Melanie turned her back to the balustrade, cupping her phone with one hand to shield it from the glare. It was late summer, and late enough in the day to be cool at last, with the sea breeze kicking sand into the air and leaving a fine spray of salt and damp on the seats of the deckchairs. Above, the sky was darkening blue and cloudless, and even with the sun beginning to set behind her, Melanie could just barely see the backlit screen in her hand, and had to thumb at it greasily for a moment before it unlocked. Just her aunt, checking in, complete with so many Xs and Os it had spilled over a single message.
Melanie flicked off the screen and turned back around to face the seafront, tilting her head to the side to watch Joey as he stepped out onto the terrace. She could feel the sudden coolness of air on the exposed crescent of her nape, still sticky with sweat and sunscreen, and she saw his gaze linger there, for moment, with the heat.
“Fine,” she said. It always was, even when she wished it wasn’t. “There’s so many boats out today.”
He came up to lean beside her, looking out, his sleeves rolled up.
“Apparently there was some kind of race on earlier. Usually you wouldn’t see so many sailboats this time of year, let alone single-mast ones.”
Indeed, the things cluttered across the full stretch of the bay like paper cranes, dotting the blue with white all the way to the horizon. As Melanie looked out, they arced aimlessly in slow drifts across the water’s coverlet, clearly in the aftermath of whatever event had brought them there. The movement had an inherent, satisfying laziness to it, similar to the idling of the crowds sunbathing on the shore further up.
Beside her, Joey watched the scene with more contentment than avidity. He looked in his element leaning out over the balustrade, the tan of his skin healthy instead of faintly leathery in close up – not like when she’d first seen him, dog-eared and a little dotty from his gardening and his eagerness. It had been mid-afternoon last week, Melanie just on her way back in with the dogs after stopping to collect Mrs. Miller’s post, as agreed. The boy acting as concierge had looked about her age, speckled in the face and bored enough to be difficult, so by the time she had finally made it to the house, she had been in no mood to discover that the latch of the front-gate wouldn’t lift. Melanie had still been struggling with it when Joey had come around the side of the adjacent villa, wearing a wide-brim hat and a pair of muddied gardening gloves. He spotted her at once and came over to help.
“Thanks,” she said, a little grudgingly, as he freed the catch.
“No problem. Ms…?”
“Miller,” Melanie said, still thinking of the bundle of letters in her hand, and then added quickly, “I mean – Melanie. Hi.” The man freed one of his hands with his teeth, and then stuck it out for her to shake. After a moment switching her grip on the leashes, she did.
“Joey Dowding,” he said, once he’d spat the glove back out so he could speak. “I suppose I’m your neighbour. I just moved into the Terrence’s place.” His mouth gave a little, self-effacing quirk. “Obviously.”
“Right,” she agreed, without much feeling. She was expecting him to go away, but he just pulled off his other glove and stood there until it began to seem impolite not to ask him anything. “When did you move in?”
“It’s only just been a week. Still getting the lay of the land – or the bay, I should say. It’s really something else, isn’t it? What brings you here?”
“Oh – long story.”
It wasn’t, really, but Melanie didn’t want to go into it. It was the middle of summer break, and she was here until school started again, ostensibly on holiday visiting her aunt but mostly avoiding rent on her under-ventilated dorm room back in Durham. It was far from a bad arrangement. Her aunt wasn’t even in most days, constantly running some parish event or another, and Melanie had free reign of the flat in her absence, and a suitcase full of overdue library books to work through. One of them was waiting for her now, face-down on Mrs. Miller’s kitchen benchtop, just visible through the hanging planters by the window.
“Some other time, then?”
“Sure.” The dogs were starting to tire of the stop, if the leashes wending their way around her shin were any indication, and Melanie shook herself free with impatience. “Sorry. I’d best get them in.”
“Of course,” the man said, apologetically. He leant around her to open the gate more fully. “Didn’t mean to hold you up. It was nice to meet you.”
It was only once she had made it into the kitchen and hung up the leashes that Melanie paused to turn the conversation over in her mind properly. She’d given him Mrs. Miller’s name, on auto-pilot, and it was slowly dawning on her that she’d also given the wrong impression. Would Mrs. Miller mind that she’d accidentally impersonated her to the neighbours? Would she even find out? Should Melanie call her up now and tell her, or at least send her an email, explaining she’d misrepresented herself to the estate’s newest resident?
It didn’t seem worth the effort. She filled a glass of water for herself at the sink instead, and leant against the kitchen island to drink it. It was only five o’clock, and she wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. If she was honest, aside from reading, she wasn’t entirely sure what she was allowed to do.
Back home, Melanie didn’t know anyone who had the kind of house that needed sitting. Most of her friends still lived with their parents, in little two-bedroom flats that you could trust not to get broken into because they wouldn’t be worth the lock pick; never anything more than a dusty CRT inside, or at best an old stereo. But Mrs. Miller’s place had a big flat plasma and wall-length paintings, and the sort of cutlery you kept in locked glass cabinets. As such, it had surprised her when Mrs. Miller had first asked her to stay. The older woman had been tending her Strelitzia reginae at the time, pulling back each of the long, orange leaves like checking the ears on a Cocker Spaniel.
“House sitting?” Melanie had repeated.
“Just for a week,” Mrs. Miller had told her, without looking up. “I’m going to visit my son, and it doesn’t make sense to have you walking the dogs and another complete stranger watching the house for me.”
It was unspoken, but they had both heard it: you haven’t robbed me yet. Melanie shrugged and stuck her hands in her pockets, as though to hide her discomfort. “Sure, that’d be great.”
“Good. I’m thinking forty per day, on top of what we’ve already agreed for the walking. I’ll pay you that money now, and the extra when I get back. Reasonable?”
“Sure,” Melanie said again, and then, after a beat, to fill the silence as Mrs. Miller counted out the notes in her wallet, “Where are you going?”
“Munich. My son moved there for university, and never really left.”
Melanie shrugged again, and smiled in a way she hoped was sympathetic. As was usual with this type of conversation, she found herself hesitating between feigning understanding and professing ignorance. “My older brother did the same.”
“And I dare say you will too, when you get the chance. All children do. Here.” Mrs. Miller pressed a handful of wrinkled notes out onto the kitchen counter. “The daytime isn’t quite so important, but try to be back here before evening, and make sure you always stay the night. That’s when houses around here get burgled.”
So far as Melanie had found, it was not. She was already nearing the end of the week, and her tenure had been calm and quiet, Joey the first person she’d spoken to aside from the concierge and security. They’d seen each other three more times since their first encounter, once when she’d just been leaving as he came in, and another time when he’d been taking breakfast at the rusted table in the gravel of his front garden, and had stopped her to ask about the dogs. She’d told him their names and their breeds, as well as she remembered, and he’d told her of the Pomeranian he’d owned growing up, and somehow they’d ended up chatting until he finished his coffee, and got up to show her his little plot of oregano behind the privacy hedging.
As it happened, Melanie had been surprised to discover that Joey was not a bit annoying, and was, in fact remarkably nice, if in a slightly bookish, old-fashioned way, like a gentleman from an Agatha Christie novel. It didn’t help that all she had for comparison were the boys back home, mostly still in the pugnacious, gangly stage of their growth; busy stuffing fireworks into wheelie bins and starting small fires in the process. It was this comparative niceness – combined with the unbearably tedious prospect of another microwave dinner in Mrs. Miller’s darkened kitchen – that had persuaded her to accept his offer of dinner, and landed her here, amidst the terracotta and Bougainvilleas of his garden terrace, looking out over the water as he prepared things in the kitchen. She’d been out here a while, listening to the clatter of pots and pans from within, and now that Joey had finally come out to join her, Melanie made herself ask the question one more time, for good measure:
“Are you sure I can’t do anything?”
“Thanks, but it’s all in hand now. I’m still learning the kitchen, but I think I’ve just about worked out the oven.”
“Can I at least set the table?”
He crooked a smile at her insistence. “Actually, yes. If I can remember which cupboard the plates are in.”
They traipsed back indoors together, to the kitchen, to hunt through the drawers. It had been clear since she crossed the threshold that Joey had barely made a dent in his unpacking, and it gave the space an oddly makeshift feel, like a hotel or an expensive Airbnb. Eventually, with some rummaging, they were able to cobble together most of a dinner set – certainly more of it than Melanie had ever bothered with – and brought it back out onto the terrace.
“Sorry about that,” Joey said, a little sheepishly, as they arranged the cutlery. “I suppose there’s more to do than I thought before I’m properly set up.”
“Well, you’ve only been here a week, right?” Melanie said. “And anyway, it seems like the garden’s been keeping you pretty busy.”
Joey had shown her the villa’s grounds right after he’d shown her his plot of oregano, that morning when she’d caught him having breakfast out front on her way out. Just like Mrs. Miller, he had a stretching expanse of garden at the back of the house as well as the front, only his rear garden came with several tidy rows of flowers and a small pond that were absent in Mrs. Miller’s case.
“Oh, well, that’s my preference showing. I like the house too, of course, but the garden’s why I really bought it.”
If he meant for her to weigh in with her own story at this point, he was disappointed. Melanie went inside to look for napkins, and after a moment, he followed.
“That reminds me – I’ve been meaning to ask. How long have you been here?”
“Six weeks,” Melanie said, grateful for the vagueness of the question. It was true, if here meant the town, or the country, or the apartment she was supposed to be staying in, five miles from the bay, above the tobacconist’s.
“Right, that makes sense. I thought you seemed to be new here, too.”
“Oh. Do I seem that clueless?”
She asked it with a laugh, but something in the suggestion stung. It must have been audible, because Joey paused in pulling open a cupboard to catch her eye before answering.
“Not at all,” he said. “Actually, I hope I’m as settled as you are in six weeks. Where do you take the dogs, by the way? Is there a park nearby?”
There wasn’t, but Melanie told him about her walking path by the water, where the fishermen liked to set up camp but the tourists avoided because there was no easy way down to the beach, and besides, they were rocky. Then he asked about the dogs, and whether she thought she’d plant a garden, and Melanie was just telling him about her Strelitzia reginae when the timer on the oven made them both jump. Joey handed her the oven mitts from the counter and began pulling open drawers again, a little frantically.
“Do you mind getting that? I’ll cut us some bread, if I can find the knife.”
She did as he suggested, bringing the dish out to the table and using the oven mitt as a tablemat. He’d baked some kind of fish she didn’t recognise, smelling strongly of wine and lemon and the cherry tomatoes piled alongside it, and for the first time since her arrival, Melanie felt an eagerness for the meal ahead.
As she settled down at the table, watching Joey busy himself inside through the panes of the French window, it occurred to Melanie suddenly how little she knew about him, beside his easy cheer and his Pomeranian, and his fondness for gardening and black coffee. He had money, that much was obvious, and he seemed well-travelled; or at least as well-travelled as any Englishman who had chosen to live on the Mediterranean, which Melanie supposed might be very little. But ultimately Joey was as well-known to her as any other friendly stranger, and while she might not have spared him a glance if he’d sat down next to her on the night bus to Hulme, here, amidst the babble of foreign tongues and the strange, cartoon ritziness of the estate, with its communal spa and discounted country-club membership, he seemed a welcome ally from the world she’d left back home, and she’d gravitated towards him as though in wartime. Never mind that he had clearly never taken the night bus to Hulme before and never would – it was the idea of it that mattered.
When Joey came back out onto the terrace, he came with a handful of serving spoons, a basket of bread, and a pitcher of water. Melanie jumped up to take the latter from him, and they sat down again together and spent some minutes arranging the items on the table to weigh down the tablecloth against the wind.
“I hope you like fish.”
“Very much, thanks.”
“It’s Saint-Pierre, if you know it – or John Dory, as we call it back home. They serve it in restaurants here.”
She had never heard of it. Opposite, Joey unfolded a napkin onto his lap, and Melanie mimicked the gesture.
“So,” he said, after they’d poured the wine. “You never got around to telling me. The long story, I mean; how you ended up here.”
“It’s not really that long,” Melanie admitted, stalling despite herself. “I just – wasn’t really in the mood to chat, when you caught me last week.”
Joey transferred a fillet to her plate, along with a drizzle of sauce. “I don’t blame you. I didn’t exactly pick my moment.”
“No, it was the dogs really, more than anything.” There was a pause, and a clink of cutlery, before she realized Joey wasn’t going to fill the silence. “And, well, it’s really not much of a story…”
He listened carefully as she recounted everything she could remember: the villa inherited from her late father, stomach cancer; ten months wasted on renovations while builders absconded with their advances; until finally, last December, when her son had come to stay – by which she of course meant brother – and fixed the whole thing up over a long, rent-free holiday. Perhaps Joey had seen him?
“Afraid not,” Joey said regretfully, paused in serving out the salad. “When did you say he was here?”
“Months ago,” Melanie supplied, quickly. “Right, of course you wouldn’t have seen him.”
“Well, I’m glad you finally got it all sorted, in any case. It’s a lovely villa. It took me a while to move in here as well, actually. The house was a bit of a coup de cœur, if I’m honest, but after buying it I got cold feet about actually moving and put it off for almost a year.”
Gamely, he launched into the tale, and Melanie settled back to listen with a sigh of relief. He was as fulsome as she had been reticent. Like her, Joey hailed from a rainy, industrial quarter of England that he didn’t miss, but that was where the similarities ended. He’d first discovered the bay through a cousin who worked in real-estate, who had convinced him that the local housing market was a good investment, but after coming out to sign the papers, had found himself changing his flight home and making return trips on spurious motives. He was younger than she’d guessed, to hear it – though still well out of high-school – and he made it sound as though he’d ended up here largely by accident, and was still trying to figure out what to do about it.
“Like I said – a bit of a stupid purchase, really.”
Melanie shrugged. “If you like it here, why not?”
He paused in eating to give her a crinkling smile. “That’s how I like to think about it, too.”
Out across the water behind his smile, a cluster of seagulls had begun to circle over one of the food stands on the beachfront. The conversation at the table dropped off, neither of them scrambling to catch it. It was a companionable silence: unoppressive, interrupted as it was by the birds and the chinking cutlery, and the sound of Mrs. Miller’s wind chimes from next door. After a while, Joey seemed to realize Melanie was looking over his shoulder, and turned to see what had caught her attention.
“Watching the boats again?”
Melanie shrugged, embarrassed. “I guess. I like that the sea’s not empty. There’s so much going on between here and the horizon.” Not like back home, where the beach was rock and dirt and sheer cliffs that people sometimes jumped off, and the water stretched out in shades of grey that you struggled to tell apart from the sky. Here, the bay was as crowded as a picture-book, like Where’s Wally drawn by Impressionists.
“That’s a Thomson cruise, that large sleek silver one, on the way back from San Remo, I’m guessing. And that garish white thing behind it is the Brilliance of the Seas.” He saw her grimace. “Not very imaginative, are they? The yachts are generally better. That golden one at the back, I think that’s the Misty Mooring.”
“That’s – evocative.”
He exhaled a small, generous laugh. “Isn’t it? The yachts always have better names than the passenger ships. I suppose the Carnival cruise lines of the world aren’t quite so romantic about it.”
“How come you know so much about them?”
“I have to, for work.”
“What do you do?”
Joey took a fresh piece of bread from the basket before offering it to her in turn. “What do you think?”
“Um…” It was clear he was teasing her. Melanie resolved to play along. “I have no idea. Something to do with tourism?”
“You’re not far off. I manage a company that provides catering for yachts and cruise liners; that kind of thing.”
“Right,” Melanie said, slowly, not entirely understanding. She gestured back out towards the water. “So they’re your clients?”
Obligingly, he turned in his chair again to look with her. “Some of them.”
“No wonder you know their names. There must be a lot of competition.”
“Not as much as you might think. Plenty of cruises come here, of course, but a lot of them don’t stop for more than a day, and most of them restock in bigger ports.”
“So how do you get them to come to you?”
“By being quicker and cheaper than everyone else. Not much magic to it, I’m afraid.” He turned back around to face her properly. “But this conversation must be boring you stiff.”
Melanie shook her head. “I’ve had worse.”
“Still, I’m sure we can do better. Let me get the fruit, and we’ll try again.”
The fruit came in a curved ceramic bowl, with painted olives around the rim and cherry tomatoes, apples, and peaches within. Melanie pulled it towards herself as Joey tidied away the serving plates to make more room on the table. She was just considering a peach when Joey came back out onto the terrace, and proffered a fruit knife by the handle.
“Where did you get these?” she asked, declining with a shake of the head. “All the fruit I buy here is sour, or ripens in hours.”
“At the market on Ormond Square,” Joey replied, selecting an apple for himself. “Near the lighthouse.”
“I’ve never been.”
“How’s your French? They’ll overcharge if you speak English.”
“High-school standard,” Melanie said. “So not great.”
“Next time I’m there I’d be more than happy to get some for you, if you’d like.”
“Oh – that’s very kind, but I can manage.”
“Well, if you change your mind, just let me know what you want.”
“I will, thanks.”
She wouldn’t, but it didn’t seem worth insisting. Instead, Melanie finished her peach, and wiped each of her fingers carefully on her napkin.
“Thanks,” she said again. “Dinner was great.”
“You’re welcome. It was nice to have company.”
That brought to mind a question she’d been waiting to ask.
“Is it – just you here?’
“Most of the time,” Joey said, sitting back in his chair. He’d rolled his sleeves up to eat, and now that he’d finished his apple he unrolled them again. “Work keeps me pretty busy, so I’m not usually home enough to mind. I have this whole week off to move, though, which in retrospect was overkill. It all went pretty smoothly.”
“I’m not sure your kitchen would agree.”
“Fair point. In my defence, it’s much more interesting having dinner with you than unpacking boxes.”
Melanie laughed, despite herself. “I’m not sure that’s much of a compliment.”
Joey laughed along with her. “Well, the night is young; I have time to do better. Can I get you a drink, to start with?”
She had almost said yes by the time she remembered to hesitate.
“I don’t know; I’ve had a lot of wine already.”
“Humour me, please. I have a housewarming bottle of Marie Brizard that I’ve been looking for an excuse to open all week, and I really won’t be able to justify it if you don’t join me.”
“Well – OK, then. Just a glass.”
“Of course. I just need your help getting it open; after that you’re in the clear, I promise.”
Was she too old to daydream of being adopted? Probably she was meant to dream of something different at this age, and watching Joey rummage through the kitchen cupboards for the bottle, Melanie allowed herself, for the first time this evening, to really consider it.
He wasn’t unattractive for his age. Under the kitchen spotlights he almost looked boyish, and she could imagine him readily enough as one of the mob of new young teachers at Belmont, idealistic and bespectacled, the subject of gossip and schoolgirl passes. Once imagined, the image was hard to dispel, and when he came out again, bottle in hand, it clung to him slightly, rose-tinting, as though it was a fantasy they shared.
“I couldn’t find the tumblers I’m afraid, so I hope you don’t mind using your wineglass.”
He placed the bottle on the table to crack the seal, and then poured her an amount scarcely more than a thimble. It was just enough to split across two sips: sharp and sweet and nothing at all like the alcohol she was used to drinking.
“Aniseed.” He was watching for her reaction. “Not a fan?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “No, I just – I wasn’t expecting it.”
“Would you like some more?” Joey filled her wineglass again, this time just under one third, and then sat back and took his own in hand. “If it’s too strong I can get some ice.”
“No, really, it’s fine.” Melanie took another sip, and then another, before she was ready to decide she liked it. “It’s really nice, actually.”
“Isn’t it? It’s one of my favourites.”
He smiled at her, slightly indistinct through the gathering dimness, and she smiled back, toothy, in a way she knew to be a little too wide for her chin. All of a sudden, wrapped in the liquor’s friendly swaddle, Melanie could see her life stretched before her, and taking place mostly in this villa, with the French windows flung open and the curtains blowing out over the wood-grain furniture. She’d launder the linens, and grow herbs on the windowsill, and work from home, or on weekends, or whatever it was that people who worked for occupation rather than money did. It wasn’t such a bad view, now that she had it in front of her. A little anaemic, perhaps, but more than good enough for her to work with. Perhaps it had been pretentious of her to discard it as a possibility. It had always seemed like this path to the future was for a different set of people than the one she belonged to, but here, now, with Joey sitting opposite in the dying glow from the beach, it felt tantalizingly within reach.
By the time Joey suggested putting the bottle away for the evening, it was dark enough that he stumbled doing it. The rest of their digestif had been consumed in relative silence, broken up by the sounds of pouring and chinking, both of them warmed to the point of drowsiness by alcohol and the weight of the stillness between them. Now, back indoors, the kitchen bare as a crime scene under the downlights, Melanie felt like she’d stumbled from a dream. As though to fend off waking, she leant a moment against the panes of the window, looking back out across the darkened terrace and the bay beyond it.
The sky was moonless tonight, and now that the beach had emptied, the brightest lights came from across the water, shimmering at the horizon like streetlights through smoke. Out on the water, the few boats that remained in prowl provided their own pinpricks of roaming light, and at least one of the large cruise-liners had webbed the length of its deck in fairy lights, dyeing the water around it blue and orange as it glided forwards.
“All the sailboats are gone,” Melanie remarked, a little surprised she hadn’t noticed sooner. “Nothing left but the liners.”
“The sun dropped hours ago. I imagine they wanted to make it home before dark.” There was the increasingly familiar rattle of the pantry door behind her, and then Joey came over to look out in turn. “What about you?”
“It’s getting late. Do you need to get back?”
It wasn’t at all the question she’d been expecting, and Melanie pulled back sharply from the glass to hear it. At some point in the evening, it had stopped being an if to her; stopped being a possibility and started to become something necessary, like a rest stop on a long drive home, as inevitable as nightfall, or the return of Mrs. Miller to the place Melanie had kept warm. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment it had shifted – from idle fantasy to self-fulfilling prophecy – but if she was honest, she had felt the chance of it percolating since well before dinner; had known, in some small, unarticulated way, from the instant she’d first spotted Joey in the garden in his stupid straw hat; just there like a character in a novel, existing for the sole purpose of this entanglement. She’d stepped into this world like filling a hole cut into a postcard; without her asking, he’d agreed to meet her in it, and she wouldn’t be the first one to step clear.
“No, I can stay.”
He held out his hand, and she obligingly laid her own within it, curled upwards like the paw of an animal.
“Good. I was hoping you’d say that.”
Of course, he didn’t really believe she was the lady of the house. She was the dog walker, far too obviously the dog walker, and barely even seventeen in the reflection of his wine-glass at dinner. Watching him now, Melanie wasn’t sure how she had ever thought he believed otherwise. But if she wasn’t the wealthy proprietor, then neither was he a mysterious benefactor, sweeping into her life on a chance encounter just to throw his coat down in her path. Real life didn’t work like that, not even in this little sun-soaked corner of the world, where people came to forget how it did.
But it could be that he was just naïve. It could be that she was, too. It could be that in the dimness, and the alcohol, and the leftover light from the ships, she could make a good enough go of the part to convince him, and to let herself be convinced.
Like sealing a deal, Melanie turned her hand over in Joey’s grip, and one-handed each, they pulled the blinds closed between them.
Yen Radecki is a writer, poet, and perpetual traveller. Born in France and raised across three continents, they’re now based somewhere or other in Europe, exactly where depending on when you read this. Online, they can be found more easily at @yenradecki.
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