Authors: Chloe Thurlow
Published by Accent Press Ltd – 2010
Paperback ISBN 9781907016417
PDF ebook ISBN 9781907726231
ePub ebook ISBN 9781907761386
Copyright © Chloë Thurlow 2010
The right of Chloë Thurlow to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
The story contained within this book is a work of fiction. Names and characters are the product of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publishers: Xcite Books, Suite 11769, 2nd Floor, 145-157 St John Street, London EC1V 4PY
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swim out to the island I’ll never know. I had discarded my magazine. There was nothing worth reading. I had discarded my costume to try and fill in the white spaces around my tan. I had discarded my boyfriend without realizing, when I went on holiday on my own, that the hours would hang so heavily that it was almost better to be with someone you didn’t like, than to be lying there on the black sands of La Gomera with no one to talk to.
There were a few people further along the beach sitting under a red-and-white striped parasol. I could hear their laughter as it carried on the still air. I almost wished someone would walk by and say hello. Being naked might be something of a conversation opener. Or stopper! It was hard to know, some people would be embarrassed, and if it were someone like Bobby, my ex, he’d stand gawping and then like a schoolboy say something stupid. That’s why he’d been discarded; tall, dark, handsome, he was a walking cliché, a boy masquerading as a man.
I was 22 now. It was time to grow up, time to put childish pleasures behind me.
I’m a woman.
I shouted the words at the sky.
I’m a woman. I’m a woman. I’m a woman
I giggled to myself, stretched and let out a long sigh. It was the first time I had sunbathed nude and enjoyed the feeling of the sun warming my pink nipples. I squeezed the tips between my thumbs and first fingers, a tremulous feeling racing down my spine and making me squirm like a cat. My breasts in my cupped hands felt unusually full and it was blissful lying there with my eyes closed behind big sunglasses, sliding my palms over the curve of my waist, my hip bones pushing through the skin, gleaming and slippery with sun oil, and down into the silky patch of my pubic hair. Being naked outside in the sun and salt sea air makes you feel
sexy and it was sad being sexy all on my lonesome.
Between my legs I discovered a hint of moistness. A stray finger slipped inadvertently into the open cleft, juices seeped over the sea-shell lips of my pussy and my cheeks flushed with sudden shame. What if someone were looking? I sat up and glanced to the left and right. The people further along the beach were folding their parasol and leaving. I watched their figures grow smaller as they vanished across the dunes. I was suddenly, completely, alone.
Behind me, spines of rock rose up like the walls of a castle. The sea and sky were the same shade of blue, and I could just make out a black dot on the horizon. I thought at first it must be a boat, or a mirage, perhaps, but, as I focused, I could see the outline of what looked like a small island pinned with the silhouettes of palm trees.
I wandered down to the water’s edge, shaded my eyes, and tried to judge the distance to the island. It was shimmering in the heat haze, green like a jewel on a surround of blue satin. La Gomera is one of the seven Canary Islands, but the sea is sprinkled with an archipelago of atolls and reefs; I had seen one rugged outcrop covered in coarse grass and inhabited by goats, the bells about their necks showing that they belonged to somebody: that everything and everyone becomes a possession, is owned and spoken for, even slivers of rock in the middle of the sea.
On a whim, I threw my sunglasses back on my towel and strode into the surf breaking on the shoreline. The long hours of afternoon stretched vacantly before me and I thought idly I might leave La Gomera and travel on to El Hierro, the Meridian Island, the smallest of the Canaries, the furthest south, the furthest from London.
‘The further the better,’ I heard myself say and I wasn’t sure why, what I was thinking, what I was running away from.
I stood very still, my toes digging into the black sand, a small white figure in a dark volcanic landscape. It was one of those days when the world may just have been born; everything was new, unformed, innocent. The small island before me was ringed in a veil of mist, making it more inviting, more of a mystery. I took a deep breath and dived into the surf. I wanted to make certain my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, that the island was real, more than real, that it was a lost paradise, that on the island I would find whatever it was that had been missing from my life.
The sea was cold and I moved in steady over arm strokes through the water, warming myself as I gathered speed. I had read in my guide book that Christopher Columbus had stopped in La Gomera to take on fresh water and bananas before sailing in search of a western route to the Indies. He had stayed long enough to become the lover of a noble woman on the island and I couldn’t envisage anything more intense, more exciting, than to make love with an adventurer before he sets off on a journey into the unknown.
It was another new pleasure swimming naked. I felt alive, wanton, a wild child who had escaped from captivity, from the rush and clamour of the city, the underground train, the snatched sandwich for lunch, the sense that life was speeding off into the distance and no matter how hard you ran you’d never catch up. I enjoyed the rhythm of my limbs as I carved a path through the waves, my breath steady as I raised and lowered my head from the water. The sea that bore me forward was the Atlantic Ocean, the same vast corpus of water negotiated by Columbus in 1492, and it was hard to remember that in the Canary Islands I was further from Europe than the dark heart of Africa.
When I paused to rest, I realised I had swum further than I had intended. The small hillock of land I was approaching and the beach I had left behind seemed to be exactly the same distance away. I could see the rock face climbing from the sand up to the mouth of the volcano on La Gomera, and I could see before me on the island the waving palm fronds like long fingers casting an invisible net.
I was at that moment no different from Christopher Columbus and faced the self same predicament. Once the
and the flagship
reached a certain point the maps ended. The way ahead was obscured in rumour and risk. But to go back would be ignoble, defeatist, a failure. It occurred to me that having reached this point, I had to continue. That this shifting Rubicon in the middle of the sea was also a turning point: I must go back and remain who I was, who I had always been, or go forward and renegotiate my destiny.
These thoughts skipped through my mind like waves of electricity leaving light and darkness in their wake. I had quite forgotten I was naked and knew even as I continued that I should have returned to the sands of La Gomera, to my towel held down by four shiny black stones, my swimming costume, my sunglasses, my mobile phone. I would look back on that long swim and wonder what madness had seized me and driven me on in strong, even strokes, my arms a machine, my legs kicking, my breath filling my lungs, each stroke taking me away from the past, from the known into the soul of the mystery, into the heart of my own undiscovered self.
What made me be so thoughtless that day, so reckless, so irresponsible? Many times I would ask myself this question on those dark nights that lay in the future. Was it a sense of boldness, a touch of madness, of promiscuity? A lone girl, shamelessly naked in the great expanse of the sea. I had finished with university, finished with my boyfriend. I was free. Totally free. I was at the beginning of my life and, like Columbus, I wanted to enter the unknown.
There is a Greek island that is said to move about the Aegean and I was beginning to wonder if the island before me was that very place, that the shaving of rock had cast off its ties and drifted across the Mediterranean, slid by the Rock of Gibraltar and was heading west for America. After leaving the midway point, that point where I should have turned back, I had swum on for a long time, yet the island seemed no closer, that rather than taking me towards the line of palm trees, each stroke was pushing it like a ball further away.
I rested, treading water, and glanced back. Before, I had been able to pick out the red and yellow stripes of the Spanish flag above some building on La Gomera. Now, it was a blur like a far away bird flapping on the horizon. There was no question of trying to swim back now. My fate was sealed and I swam on, paddling on my back, conscious suddenly that I would be arriving in a strange place without money or papers, as naked as the first creatures that crawled from the sea.
As that thought permeated my mind, I was suddenly afraid of the deep water, the silence, the isolation. I turned on to my front and swam faster, like an athlete at the end of a race. The moment of panic passed and I was relieved as the shapes and forms of the island grew firm, the trees, a pale beach, the ruins of a tower on the low peak. The next time I rested, my feet touched the sand of the sea bed and I waded slowly ashore.
I was on an empty beach dotted with shells and carapaces of every size and shape, shells in a kaleidoscope of colours like a flower garden. There were brick-coloured starfish, razor shells I stepped around so that I didn’t cut my feet, open shells with the dried skeletons of minute life forms and shells being carried methodically by hermit crabs. I saw bigger crabs with their swift sideways motion, running one way then the other, their eyes protruding like cartoon figures showing shock and surprise. I shivered with cold but the sun was heavy with the midday heat and I quickly warmed up as I picked my way through the shells to the dunes rising up at the edge of the beach.
The island had seemed small when I set out from La Gomera, but it was bigger than I had expected, the coastline stretching perhaps a mile in each direction before curving away from view. I climbed the dunes and lay down. I was exhausted. I may even have slept, for it was the sound of footsteps on the shingle that brought me back to my senses.
I was aware of two things simultaneously: the fact that help was on its way and, more worrying, that I was naked, no clothes, no phone, no watch. Nothing.
The approaching figure was a man in a turban and a loose blue tunic that billowed about him. He didn’t hurry and approached as you might a nervous animal, a unicorn perhaps. It occurred to me that the island might be private property, that I was trespassing. Not that it would matter. I obviously hadn’t stolen anything. In a way, I felt safe. I would be able to explain that I had swum too far and couldn’t endure the long swim back. I was certain there must be a boat and hoped the man in the blue tunic was a fisherman. I had left my money in a purse under my towel on the beach. I could pay him.
I stood, unsure what to do with my hands, whether it was best to hide my breasts, my pubic hair, those bronze curls shiny and a shade darker than my hair falling wet and sandy about my shoulders. I tried to picture myself as the stranger must have pictured me, and decided it was best to be cool, act as if being naked was the most natural thing in the world. I remained motionless, spine straight, breasts thrust forward. I felt embarrassed, of course, but also mischievous, proud, vaguely superior, a mass of swirling, changing emotions that swept through me under the gaze of the stranger.
As he drew nearer, his expression didn’t change. His face was as dark as mahogany, burnt by the sun, his features below the folds of his turban sharp and angular, a strong nose and piercing eyes shiny as chips of coal. He was carrying a large sack and, as he transferred it from one shoulder to the other, he made no pretence that he was studying my prominent nipples, my nervous smile, my green eyes trying to maintain the façade of self-confidence.
The man came to a stop. He said nothing. I gave a little shrug.
‘Look, I wonder if you could help me?’ I said. I pointed back across the sea to La Gomera. ‘I’ve swum from over there and didn’t realise how far it is.’
Still he said nothing. Rather, he moved to one side to consider me in profile. He moved again, slowly, inspecting my back, and I recalled men on market days in country villages doing the same with livestock.
‘Look, I left my costume on the beach,’ I explained.
My heart was pounding. My breasts were rising and falling with each beat, even my round bottom appeared to be moving involuntarily. I realised as he completed his circle around me that no man had ever eyeballed me in this way before, not so much with lust, but with the detachment of a customer about to make an offer on some odd piece of bric-a-brac at the flea market.
‘I have some money, back there,’ I said, aware of the quaver in my voice. I pointed again. ‘If you could take me back.’
If he understood me, which I doubted, he took no notice. I could have been a lost dog barking, for his expression remained the same like the cold face on a piece of carved brown marble.
‘I swam all the way …’ I said, my voice trailing off like a wisp of smoke.
Several moments passed. I wasn’t sure what to say. The man didn’t say anything. He placed his bag on the sand and, as the mouth fell open, I saw that it contained a large conch shell. It was pink lipped, shiny and perfect.
He cupped his jaw. I could see a look of calculation in his furrowed brow. Around his neck, he wore a pendant on a long leather thong. He lifted it over his head and, the way he did this, I thought for a moment that he was going to give it to me. Perhaps he expected me to lay back down on the dunes and have sex with him and this was a form of payment, a custom, the exchange of gifts, the pendant for me, my body, the only thing I had to trade.
The notion was both terrifying and vaguely absurd. Being naked was an invitation, explicit, unequivocal. I was aware that as a woman, like all women, I chose clothes to make myself appear desirable, exposed, defenceless, but I was protected by the gossamer veil of those clothes. Once you strip and exhibit your body you demonstrate that you are willing, available, fair game. When the man at the party begins to unzip the back of your dress, unless you stop him, you have made a pledge, a covenant. Once he peels the dress from your shoulders you are already lovers.
These thoughts were fleeting and I would have plenty of time to ponder them more deeply. I was aware, as any girl of my age would be, that I had the sort of physique men admire, my breasts were full and I ran in the park at weekends to keep my legs shapely, my waist trim, my cheek bones and hip bones prominent. Agh, I thought, all is vanity. I was aware, too, standing there before this stranger, that in truth I had little experience of men, of the world, that for me sex had remained an immature endeavour that was never quite satisfactory and always over almost before it begun. That time when a man did begin to unzip the back of my dress I giggled and stopped him.