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At the airport they doused themselves in various perfumes, expensive and extremely flammable, but it was too early in the morning for that sort of thing. The departure hall was packed, and they both felt overdressed. Elise stood by a yawning pane of glass overlooking the runway, the closest she could get to being outdoors, and tried to guess whereabouts in the sky the sun might be. Jackson eventually decided to pay extra for the executive lounge since it was the only place they could sit down.
They tried to enjoy this brief luxury. Elise had a glass of bubbles but avoided the oyster bar. She didn’t want anything that raised her chances of throwing up, or diarrhoea. Jackson had a pint and a half of Czech lager and tried not to give too much attention to the large screen showing the US Open. Already he feared, at this relatively early stage of their relationship, that Elise might find his presence uninspiring when stretched across a long weekend. Their flight was delayed by 40 minutes, then another 15, and by the time they were eventually called, the lounge was starting to feel like an expensive no man’s land neither of them had foreseen or properly prepared for.
Despite having discussed the prospect a week earlier, despite now being covered in nominally sweet fragrance, they didn’t have sex on the flight. Elise couldn’t deal with the image of them both leaving the cubicle at the same time, dishevelled, maybe sweating, faced by a queue of fellow passengers fully cognisant and disapproving of their selfish, possibly unlawful act of near-public indecency. She wondered if intercourse would leave a telling scent upon them when they sat back down. Jackson was also content not to be joining the mile high club on this occasion because when he checked the toilets they were unnervingly dirty and the fluorescent bulbs in there left nothing to the imagination, nowhere to hide. Neither Jackson nor Elise raised the matter, each hoping the other had forgotten the whole thing. Elise glanced through the in-flight magazine without really concentrating on any of the words or pictures. Jackson ate his packet of complimentary peanuts and coughed explosively as one went down the wrong way.
It took Jackson longer than he’d hoped to adjust to the clutch on their rental car. He stalled twice in the first half hour and went to great lengths to appear unphased. The heat was good in the air but sticky under their clothes. They got lost and managed to blame it on the sat-nav rather than each other. Neither minded that much anyway, there was plenty of afternoon ahead of them. Elise liked the buildings, and Jackson liked the landscape. Each of them thought everything more romantic because of the old, tanned, wrinkled people who sat by the roadside like milestones, not romantic in the sense of amorous, but in the sense of something gorgeous and alien, sunkissed to the point of phantasm, and probably unattainable. Anyone walking was walking slow enough to make it look like a form of meditation. Jackson tried not to drive too fast, but it was impossible to truly believe they had nowhere to be. He took one bend too violently and nearly collided with an oncoming truck. Elise swore uncharacteristically, and neither of them were sure whether it had been directed at Jackson or at the sudden prospect of death. Jackson apologised and they lapsed into utter silence for fifteen minutes, adrenal glands throbbing.
A few miles from the village they stopped on a hill covered in bright blue flowers and took in the low valley view. Elise bought them ice cream from a silent man in a booth, and when she returned to Jackson she went to kiss him on the back of the neck, as if to say she had forgotten about almost dying, but Jackson stepped back without knowing she was there and she bumped her teeth against his skull. This time he was the one who swore. Elise told him he could choose whichever ice cream he wanted then regretted the offer because she didn’t like the taste of hers. The silent man in the booth showed no interest in them or the beautiful scenery. There were no other tourists, and it was unclear how he could make a living if it was always this quiet. Further down on the plain, something resembling a huge dog made its way through the blue wash of flowers. It was too small to identify properly but too big to ignore. Jackson tossed the last of his ice cream and said they should probably get a move on.
The villa turned out to be too big for them. They walked around the kitchen and dining area feeling as if the echoing space needed friends to fill it. The pool had what appeared to be small moths floating on its surface along with occasional strands of hair. It took them a while to find the net with which to remove these imperfections. Elise surveyed the boundaries of the property, marked by huge stone walls, hot as oven plates, presumably there to keep the rest of the village out but also preventing a decent view of the countryside. To enjoy that you had to stand out in the street with the local cats, or climb up onto the roof. Whilst Elise tried to gauge how dangerous this might be, Jackson took a shower and worried about whether he had shaved his testicles in a manner that would please her. The shower gel provided did not have a label on it and he presumed this meant it was cheap and refillable. Outside, Elise began to attract mosquitoes but she didn’t notice straight away, because the evening was still bright and livid, unlike evenings she was used to back home, and the bites she suffered in those first few hours would plague her for the rest of the trip.
They had dinner at a local restaurant which made an effort for foreigners but was practically empty. When they sat down, neither of them quite knew what to do with their hands, limbs, or heads, and conversation was strained, like the holiday hadn’t started properly. It took a while for them to decipher the menu. After dinner they returned to the villa and had the sort of sex which felt good at the time but afterwards had each of them doubting whether it would prove memorable. They went to sleep realising they’d forgotten to buy breakfast items, listening to a wave of dog howls moving back and forth over the hills.
When Jackson opened his eyes the next day, Elise pretended to be asleep for a little while longer because she didn’t want to have morning sex. Jackson was self-conscious about his breath anyway, so wouldn’t have tried it. He’d ordered a dish the previous evening containing onions only partially cooked, most of which he could still taste. He told himself he would take a bracing dip in the pool to demonstrate he was the sort of person who did that sort of thing, but he stepped out into the already baking patio heat to find more moths and hair had accumulated overnight on the water’s surface, and fetching the net felt like too much work.
In the bedroom Elise was focusing on a pulse in her right leg that only made itself known when she pressed it into the mattress. It was erratic and fluttering, but when she checked the pulse in her wrist, then the beating of her heart, they were both slow and confident, so she figured it must be a twitching muscle, a juddering nerve, one that only existed when she was lying down. She heard Jackson step back into the room then stop, which meant he was watching her, motionless on the bed, and she hoped the sheets had fallen in such a way that the most intimate parts of her nakedness were hidden, because she didn’t want to be looked at that way at this hour. Jackson moved through to the en suite, where he turned the shower on in order to mask any incidental noises. He cleaned his teeth so violently it made his eyes water. Elise stopped pretending to be asleep when he emerged, but by this point Jackson had decided he wanted to spend some time alone so volunteered to go foraging.
Outside, in the village, he spent far longer than he wanted getting stared at by local residents without knowing how to ask them for directions. When he found a shop, it offered only eggs, powdered salt, and a rack of dried herbs he couldn’t identify. He bought some of everything and hoped Elise would think this good enough. Meanwhile, Elise had also decided not to face whatever was in the swimming pool and was instead sitting on the bedroom floor, flicking through brochures of local landmarks. She would have been content to stay in the villa all day but feared this would leave them with nothing to talk about in the evening. When Jackson returned, red faced and trying to disguise the fact that he’d found his errand stressful, he asked her what she wanted to do that afternoon, and she held up whichever brochure she happened to be holding at the time.
In the car Elise asked Jackson what he thought a hernia felt like. He said he thought it had something to with your stomach poking through your ribs. Elise said he’d clearly been let down by the state school system and then called him “poor Jackie.” This was an affectionate name she’d recently conjured, but Jackson hadn’t yet worked out how to tell her he hated it. He hoped that if he didn’t respond for long enough she’d eventually get the message and try something else. He asked why she wanted to know about hernias and she said she was just curious, when in fact she’d detected a small, painless lump on her pubic bone and wondered if it might be her small intestine making itself known. She tried to remember the last time she’d physically exerted herself.
They drove to the remains of a tiny medieval fort, stranded on a hill of scrub and wind. It looked far less important than it had in the brochure and its historic relevance, dimly conceived of by either visitor, was further diminished by the graffiti and empty beer cans peppering the site. They could see why local kids would want to use it as a hang out, because the view across the surrounding slopes was decent and at night the soft, isolated glare from nearby towns would probably look dreamy in the haze.
Whilst they were considering all this, a man with a dog that looked far healthier than its owner approached and offered them a tour, which they declined, but he started telling them about the fort anyway, half in their language, half in his own. He used the word “invade” a lot, in contexts they couldn’t understand, and tried asking them questions which they didn’t answer because they wanted to be left alone. Elise noticed a small scar running from his nostril to his lip and tried to work out whether it was surgical or the result of violence. Jackson sensed a sourness on the man’s breath and couldn’t tell if his stiff, laboured walk was the product of arthritis or alcoholism. Eventually he stopped telling them about the fort and asked them for a donation, becoming agitated when Jackson shook his head. Jackson then gave in and handed him a pile of change left over from the morning’s shopping trip, fearing the dog more than he feared the man, and wanting to appear neither afraid nor miserly in front of Elise. As he walked away, the man caught his foot on a cluster of vines and nearly toppled over before finding his balance again. Jackson and Elise were thankful he hadn’t needed their help getting up, so uncomfortable had his presence made them.
They drove back down into a different village for lunch and were pleased with themselves for ordering more confidently today than they had the previous evening. Jackson had never wanted to be part of a couple that stared past each other throughout a meal, but conversation came to them quite easily, and they found themselves talking about their families back home, something they never really did when they were back home, and they ordered more wine than was sensible and stayed there in the shade of the village square long after the plates had been cleared away. The owner of the restaurant kept walking out the front to smile at them, which made them suspect they looked happy together.
Evening came in with no real dimming of the light, but it brought with it a distressed woman. Her cries preceded her entry into the square, and the cooks and waiters came out, lit cigarettes, and watched what was going on. She was howling about something although appeared generally sane, wandered up to the entrance of a small chapel then paused and sat down on the steps instead. Nobody from the restaurant went to speak to her although a small local crowd was starting to gather round as she continued to shout and bawl. The smiling owner stood by Elise and Jackson’s table, rested his hand casually on the back of Jackson’s chair, and tried to translate. It seemed the woman was talking about children, her own presumably, something about twins, but he wasn’t able to tell them more than that and even in his own language was struggling to make sense of the scene.
The affair punctured whatever ease Jackson and Elise had managed to nurture, and Jackson didn’t like how unthinkingly close the owner was standing to him. They paid their bill, didn’t complain about the prices not matching what was on the menu, and decided not to visit the chapel because it would involve squeezing past the crying woman and her now sizeable crowd of onlookers. On the way to the car they had a relatively harmless argument about who should drive. Elise won because Jackson didn’t want to get booked for drink driving by foreign police and was secretly much more comfortable with Elise taking the risk. She got the hang of the clutch far quicker than he had but decided not to boast because she suspected it might spoil Jackson’s mood, and they were enjoying each other’s company.
They skipped dinner that night because they’d eaten late, but they had more wine, tottering out into the village to buy it, already drunk but knowing if they held back now they’d start to feel hungover before bed. Jackson waved to people familiarly, as if he’d made friends earlier that day, and Elise tried to pat a small child affectionately on the head as it ran past and then away from them. They walked out to where the town met the fields, chose not to walk any further because they had no mosquito spray, and topped themselves up straight from the bottle.
A young herd of cattle approached as far as their enclosure would allow. Elise asked Jackson how many litres of wine he thought one of the cows could drink before it fell over and Jackson said they were bullocks, not cows, you could tell from the way they were built. There was a stillness between them, not the most uncomfortable of the trip, then Jackson said he thought they could manage eight litres, maybe nine. Elise pointed out a stone in the farmer’s wall that was laced with indigo spots and veins, trying to get Jackson to agree that the pattern looked like an infantile map of the stars, but Jackson was still focused on the herd, which he realised might actually be cows after all.
Back at the villa they dived into the pool without thinking. The moths and hair on its surface became things they could ignore. They swam under each other’s legs, and Elise showed Jackson how good she was at tumble turning. Jackson got out then back-flipped into the deep end. His head came perilously close to the concrete side as he spun, which Elise told him off for because it scared her. She suggested they could have sex in the pool but Jackson had heard somewhere that the water pressure could cause your foreskin to tear, so he dodged this by going to get more wine from the fridge, then pretended he wanted to dry off.
In the bedroom they experimented with a new position which worked better than the previous evening’s, and afterwards they lay down in the sort of panting silence that can lead people to say I love you without knowing if they mean it. Elise was glad neither of them said such things. She sensed they would probably never reach that stage so it was best not to invent it for the sake of a weekend abroad. Instead she broke the quiet by apologising for having chosen the medieval fort, which she hadn’t really chosen, and Jackson said he’d come to spend time with her, not look at old buildings, so she needn’t worry. It was uncharacteristically romantic of him, and Elise hoped he wasn’t going to get carried away, but he fell asleep soon after, leaving her to consider whether she should make herself throw up in order to blunt the hangover that would inevitably spoil her Sunday. In the end she was too tired to move.
Elise was woken far earlier than she wanted by something cold and alien alongside her. Jackson was stiff as granite, his eyes and mouth half open, his skin the colour of the moths in the pool. Elise had never been in the presence of a dead body before, though she had once seen a shape covered with plastic sheeting, surrounded by emergency workers on the hard shoulder of a motorway.
She did not scream, although her heart felt, for some minutes, as if it too had stopped. She checked where she thought the pulse should be, found nothing, then walked out into the village to get help. The locals knew something was wrong because Elise was still in her underwear and unable to speak properly. She merely pointed and shook her head, first towards the villa, then when they followed her to the villa towards the bedroom, which she realised she could not reenter. She sat by the pool whilst activity spun around her. At one point two women brought her a dressing gown with which to cloak herself. She noticed it smelled of vegetable fat and old tobacco.
Medics were the first to arrive though there was nothing left for them to do. The police came soon after and were gentle enough in taking Elise to the local station. She wasn’t sure if she was being arrested or not. When they tried asking her questions in broken English, she wasn’t sure if she needed a lawyer present and didn’t know how to ask for one anyway. Eventually she was handed a phone with a man from the embassy at the other end. She explained as best she could, and he said they would send someone over. Whilst waiting she surprised herself and the station staff by vomiting in one of the office bins. She couldn’t remember if she apologised for this. She did remember the bin being noiselessly replaced as someone patted her lightly on the arm and handed her a can of lukewarm lemonade.
The matter was dealt with surprisingly quickly. By the time the embassy arrived later that evening, a cause of death had been established and Elise was free to go. She was asked if she would like to be the one to inform his parents and she said she’d never met them, didn’t have a contact number or address. The embassy said they would deal with it. They offered to put her on a plane home, but she said she was due to leave early the next morning anyway, there was no need. They asked her if she would like to see the body before it was prepared for the family. She said no, she’d already seen it.
Back at the villa she called her step-dad and told him what had happened. He was confused by how calm she sounded and offered to get the next flight out, but she said there was no point, she’d be back tomorrow. He paused before asking her whether she thought it would be best to wait until Jackson’s family arrived, at least so she could speak to them in person. She said the embassy were sorting all that. She’d never planned to meet his family, they might not even know she existed, and she had work that week. Her step-dad suggested she take time off, but she said she had too many meetings scheduled, it would be more trouble than it was worth.
She had to go into the bedroom to collect her things as well as the car keys which Jackson had put back in his trouser pockets. His clothes were untouched although someone had stripped the bed and sprayed the room with a fragrance that reminded her of toffee pudding. Someone had also gone through her purse and taken money, she couldn’t be certain how much, but her passport and credit cards were still there. She then glanced in Jackson’s wallet and saw there was money in that, which she took for herself. Life goes on, she said out loud, not really knowing what that meant, realising she was dehydrated and extremely hungry. She didn’t know what to do with Jackson’s things or how they would be collected, so she decided to leave them there, just as they’d fallen. She felt like she might owe his family something, but she wasn’t sure what that might be, and until someone told her she wasn’t going to know.
She drank the leftover wine in the fridge, changed out of the stale dressing gown she’d been given that morning, showered, and went out for dinner at the restaurant they’d been to on their first night. It was the only place she knew, and there was no food in the villa. The waiting staff unknowingly placed her at the same table she’d sat at before, but this didn’t bother her; in fact, she was more relaxed sitting there on her own, even though everyone else in the restaurant and some people standing in the road outside were gazing at her solemnly, as if she were delivering a eulogy.
If Jackson had still been alive, she would probably at some point that day have tried to carve out a space to be alone. She enjoyed his company but it could also be taut, restrictive. She ordered two starters and a main, avoided the onion dish that she’d noticed had lingered unflatteringly on Jackson’s breath the morning after, and as the waiter poured her a drink she realised she would probably have broken things off with Jackson within a fortnight or so. Their trip together had, on balance, been a fun but failed test. She didn’t know if this was how he felt, or had felt. Now, none of that was necessary. Nothing needed resolving or explaining, nothing could be broken off. She paid her bill and returned to the villa, where she put duvets on the dining room floor because she couldn’t face sleeping in the bed. She was worried about nightmares, but they never came, and the next morning she arrived at the airport in plenty of time for her flight.