Their bungalow stood in a cluster of tall palms a way back from the beach. Although the resort’s PR manager had insisted that one of the honeymoon bures with its own private beach would give her a better sense of the resort’s luxuriance, Frances couldn’t bear the thought of towels folded into weak-necked swans, a bed strewn with rose petals. A sense of connubial obligation might compel Ian to arrange himself upon them and lie in wait until Frances came out from brushing her teeth. His was a reliable body, a sturdy, comforting body, but unless he was getting changed and it was incidental, she had no special interest in seeing all of it naked at the same time. One of the regular bungalows would be fine.
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That Frances could not erase the memory of Jason’s body seemed to her like an ongoing betrayal. Its every line and angle was crosshatched on the deepest folds of her brain, and physically, Ian could not complete. Jason’s relentless fidgeting, broad inability to sit down and sporadic commitments to new, innovative forms of exercise kept him lean and muscular. When agitated or possessed by a new idea, he could pace out a full mile on the living room carpet. Even near the end, his lovemaking was so energetic Frances knew she would be sore the following day.
After performing their ablutions at the twin basins made from immense conch shells, Ian left Frances alone in the bathroom. She stood under a cold shower and let a breeze through the glass-less windows raise gooseflesh on her arms. At home, Thea and Elke were still inclined to shed their clothing on the spot and climb in whenever they found their mother in the shower and idly Frances wondered if the habit would have to be discouraged from now on.
Ian was asleep with a recent Economist open on his furred chest when she emerged and slid in beside him, skin still damp. After scrolling through pictures of the girls on her iPhone – stopping 14 months previous because who could bear to go back further into the archives of a yet-unshattered family life – Frances lay on her back and watched the slow rotations of the rattan ceiling fan.
In films, in books, the decision to divorce is always made in a single moment. Over a restaurant meal, the wife announces that she has been unhappy for a long time. Returning from a business trip, the husband confesses to an affair and the separation is decided on, immediately, once and for all.
But in life, Frances knew the decision could be made in the bedroom and unmade in the kitchen five minutes later. You could know on your way to work that it was definitely over, only to realise when you returned home, with two children rattling with the exhaustion from 11 hours in care, to find bills under the door and breakfast dishes in the sink, that divorce was impossible. You “His was a sturdy, comforting body, but unless he was getting changed and it was incidental, she had no interest in seeing all of itnaked” needed his help, such as it was, and you would have to keep trying. And in any case, perhaps Jason’s idea of selling advertising on takeaway coffee cups or parallel importing hair-straightening products really was about to take off and he just needed more time.
In the end, Frances gave him 17 years and three months. Whether or not it had ever been good, whether the honeymoon had concealed a blight or tried to reveal one, the last five years since Elke, their Hail Mary baby, had been an unstoppable landslide of misery. After countless makings and un-makings, the decision made itself in a hotel entirely unlike this.
Then it was a 15-storey complex on the Gold Coast that Jason had booked as a surprise weekend away, using a credit card he had applied for in Frances’ name, which would one day be paid off in full by Ian.
Although advertised as a suite, theirs was a single room that tried to approximate a home in 12 square feet. You will sleep there. You will make tea and/or coffee there, take a phone call from a two-legged desk bolted to the wall. At sunset, you might select two single-serve bottles of pinot gris from the compact fridge and drink them elbow to elbow on this sofa. The honey macadamias are best left, at $12 a tin, since the discovery of $64,000 of hidden debt is about to take place on the private Juliet balcony.
Later, perhaps around 2.30am as one of you punches a hole in the thin plasterboard wall, the other might kneel on the bed clutching handfuls of sheet, and release a series of primal sobs into the memory foam mattress which comes as standard. You will not speak on the flight home and when you retrieve the children from your sister’s, she will know. Finally, Fran. You’ve done it.
The following morning, Frances was woken by the sound of a dinghy crossing the bay. Stripes of bright sunlight cut through the angled shutters, forming a ladder on the tiles. Frances stepped between them on her way to her suitcase, open on a stand.
A moment later, Ian strode in wearing form-fitting exercise clothes, hotel towel over his shoulder, The International New York Times under one arm.
“Twenty minutes on the bike, 20 minutes on the rower,” he said by way of greeting. “Sleep well?”
“Yes thank you, although would you believe, I’ve forgotten to pack a single book.” Frances returned to the bed and dropped onto the edge, palms upturned on her thighs. The idea of 10 days of tropical torpor and nothing to stimulate the mind put her at a loss.
“Well, I expect there’s a gift shop or some such that could do you a few Jilly Coopers.”
“Or a Grisham,” Frances said, and then in a bid to sound cheery added, “Have you noticed every single one of his book titles starts with The? The Firm. The Rainmaker.”
“The Next One,” Ian said. “The Hopefully Bloody Last One. Right you are. Now, what do you say to a bit of snorkelling this morning? I know you’re not a huge one for activities.” He emphasised the word in a way that made clear activities were to blame for not enticing Frances, not that his new wife was resistant to any form of common amusement. “But it’ll be bloody beautiful down there and we might as well. Unless you’ve already made plans.”
Frances could not think of a day in her life so far that yawned with so many unscheduled minutes. She nodded assent, lifted herself off the bed and dug out her one-piece.
A selection of complimentary snorkels and masks sat in a large white bucket of sudsy water in the cabana where water sports were arranged. Frances received hers from one of the name-tagged leisure officers, and shook lemony-smelling bubbles off the mouthpiece. If a squirt of washing-up liquid was all that stood between her and the oral condition of other guests, Frances decided she may watch Ian instead. He seemed excited, and together they walked down the beach hand in hand, until his phone buzzed from somewhere inside his daypack.
With a look of apology, he released her hand and dug it out. Approving the interruption with a smile, Frances left him and continued to the water’s edge. It was a bright, hot morning. The sun was making a slow arch through a cloudless sky, catching the lip of each small wave so that they glittered gold.
“The temperature of bath water.” How many times had she scored through that line in a lazily written travel story, only to discover as she stepped in to her ankles that it was entirely true. Although tempted by the azure waters, Frances stood with her hands on her hips and watched an enormous seabird beat its way across the horizon until Ian appeared suddenly behind her, panting.
“Darling, you’ll never believe it,” he said between deep inhalations.
Frances turned. “Is everything alright?”
“That was Laura. Tom’s been caught. Selling drugs at school.”
“Oh God. Do you know what sort?” Frances tried to take Ian’s free hand. The other still gripped the phone.
“Laura didn’t know but my guess, it’s his own bloody Ritalin. Nothing class A, I’d say, but if s the selling thaf s the issue. Damn it, why couldn’t he just smoke something on his own?”
Frances looked at her husband with sympathy. She was still trying to like Tom, but she was truly sorry for Ian. When the children of divorced parents behave badly, there is only ever one explanation. Whether a first foray into drug dealing or, in Elke’s case, a six-month biting jag, teachers, friends, concerned parties never look past the broken home. Ian would wear this misdemeanour entirely.
“What can they do to him, do you know?”
“Suspended already. Laura’s been down to sign him out. Headmaster was pretty unimpressed to hear there were no adults at home, which won’t help our case if the parents of the other boy decide to…”
He couldn’t continue. Instead, he pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. “So, ah, well only to say, I’m nearer than his mother. She’s in New York, 36 hours away at best.”
When he opened his eyes, his expression was pleading.
“Whereas you could leave now and be back by tomorrow,” Frances said, flatly. Another kind of wife, she thought, would fly into a rage at the prospect of a honeymoon cut short. Why not her? She was too tired. She was just too tired. It was a reason so dreary, so genuinely pathetic that Frances braced herself for tears but instead came a wave of laughter. From her core another, then another.
“What part of this is funny, darling?” Ian asked, bewildered.
“It isn’t funny,” Frances said, eyes starting to stream. Efforts to suppress it made her laugh harder, until she snorted twice in succession. “It isn’t funny at all, Ian. It’s terrible. I’m furious. I’ll never forgive you.”
A fresh gale forced Frances to plonk down on the sand, against the prospect of her pelvic floor failing her at a critical moment. “I’m so sorry, I’m not laughing.”
Ian sighed, clearly baffled. “Well, I suppose I’ll go to the room and call the airline. Come when you’re ready.”
As he padded off, Frances flopped onto her back, sides aching from the outburst. Shielding her eyes with a sandy hand, she gazed up at the sky. For fuck’s sake. It was azure as well. When eventually Frances returned to the bungalow, sunburnt and with a headache forming behind one eye, Ian was folding his selection of polo shirts into his rolling case. “I haven’t started on your things yet, sorry darling. I thought you’d rather do it yourself. The next boaf s in 35 minutes.”
“Ian.” Frances arranged herself in a wicker chair and rubbed the sole of her foot down the other ankle to slough away sand.
“It’ll get us there in time for a 6.40pm flight,” he continued, folding and packing. “No surprise, they couldn’t change our existing flights, so I had to book new ones. Air Tahiti. Ruinous. That’ll be coming out of the boy’s inheritance, let me tell you.”
“Yes, pardon. What?” he said, just hearing her then.
“I’m going to stay here.”
A salmon-pink polo fell from Ian’s hand but he didn’t move to retrieve it. Frances smiled weakly.
“Right, yes. Are you?” Ian said, finding himself. “Sorry darling, I didn’t think you’d want to since it is our… but I suppose one of us might as well have fun.”
Moments after it pulled away from the pontoon, Ian’s boat was a dark blur against the horizon. Frances stopped waving and let her hands drop to her sides. For the first time in days, weeks, in 17 years, she was entirely and perfectly alone. Nobody to touch her when she didn’t wish to be touched. No-one to cry because she had cut up their pancake and couldn’t uncut it.
The sun was sharp against her forehead and chest and she turned back for the bungalow, finding there a chambermaid’s trolley outside the door and inside it, a duty manager hovering, clipboard in hand.
“Ah, ma’am,” he said, noticing her on the threshold. “There is a bad mistake. When front desk hear that your husband leave the island, this room is rebooked. And so you must move.”
Instantly, Frances regretted she was not now on a boat to the mainland with her husband. “Where to? Where am I meant to go?”
“Only room available,” he said, “is the honeymoon suite.”
“Of course,” Frances threw up her hands and laughed again, to the visible relief of the manager. “Of course, perfect.”
“With compliments. I will show you now. Bag can come later.”
It was a considerable walk, along a winding path banked on both sides with blousy pink hibiscus. All of a sudden, the foliage thinned and the path became a boardwalk across a crescent of white sand, then a narrow jetty, at the end of which stood Frances’ new accommodation. A sign further back had politely warned unauthorised people not to pass this point.
The manager led her as far as the water’s edge and excused himself with a shallow bow. Frances picked over the bleach-wooden runners and paused at the double doors to survey the vast, octagonal room, cool and dark under a flax-woven ceiling. A crisply made bed, potted orchids, louvres open to the view on all sides and in the centre of the floor, a hatch that gave directly to the sea below.
She would swim.
Her one-piece had been under her clothes, rubbing and chafing, since the bid to snorkel. It was a relief to shed her outer things and climb carefully down each of the rungs until she was in to her ankles, waist, shoulders. At the last rung, she let go and sunk vertically into the depths.
As the water sealed overhead, Frances found herself peeling off the swimsuit and letting it sink in a dark wad to the white-sand floor some feet below. A quick breath and she dropped below the water again, feeling the water wrap itself around every part of her, fill every crevice, warm and silky. Opening her eyes, she stroked through the mint-bright water watching the quicksilver bubbles of her own breath coil to the surface. Out in front, her arms glowed white, each hair standing visible on its end, clung to by a thousand pinprick bubbles.
At the surface again, Frances rolled onto her back like a seal and kicked lazily through the water until, not even a metre away, she watched as the mottled crown, then the snub-nose of a sea turtle broke the surface beside her. Next came two flippers and the mottled round of its shell, water sluicing off the edges. Exquisite, unconcerned, slow moving. Two more kicks would have put Frances right beside it, but she paddled back and forth in place, in silent awe. For an instant, it seemed to look right at her, black-eyed, cross in expression. Frances stared back, and then as it moved off, whispered, “Goodbye. Please come again. Goodbye, lovely thing.”
Its departure brought a sudden melancholy and Frances hauled herself back up the ladder and through the hatch. Then, as though she had needed and received the creature’s blessing, she lay on the bed, drew her knees up to her chin and cried every tear that had not been cried, could not be cried in front of daughters, or husbands new or former. Salt mingled with salt, ran into her ears and hair, soaked the pillow. How much time passed this way, she could not have said, but at some point later, her sorrow was spent. Frances sat up and looked around, as though coming out of a dead faint. Dizzy, she dried each cheek with the folded wing of a towelling swan and got up to uncork a bottle of champagne bobbing in a silver bucket of melted ice.
In a patch of hot sunlight, she stood and drank from it, still naked, lug after lug, until the room began to lift and fall like the waters below. Finding the bed again, she slid under the covers. Slowly to begin with, then more urgently, she pleasured herself and promptly fell asleep. Sixteen hours later, dawn came and Frances woke with her hand still between her legs, sticky and numb.
Days passed, each indistinguishable from the last. She phoned for more champagne, buckets of prawns, sliced mangoes, ice-cream, bacon sandwiches that she stuffed with tiny packets of salted crisps and ate on the deck. She sunbathed naked on the private beach until her body was baked brown. There was nothing to read. It didn’t matter. She descended the ladder and swam so many times each day, they ceased to be single events. Twice, the turtle returned.
Nightly, she turned her phone on to find a message from Ian and a photo he had taken of himself with the girls. He’d retrieved them early then. Undoubtedly, Jason gave them up without resistance. “Zoo. Sushi. Ice-cream” the messages would say, or some version of it. More than once, “My God, darling, I don’t know how you do it. What the devil is Frozen?” Always, “T & E say love you Mummy. Hope you are having fun.” After tapping her reply, Frances would fall asleep listening to the slapping and sucking of the water below.
Where the sorrow had been, a picture of her future began to form without effort. Ian, the girls, a freshly painted kitchen or a different house entirely. Working fewer days or none at all, as Ian had suggested so many times. “Write a novel, darling. Plant some bloody herbs.” When he had proposed and put that nice pearl ring on her finger, hadn’t he said, “Darling, dear Frances. Let me give you a holiday.”
And now he had.
Tom got off with a caution, Frances would find out when she finally flew home, and was met at the airport by Ian, Elke and Thea tussling over who got to hold their sign – welcome misspelt but lovingly crayoned.
“Traded half a Ritalin for a bloody sausage roll,” he said as he nosed the car out of the airport parking lot.
“Not a drug lord yet then.” Frances’ phone announced a text. From Jason. Hoping she’d had a good time, hoping they’d not had to get into the room with a brick. He remembered.
“No, not quite,” Ian replied, as she stowed the phone back in her bag, meaning to reply with something as conciliatory later.
“It’s so good to see you, darling,” Ian went on, smiling at her, then to the girls in the back seat. “We missed you, didn’t we ladies?”
On Frances’ first day back in the office, the editor of Modern Bride appeared beside her desk. “How was it then?” she asked. “You look amazing, that’s for sure. You’re so brown.”
Frances looked up from packing her drawers into a cardboard box. “It was, well… it was paradise really.”
The woman cocked an eyebrow. “Was it now? Azure waters?”
“The temperature of bath water. The trip of a lifetime.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. You deserve it. Now you’ve just go to do the marriage bit,” she said, in parting.
“Yes,” Frances said, although the woman was already out of range. “Although I suspect that’s going to be the much easier part.”
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