EXCLUSIVE SHORT STORY

GATES

One of the things they’d most wanted to see in Cyprus – they’d agreed wholeheartedly, as they did about most things, though not everything of course, both believing in the importance of retaining their individuality (or as Mel liked to say, when two people become one you end up with two half people) – was the monasteries. They anticipated sun dappled courtyards, cloisters, a sense of peace mingling with the scent of pine and incense. Byzantine monasteries, the word itself rich and glittery. One had a collection of sculls, another a 600-year-old sycamore tree. Most had ancient icons. The guide book referred to the cool interiors offering visitors respite from the heat that in midsummer – they’d be there in July – could reach 100F.

The book was right about the heat, also the historical details. It had, however, an omission.

“You’re over-reacting.”

“It wasn’t your face the gates were slammed in.”

Andy laughs, trying to lighten her mood.

“Come on, love, stop exaggerating. No-one slammed the gates in anyone’s face.”

“Metaphorically they did”

“OK. Maybe. But don’t take it personally. These places just have different ways of doing things.”

Mel opens her eyes, blinks at the dazzling blue sky. The sun is hot as a blow torch, she feels sure she must be peeling, like paint. Abruptly she sits, brushes at the pale sand that is sticking to the perspiration that pours off her.

“No they don’t, not all of them. What about the one with all the cats?”

Andy sits up too, squints, clambers to his feet.

“Or that one near Pathos, with the painted cave. Where the American was playing the flute, remember? And that lovely old monk chatted on – we thought he’d never stop. He obviously didn’t think he’d catch something nasty standing next to me, or that I was lusting after his body.”

Andy links his hands, stretches. He doesn’t meet Mel’s eyes.

“Mel, drop it, will you? Come for a swim.”

“You go. I need a drink.”

She sits at a bar under a trellis entwined with yellowing leaves; they too are suffering from the heat. There are few people at the beach. Weekends it’s packed with locals, but today is Tuesday. Most of those she can see are foreigners, on holiday, spread-eagled on their hotel towels, determined to return home with tans they can show off in some grey, rain-soaked northern country.

Andy is wading out into the motionless water. It seems to take forever before he is in deep enough, and bends forward to start swimming. Even at this distance she can sense the thrill of pleasure it gives him to push through the green, clear water. It gives her pleasure too, just watching. And then, suddenly angry again she wonders how – if they really do know so much about each other, share everything, even once woke from the same dream – how can he not understand why the incident at the monastery had upset her?

It wasn’t just the monks. She could excuse them in a way: they were ignorant, they’d been brainwashed. Women to them were either evil witches or whores, temptation in skirts. She detested their fearfulness, but could excuse them.

If Andy had said to the gatekeeper – the tall gaunt monk in dark glasses who’d blocked her way, as though she were a gate crasher at a party – if Andy had said hold on there, we’ve driven together all the way up that windy dusty  so-called road just  to visit your place, and now you won’t let my wife come in with me? Don’t you realise that to insult her is to insult me? If he’d said that it wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much.

Instead, he went in.

“Might as well now we’re here, “he’d said with an apologetic shrug. “Why don’t you have a wander, look at the views. I mean, you have to admit they’re something special.”

He’d walked away quickly, as though expecting her to call him back. Left her to wait outside for him with all the other women waiting for the men in their lives to return.

A woman in black, Cypriot, very old, had been crying, fat tears rolling down lined cheeks. She’d wanted to visit the monastery for years, someone explained. Her son had brought her specially, from the other side of the island, a small village, she’d left it only twice before in her life. For funerals, both times.

Two young girls – twins maybe, they both had cropped yellow hair and were wearing shorts and tee shirts – were throwing a beach ball back and forth, back and forth. Bored then.  For the briefest moment Mel wondered if the monks would be aroused by their slim bare legs?

Not a good thought.

She wandered off away from the paved area, the car park, past the strategically placed wooden benches, trailing her hand along the railings.  Overhead a huge bird circled slowly and she wondered what it was. A falcon, an eagle? Andy would probably know, but he was elsewhere. With the men. Doing manly things. It would be funny if it wasn’t so out of character.

There was a gap behind some kind of outbuilding which seemed to lead through to an area of shrubs that stretched away along the base of the towering walls of the monastery grounds.

You can’t go there, Andy would say. It’s private property.

Mel hesitated only briefly before stepping down, pushed aside some spiky branches, swore as one attached itself to her arm and actually drew blood. Everything about this place was spiteful, nasty. But she wasn’t put off that easily. Though when she saw the flicker of movement up ahead her first thought was snakes and she almost turned back. Then, a whimper. She stopped, waited.

The dog edged along the wall, its eyes on her, a skinny creature with long matted fur, possibly grey, moving cautiously but still getting closer. It hesitated. Its tail gave a flick.

“Oh my god, look at the state of you.”

Mel crouched down.

It seemed to understand instantly that she was a friend.  She remembered the cheese sandwich in her bag, dug for it, unwrapped it from the grease stained napkin. As the dog watched she threw a chunk of bread onto the dusty ground. It was gone in a flash. And now Mel could see that this was a female and that she had puppies somewhere, her soft droopy teats hanging low. This time she held out the food and cautiously the dog took it from her fingers, though when Mel tried to touch her head the dog took a step back.

“I’m too pushy, right?” Mel muttered. “Sorry.”

She threw the rest of the food close to the dog. Did other people feed her? She probably raided the bins that Mel had noticed up by the entrance. And caught things. Rabbits. Rats.

As soon as the sandwich had gone Mel stood, and the dog turned and padded back along the wall. Mel followed her for a short distance until she squeezed through a small fissure in the rocks, and was gone. Caused by an earthquake? Mel wondered. She’d read that Cyprus had lots of them.  Bending low she could see a glimmer of light, so the gap must open out on the other side. The puppies were probably nearby, tucked behind more shrubs, safe, waiting for the next feed. Good. At least the dog had eaten something.

When Andy emerged, he said it was a gloomy place anyway, the monks had shuffled around looking as though they didn’t want him there either.  She hadn’t missed anything. She’d have hated it.

Mel had resolved not to mention the subject on the drive back down, but it was impossible.

“I bet you they masturbate all the time, these holy men.”

Andy didn’t reply.

“Or bring in women. Or girls. Or young boys. You hear so many stories about these closed communities and the things they get up to, and no-one dares say a word.”

“Mel, give it a rest.”

“Did you know it was founded by a woman? There was a notice. Saint someone or other. Ironic, don’t you think?””

Andy was driving too fast for the road, swerved to avoid a bunch of cyclists who were bent low over their bikes, struggling with the hill. Mel took a deep breath, counted to ten, then again.

And now he’s beckoning. The sea sparkles and she goes to him, running across the burning sand, forgiving if not forgetting.

They eat dinner in a taverna where the table and floor look to be made from the same planks of wood. When they order extra salad the man – most likely the owner they decide, and the only person serving though the place is busy – washes loose leaves under a tap behind the counter, brings them over in his dark hand. Mel eats too many olives. It’s the way the Greeks do them, she tells Andy who can’t eat more than a couple and then has to force himself. Andy thinks she’s becoming addicted. She drinks too much wine and feels dizzy.

“Let’s have some of those scrumptious pastries, shall we? I know, I’m so full, but they’re very small. A mouthful. And Turkish coffee?  I’ll see if I can catch his eye.”

She waves a slim arm, bangles jangling.

“Greek,” Andy drops his voice. “You mean Greek coffee.”

Mel puts her hand to her mouth in pretend horror.

“Oops. I forgot. Mind you, it does seem a little extreme, re-naming a coffee.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to be kicked out of my house, to lose everything. Never be allowed to return. I don’t know if I’d be able to drink a cup of Turkish coffee or if it would choke me.”

He’s digging. He thinks she’s making light of what happened in Cyprus in 1974. She isn’t, of course not. She just wants to enjoy her holiday.

A woman has come from a back room to help. She is carrying their coffees, makes a half-hearted attempt at clearing their table.  Bits that fall onto the floor – bread crumbs, a spiral of orange peel – are left where they lie. She is pregnant, but also large all over, her arms and legs bloated. She shuffles on the outer edges of her feet; she doesn’t smile.

Mel feels a wave of sympathy.

“If it’s not the monks keeping women out it’s the husbands keeping them pregnant. Either way they lose. No wonder they look so miserable.”

“I didn’t know you were a feminist.” He tips his head and smiles, teasing.

But there’s an edge to Andy’s voice that she’s never heard before. Impatience? Is he on the defensive? Maybe he’s just tired and has drunk too much, like her. During the three years they’ve been together they’ve rarely argued. Yet now – when they’re on holiday, when real life is suspended and romantic fiction takes over and everything should be perfect – now there’s this tension between them. Very slight, subtle, she could even be imagining it.

“Didn’t you? Well you do now.”

She doesn’t smile back. Instead she sips her coffee which is too hot and burns her mouth. Andy lights a cigarette, and he’d intended to refrain whilst they were away, had done really well. He exhales slowly, a stream of white, then stubs it out.

“Come on, love, this isn’t like us.”

Mel reaches across and puts her hand on his, and his fingers curl instantly around hers. They feel warm and familiar.

“Shall we get the bill?”

They’re staying at a guest house, cheap but spotless, their room sparse with white walls. What they like best is that they can see the foothills of the mountains, gentle bumps in an otherwise flat landscape. They change colour throughout the day; at dusk they’re purple and at their most beautiful.

Sometimes goats pass their window, floppy, silken creatures with bells round their necks. And once they saw a donkey that brought back memories of Andy’s childhood, rides on a seaside beach. He’d been petrified, he admitted. The ground had seemed so far away and the donkeys had mean eyes and large yellow teeth. Mel had laughed, said she couldn’t imagine anything frightening him.

Now they can see nothing through the window except a star-splattered black sky.

“Don’t put the light on.”

Mel does as she is told, feels her way instead to the window and slides it open. The night air is soft, still not cool but gentler. Andy comes up behind her, puts his arms around her shoulders and nuzzles her neck. He slips one hand up under her blouse, cups her breast.

The sunshine, wine, the meal has left her exhausted. She wants to stretch out on soft white sheets, to sleep. But this is not, she realises, what Andy wants. Turning towards him to say please stop – this is another thing they long ago agreed, that they’d only make love when they both wanted to – she finds his lips pressed hard on hers, dry lips, insistent.  She has no choice. He tugs her towards the bed.

It’s exciting, yes, to be made love to in this way. With such passion, such fervour. His fingers and tongue are everywhere, probing, as though he wants to get to the core of her, to her soul, to her essence. At first she resents it but then she lets her body take over, and finds her breathing as ragged as his, her moans as loud.

It is exciting, yes.

Yet there are moments when Mel has the feeling that she’s with another man, not Andy, that these are not his hands, his body. That the man enveloping her is a stranger. Or – the oddest sensation of all – could it be she who has changed into someone else, a soft and acquiescent woman whose only purpose in life is to be there, to exist for her man?

And wanting to laugh at this idea, to share it with Andy for it’s foolishness, she realises she can’t. That he wouldn’t understand. That something inside him has closed against her. A gate.

Andy falls asleep instantly, his head turned away though he still has an arm draped across her. Mel lies there, wide awake. Thinking. Thinking about the little dog who has done what no woman can do, who’s not just found a way into the fortress but is living there, a soft milk laden bundle of fur and mother love, with her babies snuggled close, safe, at least for now.

It’s ridiculous how much joy this image gives her. But she can’t help but smiling.

 

 

 

 

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