The sun rises and the mainland slowly shrinks as I row towards the north end of her island. As always, the urge to turn my head is strong. But I’ve never done so, not in two months. That reward comes at the end of each day as I row back home, watching her face slowly blur into the rock.
It’s the final day, so it seems I planned the job perfectly – a monsoon’s forecast for tomorrow, and I don’t trust the rickety platform in a high wind, let alone my little boat.
Long fallen rocks litter the base of the cliff – miniature islands, green and jagged. I drag my boat between them and hitch it to one of two steel hooks, thoughtfully anchored into the wall for me. The other hook holds a rope. I untie it, lower the platform, step on, and haul myself up the cliff face.
The old man was up there yesterday, above me, grey hair in the wind, sitting on the big pulley contraption, worried I wouldn’t be finished in time. But today will do it – all she needs is some finessing on her lips and the deceptively complex area around the temples, and then I can put my chisels down and wait for him to arrive in his swanky Riva motorboat for his his first look at her. He should be stunned, because I’ve really pulled this one off. How could I not? I know her face better than my own. It doesn’t matter which Elsa – a happy one, a sad one, or the one lost in the heat of love. I can produce any Elsa that’s she ever shown me, and I think I’ve seen them all.
Secretly meeting offshore on his boat, he handed me photographs for reference – literally hundreds of them. I remember feeling sorry for him, for his obsession, and then stifling laughter – so we have one thing in common. But it was difficult, browsing through those images, hiding my knowledge. I knew he’d offer them, because I’d asked for them – how else was I supposed to carve the face of someone I only see once a week as her dogsbody. So, I practised my reaction – displayed the eye of the sculptor, as if I hadn’t carved her face in my head a thousand times. And I guess I impressed him, because here I am, or perhaps he was being charitable, giving the peasant boy a chance. I can’t wait to see that patronising look slip off his face to be quickly replaced by awe.
And God, do I miss her face, of course I do – its replica is ten foot tall, emerging from this cliff face, demanding my attention all day. But I want the real thing – can hardly wait. My heart thumps when I think about our next meeting. I’ve even imagined it in various scenarios. And then I can reveal all – I was never at work abroad, but on her island all along.
And yes, it was difficult lying to her, but this is her birthday surprise, and I wasn’t going to spoil that. And actually, although it’s a gift from him, it’s essentially my gift to her – I made it, and like no one else could. And thinking that, I wonder that I may have convicted myself, that when he sees her face in the cliff – when she’s revealed to him . . . I reveal myself. After all, how on earth could I have possibly – unless somehow I? How can someone perfectly describe a land they’ve never visited? But then, he hasn’t been there either, so how could he know? And then again, perhaps he’ll see, for the first time, the Elsa he could never find but knew was there – the woman who’s not in one of his photographs . . . then I’ll be in trouble.
I’m thinking too much, and impulsively to turn my head out to sea . . . but he’s not there, of course – eight or so hours to go. I don’t need a watch, her face is my sundial – there’s a shadow appearing under her nose, which means it’s roughly nine o’clock.
The monsoon’s coming – I feel a strange suction in the air and the wind’s beginning to gust – a patrolling vanguard, either checking the terrain, or perhaps warning me of the big arrival. It swings the cracked wooden platform gently against the rock face like a ghost that wants to play. The ropes are shuddering now, and high up there, I see them slapping against the cliff edge and the pulley mechanism, so I double-check the knot on the hoist rope that’ll soon lower me one last time to my boat on the jagged rocks below.
I won’t see her on her birthday tomorrow, because she’ll be down there on his boat, looking up at my wonderful gift. But next Tuesday – her weekly trip to the mainland for supplies.
Like every Tuesday, the gifted, but struggling sculptor will be waiting for her at the tiny harbour, cap in hand. She’ll toss him the rope with an air of indifference and superiority – I love it! Just beneath it is a tight smile, just in the eyes though, or in their corners. By the time I’ve taken her hand and helped her onto the jetty, I’m aroused and smouldering.
We could always do the shopping afterwards – would make sense, but she always declines – on purpose . . . Drives me nuts – the tension – mounting and mounting. And the fruit and vegetable store? That’s the real test. Tomatoes – she chooses each one, squeezes each one, and they throb, like they’re about to explode. And that did happen once, all over her blouse and down her neck. Later, I licked it all off, and I seriously can’t eat the damn things anymore without a flutter in my loins. And then I follow her to a café, all weighed down with groceries and lust. I sit opposite, straight-backed and respectful, only speaking when I’m spoken to – I’ve become very good at the subservient role-play. But sometimes, randomly, carefully out of earshot from others, and like I’m simply talking about the weather, I tell her that in twenty minutes time I’m going to rip her knickers off with my teeth. The first time I slipped out of character, she spilt her coffee. Now she never knows when it’ll happen. It’s my payback for the excruciating shopping trip – making me follow her around the sea village like a dog in heat.
But my desires are not exclusively mine. I see other men burning, even just in passing – suddenly afflicted, somehow crushed. She drifts by, immune and untouchable. They glare at me, suddenly demoted to my assumed position – slave, or pagan worshipper, but their expressions of contempt are unconvincing, and they look away, confused – desire entangled with a feeling of sudden loss without knowing what’s been lost. The brave few that have attempted contact are rewarded with a low growl. They scuttle off, stricken and goose-bumped.
She can’t help it. We exist only as prototypes, our faults duly noted, so she could finally be constructed. She has bones, of course, but they’re enhanced at every joint with some exquisite, interconnected golden apparatus – minute cogs, gimbals and governors. And the master mechanism is nestled in her hips, where the effect is most noticeable. They roll and pitch in perfect curves, and if their travel could be mapped, they would resemble a catamaran navigating a heaving ocean. This grace is animal, primal – clothed in a dangerously thin veneer of social grace, guarding and warning – don’t even dare! I do, but I’m not always immune to its proximity, suddenly conscious of my wings of wax.
After coffee, I cart the goods back to the Riva while she makes her way up the steep steps to my little room. Carefully stashing everything away in the hold, I sometimes want to scuttle the bloody thing – all polished hardwood and chrome and bearing her name. Then she’d never be able to leave. And that thought always darkens me, because maybe for her, once a week, and only for that afternoon, is enough – weekly shop, weekly release with the randy young artist.
But I chase that thought away – she loves me. She hasn’t spoken that – she rarely speaks at all, because for her, words are for primitives – so she shows me instead.
And then my room. Silently, we lose ourselves, and this world disappears, becomes a better one, where our bodies go on holiday. No walking, no carrying, no strange unnatural objects in the hand to fulfil some dreary mortal task. Free instead for their real purpose – to explore, to divine, and then to reveal each other – for each other. The secret celebration eternally limited to two.
My Tuesdays. As each one passes, the conviction of my mortality decreases. If every day were Tuesday, I would live forever. Wednesday’s are okay though – still riding that wave, still her scent on me. By Thursday, I’m washed up on the shore, but the sea laps around me, tickling, tingling. Fridays, I’m slowly herded back into my default body, the hammer and chisel blowing my ethereal one into the clouds. Saturday’s a struggle. People are out there – couples – legal ones, with nothing to hide, holding hands in public – kissing even. I look away – telling myself my sacrifice is for the real stuff, not some girl/boy thing that’ll run itself dry by the end of the season. I am Mark Anthony, and she is Cleopatra. I am Apollo and she is Daphne – incomparable to mere mortals who shamelessly parade their fleeting unities.
Sundays are the pits – literally. The same fools are out there, but quieter, having all completed their Saturday night duties, like the good, obedient people they are. Why would I ever want to celebrate with them? No, I’ll choose Tuesdays – any day of the week! Sundays are always muggy – no air. Nothing happens, and so melancholia sweeps in with nothing to stop it. I sit on my balcony and stare across the narrow channel to her island, but it’s shrouded in fog – because it’s Sunday. I sink into a funk, and my face begins to glower – I can feel it, but can’t help it. She’s on her balcony, gazing out, trying to penetrate the fog, to at least see my village, to help imagine me sitting here, staring back. But then his wrinkled hand on her shoulder, offering a cocktail in the other – but not made by him. He is not a maker – he has no real hands, and can only offer her the pointless things I don’t possess, and nothing else.
Mondays only exist to provide me with twenty fours of heady, mounting anticipation. By six o’clock in the evening, I’m on fire. By seven, I’m at the harbour bar, gazing across the water, as if I could pull her off her mist-bound island with pure magnetism. I release chemicals that seem to charge the air around me, and females can’t ignore it, their wounded partners awarding me with flashing glares of offence. I ignore them – tomorrow is Tuesday, and I’ll fly away from this trivial, petty land.
Oh, for every day to be a Tuesday. Maybe one day. Maybe one day the scales will tip. Increment by increment, week by week, I can gently re-calibrate them. She’ll be unaware, until it’s too late, and she’ll fall. But I’ll catch her. She’ll be lost for a while, looking up at her crumbling castle, but soon realise the cost of living there was too high, and the climb back up impossible.
Am I dreaming? That’s a prickly contemplation – I can barely do it. I do try sometimes, but my mind performs chicanery, flitting around the question, it’s hand quicker than my eye, distracting me with the solidity and security of the mundane. What’s for dinner? You should caulk the boat, you know it has a few leaks, don’t you? You need new bed sheets – you saw a pretty set in the village – she’d like them.
But sometimes, I fight this, and manage to get one level higher, a little closer to addressing that loaded question with it’s two very distinct and polar opposite answers. And yes, I know the basics – an everyday future with Elsa, or the fraction it is now. But I can go no further. Instead, the warrior steps on stage, sweeps away the weak and feeble, then releases her from the tower. This sudden determination flattens all doubt – invigorates me, and all opposing forces find me irresistible. But it’s temporary, and usually evaporates on Sundays, joining the mass exodus of all other hopes and wishes.
How did I get myself here? How did she do this to me? And now I wonder whether she’s been loading my scales way before I even considered doing the same to hers. Is it me that’s fallen, with no way back?
I drop my hammer and chisel on the platform and lay down with my legs dangling over the edge, like a ragdoll some child’s dropped from the cliff edge. I feel weak and lost suddenly, poisoned with love. Does she even know what she’s done to me? And if so, what the cure is? Not the temporary Tuesday one, but the full antidote – seven days of every week.
The platform is still swinging gently, the cliff edge swaying up there, the clouds now the colour of sharkskin, grazing the sky behind them.
I’m tired. My arms and shoulders especially, being responsible for my watery commute here everyday, and the rocky creation beside me. I close my eyes, but she’s there too, tattooed on my eyelids. She’s everywhere. Everywhere but here with me. The last week has been the most difficult, like the end of some marathon without water. I’m gasping to see her, and my bed is like some vacuum now. I awake and it won’t let me go, or it’s turned me into a puddle of Mercury – too heavy to move, and if someone leaned over, they’d see my room reflected in that liquid mirror.
I’ll rub my face with calloused hands and pour coffee into the cup she uses when she’s here. It only gets washed on Mondays. And then the balcony with its view of the island. I have my whetstones here on a heavy wooden block – one for a rough grind and the other for a fine. I have three chisels – a point, a flat, and a toothed. The point removes the stone rapidly, but it’s brutal. The flat is fine, and for finishing – polishing. The toothed is for the middle process, and it’s my favourite. It glides over the stone, creating tiny ridges. I’ll travel one way with it and then crosshatch it the other way. If you close your eyes and run your hand over it, the little ridges play with the prints and whorls on your fingers like they know each other. I often wonder if anyone knows just how supernatural a hand is. It has powers normally associated with tales of fantasy, and that’s where things live if you can’t fully describe them, let alone prove them. My hands have these superpowers, and because I’ve accepted them, they’ve become confident and unsupervised, employing their god-like skills when they see fit. I trust them. A ceramic coffee cup is not on their radar – a common lifeless thing that warrants no interaction, no conversation, no conjoining. But a hammer and chisel will do it. They’re all good friends now – practically lovers. They greet each other every morning on the cliff face. My right hand enjoys the hammer so much it’s burnished its handle – a gift of love, and as if from a branding iron, the palm of my left hand proudly displays a rust stain – a gift from the chisel.
I’ll look briefly across the water, just a glance, but there, always there – the island. I can’t escape her, and sometimes wish I had an east-facing apartment. But if someone offered me one tomorrow at half the rent, I know I wouldn’t take it. It’s a compromise – another set of scales, balancing one premium day with six budget ones.
But back to my chores. I’ll pour a thin snake of oil onto the whetstones and the chisels get their daily massage. On each pass, I watch the syrupy little bow wave appear at the tip. The rhythmic, slippery, grinding sound calms me, and when the note changes to something like a hiss, I know the chisels is as sharp as the day it was forged.
Then I’ll bake eggs and tomatoes for breakfast, knock up a lunchtime baguette filled with whatever’s in the fridge, and wander down to the harbour. Very few people are around at that time of the day, perhaps a few late fishermen. Sometimes, if I just can’t wake up, and Vera’s opening up, I’ll sit down and she’ll bring me a double espresso. On occasion, she won’t let me pay, and I catch a look from her, and once in a while I try to analyse it, but get nowhere. Sometimes I think its pity, but then realise it’s just me projecting – she doesn’t know my secret . . . Does she? Once, when offering payment, her fingers brushed my hand before taking it, and I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t felt it. It was once – just once. Probably my imagination, which seems to be growing wilder by the day. Vera’s the village beauty, and suspiciously, many of her customers are young single men. They’ll nonchalantly wander in over the next few hours and read newspapers, write letters, or just stare out to sea, all unwittingly wrapped up in the same envelope of hope and fantasy. I don’t think she even notices them.
I’ll feel the caffeine hit a moment later, thank her, and wander down to the little jetty that moors my boat. I do concentrate on rowing, but sometimes my mind drifts and thinks of Elsa – it’s just where it goes – I can’t help it. I have tried, believe me, but it’s like trying to block out a beautiful view – why would you? When I snap to, I always think I’m on my balcony, sharpening my chisels, because the sound and rhythm matches my swishing oars.
The monsoon seems to be in a hurry and may get here early, so now I’m a little worried. High up, I see gulls being chucked around. That’s what it looks like, but perhaps they’re having fun. I’m not – trying to steady myself and detail the edge of her top lip. It’s called the cupids bow, because that’s exactly what it looks like. I like to think it’s been fired just once, on me – and what a perfect shot that was.
And now, finally, her eyes – they’ll be closed. I’ve kept them till last, and I guess I’ve been delaying, because it’s going to be hard – because they’re hers, and so it’s hard to concentrate, and I get transported back to my bedroom. She can sleep. Me? Never. I silently pull up a chair and stare down at her, sometimes with a pad and pencil, but pointlessly. A few lines later, I forget I’m even holding a pencil.
Is it voyeurism? If she awoke and saw me there, she’d be embarrassed, and so would I. But I never let that happen. I sense when her breathing changes, can practically feel her floating back into consciousness. Sometimes I leave it until the last second, just for the thrill of it, then turn away, to the real world, which she’s cheapened just by her very existence. But I can’t imagine being here without her.
The last few crumbs of stone fall from her eyelids. I’m finished, and the wind, understanding this, kindly blows the remaining dust away. I close my eyes and run my hands over her face, like I’ve done a hundred times – a landscape so familiar, I can travel it blind, and in fact better so. Yes, she’s done. The one-way trip is complete. No part of Elsa’s face is on the rocks below, and no more need fall – she is perfect.
Thinking I hear thunder, way off, I glance behind me to the boiling grey sky. But there, below it, rocking gently in the troubled water, the old man’s glossy mahogany motorboat. I wave, politely, but he doesn’t respond. I move to the left, to give him a clear view of Elsa, and I see him gazing up, his mouth agape. I predicted that, and was looking forward to the relish, but it seems to hide from me – ashamed.
His hands look lazy on the wheel, and the Riva is parallel to the building waves, shunting it closer to the rocks below. I wonder if he should be out here at his age, and in these conditions. I shout down, warning him, but his face is lost in tragedy, as if standing before a tomb, and he can’t seem to hear me.
“Sir . . . The rocks!”
It seems he recovers from his little fugue, but his face is now lost and fragile, his damp grey hair plastered across his eyes. I strain to hear him as he says, “I’ll be up top in half an hour.” And off he goes, the Riva staggering drunkenly between the waves.
Two hours go by, and I’ve become rather nervous. The sun has passed over the cliff edge. We are in shadow. The wind has turned malicious – trying to throw me from my perch, and the platform’s swinging and rattling against the stone wall. I tie the pulley rope around my waist . . . just in case. Below, my little boat is rubbing against the rocks, and I see its tether knot unravelling. If he’s not here in five minutes, I’m out of here.
Something lands on my head. It bounces twice on the platform before it falls to the sea – a small rock. I look up and see, poking out over the cliff edge, the tips of two leather shoes. Two legs drop over and the old man is suddenly sitting there, peering over with a smile.
“Sorry, did that hurt?” he asks.
“No, Sir. Are you happy with my work? I really need to get going, because as you can . . . ”
“Well, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.” He interrupts.
But that’s all he says, and it’s plainly not an answer, which confuses me. Also, although I’ve only spoken to him a few times before, he’s always come across as rather dour – serious – a face that seems to have had trouble smiling – I can see it – faces are record books – formed by thought and feelings. I’ve mapped their origins and effects – that’s my job. But today he’s . . . too chipper – jaunty even, but eerily so.
“Better check the pulley,” he says, running his hands over the device. “Wouldn’t want anything to go wrong on your last day . . . would we?”
“No, Sir,” I reply, further confused, because that didn’t sound like a rhetorical question. He’s still smiling as he pulls two envelopes out of his shirt pockets.
“I hope you’re a good catch, because this is your payment.” He says, and just lets go of one envelope. It tumbles towards me, but a gust blows it sideways. I leap left and grab it, stunned at his sudden recklessness.
“Well done, boy,” he says, clapping.
Has he gone mad? There should be a lot of cash here. I would have done the job for nothing, but out of some kind of spite, I named a high figure, and he didn’t even blink. And I didn’t like having to panic like that, leaping for scraps from the Master’s table – I feel somewhat humiliated, and my blood’s rising.
The storm is close now, and the platform is being knocked around. I grab the pulley rope to steady myself. He shouts down, but I can barely hear him in the wind.
“I said, better count it,” he repeats.
Normally I wouldn’t, but he’s irked me.
“I’m old you see. Perhaps I can’t count properly anymore.”
I ignore that. Felt like some kind of sarcasm – barbed, and he’s making me even more nervous with this vinegary behaviour. I count the money – roughly, but then count it again, because somethings very wrong.
“It’s double what I asked,” I shout up, off balance in so many ways now.
“Madame doesn’t need your help anymore – we’ll have deliveries straight to the island from now on. Thank you though – you know, for your services.
I don’t know how to answer, and the platform now seems to have a mind of its own. I reach out and grab Elsa’s ear and hold it tight. What does he mean? My head feels like someone’s playing pinball in it. This can’t be the end, can it?
“Oh.” He shouts, “And don’t forget these.”
He drops the other envelope. It must be heavy, because it falls steady and lands flat on the deck. I pick it up. Inside are all his photographs of Elsa.
“You left them on my boat,” he says. “But seems you didn’t need them anyway.”
This time, I do look up – I will not stand down here below him with a bowed head.
The smile has left his mouth, but it’s still in his eyes. Why doesn’t he just come out with it. I wonder suddenly, over-optimistically perhaps, that I’m paranoid – I have been under a lot of stress. I search his face, but it’s difficult. He’s old, and he’s seen a lot, no doubt, and perhaps there’s stuff there that I don’t recognise because I’ve never experienced it. But there is a kind of gentle concern around his eyes. But where’s it’s origin? I play a risky card – testing the waters.
“Did my duties not satisfy Madame.”
There is no hesitation from him as he says, “Madame spoke very highly of you, and of course that’s why you’re here. She’s just too busy now to shop for herself . . . That’s all.”
I would so like to believe him, because I feel quite vulnerable down here. I just want this to be over so I can grapple the meaning of it, the consequences. I want to be alone now, away from this bloody island, and this stupid old man’s driving me nuts.
He stands up and pulls on a lever or two, but I’ve never been up there, so I don’t know its design or functions.
Suddenly, a dreadful crunching noise below, and I fall to my knees and peer over. My little boat is wedged between two rocks and her sides are crushed. I see her taking water. The world seems to be falling apart around me.
“Young man,” he shouts. “I’m so sorry, but I must go now.”
I look up, and he’s trying to stand, a hand on the pulley. But the wind is strong. He struggles, a shoe falls off, and he gashes his bare foot on the cliff edge. He yelps, his other foot slips, and suddenly he’s tumbling down to me. I do my best to catch him, but the fall is long, and I only manage to grab his shoulders. There’s a snapping sound, like celery, and he screams. I lie him down and he reaches for an ankle.
“It’s broken,” I say. “Just hold on, I’ll hoist us up.”
“You can’t do that,” he says, through gritted teeth. “It doesn’t go any higher – island security – intruders.”
I look down through the spray at my broken boat, its pieces being thrown against the cliff wall.
When I look back at the old man, he’s staring at me – intensely – but his face is drained and somehow defeated. After a long, heavy silence, he turns to Elsa’s portrait.
“I don’t know her age.” He says, gently placing a hand on her chin. “I found her as a child, in a Barrio ditch, starving and half beaten to death.” He studies her features, and I see so much sorrow in his.
“She’d become an animal in her dark world. To rescue her, she had to be caged. She’s been here ever since, and it’s taken a lifetime and all my love and patience.”
His face screws up suddenly and tears fall down his wrinkled old cheeks.
“I did hope, but didn’t think she could ever love a living thing.” He slowly turns his head to me and wipes his face with a sleeve. “But here you are. And I said to myself, if the young man can sculpt her as I did, then he must be worthy of her.”
And again, he turns to her face. “And look, you did, and now I can hardly bare the idea of losing her.”
I put my head in my hands . . . I can’t help it – my senses are reeling and I feel nauseous.
“Do you know the price I’ve paid for every Tuesday?” I say.
“I had to know,” he shouts at me. “Saving her was like saving the world, and I cannot see her destroyed again.”
I sidle closer to him, take my shirt off and wrap it around his ankle. He’s shivering, so I give him my jacket.
We sit with our backs against her chin, staring out at the grey wall of the advancing storm, like two lesser deities.
“I love her,” I say.
“I know. And she loves you. The face behind us proves it.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“I must still see her though.”
“But how are we ever going to get off this thing?”
But then the sound of a motor, and there in the distance, bursting through the leading edge of the monsoon – the Riva.