This was published on the Exeter Writers website. As I get older I’m more aware of how women in society are treated as they age, as if our looks (so long taken for granted perhaps) and market value (if we’re going to be crass) becomes something tenuous and fragile. It worries me. I find women of all ages beautiful. But women I know and love continue to be plagued with insecurities well into their 50s and 60s. When does it leave us, I wonder? On the deathbed?
He rotates my body round in the morning light.
‘Eighty,’ he says. ‘Eighty.’
I peer down. Some of the wheals are still blotches of pink, others have hatched tiny pus-filled eggs on my skin.
‘You’re having a really bad reaction,’ Simon says.
There is a sharp tug of pleasure as his fingers probe. I’ve always enjoyed objective scrutiny, someone drawing me, someone cutting my hair. Right now I could be pinned under a microscope at his biology lab.
‘Mosquitoes love me,’ I say.
‘Hmm,’ he replies. ‘You know, only the females bite. They have this long, thin proboscis and they wait until they fill up completely. Even if you cut the nerve to their abdomen they keep sucking until they burst. It helps them lay eggs. They tend to like smells – isn’t your period on at the moment?’ He’s seen the pads in the bathroom, a surprising bleed after all these months.
‘Yes, but – Simon… -’
Perhaps this isn’t the right time to ask my husband to be more romantic. He’s already pacing away down the hall of our holiday apartment, a white towel precisely origamied around his waist. As my custom, I find the faint disc of skin at the back of his crown. It’ll be camouflaged for years to come, so that any woman looking into his face will only see the thick-fringed hair, the still-bright hazel eyes. Bastard.
‘I have bites – terrible bites….’ I tell the landlord, raking my arms.
Carlo’s been sawing something. He’s wearing orange shorts and the grey hair on his swollen chest has caught some sawdust. Smiling, he spreads his fingers to the hills of Cilento behind him as if I’m trying to blame him for nature’s pests.
‘I have net, five euro,’ he tells me. ‘I have Jungle – it’s the best.’
I notice the permanent nets on his windows and doors. He disappears and comes back holding a net in one hand and repellent in the other.
‘How much for the Jungle?’ I ask.
I shake my head, Simon would hate me to pay for something we could get for less than ten pounds at home. I know him too well, I think, as I cradle the net in my arms back to our room; a slightly grubby bridal veil.
We’re staying in the holiday ‘village’ Santa Maria, two hours drive south of Naples. It has six white stone studios built round a swimming pool, palm trees, tropical flowers, steep banks covered in rosemary and lavender and the Tyrrhenian sea glistening in the distance. It’s nearly perfect.
But after handing over the rest of the cash for our fortnight stay, we watched Carlo disappear into one of the rooms across the pool.
‘We wanted privacy, we’re normally very busy people,’ I cringed later at his door. We’d agreed not to even look at anything resembling work; no research papers, no notes for poems…
‘No worry, I will not disturb you. There will be quiet,’ Carlo told me. No one else had booked he said, in early September.
I’m scratching so much sometimes I bleed, disappearing into the bedroom and driving myself into a further frenzy of itching.
‘Marion, stop,’ Simon calls out.
‘I can’t believe I’m helping these bitches breed,’ I shout, falling onto the bed.
On the ceiling is the hook holding our mosquito net. There are two other hooks further along by the window. I imagine freckled English women, hanging like human salamis, tautly bound in gauze, heads dangling, their brows twisting as they try to scratch themselves. My fingers twitch for pen and paper, to make a poem. Instead I place my hands under the small of my back to stop their restless scurrying.
Since the bites we haven’t had sex. Perhaps the moist Braille of my skin repels. It’s reasonable to expect that after so many years, we can express our lack of appetite at times. But it always feels better to be the one pushing the hand away.
In the sea I sway in the currents, cradled in the cool water. I look back at the beach, the Italian couples on short trips from Naples. I’d expected to be intimidated by the women but despite their bikinis, (even the grannies wear these), their flesh shudders as they descend to the water.
‘When I was a teenager we went to the Amalfi coast and people looked like film stars on the beach,’ I tell Simon. ‘I’d suck in my stomach constantly. People here look like they enjoy eating.’
‘None of them are swimming. Why don’t they swim?’ Simon asks.
It’s true they just stand, splashing small handfuls of water on themselves as if in a bath. A few swimmers, usually men, can be seen hurling their silver backs out of the water in the distance. A few times a day a man grabs his mate and staggers down to the sea with her while we watch. ‘It’s like Italian Shrek,’ mummers Simon. I laugh, he can always make me laugh.
There’s no Jungle spray in the local chemist and Simon’s Italian won’t stretch to ask for a foreign equivalent. In the end we settle on a bottle with a brutal looking mosquito on the front. It doesn’t work but at the end of the second week, a coastal wind blows in, the guidebook calls it the Bora Scura – the dark wind. Some afternoons the beaches are completely empty as the sand whips up like glass.
The mosquitoes seem to vanish.
I welcome the Bora. It rocks the net above our heads at night. I insist we keep it up in case a stray mosquito whines its way into the room. And it makes me feel like we’re young again, camping. We’d used the same ones years before, travelling in India.
‘Do you remember the hotel rooms?’ I whisper.
‘Yes, I remember,’ Simon says. Sex had been almost a sickness as we rocked together in the humidity – a dislocating puzzle of human parts. I would trace his profile with my finger, over the strong nose, the dip of his fulcrum where bubbles of sweat gathered. I’d lick them up.
We’ll both be forty-seven next year and Simon says I’m turning into a nostalgia machine, constantly replaying early days together in bed twenty years ago. I can’t help it, the memories seem to grow in strength, feeding themselves.
The first time we tried since I got the bites, Simon slackened in the dark heat of the room, a disarming melting under my fingers. Sometimes it’s better, it leaves us feeling that all is well. But this time, on hearing his final grunt, I pushed myself away, to use my own fingers. He reached out to stroke my face. You’re crying, he said.
Carlo appears at our door.
‘More guests arriving,’ he says.
‘Really, when?’ I ask.
‘You said no one else had booked,’ Simon says.
‘Late reservation. No children, no worry.’
Later there’s laughter.
‘What the hell are they up to,’ Simon says. As if they can hear, it goes quiet.
Normally I’d be in the water, but I make my way to the pool gingerly like a cat shaking its paws through wet puddles. There are our disturbers, a couple, perhaps a decade younger than us. Smiling, with white teeth.
‘Let’s keep our distance,’ I’d said. ‘I know it’s not their fault but…’
But the plan to be cool and polite is sabotaged over the next few mornings; we’ve both been brought up to be nice and take part in conversations.
Arto and Hanna are from Denmark. He teaches kids, she works in a web company. Hanna has an off-key timing to her words that seems to amuse Simon. He’s being ironic about her, the way he always is when he likes someone.
In a way if she was just beautiful perhaps I could garner some superiority; the three slim volumes of my poetry, my teaching at the university and night schools.
But she isn’t just beautiful.
Morning swims now feature Hanna, already tanned and donning a protective sun hat (‘Sun damage is ageing me,’ she confesses), her neat body and bulging cleavage, her laughter, the hair shining down her back.
‘She’s lovely isn’t she?’ I say.
‘Who?’ says Simon.
I’m too old for this.
‘Hanna, well yes she’s attractive in an obvious sort of way.’
‘She’s one of those women. They’re made in factories with different body parts slotted together – it doesn’t occur naturally you know.’
We become busier, turning into tourists, booking trips. Sea Caves! Together we study the photographs pinned up on the boat trip sign as if deciding which platter to choose at a cheap restaurant. Lapis Blue, Rose Pink, Gold – the ‘Gold’ cave one looks more like a shit colour. Taste the beauty with your eyes, is scrawled above the pictures.
The small motor boat spends a long, dizzying time negotiating the coastal curve. I clutch the side, nauseated by the stink of motor oil, staring at the sea, dull green and viscous under the first cloudy day. The man motoring the boat wears an ill-fitting shirt over his round belly, a gold medal nestled in his chest hair. His eyes flit around hopefully, hunting for some visual satisfaction.
There’s no obvious beauty in the first cave, the walls are splattered in orange and black fungal matter as if paint has been thrown at them. Simon dives into the milky turquoise water, his body flapping black into the depths.
‘Glorious,’ he says, resurfacing. ‘Stunning. Like it’s lit from below but it’s just the colour of the rock. You try.’ But I don’t feel like taking my sarong off.
The last cave is the yellow, ochre-coloured one.
‘Not gold,’ I murmur, ‘definitely not gold.’
The boat man grunts, using his hands along the wall to edge us forward. He wobbles his torch into a corner and says, ‘Guarda il vecchio giovane…’
‘What’s he saying?’ I ask Simon.
‘He’s saying look at the old codgers…’
Directed by the light, my eyes find a cluster of yellowy-green stalagmites, two taller ones bent and deformed like aged figures. They’re slimy with moisture and have dark ragged holes for eyes and mouths. The man laughs for the first time and looks straight at me, showing the brown caramel of his teeth.
‘Tell him I want to get out of here,’ I say.
The next morning Simon’s side of the bed is empty. I step outside into the burning white morning wearing a polka-dot halter neck swimsuit. Simon hasn’t seen it yet.
‘Wow,’ says Hanna.
‘Lovely,’ says Simon. He’s in the pool with Arto.
I sit beside Hanna and we watch the men. Simon’s doing more than his usual fifteen lengths. It’s now thirty, forty. He looks red, almost purple, and not for the first time I think of heart attacks, but any relief dissipates as I watch him absorbed in the sight of Hanna from the pool edge.
I have tried to be attracted to Arto who despite thinning blond hair is handsome in a magazine sort of way. But we move politely together in the pool, turning at each end and never touching each other. And he always seems to have his attention focused elsewhere, namely on the efforts other men will go to entertain his wife.
There are few men who stop me in my tracks but occasionally one will have an effect, perhaps younger, usually not, with a body dense and yet light on its feet. I remember a waiter in one of the pizza restaurants. Signora, he said, Che cosa vi piacerebbe? – What would I like to order? His eyes met mine in a steady way until I looked down at the menu. For a moment I felt tremulously alive. Not something losing its life blood. Not to be someone who’s ‘weathering well.’ I’m the same as I ever was, the seven-year-old me, discovering her first orgasm, legs thrown up against a bedroom wall in a oblong of burning sunlight.
The wind subsides a few days before we leave and the sound of mosquitoes once again fills the air. On the last evening, Simon goes to settle up the deposit and when he doesn’t come back, I go searching for him. I see them before they spot me, Simon close to Hanna, reaching out to touch her back. Those probing professional fingers. They both turn at my cry.
‘I am bitten,’ Hanna says, ‘They attacked me!’
‘Carlo has Jungle repellent,’ Simon replies, with a strange tic of his head, ‘We needed some anyway…’
He strides past me to get it.
‘It’s twenty Euros,’ I call after him.
‘We will share the cost.’ Hanna says looking at my pocked arms and legs for the first time. ‘We women have sweet skin.’ I look up. High above our heads are millions of mosquitoes, lit up in great smoking clouds of gold.
‘Look,’ I say, smiling, ‘Look how many there are! They’re almost beautiful in this light.’ Hanna tilts her face upwards in horror. We wait in silence until Simon steps between us. With some energy, he pulls off the strap binding the bottle with his teeth.