The Nereid

-1-

"Mind if I join you?"

He stopped typing into his laptop computer, relieved to have an excuse to do so; he'd been at it too long; the words had ceased to flow, were coming only by force, having grown stale, brittle, colourless. In truth, it was in his mind to find a convenient place to stop, and go back inside the resort. Besides, the wind had come up again, and had that unmistakeable cold Atlantic edge to it, as lonely and persistent and potentially violent as an ice-pick. His coffee was cold, he couldn't use the ashtray without its contents getting blown about, and each section of his newspaper he'd had to fold and trap underneath the laptop.

Despite the discomfort, he was inured by that still-in-motion-though-perfectly-at-rest feeling one acquires after having been at sea, and enjoys best in solitude, where distractions are at a minimum. He had intended to continue to enjoy what was left of it back in his suite before it left him altogether, a desire to cling to dreams which fade and are forgotten, and can only exist in the privacy of one's own mind's eye. But she was pretty and young, wearing a long, ivory-coloured cable-knit sweater and little else. Her tanned legs and feet seemed conspicuously bare, for some reason, though she was no doubt wearing a bathing suit underneath her sweater. He gestured to the chair on the other side of the table. Seating herself, she stuck out her hand, which he shook.

"I'm Kelly Gray," she said, and then watched him carefully, as though waiting for some sort of reaction. Apparently satisfied, she said, "Good! You don't know who I am. I came out here to get away from being pestered."

He smiled at her transparently naïve attempt to pique his curiosity. "So... who are you, and what do you do?" To his surprise, she actually blushed, as though flattered by his ignorance. He felt a twinge of guilt; an incongruous feeling because it was tempered by an equal measure of attraction. Wondering at such an odd mixture of emotions, he said without thinking, "Would you like a drink?"

Laughing nervously, she said, "I'm not sure if I should have another one... but... okay."

-

"So, what do you do?" she asked him when their drinks arrived.

"Oh, I'm a writer," he replied carefully.

Her face froze, as though she had made a serious mistake in sitting with him, or, he thought with a smile, as though she had just stepped on a viper.

"Something the matter?"

Sounding put-out, she said, "You're not here from the media, are you? Because if you are-"

Chagrined, he put his head back and laughed.

"What's so funny?"

Getting hold of himself, he replied, "I write literary fiction. I'm not some bloody tabloid journalist, if that's what you're thinking."

She scrutinized him narrowly once more.

"Why do I think I've seen you somewhere before? There's something familiar about your face."

"Dunno. T.v., maybe? I've been on a few talk shows, promoting my books-"

The look of comprehension on her face was almost funny. "I know who you are now! That's why you sit out here, isn't it? To get away from those silly-young-girl American tourists. You write those weird romance stories."

Again he had to smile. She looked very young, about twenty-two-ish, if that, with the sort of rounded features that meant she would always be referred to as a 'girl,' rather than a 'woman.' She wore her thick, unruly blonde hair collar length; it often blew across her face, making her push it out of the way. Her body appeared well-knit, with the natural good-looks and tone that comes with youth. Her eyes, however! They were a deep blue, almost purplish. They had 'prescription contacts' written all over them.

"I write Fantasy novels," he told her. "What my publisher calls 'Speculative Fiction' these days, which is something I object to because all fiction is speculative. The publishers, who are in cahoots with the booksellers and distributors, just call it that because it saves them money to lump as many things as possible into one category."

Her attention wandered as he said this. "I don't read much. I find books really boring."

She had the slightest trace of an accent that he found difficult to place.

"So, what do you do?" he asked her.

Again, she surprised him by blushing.

"Don't you ever watch t.v., or listen to the radio?"

"Ugh. Never!" he replied, trying not very hard to hide his disgust.

"Why not?" She said this as though she couldn't imagine why someone her own age never did the sorts of things she and her friends did.

"When I was young," he replied, "... and keep in mind, this is how I was raised... I only went to the theatre, and listened to Classical music. And I seldom do either of those any more."

She made a face. "You mean like those boring plays and that opera stuff? How old are you?"

He was about to tell her that most television actors couldn't hold a candle to those of the stage, and that he wasn't a big opera fan, but decided that his opinions on either subject would be lost on her. Instead, he said, "I'm thirty-one. How old are you?"

"God, you're old!" she exclaimed. "I thought you were about my age."

"And how old are you?" he repeated.

Hesitating slightly, she said, "I'm twenty-four. I thought you were about twenty-six or so."

They ducked reflexively as the spray from a wave splattered against the high glass enclosure which surrounded the deck. For a moment it struck him that it had felt oddly as though the stinging salt water had been tossed in anger from the rocky beach, borne upwards by a sudden gust of wind for good measure, as though wind and sea, working in concert, were making their displeasure known.

The panes were beginning to rattle and flex in the stiff breeze. A pair of gulls, crying raucously, were glided low overhead into the wind, hanging balanced like a trapeze artist on the high-wire, almost but not quite stationary; they could hear the rustle of the bird's feathers.

The girl gripped the bottom of her sweater and pulled it lower. Her legs were covered with goose-bumps, he noticed, and she looked cold.

"Want to go inside?"

"No, but can I come and sit beside you in the corner, out of the weather a bit?" She didn't wait for his reply, but took her deck chair and squeezed in between him and the glass, their legs touching. She seemed not to notice.

"You still haven't told me what you do," he said.

The waiter, holding a carafe in one hand, his clothes fluttering in the wind, his other hand clutching a handful of menus and pressed to the top of his head, smiled stiffly, and refilled their drinks; in the bright sunlight his jacket was very white, and when he left, he scudding along, heeled over by the wind, like the single-masted sailboats in the harbour, jacket fluttering. The rocky beach below them lay half-hidden under seething breakers which seemed to threaten to rise up and flood the coastline, the resort along with it.

"Looks like Michel's desperately hanging on to his toupee," he commented.

"You're bad!" she said, swatting his shoulder and laughing. After a moment, she said, "If you like all that snobby high-brow opera stuff, you'll probably look down your nose at someone like me." She pulled her feet up on the edge of the chair and took a sip of her drink through a straw. Abruptly, she put her feet down again and pulled the front of her sweater between her legs.

"Oh my God! I forgot, I'm not wearing anything underneath this damned sweater." She put her head against his shoulder in exaggerated embarrassment. It occurred to him at that she was probably drunk. And she still hadn't a thing to say about herself.

Still leaning against his shoulder, she said, "Can we go inside? Do you have a room here? I don't feel like going into the bar. I'm sort of... kicked out of there."

With a mixture of excitement and misgiving, pushing his reluctance (if not his common-sense) aside with an almost physical effort, he said, "All right, if you want." He got to his feet, and she followed at his side, putting her arm through his, as though they were and always had been familiar, intimate. The waiter looked at them curtly as he paid the tab. Hers as well as his. She bit her lip and seemed tense as he did this, as though afraid she would be asked for money she didn't have.

-

Once upstairs and in his room, moving quickly, she put her drink down on the nearest table as though glad to be rid of it, pulled her sweater off over her head, made her way to his bed and threw herself prone upon it. With one arm and leg slipping off the edge, she seemed to fall asleep almost instantly, though precariously.

Wryly annoyed, he stood there in the middle of the room for some time, feeling like an utter fool, and watched her. Muttering, he said to himself, 'I knew it! She is drunk.' Sighing, he gently moved her so that she wouldn't fall off altogether, and skilfully rolled back the covers from underneath and tucked her in. As he did so, she stirred, then turned over and put her arms around his neck. He could see now that she looked very tired. "Aren't you going to have sex with me? I'm not that drunk. I don't have a boyfriend or anything. Are you married?"

"No, I'm not married," he replied.

"Please?" she pouted, feeling his resistance in the stiff set of his shoulders.

She smelt of sunshine, seaweed, sand, and salt water; in the dim light her eyes were a deep tropical blue, the colour of Mediterranean seas. And she was young, he thought, in a disturbingly timeless sort of way. He gave in, the way one might strike a strong cold ocean current after having swum out too far from some hidden beach where the water is warm, where there are no lifeguards and none to witness the outcome, aware of the risks of rip-tides and under-tow and other various forms of sea-death; yet experiencing a detached curiosity about where the current might carry him.

Their lovemaking was a strange sort of contest, or unknown but instinctive ritual; at first she lay rigid... between them lay a momentary feeling of membranous resistance, an incongruous feeling, like walking on thin ice in the middle of summer; then abruptly, unexpectedly, a curious sensation of falling in, of ice parting and that pleasant gasp of shock which comes with stepping into the spray of a cold shower on a hot day.

To his incomprehension, after finally relaxing and molding to him, she murmured, "They had no right to take this away from me... they had no right..."