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The name Teletext Pretext meant nothing to Julie Meredith. “They’ve just reformed”, said Nik Rowlands, the music journalist sat opposite her. No, she’d never heard of Muff or Velcro Reverb either. Julie was out of touch with current British music but by the sound of things, she wasn’t missing much. Ordinarily, she might have been impressed by the man’s chosen profession but his mix of studied cool and shabby attire – cracked mirror shades, creased khaki shorts, slept in band T-shirt – was slightly off-putting. They shared a geographical connection (“You’re never less than ten feet from a Mancunian”, she later joked with Sarah) but that was about it. Loneliness was the reason she had started a conversation with him; it had only taken ten minutes for her to realise it wasn’t a good enough one.
“Sorry, which magazine do you write for?” she asked again.
“Eject”, he replied.
Her mind returned home. She recalled once defacing an EJECT cover star in a hidden corner of Stockport Library. She shared this memory with Nik hoping it would wind him up.
“Who was it?” he asked, curiously.
“MC Tunes, I think.”
The journalist nodded sagely. “Yeah. He probably deserved it.”
Nik asked what she was doing in Alghero. Julie explained she was here on a temporary contract, working as an English teacher at the Sardinian Institute of Language and Translation. “Or S.I.L.T, if you prefer.”
Nik looked too confused to laugh. He offered to buy her a drink, and against her better instincts, Julie accepted – adding the proviso that it had to be a quick one, as she was due to meet her friend later.
“A quick one it is”, he smirked. She winced and checked her watch.
It was seven o’ clock in the evening. The Abbasanta Bar’s lighting design was somewhere between low key and dim, but Nik insisted on keeping his shades on. The music journalist attempted to attract the bartender’s attention but the man was pouring his energies into cleaning an onyx ashtray. “What do you have to do to get served in here?” whined Nik to anybody who might be listening.
Julie intervened. “Mi scusi! Come sta? Molto bene, grazie.” The bartender nodded. Nik asked for a beer; she ordered a glass of Cannonau Red. Nik tipped some notes and change onto the bar, and made a nonsensical gesture, indicating that the bartender would need to do the math. “I don’t do counting”, said Nik, in a feeble stab at humour. The bartender – who looked like a gaunt, younger Kirk Douglas – grudgingly sorted through the money, taking what was owed and leaving the remainder behind on the counter.
The bracketed television positioned above the spirit shelves was broadcasting an episode of the Edward Woodward starring show, The Equaliser. Nik spun around on his stool, and stared at the screen whilst distractedly fiddling with his lighter. He lit a cigarette, offering one to Julie which she refused.
“I gave up two months ago”, she said, with a little too much emphasis on the ‘I.’ She knew she was trying to feel superior. Nik was entranced by the antics of Robert McCall. ‘Non Perdono!’ shouted a dubbed Edward Woodward, slamming a Mohawk styled hoodlum against the wall of a graffiti covered alleyway. “Contrast needs adjusting”, muttered Nik.
Julie flicked her ring finger against the side of her glass.
“I write about other stuff besides music”, said Nik, coming back to life.
Again, Julie feigned interest. “Oh? Like what?”
“Actually, I’m here on a mission”, he added.
“A mission? Is it possible?” she laughed. He didn’t get her sense of humour.
“No, no … a mission to research a travel book, about Sardinia.” She asked him to blow his cigarette smoke in another direction; Nik swivelled his bar stool slightly to the left. “The last person to write about Sardinia was DH Lawrence. You read his book?”
“Yes”, she said.
“God, it was so bloody boring! I only read half.”
Julie said she had liked it. The ash on Nik’s cigarette was half a thumb long; it crumbled onto his crotch but he didn’t notice the mess. “DH Lawrence was a tourist, not a traveller. That’s what separates us, see? I’m here longer – long enough to get the real Sardinia. Course, I need someone to give me a few pointers … guide me in the right direction. Where do I start?”
Nik took off his sunglasses; his eyes were tired, bloodshot, and for some reason, slightly sad. “Maybe you could show me round, Jools?” he asked.
Jools? Nobody called her that, ever, and those who did always got short shrift. Julie decided to wait for Sarah outside instead. “Thankyou Nik. It’s been fun but I’ve got to run.”
“Don’t.” His tone edged towards the pleading. Maybe he was as lonely as she was. “Stay”, said Nik, “I’m having another one.”
Most of her drink was untouched. Julie politely shook his hand. Nik watched her disappear through the Abbasanta door, leaving him with only The Equalizer for company.
It was the last weekend in May. Alghero’s old town teemed with visitors and locals, and carefree chatter filled the early evening, likewise a heady mix of aftershave, perfume and cigar smoke. A father walked by, carrying his son on his shoulders; under a cafe parasol, three young girls were drinking coffee and laughing over a collection of shared photographs; in the window of a neighbouring restaurant, a small Porceddu rotated on a spit. Sheila & B.Devotion’s song ‘Spacer’ played from the open window of a second floor apartment.
Julie stopped outside a jeweller’s, admiring a pair of polished coral ear rings in the window. A glamorous couple – moneyed, tanned and annoyingly perfect – stood besides her, checking the engagement ring display. Watching them go inside, Julie observed their behaviour with an envious twinge. Some days she hardly gave love a second thought. Her inner cynic pedalled the same manifesto, believing romantic relationships to be messy and overrated. On a warm and perfect summer evening like this, she yearned for intimacy; so much so, she wanted to command it to appear before her, in a flash of smoke and magic.
Julie stood outside the jeweller’s, her gaze drawn to the swarthy but oddly attractive salesman reaching into the window for one of the display cushions. Their eyes met and a brief smile flickered at the edges of his mouth. She was reminded of the actor Gabrielle de Venanzo, rugged star of the classic Italian comedy L’amore e Foggia, a film she had watched with her students at an outdoor screening only last week.
“I bet he’s got a big one.” Julie turned to find Sarah standing besides her.
“A big what?” asked Julie. “Honestly, I don’t know to what you are referring, Miss Grainger.”
Sarah brushed a strand of curly hair from her freckled cheek. “Oh, I think you do.”
Julie adopted an exaggerated frown. “You can take the girl out of Manchester but you can’t take Manchester out of the girl. Isn’t that right?”
“I’ve heard that said”, smirked Sarah.
The two best friends linked arms, and headed in the direction of Lungomare Marco Polo. Domingo’s was their favourite restaurant, overlooking Torre San Giaciomo, one of the old town’s famous 16th century watchtowers. They found a free table and a waiter soon appeared to take their order. Sarah and Julie were hungry enough to skip starters and go straight for the mains: Sarah opted for a plate of Malloredus, Julie a dish of Fregula. The women agreed to share a bottle of house red. The food took ten minutes to arrive and there was little ceremony in their eating it.
It was dusk and the sun was setting on the mirror flat sea. There were six diners left on the terrace, Julie and Sarah included. It was growing cooler. Sarah wrapped a cardigan around her shoulders, and then lit one of the Spartivento cigarettes she’d recently acquired a taste for. Julie listened to the waves lapping against the seawall: stroking her own hand, she imagined what the touch of the Gabrielle de Venanzo look-a-like from the jewellers might feel like.
Each was lost in her own thoughts. Neither felt the need to speak.
This fleeting peace was shattered when Nik (“Withourt a ‘C’”), the fact finding EJECT music scribe collided with their table. Sarah’s glass tipped over, and a small red pool formed around the table’s canopy pole. Nik instantly apologised, and called her darling. His bloodshot eyes surveyed the faces of the two women before recognition took hold.
“Jools!” he said, excitedly.
Since being abandoned in the gloom of the Abbasanta Bar, Nik Rowlands had travelled the journey from merry to legless in a rapid 63 minutes. Now he was twice as annoying.
“Who is he?” asked Sarah, slightly aghast. “Do you know him?”
“Like a Victorian doctor knows a leech”, replied Julie, wearily. Nik pulled up a spare chair, and without invitation, sat himself at their table. The girls watched as he purposefully positioned his cigarettes and lighter on the table; a movement choreographed to suggest he would be with them for the evening’s duration.
Oblivious to Sarah’s withering glare – and unafraid of mixing his drinks – Nik picked up an empty and grubby looking glass from a nearby table and helped himself to the girls’ bottle of wine. “Life’s always half full to my mind”, he grinned. Neither Sarah nor Julie knew what he was talking about. “Especially when there’s a free bottle on the table!” Nik laughed like a donkey and took a large gulp.
Sarah had already had enough of his behaviour. “There isn’t a free bottle of wine – you just assumed it was. And we don’t like it, do we Julie?”
Nik didn’t seem to hear. He drunkenly tried to light a cigarette but somehow managed to accidentally burn his fingers in the process. “Ow!” The cigarette and lighter fell to the ground.
Sarah made no attempt to suppress her giggles. If he’s going to steal our wine, she thought, we might as well have some fun at his expense. “Julie”, she said loudly and sarcastically, “you haven’t introduced me to your friend.”
“Nik writes about music. Apparently.”
“EJECT”, he beamed at Sarah. “EJECT monthly.”
“Should be ‘Reject’, looking at the state of you.” Sarah took a drag of her cigarette and blew smoke into his face; he was too drunk to realise she was making fun of him. “Nik dear, you dress and smell like a tramp. Do you realise that? And I think it needs to be pointed out at regular intervals.”
Nik thanked her and the girls laughed. Julie felt guilty for doing so. This man was stupid and annoying but he was essentially harmless. She told him the truth; that he’d had too much to drink and should go back to his hotel.
Confidingly, he beckoned them closer, speaking in hushed tones. “My girlfriend locked me out of the hotel … we had a big massive argument.”
“Did you hear that Julie?” said Sarah. “Not only was it a big argument, it was a massive one as well. Must have been quite a spectacle!”
Julie had been under the impression he was travelling alone. Nik adopted a stupid ‘victim’ face, presumably meant to elicit sympathy. “We’re always having bust-ups. She’s got the room key and I can’t get in.”
Julie tried to be helpful. “Can’t you get the receptionist to let you in?”
Sarah asked what Nik and his girlfriend had argued about. “Sex.” Bluntly, he told them that his girlfriend was too fat for him. “She binge eats … she didn’t use to, it started happening after her dad died … Christ, and you should see her arse! It looks like Sherpa Tensing’s rucksack.”
Sarah and Julie tried to picture an arse shaped like a rucksack but couldn’t quite manage it.
Nik shook his head. “I just don’t fancy her anymore.” Struggling to focus, he turned to ‘Jools.’ “But I fancy you Jools … God, you’re gorgeous …”
Nik put his hand on Julie’s knee. As he did so, he dropped his cigarette. An involuntary tremor moved along Julie’s leg, connected with her arm and finished in her fingers. Like a frightened beach Crab, her hand jerked sideways, connecting with her wine glass; another wine spillage joined the red pool at the centre of the table.
Nik reached to the ground for his dropped cigarette which had rolled under and behind his chair. The wannabe travel writer then rose from his seat; co-ordination had deserted him and he stumbled. Grabbing the edge of the vacant neighbouring table, Nik briefly found his balance, lost it again and fell to the floor, bringing the table and its contents crashing down with him. Cutlery and broken glass lay strewn around him.
Another waiter appeared. Grabbing the drunken EJECT journalist under the arms, he lifted him to his feet. “Mr Tourist, you okay?”, asked the waiter in almost perfect English. “Yes, you okay. Time to go, before anymore trouble, okay?”
Nik took offence at being manhandled and turned aggressive. “Don’t touch me!” he shouted. He raised his fists but his fighting stance was so inept, it looked like he was play acting. The waiter smiled. He pointed and directed Nik towards Torre dell’Espero Real, another one of the town’s watchtowers. “Time you go home, yes?”
The fight went out of Nik. His arms flopped heavily to his sides. He nodded morosely at the waiter.
“Why don’t you try and be nice to her?” asked Julie.
“Who?” asked Nik.
“It’s not that easy”, he mumbled.
They watched him wander sadly back along the harbour front.
Nik’s lighter and cigarettes were left forgotten on the ground.
Julie couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.
“I really must hire him for my thirtieth birthday party”, laughed Sarah, taking another Spartivento from her own pack of cigarettes, “he’s hilarious!”
The waiter picked up the overturned table and chairs, righting them to the original positions. “Mi dispiace!” he said to the girls. Julie told him not to worry. “You like more drinks? No worry, is on the house.”
Sarah didn’t need a second invitation. “Si, grazie.”
“Where in England you come?”
“Manchester”, smiled Julie.
“Manchester! Yes, I know.”
“How do you know?”
“My sister married man from Didsbury, five years ago. I went to wedding, very romantic.”
“Wow”, mused Julie. “A small world.”
The waiter shrugged. “Sometimes. Three babies but divorced now.”
The waiter excused himself and went to find another bottle of house red. He has a lovely smile, thought Julie, as she gently stroked the back of her hand.
Usually, it was Sarah who received all the male attention. Italian men appeared to love her hazel eyes, wild red hair and large breasts. She could be coarse, loud, had a dirty laugh and didn’t worry what people thought of her. Drinking, smoking and sex were her amongst her hobbies – though Sarah had temporarily sworn off men back home in January, following a destructive relationship with a semi-pro Oldham rugby player (“You look just like my cousin”, he had excitedly announced to her on their second date.) Sarah knew who she was and unlike Julie, was never troubled by doubt or confusion. Sarah knew what she wanted: the idea of a mortgage, husband and ‘kiddiewinks’ – the chains of modern living, in her mind – were like something from a horror film. To Sarah, freedom from responsibility was both the goal and the prize.
By contrast, Julie was ambitious, neurotic and worried about the future. Living in the present was difficult for her and so was letting go of the past. At a Hacienda Flesh Night (August 91), she’d taken her first and only Ecstasy tablet. Even under the influence of drugs, she had felt self-conscious: she worried that she wasn’t cool enough – that her clothes were too ‘straight’ – that the ‘shapes’ she was throwing to the music weren’t properly symmetrical. Sometimes, Julie wished she were someone else, and craved a more carefree personality. A different body was also on her wish list; in her eyes, her boobs were too small, and her legs too chunky (she rarely wore dresses). The bad days were infrequent. When they arrived, Julie considered herself not ugly but rather non-descript – a girl plain enough to get left behind. She needed someone to make her feel special.
The waiter was called Paolo. Though only 32, he was cursed with the features of a much older man. He had weird hair that reminded Julie of a character from the 1970’s Hanna Barbara cartoon The Hair Bear Bunch: Paolo showed Julie photographs of himself as a child, and this characteristic was evident from a young age. It took an ocean of gel to tame that frizz into something presentable. Paolo’s blue eyes were small, and slightly piggy. He was overweight and possessed what Sarah described as “a meat pie stomach.” Paolo was physically imperfect but he didn’t care; it was one of the reasons Julie liked him. There were other reasons to: he was kind, charming and gentle. He complimented her constantly, and said she was sexy, bewitching and beautiful. To him she was ‘Miss Julie’, even though he had never heard of August Strindberg’s most famous play, and that was probably all for the best.
This was the closest Julie had come to happiness; she wished she could feel more grateful.
Towards the end of the summer, Paolo borrowed a speedboat from a friend, and took her to Budelli, one of the outlying Maddalena Islands. They had been together just over 3 months. Back home, there had been a Bacardi cinema advert of which Julie had been strangely fond: ‘Peckham on a wet Saturday afternoon … Auntie Beryl … next doors budgie … the Dog and Duck down the high street … catching the last bus home.’ This fictional world was exciting and exotic, the Nicholas Ball voice over suggested – but only IF you were bladdered on Bacardi. A part of Julie wanted to live a more glamorous life. The dream had arrived, and the Bacardi advert had been made flesh. This was her private paradise.
Paolo moored the boat a few hundred yards from the shore. There was not a soul in sight. Stripping off their clothes, Paolo and Julie leapt from the deck into the ocean, swimming until their arms and legs ached. The clear turquoise water was unlike anything she had seen before. She’d heard these waters were the cleanest in all of the Mediterranean. On the boat deck, they made love, the late afternoon sun warming their naked, conjoined forms. This was the first time she’d done it alfresco. Before the point of climax, Paolo said he loved her. “Io ti amo!” Julie buried her face in-between his neck and shoulder, too ashamed to look him in the eyes.
The swimming and lovemaking had given them an appetite. Paolo had prepared a special picnic; Coccoi bread, Pardulas, fresh green salad with capers, olives and tuna, and a plate of pre-cooked Buccinis. Naturally, the feast was washed down with a chilled bottle of Bacardi.
The day was to be their last together. Paolo had gone to a great deal of trouble. It was meant to be special. Why couldn’t she enjoy it? Julie wanted to reciprocate his tender feelings but no matter how hard she tried, love would only grow to a certain point. She enjoyed Paolo’s company but that was all. Their relationship was based on nothing more than fondness.
After the food, Paolo fell asleep on the boat deck, his mouth hanging open like a broken pedal bin. It was six in the evening. Grey clouds scudded across the pearl blue horizon. Julie lay next to him, pulling a beach towel over them both. The light was dimming inside her. Already she was dwelling on the awkwardness of their painful and inevitable goodbye.
Paolo slept on. He didn’t see her cry.
It was the last day of September. Paolo drove the two girls to the airport. In the departure lounge, after check in, he kissed Julie, and whispered affectionate tributes in her ear. He had always worn his heart on his sleeve and insisted they keep in touch, “to keep the flame burning, yes?” He wanted to come to Manchester and see her. He wanted things to continue as they were.
Maybe it would have been better if she’d never met him at all. Chaos theory. If that stupid music journalist hadn’t stumbled into her life, that restaurant table wouldn’t have been knocked over and Paolo wouldn’t have appeared to right it. None of this was meant to happen. Their affair had been nothing but a giant cosmic mistake.
Julie wished she had been brave enough to be honest and tell him this now. In an attempt to contain her feelings, she had already drawn up a survival strategy; the phone number she had passed to Paolo was a false one. She knew it was wrong but had done it anyway. He would write of course but she would never reply to his letters. What would be the point? He would be hurt but eventually he would come to understand.
The departure board lit up. The Gatwick flight was now ready for boarding. Paolo watched Sarah and Julie walk through the gate, waving for every step they took.
The girls walked down the tunnel that lead to the runway, and climbed the steps onto the plane. They took their seats.
Finally, Julie’s self-control collapsed; she sobbed into her flight bag as the grief poured out of her. She had broken the heart of the kindest man she had ever met and it would take a long time before she could properly forgive herself.
Sarah put her arms around her friend. “It’s okay babe … it’s going to be okay.”
When the tears began to subside, Julie gasped out a question. “When does it start getting easier?”
The instruction came over the aeroplane PA system, asking that all passengers fasten their seatbelts.
Sarah shrugged, she didn’t have an answer. “I’m sorry, Julie … I don’t know if it ever does.”
Their plane began to taxi down the runway. Julie closed her eyes. Sarah was wrong, she thought.
It does get easier.
It has to.
It has to.