One Day, Page 9David Nicholls
‘The Rules,’ she said.
‘What about them?’
‘We need two rooms. Yes?’
‘Absolutely. Two rooms.’
He smiled and headed off into the crowd. Emma watched him go, then dragged the two backpacks along the quay to a small, wind-blown café. There she reached into her bag and pulled out a pen and notebook, an expensive, cloth-bound affair, her journal for the trip.
She opened it on the first blank page and tried to think of something she could write, some insight or observation other than that everything was fine. Everything was fine, and she had the rare, new sensation of being exactly where she wanted to be.
Dexter and the landlady stood in the middle of the bare room: whitewashed walls and cool stone floor, bare save for an immense iron-framed double bed, a small writing desk and chair and some dried flowers in a jar. He walked through louvred double-doors onto a large balcony painted to match the colour of the sky, overlooking the bay below. It was like walking out onto some fantastic stage.
‘You are how many?’ asked the landlady, mid-thirties, quite attractive.
‘Two of us.’
‘And for how long?’
‘Not sure, five nights, maybe more?’
‘Well here is perfect I think?’
Dexter sat on the double bed, bouncing on it speculatively. ‘But my friend and I we are just, well, just good friends. We need two rooms?’
‘Oh. Okay. I have second room.’
Emma has these freckles that I’ve never seen before scattered across her chest just above the neckline.
‘So you do have two rooms?’
‘Yes, of course, I have two rooms.’
‘There’s good news and there’s bad news.’
‘Go on,’ said Emma, closing her notebook.
‘Well I’ve found this fantastic place, sea view, balcony, a bit higher up in the village, quiet if you want to write, there’s even a little desk, and it’s free for the next five days, longer if we want it.’
‘And the bad news?’
‘There’s only one bed.’
‘Really?’ she said, suspiciously. ‘One bedroom on the whole island?’
‘It’s peak season, Em! I’ve tried everywhere!’ Stay calm, don’t get shrill. Maybe play the guilt card instead. ‘But if you want me to carry on looking . . .’ Wearily he made to get up from the chair.
She put her hand on his forearm. ‘Single or double bed?’
The lie seemed to be holding. He sat again. ‘Double. A big double.’
‘Well it would have to be a pretty massive bed though, wouldn’t it? To conform to The Rules.’
‘Well,’ Dexter shrugged, ‘I suppose I prefer to think of them as guidelines.’
‘What I mean, Em, is I don’t mind if you don’t.’
‘No, I know you don’t mind—’
‘But if you really don’t think you can keep your hands off me—’
‘Oh, I can manage, it’s you I worry about—’
‘Because I’m telling you now, if you lay one finger on me—’
Emma loved the room. She stood on the balcony and listened to the cicadas, a noise that she had only heard in films before and had half suspected to be an exotic fiction. She was delighted, too, to see lemons growing in the garden; actual lemons, in trees; they seemed glued on. Keen not to appear provincial, she said none of this out loud, simply saying ‘Fine. We’ll take it.’ Then, while Dexter made arrangements with the landlady, she slipped into the bathroom to continue fighting with her contact lenses.
At University Emma had held firm private convictions about the vanity of contact lenses, nurturing as they did conventional notions of idealised feminine beauty. A sturdy, honest, utilitarian pair of National Health spectacles showed that you didn’t care about silly trivia like looking nice, because your mind was on higher things. But in the years since leaving college this line of argument had come to seem so abstract and specious that she had finally succumbed to Dexter’s nagging and got the damn things, realising only too late that what she had really been avoiding for all those years was that moment in the movies: the librarian removes her spectacles and shakes out her hair. ‘But Miss Morley, you’re beautiful.’
Her face in the mirror seemed strange to her now, bare and exposed, as if she had just removed her spectacles for the last nine months. The lenses had a tendency to make her prone to random and alarming facial spasms, ratty blinks. They stuck to her finger and face like fish scales or, as now, slid beneath her eyelid, burying themselves deep in the back of her skull. After a rigorous bout of facial contortion and what felt like surgery, she managed to retrieve the shard, stepping out of the bathroom, red-eyed and blinking tearfully.
Dexter was sitting on the bed, his shirt unbuttoned. ‘Em? Are you crying?’
‘No. But it’s still early.’
They headed out in the oppressive lunch-time heat, finding their way towards the long crescent of white sand that stretched for a mile or so from the village, and it was time to unveil the swimming costumes. Emma had put a lot of thought, perhaps too much, into her swimsuit, settling finally for a plain black all-in-one from John Lewis that might have been branded The Edwardian. As she pulled her dress over her head, she wondered if Dexter thought she was in some way chickening-out by not wearing a bikini, as if a one-piece swimming costume belonged with spectacles, desert boots and bike helmets as somehow prudish, cautious, not quite feminine. Not that she cared, though she did wonder, as her dress passed over her head, if she had caught his eyes flickering in her direction. Either way, she was pleased to note that he had gone for the baggy shorts look. A week of lying next to Dexter in Speedos would be more uncomfortable than she could bear.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but aren’t you the Girl from Ipanema?’
‘No, I’m her auntie.’ She sat and attempted to apply suntan lotion to her legs in a way that wouldn’t make her thighs wobble.
‘What is that stuff?’ he said.
‘You might as well lie under a blanket.’
‘I don’t want to overdo it on the second day.’
‘It’s like house paint.’
‘I’m not used to the sun. Not like you, you globetrotter. You want some?’
‘I don’t agree with suntan lotion.’
‘Dexter, you are so hard.’
He smiled, and continued to watch her from behind his dark glasses, noting the way her raised arm lifted her breast beneath the black material of the swimming costume, the bulge of soft pale flesh about the elasticated neckline. There was something about the gesture too, the tilt of the head and the pulling back of her hair as she applied the lotion to her neck, and he felt the pleasant nausea that accompanied desire. Oh God, he thought, eight more days of this. Her swimming costume was scooped low at the back and she could do no more than dab ineffectually at the lowest point. ‘Want me to do your back?’ he said. Offering to apply sun cream was a corny old routine, beneath him really, and he thought it best to pass it off as medical concern. ‘You don’t want to burn.’
‘Go on then.’ Emma shuffled over and sat between his legs, her head resting forward on her knees. He began to apply the lotion, his face so close that she could feel his breath on her neck, while he could feel the heat reflecting off her skin, both of them working hard on the impression that this was everyday behaviour and in no way a clear contravention of Rules Two and Four, those prohibiting Flirtation and Physical Modesty.
‘Scooped quite low, isn’t it?’ he said, aware of his fingers at the base of her spine.
‘Good job I didn’t put it on backwards!’ she said and a silence followed while both of them thought oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.
As a distraction she placed her hand on his ankle and yanked it towards her. ‘What’s this?’
o. From India.’ She rubbed it with her thumb as if trying to wipe it off. ‘It’s faded a bit. It’s a yin-and-yang,’ he explained.
‘Looks like a road sign.’
‘It means the perfect union of opposites.’
‘It means “end of national speed limit”. It means put some socks on.’
He laughed and placed his hands on her back, his thumbs aligned with the hollows of her shoulder blades. A moment passed. ‘There!’ he said, brightly. ‘That’s your undercoat. So. Let’s swim!’
And so the long, hot day crawled on. They swam and slept and read, and as the fiercest heat faded and the beach become more populated a problem became apparent. Dexter noticed it first.
‘Is it just me or—’
‘Is everyone on this beach completely naked?’
Emma looked up. ‘Oh yeah.’ She returned to her book. ‘Don’t ogle, Dexter.’
‘I’m not ogling, I’m observing. I’m a qualified anthropologist, remember?’
‘Low third, wasn’t it?’
‘High two-two. Look, there’s our friends.’
‘From the ferry. Over there. Having a barbecue.’ Twenty metres away the man crouched pale and naked over a smoky aluminium tray as if for warmth, while the woman stood on tip-toes and waved, two triangles of white, one of black. Dexter waved back cheerily: ‘You’ve got no cloooothes oooon!’
Emma averted her eyes. ‘You see, I couldn’t do that.’
‘Em, you’re so conventional.’
‘That’s not conventional, it’s basic health and safety. It’s food hygiene.’
‘I’d barbecue naked.’
‘And that’s the difference between us, Dex, you’re so dark, so complicated.’
‘Maybe we should go and say hi.’
‘Just have a chat.’
‘With a chicken drumstick in one hand and his knob in the other? No thanks. Besides, isn’t it a breach of nudist etiquette or something?’
‘Talking to someone naked and us not being naked.’
‘I don’t know, is it?’
‘Just concentrate on your book, will you?’ She turned to face the tree-line, but over the years she had reached a level of familiarity with Dexter where it had become possible to hear an idea enter his mind, like a stone thrown into mud, and sure enough:
‘So what do you think?’
‘Take all our clothes off?’
‘No, we should not take all our clothes off!’
‘Everyone else has!’
‘That’s no reason! And what about Rule Four?’
‘Not a rule, a guideline.’
‘No, a rule.’
‘So? We can bend it.’
‘If you bend it, it’s not a rule.’
Sulkily he flopped back down on the sand. ‘Just seems a bit rude, that’s all.’
‘Fine, you go ahead, I’ll try to tear my eyes away.’
‘No point if it’s just me,’ he mumbled petulantly.
She lay her back down once again. ‘Dexter, why on earth are you so desperate for me to take my clothes off?’
‘I just thought we might be more relaxed, with our clothes off.’
‘Un-believable, just unbelievable—’
‘You don’t think you’d be more relaxed?’
‘It doesn’t matter why not! Besides, I don’t think your girlfriend would be very pleased.’
‘Ingrid wouldn’t care. She’s very open-minded, Ingrid. She’d have had her top off at WH Smiths in the airport—’
‘Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Dex—’
‘You don’t disappoint me—’
‘But there’s a difference—’
‘Well Ingrid used to be a model for one thing—’
‘So? You could be a model.’
Emma laughed sharply. ‘Oh, Dexter, do you really think so?’
‘For catalogues or something. You’ve got a lovely figure.’
‘“A lovely figure”, God help me—’
‘All I’m saying is completely objectively, you’re a very attractive woman—’
‘—who is keeping her clothes on! If you’re so desperate to tan your bits, fine, go ahead. Now can we change the subject?’
He turned and lay down on his front alongside her, head resting on his arms, their elbows touching, and once again she could hear the sound of his thoughts. He nudged her with his elbow.
‘Course it’s nothing we’ve not seen before.’
Slowly she lay her book down, lifted her sunglasses onto her forehead, her face resting sideways on her forearms, the mirror of him.
‘I’m just saying that neither of has got anything that the other hasn’t seen before. Nudity-wise.’ She stared. ‘That night, remember? After the graduation party? Our one night of love?’
‘I’m just saying it’s not as if we’ve got any surprises, genitally-speaking.’
‘I think I’m going to be sick—’
‘You know what I mean—’
‘It was a long time ago—’
‘Not that long. If I close my eyes, I can picture it—’
‘Don’t do that—’
‘Yep, there you are—’
‘It was dark—’
‘Not that dark—’
‘I was drunk—’
‘That’s what they always say—’
‘They? Who’s they?’
‘And you weren’t that drunk—’
‘Drunk enough to lower my standards. Besides, as I recall nothing happened.’
‘Well I wouldn’t call it nothing, not from where I was laying. “Lying”? “Laying” or “lying”?’
‘Lying. I was young, I didn’t know any better. In fact I’ve blanked it out, like a car crash.’
‘Well I haven’t. If I close my eyes I can picture you right now, silhouetted against the morning light, your discarded dungarees splayed provocatively on the Habitat dhurri—’
She tapped him sharply on the nose with her book.
‘Look I’m not taking my clothes off, alright? And I wasn’t wearing dungarees, I’ve never worn dungarees in my life.’ She retrieved her book, then started to laugh quietly to herself.
‘What’s funny?’ he asked.
‘“Habitat dhurri”.’ She laughed and looked at him fondly. ‘You make me laugh sometimes.’
‘Every now and then. You should be on television.’
Gratified, he smiled and closed his eyes. He had in fact retained a vivid mental picture of Emma from that night, lying on the single bed, naked except for the skirt around her waist, her arms thrown up above her head as they kissed. He thought about this, and eventually fell asleep.
In the late afternoon they returned to the room, tired and sticky and tingling from the sun, and there it was again: the bed. They stepped around it and walked out onto the balcony that overlooked the sea, hazy now as the sky shaded from blue into the pink of the evening.
‘So. Who wants first shower?’
‘You go ahead. I’m going to sit out here and read.’
She lay on the faded sun-lounger in the evening shade, listening to the sound of the running water and trying to concentrate on the tiny typeface of her Russian novel, which seemed to be getting smaller with each page. She stood suddenly and crossed to the small fridge that they’d filled with water and beer, took a can and noticed that the bathroom door had swung open.
There was no shower curtain, and she could see Dexter standing side on beneath the cold water, eyes closed against the spray, head back, arms raised. She noticed h
is shoulder blades, the long brown back, the two hollows at the base of his spine above the small white bottom. But oh God, he was turning now, and the can of beer slipped through her hand and exploded, fizzing and foaming, propelling itself noisily around the floor. She threw a towel over it as if capturing some wild rodent, then looked up to see Dexter, her platonic friend, naked except for his clothes held loosely in front of him. ‘Slipped out of my hand!’ she said, stamping the beer foam into the towel and thinking eight more days and nights of this and I will self-combust.
Then it was her turn to shower. She closed the door, washed the beer from her hands then contorted herself as she struggled to undress in the tiny, humid bathroom that still smelt of his aftershave.
Rule Four required that Dexter go and stand on the balcony while she dried herself and got dressed but after some experimentation he found that if he kept his sunglasses on and turned his head just so, he could see her reflection in the glass door as she struggled to rub lotion onto the low parabola of her newly tanned back. He watched the wriggle of her hips as she pulled on her underwear, the concave curve of her back and arch of shoulder blades as she fastened her bra, the raised arms and the blue summer dress coming down like a curtain.
She joined him on the balcony.
‘Maybe we should just stay here,’ he said. ‘Instead of island-hopping, hang out here for a week, then back to Rhodes then home.’
She smiled. ‘Okay. Maybe.’
‘Don’t think you’d get bored?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well my face feels like a grilled tomato, but apart from that—’
‘Let me see.’
Closing her eyes she turned towards him and lifted her chin, her hair still wet and combed back off her face, which was shiny and scrubbed clean. It was Emma, but all new. She glowed, and he thought of the words sun-kissed, then thought kiss her, take hold of her face and kiss her.
She opened her eyes suddenly. ‘What now?’ she said.
‘Whatever you want.’
‘Game of Scrabble?’