whose foul breath spoke of the constipation that troubled them, that told of a life lived at speed. At high speed, with feet self-importantly stamping on the accelerator. They could afford the trappings – the watches, the fountain pens, the three-piece suits, the cufflinks and the handmade shirts – but they seldom looked good on it. The toys were brought – the yachts, the cars – but they couldn’t afford the time to enjoy them. They were, if only they had known it, the same as those they built the hotels for. Their salaries, their renumeration packages, their pensions and their health plans were more attractive, but they were the same – moving from town, to city, to capital. To their next hive of activity. Choking on each others breath.
Lily and Tamara moved through the old port of Antibes, in their kaftans and slingbacks, more than aware of the looks they attracted, neither of them thinking of lunch. It was the first time they had ventured out of the grounds of the Hotel du Cap, and they found it disconcerting. The everyday life that was taking place here, the tourists and the shopkeepers, the beggars and the crews from the yachts. They were unaccustomed to it all. They felt that they lacked protection.
– My husband, Lily began, as they looked at the bistrots and restaurants.
– Your husband? Tamara asked, realising how stilted they both sounded. How they had shed their sense of ease in each others company.
– Yes, he, that is, Adam, is arriving this evening.
– Oh, it was all Tamara could think of to say. She didn’t know whether it had sounded like a question or an exclamation. It was basically an exhalation. Of surprise. Of sorrow. So, he – this Adam – was coming, this evening, and they would become strangers again. Polite waves across the bar. A nod in the dining room, a smile by the pool. Strangers. Who had once known something of each other, who had once been
Tamara was shocked by the anger that jolted through her. She looked at Lily, studying the menu outside Chez Felix, and thought, I know nothing of her, she knows nothing of me. But she knew that a bond had been formed, an unspoken bond that would now be rent asunder, cast aside as if it had meant nothing. She looked at the half-smile that slid across Lily’s mouth, she looked at the silk flowers that settled on the brim of her straw hat, and she thought how happy Lily must be. That her husband, her Adam, was arriving that evening. And Tamara tried to imagine how that happiness might manifest itself. What it would feel like. And she failed.
– Let’s try here, Lily said.
– Why not? Tamara smiled.
Lily took in the freedom of Tamara’s smile. Its bravery, it wantoness, its ease in the face of the world. She was lucky, Lily thought. She had all the luck in the world, all the time in the world. Tamara was, Lily told herself, free. To do as she wished, when she wished. Lily suddenly felt an overwhelmsing sense of bitterness, at the injustice of it all. That she should be trapped in her marriage – with all its little rituals and secrets – while Tamara still had the opportunity to fly where she fancied, when she fancied, with whoever she fancied.
They took a table outside Chez Felix. Their view was of the masts and rigging of the yachts that crowded the harbour. Jolly, happy families filled the air with their shouts and laughter; the engines from motor launches, the slap of rigging in the wind, the waves against the hulls was the soundscape. A family tumbled onto the seats of the table next to them, boisterous and full of good humour – faded espadrilles and flip-flops, Breton T-shirts and worn shorts. A family, holidaying together. Enjoying each others company. The vodka and tonics that were delieverd to Tamara and Lily’s table had a sharper taste due to this family’s proximity. The drinks seemed a little more sour than usual.
– It must be nice, Tamara started.
– Your husband. Tonight. To see him again.
– Absolutely. It makes such a difference, being able to spend time together down here on the coast. No business, no interuptions, just us.
Lily would have done anything to swap places with Tamara. To have a chance to evade the lies that had become the rock on which her marriage existed. The strains of a Portuguese fada could be heard from one of the bars further along the Avenue du Verdun – where the clientelle was younger, was able to snatch moments of joy from the melancholic sound. In spite of the melancholia, despite it. Lily and Tamara had settled into what could have been called a companiable silence, but was in fact based on the fact that they both knew their break from their different realities was about to come to an end. It had been a sojourn, perhaps a respite from the existences they led. And they looked at each other, they both dreamed the dream of being able to swap places. To swap lives. Maybe for one night only – a special offer – just to see, just to taste what it might have been like if events hadn’t conspired against them,
– Steak tartare? Lily broke the silence.
– If you think we need fortifying! Tamara laughed. Slightly uneasily.
They ate their steak tartare and their chocolate mouse, they drank their vodka tonics, their bottle of Chateau des Garcinieres, their coffees and their calvados. They made their way back to the Hotel du Cap to prepare themselves for their evenings. Lily with her husband. Tamara with the man in the white bathing trunks. They would both be paid, one way or another, they would make their money. It was a matter of principle. Of what used to be called honour. They kissed goodbye above the still and empty swimming pool, the afternoon sun bleached the rocks surrounding the pool. And they went back to their very separate, their very different lives.