Lucy Durneen: Noli Me Tangere!

There was an accident at the public beach and the boy from the hotel, breathless with the effort to convey urgency, suggested they went down to the promenade to look. If they didn’t go now, he seemed to be explaining, there would be no spectacle, the ambulances would come, a cordon erected. Alicia couldn’t really tell the details, because of the accent, but that was why there were international signs. When she flipped him the bird he looked almost pleased. The rumour was that a tourist had come off a pedalo; it was essenziale they didn’t leave it more than a few minutes if they were going to see anything.

“You want excite?” the boy from the hotel asked. He reached to take Alicia’s hand, briefly, dangerously, lacing their fingers together in a way that left dark streaks against the naked whiteness of her thumbs. To clinch the deal the boy threw in the fact they could get gelato afterwards. They wouldn’t have to buy it, he explained, because his sister was going to marry Marco who worked at one of the gelateria in the piazza Matteotti. The boy’s English was pretty bad, or almost good depending on whether you could tune in. The story he told her involved Marco and the sister’s best friend but in a way that made Marco seem like a good guy, like a hero. “I feel bad for Annelise,” he said, suddenly shy. “But ice cream forever – is good!”

Alicia didn’t really know him, the boy. Just twice they had spoken, once when he carried their bags from the hotel lobby to their room and again when the air conditioning broke. She liked the way his face changed at her mother’s coldness, his visible surprise that she could be so angry about such a small thing. She noticed how he avoided looking over her mother’s shoulder, away towards the balcony from where she, Alicia, was watching and she liked that too, how he ignored the pale shine of her stomach, her legs, the new and unfamiliar parts of her that were on show this summer, how the lack of interest seemed to be a different kind of interest. It was more exciting. What she did not expect: it was just more, like the way dark matter was there even if it couldn’t be proved. I’m here! she wanted to shout. But the not looking was like answering. Out on the balcony it was like not being there. It was like the whole room was very far away, only a few things connecting her to it, like a skin; the hum of the bathroom fan, a guava, green and unripe in the fruit bowl. Some kind of bite irritating the white quadrants behind her knees. There wasn’t a word she knew for that part of you, a part you could touch but had to make an effort to see, and that was annoying. She was really worried about European hornets but they hadn’t seen any, so.

Ten minutes later she had seen the boy walking fast across the terrace, his body upright and angry, like an animal. He kicked a stone that landed in the swimming pool. Then he looked up at their balcony, shaded his eyes against the sun. They stood quietly, as if maybe neither one of them were there. The evening breeze came and lifted her skirt, only a little at first, and then wilder, so she had to smooth it down. But the boy said nothing. He stared up at the balcony a little longer. She stared down at him, but as if she was looking at the trees, or the lilo that someone had left, floating like a dark island between the shadows. An archipelago of pine needles drifted past. She dreamed about the boy that night and in her dream she was the water of the pool, felt the hard descent of the stone as it split her open.

When he asked her to go down to the promenade she thought; so this is what it feels like. Love. It felt less incredible than she had imagined. To be honest, it felt more like the start of Mono, or her period. He mocked going down on his knees and then she remembered a third time when they had met but not spoken, when he had been tying his shoelaces in the corridor, his back to her, kneeling outside the door to their room. She pretended to think about it. “OK. Give me excite,” she said, presenting her hand like they were about to dance, hoping it sounded like an order, which was the way her mother spoke and how she got people to listen. “But forget the ice cream. Today’s a fast day. A fast day. Never mind.”

He moved in a way she hadn’t seen other boys move, as though he belonged to a different element, which right away was a thought that embarrassed her. Did she think he was some kind of ghost? His hand at the small of her back, urging her through the crowded street, felt real enough, but only in the way you just have to trust that anything’s real. There was that verb she used in her mid-term English paper, the one that got her a commendation for lexical inventiveness – hieing. He hied through the streets, winged. A vapour, a mercury flash. Was he even a boy? Half a man. Crowds parted for him, melted for him. “Wait!” she shouted, falling behind. Suddenly there was the stink of feathers, a rapid change in the movement of the air. Again the air shuddered with the beating of wings. In an open marquee filled with trestle tables bright parakeets quarrelled in wire cages. Tourists, molten skinned, walked a sweating corridor of love birds, frantic in their flightless dash east to west. “Luis!” Alicia called after him. “Luis, wait, I lost you.”

Luca,” the boy shouted back, curving in and out of the crowd to where she stood frowning in at the lovebirds. “My name is Luca.”

“You live on the second floor?”

“What?”

“Nothing. It’s just a song.”

It was just a song that he didn’t know, which made it another way in which the facts could masquerade as mystery. They had nothing in common. But they could shrug it off. Later she might write home about it on one of the hotel postcards. It wasn’t like it could become their song, not a song like that, but it would be something cool.

Sagra dei Osei,” was the boy’s explanation. “The Festival of Birds.” He was trying to pick up speed but they couldn’t get past a woman who took up half the street with an entourage of canvas bags and some kind of terrier snapping on a halti. The heat didn’t do the woman any favours, freckling her upper lip with perspiration and cola. “Get our picture, Grace,” she was saying to her companion and she meant herself and the dog. “Make sure those pretty fish are in behind. Not the goddamn kids.” It was okay, because Grace would crop out the goddamn kids once they were home. But it was a bad shot anyway, Alicia could see that. It would be a shot of a fish tank on a trestle table while a fat woman sweated over a tiny dog, the whole thing inexplicable once viewed in an album. With the defiant confidence of the talentless, Grace shot through ten different poses; there was nowhere to go until it was over. Being cropped out would be a relief, Alicia thought, it would be like giving her permission to ignore how incredible it was that the boy didn’t seem to feel the sadness of the birds in the cages. He petted a gasping rabbit fenced in to a square foot of gravel and she could have thrown up.

“You want to touch this bird?” the boy asked her, stopping at one of the tables. He spoke in a low voice to the vendor and Alicia could see where the woman’s bra bit into her skin and also where once something had cut like a soft white bracelet across the flesh of her upper arm. “Jesus, no!” she said, but the bird was on her anyway, attached to the vendor’s wrist by a narrow chain, equally reluctant to be held. It flapped once, and then set up a little march on the back of her hand.

The lightness of the bird was surprising, the tiny scrape of its feet as it shifted up and down. There was a girl at school who’d gotten pregnant last year and whose body, when she returned to class, made the same apology, permanently curved into an embarrassed caesura as if she wanted only half of her to be visible at any one time. Alicia wouldn’t meet the bird’s gaze. But it didn’t seem like the bird cared. Again the feeling came; love was also a complicated kind of revulsion. “Tell her to get it off me!” she said and the boy’s laugh was off beam, like it had come from the back of a theatre at what is meant to be a moment of silent, poetic intensity. “We go, yes?” he said, tilting his wrist so his watch, a cheap imitation of something that was supposed to indicate status, caught the sun.

“But don’t you think it’s weird,” she said after they had walked away, the boy hurrying her along with his hand at her back, “the way they’re running. The birds. Didn’t you see how they’re all running in the direction of the lake?”

He didn’t think it was weird. But he did think they should walk faster.

*

By the time they reached the Boat Hire there were already reporters and poliziotti thinning out the crowd, but for the quick there were still ways in and the boy navigated with the proficiency of a person well-practiced at making things disappear fast. From the pale green lawns of the promenade holidaymakers watched the water move about the figures of two police divers. What nobody was talking about was how cold the water actually was even with the heatwave. But it meant the piazza cafes were busier than normal and under the striped awnings ink-haired waitresses, proving how tragedy brings out the most expensive of human impulses, served whole bottles of Barolo and didn’t comment on the way their customers were updating their social media even as the divers made another ascent to the lake’s surface alone. Most of those gathered had a version of what they were doing when the incident happened. But almost nobody could explain the boat’s sudden lurch, or the way, for just a moment, the tourist had been observed standing quite still, frozen in an elongated present tense where they were neither falling nor sitting, but breathing and smiling, until the water hit.

The lake swelled and sank, rolled like a glass ball. Like a fisheye it blinked, like a mouth it swallowed. The rise of blue, the falling blue, was regular as breathing. It was a shame how you couldn’t call things cerulean any more if you wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t use clichés. To Alicia the water looked so light, so impossibly, intangibly light, but inside it was the solid fact of the tourist, hidden somewhere in darkness, and behind Mount Baldo threw long shadows into the sky, pink and yellow towns clinging to its foothills the way an uncertain suicide, pockets lined with stones, might wait with one foot suspended above the water, unsure of the desire to drown. A forest of weed swayed at the shoreline. The breeze pulled the weed one way, then another, and back, and then Alicia was doing it too, this instinctive dance where she was entirely unaware of her own lunging movement, which was how her aunt, a teacher, had once described swaying in front of her students after her maternity leave, rocking an imaginary infant to an invisible sleep.

“Too bad we see nothing,” the boy said, breaking the spell. “I said we have to be quick.”

“Shit. You think he drowned?”

He shrugged. “Not he. A woman.”

It was worse that way, somehow. As if even the Earth had not bothered to do the gallant thing. They stood in silence for a minute, watching a tall man shouting on the jetty steps and she wondered if later this would be the moment people spoke of as having changed everything, and how sad it was that it didn’t feel any different at all from the moment before or after. Alicia threw a stone into the jellied skin of the water, which was only a small thing but at least it was a thing. The falling feeling got her again, the one like in her dream, only this time she was going faster, being pulled almost, into the dark and the water sealed above her, tight, like someone had mended a drum. But it was just the drift of the branches overhead after all. They were in the light. They were in shadow. The light came back again, like an obscene, forgotten secret.

The boy seemed to be listening to something. He turned to her, put his hands square on her shoulders and said, ‘You want to go?’

“Go where?”

“Is over. Polizia di Stato are coming. From the city. You want ice cream now?”

“Jesus!” she said, the nausea building. “I already told you no ice cream. And what do you mean it’s over?”

She didn’t want ice cream, but the need for something to take away the weighted feeling in her stomach made Alicia feel a little crazy. “You smoke?” the boy asked but she shook her head. Where the promenade gave way to the main piazza was a cafe where two half-drunk bottles of Peroni sat on an otherwise empty table. Take them, Alicia told the boy, take them, and mimed drinking from the bottle. But he wouldn’t, so she grabbed them herself and in a street two minutes march away slumped down against a warm stucco wall and waited for him to catch up. From ten yards she tossed him one of the bottles, some kind of confirmation that she was entirely at ease with the thing that she knew for sure was going to happen next, because this was what death, or the thought of death, made you do. The boy caught the flash of amber by the neck. She could tell he wanted to kiss her and she kept the bottle with the most left to drink, in case she lost her nerve.

It was hard to know what things to talk about. The boy aped a toast, drained his bottle, then looked up brightly. “You like football?”

“Soccer? No.”

“Movies?”

“Yeah.”

“Not ice cream.”

“That’s just a thing. It’s a fast day.”

“But you like how you look, yes?”

“I guess.”

Alicia was surprised he asked this. Liking how you looked seemed obvious, the way, once found, you can only ever see the picture in a Magic Eye and not the coloured dots around it. One day she had looked in the mirror and there was a girl, a pretty girl, not so much hidden as just previously unseen, camouflaged in plain sight, and she wanted to protect her. It was that simple. It was women, not men, who found the idea of beauty most interesting, she realised this, but even so.

“Here we say this,” the boy said.  “La bellezza va e viene – la bonta si mantiene. It means, beauty doesn’t last, kindness is forever.”

“You saying I’m vain?”

The boy assured her, he definitely was not saying she was vain. What he seemed not to understand was that no-one gave a fuck about an ugly girl. But he didn’t feel like the sort of person you could say that to and she still wanted him to like her, or maybe needed him to, which was not quite the same thing but under the circumstances was what her father would have called good enough for government work.

“What will happen now?” she asked the boy, tilting the beer bottle in the direction of the lake. “Are they like, removing her body?”

“I don’t know.”

“But did they actually find her?”

“I don’t know!”

“Is there maybe a chance that she’ll be okay?”

“Maybe a chance, yes.”

“What do you think it feels like to drown?”

“Alice,” the boy said, abruptly. “My English is not so good for this.”

She bent over to fix something on her shoe. Lately her body had started doing this new thing when she wanted to cry, becoming unbearably heavy so that it was not embarrassment but weight that eventually broke her, which felt exactly the same as when she tried a particularly complex piece on the piano and her fingers just couldn’t move fast enough. It was actually a very basic problem; just an instantaneous feeling of being terribly small in a vast world, which sometimes could be more beautiful than you knew what to do with. Sometimes even a rapidly ascending series of arpeggios could be too much. She didn’t know even one word of Italian capable of explaining it.

“You promised me excite,” Alicia said to the boy instead, throwing back the end of the Peroni. “So show me something exciting.”

There were the Scaligeri ruins, not as extensive or complete as elsewhere in the region, but about the right amount for how much he knew and how interested she was in medieval history. The rumour of ghosts would have been a better story had it been dark. They walked streets bright with white tremors of bougainvillea. At the point the beach gave way to damp groves of cypress they watched three girls stroking a path the colour of peacock feathers through the lake. Even here the air was still loud with bird sound and it made Alicia sad, distantly sad, like she had no right to be feeling that particular kind of pain. She knew the boy was looking at the girls, milky and phosphorescent as they telescoped in and out of view, but it was okay somehow, just a confirmation that there were things you could always count on to be true.

“Back home,” Alicia told the boy, “there’d be some rule saying you couldn’t sell living things on the sidewalk like that.”

“What?”

“The birds.”

“It’s ok here. It’s tradition.”

“It’s barbaric. And it’s kind of creepy. You know, like Hitchcock.”

“But Sagra dei Osei is about singing, not dying.”

“Someone needs to tell the birds that.”

She had offended him now. They kicked along the shoreline without speaking and then the boy asked if she needed to get back to the hotel any time soon.

“Tell me,” she tried instead. “About the singing,” – because it was the only connection she could make, a stepping into some dark, shared undertow of bird-haunted streets, where for centuries men had travelled hundreds of miles to market, sparrows and nightingales peddled for the magic of their song. In a way she really did want to know. It was horrific and it was sublime. It was both things and it seemed that when he took her hand to guide her off the beach along dusty, light-stippled paths of olive, and told her about how in Sacile, the oldest of the markets, a thrush would be crowned king of all songbirds, what he was really saying was that the more beautiful something could be, the closer to death it came.

“You don’t find birds creepy?” she asked. “They freak me out. Maybe it’s because they’re so prehistoric. And they have such quick little eyes, like their thoughts are way ahead of me.”

But it didn’t translate despite her mime, or if it did it came out as something else that sounded mean when she meant it to be kind of funny, and if not funny then at least self-deprecating, like acknowledging maybe the birds were going to get the last laugh after all. Even if it was just the language barrier it made Alicia think about what Victor Minchin had said right before she told him she was going to Europe for the summer, the thing about how ironic it was that for a nerd she was so inarticulate when she opened her mouth. Except this was not the real irony, which lay in how he said dumb and not inarticulate and also how Victor Minchin explored it so inexpertly, her mouth, how he was curious but faltered, how cautiously he moved, like a prince stepping softly inside a pavilion. How his own gestures were so incapable of answering her questions. How he really had no idea what he was doing but kept on doing it anyway, which was maybe what the woman on the pedalo had felt when she rented it that morning, I don’t know what I’m doing, but this is supposed to be fun and everyone does it, and maybe there had also been a moment, a luminous, shocking moment before the cold of the water started to compress her thinking where the woman on the pedalo had felt something new, I should never have done this, I had no idea this could happen, the way Alicia herself had thought this, the way she had thought, I had no idea this could happen even though it was the most obvious thing, the only thing that was going to happen the minute Victor Minchin told her she was dumb and touched his hands to her face.

“Here is good,” she said.

*

Here was a small patch of scrub grass under the trees. Lizards basked and the heat from the sun made them slip in and out of each other’s hands as they scrambled through the undergrowth.

“Strange things happen to people called Alice,” the boy said suddenly, catching her waist as she stumbled. “They get lost in Wonderland, no?” he added, and she shook her head – “It’s Alicia” – and reached up to show him the length of the ‘a’, aaah, like a doctor would make you say it, demonstrated the way the sound fell heavily from the mouth when you slipped it inside someone else’s. The beer made her aggressive, and giddy, so it was less a kiss than an anchoring, or a taking, an act of piracy, but still it was a way in, it was a fall, a sudden silence, or the opposite; new and shared words.

When he pressed her hands behind her head she caught a soft scent of bird clinging to her wrist.

She guessed it would be not like it was with Victor Minchin. It would be fast and certain, which didn’t make it romance, but who needed that. It would have rhythm and it would have meaning, one singular moment of meaning, like a haiku breathed against her body, and because she was still in high school it was okay to measure the formative events of life against poetry. The boy touched her closed eyelids.

“You have your mother’s eyes,” he said into the place where Alicia’s barrette pulled hair high above her ears.

“What?”

“Beautiful. Like the sea. Like emeralds.”

“Telling me I look like my Mom is not a compliment.”

“Very beautiful,” he repeated.

“And how do you even know,” Alicia asked, kissing him back, pulling him in by the belt, “what colour my Mom’s eyes are?”

* * *

Her mother’s eyes, are in fact, short-sighted, green because of genetic mutations, not magic; the myths say that the green-eyed are better at holding down relationships, but the myths are wrong. Rarer than gold, Alicia knows that not until the Moors invaded Spain did green eyes appear in Europe. They are the eyes of nomads, explorers or faeries and evil spirits, if you read Wikipedia. She herself has stared into a mirror, hoping to cast some kind of spell over her body, hoping that really she might be a witch after all and could undo this thing, just with her eyes. Because Alicia has a secret, a secret that has been growing in her since before she got on the plane at Newark, something that will not sink down and stay hidden no matter how many desperate prayers she invents, something she cannot tell her mother, who hasn’t enough time, despite being on vacation, to wonder what her only daughter has been doing all day, or any day for that matter. Something that she is never going to tell Victor Minchin, who doesn’t even understand irony and is not somebody she wants to be connected to for the rest of her life.

“Alice,” the boy is saying, out of breath. “What are you doing? We just kiss, yes?”

“Why would we just kiss?”

“Because you are a kid, Alice!”

“Oh,” she says, wondering when it was that he realised.

She wants the feeling to come back, of the boy watching her on the hotel balcony, her white skirt billowing and rising in the evening breeze while her mother, in shadow on the other side of the floating drapes, slams and curses about the sweltering room. Or another feeling, of being in Victor Minchin’s bedroom, right after she picked up her study notes off his bed but before they fell across the rug, before the careful, colour-coded order she’d filed them in became something else that could only happen in the past. But she cannot find either memory. It’s like they don’t belong to her any more. It is as though she has held the feelings in her hand and gently, and in slow-motion, brought them to her lips and blown them away. Alicia remembers now the time she met the boy in the corridor outside their room, the time when he didn’t notice her, how he smelled of sweat and flowers, the translucent taut-silk shine of the skin across his back when he bent to re-tie his shoes. It is like a new pulse inside her. She lets her fingers move under his shirt now, runs them along his spine as if it is her piano, as if she can play the memory away.

“Alice,” the boy gasps. “This is a bad idea.”

Behind the trees the girls swim slow, labyrinthine circles through the blue, the lake water like a magnet pulling at the iron firmness of their limbs. And then they stop.

The sound of her voice – it is two things at once. Her voice is raw, like it is coming from another person’s mouth, but also more her own that it has ever been. Mostly the sounds have no definition. Sometimes they could be the word please. It might be what it feels like to drown. Not water but too much life, crushing you.

She is aware of the girls returning to shore, suddenly, like stars into an evening sky, but truthfully Alicia has forgotten about the Polizi di Stado who are beginning to arrive further down the beach where the missing woman’s family make terrible bargains with the universe and will time to suspend. The only thing she seems able to think of is the bird, the small, sad, wild dance of the bird on her arm, and it makes her cry the way she knows she has to cry, now that she has started this. She is crying but it feels like she is singing, like in the story of the nightingale and the rose that her father used to read, singing and singing until a thorn pierces her heart.

It’s not like half the people sunning themselves on the Villa Blanca’s terrace this morning didn’t see the boy come ask her go down to the promenade, didn’t see how fired up he was, in such a hurry about something. It’s not like there isn’t a photograph somewhere in the camera of a woman called Grace, an ugly composition of dying lovebirds framing a tank of fish and a local boy with his hand at the back of a young girl, sweeping her along with some kind of ardent fury. The duty officer is going to note both Alicia’s evident intoxication and her date of birth in readiness for the incident report. So it doesn’t matter if he didn’t. Didn’t. It just means that now when her mother finds out – it won’t be her fault. The boy is the hotel bellhop, luggage carrier, pool cleaner; Alicia is a paying guest, an honours roll student, vacationing in Italy to improve her language skills, or at least that was the official reason her mother gave the neighbours. Those are just the facts, so. Victor Minchin would want it this way, if he knew.

The things that aren’t facts don’t seem to have anything to do with her any more. Suddenly they feel a very long way off, as if Alicia has never seen them before. Or maybe she has, but they looked different then. The important thing is that the way the story is written down later Alicia is not the one who rolled the boy, who is in fact twenty-two and an anthropology student at Venice International University, on top of her, and that the hands at the boy’s fly are his own. That is the important thing. The important thing, and this she is sure of, is that when her mother arrives at the Stazione di Polizia with the Villa Blanca’s manager later that evening, she needs to be sobbing fiercely in the evidence room, ready to put on record what from now on she is going to call everything.

nerd glasses with tape

Lucy Durneen

Lucy Durneen has a PhD from Plymouth University, UK, where she is currently a lecturer in English and Creative Writing and Assistant Editor of Short Fiction. She has published stories in literary journals such as The Manchester ReviewThe Letters Page, The Lightship Anthology and Litro. She has been shortlisted Bridport Prize four times and Highly Commended in the 2014 Manchester Fiction Prize. She has recently completed her first collection of short stories.

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