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The path to the water is long and winding, cutting down past the bakery through the olive groves as the scent from lemon trees floats on the wind. For a moment Maria thinks she will go back; the July sun is hot and a line of sweat runs down her back. But she has come so far, she thinks. Her journey cannot end in a budget hotel on a main road heading out of town.
The hotel could be worse. The outside is pretty and her room has a distant view of Capri, but she has not slept properly since she arrived and for some reason feels she will not be able to until this particular expedition is over.
The path flattens out when it reaches the clifftop before suddenly turning a sharp corner, and she is met not with a beach or swimming platform like the ones in town but a craggy rock face surrounding a small cove. Deep down below, the water is green. The rest of the sea around Sorrento is a cold-looking dark blue, but this is lighter, and the horseshoe curvature of the rocks makes it calm, slapping gently against the stones.
Looking past the water at the collection of rocks around the edge, Maria sees a couple of dozen tanned bodies basking. She walks around the path a little more before discovering a smaller path, almost hidden by grasses and a stray olive bush, which drops down to sea level. She clambers down and finds a small rocky spot to sit and watch the waves and the people around her.
Kieran did not want to come to Italy. He said he wanted to go somewhere less hot at this time of year. He does not like the sun and his skin burns too easily. Maria suspects he is resentful of her darker hair and complexion. She said she didn’t want a long flight and she wanted to be amongst lemon groves and nice wine and bougainvillea. In any case, this trip isn’t a normal holiday. She will not be sightseeing, she told Kieran. Instead, she wants to absorb the local culture. This makes him suspicious. Too much research into the area, too many emails sent late at night, too many texts. That argument with her mother. Her mother was funny about the whole trip, really didn’t want her going. She ponders that as she watches a teenage couple embrace nearby, feeling a stab of nostalgia — now she is in her twenties. But she has always wanted to visit Italy, she has said so before. And she has an Italian name, so it has always made sense.
Deborah wears her best dress and mother-of-pearl necklace that evening. It has three droplets that hang down towards the cleavage she has created by padding out her bra. She dines with her parents at the hotel; they let her have a glass of sweet wine and she feels grown up and fabulous. At the end of the meal the waiter brings them coffee and they drink, soaking up the bitterness with the tiny amaretto biscuits. Her mother says she will buy some to take home, to be kept for special visitors. Deborah thinks that is pointless because they hardly ever get any visitors so the biscuits will be pretty stale by the time the box is opened, but she says nothing. She finishes her wine, looking past her father’s shoulder and out through the big French doors at the sun setting on the horizon. The waiter smiles at her lustfully and she primps her hair while her mother gives her A Look. She ignores it because she does not find the waiter attractive anyway. Deborah finds the boy by the café at the harbour attractive. She sees him in the mornings when they go into the town and she has watched him jumping off a small boat, admiring his brown skin and nimble steps as the gold chain around his neck flashes in the sunshine. She knows his name is Marco. He stopped and looked at her and smiled the day they arrived and after that every day he has waved at her and said hello. She has tried to say hello back, but she can only whisper because her heart has jumped into her throat and her chest has grown hot in a way she doesn’t recognise. She knows she has to see him again.
Her parents retire to the bar after dinner but Deborah says she feels tired and is going to bed. They agree that she looks peaky and she slinks up the stairs, pausing when she reaches the half-landing and hears their voices dying away. Then she goes tiptoeing back downstairs, taking off her shoes because her heels are tip-tapping noisily on the marble steps, before heading out into the balmy warmth of the evening.
He is still by the water, and looks up when he hears the sound of her heels on the cobbles. He smiles and she smiles back.
“Inglese?” he says after moment.
“Si. Yes.” She hovers. “I thought I had left my purse,” she says slowly and loudly, the way her mother has been speaking to everyone this week.
He gives her a blank look. “You are holding it,” he says after a moment and she blushes.
“I found it,” she says quickly. “Just now.”
He smiles. “You are here long?”
“We go home the day after tomorrow.” He gives her another blank look so she says, “Wednesday.”
“Ah.” He finishes with the knots and steps towards her. “You will come back?”
She nods. “Maybe.” She might, one day, she thinks. By herself.
He nods. “Good.” Takes a breath. “You look very beautiful, this evening,” he says and she feels her face flush. Her heart pounds like it will explode out of her dress.
He holds out his hand. “You will walk? With me?”
“Yes,” she says, and moves towards him, barely able to breathe.
The water slaps loudly against the harbour wall and the sun sinks lower in the sky as they take the corner path away from the café. They walk around the harbour and up along the coastal path towards the edge of town back towards her hotel. She tries to tell him that they are going in the wrong direction and she mustn’t be seen by anyone — the manager has been friendly with her parents and it would be a disaster if he saw her — but she doesn’t know how to get the words out in a simple way. She doesn’t want him to think that she doesn’t want to be with him.
Then he pulls her down a side street and soon they are walking downhill, away from the road. At the bottom by the olive groves there’s another path leading to a cove and they scramble down further until they are both panting on the smooth flat rocks at the bottom by the water.
“It’s beautiful,” she says and looks at her reflection in the still green sea.
He takes off his t-shirt. “You swim?” he says and winks as he removes his shorts and dives into the water.
Deborah hesitates. She has only kissed a boy once and that was Matthew Bryson from 11B, behind the ice-cream kiosk at the park. He’d made a clumsy grab for her breast, and she’d pushed him away and gone home. But Marco is different, she thinks. He could even be The One. She watches him surface and imagines them sitting here with a baby, twins even, on a rug in the sunshine, feeding them ripe oranges picked on the way down to the shore. The twins would have pale olive skin and brown hair, because she would have bred out her mousey freckly genes. They would all live in a villa with bougainvillea twisting over a balcony and a fountain in a courtyard like in Romeo and Juliet.
She takes off her dress and slides into the water beside him as he kisses her.
The cove is separated from the wider sea by a rocky archway. She swims out towards it, feeling the water get colder and deeper around her. He follows her, his arms circling her waist and his hands reaching up to undo her bra as they tread water together.
There is a sudden bang against the other side of the rocks. A huge wave sweeps up and over them and she finds herself falling. The sky disappears and she plunges downwards, feeling her leg scrape on a rock. The wave slams her closer and closer, her arm catches against it and a trail of blood clouds the water as she fights for breath. Then his arms are around her, pulling her above the surface as the wave recedes and he hauls her back to the big flat rock. She crawls out and lies gasping.
“Jesus,” she says, and there are hot tears mixed with saltwater running down her cheeks.
“You are alright?” he says. He kneels beside her and strokes her hair back from her face.
“Yes. Si.” He smiles and lies down next to her.
“It is a boat,” he says. “If a boat goes near the rocks, the waves get… big. Bigger.”
She nods and coughs and he goes to his backpack and pulls out a bottle of something and hands it to her. It burns her throat. “Jesus,” she says again but she feels stronger and she sits up. He takes the bottle, sloshes some into his hand and rubs it on the cut on her arm. She winces and he kisses her.
She reaches around and takes off her necklace and untwists the last mother-of-pearl droplet from the bottom of the three. Then she touches the gold chain around his neck. “Wear this,” she says. “It will bring you luck. It brings me luck. Now you can have some too.” She loosens the silver ring at the top of the droplet and hooks it over the chain before squeezing it together to close it. “You saved my life,” she whispers.
“A big wave, that is all,” he says and he kisses her again. His hands reach around to the clasp on her bra and she bites her lip with anticipation so hard she can taste blood for a long time after.
It is late when they go into town the next day. Her mother has been fussing, going on about her sleeping in so late, being slovenly, not listening, being too quiet, being sullen. But Deborah does not feel sullen inside, she feels sick and dizzy with love and excitement and the warmth of the mid-morning July sun. Her parents find their usual café table by the harbour and sit down with their cappuccinos.
“Your arm,” says her mother after a moment. “You’ve cut it, how on earth did you do that?”
“I’m not sure,” Deborah says. “I think I must have caught it on something. Some bougainvillea, yesterday probably. Some bits were quite twiggy.”
“Make sure you put something on it,” says her mother.
Deborah tuts and says Yeah yeah and God quite loudly and her mother sighs and mouths Teenagers at the old English couple on the table next to them. They all smile at her like she has special needs.
Normally she would flounce off at this but today she is feeling so warm and happy she can barely speak. She just sits in the sunshine watching the boats drift into the harbour.
He is not there.
After a while she says she is going for a walk. Her dad says would she like some company and she says No and he looks dejected for a moment. She feels a bit bad about that, but she gives him a hug to make up for it and heads down to the water.
There is still no sign of Marco but his boat is there, bobbing gently, and his backpack is inside it, so she wanders past the café and further around the path. She stops suddenly when she hears laughter.
Marco is there, talking with another girl. She is taller and thinner and blonder than Deborah and she is wearing stupidly short shorts. Deborah stands frozen, wondering what to do next. She watches them laugh, the girl touching the side of his arm and tossing her hair when she talks. Deborah recognises her from the hotel next door to theirs. Her skin is still white so she is obviously a newcomer. She is clearly English as well but she can speak really good Italian. That makes things even worse. Deborah turns and scuttles back to the café. The cut on her arm throbs and the ache and soreness between her legs stops being a badge of honour and simply makes her feel tired and sad.
He sees her that evening as she goes to the shop by the hotel to buy postcards and stamps for her mother. She has said she has a headache and wants some air before bed, and since her parents have already started on the souvenir Limoncello they don’t ask questions. She freezes when she notices Marco and her hand shakes as she drops the stamps. He picks them up and silently hands them to her. She jumps as her fingers touch his.
“You are still here,” he says.
“Tomorrow,” she says.
“You will come with me again?” he says after a pause. “Tonight?”
“No,” she says. “I saw you. With the other girl.”
“She is nothing,” he says. “I am not interested in her. She was talking to me. Only talking.” He gives her an intense and pleading look and she wavers. He did save her life, she thinks. That must be worth something.
The water is colder than before and the sky is getting dark but she doesn’t care as she feels his hands sliding down her body and between her legs.
“You are still wearing the necklace,” she says afterwards, and lifts the droplet from the chain, turning over in her fingers. He laughs and kisses it.
“Now I will always think of you,” he says.
Her stomach turns over and she begins to cry when she thinks about how she may never see him again and how no-one at school will believe her when she says she has actually got a boyfriend and she is no longer a virgin. But she gives a start when she hears the sound of stones falling from high up on the cliff and sees a flash of pale white skin and blonde hair moving down the path towards them.
She turns and sees the look on his face, and then is she is pulling away from him and swimming out as hard and as fast as she can towards the rocky arch and the sea beyond.
In the distance she can hear shouts but the way ahead is clear and she keeps swimming further out, ignoring him splashing behind her. She rounds a bend in the cove and sees the steps to the swimming beach in town a few metres as the night-time clouds begin to drift across the sky.
* * *
At dawn Deborah wakes, remembers she has left her dress by the water and slips out of the hotel. She has not slept well. She somehow managed to get back to her room in her bra and pants, wrapped in a towel stolen from a balcony, but there has been a commotion outside; sirens and helicopters since before sunrise.
She reaches the top of the path to the lagoon and stops. Down below there is a group of people gathered in a circle. They are all quiet, apart from an older woman who is wailing. The girl with the blonde hair and the shorts is weeping silently, putting a blanket around the woman’s shoulders. The woman falls to her knees and cries, loud, wracking, screaming sobs. Then she pulls back a different blanket on the ground, one that is covering the bloody, bruised body of Marco.
Deborah stays motionless for a moment behind the olive tree, icy cold even in the early morning sun, before turning and running back to the hotel. Her breath is rasping and her necklace is thudding at her throat. She does not yet know how long the sickness she is feeling will last.
The next day Maria returns to the cove. She sees Kieran catching her up at the top of the cliff and smiles and holds out her hand.
“It was here,” she says. “I’m sure it was here.”
He puts his arm around her. “If you’re sure.”
There is a crunch of stones on the path and the woman from the bakery passes them. He hands her a sprig of bougainvillea. “I found this on the path.”
She laughs and tucks it behind her ear. “How exotic.” They stretch out in the sunshine. “That woman is here again,” she says. “I saw her before.”
The woman goes to the rocks nearer the archway and stands for a moment looking out to sea, before crossing herself and trudging back towards the path. She pauses as she passes them and nods a greeting, for a moment looking curiously before shaking her head and continuing. It is only as she turns to look back at the sea that the sun’s rays catch the light at her throat. They see a gleaming droplet hanging there, perfectly matching the two that dangle from the chain Maria’s neck.
Maria blinks for a second, and then she settles down in the sun. The breeze is warm on her skin as the bougainvillea sprig slips from her hair and into the sea and the petals float away on the tide. The woman walks on up to the cliff and out of sight.