A walk by the sea (31-40)

31.

She awoke in the night, disturbed by strange dreams of longing and solitude. She was chased, or she was screaming without a sound in the middle of an endless desert, or sitting on the seaside all alone. Each time, she felt her heart drum in her ears and her lungs contract in panic, and each time, she turned to see him asleep by her side.

He was sleeping very soundly, and every time she watched his closed eyelids, she died a little. Remembering his kisses, his embraces, his loving words. Was he real? Would she wake up to her after-dream world in the morning? Each time, she went back to her fitful sleep with the terror nesting inside her. He would be gone by dawn.

But he was still there when the sun was already chasing the last stars off the sky, a sky clear and pale blue and fresh from the hearty storm of the previous night. Mary took deep breaths of the wonderful morning air, then carefully turned to look at him.

Joshua. Could she say it…? Her Joshua. The one who cared enough for her to look beyond the wrinkles and the age and the fears that were still poisoning her everyday existence. He was so perfect in the light of the morning sun… his curls strikingly dark against the pale, rosy hue of his sunrise-cheeks. His lips were dark, too, plump and peaceful, the colour of almost ripe apples. She was longing to wake him up with a soft kiss and see those eyes fixed on her again, but he seemed so peaceful, so calm that she didn’t have the heart to do it. Instead, she slowly got out of bed and after making herself coffee and a toast, she went into her bathroom to indulge in a bubble bath.

She thought of him while she opened the tap, and when she brushed her teeth before stepping into the tub, and when she sipped her coffee, and when she leaned against the cool white surface to wait for the tub to fill. Breathing in the scent of rose and hibiscus, she thought of him, of Joshua. Everything was different, because he was there, asleep in her bed. Someone cared for her. Someone held her gently, gracefully, and kissed her, like she had been a young, dainty princess. And it wasn’t just an average someone: it was Joshua, her muse, her apparition, her dream come true. Her companion by the sea, her private redeemer. He was the most perfect thing she could ever have imagined, and he was hers, if only on loan.

His hands, his lips, his hips, his bottom, his muscles, his stubble, everything he was, was to be hers for a while. They would talk, they would kiss, they would walk, eat, hold each other, smile, together. Her imagination soared, picturing them together in the sunset, strolling by the seashore, sitting on a cliff, listening to the waves. She wanted to visit all her favourite places with him. She wanted to talk about Jeff to him, about her long dead twin-sister, about her views on life, about her dreams. She was not sure he would listen, but she pictured him, patient and understanding- then, perhaps angry, hateful, jealous. She saw herself die the moment he would as much as talk to someone else. She closed her eyes, desperate to stop the negative thoughts coming. She did not own him, she never did, she never would. She would have to be grateful for every moment he was with her. And God knows she was… sinking into the water almost up to her chin, she let herself float in the warmth, of the reassurance that for now, that moment, there, he was hers.

She remembered she would have to call her bank and arrange an appointment; then, calling Joseph, then… visiting Sara… she would know, for sure. Mary smiled inwardly as she pictured Sara’s wide eyes and her withheld happiness. Yes, she would be happy for her friend. Mary was certain of it, and was thankful in advance.

The door opened and he was there, her reality that looked more tempting than any dream she could have had.

-Good morning –he said with a slow smile, looking into her eyes, then letting his glance sweep across her underwater body.

She had no power to reply, so she only nodded, trying to smile.

-Can I use your toothbrush? –he asked, stepping to the sink.

-There’s a spare one in the shaving kit above the sink –she replied, shifting in the tub. She couldn’t see him any more, as the sink was behind her, but she knew he was watching her, and the thought made her terribly nervous. She was not young, her body was ugly, she was- ugly. Not worthy for his eyes. She wished she could disappear, sink to the bottom, dissolve.

-Do you… do you mind if I… use the toilet? –she heard his voice. –I’m bursting, I’m really sorry.

-I don’t mind –she heard her voice. She should have been shocked, but she wasn’t. The fact that he was with her, in the same room, was a miracle in itself. Little did she care what he was doing, as long as he was where she could see or hear him. In fact, the sound of his urine touching the white ceramics made her think of a crystalline brooklet with its destination in a tiny pond, surrounded by ancient granite. She loved the sound of it, she loved the feel of it, the emotions it evoked in her. She was probably close to insanity, but she didn’t mind: it was the most delicious dementia anyone had ever had to endure. She was ready to lose her mind completely, if that was the price of being with him.

After he flushed the toilet, she heard him wash his hands, and then, silence. She listened, carefully, wishing she could turn her head, but she was frozen under the warmth of the water, wondering what he was doing.

-Can I stay? –he asked suddenly, making her jump a little. –Oh, sorry I startled you –he added quickly, stepping to the tub, crouching, his face level with hers.

She turned her head sideways to see him. When after any amount of sleep, her skin would have sagged and the bags under her eyes would have shown even more, the wrinkles deep as ocean grooves, his face looked perfect.

-You’re so beautiful –she said, unable to contain herself. Daring to smile at him, finally.

-You’re beautiful too –he said, perhaps out of duty, perhaps out of kindness, or perhaps he meant it. She could have analysed his words forever, but her time was so short.

-You can stay if you want –she smiled, longing to touch him, to feel his arms around herself again. Would he be shocked if she asked him to-

Before her mind could have played the thought over, trying to discover whether she actually spoke her wish, he stood up and got rid of his clothes. Her face turned away automatically, but he gave her no time to even start thinking. He gently made her slide forward in the tub and stepping inside, he slowly sat down behind her.

Despite his slow moves, everything seemed to happen so fast- her mind was numbed by his closeness, and by the fact that she felt his hands on her back, and on her shoulders. His palms were travelling across her back, like those of an expert masseuse, warming her skin, making it tingle, sending waves of insane desire shooting across her body. When his hands gently grabbed her shoulders and pulled her towards him, she felt so tense she thought her muscles would never let go, but when she felt his chest, his stomach, and his cheek all pressed to her naked flesh, her fears melted away.

And his arms were encircling her once again- she was home. His steady breathing pushed his body closer to her, making tiny ripples in the water that was covering them almost completely. She grabbed his arms, stroking them, leaning against him, closing her eyes- she was in heaven. He shifted a little to let her head fall on his shoulder and he started to kiss her, first on her closed eyelids, then on her cheek, then next to her mouth, and when his lips pressed down on hers, he lifted her tiny frame with a light gesture of his hips, and his hand found her breast. She gasped, froze, but the way he was kissing her she soon let go of yet another ghost of fear. His legs were on both sides of her, his knees pulled up: he was the sea, and she was a flower that he gently rocked with his wave-hands.

Her hands were pulling him closer, grabbing his hair, letting his lips ravish hers. He was holding her with one hand, while the other-

Flashes of Rodin’s lovers ran in front of her eyes, frames following each other in an urgency of desire and abandon. How many times she had watched the marble bodies entangled into one another, smooth, potent, melting into each other, movement only imagined, but existent nonetheless. She always felt a tingling sensation looking at their kisses, at their hands on one another, at their faces half-hidden, contorted by love. And now, she was Psyche, and the seated woman under the eternal kiss, and Juliet, while he was Amor, the one tenderly possessing her, and Romeo. His hand was slowly stroking the inside of her thighs, forcing them to open-

He was touching her where no one has touched her for such a long time that the sensation made her whole body freeze, but he dissolved the tension in her with a slow kiss, his hand never leaving her cradle of life. His every touch of lips and breath and hands and chest awoke new feelings in her, each one stronger than the previous one, until she couldn’t keep them inside and her desire escaped her lips in the form of a moan, followed by another, and another, fuelling his gestures, prompting him to rub her faster-

An explosion of sound in her head made her body arch into him, causing her ears to block, her lips to open in mute ecstasy, her heart to stop, preferably to end her life. The waves of warmth travelling from her head to her toes did not want to end their course, and the throbbing between her legs seemed to last forever. He kept stroking her slowly and her legs closed on his hand, careful not to hurt him.

When the trembling subsided, she eased into his arms, those perfect arms that hugged her chest, feeling him everywhere, around her, under her, in her mouth, between her thighs, claiming her. Her, who was not the same she used to be.

The sea murmured in their ears from the distance, while they lay in the silence of endlessness in their own sea, that of emotions new and old, forgotten and ressurrected.

32.

The man’s head was neatly trimmed, his glasses were gold-rimmed and very elegant. He spoke slowly, in the slightly condescending way of financial experts. Explaining choices and solutions that he should opt for in order to better his financial situation with the help of Lloyd’s.

Joshua could not have been more uninterested. He listened, nodded, showed interest- but his thoughts were left behind in the house close to the sea, with the woman who loved him.

He had hugged and kissed her goodbye, and her arms, for the first time since he touched her, did not want to let him go. He lingered in her arms and smelled her in, wishing he could stay, too. It had been so long since he felt a woman’s love… real love, overwhelming and frighteningly complex and beautiful. He had almost forgotten what it felt like… someone’s warm abandon.

Mary, fascinating, intriguing Mary… the more he thought about her, the deeper he felt for her. Her struggle to rid herself of her shame and fears, the longing for his touch that was so blatant he felt his stomach jump at the memory of her eyes, those grey, bottomless, sea-eyes, with tears instead of waves and lashes instead of the tall grass on the beach.

She loved him in every sense of the word. He knew, and he turned the thought over and over in his head, tasting it, trying it on like a new shirt that smells beautiful and feels crispy, but soft on the skin at the same time. A perfectly fitting shirt that gives one a sense of propriety and pride. Her love was like the best shirt he had ever had… smooth, silky, carressing his skin, warming him against the cold, but cooling him against the heat. It was pure and unspoilt, something that his hands touched for the first time.

Shaking the bald one’s hands and leaving the bank office felt liberating. He stepped out on the street and took a deep breath of the early afternoon autumn air. He could smell the heavy, moist sea-breeze coming his way, ruffling his hair and leaving him wanting more, of the sea, of the peacefulness of the waves, of Mary. He had things to attend to that afternoon, but he had promised her he would return later in the evening.

Her eyes… scared, unbelieving. Was he going back for her sake? Or because he wanted to? He understood her doubts and did his best to hug her for a long time, speaking to her without words. In his arms that were most alive when holding her, she finally seemed to accept it. The fact that he did care.

He walked slowly, with his mind in a whilrwind of emotions. It was difficult to understand how he could be in love with someone twice his age, someone almost older than his own mother. He thought about it, carefully lining up arguments for and against what he felt, considering the outcome, the future, the aftermath. Was he not only fooling himself? She was there when he needed someone… she gave him everything he needed to stay on his feet and carry on. Perhaps she was there for him because… it had to happen. Because they had to happen. Out of the chaos of countless lifeliness knitted and knotted together, theirs had to cross and get woven into one another.

He had never thought about fate before, not beyond the mention of the word, not beyond the unavoidable notion that always came up when something extraordinary happened- but for the first time, he had the bewildering idea that maybe it was meant to happen, he was meant to meet her, he was meant to love her. If it was fate, or hazard, or some superhuman, untangible power, he could not say, and he did not care too much. But somehow he and her were too… wonderful to be just an accident.

As another whiff of autumn breeze hit his face, the memory of her muted moan hit his soul: it had shaken her fragile body, he had felt her waves of pleasure reach her every cell as unexpected spasms of delight took shape under his hand. The tension was released and she grew limp after that, resting her head on his chest, curled up on her side. She was out of the water and he was scared she would catch a cold, so he hugged her and kept splashing warm water on her skin. She lay immobile in his arms, and he almost thought she was asleep, but when he stroked her hair, she broke out in a quiet sob.

Standing at a crossroads, waiting for the cars to pass, he stared ahead, unseeing, wishing he could fly back to her house and collect her in his arms and crush them both with the love he felt grow inside himself unstoppably. She was so wonderful, so craving reassurance and mistrusting even her own feelings. Scared of what her past had given her, scared that the future could not be as glorious as the present.

His legs took him to the sea. Everything else could wait, because he felt drawn by the sea as never before. He longed to be there and face her, face himself, what he had become, what he might have been, and what he would be, later. After. Touched by her love.

Years of self-doubt and hideous fears marched on ahead of him, circling around him, all the moments of self-hatred and fright, everything that had pushed him away from what millions used to idolise. Perhaps it was good. Perhaps he had needed to distance himself from it all… but at what cost?

His shoes were kissed by the waves as he stood on the sandy beach, their beach. The sun was setting early: it had already begun its trajectory of golden descent and farewell. He watched the sight for a while, immersed in its beauty, drinking it in, instinctively thinking of Mary and how she would love to watch the beginnings of a sunset with him.

I have never… experienced this before, she had told him through her broken sobs. Her voice was humble and quivering, and he kept stroking her face, wondering what she meant. Her tears rolled down her chek, onto his chest, and he pulled up his legs to protect her petite frame, closing her into an embrace of arms and legs.

I have never felt pleasure before, she said after a while, and then grew silent, resting her palm on his chest, pressing her cheek against his heartbeat. He thought his ears were playing tricks, but they weren’t: he made her turn her head and searched her eyes.

He saw her eyes now, in the almost sunset, in the vast greyness of sea that was slowly changing colour, turning into deep blue, in the pale sky that was being painted by the sun. Her eyes had been endless, uncertain, grateful. He could see them now, as he had looked into them, holding her naked body, shivering from the cold and the emotions that she could hide no longer. He asked her- how- why; she said, Jeff had never been patient. He had taken what he needed and had left her wanting. And the ones before, or after him? She had married very young, and there had not been anyone else.

He folded his arms on his chest, holding onto himself against the feeble wind that despite its weakness, almost overwhelmed him. He had to turn his back on the sea; he was unable to stay rooted, watching the sun die. Not when he had ignited a spark of life in someone who had never felt that warmth before.

He took a few steps away from the sea, his head hung, his gaze blurry from the coolness of the air. It was when he lifted his eyes to see Mary standing on top of the shallow hill that a fat tear escaped his lashes and dropped heavily to the ground. He felt the beach shatter under its weight, and that of his feet as he hurried ahead, to her, to envelop her in a neverending hug and kiss her eager lips with gentle impatience. She kissed him back just as impatiently, with skills that only someone very deeply in love can possess: her hands were pulling him closer, closer, her lips and tongue lashing out against his, inviting, begging, ferocious and tender at the same time. He felt her breasts tight in his chest through their coats, her hands in his hair, her fingers massage his scalp in a way that made him crazy with desire.

-I missed you -he breathed in her mouth, letting her have her way. He made an effort not to be hurried or rough with her but it was increasingly difficult.

-I couldn’t breathe without you next to me -she whispered kisses onto his cheek, his eyes, his open lips. -Do you have to be away until evening?

-No -he moaned, closing his eyes and standing in the soft breeze of her love. He felt like a tree assaulted by the elements: she was fire that engulfed his whole being with a newly-found passion, sea that quenched his thirst and appeased his burning, earth that held him steady and wind that made him soar. He stumbled to the large rocks that lay like giant gems in the sand and propped himself up against one of them. His arms went around her but he could hardly stand, so he leaned to the cliff that felt strangely soft, yielding to his weight like a bed of moss.

-Let’s go home -she said, looking into his eyes. She had an aura of unfulfilled wishes and desires about her, and the knowledge that he was the one to make them come true for her made him dizzy with happiness. He nodded, stroking her cheek, then allowed her lips to trace their way from his lips to his chin, then, his neck. He sighed when her lips touched the side of his neck above the collar of his jacket. Her breath warmed his skin, her lips stroked his Adam’s apple, then slowly travelled to the side of his jawbone, to his earlobe, and timidly kissed it, then, hearing his deep sigh, slowly, gently bit onto the soft piece of flesh.

-Do you have to do this here? -he asked, or rather, moaned, tearing her lips away from himself, hugging her tight. -I can’t walk any more.

She smiled the satisfied smile of a lover in control, and stroked his beautiful cheek.

-I can’t do anything any more -she giggled, kissing his hand that she pulled away from her waist. -It’s only fair, isn’t it?

-I’ll show you fair once we get home -he threatened, leaning in to kiss her again, but she pulled away.

-Let’s go home -she said solemnly, holding his hand and looking into his eyes with a seriousness that brought him back to his senses.

The waves bid them farewell and the sun glided lazily towards the horizon as two drops in the endlessness of the sea were ready to melt together into one shiny, translucent ball of perfection, heavy and more lasting than dewdrops, but aware that they will evaporate eventually, perhaps not at dawn, but at dusk, for certain. No matter: even a drop of water can follow the path leading to perfection, and they knew they were on the right track.

33.

They stepped into the house at the same time; he turned to her apologetically, but she only squeezed his hand. She could not say that she loved the unison between them, the fact that he was by her side, that they were one, together, in that moment. She was unable to speak.

She had a myriad of thoughts circling in her brain, all of which were connected to Joshua. She was still on the verge of mistrust and disbelief: how could she possibly accept the fact that he- that he loved her? That he wanted her? How was it decided by the gods, or heavens, or fate, who received joy, and who received pain? She had had her share of pain, but everything faded into oblivion when he made her face him, look into his eyes, and kiss him.

This time, the kiss felt again different. His lips said, I crave you, body and soul, please let me possess you, his breath said, You are mine, and I will be yours, and it will be heaven, his arms said, I love you, give yourself to me, trust me, as I will not forfeit that trust. She was deafened by the voices that floated to her from him, and from all of them, the voice of his perfection sang to her most clearly. She felt herself surrender, give up all that she used to be, and prepare to metamorphose into someone new, someone who believed in herself, someone who saw not only beauty around her, but also, love, powerful, uncontrollable, instinctive, divine.

-Joshua… –she breathed into the void with her eyes closed, sending a plea to no one in particular, to be given some time. A moment to catch her breath and be able to stay on her feet.

He heard her plea and held her tight, waiting for her to open her eyes.

-Your kisses… bring me to life –she gasped, shaking. She probably sounded ridiculous, but she was past caring about appearances.

He smiled, moving his arms around her back, to her waist, and hips. Pulling her close, so close that she felt his impatience.

-I… will be right back –she said quickly, getting rid of his embrace and locking herself into the bathroom.

oh God help me now make it quick make it painless or painful make him enjoy it and then leave and never come back make me see his face just his face let him be a part of me until I die

She had never prayed too much, not even when she was supposed to feel close to God. But now the words fled her soul and flew up into the skies and she could not stop them, neither did she want to. Her emotions were tight in her chest, and her brain did not function. She did not know anything any more, she only felt things, impossible, wonderful, magical, unearthly things.

Looking into the mirror a terribly fear seized her. Not the fear that he would find her ugly and old, even though she did look like a scarecrow: her hair was ruffled, her facial skin was sagging and red on the cheeks, her eyes were large and she looked like someone who had not slept in ages. But the awareness of it, and also that of not caring about it- that scared her most. Her mind said, she did not belong with him. He needed someone younger, emotionally more stable, someone who could walk on the paths of life with him, grow old with him, bear him children. She was a fruitless tree that stood alone in a vast field, reaching out desperately for sunshine and raindrops and soil to grow her roots into. No one had even looked at her, because everyone preferred the young, blooming ones, full of emerald leaves and garnet fruits and topaz blossoms. He was the first one to sit down in her shade, lean his tired back to her trunk, and gladly receive the rustling of her withering leaves into his soul. It was a miracle- he was a miracle. And through him, she felt like a miracle, too.

Grasping the edge of reality with her trembling fingers, she forced herself to think practically. Why had she come to the bathroom? To- prepare herself, to get ready, but- what was there to do? She was useless, racking her brain what she could do to make herself more presentable, more worthy of his eyes. The more she thought about it, the more pain she felt, and shame, and anger. She was not supposed to meet him now. It should have happened when she was young, beautiful, perfect.

It was in vain, it was too much. She tore the door open and walked into the kitchen without a word. Her shame was resting on her eyes like a black veil, and the maddening thoughts in her brain were muffling every sound, every feeling she could have had.

It was only when she carried the tray in that she realized she had been making tea. The liquid of the British, the pretext for everything. That, and the weather. She had hidden behind one of them, now was the time to bring up the other.

-It is quite warm for this time of year, don’t you think? –she asked, feeling stupid, almost laughing out loud.

He never laughed, and never replied either.

She felt a hand touch hers, fingers lock themselves into hers, and a gentle pull, and before she could think straight, she was sitting on his thighs, her knees pushing into the sofa. Her old legs were protesting, her muscles tense, her bones hurting slightly, but she forgot all of it when it sank in.

She was sitting on him, and his hands were on her hips, and his eyes locking hers. Dark pools of perfection, vortexes of desire, pathways to his soul. She did not dare breathe as she watched his eyes, fascinated, feeling tiny, feeling special.

A hand reached out to hers, gently forcing it to touch his cheek. His stubble felt rough, and the skin above it soft, creamy, and very warm. His hand directed hers, to his cheek, his closed eyes, his forehead, his other cheek, and his lips. His breath moistened her palm, his eyes opening again to stare into her, stripping her of her fears.

His lifeline on his neck pulsated under her hand, and she pressed her hand to it, in awe, feeling his heart beat faster and faster, in synch with her broken breaths. She wanted to swallow, and talk, share her feelings with him, with the universe, but no words formed in her mind, only colours, emotions, sensastions. Crimson. Brooklet. Thunder. Waves. Purple. Silence. Heaven. Peacefulness. Craving. Urgency. Pain.

He took her hand and slowly pushed it under his shirt, to his chest, where his heart was causing minor earthquakes between his ribs. She felt weak as she realized that it was because of her. The tiny nipple felt soft and warm in the nest of his chest hair that covered his skin in abundance, reminding her of a soft meadow of wheat and flowers, shaped into waves by the wind, her fingers.

Her hands moved without her telling them to do things. She watched her own fingers unbutton his shirt, exposing his chest, that heaving perfection of hills and valleys. She couldn’t stop staring at him, stroking him, moulding his perfect hills with her hands, tracing the grooves of skin and bone, watching in awe as his lips parted, unable to contain the power of his breath.

And then, she gasped as he tore her shirt open, sending miniature buttons flying around, to the delight of a very observant Marshmallow. As the cat chased the buttons, making Mary grin and forget her shock, his hands closed on her hips and he pulled her closer, lower, tight against him. A quick click of the bra and skin was pressed to skin, nipple against nipple, creating flames that were preparing to engulf them both.

He seemed to stop, settle, take his time, his lips tantalisingly close to hers, his breath heating her mouth. His eyes were gigantic and searching hers, his hands were slowly tracing the length of her spine, sending shivers, making her shake, making her want to melt into him. And then, his hands ended up on her hips, and he made her move slightly, and as she felt his desire bulge underneath her, she could not hold back and she kissed him.

The moment would last forever if she wanted it to. Time was no threat as all the passion she had been suppressing over the long years erupted from her, into his mouth, around his back, onto his groin. Her kisses were those of a hundred lovers, a dozen storms, volcanoes and hurricanes. She felt alive, she felt wanted, she had a purpose: to make him happy. His moves were urgent and demanding, but beneath it all, she sensed his gentleness, and she loved him even more for it.

And then, she was flying. Kissing him, holding him tight, his arms around her. She was floating, she didn’t care where, and how, and why- his lips on hers and his body pressed into hers was the only thing she had to know of.

When she felt something soft under her back she realized he had taken her into the bedroom. She opened her eyes, dizzy from the flight, looking into his dark pools, receiving his lips and tongue on her lips, then, her neck, her breast. She lost track of time completely, and she had no idea if she was wearing anything, but apparently not, because her skin recognized his when he eased himself down on her.

From somewhere deep within her, another fear emerged- that of not knowing what to do- untouched for so long- what if it would hurt and what if she would be unable to give him pleasure-

He sensed her uncertainty and kissed her gently, tracing his lips on hers, holding her face between his hands, as if to say, don’t be scared, I have everything I need, and I won’t hurt you.

Her legs opened beneath him, by a woman’s ancient instinct, by craving, by love and surrender. She expected him to kiss her, but instead, he made her look at him as he slowly entered her and made her complete.

The warmth she felt was overwhelming her senses, the feeling of completion was the most divine blessing she had ever received. To cradle someone she loved, deep inside her, hold him and protect him and make him feel loved. She wanted to stay like that forever, immobile, connected, whole.

But the urge for satisfaction was greater in both of them, and as he slowly moved his hips, he finally kissed her. The slowness of his lips was following that of his lean body, and she was unable to do anything. It was too much, too perfect, too heavenly. His love was blinding her, deafening her, muting her, and she felt like all things, together, in one, time, space, the universe, she felt like a human, and like animals, and like inanimate objects that craved to be alive. She knew that what she felt could have redeemed all sinners, could have made every miserable soul happy, would have made the world a better place. If only everyone got to feel what she felt.

Colours mingled before her eyes, colours that returned to her to paint the most perfect canvas she had ever imagined, a fusion of rainbows and sensations of abandon and belonging and love. As he started moving faster, his lips groped for hers more clumsily, blindly, not caring if they touched her lips or her face or her neck. His breath grew ragged and hers stopped altogether, feeling some kind of bliss fill her to her brim, warm, soft, safe, immortal bliss, that of the senses, that which knows no end, as time doesn’t exist in a glance of the divine. She stared into it, not grasping what she saw, or felt, only looking, as she slowly sank into the warmth that spread to her whole body.

His moans brought her back to reality, and his urgent thrusts prolongued her pleasure which was now merely earthly pleasure, but even now it felt more wonderful than anything she had ever experienced before. When he tensed, and groaned into her ear, she received his exhausted body onto hers, holding him with gratitude and love.

Behind her closed eyes, memories of the heavens played, morphing into each other, teasing her, promising her more. She was out of the world she knew, only focusing on his closeness, his slowly calming breaths, his soft kisses on her neck.

She knew she had seen God.

34.

A howling wind was harmonizing with the murmur of the waves in the night of clouds and a thick mist. He lay on his back, turning his head from time to time to gaze at the whirlwind-sky through the branches of a tree. Whatever he was thinking of was drowned out by the spectral sounds and the spooky silence alternately. He listened, aware of the sleeping world which seemed more wide awake than in full sunshine.

There was something breathtakingly cosy in the fact that walls and windows were protecting him from the cold and the drizzle. As a young boy he used to listen to the rain at night on those rare occasions when it hit Los Angeles, and he kept picturing himself in a magical world. Inside he was a boy, tucked in under the covers, while if he had stepped outside he would have become someone bigger, older, more capable of wielding all events around his life. The girl seated in front of him would not snicker, but accept his Valentine heart, and he could drop his glasses, and the accursed voice that attracted so much attention of the type he never wanted to have. It was not an unhappy childhood, but he always had a tendency for melancholy.

The rain that pattered on the windowpanes sounded like puny beads thrown out of the heavens. He pictured a vast layer of beads gathering under the window, around the rose-bush, like perfectly rounded pieces of a rainbow, shiny, glistening, minute reflectors of light. He wondered if his perception had changed slightly because of Mary’s influence. After all, she was the visual artist.

Turning to the left, he saw her sleeping form bathed in the misty moonlight. Watching her sleep filled him with peace and a certitude of all things to happen yet. He was fully aware of having made her happy, apparently, ever since they had met on the beach, and the thought seemed like a translucent film of perfection underneath which everything was the way it should be. He thought of his parents and a warm bliss spread in his heart. He remembered the new songs he had been humming for the past few weeks and a feeling of hope filled his soul. He thought of who he was and who he wanted to be, and he realized there was no big difference. He was content being where he was, nurturing wonderful memories of a hectic past, embracing unheard of emotions for a wonderful person.

She was so many things that his brain could only process one facet of her at a time. He contemplated her as a trustworthy friend, an intriguing artist, a sensitive woman, a wise companion, and he was not sure if he could or wanted to do without any of those. Without a friend he could not have found his peace, without her artistic eye he might have missed out on a lifetime of beauty. The woman in her awoke his instincts and desires in a gentle, reassuring way, and her wisdom showed him the world beyond the visible and the pleasant. Puzzled as to how they could have connected on so many levels without exchanging too many ideas, he stirred under the covers and buried himself deeper under them, his vision drifting, losing focus on the sleeping form next to him, thinking of past meetings, talks, dinners, trying to find that decisive moment which pushed them against each other. The deliciousness of tracing back the birth of a love trickled down his consciousness, blurring his alertness, sending brief shivers through his limbs, while the night howled and pattered and crashed against rocks and trees and windowpanes.

Longing to feel her close, he moved under the covers, reaching the warmth of the narrow deepening in the bed her body was sinking into. Warmth instantly filled his senses and he nestled close to her happily, turning his back to her to feel her slow breath heat his neck. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the night, drinking in the darkness, the noisy silence, the atmosphere of serenity and bliss. It sounded bizarre and almost grotesque that he could feel so happy with an old woman, but he did. He felt protected and loved, wanted and cherished. She adored him, quietly, shyly, against the odds. Perhaps she would have fallen for anyone crossing her path, anyone ready to look at her instead of casting her away, but the certainty that it was him made his heart beat faster.

He recalled tiny encounters, the scattering apples, the day he played the piano- her eyes that evening- it was that evening he realized he meant something to her. The way she focused on her canvas, hardly daring to glance at him over the edge of the painting, and then, her tentative, unconscious touch that changed midways, taking up the proportions of two hurricanes that met over a starlit horizon. Her seething, painful anger and deception when she saw another woman by his side still made his stomach twist in a delicious way. His own anger for giving her pain followed by that morning of hopeful projections of his wishes. Her face under the moon, her closed eyes, the struggle to keep herself whole but become his at the same time, the feeling of power he had over her- he trembled in the warmth of her closeness, wishing he could see her eyes, get lost in them, get lost in her safety.

She heard his silent call and gently put an arm over his shoulder, stroking him through the covers, touching her fingers to the tips of his curls. She placed a slow kiss on his hair, probably thinking he was asleep. Her gestures were so careful, so tender; he felt like a tiny kitten, cuddled with love and care, and he felt like purring under her touch. His throat emitted a slow sigh of delight as her fingers dug deep in his hair, massaging his scalp in slow circles. Delight spread across his skin and within him, heating his blood, and as the mental image of her face on the peak of earthly bliss appeared before him, he turned towards her.

-I thought you were asleep -he mumbled, swallowing his insane desire.

-I was, up to some point -she said, stroking his cheek. Her eyes shone with the moon and the rain inside them.

They stared into each other’s eyes, smiling timidly, still unknowing each other, rememembering the improbability of withered buds reviving under the closeness of young ones. Everything they had been taught, everything that had accompanied them in their respective lives said, this is not right, this cannot happen, this is repellant. When something is over, there is nothing that can bring it back from the rivers of Hades, but Orpheus reincarnated grabbed the hands of his lover and he did not want to let her go. She looked at him, happy, not caring about the depths of nothingness behind her, because he wanted her back, on the fields of youth, that treacherous immortality. She would return, sink into emptiness and eternal night, but not yet, not yet. His golden eyes were luminescent in the dark, spreading light and hope, hope for an almost gone soul.

-Make love to me -she whispered, squeezing his hand between hers, her nails almost painfully sinking into his palm.

He heard the wind blow softer and the rain stop falling as he slowly positioned himself above her. He felt her body rise and fall beneath him as her heavy breathing under his weight kept her alive. He stroked her hair and looked into her eyes full of craving that started to lose its shame, hope that was almost pure in its joy, bliss on the verge of perfection. She could not move under his weight that pinned her down, and his hands searched for hers, fingers locking into each other greedily. She was in his power completely and he knew she would have let him do anything to her. No one else had ever had such blind trust in him and the feeling intoxicated his mind.

-Please -she heaved and lifted her hips with the inebriating impatience of a lover burning of passion.

The pain he could have caused and the urgency of his lust that he had to fight back gave way to the desire to give as much pleasure as he could. He plunged into her slowly, feeling the tenseness leave her body, and found himself anchored between his resolution to make her feel loved and the heavenly sensastion of floating in an endless ocean or warmth and safety. She embraced him with her warmth and as her waters became restless, he joined the wave-dance of her body ressurrected from obliviousness by love. Clasping her hands, he kept her arms above her head, pushing himself deep inside her, arriving home, becoming part of her, connected, and then leaving the safety of her warm softness only to feel lonely and weak, longing to return. He rocked her waves and plunged inside them, floating, happy, feeling powerful, and the wind of her sighs almost upturned his balance.

She lost control and he loved the way her lips shaped themselves into cries and moans and unconscious smiles of perfect bliss. He was diving fast, knowing he will sink to the bottom of her sea soon, and the tremors of his resilient body followed her moves. She arched herself into him and the loud moan escaping her throat was that of a satisfied goddess whose altar had witnessed a long-awaited sacrifice. He felt her soft waters become an eddy of warmth, sucking him under, and he let go to sink with her with his eyes closed, feeling his muscles shake and lose their focus.

He rolled to his back, spent and overjoyed, his left hand grasping her right one. The night was dissolving into dawn, but his eyes saw nothing. He felt like on a boat gently rocked and carried away by a peaceful sea, the sun above him, the clouds promising hot showers.

She edged closer to him, pushing her head to his arm and just lying there, connected to him in a strangely magical way.

He enveloped her with an arm and a soft blanket and moving as close to her as possible without destroying her integrity, he let themselves drift into sleep.

35.

It is strange and wonderful how there is so much purpose in insignificant details of everyday life, such as choosing the right size of bread, when one knows that there is someone to share it with. Mary spent a ridiculous amount of time shopping, not only for groceries, but also items she had not even dared think about for years: cosmetics, shampoo, stockings, underwear (the lacy type), dresses (the trendy type). Trying clothes on, watching herself in the mirror, she had to admit she did not look that bad for her age. Her waist was extremely slender, her hips curved discreetly under the lush materials she did not feel ashamed to touch, and her breasts, with the help of the newest wonderbras actually drew attention. Her hair was youthfully falling into her eyes which were full of sheen.

At least she had to believe all the above, otherwise she would not have had the courage to return to Joshua.

-And here she is -Sara silently exclaimed, putting the receiver down. -I was just calling you. I had tried to call for two days on end. Where have you disappeared?

Mary entered the Oxfam shop and literally threw her shopping bags on the floor, next to the window which was an unfinished mess, Sara’s wicked style of attracting odd glances from passers-by.

-I was resting at home. Taking time out -she replied cautiously, expecting a torrent of sounds from her friend, all of which as far from sounding human as a camel’s chewing on food.

Sara stared at her, then at her shopping, and when she noticed a box with new shoes, and another box with the name Marks & Spencer on it, her face became illuminated.

-Oh my God -she mouthed without a sound, scurrying from behind her counter to grab Mary’s arm and drag her into the private room. She closed the door and then she looked at her friend, still wordless.

-Yes -Mary gave in, her eyes laughing.

-Oh my God -Sara said, this time audibly. -Oh… my… God. Is… is he… how… when? Why? I mean, not why, but why…? Haven’t you told me?!

-I am telling you now -Mary giggled. -I left him asleep and then he’ll go home and meet some of his old friends who came to town.

-You left him asleep. As in, in bed. Your bed. Asleep? Like… after making love?

The last words were again only whispered by a mouth that apparently did not want to close. Poor Sara had so much to grasp and talk about she never waited for Mary’s reply.

-Oh my God. What is he like? I mean, okay, he must be a god… right? He’s so… divine! I can almost picture him… oh what the hell. You give me details, girlfriend! Right now!

Mary was laughing with her hand on her mouth, genuinely enjoying the young woman’s reaction.

-Quit snickering and provide information, lady! You know I made a bet with Hans and Bridge that he’s all hairy and his nipples are pink, not brown? I’ll lose twenty quid if I’m wrong. So?

Mary had to sit down, holding her sides, wiping her tears.

-What if only one of those is not correct? -she asked, hardly able to speak.

-Ooooh wait. Lemme guess. His nipples. Right?

Mary was shaking and she only managed a nod. Sara slumped into an unopened plastic bag with new purchases in it, grabbing her friend’s wrist with both hands.

-Dammit. I knew I should have only bet on one thing at a time. Oh well.

They quieted down after a while and Sara stared into space blankly, still holding Mary’s arm.

-You managed to fish out the hunkiest bachelor in this whole damn dumphole, you know that? If I was unmarried I’d be so jealous of you now!

Mary looked at her and smiled softly.

-I won’t keep him long, so don’t be too jealous.

-Nonsense -Sara retorted, squeezing the arm that started to turn white like her knuckles. -He did not fall for you quickly, which is always a sign of a long and happy relationship.

They sat awhile in the silence, smelling in the slightly damp scent of the place.

-Except in the case of Jo and Myrtle who went past and around each other for two years and when they finally got together neither of them was satisfied and they split within a week -Sara added ponderingly

-That is a thought to fall back on in moments of despair -Mary giggled. -Well, it took us a few weeks and one week is already past. Is that a good sign?

Sara looked at her warmly and hugged her with genuine affection.

-That is the bestest of signs, my darling! Oh, I’m so bitchin’ happy for you! -she whispered into her ear. -I mean, not that this would be so… incredible, so… unimaginable, it’s just that you’re my best friend and I could do a cloud-dance, I’m so happy that you’re in love -she added hastily, concern in her eyes.

Mary giggled again, patting Sara on the cheek.

-Don’t worry, dear, I won’t hold it against you. It is incredible. Unimaginable. I would call it downright miraculous, if not surreal. Women my age are happy to find chatting partners at knitting clubs, and here I am, God knows how, and why, but managing to not only meet the most amazing man I could think of, but also capturing his heart… It’s… it’s incredible.

Sara had tears in her eyes when she smiled back at her.

-Oh, Mary… the beauty trapped inside you had to find its way out to somebody… can’t you see? After your miserable marriage and dreary life that you did not deserve it was only right that someone came along. If I was God, I would have sent five Joshuas, in case he decided to leave. To have substitutes.

-There’s a thought -Mary mumbled, biting her lip. -My poor heart can hardly take on of them.

-I could help you with one or two -Sara blinked sheepishly. -But… uhm… I… oh, dammit Mary, don’t be mean with details! Please! Begging you here! Imploring on my bum sunken in this shitty plastic bag!

Mary burst out laughing at her incorrigible friend.

-Well, let’s just say… he is divine, as you said. I have never felt anything like this before.

Sara stared with her mouth agape and her eyes unblinking.

-This will have to do -Mary added. -The rest is up to your imagination, prolific and scary as it is. I know you’ll make out the rest of it, but for now, unless you want your shop to be emptied, let’s go back. You need to work and I… I need to go home and prepare food for my… -She stopped short, not sure what to call him. Late lover? Boyfriend? Partner? He was all of them and still neither. -For my Joshua -she finished with a happy smile.

~~~

Her home actually felt like home now. The fire lit, the soup steaming in the tureen, a warm throw that she found in Sara’s shop adding a touch of cosiness to the rocking chair, and a vase full of dahlias that she could not resist. She pasted everything with her eyes, and then picked up Marshmallow to stroke the happy animal under her belly. She felt at ease, she felt useful, she felt wanted. Waiting for someone to come home.

-Good evening -she heard the most beautiful voice behind her and she turned to send him a smile. -That’s a picture I wish I could take a photo of right now. You with the cat, looking so… happy.

-That’s because I am happy -Mary put down the cat, stepping to greet him.

His arms went around her waist and his lips instantly claimed hers and he tasted of wine. She kissed him back eagerly, but remembered dinner and gently disengaged herself.

-You promised to bring the second course -she said, stroking his curls.

-Mmm -he nodded, producing a bag that he took to the kitchen, with her at his heels. -I decided I want venison in plum sauce with vegetables and for dessert, well, just some vanilla trifles which is not much but I figured we can have something else too -he finished with his eyes shining.

It suddenly flashed through Mary as she stood by the counter with an upbeat Joshua in her kitchen. He was coming home, to her, bringing food, holding her, loving her, wanting her.

She hugged him so tight and so suddenly that he almost lost his balance, but chuckled into her neck and embraced her gently as soon as he propped himself against the counter. She found his lips and kissed him with a passion that seemed to be stronger each time he touched her.

-He-ey -he crooned softly after he was allowed to breathe. -If two slices of venison turn you on so much what will you think of what’s coming after the meal?

Mary punched his side playfully, laughing with him. She had never thought it possible but she felt like a little child again, worriless and merry, free to do as she chose.

-What do you mean, after? This food will take ages to prepare, you silly boy -she said, kissing him again. -The meat needs to marinate and the vegetables need to be cleaned and…

He placed a finger on her lips.

-Then we eat later, or skip the meal altogether and eat tomorrow -he said huskily, searching her eyes to see if she liked what he said.

-You’re always hungry after… after… -she stuttered, swallowing. Blushing. She could not believe it.

-Then I’ll take you out to dinner -he said, slowly manoeuvering her out from the kitchen, placing short kisses on her lips and neck and cheeks. She held onto him, walking backwards with her eyes closed, trusting him blindly. She would have trusted him even if he had held a gun at her.

The fire crackled on and a quiet wind whispered outside as the last specks of orange sun gave way to the night above a smooth sea. Her senses received everything gratefully, embracing life as she had never known it before, indulging in the blissful details of a bed shared with someone, the warmth of a resting body lying next to her, the hoarse breathing of someone who had just reached the heights of wordly happiness with her. It was too much, too perfect. It was not hers, it was only a trick of her mind. But she decided to hold onto her fancy as long as she was meant to have it.

36.

After contemplating the misty sunshine that poked through the foilage of the slightly tired trees, Mary slowly walked across the patches of light that seemed to be there with the sole purpose of showing her the way. Up the shallow hill, over the tiny clearing which gave to the church on the right, all the way to the seashore. As always, they greeted her from afar, the waves that never failed to amaze her, the ever changing, superficial yet earth-shattering postilions of time. With them, time ceased to gnaw at the fabric of existance, whereas each of them hit her like a mighty heartbeat, one after the other in a long procession, signalling the passing of all things. Whenever she walked to the beach, her heart’s beatings were drowned out by the waves, and she gladly surrendered her insignificance to the overpowering presence of the sea.

As she stepped out from the protective canopy of leaves and branches, the sunshine blinded her blinking eyes. It was noon, and she had been told to walk to their favourite spot for a picnic. The fact alone that they had a common favourite place, together, the two of them, made her smile despite herself. His gentle smile when he fixed the day and hour of the rendez-vous reverberated inside her soul. She was meeting Joshua, upon his request, in their secluded spot, far from the world.

The sound of the waves had made her drowsy. She had eyed her canvas, content with how the sea was coming together, closing her paints to keep them from drying as she had prepared to take a quick nap. The sun had been already starting his lazy dip into the water, and because his light had not been dangerous anymore, Mary had decided she could lay back into the sand safely. She had done so, and closing her eyes, she had instantly felt the warmth of the potent sun spread itself more intensely on her than before. She remembered feeling the heat more, and smelling the pears she had taken for lunch with her to the beach as if they had been a whole orchard, her own private garden of delight. The scent of the sea, salty and heavy, crawled into her nostrils, like on that day, and from the sounds that grew strong in her ears, she started seeing the world behind her closed eyelids. A wave-lover hitting a cliff, kissing him, stroking him, leaving him drained yet wanting more, but only to return, again and again to rob him of his powers and to claim his peace, his stagnant soul, his caged desires. A seagull screamed above her, relishing the sunshine, the fish in the sea, enjoying life that gave in abundance. The wind caught her skirt, her hair, her eyelashes, stroking them to her skin, sending her body tingling with sensations that seemed to be an indelible part of her. The warmth of the sun reminded her of his kisses, the heat of the sand being his body that enveloped her at every moment of her conscious existence and her periods of oblivion. She lay on her back, like on that day, feeling the wind tug at the ends of her dress, blowing the light material against her thighs. His fingers, stroking her endlessly, shamelessly, his tongue that travelled across her body, making her want to die in his arms in her utmost moment of bliss. She had thought no man could evoke such strong feelings in her… how wrong she was. All her life.

-Isn’t it risky to be exposed to the sun like that?

She opened her eyes and squinted at the figure standing directly in the sun. She only saw his outline and she thought of an angel, dropped from the heavens to the earth to do good, to save souls, to alleviate pain.

-I could not ask for a more perfect moment -she replied with a content smile, closing her eyes.

Peach and orange light veiled her sight; floating specks of memory and hope, heat on her eyelids, burning on her exposed arms, sudden gusts of wind cooling her skin, soft sounds of nature-

She sensed the grass shift slightly to receive his weight as he eased himself down and lay next to her. She heard the muffled sound of the grains of soil and sand rub against each other to hold him in the best way. Even the rays of sunshine seemed to turn away from her to touch him. She smiled inwardly at the lack of artificial perfume: he gave off a warm scent of summer’s end, that of autumn’s promise, and as his breath reached her lips, she melted into his kiss.

Peace. Purity. Perfection.

Time stood completely still, as did her heart, even though the languid summer day seemed to offer a rare instant when she was past feeling shame for claiming him or fear of losing him. Her body reacted to his touch in a way that would have appeared improbable a mere few moments before: he was hers without condition, and she was taking him as life’s offering, or God’s reward for her bitter patience. His hand roamed up her arm, his thumb gently stopping at her armpit, then rested on her cheek for a while before digging into her hair.

His breath was cooling her moist lips, then heating them as his mouth took possession of her, again and again. She breathed off his breath, giving up her will to live outside his presence. She wanted to nestle into him, disappear in his flesh, become him. What use living other than existing as the perfect entity that he was? She pulled him towards her without knowing, imploring him to be, to have, to live. She was unimportant, as she only saw herself as part of him. Without him, she would surely cease to exist, but the idea, far from scaring her, rested on her mind like a reassuring warm fire on a winter night.

The summer’s breath tickled her cheeks- or was it his curls? Her hand found his thick hair, and he shifted slightly to rest his head on her breast. She stopped breathing to keep motionless for his sake, then slowly exhaled and enjoyed the pressure of his cheek on her heart. She tried to steady her heart so that he could hear a calm, peaceful rhythm instead of the clamour that her heartbeat became each time he was near her.

She had decided not to tell him. It would mean pressure, it would mean the beginning of demands, it would mean the start of their relationship of give and take- she only wanted to give- but it was imposible not to crave him, his presence, his voice, his love. Yet, she had made a resolution to stop asking after that night. How could it be fair, when anything he may ask of her as a woman, she could never give?

-I want time to stop -she heard him say. The warmth of his breath went straight to her heart, making her shiver involuntarily.

She opened her eyes to look directly into the sun that shone above her. The scorching light was sending black circles to her vision, and when she blinked, a dark and a light sun changed places alternately. Perhaps if the sun did not blind her, time would stop.

-I love you…

She had said it. Destroyed the perfect moment. Gave him a reason to shirk her, hate her, be scared of her. Theirs was not a fairy-tale, she would never find the fountain of youth, there was no happily ever after. How long could they stay hidden in the sun, on their beach, inside her house? People, conventions, opinions, mocking, pointing, fear-

-…Mary.

It was the same voice. Was it he who said-

She lay shattered in the sand, a tiny shell almost empty, only clinging to her pearl, her one possession. On a string, her love-bead would seem similar to that of others. Round, perfect, shiny. Hidden inside her cold shell, however, she could treasure it forever, until the waves of time washed her away into oblivion, or-

Or until a fisherman came and forced her open to rob her of what she had, and for a short while, hold her perfect love between his fingers in awe and appreciation.

All this time, she had waited for, and feared the arrival of he who would empty her completely. She had her art, she had a meagre life, a son. Scant memories, a frugal future. But her most treasured possession, she knew, was her love that no one had asked for.

Now, he had come, and he had forced her open, and she had nothing left- but he was holding her love so tenderly that she felt no regret.

Floating happily on the waves of love, an empty shell greeted the sun. Two arms of sea embraced her, a warm breath of wind blew into her soul, and a body of earth cradled her to blissful oblivion.

37.

Later, at dusk, the same day, or another one that brought just as much joy and happiness to both of them, they got up from the sand heated by their bodies and walked further, along the shore, to a place she had never been to. She looked around herself in a daze, blinking in the half-light of moon chasing sun. A clearing, tiny, with a willow-tree the long branches of which reached into the shallow sea, like fingers of a lazy lover resting on a barge. Higher on the gentle hill, an oak, majestic, ancient.

-Is that a swing? -Mary asked him as she tiptoed closer. The sight of the swing on a thick rope, tied to a tall branch of oak instantly took her back to a little Mary, her skirt flying, her hair in her eyes and laughing mouth, the sun in her pupils and her heart. Pure joy, unmarred, complete and perfect joy at the wind catching into her dress, pushing the cotton fabric against her skin. Other children’s voices gurgling around her, grown-ups admonishing, administering advice, scolding and afterwards hugging her. A picnic, with lemonade, roast chicken, cream puffs and ice cream. Checkered kitchen cloths, fruit baskets, an apple left half-eaten on the grass. A dog, Dummy, black save for his left eye, barking happily at the commotion around him. Mary, sweetie, if you go any higher you will see the world from upside down! Do you want that? Shall I help you? No, daddy, I’m scared, no! Laughter on the brink of tears and fear, the scent of a summer day in her tiny nostrils, the taste of acid lemonade mixing with sweet vanilla ice in her mouth, a sense of bliss that only a small child can experience pervading her.

Mary stood reminiscing, her hand shaking on the rope. She turned the flashes of memory in her mind, everything that had been buried for so long, under the crusty layers of adulthood. She had been happy then, genuinely happy. Unspoilt by doubt or by a sense of failure that would follow her in her later years, untouched by all the uncertainties of a life that no one can escape. She did not know loneliness, she did not know sorrow, unfulfilled desires and dreams come to nothing were strangers to her she was yet to meet.

-Have you not been here before? -Joshua’s voice dragged her back from the misty past. He sounded surprised, and he looked it too, as he stepped to her and placed his hand on the rope, just above her hand.

She shook her head, enjoying the feel of his warm hand on hers. His fingers stroked her hand, his eyes were fixed on her face, she was exposed: he was scrutinizing her, digging deep into her past that she had cherished on her own. His curiosity sent shivers to the tips of her fingers, but she kept them intertwined with his.

-I was so happy back then -she said to herself, to the willow and the setting sun. -I had no idea how happy I was.

-I’m sure you appreciated all the good times when you had to -he tilted his head to look at her with gentle emphasis. -Then again, it’s the way of the world, right? Appreciating in retrospect.

-Yes. We grow old, we get experienced, only to see how foolish we used to be -she replied, easing herself onto the old plank secured to the rope.

The sun shone in her eyes, the dog barked and bounced at her heels, the taste of lemonade was poignant on her tongue, and as a first tired leaf descended onto the ground, she started flying. Slowly, as he gently pulled the rope towards him and let her go, and then pulled the rope again, brushing her hand with his, letting her fall back on the slow path of memories and regrets, perhaps happy recollections, a sense of achievement- so much to be savoured and understood, why she had been spared further pain, why she had been granted a life of solitude after an early bliss, why she had to start painting to preserve herself, and why she met Joshua.

His eyes were fixed on her, pools of loyalty and love she had not thought possible. The way he had led her to the Evening at Tiffany’s restaurant, the touch of his hand on her waist that could only mean one thing for him, for her, and the staring faces around them, the claylike, homogenous masses of blinking pink and black. The hateful moment of him leading her to a table, having to bear the stares, the metallic smiles. All the time, his eyes, endless oceans of calm love. Why did it not bother him that she was old, that people were whispering, that they were facing the odds? She was almost angry with him, for letting her be there alone, in a place where she could not be understood, only mocked at. And then, the palm of his hand, a gentle reminder that he was, in fact, with her, so sudden, unexpected, so wonderful. Everyone knew now. He sat with words on his lips, smiles meant only for her, and she received them, returned them, did her best to accept his sacrifice, without feeling remorse.

He flew her higher, slowly, higher, into the arms of the wind, of her past, and she leaned back, holding onto the rope and letting her hair float, closing her eyes, receiving, accepting, accepting. It was the only way. Otherwise his blind offering would have crushed her existence.

In the mellow darkness she saw herself as a little girl on the shoulders of her daddy, holding hands with the neighbour’s little boy, playing with the dogs that ran after them happily, throwing balls made of dried leaves and mud at each other, splashing in the small brook, sniffing at flowers and cowdung they discovered on the dusty road. Nothing was as perfect as those times. Nothing-

Except her newly found happiness on a swing, drowning in two eyes of shameless love. She looked at him, feeling the wind in her back, receiving her, and in her face, accepting her, and the touch of his hands, and once again, soaring high, and when she descended, he picked her out of the swing, his arms on her waist, and she felt she was really flying, as he took a few steps back and to the side to avoid the empty plank that fell back down fast.

-I knew you would like it -he said to her, his lips slmost touching hers.

Her feet hardly swept the grass; she felt like a feather in an angel’s wing, one that was important, crucial for his flight, stroked meticulously and with love before taking off into the heavens.

-You know me better than I know myself -she told him, encircling his waist with her arms.

He smiled, kissing her once, fleetingly, a light flickering in his eyes.

-I wish there was anything I could do… to love you more -she said, surprised at how simple and honest her words sounded.

He kissed her as response, blocking her vision, stopping her doubts once more, tickling her neck with his stubbly chin, warming her cheek with his hot breath. She laughed despite herself, echoing the giggles of a little girl in a sunlit meadow drinking lemonade that trickled down her chin. She let her head fall back, and he twirled her in his arms, and her legs flew, and her hair tickled her face, and she laughed with the sunset breeze, and he laughed with her, and his eyes slanted, and she knew that nothing in her past could ever felt as perfect as their moment of abandon.

38.

Love, they say, is blind, and treacherous, and plants chaos into one’s previously well-organized life. When one loves, the sky is bluer, the sun is brighter, the rain on one’s skin is warmer and sweeter, and even though nothing changes in the outside world, one’s life suddenly gets a purpose. It is probably nothing more than the silly promise of a lovingly prepared dinner for the one we love, or the fact that we look forward to the loved one’s face light up when they see us. The world becomes no better, no healthier, and we certainly do not turn younger from love, but the magical feeling is there: we love, and are loved. For some, it lasts a moment, for others, a lifetime, while for reasons unknown, some people never experience it.

Mary stood in the line of the grocery shop and definitely felt among the chosen ones. Her fingers grabbed the handle of her shopping basket with a purpose. She placed her left foot beside the right one to shift her weight a little, with a purpose. She scanned the faces of the people walking in and out through the door, blindly, yet, with a purpose. She gently shook her head, only to feel her hair fall into place, and lightly tickle her cheek, remembering with a happy smile how he loved her new hair, how his fingers were combing through it that very morning before he kissed her goodbye for a few hours.

Yes, love changes one completely, and through them, the whole world turns into a cosmos of magical and blissful purpose. But love is also eager, and jealous, and quick-tempered: a tiny speck of dust can upset the perfect harmony and send it endlessly whirling with emotion and mistrust.

-Hiya, Mary dear -old James Levine said with a benevolent grin, stepping to Mary and startling her from her reverie. -We have been missing you from the monthly meetings. No one can beat me as quickly in bridge as you, my love. Where have you been hiding?

-James -Mary smiled, giving her old acquaintance a pat on his arm. -Focusing on my art, that’s where I’ve been. And… -she stopped short, very embarrassed, wondering what to say, or whether she should say anything in the first place. After all, they had been seen together. They were not a secret any more. -I am seeing someone -she said simply, doing her best to make her smile genuine. Her bliss was there alright, but the words that heralded it sounded awkward and empty. Seeing someone was not what she meant. Her heart said, I am adoring someone, I am worshipping a perfect man, and he adores me back.

-Ah, love -Mr Levine winked at her, nodding to go. -It is not only for the young and pretty, eh? Though to be sure, you are still young and pretty, Mary Magdalene. Had my doctor not told me tobacco could kill me any day now, I’d marry you in a jiffy.

-Thank you, James -Mary laughed good-naturedly, watching the old man walk out with painfully slow steps.

The encounter should not have ruffled her feathers so, but it did. Mary stood on her left foot, then on her right, arranging and rearranging her fingers on the handle of her basket, waiting impatiently for her turn to pay and go. James Levine, aged seventy. He was basically dead. He could hardly walk. And he was a mere thirteen years older than she was. Never had the prospects of becoming an almost mummy in such a short time made Mary’s heart beat so fast in agony.

She had never received old age with the gracefulness expected of the women of her generation. She was supposed to dress in wide skirts and loose sweaters and do her hair in annoying little curls and dye them purple, if at all. She was supposed to wear glasses and false teeth and walk demurely and accept her role of mother, grandmother (soon, probably), and pensioner, a someone who spent her spare time doing silly painting on the beach, talking to her cat when there was no one else around- but in her heart, she was none of these. Not now, as she had never been.

She was only twenty when her best friend discovered her first white hairs, and since that day, Mary had been forced to use artificial colouring to keep herself young on the outside. Seeing the health of her parents deteriorate swiftly after they turned forty, she watched in dismay as they gradually lost their strength, their livelihood, their beauty, and finally, their will to live. She liked to think that it was out of her sense of duty for them, her loving parents, when it was in fact her rebellious nature that prompted her to help them, thus having a chance to watch them grow old, picturing herself at sixty despite her reasoning.

Well, there she was now, at almost sixty. Older than her parents when they died. Getting almost-proposals from men who could hardly walk, because they saw it fit to imagine themselves with her, who was, after all, almost their age.

She swallowed and felt flushed, angry, dejected. No. She would not be placed next to James Levine or Clark Hyatt or Adrian Morrison or anyone else, those toothless, wrinkled, withered, bloodless old buggers. She was young. She felt young. She felt a right to live like the young did. She wanted to be looked upon as young. So what if red was not her colour, considering her age? She would not give a damn. She would wear red, and pink, and yellow, and vibrant blue, and meet her perfect Joshua with a confident smile on her face.

-No.

-Yes.

-No! Are you insane?

-I am telling you, yes.

-But… she’s older than my aunt who’s at least sixty.

-I don’t know. Maybe she’s younger. But she is much older than him, for sure.

-Duh!

Mary became conscious of the loud, albeit whispered conversation going on behind her, a few people further from her in the line. She stiffened with the basket in her hand, feeling blood run out of her limbs.

-I just don’t get it. He’s gorgeous! He’s like… he’s so awesome. He could get any woman he wanted. Like… anyone, okay?

-He’s had Diane. My older sister’s her friend, and she told me.

-Did she give any details?

-She said he was totally breath-stopping. And Diane is not easily impressed.

The voices belonged to persons at least forty years her junior. Mary hung her head, wishing she could block her ears, or simply smash down her basket to the plastic floor and leave the shop, but she knew she could not do that. She would have to hear them out, hear their opinions, and through them, be aware of what the town must be talking of her.

-All I’m saying is, she must know something if she got him on her hook, right?

-She’s probably rich.

-Nah, she’s a painter. She lives by the sea, at least that’s what Diane said. She knows because he lives there, too.

-She must be a witch, then. Either that, or she is blackmailing him with something only she knows.

Mary put her groceries out, one by one, fingers trembling, her face flushed, loathing them, whoever they were, loathing herself, her age, her old hands that seemed to drop everything she touched, her old heart that seemed to beat frantically, as if trapped, and her old soul that forgot the perfect happiness it was bathing in a mere few hours before, and that now wanted to stop existing. The shame, the self-hatred, the feeling of hurt was too much for her, and as she produced her credit card, she felt remorse and self-doubt take hold of her once again.

Sometimes it is good to not be curious, and walk on with eyes kept to the ground. Mary made the mistake of turning back before she opened the door to step out into the street. Her battered self-confidence longed, in the perversely curious way of all humans when faced with big qualms or questions in life, to take a look at those who talked about her in such a vile manner.

She knew they were watching her. Everyone she knew, everyone she was unfamiliar with, every single soul she passed on the street as she hurried home on shaky legs. She felt the eyes glued to her back, she understood their surprise, their hatred for her which was reasonable and relentless. She was old, she did not deserve a young lover. Who was she to tie him down to herself?

Indeed, who was she?

Her groceries were pulling her arms down: past was her weightlessness that took her to the heavens and back, into his arms. Her fragile happiness had been shattered by a few words, a few glances, a whole world against her. She understood them perfectly: it was not her place to be loved by Joshua. He was so much more than what he made himself to be, for her sake. He forced himself to stoop to her level, and be her captive, body and soul. How long would the miracle last? How long would he be satisfied with her old arms, her old body?

Tears of agony wet her cheeks, stinging her eyes, making her skin cold in the misty wind that blew her coat to her weak limbs. The sun had hidden behind a cloud, and the world turned grey, vast, cruel. Mary heard every word as clear as her throbbing heart allowed her to hear, and saw those faces, so young, so clueless, so void of any compassion for her. Fresh, crisp, perfect skins, large eyes, soft and plump lips, graceful hair and hands, everything that she felt to be under Joshua’s touch. The way he kissed her, she felt young again. His hands stroking her thights made her feel reckless and free, craving him more and more every day. She longed to give him her laughs, her smiles, her love, and he was ready to accept her ridiculous gifts that she had thought sufficient. But she was not young. She was old. Were they to stay together, she would die soon, leaving him many years without her, to spend in solitary sadness, or with someone else. She was not sure if she liked either of the alternatives at all… She had been so blinded by love that she had locked herself into a magical world of hope and perfection, when reality was there all along, scratching the thin walls of her bubble, cutting it open at the first weak endeavour, allowing all her pain to gush forth from the open wound.

It was hardly past midday, but the silvery dew resting on the falling leaves gave an eerie, dusky feel to the landscape. The lack of sunlight added to the darkness in her soul, and as her steps took her to her old, familiar path, she felt like a thief who walked stealthily back to the scene of her crime, to where she saw him, where her heart craved him, where her envious soul claimed him. Her crime seemed unpardonable, and the echo of the noon chimes grew stronger and stronger in her ear, deafening her, taking away her strength to think clearly.

The little church was as deserted as on the last time she happened to walk by, but instead of wondering if it was not a real church at all, only God’s miraculously present for her every time she needed to rest in quiet, she listened to her instincts and entered the small building to be greeted with the surreal, dusty silence of a world she felt strangely attracted to.

39.

The moment the door shut behind her, an echo swept across the aisle, as far as the humble altar, to be reverberated by the crucifix and the ancient carvings set on its left and right. Then, it died, and silence settled over the interior of God’s tiny house.

Mary walked to a row in the middle and sat down. Why she had come in, she did not know, she did not care. The soundless world of the small church was her refuge from one of ridicule and hurt. Perhaps here no one would find her, no one would see her tear-stained wrinkles, no one would interrogate her because of her feelings. They had no right- no one had any right to question her motives, or his, but deep inside, she knew it was all true. It was the way the world worked. Youth did not mingle with the elderly, and more painfully, memories were meant to keep the past where it belonged: something gone was gone forever. She had had her chance. Struggling to turn back time and fool herself would only result in chaos and disorder. She must set things straight again in the continuum of fate, as he most certainly did not belong with her. He deserved to be admired, and with her by his side, he would never be. She would always give them a reason to scorn and point and laugh, and for the sake of both of them, she would have to let him go.

The clarity of it all was screaming in the silence of dust and eerie sunshine that came in through the cracked window. Mary lifted her head with no purpose at all, clasping her hands, wondering what to do next. How to tell him, or not tell him at all, but leave, or push him out of her house, out of her heart. The tears had been streaming down her face and her neck, soaking her scarf. The figure of a pierced Christ before her accentuated her pain and her every heartbeat took her closer to a place where hurt can never be mended.

As if in a dream, the door opened behind her and closed softly, sending no echo into the silence of her tears. She hoped it would be someone who, unlike her, had a strong faith, and had come to pray, or just rest in the invisible presence of God, and would not care about her sitting there.

-Can I help you, my child? -came a voice from her left and she started. -I am sorry, I did not want to startle you.

She shook her head and wiping her face, stood up to leave.

-Your heart is heavy -the priest said. His soft eyes looked at her with compassion. -Never forget that he is listening, even if you don’t believe he does.

-He sent me someone too late -Mary replied bitterly. -I never asked him to, but he did, and now he’s taking him back. Why should I talk to this god with no sense of timing, why should I thank him for his irony?

-You will only find questions to your answers if you trust him completely -the priest told her.

-Well, I can’t, I never could and I don’t think I ever can -she said. She was really angry and every moment spent in the church was making her angrier. -He sent me a homosexual husband when I was young and now when I’m old, he gives me a young man to love. Your god is probably amusing himself like the rest of the town.

-No -he replied, reaching out his hand, but she took a step back. -You are mistaken, my child. He is not my god. He is everyone’s god, that of the believing, and that of those who deny him. He has a purpose with you, you only have to be patient enough to see it.

-Patient? -she laughed. -I’m only a few years away from being buried. Am I going to be enlightened on the day I leave this earth?

The priest seemed to be searching for the right words, but she left him no time. Picking up her basket, she turned and walked to the door, grabbing the iron handle with fury.

-You already have the answer within you, and around you, child -she heard the gentle voice in her ear just before she closed the door with a bang.

She did have the answer, the only answer her frustrated mind could come up with to her every question: she was growing old. The fact that her feet hurt as she was walking on the pebbled path, the lungs that after the silent weeping felt the cold wind sweep through them painfully, the sounds surrounding her that made up a symphony of hurt and solitude: everything reminded her of her old age.

Passing the graveyard she usually ignored, she lifted her glance to make herself see the ancient stones overgrown with moss and the newer ones, still buried under a blanket of withering flowers. A man was standing in front of one of them. Someone in his forties, bespectacled, dressed in a light brown coat. He was gazing at the stone where he had deposited a single white rose; he might have been real, or the product of her pained imagination: Joshua, ten years from now. Mary walked on, but the image of the man stayed with her even when she reached the sea.

The winds were turning against the waves, anger fuelling on anger, filling Mary’s soul with darkness. She had hoped to find solace in the view and the soothing murmur of the sea but the greyness of the afternoon weighed down on her without mercy. Clouds fought with the sun until they conquered the skies and sent the first few cold drops of water onto her skin. In her troubled state she pictured God, the ruthless one spitting on her.

He had made a point. Nothing was to be taken that was not meant to be taken. The primeval garden of sin and punishment all over again, and again, and again. Showing her a glimpse of heaven and unearthly delight only to push her away, back into her miserable world.

Tears mingled with the rain to float onto the cradle of waves and fill the earth’s thirsty belly as Mary stood motionless to soak up as much of God’s spittle as she could. Perhaps he would spare her further pain and strike her dead- but she waited in vain for lightning to get closer. The sky’s flashes dived far away into the sea, sending tremors of light across the broken surface.

Her walk back to the house she inhabited was strenuous and long. Her lungs were failing her as she broke out in miserable sobs every once in a while. Her heavy basket was slipping from her wet fingers, her soaked clothes enticing her to lie down on the ground and evaporate into mist, or become one with the muddy grains of soil. What glorious death, to disappear and lose what she had, all in a liberating blink of an eye.

Nothing moved around her, only the drops of rain came unstoppably, beating down on the landscape. The leaves fell under their weight, the sky had lost all its colour and the ground was a soft, ugly pool of mud. Her feet sank into the mossy ground, slipping on the shiny pebbles, feeling weaker by the minute. From the corner of her eye she noticed a dog ambling in the middle of the vast field between the sea and the first houses. It was walking without a purpose, slowly and resignedly, not even trying to flee the heavenly downpour. Mary walked on, feeling one with the forlorn animal, lost and without anyone to love.

Placing her basket on the threshold, she pressed the handle to open the door but it was closed. Despite her state, she knew for certain that she had left it open. She tried again, and then it opened to reveal the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life: Joshua, his shirt sticking out from under his sweater, standing in a light of orange warmth. A glimpse of heaven to which she would have to close her eyes.

-Oh my god, you’re soaked -he said, pulling her in, taking the groceries from her shaking hand. -I’m so happy you got back, I was going to go over and get myself some dinner but…

She allowed him to peel her coat off.

-What happened? -he asked, stroking her face, throwing her scarf away and starting to undress her.

-I was caught in the rain -she replied, fully aware of her body shivering from head to toe.

-Leaving without an umbrella again -he said reprimandingly, taking her blouse off. -Here, put this on until I grab a towel -and he enveloped her in a blanket he took from an armchair.

She stood in her living-room, puzzled, weak, resigned. Exhausted from the emotional and actual storm she had been assaulted by, she only wanted one thing: to sleep. God or fate willing, forever.

-But your umbrella is in your basket -he said with a shocked face, returning with a large towel in his hand. -Mary, what is going on?

She did not reply, feeling how he rubbed her dry with the towel. It felt soft and warm, but she was so weak she could hardly stand on her feet. He noticed and made her sit down. Sinking into the armchair she sat shaking in it despite the warmth that was coming from the merry fire and the soft blanket on her shoulders. He took her shoes off, peeling her stockings from her thin legs. With a tender look that she thought was overdone, he took her undergarments off, too, leaving her naked in the soft embrace of the blanket.

-Please tell me what happened -he said softly, bundling her up in the warmth of the blanket and the fire. -Why did you not stay somewhere sheltered until the rain would pass?

-I saw you at my grave today -she said, mostly to herself, staring at his hands that were clasping her unfeeling fingers.

-What? -he asked with a frown.

-It is sometimes useful to see the future -she replied, looking at him with a detached face. -It shows the impossibility of the present and it saves one a lot of time.

-What are you talking about? -Joshua asked, squeezing her cold hands that almost hurt under his touch. He pressed his palm to her forehead.

-I don’t have a fever -she said, pushing his hand away. -I guess I should be grateful. If anything is precious for me, it is time.

He stared into her eyes, worried. Oh, how beautiful he was. The face of a mature angel, a strong lover, a patient friend. And she would have to give his freedom back.

-You will leave me -she said without any feeling. Strangely enough, the words did not hurt her as she thought they would.

-I won’t -he replied. She had no strength left to search for emotion or truth or pretending in his voice.

-It is my request -she uttered, looking away. She felt the slight shift of his hands on hers.

-No -he said, shaking his head. -You’re lying.

-It had to end sooner or later, and for the sake of both of us, it will be now.

-Wh… why? What happened? -he asked, trying to take her hand into his. She shook it off.

-I knew it all along, and you knew it, too. We both needed a friend, and we became blind to the truth along the way.

-You’re talking nonsense -he interjected, his voice raised. His eyes flashed in the warm twilight of the cosy room.

-Open your eyes, Joshua -she said, grabbing both of his hands, shaking them forcefully. -Look at me. I’m your mother. An old lady who’s only fit to mend your stockings and clap for you at the back of a room. We fooled ourselves into thinking that we loved each other, when this was just a refuge for both of us.

He shook his head, looking away. He seemed to be lost for words and she sat there, bitterly victorious.

-Go and don’t come back -she spoke, leaning back into her armchair, letting go of his hands.

He sat on his knees in front of her, trying to search her eyes, but she avoided him. The flames danced and bounced in front of her eyes, filling the room with a soft purr of dying wood.

-I don’t know what happened today, but I’m not leaving -she heard his voice. It was quivering slightly and she let her eyelids fall. -I have never loved anyone as strongly as I love you. I don’t care what happened, I don’t care if anyone said something or the priest told you to stop sinning or you saw some photos of young women…

-It’s so easy for you -she said, braving his gaze. -No one is pointing at you in the street saying how old you are, and your conscience will be crystal clear when I finally die, knowing that you did what it told you and stayed with me. What about my conscience? I will have to live with the burden of keeping you captive until my dying day, Joshua -she said, breaking into tears. -Every minute, facing the truth. You’re not supposed to end up with someone like me, don’t you understand?

-How do you know what is and what is not supposed to happen? -he asked furiously.

-I’m old and I know how things should be -she whispered. -And this is not how it should be. Admit it, Joshua. It’s all an illusion.

-You’re right -he said, tearing the blanket away from her, leaving her exposed and shivering. -This is an illusion -he pinched the flaccid skin on her thin arm. -I can’t help your age, Mary, I can’t help the fact that you’re skin is old, or that mine is young. Believe me, I would take away all the years that distance you from me right now. I would make myself old if I could, to make you relaxed about us. But I can’t!

She wept, trying to cover herself and lock the loatheful moment into oblivion.

-Nor can I help the fact that I love you -he said, pulling her into his lap, covering her with the blanket. -My conscience would die the moment I left you, and not because of remorse, but because you are everything to me.

She felt tiny and helpless in his arms. It was not right, and yet, she shut her ears to his arguments and let his breath warm her lips.

-Yes, you are my mother. But you are also my friend, my lover, my helper, my light. I could not do without you, Mary -he said, stroking her face, forcing her to look at him. His eyes were misty and the fire danced in his black pupils. -I love you, but I need to know if you don’t love me.

The same moment of indecision, the hateful load. She had not been strong enough to choose then, and fate chose for her, and where had it led them to? A journey of passion and passing glory. It was time for her to choose, and choose well.

The fire danced on and the storm raged outside. Marshmallow sat on the table, staring at a weeping Mary through squinted eyes. Between the purr of the fire-dance and her mute sobs there was nothing, only endless silence. A silent table, a silent sofa, silent windows, mute walls. They kept the sound of the closing of the door between them, making it echo in her ear repeatedly, an echo fitting the impossibility of it all: it grew stronger and stronger until she had to press her hands to her ears, but reality sent a scream to her mind.

He was gone.

Chapter 40

It was past noon, but he felt like sleeping through the whole day, and the next one, and the next one. A misty sunlight probed at his eyelids that refused to let the world in. After the storm of the previous evening that raged well on into the night and merely stopped at dawn, Joshua felt drained and detached from the events that nearly pushed him to drown his anger and confusion into a bottle of wine.

The daily paper was thrown onto his porch, and the mailman drove past his house with a steady ringing. He heard the neighbour’s two lively children play in their back yard; a dog yelped painfully somewhere, someone laughed a few houses away, and the sea was murmuring behind it all, an immortal soul that always seemed to listen and care.

Music that he was supposed to write weeks ago screamed inside his head to get out. He knew it was there, but like the tender blades of grass that cannot poke through the thick layers of a belated spring snow, the notes of music were stuck to his mind and were holding on, refusing to help him get them on paper. He had been postponing writing down the songs to spend more time with Mary. There was time now… but time without her was without end, without hope.

Shuffling to his kitchen, he boiled some coffee, aware that he would never drink it. Any kind of activity was crucial to keep his hands busy, and so he gave his hands things to be engrossed in. Anything to focus on, even if it was only a useless cup, broken at the edge, tea-stains covering its bottom.

In the restless silece of his house the cup crashed against the wall with all the anger of a confused man, and he stared at the pieces of china scattering and settling on the floor. Ignoring the puddle of coffee and the dark spot on the sleeve of his shirt, he slammed the door of the bathroom and brushed his teeth furiously until his gum started to bleed.

He walked up and down like one possessed, clenching his fists, heaving in frustration. She was right. They did not belong together. She would bring him shame. He could never acknowledge her as freely as if she were twenty years younger. It was true, all of it, and he clenched his fist repeatedly, feeling his reason struggle with his emotions. Despite the facts, and the truth that painfully etched itself into his consciousness like the slow carvings of the patient waves, there was nothing he wanted more than to be with her. Hidden, just the two of them, stealthily, or openly, under whichever circumstances. Not holding her caused him more pain than the knowledge that if they were to stay together, they would have to face an army of hideous consequences.

Unable to stay in one place, he quickly dressed and fled the loneliness of his house. Anywhere but where the walls echoed his hurt and frightening thoughts that screamed inside his head: perhaps she did not love him after all, perhaps she had only used him for a little while, to experience passion once again and relish the feeling of life going through her veins. She needed him, he needed her, they were both there for each other, and they both got what they wanted. She got her inspiration, her passionate encounters, and he got…

He recalled the first time she looked at him with that silent wistfulness, and the way her fingers touched his before she painted him. He remembered the sketch she stole of him, the sketch they had never talked about. Her numb expression of shocked delight after he sang in the shop and they apparently heard him. There was no reason why he should think of her as of anything better than a smitten fan, or worse, a voyeur, and tears streamed down his cheek at the horrid thoughts that in his shaken state of mind appeared as the only explanation to what happened between them.

To think that she loved him for who he was, of all things, of all the impossible, improbable things. She had used his vulnerability and from his torn emotions she created a veil of treacherous love that stopped them both from seeing the truth. He swallowed his shame and his sorrow, walking blindly, not really caring where his legs were taking him.

A cold wind was hitting his body with stubborn resolution as he sat on a flat rock and stared into the grey waters ahead. The sun was up, but only coming across as a vague reminder of warmth once possessed, now lost forever. Joshua gazed at the ugly clouds gathering above him, wondering if another storm was going to hit the coast. Just as he welcomed the first drops of cool water on his tear-stained cheek, he saw a flock of birds flying overhead, fleeing the cold, searching for warmth. How he wished he could be a bird, to jump onto the wings of the breeze and fly away from it all. Staring at them longingly, he noticed a single bird flying much closer to the ground, flying slowly and in solitude. Its black outline made the dark clouds look brighter, but only until it disappeared from Joshua’s vision.

Shivering in the wind and the hateful drizzle, he felt torn between two worlds of doubt and pain. He had savoured both. Was there anywhere to go, at all? There was nothing left. To return to his career and struggle on with it with the full knowledge that he had failed in both worlds. Self-pity came to his rescue and prompted more tears to fall and mingle with the thin, cold film of rain that covered his face.

He walked back ignoring the outside world, wanting to lie down and give in to unconsciousness. Whatever happened, he knew that time would make everything look brighter. Even a broken heart, even a love lost. He had taken that path once and the same path greeted him with its murky, meandering face: perhaps it would be merciful to him this time.

Throwing his coat down, he thought of Mary for a fleeting instant: was she thinking of him, too? She had been as cold as ice the day before; maybe she was enjoying her retrieved freedom and living off all the intimate memories she had collected over that short period of time they had spent together.

Just as he was sipping some tea in his parlour and trying to calm his anger, his cellphone rang.

-Mom, hi -he said, forcing his cheeks and lips into a smile to sound better for her sake. -It’s wonderful to hear you… what? Oh my god -he said, his smile becoming genuine. -It’s only five hours from London by train. How come dad… well, I am surprised that he’d let you travel on your own. Even if you’re fully recovered, which fact I am terribly happy about. Sure thing, I’ll be at the station tomorrow at three. And mom, I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re coming -he added, ordering his voice to stop trembling. -No, I’m alright. I’ll… I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Love you, mom. Bye.

He broke down the moment he snapped his phone shut. Sobbing into the void of his room, he remembered the previous morning when he was cosy in a warm bed, arms and legs around someone who loved him… or so he thought. How he longed to go back in time to that morning and perhaps not let her go… if she had stayed, none of it would have happened… maybe…

~~~

Mary painted like a maniac, throwing canvas upon canvas on her stained floor, paintings unfinished or ruined, half-torn and wrecked like herself. She had not slept a wink that night and she fully intended to go on painting until she dropped dead. Colours were born before her eyes, colours she had never seen before: angry, disillusioned, troubled ribbons of dark upon light, the cries of her solitary pain. All the feelings she had sheltered inside her broke free and found their voice on her canvases.

She had known it, of course, she had expected it like she expected the sun to set each night, but in spite of awaiting it, she could not have known the full-blown force with which it would weigh down on her. Her soul was shivering in the darkness, weeping for the memories of a warm sun, seeing, hearing, tasting her Joshua, the one she pushed away so cruelly. His eyes would forever burn her soul, but even that agony was sweet: as long as she could remember him faithfully.

He had come as usual, silent, unnoticed.

-Is that why you needed me in the first place?

She clasped her brush, swallowing and helpless.

– But of course. To make painting easier -he added with bitterness in his voice. -I was such an idiot not to realize. You asked me to pose for a painting when we had hardly exchanged a few words. Is that the way it works for painters, or was this just your twisted self getting what you want?

If she could stay motionless, he would not notice the tears on her left cheek. If she said a single word, he would find out. Oh, to say that word, anything, anything that came to her mind, or just a sigh that sent forth would surely find its way to him.

She stood before her paint-stand, staring blindly ahead. For the first time, he saw her through eyes cold and detached: she was puny, thin, broken and old. So old. Her hair was a mess, paint staining it just above her ear; her back was weak and stooping, and her head was hanging dejectedly, in shame, he thought.

He realized in that fateful moment that seeing her did not destroy him as he had feared; on the contrary, he felt powerful and distant.

There was one last thing he had to do to free himself of the remnants of his self-doubt.

He stepped to her and forcefully turning her face to him, gave her a merciless kiss.

She bore his hard lips on hers with resignation, closing her eyes to avoid his cold glance.

He fought to keep his remorse from changing into tenderness: she felt so weak, so powerless- but it was for the better.

Tearing himself away from her, he wanted to utter words of hatred and despair, but seeing how her tiny frame was threatening to collapse, he chose to turn around silently and leave.

He defied the rain, fought against the wind with clenched teeth, and struggled to walk on. Whatever was pulling him back did not exist. It never had.

Mary saw him through her closed eyelids, saw him as clearly as ever. Young and beautiful and defiant, like a new rosebud struggling to stay away from the dying ones that will only hinder its progress towards the sun.

It was over; she stood shaking, her weight propped on her canvas, looking for reluctant relief amidst the terrible thoughts of loneliness and longing. It was over, he was free, he could go on living his life, and she could… well, she could succumb to oblivion.

With strength that only a departed soul can muster to fight its way back into the land of the living, she lifted her brush and continued painting her canvas.

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