AN: I know there's been a total dearth of updates from me lately – I've been travelling instead of writing. But I managed to finish this while on a temporary break, and thought I'd post it up.
Please review if you like it – suggestions for title improvements would be very welcome!
The air in the city is the exact temperature of bathwater, but lacks the humidity to make that comparison apt. I think it's more as if hot, dry towels are being pressed gently against my skin.
I tell my friends this, but they protest. They say that it's terribly humid, and that the hot towels analogy is far too comforting and snuggling to match the sauna-like heat. But that's what I like about it, that I step out of the door and the city embraces me, warm air as intimate around me as a second head on the pillow next to mine, breathing out against my face.
I try telling my friends this, too, but it makes them nervous and upset. "Alice, the city isn't a person," they tell me. "It can't breathe. It doesn't have arms."
I shouldn't have said anything. They don't understand that I was just anthropomorphising.
Still, I love the city; the wide plazas, where the sun beats down, bleaching everything to a white or grey too brilliant to look at; the narrow streets, always shaded, where the air is still and thick, the high walls crazy with cracked cement and lopsided bricks, begonias spurting exuberantly from under shuttered windows; full of dust and people but no litter or bubblegum pressed into the pavement. The odours that appear as suddenly as walls in the street, or cling pervasively to me as I navigate through the maze of thronging people; the rich, brown smell of strange food, that makes my stomach stir with interest, my throat go tight with inhaled taste while my friends, a peculiar combination of wan and flushed, complain that it is too hot to feel hungry; the lingering, sour-sharp smell of sweat and deodorant, a living smell. The underground aroma that my friends call 'drain smell' with tolerant disgust, but I think is the smell of wet, dark, green things, a smell from ancient, river-soaked caverns somehow dragged out into the heat and light.
My friends say it's too hot. They loiter in shaded alleys, they dart into air conditioned shops that are too bright and plastic and modern to be real in the ancient city. They linger in churches, where the ceiling is lost in shadows, and the windows all admit thin beams of light like knives in the musty air. They shuffle their feet under the pew, sighing gratefully as the old stone sucks the heat out of their bodies. I see a crying woman in black lighting candles, and wish they wouldn't whisper so loudly.
We all buy brightly painted tourist fans, cheap things made of plastic and synthetic, daubed with famous scenes, but while they flutter theirs like bizarre dismembered insect wings, I practise snapping mine open and closed, open and closed, while sluggish irritation grows on their faces and one of them fumbles for a painkiller. I feel guilty then, and stop, enjoying the touch of the sun like heated metal brushing my cheeks.
The city eases me, draws out some unknown tension, slows my heartbeat down; lets me waft along, supported by clouds of hot, busy air - but it drains them. By afternoon they are finished; they have had all the ice cream and cold drinks they can stand, and their wrists feel arthritic from overusing their fans. They hide in the hotel room, touching the air conditioner with soft, worshipful fingers as they coax it into a higher setting, as if it was a god or the statue of a saint.
But inside, I'm restless. My books seem dull and lifeless when I can see hints of bright sunlight peeping boldly around the curtains. I fidget in my chair, drumming erratic patterns against my thighs. "Does anyone want to go for a walk with me?" I ask hopefully. Surely it's been a long enough rest by now? "Just keeping to the shady back roads, nothing too exhausting…" But they say they want to do inside things. Sadly, I suggest games - poker, scrabble, charades - and they elaborate; they want to do inside things without moving.
In the end I go for a walk by myself. As I wander around collecting sandals and purse, one of my friends lifts herself up on the bed. "You sure you'll be alright, Alice?" she asks me in concern. "You will be careful, won't you?"
I know she's not talking about abduction or muggings, but I wish she was. What does she think will happen, anyway? That I'll hallucinate the statues leaving their pedestals and chasing me into the river? I've been fine for months. And I was never that far gone.
"I'll be fine," I promise her. I know they only worry because they care. And I leave the hotel, letting the city wash over me like the exhaled breath of a lion.
As soon as I can, I leave the roads crowded with camera wielding Asians and florid Americans, the stores of shiny tack, and simply walk, deeper and deeper into the labyrinth of buildings, until I find the real places, the supermarkets and clothes shops and a store selling every colour of silk I can imagine. Here there is no one speaking a language I know, or with a foreigner's jarring accent; here no one seems to think I am a tourist. When I stand in line at a stall selling fruit, an old man talks to me, and laughs when I spread my hands helplessly and say "English!" My friends would be fussing with a phrase-book as they tried to find the right words for the bright, sweet-scented fruit in baskets around the door. I smile and point and hold up fingers, and the stall-keeper smiles back; it seems to be enough for him. Less condescending that my broken phrase-book language would be - but then, I am happy to be the petitioner.
I turn away, bag swinging from one hand, and let my eyes rove over the crowds, drinking in avidly all there is to see, open shirts and bare shoulders the colour of caramel. It is then that I see her.
She is looking away from me at first. I can see her hair, tied with a green silk scarf, caught in a tail down her back. It is a very deep, wavy black, and falls to her waist. Then she turns, and I see her smooth oval face, the wide wonder of her brown eyes, the slightly parted lips. Some of her hair has escaped from the scarf, and tendrils of it stick to the fine layer of perspiration on her forehead. There is a green glass heart around her neck, nestled in the hollow of her throat; it's the same hue as the scarf in her hair, and makes her skin seem pale, like shadowed cream, and very soft looking as it moves down the dark dip between her breasts before being blocked by the edge of her black top. Her skirt is white cotton, and would probably come to her ankles, but she has tied it in a clumsy rosette just above her left knee, giving a glimpse of pale legs between its folds. The colour contrasts sharply with the almost beige tint of her arms, and I note that she has painted her toenails purple.
She must be a stranger, like me. Her conflicting colours are as sure a giveaway as her curves, the roundness of her arms; the local woman are coloured like cinnamon and chocolate, and have collarbones like birds. And their lips do not part so childishly, as if they are drinking in the world like wine.
She sees me. She smiles, and it looks like a question. I walk over. I don't know what to say to her; I have never been brave when it comes to speaking my own language. I stammer when I get excited, and I look at things other people don't see, and I don't usually talk to strangers.
But I have to talk to her. "Hi," I say to her. "Are you new to this fair city, as am I?"
Her smile loses its confusion. She has a dimple in her right cheek, and very long eyelashes, with a few smudges of mascara clinging to them. "Yes," she says. "I am."
We buy ice cream together. She gets lemon and melon sorbet, and as she eats it I realise that she has a freckle on her upper lip. Not above it, but actually on it; it looks as if she was sucking a pen and it left an ink drop there. But it doesn't fade when she licks her lips, pink tongue darting with unerring accuracy to find the drips of ice cream that have escaped her.
She sees me watching, and lifts her eyebrows. She asks me what I'm looking at, and when I tell her, she covers her mouth with one hand. I laugh, and tell her that I think it's pretty. That when I see it, it makes me want to kiss her.
She lowers her hand, smiles bashfully at me. Her eyes are half frank and half laughing as she says that I can. Her mouth is cold and sweet from the sorbet, and when we sit back in our seats she asks if she can try my hazelnut ice cream. She says she liked the taste.
I smile, and try to convince myself that the way the world became for a moment rainbow edged was just a trick of the light.
Her name, she tells me, is Marina. She's just finished her first year at Kings, studying English, and her parents gave her this holiday as a combination birthday gift, rest break, and help with studying foreign literature in the future.
"Your parents paid for all this?" I ask, impressed, as I recall my friends and I struggling to find the cheapest possible accommodation.
"Sure," she says. "I'm a student, I don't have any money. Why, do you have a job and thus were forced to pay your own fare?"
I shrug. "I suppose my parents did pay for the trip in a way," I say. "Or their life insurance did." I try to make it into a joke and immediately wish I hadn't; the little laugh I pin on it falters, hollow and callous, and Marina looks horrified. But it's harder to be cool and professional about things in this heat; it takes away my capacity for icy distance, and I have to go with a world-weary disengagement instead.
"I'm sorry," she says guiltily. "I didn't know."
I let that subject drop. I tell her that I am not in university yet; I have just left high school. I'm taking some time out, first, and maybe applying then. I need the extra time to sort my head out, I think, but I don't need to say that to Marina, even if she does lean her head back and close her eyes as we sit together on a bench, looking like a cat purring in the sultry sunlight.
I learn that unlike myself, Marina is holidaying on her own. "I was going to come with a friend," she explains, "But the day before our flight she fell down the stairs and sprained her ankle. She can hardly walk." She says it isn't a problem. "I don't mind being on my own. And I have lots of books to read."
My friends wouldn't let me be by myself even if I didn't object. In fact, they're probably wondering where I am right now.
Marina doesn't object when I tell her this. "Can we meet somewhere tomorrow?" I ask her hopefully. There are strange lights hovering in the air, but that is surely a trick of the sun. "I've really enjoyed talking to you."
She smiles at me. The lights are moving so that none of her is in shadow. She names a time and a place.
I'm singing as I swing back into the hotel room. The lights disappeared the moment I came inside and I know a moment of triumph – it was just the sun after all – before this turns to laughter when consternation becomes relief on my friend's faces. "Sorry I took so long," I apologise, kicking off my sandals and rubbing my sticky toes into the rough weave of the carpet as I drop into a chair. "But what did you think would happen? That I'd be abducted by white slavers? Not here, dears. Who wants a disgruntled tourist as a slave?"
They smile ruefully at themselves. One leans close to me, a grin interrupting the tired puffiness around her eyes. "So what's got you so happy?" she asks.
That smile seems to sweep away all my exasperation with them, leaving only love, bright and sweet, that wells up within me. It's that old comradely look, the partners-in-crime expression, the one used for years upon years of stolen sweets, skipped lessons, and chasing ice cream vans and birds. So in the light of hundred of games of Monopoly I tell them about Marina. My hands trace excited shapes in the air; again and again I find them curving downward, as if brushing an outline of her face.
But by the end I can see them exchanging looks that block me out, like the one they have when they're teasing me with a secret - but this one has a higher pitch, like the fretful whine of a mosquito in my ear. "What?" I ask them aggressively, my hands leaving their soft framing of invisible cheeks and landing on the chair arms.
And then they give me their what-ifs. What if she's just bored? What if she doesn't turn up tomorrow? What if she does, and at the end of the holiday she discards me like a worn out plaything? What if she is cruel to me, and what if I can't handle it?
I slap my hand on the arm of my chair and say "Amanda, I'm in love."
Alarm blooms in their faces like pale flowers, showing in the widening of their eyes, the thinning of their lips. "Neither of us is called Amanda, Alice," one says hesitantly after a long silence, and I don't know whether to laugh at them or cry. In the end I cover my face with my hands and sigh until it feels like my ribcage will collapse inwards.
"I know that," I say with exaggerated patience, wishing they'd smile again rather than giving me that cocktail look of concern and a heady touch of fear. "It was a quote." I wish they'd stop looking at me like I'm about to explode. Later, perhaps, I'll suggest a game of snap, something silly and childish that will let them remember the good times before a stormy adolescence made us lose our grip on things. But for now, they are insisting on holding onto the ominous clouds.
They don't relax very much to learn that my worrying misnomer was a quotation; they ask me if I meant it that I was in love with her.
I shrug, recalling a dimple where I rested my little fingertip for a moment, and the way her eyelashes lay disarranged on her cheeks as she blinked, like a tiny hand had ruffled them.
"You thought that before," my friends tell me. "Remember? Remember Hannah?"
And I do. How can I not? It wasn't so very long ago that she made up too much of my world; the sarcastic twist of her lips as she cracked jokes as important as an hurricane, the flick and stab of the hand holding her cigarette as enthralling as a magic wand. The thought of that cigarette smouldering on the hallway carpet while my father worked in his office and my mother napped in her room and I sobbed on my bed, abandoned for the sin of being 'too fucking complacent', an implacable granite weight right over my eyes and nose and mouth.
But there is no level of comparison, I know that even now. It's in the openness of Marina's face, the attempts to look mysterious always ruefully childlike. The way she opened her mouth in the sunlight, as if it could be tasted. The way her hands didn't chop peremptorily through the air as she spoke, like a terse conductor, but circled, opening outward from her chest, as if each word had the power of flight if she willed it.
"Haven't you ever smiled at a stranger, and caught their eye, and when they smiled back you knew both your days would be happier?" I ask them. "I just know that she'll make things brighter for me."
The next morning I wake up early. The pale yellow curtains over the window have formed a wide square of gold light where the sun hits them, and this makes the whole room light enough to see. But there are shadows in the corners, and as I watch, they grow.
I don't like them, and I don't like the way they flicker and change, like the shadow of flames. They move: they seem to leap across the white ceiling like living things, twining themselves, catlike, around the chain supporting the light fixture. They slip down it, gaining substance, wrapping around it like ribbons or snakes, and it begins to sway, back and forth, around and around, more and more violently. The shadows are trying to make it fall.
I know it isn't real. Even in my worst moments, I always knew the difference between reality and illusion. But still, it frightens me horribly, and a choked whimper scrabbles past my lips.
In the bed next to me, one of my friends sighs and stirs; in the camp bed on my other side I can hear the other roll over. I don't dare wake them, so I tug the blankets over my head despite the early morning warmth, and wait for sleep to reclaim me.
When I wake again, some hours later, there is no sign of any but the ordinary shadows, and the light doesn't move. I will tell myself it was a nightmare.
Marina smiles and waves at me as I cross the sun-soaked square and all thoughts of shadows flee. I wave back, and increase my pace, glorying in the feeling of sun-warmed hair tickling at the back of my neck.
I sit down opposite her, and realise she has chosen the table closest to the centre of the square, so that the blue sky stretches tautly overhead, only broken by buildings at the edge of my vision, and too painful to look at with the impenetrable white disc of the sun burning a hole in the middle.
She has been waiting long enough to order me a drink, for a tall glass is set before me, clinking with ice and yellow juice. I sip; it's pineapple. I told her yesterday that it's my favourite.
"Thank you," I tell her.
"You're welcome," she replies. I would have said 'it's nothing' or 'don't worry about it'. I feel embarrassed by gratitude. Even if it's taken me hours to find and I've spent half a fortune, I'll still toss a gift to its recipient as casually as if it was being given away free at a petrol station, or laughingly say that they owe me eternal servitude in return. I guess it's because if they don't like it, it doesn't matter.
I think I prefer her way.
We talk, the flow of conversation unceasing until the sun dries out our open mouths. Then we walk, finding things made special only by the eyes with which we see them; tiny fish no longer than my thumbnail hiding under a bridge over the river, a golden spangle fallen from a skirt or belt, the way sparrows cling to pits in a worn brick wall. We try to translate the graffiti on the side of the road, intriguing solely for the incomprehensible language in which it is written; we succeed in finding an anarchy symbol, a communist star, a hammer and sickle, all scrawled in black paint on the grey-cream plaster. They make us laugh for the recognition.
She tells me she is a Liberal Democrat. I tell her that I plan to vote for the Monster Raving Loony party.
We go into a museum, wandering the polished marble floor between the scattered exhibits; carved chunks of stone showing suggestive goddesses on one side of us, while stern religious paintings gaze at us from the other. We examine each in turn, pointing out the constipated expressions on the disciples' faces and snorting with laughter until we're almost asked to leave to see a baby Jesus that looks like it's having its eyeballs sucked out.
The heat makes even us tired after a while, and I ask her curiously where her hotel is. She shows me, and then she asks if I want to come up and continue talking inside.
Her hotel is nicer than mine. Her room is larger, with light streaming in through tall, open windows, the curtains tossed back, and the air conditioner purrs docilely in the background. She has a balcony from which there is a view of the water, and after washing my face and hands clean of sweat and dust, this is where I go, running my fingers over the tubs of begonias strapped to the railings until red petals gather in my palms.
When Marina walks up beside me she takes my hands and spreads my fingers, so red specks flutter away onto the street below. She tells me she doesn't like the colour red. She says her favourite colour is the tossed grey green of the sea near land, like the water we can see when we lean out over her balcony. She says my eyes are that colour.
Leaning forward has mad my shirt ride up a little on my back. Casually, Marina reaches out and lets her fingers rest on the strip of skin over my spine.
When I walk back to my own hotel I'm singing again, scraps of an old sea shanty I learned from a film, with nonsense words filling the places where I've forgotten the proper lyrics. My friends aren't in, so I have a shower; by the time I emerge to see them returned, and jerking apart from a quiet conversation, my singing has been reduced to a hum – but not even their guilty expressions can reduce my happiness.
"How was your day with Marina?" one asks me.
"Fun." I beam at her.
They ask me what I did, and I tell them about the graffiti, the museum, the quick lunch we bought from a local bakery.
"I meant, what did you do to put such a blissful smile on your face," she explains, and I smirk as I say that I don't kiss and tell.
"She does have a nice hotel room, though," I add teasingly. "If her parents are paying for it, they must really love her." This thought troubles me for just a moment; when I said that to Marina, she sighed very softly and stopped meeting my eyes.
But the half-wary, half-troubled looks exchanged by my friends are far more pressing, and I can feel my expression turning mulish, my lower jaw sliding forward until my teeth grind oddly.
They ask me if I don't think I'm being too rash, placing too much importance on a chance meeting with someone I may never see again after me week is up. They might as well purse their lips like Victorian matrons, and accuse me of giving it away for free.
"No," I tell them as shadows leap up in odd parts of the room, dimming the lights. "Marina's perfect."
They ask me why I'm so certain, what makes her different from everyone else. The answer takes me a long time to decide. "Because she likes the Sun," I say at last. "She likes the heat. You two – you're so used to your English weather, your clouds and drizzle and permanently overcast skies. You can hardly wait to get back to your home, where it's cool – but she's not, she's like me. I don't want that so much, and nor does she, we're not so unutterably English, like you. Looking for tea, God help us! And that's why she's perfect, at this time, in this place. Because I want sunlight."
The looks they exchanged are frightened now, crawling with anxiety. "Alice, you're from England too," one says. "You've lived three doors down from me your whole life."
I want to scream my frustration with them until the windows shatter and my eardrums burst. "I know that!" I snap. "I know who I am! Stop treating me like I'm crazy!" Shadowy creatures are crawling across the floor to my feet, now. They have the faces of weathered gargoyles, but they move like crabs. "Because I'm not," I finish emphatically, but my voice has the fallen edge of tears.
There is a long silence, broken only by the oblivious wheezing rattle of the air conditioning. The first breath I take heaves too passionately, and the second I stifle until it is nearly silent. It is a long time before anyone speaks.
And then they tell me. "Alice, we know you've stopped taking your pills."
What point is there in denying it? They will see any lie for what it is. We have grown up half in each others houses, and I cannot fool them as well as I can myself. Dully, defeated, I ask them how they know.
The answer displays my carelessness, and their embarrassment shows how much they never wanted me to need this intervention. They had wanted to borrow one of my books, to while away the time until the fierce glaring light had faded and they could go out in search of food and amusement. They hadn't been searching for the pills, and there had been nothing prying in taking absent note of the issue date. Knocking the bottle had been an accident, but the conclusion drawn from the sound of pills on plastic was inevitable; despite the weeks for which I had supposedly been taking them, the bottle was far too full.
And then they ask me why.
How can I explain to them how the drugs make me feel? As if I watch the world from inside a glass tank packed with cotton, making everything lacklustre – a far greater unreality from anything they save me from. When I tried to tell the psychiatrist that, he only made me cry, and I know he does not recall me from visit to visit. The sessions allotted to me are far too far apart to warrant even the flimsiest of connections with him.
I try to relay this to them, but they don't understand. They say I have to be careful and sensible and this is for my own good and after what happened six months ago they're surprised I'm not being more responsible.
It's not like I stayed there for very long. I checked myself in, I checked myself out, it's not like I was sectioned. I can take care of myself.
They ask me if I've been seeing things again. Their voices are flat and stern and pleading. I open my mouth to lie, but the shadow-creatures are still patrolling the floor, and the furniture is shaking as if there's an earthquake, and instead I start to cry. "All I want is real sunlight," I say hopelessly. "Why is that so much to ask?"
Their expressions are compassionate. I love them for their worry, but I hate them for their condescension. "You can have sunlight," they tell me. "That's what we're on holiday for, isn't it? But Marina isn't sunlight. She's a person, and she doesn't know not to hurt you."
"I won't let her hurt me," I say. "And anyway, she wouldn't."
They look like tired aunts when they reply. "Alice, you aren't good at taking care of yourself," they remind me sadly. "And you lose your heart too easily; whether she means to or not, after three more days for you to fall in love with her, Marina will shatter you when you go home." A long pause, broken by my ragged breathing, trying to hold back sobs with the force of tsunamis. Every inhalation feels like my lungs are made of razors, and the dark gargoyles laugh shrilly, like the shriek of rust on rust, as they climb over my unseeing friends; I fight to keep from kicking them away as they grapple their way up my ankles. "It's been less than a year since they died," my friends remind me. Their voices are distant, as if they call from across some vast gulf. I try to wrench my attention back to them, but I can't force my eyes away from the grimacing monster perched on my knee. "We just don't want to see you hurt again."
We agree on a course of action; or rather, they agree, and I am too cowed by the monsters leering at me from under their hair and on top of their heads to gainsay them. Tomorrow, they will come with me when I meet Marina. We will tell her the things I been keeping to myself, and hope she understands when I say it's not a good idea for me to try a holiday romance with everything so necessarily short lived, and with me so fragile.
"Now, take your pills," they insist. When they say 'please', they look so torn between fear and anger and friendship that I numbly reach for the bottle. I swallow, the pills scratching my throat, and the gargoyles slowly subside into dark, oily smears around the room.
I want Marina to come here, with her smile that strips away the shadows, and her kiss that fills the world with rainbows. Instead I have my friends, who want only what is best for me, and who visited me in hospital, who held me up at my parents' funeral. Who know how breakable I am.
I pull my feet up onto the chair, hugging my knees to my chest, and mourn the lack of sunlight in my life.
The next morning I sleep late, held relentlessly in the grip of muggy and half-formed dreams. My friends smile as I stir, looking up from brushing their hair and slicking on paranoid layers on sunscreen.
"She wakes," one says lightly, and with the smile on her face I would forgive her far more than the pills she hands to me beside a lukewarm cup of tea. Even though I would have preferred fruit juice and a pass on the medication.
"Good morning," I reply. I feel groggy with more than sleep, and eye the white rounds distrustfully. I take them anyway, unable to face the arguments.
My other friend is standing at the window, peeping past the curtain in a way that made me wonder if there were cute local boys standing outside. But her words disabuse me of such hopefully frivolous notions. "It is quite a good morning, actually," she says critically. "It looks like it won't be so blazingly hot today." She tweaks back a fold of the material, enough for me to see that the fresh blue morning sky is striped with clouds. My heart squeezed; it feels twice as big and ten times as heavy. Today is the day they want me to lose my sunshine.
I still don't think the trade my friends wish for me is fair. I would happily court skin cancer for a tan, so why can't I risk heartbreak for a kiss? But I know that my friends worry that my mind will crack alongside my heart if this encounter goes ill. Perhaps they are right – but I don't find this straight-jacketed numbness any more comforting.
"Please don't make me do this," I say quietly. They exchange stricken looks.
"Oh, darling, nothing's set in stone!" one tells me earnestly. "We're not dismissing Marina out of hand, or anything. But it's important that you don't rush in, that you tell her everything so you can be careful."
I find it difficult to understand her logic, but her motivations are clear as the glass we watched being moulded in the factory, into beautiful dancing creatures. I just don't know if motive is enough, all on its own.
"I know we're probably being the most nosy, interfering nuisances possible," the other says anxiously, "But – you frighten us, sometimes. We're just trying to keep you on an even keel."
I guess motive has to be enough, when it's as good a one as they have. Even if the clouds in the sky seem to spell an end to all the sunshine in the world.
At the rendezvous point, I see Marina before she sees me. She's scowling at the clouds, as if she could make them flee from her ire by sheer force of will. I know better; it is me that the weather is stalking. My own pathetic fallacy, fine-tuned with imagination and insanity.
I catch the egomaniacally morose musings in my head, and barely hold back a snort. Pathetic really is the word.
I shake off those ideas, and with them the sad realisation that without sunshine the buildings in the square are less stark and pale, there are more cracks in the walls and more dirt on the ground. I point Marina out to my friends instead, and wait in trepidation for them to study her as we approach.
"She's not like Hannah," is the consensus at last, and even as I wince at the memory I feel a prick of hope. Perhaps, if she is not like Hanna, she will not be bad for me after all.
"She's nothing like Hannah," I reply. It is true; it is hard even to compare them. Hannah brought no sunshine, only flames; my skin prickles as is I can still feel the nightmarish heat from them.
Marina looks up, then, and sees me; a smile jumps onto her face, pushing away the frown. If only the clouds above us were equally agreeable; all we get are slow sweeps of brightness as they drift across the sun.
She asks me who my friends are, her eyebrows lifting into soft question marks. I make introductions all round, sinking quietly into the chair next to hers. My hand rests on the edge of the table; as if from a distance I watch my fingers twitching, before Marina covers it with her own. Her skin is warm on mine, but my smile feels too mechanical as I wait for my friends to speak; I can't return her grip.
My friends exchange on last, long, awkward look before they speak, and when they begin it is too abrupt. "We wanted to meet you because we're worried about Alice," one announces.
Marina's face relaxes back into a smile. "I take it I'm to be interviewed to see if I'm a safe playmate for her?" she asks whimsically.
This part is the bit I've been dreading. "Not really," is the reply. "It's not you we're worried about – just Alice." I am looking at the table, but I can still feel the weight of their eyes on me. Even the pills can't shield me from that shrinking feeling.
The explanation, when it comes, is so bald that it hurts. "Alice had a psychotic break last year when he parents died," my friend says. Was there no way she could have gentled it? But it is never an easy subject to discuss, no matter how minced the words. "We wouldn't be telling you this, but she's been skipping her medication, and we think that a holiday romance isn't the best thing for keeping her balanced."
Even with the unaccustomed pills dulling my wits, this is too much. "You decided," I retort sharply. "As I recall, I wasn't consulted much at all." The look on their faces is troubled and guilty and if I had a heart I'd stop protesting when I know their motives are so pure, when deep inside I know they're right.
But when I risk a glance at Marina, I see that her lips are pressed together and her face is closed. After so short a time I shouldn't have imagined that I knew her, but I still could never have pictured her wearing this expression. I wonder if she's afraid of me, like all the people at school after the doctors said it would be alright to go back. That would bring the number of people who really care about me sharply back to two, and today I'm still having trouble convincing myself that they too haven't turned against me.
I can feel the tears coming, the smarting in my eyes and the rising tide in my sinuses. My heart aches, and I suddenly whish I'd taken more pills, all of them. Multiplying this drug haze until I can't feel hurt or stupid anymore.
If I stay here any longer I'll cause a scene, snivelling and weeping and exposing all too starkly to everyone, to Marina, exactly how much I wanted everything to work, to magically be all better just because I met someone pretty who smiled at me in the street and tilted her head back in the sunshine. I can't do it; I've already been foolish enough for one day.
I stand; Marina's hand has gone limp and neutral on mine, and it's a wrenching relief to pull back from her. Blindly I turn away. "I can't do this," I mutter in response to the anxious questions my friends fire at me. Can I still feel the pressure of Marina's now-blank stare? The thought makes me cringe, and rather than let it be seen I begin to walk away. Three steps and I hear a chair scraping against flagstones, and without thinking I take to my heels and flee, pigeons scattering on all sides. Even with the clouds it's too warm for my friends to want to chase after me, and Marina is too suddenly different for me to trust to her perseverance. No one will follow me.
Any other day I would have lost myself in the city streets, sobbed out my woes to a wall covered with old, dry moss and let all the ancient tragedy of any city grind me into perspective. But not today; the sun isn't shining, and the city is grey and full of tired and broken things. It's too crowded, and the tourists laugh too loudly, and the locals all look blank and brazen. Instead I run to the hotel. It has never been a refuge, not really, for I haven't needed one since our arrival – save maybe Marina's arms. But the hotel is at least bland and quiet and understanding, and I cast myself onto the bed, taking burning gasps of air through the crisp pillow, tears squeezing from my unwilling eyes, choking me.
Why? The question rings helplessly in my ears, over and over. Why why why did I fall so hard for Marina, make such interfering friends, stop taking the pills? Why did I have to take the pills in the first place? Why had I gone out with Hannah, letting her break my heart and fill my room with cigarette smoke until my parents worried and lectured? Why hadn't I seen the burning ember that she'd dropped on my carpet?
And why – oh, the sharpest one of all, unworn by its constant repetitions – why had I escaped with only scratches and bruises from clambering out of my window while my parents drowned in smoke only metres away?
I didn't reach for the pill bottle to take the ache away. I'd done that before, and it didn't work. Besides, I was meant to be better now – even if I was clearly no wiser.
It isn't long before my friends return. They step inside hesitantly, pausing on the threshold until I roll over and glare at them from my stinging eyes. Then they walk over and sit next to me on the bed. One strokes my hair and I sniff, feeling absurdly childlike. I want my mother, but these two must be my family now.
The quiet in the room is as brittle as eggshell, but it is several moments before they break it. "She was nice" one says quietly. "Marina. After you left, she was very… polite. She thanked us for telling her. I thought I could like her, with a bit more time."
I roll onto my back. Looking up at their chins, their noses, the concerned twists in their overhanging eyebrows – another day the perspective would amuse me, but today nothing has that power. "But then she left," I predict bitterly. "Without mentioning me, or giving you a message for me…"
Their silence is my answer. I feel tears welling up again, and I turn my head to try to force them back.
"You can't hide from us," one says gently. "Whether you look at us or not, we know how upset you are. You don't have to be brave for us."
It's true, of course. But I do have to be brave for me; if I lose it any more, I can't be certain of fitting myself back together again. Humpty Dumpty, tumbling off the wall. Though I doubt his wall was as sweet as mine.
I dash my hand over my face, blurring the tears if not erasing them; when I turn back to my friends I press my lips together to keep them from trembling. "It doesn't matter," I say, as firmly as I can when I feel so fragile. We both know I'm lying, so it's almost as good as the truth. "I was just – stupid. Now that it's all finished, we can enjoy our holiday again. Just us three."
My friends exchange their private looks, but they don't say anything, only linking their hands with mine. Us against the world; almost I feel better.
The sun returns the next day, but gone are the unblemished blue skies of earlier days, and my determined good mood is just as prone to cloudy moments. I do my best, but whether it is the pills or Marina, the sparkle has vanished from the world. Things that once were special are now tawdry or dull, and the sunshine I revelled in reminds me now of Marina's warm fingers caressing my skin. I scoot my chair under the shade of the umbrella, and I don't order hazelnut ice cream any more.
I'd have thought my friends would be grateful that I've calmed down, that I no longer strive to drag them into light-filled, madcap adventures – but they just look worried when my laughter rings hollow, and when every thought of Marina's face steals my smiles and leaves me subdued.
I refuse to believe I'm truly heartbroken after only two days; refuse to believe that the snapping of such a brief and instant connection could affect me this much. I'll blame the pills instead; they always did make me feel numb and lifeless. A zombie, a parody of sanity. Surely the hallucinations can't be worse than this? I ask myself the question over and over, ticking it through my head like a metronome, but I still take the medicine. My burst of defiance is well and truly gone.
I don't see Marina even once. The city isn't that large – or at least, not the sections where the tourists go. I thought maybe I'd see her in the plazas, wandering through the streets, even end up on the same tour as her maybe. But there is nothing; the ocean of tourists that parted briefly to let us meet washes around me again, keeping us parted.
I don't cry for her again, after that first time. I don't even cry for my parents any more; why should I waste tears on a near stranger like her?
So maybe I sniff once or twice into my pillow at night. My friends don't mention it, so neither do I.
I try my best to find enjoyment; when that fails, I start taking photos. After the pain has faded from memory, all that will be left is me and my friends smiling for the camera in the far off sunlight; then maybe I'll be able to look back fondly, Marina forgotten, nothing left but the experience, the thought of a foreign oasis in a troubled time…
Pray God that time comes soon.
The days wear away slowly, so slowly, the Sun barely even seeming to crawl across the sky, and yet when the last day dawns I am surprised; the days between seem to have flashed past, quick as a winking. As if time was a horseshoe, bending around so I could almost touch again the instants with Marina, no days or nights in between to muffle that clarity, and I ache afresh as I zip my suitcase closed, as we check out of the hotel, as we trundle down the narrow streets, tugging the cases like fat, ungainly gentlemen.
We go to the port; there are no aeroplanes close to the city. A man with white teeth and broken English stows our luggage on a taxi boat, while I cast a lat longing gaze over the city we are leaving, the city that cast me into such a welter of emotion.
Then I freeze, hands stilled on the suitcase I'm meant to be passing into the boat. Patiently, the man takes it from me anyway, but even then I don't react.
Marina is there.
She stands on the wooden shore, sea breezes tugging at the uneven hem of her skirt, her dark eyes scanning the boats clustered by the jetties. Her gaze lands on me, and my heart starts pounding. Of course, I think irrelevantly, of course I told her what day we were leaving, what time… and then she is walking towards me, and I barely hear my friends telling me to get into the boat, come on, stop daydreaming.
This is more important.
"Hello," Marina says. Behind me, my friends stop talking.
"Hi," I say in return. My voice is just as constrained as hers was.
"I, uh, wanted to say goodbye." Marina looks awkward, but there is a core of sweetness to her that makes my throat go tight with sadness. Surely it isn't right that I should lose this? "And I - wanted to give you this."
She passes me a neat square of paper. I blink at it; an incomprehensible website, and an unlabelled string of numbers. Nothing for me to hold to my heart. "What is it?" I ask quietly. I try to keep the disappointment from my voice; I had wanted more than this.
"The first is the website where I found my therapist," she says. Her voice is calm, unashamed, but her eyes hide from mine. My mouth falls open a little; for all her sighs and private sadness, I'd never even guessed. "And the second –" Here she smiles a little' I can feel it like a wave of warmth. "The second is my phone number in England."
I stand there, eyes soft with wondering gratitude and relief. She kisses me in farewell, and it turns out that in the end I don't need madness to make the world seem filled with rainbows.