A story by Henry Bromell
They were left together, staring at each other. She was older, shorter, tending toward heaviness, very blond. Over her shining green eyes the thick black lines that deepened her face suddenly narrowed as she smiled, and he saw the gold circles hanging from her ears, the almost haughty tilt of her head. They were both holding drinks in their hands, standing in a corner of the Ambassador’s living room, listening to the musical voices around them and watching the tactful Pakistani servants slide between the chatting couples. They were the youngest people at the party. She was twenty, maybe twenty-one. He saw his father at the other end of the living room talking to a bald Kuwaiti, then looked back at her. In profile, her face was delicate, with a small, upturned nose and a high, wide forehead. She had one arm folded across her breasts. She glanced at him, saw him staring, and stared back, just as the Saudi Arabian consul sorrowfully bowed away and left them alone.
“Hello,” she said.
“Who are you?”
“Ah.” She smiled. “Quentin’s big brother.”
“That’s right. How do you know that?”
“I’m his girlfriend’s governess,” she said. “I live right down the street from you.”
Scobie saw his mother sitting on a couch, talking to the Ambassador’s wife. She held a drink in one hand, on her lap, and a cigarette in the other, her elbow resting on the arm of the couch.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“And you’re English, right?”
“Very,” she said, trilling. “Verry.”
They both laughed. Her short, strong fingers gripped her glass. She was wearing a long black dress, and a rust-colored shawl covered her shoulders.
“Mona, are you having a good time at this party?”
“In a way, yes.” She glanced around the room. “Because it’s Christmas, and I can’t help enjoying Christmas parties. But in a way, no, because I don’t know anyone here. I don’t know anyone in the whole of Kuwait, as a matter of fact. But that’s another story. You’re in school in England, aren’t you? Quentin told me.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you like it?”
“No. In fact, I may get thrown out.”
“Really? Whatever for?”
“Stealing library books.”
She laughed, took a sip from her drink, and looked at his stomach, his knees, his face.
“I’m tired,” she said, lowering her glass. “Let’s sit somewhere.”
“Anywhere. Over there.” She waved toward an empty love seat in the corner. “OK?”
They sat down together, their legs touching, and lit cigarettes.
“How long have you been in Kuwait?” he asked her.
“Eighteen months, twelve days, six hours, and forty-five minutes. Approximately.”
“And who do you work for?”
“Right. And how many kids do they have?”
“And one of them’s my brother’s sirlfriend?”
“Amazing. Tell me more.”
“Quentin’s been telling me all about you, actually. He’s been very excited. He told me you have long hair and that you drink a great deal.”
“He told you that?”
“Let’s go outside,” Scobie said.
They left the love seat and stood on the terrace. There was a full moon, and its pale light rippled over the small waves of the Persian Gulf. The beach looked like a photograph of the moon itself, and there was a slow breeze in the air. They sat on the wall of the terrace and looked at the shimmering water.
“It never gets cold here,” she said.
“What’s it like in summer?”
“Hot. One can’t move. One just sits inside all day, breathing through one’s air conditioner.”
“It is weird,” she said. “Very weird. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“Making a living.”
“I know. But why here?”
“I thought it would be romantic,” she said, smiling brightly. “I thought I would be swept away by a handsome billionaire oil sheikh.”
“Well, I’ve only been here seventy-two hours or whatever it is, but I can tell you one thing: this place is weird. All those pink and yellow houses. And no trees. Not one tree. And nobody drinks, and nobody smokes.”
“Honey?” It was his mother, standing at the open terrace door. “Time for us to go home.”
“OK. I’ll be right there.”
He wanted to kiss Mona, but felt that it would somehow be obscene—she was so womanly. He sat there for a few more seconds, looking at her, and the sea, then rose and said good night. She grabbed his hand and pulled herself up.
“I’ll probably see you around tomorrow,” he said.
“Most likely,” she said.
Scobie poked his head into the kitchen and said good morning to Hassan. Hassan looked up from the counter, where he was kneading dough, and smiled, baring three gold teeth. Scobie asked for coffee and went back into the living room, put Rubber Soul on his parent’s Grundig, and sat down at the dinner table. Hassan brought his coffee in and handed him a note from his mother. “Dearest—Don’t spend all day in bed. I’ll be home for lunch. Isn’t Mona pretty? Your mother.” He folded the note and lit a cigarette and listened to the Beatles.
After a second cup of coffee he walked to the beach. It was a mild, clear day, and the air smelled like spring. He couldn’t believe Christmas was only a week away. He passed by a row of stone houses and through the Embassy gates, then down a path to the beach. The Gulf was glittering, like a bowl of glass. Two small children were playing in the shallows. Ten feet up the beach, in the shade of a straw fisherman’s hut, sat Mona. She saw him and waved.
“Good morning,” she said, squinting at him as he bent down into the shadow. She was wearing a scarf, and on her knees was a paperback copy of Balthazar.
Scobie sat next to her on the sand. He could hear the pebbles crinkling in the surf.
“Those two of your wards?” he asked, pointing at the children.
“Yes. The youngest. Benji and Simon. They’re quite lovely, actually. I wish the others were so good.”
“What are they like?”
“Spoiled brats,” she said. “They eat too much. Just like their Mum and Dad.”
“Is Quentin’s girlfriend, Kathy—is she nice?”
“Then why does he like her?”
“Because she already has breasts,” Mona giggled.
Scobie lit a cigarette and lay back with his face in the sun. Mona flipped over a page of her book. The sand was warm under his fingers. He rolled over and looked at the brilliant sea.
“Do you really not know anyone here?” he asked.
“Oh, I know a few people. Friends of the Marshes.”
“Don’t you ever go out?”
“Once in a while,” she said.
“Oh, just different people. Last week I went out with a prince. He’s in exile from Iraq, I think. Anyway, he tried to seduce me. I repulsed him, however. And once I went out with a disgusting businessman who already had sixteen wives, including two Belgians, an Australian, an American, three Japanese, a German, and an Italian. I know. He told me.”
“Well, where do you go when you go out?”
“There’s a cinema, and a few restaurants. Not much.”
“Would you like to go out sometime, I mean, you know, to the movies or something?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’d love to.”
They looked at each other and smiled. He was not usually very good at asking for dates, but this invitation had just appeared, as much a surprise to him as he imagined it was to her. She leaned back with her hands in the sand and he saw that her breasts were huge.
“How long is your vacation?” she asked.
“And then you go back to England? For how long?”
“Until June. In September I’m supposed to be going to college, I mean, university, what you call university. How old are you?”
“Really. Does that make me seem old?”
“No. It just makes me feel young. Like a kid. I don’t mean that to sound the way it sounds. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes. You’re a virgin.”
He thought he blushed.
“But I’m not,” he lied.
“How many times—?”
“Once,” he said.
“Were you in love?”
“Who was the girl?”
“Her name was Alice. I was staying with her family in Paris. I was supposed to be learning French, you know? Well, I didn’t.”
“Do you still love her?”
“Uh, I haven’t seen her since last summer.”
Mona looked at him, then opened Balthazar and continued reading.
His room was as sparsely furnished as a hotel room: a bed, a bureau, a chair, a small electric heater for the cold nights. His suitcase was still on the floor, overflowing with rumpled clothes. On one of the white walls hung a map of Ireland, a gift from his grandfather. Sitting on his bed, he felt like a visitor waiting for someone to tell him what to do. His mother and father were both downstairs, napping in their bedroom. Quentin was off playing somewhere. In an hour or two it would be dark. Already the minaret calls were floating over the city—scratchy, fragmented prayers. Through one of his windows, he could see across a dusty field to another row of stone houses. An abandoned, rusting Ford sat in the middle of the field. Through his other window he could see the Embassy, a corner of the Ambassador’s house, the beach, the water. A clock was ticking downstairs in the living room.
He was thinking about Alice.
They had grown up together. They had even had nicknames for each other: he was Sebastian, she was Natasha. Her body must have touched his many times, but he had never noticed until it was soft in the moonlight in Paris, a dim whiteness standing by a green metal fence and lifting a pale, frightened face to be kissed. Then she had leaned on him, saying nothing, her rough, dark hair the horizon to a view of ferns, fence, rooftops, stars. He had felt her breasts, as she breathed, brush his chest, tentatively close. A car had passed by on the street beyond the fence, its headlights wheeling between the slats, and they both had started, stepping back and glancing quickly at the front door. It was closed. The curtained windows were a warm yellow. He had looked at her, filled his lungs with air, whispered her name—then stopped, at a loss, and kissed her again. This time their bodies had pressed together and her hands had stroked the back of his neck. Then she had straightened and said, “I suppose we should go in. They’re probably waiting for us.”
They had opened the front door and walked into the living room. The lights were on by the couch, and Tommy, Alice’s younger brother, was sitting on the floor listening to A Hard Day’s Night. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor had come in, both wearing bathrobes, and they had all had a drink together.
“Well, Scobie,” Mr. Taylor had said. “Do you still want to be a writer when you grow up?”
“Scobie will never grow up,” Mrs. Taylor had said, laughing. “Will you? Please don’t.”
Scobie had felt as if Alice were his wife, as if they were sitting with her parents as equals. The living room was beautiful to look at: a Picasso lithograph and a Cambodian tapestry on the wall, dark red books in the bookcases, marble ashtrays on the tables, an Isfahan rug on the floor, the soft light holding them all in a trance—his life had settled, arranged itself around this scene, held the image to his heart. But he had never slept with Alice. She was too shy, she had refused, and he had respected her too much to insist. Instead, they had sat together for hours, holding hands and kissing, until the summer was over, and she returned to her boarding school in Switzerland, and he returned to his boarding school in England. The next time he saw her she was wearing lipstick and having an affair with a banker.
Scobie left his bed and walked downstairs. Thin shadows stretched across the living-room floor. He could hear Hassan in the kitchen, and he could smell tea. He sat down in one of the armchairs and stared at the motes of dust dancing in the twilight. His body seemed suspended, detached from his mind. What he saw was more real than himself. The clock was ticking nearby and he sensed his parents behind their closed bedroom door. Hassan, singing to himself, filled the quiet house with a gentle, warbling chant. Scobie heard the kitchen screen door rattle open, bang closed, and Quentin’s voice saying, “Hassan, I need some food.”
“What kind food you want for?”
“Bread, I guess. And cookies. And fruit.”
“It’s a secret, Hassan. I can’t tell anyone, not even you. Do you have a paper bag I can use? Thanks. Thanks a lot, Hassan. Bye.”
The screen door slammed shut and there was a moment’s silence in the kitchen, followed by a long sigh and more singing. Scobie rose and went outside. The sky was a pearly white, dazzling with sunset at the edge of the sea. He saw Quentin hurrying toward the beach. He was small and stout. Puffs of sand lifted and sank behind him. Scobie slowed down and took his time. The dust on the street lay molded by car tracks circling the identical houses. Neighborhood dogs ignored him as he passed them leaping up and down some sand piled against a wall. The road ran on between the barren gardens, past the long, low Embassy. Then the beach stretched out before him, and he saw a dozen children, some standing with their hands on their hips, pot-bellied, bow-backed, and others sitting cross-legged in the sand. In their midst stood a tall, thin young man with a red beard. He was wearing a sheepskin coat and was leaning on a staff, talking to the children.
Scobie saw Mona resting against the side of an upturned fishing boat.
“Hello,” he said. “What’s this?”
“The children found him on the beach,” she said. “His name’s Phillip, I think. He’s hitched all the way from England. Manchester. They’ve built him a little house—there, you see that lean-to? And they’ve all plundered their houses for food. It’s quite exciting, actually.”
Scobie looked back at the cluster of children. Whatever Phillip was saying, they were fascinated. They were silent, listening. Then, all at once, they were asking him questions.
“What did you do this afternoon?” Scobie asked.
“Oh, nothing. Watched the children. Read.”
She was standing with her arms folded, and he realized she was self-conscious about her breasts.
“What’re you doing tonight?” he asked.
“I have to take care of the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Marsh are going out.”
“What about tomorrow night?”
“I’m not doing anything. There’s a good film showing at the cinema, actually. A French film. It’ll have Arabic subtitles, but that’s all right. Rather baroque.”
“I don’t know. I’ll check. I think it’s a good film.”
“Anything would be fun.”
“Yes,” she said. “You’re quite right.”
It was growing dark. Phillip had unrolled a sleeping bag under his lean-to and made a small fire, over which he was now cooking something in a camper’s frying pan. “Hot dogs,” Mona laughed. The children sat in a circle around him, crouched on their haunches, watching.
“How old are you?” Mona asked.
“Seventeen,” he said.
Mona sat next to him on the front seat of his father’s green Chevrolet. The faint scent of her perfume drifted through the car. Pools of yellow light swept past the windows. On the left of the modern, empty highway leading into town was the desert. On the right was the sea. Mona was dress, a white shawl, and sandals. Already, rings of sweat had formed under Scobie’s arms, and he was sure he smelled like a gymnasium. They drove down Kuwait’s main street, a wide boulevard with a strip of grass in the middle that had to be watered constantly, day and night. The sidewalks were crowded with outdoor cafes, each one illuminated by a television. As Scobie looked for a parking space, two dozen identical pictures of Mickey Mouse flashed simultaneously onto the screens. Below. Arabs in white kaffiyehs chain-smoked and watched.
The cinema, like the highway, was new, and it was packed with men. Scobie and Mona bought their tickets and sat near the front. They saw a newsreel, three coming attractions for Italian Westerns, and twenty minutes of local advertising. Then the movie began. It was a French love story dubbed into English with Arabic subtitles, and had been so badly cut—every time a man and a woman even approached each other they promptly vanished—that it made very little sense. Halfway through, Scobie reached for Mona’s hand. She returned the pressure of his fingers, without looking at him, and they held hands during the rest of the movie. Afterwards, on the sidewalk outside, twenty or thirty men crowded around them, jostling each other and staring at Mona. She kept her arms folded and her eyes straight ahead. The men were almost hysterical with excitement, and Scobie thought there would be a riot and he would be clubbed to death. But they passed safely to the car, though a few men couldn’t resist reaching out and pinching Mona’s shoulders. She blushed and swore.
“Where to now?” Scobie asked, starting the car.
“Go back toward the Embassy,” she said. “There’s a restaurant by the sea.”
She sat close to him on the seat, quietly smoking a cigarette.
“What’s that?” He pointed to a red hue in the sky above the desert.
“An oil fire,” she said. “They’re waiting for that famous fellow to come and put it out.”
The restaurant was large and empty, with candles on the tables and a plate-glass window overlooking the water. The moon was out again. They sat by the window, their feet touching under the table. She told him that her father was a clerk, her mother worked part-time in a dress shop, and her two brothers, both older, were salesmen—Barnaby, the youngest, sold vacuum cleaners, Mason sold Austin-Healeys. She had gone to school long enough to get two “A” Levels, in art history and geography, before running away to Spain with a painter she met in a London discotheque.
“I lived with him for a year,” she said. “Then with George, in Paris, and then with Peter, on Hydra, and then I worked in London for a while, and then I got fed up and answered an ad in the Times for a governess. And now here I am. I shan’t stay much longer, I shouldn’t think.”
In the candlelight, her face was much softer, less intimidating, more relaxed. She leaned toward him with her elbows on the table.
“When I was a little girl I was convinced something special was waiting for me when I grew up. I didn’t know what, but something very special, unique, I was convinced.”
“So far, nothing special.” She laughed. “I didn’t expect anything particular. That’s why I do all the things I do. I say to myself, ‘Well, it sounds daft, but this might be it.’”
In front of the Marshes’ house, still in the car, he kissed her. Her lips were soft and warm, she opened her mouth, her tongue caressed his. They didn’t hold each other tightly, they just sat with their hands touching and their heads leaning back against the seat.
“This is the nicest evening I’ve had in a long time,” she murmured.
“You’re very gentle,” she said, stroking his cheek with her fingers, her eyes a distant luster in the moonlight. “Very gentle.”
Scobie had a small leather box, and in that box was a thin silver bracelet Alice had given him. He sat in bed, under the covers, with the bracelet on his knees, and thought of his brother, Matthew, who was going to boarding school in the States and spending Christmas vacation with his grandparents on Long Island. Last Christmas, Scobie had been there. I should write him a letter, Scobie thought. He picked the bracelet up and looked at it closely. The house was quiet. Outside, the breathing desert—stars, moon, waves, moments of his life spinning and tumbling in space, or his head: the dry dust smell, dull tile, the sea, the blank blue sky, voices in the street, whispering. He put the bracelet in the leather box and turned off the light, and looked at the slabs of light coming in the window and listened to the thrumming beach. The shadows of the objects in his room quivered before his eyes. He was not sleepy, only too tired to do anything but lie there in the dark dreaming of Mona. He rolled over and wondered if she were asleep yet. Or was she, too, lying awake, thinking? And if so, what was she thinking about? Or was she reading? Yes, she would be reading Balthazar. He tried to think of nothing but blackness, then whiteness, but words broke the serenity: “You’re very gentle. ” Was that a compliment? Was she laughing at him, for being young? Should he have touched her breasts, there in the car. should he have been stronger? “You’re very gentle.” What did that mean?
He sat up in bed. turned on the light, lit a cigarette, and rummaged around in his suitcase until he found a soiled spiral notebook. He opened the notebook to a blank page and wrote: “The Embassy in Paris slowly drifts across my eyelids, droopy with the dust and the sun. Shoes move by. feetless. Billboards. Murmurs. Over the carefully planned garden and park, the distant music of cars. Waiting for a person, or a time, I forget, and watching two children playing. The smallest, a boy, chases his sister around and around a sandbox, making pig noises. A parasol walks by. The children are throwing sand at each other, but of course in the end they’re playing together with a toy truck. Dresses rustle somewhere in my memory. I seem to recall their mother, tall and elegant. Her eyes were large and dark. The rest of her face was, I remember, too beautiful to be tender. She frequently paused before the various mirrors in her house, or glanced quickly at her reflection immediately upon entering a friend’s house. Of course I never knew her. I have only seen her children, playing in the different streets of Paris, the long shady ones lined with hidden houses. I feel as if I were walking home from a party late at night, stopping and staring up at laughing couples leaning on balconies, or running my fingers along the layers of advertisement on a yellow wall—dating back, perhaps, to the last political crisis, or the transportation strike, or the birth of a bricklaying pop singer. It all passes, a million lives at once, while I sit on a painted bench watching some children and imagining their mother and . . . what? Waiting for Alice, I think. Yes, and here she comes, in a white raincoat, for some reason. to tell me, ‘I’m having an affair.’ An affair? At your age? With whom? ‘A banker.’ How old? ‘Forty.’ Forty? ‘Yes.’ Why? But I know. Because I’m not old enough. I should have slept with her last summer, but I didn’t, because I’m a boy.”
“I wish we could be alone somewhere,” Scobie said.
“So do I.”
The sun was reflected in Mona’s eyes. She Lifted a handful of sand and let it slide between her fingers, the small pyramid dissolving, then collapsing. She stared at the children playing near the waves.
“I almost had a baby once,” she said.
He had forgotten that such a thing was possible.
“When?” he asked.
“Two years ago. But I had an abortion instead.”
“That must have been very painful.”
“It was. Psychologically.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“And yet I wasn’t prepared to have a child either. So—” She shrugged.
“Was the . . . father with you?”
“He didn’t know,” she said.
“No. We had split up by then. That was Peter. I told you about him. We lived on Hydra together. Anyway, I didn’t want to see him. He would have made a fuss. He would have wanted me to have the baby.”
“Because it was his.”
“I don’t get it.”
“You don’t? Well, he was older than you. And he was very possessive. He would have considered it an insult for me to abort his child. Do you see?”
“Oh, Scobie, you are naive.”
They were both silent for a while. Except for the children, they were alone on the beach again, but Scobie felt exposed, vulnerable; behind him were the windows of the Ambassador’s house and a wing of the Embassy. An oil tanker moved slowly along the horizon. Mona was wearing a T-shirt, and Scobie could see the shape of her breasts clearly outlined in the striped cloth. Her bare feet were buried in sand. He wanted to reach out and touch her. He remembered the way her lips had brushed his, last night in the car.
“Have you ever been really in love?”
“Several times.” She laughed. “Have you?”
“I think so.”
“With your girlfriend. Alice?”
“Did she love you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you still love her?”
“I think about her a lot. Yeah, I guess I still love her a little.”
“Have you ever been in love with anyone else?”
“It’s not something that only happens once,” she said.
Suddenly she leaned over and kissed him, then sat back, smiling.
“What happened to that guy Phillip?” Scobie asked.
“Oh, he left for India this morning. He’s looking for God, I’m afraid.”
Veined and slender, his father’s fingers cradled the miniature frigate and held it under the lamp. Papery planks and a brass cannon the size of a pearl gleamed as he brought his eyes closer, his horn-rimmed glasses mirroring the ship in a lake of white light. A cigarette was burning in the ashtray on his desk, next to a half-empty demitasse. Small tools lay scattered at his elbows. Behind him, hanging on the wall, was a faded watercolor of a sailboat at anchor. Smoke swirled up through the light and around his head. To his left, sitting on the couch, her knees tucked, was Scobie’s mother, reading. As she read, her lips moved slightly, so that Scobie could almost hear the words. A Frank Sinatra album was on the Grundig, and his father suddenly started whistling along with the song, leaning back in his chair and scratching his cheek.
“Is Quentin over visiting Kathy?” Scobie asked.
“Yes,” his mother said.
“I think I’ll go see what they’re doing.”
“OK. But tell him not to stay up too late.”
“I’ll tell him.”
“And give my best to Mona,” she said.
It was a cool evening, the moon and stars tilling the sky. Scobie walked down the middle of the dirt road, between the stone houses and parked cars, until he reached the Marshes’ house. A plump, blond-haired girl about ten years old answered the doorbell.
“Hi. I’m Quentin’s brother.”
“Oh, hi. I’m Kathy. Come in.”
He stepped into a living room that was dark but for the gray light of a television screen. Dan Cartwright was hurriedly mounting his horse. Sweat trickled down Scobie’s sides. He could barely see the shapes of small bodies sitting before the television.
“Is Quentin here?” he asked.
“Yeah. Hey, Quentin. Your brother’s here.”
None of the shapes moved.
“Actually, I was wondering if Mona’s around,” Scobie said.
“Yeah. In bed.”
“Naw. She’s sick.”
“Well, um, where’re your parents?”
“Oh. Well, tell Mona I hope she’s OK.”
“You tell her.”
“Sure, just go up and tell her.”
“Yeah, sure, why not?”
“Swift.” he heard Quentin saying, somewhere near the television. “That was really swift.”
“Well, how do I get there?” Scobie asked.
“Up the stairs, first right,” Kathy said. “Just like your house. They’re all the same.”
He climbed the shadowy stairs to a dark hallway. He groped to his right. The door was open.
He heard sheets rustling, then Mona’s voice: “Who’s that?”
“Me, Scobie. Are you asleep? If you’re asleep, I’ll go away.”
He turned and started back down the stairs, his knees shaking.
“I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Oh, well, are you all right?” He returned to the hallway and peered into the black room. “Kathy said you were sick.”
Reaching blindly into the room, he took a few steps forward and stopped. Her hand took his and guided him to the side of her bed. He sat down. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he saw her bare shoulders above the sheets. Her fingers massaged his knuckles.
“Are you all right?” he whispered.
“Yes. What did the children tell you?”
“That you were sick.”
“And what were they doing?”
He could smell her body, the fragrance of perfume, and sweat, and something he couldn’t identify, something almost bitter. Her hands slid up his arms to his shoulders, joined behind his head and gently brought him down to her mouth. What should he do? From a distance, he watched himself falter. He didn’t know what to do. He started to unbuckle his belt, stopped, bent over, and kissed her, his hands caressing her warm, supple body. His legs shivered. The house was suddenly quiet. Outside, a car door slammed.
” What’s that?”
“Shh.” She moved beneath him.
She was still. “What?”
“I don’t know,” he whispered.
“There’s nothing out there. Relax.”
“I lied to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We didn’t sleep together.”
“No. I’m a virgin.”
He heard her laughing softly in the dark. Then she sat up, brushing her hair from her face.
“This is crazy,” she whispered.
“I know. You’re right. The kids could hear us.”
“That’s right,” she said. “The Marshes could come home any minute.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Christ. This is crazy.”
He buckled his belt and struggled into his shoes.
“Listen, you fool. Listen to me. Hurry, button your shirt. Listen. You’re lovely.”
She kissed him and pushed him from the room.
Scobie dreamed they were walking through a city. She was ahead of him, wearing a long black dress. He called her name. She didn’t stop. Again, he called her name. Still she would not respond. Running, he caught up with her, said her name, touched her on the shoulder, and turned her toward him. Then they were dancing in a large marble hallway. As they danced, she grew smaller and smaller, until she finally disappeared. He looked for her everywhere. He went to the Marshes’ house, the beach, the Embassy, the cinema. But he could not find her. The next day, he was told by Mrs. Marsh that she had taken the children to a Christmas party at the Aramco settlement.
Around lunchtime, she was taking a nap, and not to be disturbed—“Remember,” Kathy said, “she was sick last night.” Scobie went back home and sat on the roof reading Tender Is the Night. It was siesta time and the city was silent. It seemed that he was the only person alive. But Mona was there somewhere, only a few houses away. He thought about last night. It had happened so quickly. Why hadn’t it seemed real? Why didn’t it seem real now? He gave up reading and looked out over the city, then to the motionless sea, and wondered if he would ever wake up and touch the world.
“Why are you hiding?” Scobie asked.
“I’m not hiding,” Mona said. “I just feel like being alone.”
“But you hated being alone before.”
“Well, I can’t help that.”
“Would you rather I left you alone?”
“Yes. Oh, Scobie. Just for now.”
“I won’t be here forever, Mona.”
“I know.” She sighed. “I know.”
“Why do you want to be alone?” he asked.
“I can’t explain.”
“Don’t be hurt.”
“I’m not hurt.”
“Mona, I don’t understand. Last night, I was practically in your bed.”
“Who am I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Who am I?”
“And what does Mona do?”
“She’s . . . she’s a governess.”
“A nanny, Scobie. A nanny. And how old is nanny?”
“Oh, come on. Mona, that’s irrelevant.”
“Nanny is twenty-six. And how large is our community, Scobie?”
“Mona, will you please just—”
“Our community is the size of a small harem. All the old women talk. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Scobie?”
“Do you understand now?”
“Then you’re just being stubborn. And anyway, afterwards you wouldn’t want to see me anymore.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is. I know.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do. I’ve been around. Admit it, you’re relieved.”
“I don’t believe you.”
They were sitting in the Marshes’ living room. The children were outside, playing in the yard. Mona sat on the couch. Scobie was in an armchair. Looking at her eyes, he remembered how they had looked when he had first met her: bright, laughing. Now they were dull and melancholy. Her arms were folded across her breasts. The sound of his breathing pressed against his ears.
“I just don’t understand,” he said.
“Mona, I’m so sick of everything going through my life so fast.”
She leaned forward and held his face in her hands.
“Scobie, don’t worry. Things will straighten out for you.”
“I have to have something, Mona. I have to have something I can look at and think. ‘That’s my life.’ You know?”
“I know. But listen. Take your time.”
“You won’t get it now, Scobie.” She straightened. “I must see to the children. Dinner time. OK?”
She walked him to the door. Sunset slanted through the windows.
“See you later,” he said.
Scobie’s father came home from work and said, “We’re going to Egypt. Oh, and there’s a letter from Matthew.” The minaret calls sang in the sky. His father whistled as he showered. His mother and Hassan laughed in the kitchen. Over dinner, Quentin said, “Scobie, Mona really likes you.”
Scobie’s mother and father looked at each other and tried not to smile.
“She told me,” Quentin said.
His large brown eyes watched Scobie intently.
“Do you like her?”
“Sure,” he said, glancing at his mother.
“What did you say to her last night?”
“Quentin, I think you’d better stop talking and start eating,” his father said.
“Excuse me,” Scobie said, standing and leaving the table.
Upstairs, in his bedroom, he lit a cigarette and stared at the pattern of green fish on his bedspread. Then he went out onto the roof and looked at the moon and cried, choked with sobs that rose from a sadness he had not known was so painful and deep. He longed to be a child again—sexless and voiceless and lost in the landscape, like the sea or the desert. And then, just as strongly, he wanted Mona. He wanted to feel her body next to his. He wanted to feel her hands on his back. He wanted to hear her sigh. He wanted to kiss her breasts, her shoulders, her face, her stomach, her feet. He wanted to hear her saying his name.
He went inside and put on a sweater. His suitcase, he noticed, was still on the floor, only half unpacked.
Scobie made himself walk slowly. He felt surrounded by a layer of air that magnified everything he saw: the silent white houses, the shapes of cars hunched at the curb, the suggestion of space between the high bright stars, the moon and its soft light which merged, near the horizon, with the arched orange nimbus of the oil fire in the desert. Though there was a cold breeze, he was sweating; he raised his arms and let the current dry his shirt and sweater. It was a blue night out, and the objects around him seemed to swim in a sea. Toward how many girls’ houses had he moved like this before? Leslie’s, when he was ten, in hot, wet Baghdad. Dorothy’s, in Rome, after following her through the set of Ben Hur and shaking hands with Charlton Heston. Alice’s, returning from an afternoon in the Place de la Contrescarpe. The different girls and their different houses all formed a single radiant hue in his mind. He was walking along every street he had ever walked along, he was seeing everything he had ever seen. He was himself at every age. He had been here before. He had already seen this stone house approaching like a memory. Yet how was this possible? He had never been here before. He was a complete stranger. And he watched himself so carefully. He missed nothing. Not the chaotic long hair, or the self-conscious mouth, or the pimpled forehead, or the slouch or the shuffle. He was inside himself and outside himself at the same time.
Mona opened the door.
“Oh,” she said.
“Hello,” he said.
“I was wondering.”
“If you’d like to take a walk. It’s a beautiful night.”
“Scobie.”She sighed. She was wearing a light cotton dress that reached her knees, and her hair was tied back in a bun.
“I’d like to talk to you, Mona.”
“OK. Just a minute.”
She disappeared and returned with a shawl over her shoulders.
“I can’t be long,” she said. “I left Kathy in charge.”
“Do the Marshes go out every goddamn night?”
“It’s the holiday season,” she said.
“Not far, to the beach or something.”
“OK.” She laughed. “OK.”
She took his arm and they walked past the leaning shadows of bicycles behind the houses. The Embassy guards stiffened when they heard them coming, lifting their shoulders away from the backgammon table crammed inside their booth. A bare overhead light made them look like prison guards.
“Good evening,” Scobie said.
He led Mona onto the beach, trying to ignore their smiles and curiosity.
“They’ll leave us alone,” he said. “Let’s sit down.”
“No. Let’s keep walking.”
“I want to talk to you.”
“All right. I’m sorry.”
They sat down. The guards were lost behind the dunes. Curtains covered the windows of the Ambassador’s house. The moon flapped like a fish at their feet. He lay back in the cold sand and looked up at the sky. Mona sat with her knees drawn to her chin, staring at the water.
“What did you want to say?” she whispered.
He brought his hand up and touched her neck. He could not see her face. He touched her earlobes, her cheek.
She leaned back into his arms and kissed him. Her large lips were soft and pliant. His hands quivering, he touched her breasts beneath her dress. She closed her eyes, unsnapped his jeans, then sat back and pulled her dress over her head. Her moonlit breasts floated free. When her hands touched his naked skin he gasped. Pressing him down, she spread her legs, her knees bent. There was sand in their mouths as they kissed. Scobie was shivering uncontrollably. She brought him into the warm, wet center of her body and her feet clasped behind his back. Heat flowed through him, moving in circles, in waves, out to his shoulders, his arms, his legs, his fingers, his feet. He was searching for a rhythm. He could not understand hers—it was too slow, too luxuriant. He felt her legs tightening. “Slowly,” she whispered. “Slowly, slowly, slowly.” Different images, brief, almost subliminal memories, sped through his head. He saw himself as a boy, sitting on a bed, listening to the quick, sharp plinks of a piano being tuned. He could hear fishing boats outside, the stuttering of their small diesel engines lifting off the water and filling the narrow, shadowed space with the pockpock of faraway tennis games, lawn mowers, electric saws, flying airplane models. Intricate piercings of memory, something in the rhythm he now unconsciously found, drove through his skull like a bullet: a Land Rover with its panels peeled by the seasons, a slumping black dog buried in a garden, an enormous red bicycle blistering on a terrace, a long stretch of rain, a dream, curiously detailed, a man with his hair on fire, an apartment in a city, a view of trees, two cats, a pair of riding boots in a closet, snatches of song, a car changing gears, a light slipping up one wall, across the ceiling and down another wall, ice cubes rattling in glass, twirling skirts, a statue slippery with moss, surrounded by pebbles, sinking—Mona touched his chin. He hissed, squeezing her waist, and fell into her arms, into the sound of her thumping heart.
He rolled over onto the sand. Mona’s breasts were flat and round. Her stomach rose and fell gently. She watched the sky as if reading her own palm, her lips moving. Without a word, she rose and walked to the sea. The moonlight framed her against the dark waves. She ran the water over her body, bringing it up in her cupped hands and letting it splash down to circles at her feet. Scobie dressed and waited. She returned wet and shivering. He held out her thin dress. She pulled it on over her head and wrapped her shawl around her shoulders.
“I’m going home for a while,” she whispered. “I can’t explain.”
“Are you all right? Can’t you come over to my place?”
“I should get back to the children.” Her voice was quiet and sad. He held her shoulders and she looked up at him.
“Actually, I guess it is pretty late,” he said.
“But I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?”
“I’ll walk you back.”
“No, please, I’d rather go by myself.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Good night, Scobie.” She kissed him.
He watched her walk across the sand, a thin shadow in the moonlight.
Her damp, sweet smell clung to his body. He gradually became aware of the sand in his hair and his teeth and his eyes, the pain low in his abdomen. He wanted to wash and lie down on a smooth bed and wait for the ache to subside.
When he could no longer see Mona, he counted to fifty, then walked to the Embassy gates. The two guards straightened and smiled, nodding as he stepped past them. His feet were light. He swaggered down the weaving road. He was alive, he could feel it all over his body, like the shock of a perfect morning. Never had he felt so free.
He took a long shower, alternating the temperature of the water from hot to cold. He washed his hair, shaved, brushed his teeth, trimmed his fingernails, and stared at his face in the mirror above the sink, looking for changes. Then he went into his room and dried his hair. The small electric heater by the closet was glowing and clicking. The curtains were drawn. On his bedside table, a lamp cast a wide circle of light onto the ceiling. His parents were still awake downstairs. He could hear them talking. Humming to himself, he threw his wet towel onto the mound of clothing in his suitcase and climbed into bed. He lit a cigarette and reminded himself to write Matthew. He smiled. And Alice. He would write Alice and tell her he’d like to see her again. He would stop in Paris on his way back to boarding school, and she would meet him at the airport in a white raincoat, and he would—but then he thought of Mona. The memory of her touch, the lingering smell of her skin, made him blush. A numbing regret replaced his happiness. He had not dreamed his ecstasies on the beach. The bodies had been real, his and hers, grappling like shadows in a fire. He felt his freedom slipping away. When he saw her tomorrow, what would he say? Would he sit with her on the beach, watching the children? Would he invite her to dinner, to eat at the table with his mother and father? Would he put on a tie and coat and take her to a party? No, he thought, instantly aged by the ease with which he wondered how he could possibly avoid her for the rest of his vacation. □