A History

 

by Barbara Latham

 

T

he sea was neatly striped, with navy towards the horizon, then deep teal, before colour milk-thinned nearer shore.
Mesmerised at being back beside endless motion, with curled wave descending over stones and the force of it slapping under rocky cliff, it was only in frustration at the over-riding noise of jet skis, that I went to find the secluded hotel pool.
And there he was – after twenty-two years.
I’d seen him once before, but only fleetingly, during an interval at the opera nearly thirteen years ago, and very occasionally heard of him from a sister-in-law.
As he was lying face down, a towel covering his head, I could slip away unseen.
It was his body, I felt sure of it, though it had considerably fattened.
If we were to meet, and that seemed unavoidable since I could hardly change hotel (having already paid and any fuss would draw attention), I wished to be better groomed and keep the initiative, as if that might provide a thin protection.
Stupidly, in my hurry to retreat, I forgot to look and see if he had a much younger, attractive woman at his side. But she would be somewhere.
I’d avoided wherever he might be expected, yet here he was in Cyprus! I tended to place him in more glamorous places than this less expensive hotel, though he had a few surprising notions about where his ample funds were misspent. Certain places pandering to the rich were deemed money wasted. He’d rather buy another antique.
Hoarding small advantage at his having no idea of my being in Cyprus, I put on large dark glasses and my biggest hat. Not that he was likely to be unnerved if he did see me. The agitation would all be on my side.
Also, given that he had not been as driven to explore my flesh as I had his, and had since taken many opportunities to make love, or at least enjoy the pleasures of sex, I’d bet a lot on his not recognising my body. And even before discovering his presence, I’d no intention of flaunting mine. Years back I began to keep it draped in public, primarily to please my sometimes fastidious daughter.
Thus disguised, I went close enough to spy while pretending to doze.
It came as a shock when he turned over; his chest hair was familiar, but how his belly bulged and flopped! Either he played less sport these days or self-indulgence had caught up with him.
I presumed the woman gliding up and down with little splash and serious intention to accumulate lengths was the partner whose book and sunscreen sat on the lounger next to his.
Others lay about but no-one else was in the pool, which wasn’t heated, and though the sun was out, as yet it barely warmed the water.
I noted, with relief, there was no sign of a child; I’d heard of one girlfriend desperately trying and several miscarriages.
Joshua finally propped himself up and hunted round for glasses. How satisfactory that he, too, could no longer read without them. He was my age, after all.
He picked up what I took to be her book, scratched his crotch, then settled into making his balls more comfortable. The book was put down while he picked his nose, his white belly looking most unattractive. (Ageing men might also learn the finer arts of discreet covering after they’ve gone to seed.)
And how was it possible that I’d been totally obsessed with this man? It seemed entirely absurd, yet I never saw myself as going in for sheer folly.
Joshua wasn’t ugly but hardly the most attractive of the species, being rather short and squat. His flesh used to be wonderfully taut, except for decidedly rounded buttocks, uncommon in men from what I’d seen of them swimming, but now he was blatantly flabby.
He got up and, with the gait of a man no longer able to move with thoughtless ease, padded off towards one of the deluxe rooms near the pool, looking out to sea.
In a few moments he was back with a large handkerchief – still not using tissues I noted – and giving further attention to the contents of his nose.
This man was the one to give me turmoil. No one set me weeping more. After my fond father died I felt qualms at not crying a fraction as much for him as I’d sobbed through those months after Joshua left me the second time.
The first occasion he went I was too shocked for tears. I was more stunned by what I’d done.
My family are mostly religious, with one grandfather a Bishop, and though I no longer went to church I did have strong feelings against destroying life. I argued for a woman’s right to choose abortion but could not imagine ever having one. Unlike my older sister, I didn’t become a Buddhist when I left the Anglican Church (at the same time our only girl cousins struggled to become Vicars), yet still put spiders safely outside when they made their way to my empty bath. I didn’t kill wasps if I could open a window. Possibly it was superstition but I believed in being careful of all life back then. Nowadays it’s highly gratifying to find a mass of moths collected on killing strips. But at twenty-nine I was vegetarian and, despite the changes of the 1960’s, still expecting to live as gently as my parents had managed post-war. That was until I killed Joshua’s baby.
I refused any anaesthetic, convinced it was necessary to watch what I’d agreed to.

I had felt so lucky to be caught up with Joshua, “your great love” as my only sister called him during that first phase, and intermittently wondered about one day having his child.
Then contraception failed.
I couldn’t believe I might be in the tiny percent and triple checked a single day of taking the pill had been not missed.
Joshua could not think of being with anyone long term he said, but if I was determined on a child he’d help support it, provided I was ready to be a single mother. He even implied I might have tricked him.
It was him I was in love with, his baby only followed on from that. It wasn’t something in itself I wanted as yet. (That longing would take another few years to hatch.)
I didn’t know who to stab – myself, Joshua, or the foetus?
Instead I found a pedantic doctor who made it seem a totally neutral medical procedure to put an end to pregnancy. Her white coat was immaculate, without a single blood stain, though I looked hard for one.
I was grateful she did the deed but might have preferred blood over everything, not just in a tube going down to a jar.
Somehow I believed it was my own heart which she stopped. My sister isn’t entirely wrong when she insists I went loopy, for undoubtedly my heart continued pumping blood as it must, even if it was stripped of anything other than its strictly medical function. The rest of me turned to stone for an interlude. My less than kind Buddhist sister couldn’t resist telling our two brothers and others, in a special voice she has for being “understanding”, which isn’t hard to recognise as condescending: “Poor Pearl had a guilt breakdown.”
A strange word, “breakdown”, and her term not mine, though I turned to her since I couldn’t trust myself to be alone with rejection and a termination. She continues to say that my having an abortion was “traumatic”, and busies herself as a counsellor with expertise in unwanted pregnancies.
Calling it a “trauma” she keeps it as something I wouldn’t in my right mind have done. But I have done it. From a distance it soon became obvious that in doing so I unleashed more than my stomach was ready to digest. Absorbing the half of it took well past the due date, and my sense of myself had to shift.
That I could kill was one thing I hadn’t previously known.
Furthermore, that loving with all the heart might prove insufficient was another fact which had been inconceivable to me before.
Through my twenties and various suitable boyfriends I’d longed in vain to be swept along by desire. When I finally was, I promptly presumed “this must be it” – the answer to the promise of finding “the love of my life”.
Mother, as well as popular songs, offered that I’d know as soon as I found my true soul-mate, as if there could be only the one, and once met you were provided with the essentials for the rest of life.
It did not occur to me when I found I was, after all, able to risk myself to love, this might include risking rejection.

I never doubted that if Joshua stirred me to passion, he must be the man for marriage and fatherhood. Perhaps he knew such things were not for him, that he’d only do them badly, given his start in life. He said once: “Don’t confuse chemistry with commitment.” He had also told me: “Your family might have good reason to highly value loyalty, mine do not.”
Nevertheless, of my many assumptions, most only rose to visibility after he said a definite “no” to being a father and left.
At that exit, my coming to terms with the abortion appeared to take precedence over being abandoned, except that I couldn’t quite see which of us had been sucked out, the foetus or myself.
And it proved tough to find any clearing through that foggy confusion.

It was Joshua coming back which remained more puzzling than his not being prepared to be a father. It was a return which I later convinced myself would prove as deadly.
We re-met, accidentally, at the opening of my friend’s exhibition, eighteen months after the abortion. During which time I’d been celibate and Joshua had slept with more than a score of women.

I was at this function with the brother of the artist and, having decided Joshua was my one chance of passion which was now finished, I was about to go away with this decent, more reliable man.
So, when I talked to Joshua at the party, it cheered me considerably that I didn’t disintegrate and didn’t even feel nostalgic about my two good years with him. Instead I remained decidedly cool, glad I’d made some effort to look my best that night, and felt astonished the actual man barely impinged.
Perhaps it was my indifference which got Joshua going, determined to win me back, although he claimed his motive was realising I had truly loved him and that such love was not to be squandered.
I went away for a long weekend as already planned but soon Joshua pursued me with considerable effort and great charm. He came bearing gifts I’ve never been able to give away. Since I knew my iced heart, once melted, was already his, I gave in.
There were a couple of years of profound gratitude at again feeling desire where lust stayed revved in top gear.
We had the best of times but if I mostly sang as I went to meet him, Joshua, much as he liked to be adored, was liable to agitate that he might find himself cut off and cold. He moved between deliciously warm to frosty, though eager for sex in either state. I wondered if he kept looking to see if he might be able to love someone else with fewer hard-hearted episodes.
My friends failed to see how far Joshua didn’t wish to be himself; they protested he was selfish, a charmer, yes, when it suited, but he also behaved as if everyone was there to serve him. He used people, they said and could not forgive him his previous treatment of me.
My dutiful parents worried that Joshua might just be a “playboy”.
True, he was sealed into something of his own and failed to find any way out to see the rest of us more clearly. However, I’d persuaded myself love must be the thing to undo whatever bad spell trapped him.
He said: “You are still naive” and “You don’t see my cruelty.”
And then I did, when he sliced me out a second time.
My loving him almost certainly had not altered him one jot, and he continued half hoping there was a better self out there somewhere, somehow.
How could he settle into the person he was if constantly on the prowl to become a different one?
But I was ready to sink into a life of loving a fairly tricky man and wanted his child – one we would nurture doubly to make up for its predecessor. For me that sacrifice had to be redeemed by making a partnership with Joshua work.
We still had time, although I didn’t wish to wait too long, then go through unsuccessful IVF like my sister, older by five years. I often think it was Joshua’s least selfish act to insist he could not be the man I sought and leave before it was too late for me to have a baby with anyone else.
“You fit in the convention,” he said, whereas he could not be a proper father until he was able to accept his own history, or he’d show his son how to be an escape artist as well.
I was not capable of leaving. I’d invested too much and felt certain the aborted baby could be made good only with him.
Then Joshua ended things.
Thanks to his promiscuity he also left me with genital warts and the prospect of cervical cancer.
In fact the early cancerous cells were readily removed, but I kept a fixed belief he’d damaged me irrevocably. Some long nights it panicked me, more often it simply felt inevitable, almost gratifying. I was off life big time.
“It wasn’t just you I slipped from,” he told me those years later at the Opera, “it was also myself.” He needed endless distractions and wasted ten years on them, he claimed.
But while he threw himself into seduction, I flung myself on the bed to weep through every woe I might have known and many I had not.
It was astonishing what flooded through me as I cried most nights for months.
My conviction the cervix would prove disastrously cancerous concerned my sister, who offered tissues and her shoulder, but I kept my grief away from her this round.
I wept into my own pillow and through opera arias, but also discovered affinity with my black sheep aunt Ruby. She ran away to Italy in her youth with high hopes of being a singer but didn’t have the build for an opera diva. Her tears flowed more than mine through the opening of the second act in Figaro, presumably with sorrows of her own, but slowly she helped me to some perspective.
She never said “get over him, he’s not worth the fuss.” Unlike almost everyone else, Ruby had no patience with the mantra “let him go, you deserve better.” (And I didn’t begin to know how to let go of having Joshua matter.) Perhaps I was also locked in indignation at not being wanted, though I couldn’t recognise it, but what seemed incontrovertible was that Joshua was in my heart for life. Aunt Ruby agreed that looked likely, for love remained a great wonder to her; “A wonder uncracked by any of your clever books, Pearl,” she said. She also claimed I’d been trained for an earlier era, where women only had one chance at respectable love, and had not adjusted to a different game or learnt its rules. Nevertheless she was firm that if I could love truly once, my heart had capacity to love again. With her help I gradually stepped towards accepting I might find a very different match.
It took several, mostly sad, years but by the time my artist friend’s patient brother found his way back, I’d recovered from the worst. He was ready to settle and wanted a child. I was heading towards IVF territory and it seemed foolish to punish my body further with unerotic and hideously intrusive treatment (though I feared it might be necessary anyway thanks to Joshua’s legacy).

The daughter we produced easily we also named Ruby, though she called herself Ru from an early age and now insists upon it. She is currently cycling up the rocky hillsides here in Cyprus with her boyfriend, having wanted this trip for her 18th birthday.
Her boyfriend has Cypriot grandparents and knows the cycle routes they’ve set themselves each day.
When I married Ru’s father, some months after our very physical girl was born, we moved from London and I didn’t come across Joshua for ten years after we broke up – or rather since he broke me on his second exit.

I think it was at Manon we met, but I know exactly what shirt he had on and the dress I was wearing. I felt certain he was somewhere in the theatre even before we recognised each other as I sought the toilet.
“Some things never change,” he said.
An urge to rape and beat overcame me. It has to be the only time I’ve been outraged at not being able to bugger anyone.
He might have been right, there was still chemistry, yet it felt totally unacceptable, and his smugness in registering the old pulse seemed unforgivable.
Anyway, it wasn’t just the same if lust now twisted with violence.
The rest of the expensive performance was wasted, as my mind ran its own show, mostly of perversions.
I might have longed for Joshua as no other but had since been reduced to fairly selfless devotion for a baby girl I ached to protect, and felt deeply grateful for the man I’d married. Living with him usually made sense and when it failed to do so the episodes were endured until they passed. Fortunately none lasted long and were usually swept away by relief I no longer pined for Joshua and got pregnant by a man who delighted in a child so different from himself. Ru is a natural mover, born with amazing balance, who comes alive with physical activity, not ideas. She is as ready for every kind of sport as Joshua used to be.
When a second child didn’t happen, we considered adoption but were too white and old for our local authority. At least with only Ru, we could occasionally afford the opera.

The trim woman I’d kept an eye on pulled herself gracefully up the side of the pool, spoke briefly to Joshua and went inside the main hotel, not to his room. He got up awkwardly, scratched at himself some more, gathered the book and almost waddled away. Perhaps something was wrong with one leg.
I could not credit that I had nearly let inability to forget this man keep me from ever having a baby and felt blessed my husband had been prepared to help me get over “the shit” as he used to refer to his rival.
Once Joshua moved from the poolside I had no reason to linger.
I had forgotten putting on fancy evening sandals when I went back to upgrade myself. Somehow, when a heel caught in the grill for pool overspill, I went over.
Before my dignity could begin to recover Joshua was by my side.
“I was watching you from my room, certain I knew that woman under the primrose hat,” he said.
His old school friend, Basil, whom I’d known, was part owner of the hotel and I’d better not sue him. The economy not being in the shape Basil expected, he’d had to give up one of his four days of golf with Joshua. Basil, as always, juggled tax evasion deals and now kept one base in Cyprus. It was his third, maybe fourth wife I’d seen in the pool. Joshua, coming only for the golf, had not encouraged his current partner to come. She was a designer and busy.
“And you?” As he leaned forward to ask, the same eyes were there before me. The face I used to touch had, if anything, a more gentle edge.
One other face ever made me melt like that – not my daughter in her current state, but if I recalled the baby she had been. Despite the adolescent spots which still lingered, I could sometimes catch the small and perfect skin of tiny Ruby.
Here before me was the only other face that could make my chest really hurt and stop my breath.
I gasped in air as I asked myself yet again how it was possible that a plain enough man could appear so beautiful to me.
Maybe I’d never know the answer but at least the question might subside. And one day may even fade completely.
Meanwhile the other question seemed to be whether Joshua would sweep us off that evening to the grander restaurant he knew, or stay where we were on a half board deal.
My absent husband would probably say, “Fancy banging into old Josh in Cyprus. Slippery and seedy as ever I assume?”
As for Ru, she was thoroughly into food and a considerable cook, she wouldn’t hesitate to accept being taken up into the mountains for fine dining by some old beau of her mother’s from ancient history.
And I had no idea what I might still want of Joshua. Perhaps this ache of tears, choking the chest and finding no way to surface, is for all lost love, not just for him, towards whom I am now so ambivalent.

•   •   •  

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