“Is he asleep?” he asks.
“Of course,” she snaps. But should there be an “of course”? After all, many a night she has been up until the small hours consoling her husband after a fit. It’s not the convulsions she fears, she’s got used to those; it’s the aftermath, his sense of disorientation. Her voice softens. “Yes, he is asleep, sorry.”
“You don’t have to say sorry. It’s not easy. I understand.”
“Well, I try. I know it’s difficult to put myself in your place.”
“I wonder if anyone could put themselves in my place. I wonder if even I want to be in my place.”
Silence. The unsayable is usually followed by quietness. This is not what she’s come here for, however. She saw the balcony light on, heard the soft, mellow notes of Miles Davis’s A Kind of Blue playing and knew he was out there. She found him with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other one.
Their eyes kiss. It’s a lingering, embracing kiss, the type they know they’ll never be able to replicate with their lips.
“How bad is he?” He offers her a puff of his cigarette and pushes the glass of wine towards her. He sounds worried, but maybe he just wants to break the uncomfortable silence.
“There are good days and bad days,” she replies, “lately we’ve had a good run. But you can never be certain. He will die very soon. Of that we’re all sure. The tumour is too advanced. Hence the holidays. Radiotherapy, chemotherapy, oncologist, surgeon. A whole new vocabulary I never expected to learn.”
She pauses and looks outside the balcony. The surrounding Andalusian landscape reminds her of the time when she wanted to learn Arabic.
He looks at her. From where he is sitting, he can just make out her naked body underneath her camisole. The full moon outlines her fine features: her wrinkled face, her strong shoulders; the result of many a lap in her local swimming pool. He looks at her curly black hair, set against the paleness of her skin. White streaks already crowd her mane. He looks at her breasts, pointing slightly downwards, as if trying to tickle her rounded, protruding belly; the carrier of three beautiful children. His eyes keep travelling southwards to her legs. Her negligee is ankle-length, but still he is able to see her well-shaped, veiny legs and her strong thighs. Even the incipient cellulite sits well on her body.
He catches her catching him looking at her. He feels embarrassed but doesn’t blush. His dark skin won’t let him.
“It’s OK. It doesn’t hurt to look.” She smiles. “Is your wife asleep, too?”
He nods. “She had a terrible headache last night,” he says. As usual, he thinks. His eyes focus on the whitewashed Spanish village near their cortijo, now bathed in a silver light in this early-morning darkness. He remembers the walk the four of them took two days ago around the town’s tree-filled square and cobbled streets. Her husband was really looking forward to it. He was in high spirits, there had been a gap in his verbal glitches; maybe the treatment was working after all. He kept talking the whole time, emphasising each point with his hands.
He remembers the walk well. He also remembers his wife. They held hands at first like two adolescents in love, until they began to argue. It was over some petty issue. As is the norm these days. And then the hands went their own separate ways, like their owners.
Sometimes his current situation reminds him of a driver leaving the windshield wipers on when the rain ends. That screeching sound that diverts the driver’s attention from the traffic for a split second before the wipers are switched off. That’s how his relationship feels at the moment. But he can’t bring himself to halt the wipers.
“Things are not going very well for you either, are they?” Her voice is calm.
“No, you could say that a tumour is also killing my relationship,” he answers.
“I think you’re wrong. I fell out of love with him before he was diagnosed. His condition has just made things… more difficult.”
“You mean to leave him?”
“Yes. Who would like to be thought of as the bitch who dumped her husband when the going got tough?”
“Then, there’s no hope for me? For us?”
He’s never gone this far before. He realises now that their conversation up to this moment has been mere background music for their feelings.
Their eyes are not kissing anymore; their lips are. Like in the movies. Her nightgown comes off, his trousers are removed. His face is stroked and his nipples pinched. Her body is journeyed upon. Like in the movies. Gasping noises and muffled laughter are heard. Thrusts, abandon and elation are felt. Like in the movies.
That doesn’t happen.
As Davis, Coltrane et al launch into All Blues, she takes a long puff of his cigarette and another swig of his wine. He is still leaning against the door frame on his chair. She is sitting down on the floor now. They’re both immobile, but their mouths do not remain motionless. There are many words pouring forth at great speed, trying to make sense of the lack of a plan B.
He married for life, but his relationship is floundering. He doesn’t blame his wife; he is just as guilty as she is. But it’s painful to bear witness to your own life heading for a car crash scenario in slow motion. There are their two kids to consider for starters.
“And then there’s you.” He comes clear. “It’s been building up slowly, but surely.”
He continues. “It was your humour, our conversations, your maturity, your confidence.”
“Nothing to do with my body, then,” she replies.
“Oh no, I didn’t mean that,” he laughs.
“I know,” she responds, staring at him like a mother who’s just caught her teenage son hiding a top-shelf magazine under his bed.
It’s her turn now. “I loved and then un-loved, she says. He was… is… wonderful. He’s always supported my teaching career, despite, or on top of, rather, his own successful one. Always on hand to take care of the kids whenever I was marking or staying behind, regardless of whether he had a film to review or not. But there was no romance. I can’t remember who killed it first, but I was ready to leave when he was diagnosed.
“Would you have left him for me?” He asks, anxiously.
“Would you have left your wife for me?” She retorts.
His silence is seized by her to press on, unchallenged. “I, too, fell for you many years ago. Same reasons you gave, plus your body,” she smiles. “I always saw you as more than a friend. Whenever you discussed your difficult upbringing, the black child adopted by two successful, white, middle-class academics, I listened. I sympathised with your search for an identity. I have utmost respect for your work as a travel writer, especially because there aren’t many authors in that field who look like you. Through our conversations I felt an intimacy developing between us.”
She suddenly changes her tone: “I’m at my wits’ end. I recently wrote to The Guardian’s Family Supplement’s A letter to… I addressed my correspondence “to my husband’s tumour”. Just leave him, alone, I begged, leave us alone, leave ME alone!”
He is crying in silence. Strangled sobs that punctuate her narration. As dawn breaks, the bonus track, Flamenco Sketches, kicks in. The nascent sun spreads its orange carpet over the Alpujarras Mountains. Their eyes may be bloodshot but they are still locked in a long, lingering kiss.