SHOPPING IN THE MEDINA
Tom Bryson ©
The grief is past now.
Margaret Meadows lowers herself into the swimming pool. Her body is still firm, her legs smooth and long. Not bad for fifty, she thinks and smiles. The hot African sun beats down, sparkling the water, creating liquid diamonds that ripple about her arms, hands and fingers. She swims a length, turns and floats on her back, moving her arms and legs in small flutters - just enough to keep her gently bobbing in the water. She draws a deep breath and relaxes, allowing herself to think about her life, about herself.
I was fifty yesterday. Six months now since Ken died from his heart attack. He was only fifty-five. Friends and relatives told me that I remained composed in my grief, strong. My only daughter Julie said, “You’re bearing up well, Mom.” And I did bear up well. But, do you know, I feel guilty about that very show of strength.
I did grieve after Ken’s death - but it didn’t last long.
Anyway, I’m trying to put it all behind me. Julie said a break would do me good. So here we are together in Tunisia, in the sunshine.
Ken died as he lived - without fuss, peacefully in his chair, quiet to the very end.
My guilt is made worse when I think that Ken always remained faithful to me. I had betrayed him - more than once. A true woman of the post sixties era, liberated. I had discovered the pill - well, most of the time.
But thinking about it, perhaps he, too was unfaithful: yes, he did take a mistress: her name was Miss Opt-Out - he hated responsibility, shunned ambition. And yet...in the end what really does matter? Ken was kind man, gentle, safe, caring - but God, he bored me to tears at times.
A friend once told me I was strong-willed, well, pig-headed was what she actually said. Strong-willed - that doesn’t help a jot when a man you fancy sets your juices running. I mean, twenty years ago, on holiday in this very place - Hotel L’Albatross in Tunis, I had a fling with a waiter. Hotel L’Albatross. I never knew how sweet eucalyptus could smell or how rustling palms breathed in the softest of winds.
My waiter was younger than me - twenty five while I had reached that first desperate milestone - the Big Three Oh. Ken had met another guest and they played golf together - I didn’t like the man’s wife and refused to go on coach trips with her. I said I’d laze around the poolside, work on my tan - go shopping in the Medina. In fact I spent those golf widow days in a locked bedroom of the L’Albatross hotel. Yes, I quite enjoyed that kind of shopping in the Medina. Julie arrived nine months later.
This holiday is a kind of catharsis. But I think Julie will miss Ken more than me. Now there’s a thought I must hide from the world.
Anyway, I’ve decided to sell the business. But I’ll start up something new, I couldn’t bear not having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe I might even move here, I’ve always loved North Africa, its people. I do like people with a bit of go in them.
So here we are in Tunis, Julie and myself - look at her, totally sparked out on the sun lounger. What do you dream of, Julie, as you lie still, your young eyes closed? Sometimes I wish I was your age again - but knowing what I do now. Who was it who said youth without fire is followed by old age without experience? I won’t wake her; I’ll lie down here too for a while.
Strange how voices travel when you lie still. But just listen to them...banal, foolish.
Dear Ken, dear dead Ken. Julie misses you so much - I’ve seen her eyes flood in quiet moments.
You had looked forward so much to spending more time fishing, Ken. Fishing - Julie often joined you. For hours the two of you would sit together on the banks of the Severn at Bewdley or Bridgnorth, content. I came a few times but I was bored out of my mind. Even as a teenager you still went fishing with your dad, Julie. Maybe I stopped coming because in a way I envied you - envied your love of solitude. Rivers - like mountains - only left me feeling sad and lonely.
I think she’s waking up now - as a little girl that was how she woke up - a small frown shadowing across her forehead...
“Would you like a swim, Julie? The water’s beautifully warm.”
“Darling, you sleep too much.”
“I know. I think I’ll go inside shortly.”
Ken used to sleep a lot too. Don’t disturb me, give me some peace, that was all you ever wanted from life, Ken, peace and quiet. Julie is like you there - no hassle please.
I must say I found that business in the market yesterday quite funny. Julie had said her old bikini was getting a bit tight around the bum. But as soon as I started haggling over the price - the look of horror that passed over her face, her eyes pleading, please Mom, no hassle. She bled embarrassment but I sensed a fight, a challenge. The trader really enjoyed it too, his eyes alight. And then Julie tried to back away, make excuses – ‘Perhaps it’s a bit flimsy, become transparent’. I wanted to throw a jug of water over the swimsuit there and then - test it. But that would have meant tears and at least a day’s sullen silence. So I backed off, settled for a good discount. You used to give me those sullen silences from time to time, Ken. Deserved, I suppose, but I do like a little fight now and again.
I wonder what you really think of me, Julie. I appreciate us being together - but why? Are you, like me, feeling guilt? Mine was over not grieving enough, are you feeling that you must support Mom, be the dutiful daughter? I hope not, I hope it’s simply because you love me. I love you enough, I’ve shown it over the years - I could be over demonstrative. Public hugs embarrassed you. I kept my hardheadedness for the business.
I had to take charge, Ken never would in a million years. Ken had the mine host skills, courteous with the grumpiest of guests, offending nobody and then drifting off into his little dreams. He loved his time by the Severn, patiently attaching handmade flies to hooks, casting a line far into the river. You once said the line sang across the water, Ken. I think that was the nearest I ever came to understanding you. You were much closer to nature than I could ever be, but I loved life. You loved the water, Ken. I needed fire.
Ah, Julie’s stirring again, it’s a little cooler, I think I’ll cover up.
“Mom, I’m going for a drink now, can I get you something?”
“Yes, please, white wine and soda. I’ll put something warmer on and join you in the bar.”
Julie Meadows sips her Celtia beer as she sits alone on a bar stool waiting for her mother. She thinks about the swimsuit she bought yesterday. When she put it under the tap it became transparent. She now worries about taking it back, having to argue over getting her money returned. Such a bore, she thinks, so much hassle.
Julie feels a vague thrill sitting there by herself, Julie gives the slightest shake of her head. She crosses her slim legs and her wrap falls away revealing a long, tanned thigh. She leaves it uncovered and looks about her, aware of her solitariness at the bar, independence, and power.
Jean Phillippe LeSaux steps into the bar of the L’Albatross hotel. His flight from Birmingham International landed on schedule. His meeting in Tunis is fixed for ten o’clock next morning. Today is a free day so Jean Phillipe has decided to relax. He is fully prepared for tomorrow’s business. Contract documents - a cloud darkens his face. His decree nisi comes through next week. He pushes away the thought. He must decide on a name for his new hotel - perhaps repeat one of the names of his hotels in England. The London operation is called Babylon while the Birmingham based business is called Le Kilyos - or something totally new... he walks to the bar and calls for a coke. He only realises he is smiling to himself when the attractive young woman sitting alone on a barstool smiles back at him. He feels the warmth of her smile and holds her eyes.
“How are you enjoying your holiday?” he asks. He sits on a stool leaving an empty stool between them.
“Very much, thank you, it’s glorious here.” She waits, almost shyly, he thinks, waiting for him to say something. He realises she is extremely attractive, English from her accent, but with Mediterranean colour.
“I wish I were on holiday, but I regret ...business...,” he says. His French accent shows when he pronounces words with an ‘r’ - like regret, a kind of gargle. He glances at her hands, her fingers are long and well manicured. She doesn’t wear rings. He tries not to stare at her exposed, bronzed thigh. He senses her shyness, her uncertainty.
“By the way, my name’s Julie,” she says too quickly. “Julie Meadows.”
“How do you do. Jean Phillippe, Jean Phillippe le Saux.” He shrugs, “In England people call me John. That’s okay.”
Julie smiles, her mouth twists a fraction. “I prefer Jean Phillippe.”
He is puzzled, her smile - demeanour - are oddly familiar.
Margaret enters the hotel lounge. She walks slowly towards the bar. She sees Julie in animated conversation with a man. They laugh easily, like old friends. He has thick black hair, a long back, broad shoulders. Margaret wonders whether she should tactfully leave. He turns and she sees his dark, Arabic face in profile. Her heartbeat misses. She walks slowly across to them.
“Mother, this is John - or rather Jean Phillippe - my mother, Margaret.” He appears slightly shocked but then his smile deepens. He holds out his hand which Margaret clasps.
“Have you ever worked at this hotel?”
What a strange question to ask a complete stranger, thinks Julie.
“I have worked in L’Albatross hotel,” Jean Phillippe says. “Now I own it.”
Julie detects a tenderness in his voice and thinks her mother holds his hand for what seems an indecent length of time.
“I thought you might,” Margaret smiles and turns to face her daughter. “Julie, darling, I think I would like to spend some time on my own today. Would you mind? I might even go shopping in the Medina.”